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some rambling thoughts on the magic mountain

November 10, 2013

Since I loved the book, I decided to rent Hans Geissendörfer’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain the other night. As I watched it, it got me thinking that the contradiction between illness and working life in The Magic Mountain is, perhaps on an unconscious level, a reflection of the contradiction between the natural tendency towards an increase in non-work or leisure time (or as Karl Marx puts it in Capital, “time … for the free development, intellectual and social, of the individual”) arising from the technological advancements and socialization of labour spurred by capitalism and the capitalist class’ own push to increase labour time in its collective drive for the accumulation of profit.

In essence, if one views the book from this perspective, the former can be seen as speaking to the underlying contradictions in the latter and the conflict it engenders in Hans Castorp’s consciousness in the wake of German industrial development preceding WWI. From this point of view, then, Catorp’s voracious interest in studying things like anatomy, astronomy, botany, physiology, etc. while a resident of the International Sanatorium Berghof isn’t simply induced by, say, boredom, but more reminiscent of Marx’s passage in The German Ideology concerning the liberation of the working class from the confinement of capitalist social relations:

Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

Throughout his seven year stay, Castorp consistently fights against/ignores Ludovico Settembrini’s constant push to return to the flatlands and begin his [productive] career as a ship builder. He even taunts Castorp by giving him the nickname ‘engineer.’ Castorp, despite his Protestant, middle-class upbringing, however, resigns to stay until ‘well,’ a vague designation that has seemingly little to do with his physical health and more to do with his mental well-being. He leaves only when forced to by the onset of WWI, not to assume his role as a surplus-producing proletariat.

In this, one can see in Castorp the Protestant work ethic clashing with what may very well be a simmering proto-communist consciousness (i.e., “a consciousness,” in the words of blogger Jehu, “of the need for a fundamental revolution of society”), a conflict between the ‘false consciousness’ arising from what Herbert Marcuse describes as the ideology which “belongs to the established societal apparatus,” being “a requisite for its continuous functioning and part of its rationality,” and the proletarian consciousness “of common class situation” struggling to manifest itself.

Castorp ultimately rejects Leo Naphta’s communistic terror, but seemingly dies on the battlefield in the first industrial/world war in the service of Settembrini’s bourgeois republicanism, leaving the question of the resolution open. It leaves me to wonder if the resolution to this contradiction is the social emancipation of the individual via the emancipatory transcendence of capitalism—not through Naphta’s peculiar authoritarian terror, but through a combination of the natural, material evolution of capitalism (i.e., the reduction of socially necessary labour to an absolute minimum) and a corresponding evolution in thought (i.e., a leap in the consciousness of the social producers leading to the abolition of the state and the global institution of the free association of individuals).

Although Mann’s sympathies clearly lie with Settembrini and his bourgeois humanism/liberalism, I think Castorp’s vacillation between the influences of Settembrini and Naphta reflects a vacillation in Mann’s own consciousness as he transitioned from conservatism to liberalism in the course of writing the book, as well as foreshadowing the internal contradictions between his future advocacy of social democracy and his bourgeois-aristocratic views (e.g., democracy being a “justified demand from below” but even more beautiful when it’s “good will, generosity, and love coming from the top down”).

I think this approach to reading The Magic Mountain gives it an interesting dynamic, at any rate, which reflects the difficulties, in literary form, of seeing through the ‘fetishism of the realm of appearances’ and apprehending both the underlying dynamics of, and ideological justifications for, the political-economic system we currently live within.


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