Friday, November 22, 2019

Mann's novel of Anti-Ideas - primal ideas of beauty turn into slack-lipped gibberish - "That didn't get us very far."

3. The Magic Mountain is a novel of Ideas.  A Dialectical Novel.  An Anti-Dialectical Novel.

Characters spend a lot of time, and pages, arguing, about revolution, religion, Jesuits, Freemasons, canning – you know, storing fruit in jars, canning.

“Preserves don’t have time, so to speak, but stand there on the shelf outside of time.  But enough about canning jars.  That didn’t get us very far.”  (6, “A Good Soldier,” 502)

There’s the time theme again.  That is just a portion of a paragraph about canning  from what is generally considered to be one of the most profound, most intellectual novels of the 20th century.  Curious that Willa Cather beat Mann to the novelistic use of preserved fruit in jars as mystical objects by six years.

I should have read The Magic Mountain decades ago, and I knew I should have.  But I had picked up an aversion to the Novel of Ideas, and I took Mann to be the leader of the field, so I put it off for thirty years.  The Magic Mountain is in fact highly essayistic, as in the excursions about time I mentioned yesterday, but also surprisingly dialectical.  Meaning, ideas are less often portrayed in essays, as the product of the thinking of the narrator, but in argument, two characters debating, often with our young, attentive hero literally in the middle, stuffing it all into his spongy brain.

Some of these debates are tedious beyond belief, and a number seemed to degenerate into gibberish.  Others degenerated into shouting, which is at least dramatic.

Confusion reigned.  “Objective reality,” shouted one; “The self!” cried the other.  Finally one side was talking about “Art!” and the other about “Criticism!”  And both constantly returned to “Nature!” and “Spirit!” and to which of them was more noble… (6, “Operationes Spirituales,” 457)

Early on in the novel, I blamed my aversion to Ideas for my difficulty with these passages, but at this point it finally sunk in that Mann was deliberately enacting much of the gibberish.  He is critiquing dialectic, the very notion of argument and of any possibility of synthesis.  The above exchange ends in a ludicrous duel, with firearms.

All of this is before the introduction, in the final book, of Mynheer Peeperkorn, a character who speaks almost entirely in a hash of rhetorical fragments that infects our hero Hans and the other residents of the sanitorium, perhaps in part because Peeperkorn is wealthy and generous with alcohol:

The party gave itself over to its own blissful idleness; they exchanged disconnected small talk, scraps of elevated emotions, which in their primal state as ideas had promised ultimate beauty, but on the way to being spoken turned into fragmentary, slack-lipped gibberish, some of it indiscreet, some of it incomprehensible… (7, “Vingt et un,” 561)

Peeperkorn’s presence makes argument useless.  He “neutralized intellect instead” (7, “Mynheer Peeperkorn (Continued),” 580).  His story climaxes when he throws a party at a waterfall, and gives a long speech, with dramatic gestures, that is made completely inaudible by the water.

Mann is not using the novel to express his Ideas as much as he is attacking the possibility of expressing Ideas.  Perhaps Peeperkorn give a more hopeful solution in his great speech; too bad that no one “understand[s] a single syllable of what he expressed” (612).

Why so many pages expended on blow-by-blow arguments if so much of it is gibberish?  It is just like the (novelistic) argument Mann makes about time.  The reader must experience the uselessness of the arguments, even participate in it by working through the Ideas, as if they were what mattered.

I am not so sure that Mann is right, that I really needed to read quite so much nonsense about the nature of progress and so on to get to his point, but I am pretty sure that is why he does it.

Not reading The Magic Mountain has been a useful defense against whatever overhyped, soon-forgotten nonsense became trendy.  “I can’t read that,” I would think, “ I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain!”  But now I have.  What will I do.


  1. "not using the novel to express his Ideas as much as he is attacking the possibility of expressing ideas" -- or, is he attacking the actual 'expression' of ideas--or the failed expression--by the 'intellectuals' of the time? These guys are ridiculous: Peeperkorn, of course, Naphta, even Settembrini can't be taken seriously, but still are oh so persuasive.

    And what's the result? That Castorp returns to life, (!) to the real world, in order to get himself straightway killed. A master's course in western philosophy and it leads to what? World War I. But of course Mann bought the premise until 1919 or so himself. Something is rotten in Denmark, and the rest of Europe, too.

    Your first post was great--all the post have been great--but I think the key is it's funny! We're supposed to get that something's wrong here, even as it all seems so deadly serious. With the emphasis on deadly.

    Anyway, I've loved the posts--I'm in the middle of rereading Doctor Faustus and The Story of a Novel, which I hope to write up before the end of the month, which is also funny and serious and even grim--and so thinking about Mann.

    Sorry for the super long blathery comment, but here's hoping you don't mind...

  2. Right, the Ideas may have some essential truth, but their expression is mangled. Or dialectic mangles them; maybe some other way would be better. Humans mangle them, I suppose that is the central point. There is no escaping humans.

    I can see how the dialectical aspect of MM is a self-critique, or how it becomes a self-critique as the years pass and the world changes, as Mann changes. Look, he is thinking, at how little good all this debate did me.

    There is something similar going on in English literature in the 1920s, especially among the young writers like Huxley. The war has greatly damaged their faith in everything, basically everything. I keep meaning to write a bit about this, even if I am just paraphrasing Orwell's "Inside the Whale" essay.

    Mann's humor is under-emphasized, I guess a result, again, of his reputation as a Novelist of Ideas. But a novelist, he is still a novelist.

    Many thanks for the long comment! I have just been wondering about podcasts and newsletters again, wondering how one is supposed to discuss anything. Don't they want argument? See, I completely disagree with Mann. Have it out! In public!

  3. I am not so sure that Mann is right, that I really needed to read quite so much nonsense about the nature of progress and so on to get to his point, but I am pretty sure that is why he does it.

    That reminds me strongly of my qualms about Brichot and his endless etymologies in Proust.

    I am still strongly resistant to reading Mann, for whatever grumpy reason.

  4. It is interesting to compare the dialectical method of Mann (of this particular novel) and Dostoevsky. The latter seems much more novelistic to me, meaning that Dostoevsky is exploring the character more than the ideas. Several of these Mann debaters barely qualify as characters.

    Right, Brichot, a tenth as much of that stuff would make the point.