The Magic Mountain is an important and wonderful book. It is a modern masterpiece, and much more readable and engrossing than many "modern classics." Alan and Cyane both recommend reading it:
Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain. Translation by John E. Woods, Vintage, 1995.
Part of the book presents (engagingly) the history of ideas, presented as ongoing debates between two characters: Is God dead? The proper relationship of the body/nature v. the mind/intellect? The position and role of the church? How about corporeal punishment, the death penalty, torture, cremation???
Lodovico Settembrini is an Italian who presents ideas of: liberalism, socialism, progressivism, humanism, a belief in the Enlightenment, science, and progress. Naptha is a Jesuit (converted Jew) who at various times proposes: communism, fascism, anarchy, absolute authority of the Church, dualism, asceticism, and nihilism.
The book is also a picture of a particular time and it is very specific in presenting: technology, such as X-Rays, photography, movies, trains, the phonograph. It describes manias or fads of the time: stamp collecting, chocolate, geometric teasers, parlor games, Esperanto, solitaire, and seances.
It is a portrait of a place: Davos, Graubunden, eastern Switzerland. It describes the weather, flora, geology, architecture, culture of an international resort about 1910. It describes the approaching of war as reflected in people's feelings, the "Great Petulance," where fist fights and duels broke out daily.
The primary theme of the book is time. The portrait of a particular time, mentioned above. Also, a rumination on the process of how time moves and is perceived: relative and accelerating.
The other major theme explores the dyads of life and death, health and illness. It unites them under love. Life, death, and love can each be both depraved and wonderful. Love unites live and death and is explored separately; love in The Magic Mountain contains both lust and a humanistic love of humanity.
Quote from page 590: "In our opinion, it is analytically correct, although-to use Hans Castorp's phrase-'terribly gauche' and downright life-denying, to make a 'tidy' distinction between sanctity and passion in matters of love. What's this about 'tidy'? What's this about gentle irresolution and ambiguity? Isn't it grand, isn't it good, that language has only one word for everything we associate for love-from utter sanctity to the most fleshly lust? The result is perfect clarity in ambiguity, for love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even at its most fleshly. Love is always simply itself, both as a subtle affirmation of life and as the highest passion; love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay-caritas is assuredly found in the most admirable and most depraved passions. Irresolute? But in God's good name, leave the meaning of love unresolved! Unresolved-that is life and humanity, and it would betray a dreary lack of subtlety to worry about it."
There are other themes. The main character, Hans Castorp, comes from "The Flatlands" to "The Magic Mountain." Life in The Flatlands is presented as dull and prescribed by toil and drudgery. The Magic Mountain is depicted as a place of possible clarity and perspective and an escape from time. Hans Castorp receives a true education on the mountain, gaining knowledge; along with clarity, assurance, and understanding.
Thomas Mann well understands personality and he creates characters that are compelling. There are many important people in the book that the reader cares about. Maybe they stand for ideas, e.g.:
- Hans' cousin Joachim Ziemssen seems to embody brotherhood, loyalty, honor, and duty.
- Two people, a boy and a woman, melt into one object of Hans' desire.
- Pieter Peeperkorn seems to personify the power of stature and a life dedicated to feeling.
- The dueling theorists mentioned above, Lodovico Settembrini/humanist and Naptha/Jesuit nihilist.
There are other themes:
temperature, internal and external
the redemptive power of language
order and disorder
Despite all the ambiguity, there is a message. Hans does grow to the insight of humaneness and kindness. He spends seven years on the Magic Mountain, doing nothing and learning everything. He leaves upon the outbreak of World War I, as the Flatlands erupt into killing. Having learned about life, he ironically leaves at the very time when he has the best reason to stay and survive.