Sickness, Thomas Mann and the nihilism of reality

Mann, the Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback

There are few novels that give sickness its due. There are even fewer that play with it as a state of mind or treat it as the defunct policy of nation states.

Though Thomas Mann began work on The Magic Mountain in 1912 when he visited his ailing wife at a sanatorium (which served as the model for the Berghof of his novel), his writing soon bent to a different angle when war broke out two years later. By the time he completed it in 1924, the sickness of the body had become further distorted into the sickness of the body politic, and his novel became a reification of the period’s irrationalism.

The Sanatorium Berghof, an alpine retreat for the terminally ill, is a place of prescribed rest cure, three-a-day constitutionals and idle entertainments. It’s a place where the shortest unit of time is the month and where sickness is nearly a fetish. Its patients suffer a myopia whose reach does not extend further than the sickness at hand. There’s an inability, almost an unwillingness, to understand the turnings of the world below.

Hans Castorp, the young engineer at the forefront of Mann’s novel, opts for a three-week visit to the Berghof to see his cousin Joachim, a patient whose illness has held him back from soldiering. It’s not long til Hans notices a little flush to his own cheeks and that his preferred Maria Mancinis have taken on an acrid taste. And try as he might, he can’t stop his head from shaking a terrible palsy. A matter of getting used to not getting used to things, his three-week visit soon makes him a seven-year patient.

The Magic Mountain is well-layered. It’s a novel of ideas like Dostoevsky’s Demons, and it’s written by an author equally intelligent, equally genuine and equally inventive. That rare high comedy is there, too. Its story of Hans Castorp and the Berghof is so real and built up with quirks and personality that when filled out by the garrulity of ideas and conflated with the body politic it doesn’t once lose its charm.

Sickness makes a man stupid. It gives him the most selfish focus, makes him obsess over the particulars of his condition, makes him eschew responsibility and screws his head ‘round to force sickness upon him as his only identity. The body infects. He trades the complexity of his mind, the ardor behind his aspirations, his moral consciousness and any interest he may have had in life for what? For filmy eyes, a thermometer and indifference.

While still a mere visitor to the Berghof, Hans pities the patient Frau Stöhr because he finds in her that double damnation of sickness and stupidity. Such a view earns him the designation of “life’s problem child.”

Because good health is a crown only the sick esteem.

Is it because sickness knocks us down a peg or two, humbles us through the pain of our bodies to regard nature – and so life – with a more respecting eye? Do we start to value the classical pleasures, enjoying – requiring – cold winds and benumbed fingers for their physicality, imbibing raw gin for its simplicity, finding, in short, a pleasure and enrichment in asceticism?

And do we, as Mann’s “perfectly ordinary” Hans Castorp does, eventually get used to not getting used to things? Do we begin to use our rest cure to play king and in our inaction begin to turn over in experiment the different creeds of progress?

Herr Settembrini, a fellow patient (and the one who saddled Hans with being a problem child) is the pedagogic background to Mann’s novel. He’s also its pace-keeper. For anyone who indulges Settembrini throughout its length, he will in The Magic Mountain find a near exact match in the progression of events to Settembrini’s predicted outcome: worldly advancement through a hateful war; health and healing through irrationality and sickness.

That great illness alone could provide a man with good health, understanding, gratitude, humility and contentment is a claim Mann himself would later assert on more than one occasion.

Illness gives you your freedom…it gives you a certain genius.

Love is illness. Duty is illness. Honesty, honor, idealism – to the patients at the Berghof they’re all parts to the same bundle: sickness. A man must offer himself up to such things unwaveringly to be worthy of them. It’s nonsense that Hans Castorp can’t get his head around, no matter how devotedly he plays king.

He might concede that his relations with Mme. Chauchat, she of the Tatar eyes so evocative of another forbidden love, are outside of time, just the continuation of schoolboy desire, the pencil borrowed long ago now being returned. Their Mardi Gras rendezvous, with masks and disguises and informal pronouns, is an extra evening, a leap-year evening, the twenty-ninth of February.

That temporal quality in The Magic Mountain is a pleasure. Mann breaks between experienced time – “musical time,” the time during which a song exists from start to finish – and our perceptions of time, whether a lengthy seven minutes or a blur of seven years.

We lose track of time the more we’re holed up with Hans and Settembrini and all the rest. Only the barest bits and pieces from the flatlands reach us. Newspapers go unread. Letters are rare. People stay for seven years and more. A sterile hospital routine ensures the safe contentment of life lived on the twenty-ninth of February.

There’s the dividing notion of what comes around “again” as opposed to what “is still” that makes for a topsy-turvy understanding of time and which muddles synchronicity with chronicity.

But with Settembrini, our faithful pace-keeper, we feel things coming to a head down in the flatlands: mild aspersions cast on the value of the nation state. Digs at Austria. A soldier’s ghost. A hint of rationing at breakfast.

He’s a peaceable man who now urges a necessary war.

We are not immune to disease, just as the political realm is not immune to irrationality.

We can’t live like Joachim, who makes no bones about offering his x-ray, his inner portrait, to the eyes of his cousin – go ahead, take a look. He’s a man of few words whose intelligence cuts through the volubility of men like Settembrini and radical-minded Naphta, offsetting their didacticism in a private comment for his cousin.

Joachim is no problem child. He knows how to use the stereoscope set up in the social room to put the different views together. He dismantles the incessant palaver of Settembrini and Naphta from its abstract forms into something as raw and honest as Peeperkorn’s gin.

His sickness is an injustice great enough to send a jolt through a man who formerly was content to play king.

To view death as a continuation of life and not its end is to view time as it really is: endless. To look for a beginning and an end to time, to try and “square the circle,” as the mathematician and patient Prosecutor Paravant has tried to do for years, would be to take an unhealthy view of things. An inhumane thought, as Mme. Chauchat might put it with her special emphasis.

Love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay.

But healing – progress – requires a time cap; progress cannot exist in the timeline of eternity; progress, by its very nature, must be measureable. Time, distance, mass – all measurement, really – mathematically approaches zero in the face of infinity, an idea that Naphta, in a final provocation, deems the negation of rationality, the nihilism of reality.

It isn’t difficult to see the build-up to the Great War reflected in the chapter Mann chose to call “The Great Petulance” and which contains much bombast and even more childish squabbling.

The nihilism of reality: it’s the shot heard ‘round the world.

Mann’s novel is alive with argumentation. The stereoscopic education given him by Settembrini and Naphta leaves Hans Castorp in a position of putting left and right together, but unlike Joachim he can’t seem to make sense of the jumbled view. And Lord knows he hasn’t much time left: he must stop playing king and trade his crown for the Pickelhaube. How inhumane.

The Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s