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some tentative (and somewhat rambling) thoughts on love and death in the magic mountain

February 6, 2013

I’m current reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and it’s a really good read so far. It reminds me a lot of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in a way, particularly its deeply philosophical, political, and psychological themes, which are often explored through casual conversation and other mundane happenstances. I find Lodovico Settembrini’s discourse to Hans Castorp on the antagonistic relationship between the body and mind especially interesting, for example, in that it also seems to mirror Freud’s ideas concerning Eros and Thanatos, with mind equaling Eros and body equaling Thanatos—a theme that, at least to my eyes, reoccurs in various forms throughout the narrative.

The body is presented by Settembrini as an evil when it opposes the cause of “education, liberation, and progress” and “insofar as it represents the principle of disease and death,” which is associated with both ‘feverish’ infatuation, portrayed as a mental precursor to physical illness, and physical illness itself (248). In this context, it’s compared to the irrational and destructive power of nature, and not unlike Thanatos, the death drive, in that sense, which Freud thought the root of our aggressive and self-destructive tendencies—tendencies that appear in many ways to be irrational and opposed to our happiness and survival.

The mind, on the other hand, is presented as the nobler of the two opposing forces insofar as it represents reason and the drive to ‘rise up’ against nature, to refuse to submit to its destructive power—illustrated here by the examples of Prometheus, who “was a lover of humankind and its nobility,” and Voltaire, who ‘rebelled’ against the destructiveness of the 1775 Lisbon earthquake and the passive optimism of Leibniz (247-48). In this capacity, mind is akin to Eros, love, libido, or whatever you want to call it, which was seen by Freud as a constructive and binding force, and corresponds to our innate drive to survive, our love of life, and, in a more refined sense, our love of “humankind and its nobility.”

The main and arguably the most interesting difference between Settembrini and Freud is that Settembrini also associates the body with lust as well as death (“One must despise it insofar as it is the principle of gravity and inertia opposing the flow towards the light, insofar as it represents the principle of disease and death, insofar as its quintessence is a matter of perversity, of corruption, of lust and disgrace”), whereas Freud associates carnal lust more with Eros. And why is that? One potential answer to this lies in a later exchange with Director Behrens in a discourse on physiology: life is dying, death, in that both life and corruption are forms of oxidation, a kind of ‘burning off’ (262). Mind and body, then, are one insofar as they’re mutually dependent and a share a similar, ontogentic origin (259).

The resolution (if it can indeed be said to be one) of this contradiction between body and mind that’s found by Settembrini, however, is in the use of reason for a purpose, one that specifically furthers the march of progress (mind/Eros) against the irrationality seeming finality of nature (body/Thanatos). Time is important because it’s fleeting, and so shouldn’t be wasted. When the body serves the cause of education, liberation, and progress, there’s no fault and it must be defended. But when it “comes wrapped in the ghastly, gamy odor of the grave,” it’s to be despised and criticized (248). The danger, then, is when one becomes a slave to the body/nature and accepts her uncritically, as our protagonist seems to do in his irrational, obsessive infatuation with the ill Madame Chauchat, and which is both a sexual attraction and an attraction to illness and death. But an even greater danger lies in isolating death as an intellectual principle, something Settembrini strongly warns Castorp about after a discussion with the Jesuit Leo Naphta:

If [the mind] isolates death in a dualistic fashion, then by that act of intellectual will, death becomes real in actual fact—actu, do you understand? It becomes a force of its own opposed to life, an antagonistic principle, the great seduction—and its kingdom is lust. And why lust, you ask? And I reply: Because it loosens and delivers, because it is a deliverance, and not deliverance from evil, but evil deliverance. It loosens morals and morality, it delivers from discipline and self-control, liberates for lust. (402)

Whatever the case, the more I read, the more it seems to me that this dialectical relationship comparable to Freud’s Eros and Thanatos plays itself out in seemingly different yet closely related permutations throughout the book (e.g., mind and body, reason and irrationality, duty and idleness, health and disease, love and death, etc.), suggesting that these conflicting forces themselves act as a mechanism for change and progression in both the individual as well as society, neither being completely affirmed nor denied, accepted or rejected. And I think the reason there’s no seemingly final resolution to this conflict, or to Castorp’s vacillation between the influences of Settembrini and Naphta, ultimately siding with neither (although Mann’s sympathies clearly lie with Settembrini), may be precisely because of this.

And yet, Mann via Castorp hints at one in the form of love, a love that’s set apart from reason, a love that’s neither carnal nor of death, but a humanistic sort of love that’s stronger than death and, because of this, able in some limited sense to transcend this cosmic, psychoanalytical interplay, or if not transcend, then at least enjoy a dominant position (I picture an ouroboros eating its own tail, with the head representing love and the tail representing death). Here I’m primarily thinking of Castorp’s hallucination during his near-death experience while trapped in a snow storm (nature/death), which can be seen as a revelation of sorts, a combination of acceptance and transcendence in regard to this eternal antagonism sparked by his hallucinatory dream of love and death, that, at least for a limited time, frees Castorp from his obsession with death, prompting him to exclaim, “For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts” (487).

Of course, Castorp quickly returns to his old ways once he recovers enough from his hypothermia to escape the blizzard and make his way back to the Berghof, but I think this utterance is important in that it attempts to express something I think the story of Jesus’ resurrection also attempts to express: a deeper, existential challenge to the seemingly final end of life, and to the eternal emptiness that threateningly looms beyond. In essence, it’s a courageous, humanistic, victory cry against death itself, who Paul taunts at 1 Cor 15:55 by asking, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

At some deep, subconscious level, there’s a constant fear of death buried within the human heart, a fear embedded in its deepest, darkest recesses by eons of evolution, an overwhelming instinct to survive. And this fear of death, of nonexistence, translates into love of life, a defiance of death, and a desire to live in some way forever, a desire for immortality. And in the story of Jesus’ resurrection, we have the personification of this desire for immortality, and the promise of complete victory over death. It’s a comforting image, and it’s difficult not to appreciate that the idea of his resurrection resonances with many on a deeply emotional level regardless of its actual occurrence. I, too, find it a stirring tale.

On the other hand, as strange as it may seem on the face of it, I find a part of myself agreeing with Goethe’s Mephistopheles in his preference for the promise of eternal emptiness:

A foolish word, bygone.
How so then, gone?
Gone, to sheer Nothing, past with null made one!
What matters creative endless toil,
When, at a snatch, oblivion ends the coil?
‘It is bygone’— How shall this riddle run?
As good as if things never had begun,
Yet circle back, existence to possess:
I’d rather have Eternal Emptiness.

And this antithetical dichotomy of extreme positivism and negativism immediately brings to mind Eros and Thanatos, love and death. As previously mentioned, the former, Eros, corresponds to our innate drive to survive, our love of life, our love of “humankind and its nobility,” and in this case, our desire for immortality in the form of the resurrected Jesus.

The latter, Thanatos, corresponds to Mephistopheles’ poetic praise of eternal emptiness, of complete and utter annihilation, and our self-destructive behaviour in the form of Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and the Roman soldiers who crucified him. Coming back to the idea of seeing these conflicting forces in the context of a dialectical relationship, one might say that they represent an expression of an ever-evolving consciousness in an ever-evolving universe, a reflection of the psychological contradictions that drive all human endeavors forward.

From this point of view, Judas (body/death/nature) and those who crucified God in the flesh are just as important as the resurrected Jesus himself (mind/love/spirit), with each representing the opposing creative and destructive forces within ourselves; and our spiritual evolution requires the resolution of tensions between the two, which is expressed in the form of the risen Jesus or the revelation of Castorp that: “Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts” (487). Easter, then, might be seen as a subconscious acknowledgement of the dialectical relationship between Eros and Thanatos, between life and death, between immortality and the void. And Jesus, who personifies a deified Eros, must rise from the dead so that Hades, who may be seen as a biblical personification of the death drive, never has the final say.

The focus is on Jesus simply because he plays a dual role in the relationship, representing both thesis and synthesis. As Eros, he represents the vitality of life and the desire for immortality, which is ultimately negated by death. But he also represents the synthesis in his resurrected form, the resolution of the tensions between the seeming futility of life and apparent finality of death, between the conflicting drives to create and to destroy, between the lofty desires of the mind and the limitations of the body. And his victory over death, his resurrection, represents life’s struggle to survive, to replenish itself, to reproduce, to overcome, and which manifests in us as the otherworldly desire of eternal life, as well as the more mundane desire to live forever through our creations and offspring.

In The Magic Mountain, love plays a somewhat similar dual role, being both a force conducive to illness and associated with death (361) and that which stands opposed to death and is stronger than it (487), a force of vitality and ‘burning off’—the consuming force of life itself, which is inextricably tied to death.

But whereas the story of Jesus’ resurrection expresses an elaborate, mythologized affirmation of love, Mann’s The Magic Mountain offers a more realistic affirmation of the same force or principle, one that takes place in a world where God isn’t as eminent—a world filled with base obsessions, disease, war, death, a world where earthquakes senselessly destroy flourishing cities and end thousands of human lives. And by not simply becoming a slave to the body, to death, to nature, by not passively accepting these phenomena uncritically, we have the potential to ‘awaken,’ as Castorp did on the mountain, to an internal vision that gives our individual lives meaning in a world where we all share a common nature and fate. Unlike Jesus, who completely conquers death, love and death for the homo Dei is ultimately two sides of the same coin.

What I take away from this is that life confronts us with these seemingly conflicting, antagonist forces, these desire and drives, these obsessions, and we struggle to make sense out of them, to find meaning in what seems chaotic and irrational, to find purpose and hope in what may otherwise be a meaningless existence. The difference between the story of Jesus and that of Castorp, however, is that the former has been lazily interpreted as offering hope in some other world (i.e., an eternally-happy ending in a heavenly paradise where death and illness are banished forever), which has the danger of lulling us into the passive sort of optimism condemned by Settembrini via Voltaire. The latter, on the hand, attempts to offer hope solely within the context of this world, even if the ending isn’t always happy.

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