Not long ago, I decided I would “better myself” by obtaining and reading more of the “classics.” I looked at various “Great Books” lists and such online, and eventually picked out one to my liking. (It is actually a meta-list, in effect, a list generated by examining a huge number of other lists, and scoring books according to how many of those lists they appear on and where they rank on them.)
This list ranked the top 100 books of all time (and had a long section of “honorable mentions” that also “received votes” but didn’t crack the top hundred). I went through that top 100 line by line, and made a note of all the books I had not already read, so that I could pick them up and start filling in these gaps in my education (though you could make a case that it would also be worthwhile to reread most or all of those I have already read at least once).
That’s how I came to recently read works by authors such as Céline, Balzac, and Virginia Woolf. And that’s just a start; there will be dozens more in the upcoming months and years (though interspersed with books chosen for other reasons, books I would have read if I hadn’t embarked on this project).
When I went over the list and saw what I would be committing myself to reading, one of the ones I most—maybe “dreaded” is too strong, but let’s say one of the ones I had the most misgivings about, was The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. (I was more afraid of it than I was of, say, Virginia Woolf, since, after all, who’s afraid—oh never mind.)
I say that because my only prior experience with Mann was a collection of short stories including Death in Venice, and I struggled mightily with that. My concentration came and went, mostly went, and there were long, long sections where I had only the vaguest notion at best what the heck was going on, who was speaking, whether what was being stated was to be taken literally or as some sort of fantasy, metaphor, or symbol, etc. I blamed myself, because I don’t doubt that he is an excellent writer, and yet I’d gotten virtually nothing out of those stories. And here I was committing to reading a Mann book of over 700 pages (of smaller than average font, so probably more like the equivalent of a thousand pages).
Well, much to my relief, The Magic Mountain proved to be a totally different reading experience. I’m not going to say it’s an unusually easy read, but relative to all the novels I’ve read in my life it would rank somewhere around the middle in terms of how understandable I found it. So thankfully, this is a “regular” book, not anything intimidating or incomprehensible, not a terrible chore to get through.
Now I’m not talking about all the symbolic elements, all the different levels a classic work of literature like this operates on. It goes without saying that a substantial amount of that went over my head, or so I assume. With that kind of stuff I catch what little I can and that’s that.
What I mean instead is just the basics of the story: Keeping the characters straight, understanding who is saying and doing what and why, knowing when we’ve moved from reality to someone’s dream or some such unreality, understanding the choices people are faced with and their moral implications, understanding where we are in the story chronologically, and so on and so forth. With only at most minor exceptions, I found The Magic Mountain not difficult at all to follow in these ways.
The Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp, whom Mann, or the narrator anyway, points out multiple times is not to be understood as a hero, as anyone exceptionally good or bad, but just a “guy,” an everyman, even a mediocrity. It takes place early in the 20th century, primarily in Switzerland.
Hans (actually Mann almost never calls him “Hans” or “Castorp,” but over 90% of the time refers to him as “Hans Castorp”) comes from an at least somewhat wealthy Hamburg family. Multiple close family members die during his childhood, making him unusually reflective about sickness and death. His education and family connections put him firmly on the path toward the profession of shipbuilding, something he shows no particular enthusiasm for, nor any great urgency to avoid—more just something to do because everyone has to do something.
At age 23, just before he is to commence his career in earnest, Hans decides to get away for a week or so—maybe three weeks tops—to the Swiss Alps. He goes to visit his cousin Joachim Ziemssen at the International Sanatorium Berghof, a mile up in the mountains.
The Berghof is the sort of health spa that’s a cross between a hospital and a luxury hotel. It is presumably primarily for the treatment of tuberculosis, but the word “tuberculosis” rarely appears in the book. People, including the narrator, speak of the sanatorium as if it were for the treatment of a variety of ailments, mostly of the lung. Is this meant to reflect the fact that “tuberculosis” was the kind of scare word that “cancer” or “AIDS” has been in certain circles in more recent times, a term that was routinely avoided or euphemized?
This is before antibiotics and a lot of the modern medicines that we take for granted. So the treatment consists primarily of three main types of things: 1) Rest, relaxation, lowering of stress, being pampered, light exercise, and the kind of generic “healthy” stuff like that that can’t hurt and may help to some slight degree in giving the body a chance to heal itself, 2) Positive thinking, pep talks, placebos, and various things like that that, again, are unlikely to do any harm, and might in some cases help via their psychological effects, and 3) Major, experimental, intrusive, scary-sounding surgeries that seem likely to do more harm than good.
Frankly none of it sounds like it could be of more than modest benefit, but that doesn’t stop the medical professionals who run the sanatorium from speaking of it all with the greatest of confidence like it has all been proven scientifically and will surely be effective if people just have the patience to stick with it and to follow doctor’s orders to the letter. It seems more bluff than anything.
The patients/guests range from people who seem to have little if anything wrong with them and are here more for a vacation than anything, people who are on death’s door, and all stages in between. The sickest are largely separated from the general population, and only infrequently in the book do we glimpse them—suffering greatly, weak, barely able to breathe, and ultimately dying.
We spend most of our time with the less sick ones, who congregate in a dining area for five full, indulgent meals per day, take walks, sightsee in the mountains, etc. Most get little treatment beyond being expected to rest by lying out on their balcony a certain number of hours per day between meals. They also take their own temperature multiple times per day, which provides them with a topic of conversation when they gather together, and an opportunity to try to top each other when it comes to who is the sickest.
But rarely do these folks—the bulk of the people staying at the sanatorium I gather—come across as particularly unwell. It’s easy for them and for the reader to forget that people are routinely dying around them, because those people are kept largely out of their sight. So their experiences really are about 95% luxury hotel and 5% hospital.
People stay at the Berghof for weeks, months, and not uncommonly for years. Some leave and come back multiple times, maybe taking a two month holiday in the mountains when they feel they need it once every year or so, and resuming their life when they feel a little better.
The doctors routinely give out long “sentences” in effect—explaining, say, that the x-rays are still troubling or ambiguous enough that it’s best to stay for another six months and then reassess the situation at that time. Whether they’re doing so because they’re crooks looking to get as much money as they can from each patient—surely it must be very expensive to stay at a place like this—is an interesting question. One character comes right out and attributes such a motive to them. My guess is that any such corruption is more unconscious, that it’s one of those situations where they convince themselves—sincerely—that the thing that puts the most money in their pocket happens to be the best thing to do for people’s health.
Besides the people at the Berghof, there are other folks in the area in the little mountain towns—some of whom are former and perhaps future guests of the Berghof—who also are hoping some time up in the fresh mountain air will enable them to recover from tuberculosis or whatever else ails them, and I believe there are other sanatoriums not too far away.
The Berghof, and more generally this area up in the Swiss Alps, turns out to be its own little insular world. The guests are there long enough that it’s not so much a break from their life as the commencement of a new and different life. They have their habits, their various relationships, romances, and conflicts, and certainly lots and lots of gossip. It’s the kind of situation where you can get so caught up in what’s going on within this small circle of people that you see every day that what would to an objective, external observer clearly be nothing but overblown drama over the pettiest most insignificant of events can seem quite important and worthy of your attention and emotional engagement.
The longer one is at the Berghof the less one feels attached to one’s previous life in what the guests call the “flatlands” down below. It may feel like you are living in a kind of dream world up here and have left reality behind, or it may feel like life up here is what’s real and what is going on down there is vaguely unreal, but in either case it certainly feels like they are two different worlds. Here is how a couple of the main characters experience it:
“I sometimes think that illness and death aren’t really serious matters, that it’s all more like loafing around, and that, strictly speaking, things are serious only down below in real life. I think maybe you’ll come to understand that in due time, after you’ve been up here with us a little longer.”
“I never write letters. To whom, really? At most a postcard now and then, and they’re prestamped. To whom should I be writing letters? I have no feeling whatever for the flatlands anymore, I’ve lost that somehow. We had a folk song in school, that went, ‘The world is lost to me now.’ That’s how it is with me.”
Anyway, predictably Hans’s stay turns out not to be a week, and not to be three weeks. In spite of his insistence that he’s not a patient, that he’s merely there to visit Joachim and will be gone again shortly, he gets drawn into the Berghof life. He decides it can’t hurt to follow some of the regimen he sees Joachim and the others following of resting out in the cold air of the balcony for multiple hours each day, since he could use some rest and relaxation himself as he’s been feeling fatigued and less than a hundred percent lately. He notices he’s getting certain symptoms (e.g., an occasional nosebleed) that might indicate he has some kind of a bug or minor ailment (not realizing that that sort of “symptom” often occurs as a result of a sudden change of altitude like this and is not an indication of any illness). He agrees to a routine examination by one of the doctors, and the doctor tells him that while there certainly isn’t anything to be alarmed about, there’s just enough on his x-ray to indicate he’d be best off extending his stay up here in the mountains until he can be sure he is truly healthy, you know, just to be on the safe side.
And on it goes until one day he wakes up and discovers, like so many before him, that he has been at the Berghof for years.
By the way, is he even sick? Probably either mildly or not at all. His temperature tends to run about one degree above normal, he rarely has any other symptoms beyond very minimal things that people who are not significantly ill routinely manifest, and the doctors seem far from the experts they paint themselves as (plus medical knowledge then was quite primitive) so I don’t put much stock in their being concerned about something they claim to see on an x-ray.
I’ve mentioned two of the main characters of the book—Hans and Joachim. Among the other significant characters are Lodovico Settembrini, Leo Naphta, Clavdia Chauchat, and Mynheer Peeperkorn.
Joachim is a gentle soul who tends to fall into a kind of kid brother role with Hans. He is a soldier, and while you might expect a sane person to welcome an excuse to stay at a health spa in the mountains indefinitely and not have to potentially risk his life in battle, he responds in quite the opposite way. He wants nothing more than to get back to doing his duty, and he is distraught over his body’s failure to cooperate.
Settembrini is the local intellectual. He is highly assertive and confident in areas such as politics and philosophy that it’s typically least warranted to be assertive and confident. He is a champion of rationality, humanism, and the Enlightenment. He sees Hans, and to a lesser extent Joachim and a few others, as impressionable but reasonably intelligent and well-meaning youths in need of himself as a mentor to guide them along the path to becoming contributors to human progress.
Naphta is a peculiar and to me unappealing character. He emerges in the second half of the book as a sort of rival to Settembrini. He is a Jew who converted to Catholicism, and became a Jesuit. He argues in a quintessentially “jesuitical” manner, i.e., a lot of hair-splitting, sophistry, taking things to their logical extreme however ludicrous, and concerning himself far more with “winning” an argument than truth. Settembrini is an arrogant fellow in his way, and you can make a case that he could use a little puncturing, but I certainly rooted for him over Naphta in their clashes.
Naphta is the sort to argue for torture and dictatorship and such with a certain mischievous air, where you never know if he is a sincere fanatic who would fit perfectly as a KGB official under Stalin for instance, or a bullshitter who delights in arguing extreme positions in a devil’s advocate manner just to see if he can cause Settembrini to become too flustered to effectively counter them.
Clavdia Chauchat is a Russian woman who develops into Hans’s love interest. It takes him forever to finally reveal to her his interest in her, and her response is primarily aloof, but with just enough encouragement not to turn him away entirely. Probably just teasing him, in other words.
But really the most interesting thing about Madame Chauchat is her connection in Hans’s mind to a figure from his childhood: Pribislav Hippe.
Hippe was an unusual boy, a foreign boy, who Hans was strangely drawn to when he arrived at their school. Over time he became more and more intrigued by Hippe, to the point of obsession. Mann doesn’t spell out that he’s talking about a homosexual attraction, and it’s entirely possible that Hans himself, at that age, in that historical period, wouldn’t have recognized it as such, but presumably that’s what it is.
But whatever it is, Hans is unable to shake it, and the memory of the powerful effect Hippe had on him remains with him as one of the strongest memories of his childhood. The only time he ever really interacted with Hippe—he borrowed a pencil from him—still seems to him like one of the most emotionally powerful experiences of his life.
When he senses himself becoming attracted to Chauchat, he begins to associate her with Hippe. He perceives her as resembling Hippe facially, though I don’t know if it’s her looking like Hippe that attracts him, or her attracting him that makes him think she must look like Hippe.
It’s interesting that while neither he nor the narrator address homosexuality specifically, he seems to see something perverse, something (appealingly?) taboo in his feelings for Hippe. As he reflects back on that time as an adult, he compares being drawn to Hippe with being attracted to a physically “flawed” woman—someone who is sick, someone who is not appropriate for childbearing, someone who may not live much longer, someone who in some sense or other is just somehow gross.
So when he finds himself drawn to Chauchat, it’s not so much in spite of her having tuberculosis or whatever specifically she has, but because of it, as a sort of fetish, as something intriguingly disgusting in a way vaguely reminiscent of his feelings for a fellow schoolboy.
He obtains one of her x-rays showing her diseased lung, and he treasures it the way another person might treasure a photograph of his beloved, or a lock of her hair.
When Madame Chauchat leaves the Berghof for a while, which she is prone to do periodically, Hans is dismayed, but at least he can fall back on the realization that she is expected back eventually, perhaps in a few months. But then when she does return, his joy is quickly snuffed out when he discovers that she is accompanied by a traveling companion, the larger-than-life—physically and otherwise—Dutch hedonist Peeperkorn. The precise nature of this “companionship” is left ambiguous however. Some form of romantic connection is vaguely but uncertainly implied, and I think a sexual connection is even less certain.
Despite Peeperkorn’s possibly being a rival of sorts, Hans soon finds himself fascinated by him, and ends up admiring him more than resenting him. He becomes another mentor of sorts to him, though of a very different style from Settembrini.
A certain amount of The Magic Mountain is playful, kind of making fun of its characters and their foibles and such. But I see it as for the most part a serious novel, with some comic relief here and there.
I could be wrong about that. Maybe it’s intended as a comic novel through and through. Maybe more sophisticated readers laugh at the whole thing as wonderful satire, but much of that goes over my head.
Perhaps, but I certainly experience most of the story as serious. Consider, for example, the poignant scene wherein Joachim’s health has taken a turn for the worse, and his mother is summoned urgently so that he will not die without her having seen him at least one final time. In a wonderfully written passage that movingly and accurately portrays the human dynamic of such a situation, Mann describes Hans picking up Joachim’s mother at the train station:
Hans Castorp fetched her by sleigh from the station in Dorf—stood there in a snow flurry on the platform before the little train arrived and composed his face, so that Joachim’s mother would not be too alarmed at first glance, but would not read any false message of good cheer in it, either.
How often must these scenes of greeting have happened here, how often had two people rushed toward one another, the traveler who had just climbed from the train urgently searching the eyes of the person who had come to greet her. Frau Ziemssen gave the impression that she had run here all the way from Hamburg. Her face was flushed, she clasped Hans Castorp’s hand and pulled it to her breast; glancing anxiously all about, she hastily posed her almost furtive questions, which Hans Castorp avoided answering by thanking her for having come so quickly.
There are plenty of moments like that in the novel, scenes where I certainly hope we’re not supposed to laugh at what buffoons the characters are.
But again, that’s not to deny that there are comic aspects of the novel.
The character I experienced as the funniest is Peeperkorn, especially his inability to complete a thought or sentence, and the way the other characters seem to see this as evidence of some sort of profundity rather than evidence that he is a simpleton or has some sort of mental illness or learning disability:
In a rather low voice, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Fine. How very fine. That set-tles it. And yet you must keep in mind and never—not for a moment—lose sight of the fact that—but enough on that topic. What is incumbent upon me to say is not so much that, but primarily and above all this: that we are duty-bound, that we are charged with an inviolable—I repeat with all due emphasis—inviolable obligation—No! No, ladies and gentlemen, not that I—oh, how very mistaken it would be to think that I—but that set-tles it, ladies and gentlemen. Settles it completely. I know we are all of one mind, and so then, to the point!”
He had said nothing; but his head had looked so incontrovertibly imposing, the play of features and gestures had been so definitive, compelling, and expressive that all of them, including eavesdropping Hans Castorp, believed they had heard something very important or, to the extent that they were aware of the lack of anything communicated and of any thought completed, they simply did not miss it.
I would hope the whole extended séance scene late in the novel is also intended humorously. While the narrator never explicitly attributes the unlikely goings-on that the participants experience to deception or delusion, I think that’s a pretty safe assumption.
There is much in The Magic Mountain about time. The narrator and the characters, including Hans, address time itself in the abstract, and the perception of time.
The narrator notes that you could never have a story solely about time, as time is something that contains events, and the story must be about the events and not about the container. “The story would go ‘Time passed, ran on, flowed in a mighty stream,’ and on and on in the same vein. No one with any common sense could call that a narrative.” He compares it to holding a single note for hours and calling it music.
Though he then notes that an interesting difference between a piece of music and a story is that the musical piece is always simply the length that it is, whereas a story can take less, more, or equal time to tell as it would to take place.
Obviously we experience time very differently in different circumstances. In one incident, Hans is out cross-country skiing (contrary to doctor’s orders), and gets lost in a snowstorm. In one of the few conventional “action” scenes in the book, he gradually weakens as he fights his way through the blinding snow as best he can, only to eventually realize he has gone in a circle and ended up next to an abandoned (and locked) building he passed early in the storm. He takes refuge as best he can leaning up against the building, and fears he will not survive, as it is now growing darker and colder. He’s sure that he has been struggling against the elements for hours, but when he pulls out his watch and checks, he’s stunned to discover that it has actually only been minutes.
He thinks about a case he read about where trapped miners had estimated a grueling ten days had passed before they were rescued from their makeshift tomb, when in fact it had been only three days.
A lot of it is a matter of lacking the markers we usually use to measure time, whether it be the position of the sun in the sky or clocks. Casinos famously lack windows and clocks for just this reason; they don’t want people to know or think about how long they have been at the tables.
The sanatorium itself is conducive to losing one’s sense of time. There are changes, but they run in short cycles, and the cycles have a repetitive sameness to them. So as you experience the meals and the “rest cures” out on your balcony and such, you know when another day has passed. There’s a lecture series where one of the doctors gives a talk every other Monday, so you know that when a lecture takes place another two weeks have passed. But these cycles repeat and repeat and repeat, and you quickly lose track of how much total time has passed.
The passing of seasons isn’t much help, because up in the mountains there is surprising variance from day to day. So, yes, it snows the most in the winter, but there can be snow any time of year including August, just as there can be sunny, warm days any time of the year.
Once he has been up there for a while, Hans discovers that he has largely lost his sense of time. He can’t give more than the loosest estimate of how long he has been there, and he even can’t say with any confidence how old he is.
But he also discovers that he doesn’t much care. He doesn’t experience the peculiar timelessness of the Berghof as a particularly negative thing. It’s just how time operates up there.
The perception of time differs not only in different circumstances, but, the narrator suggests, from one type of creature to another:
It is not difficult to imagine creatures, on smaller planets perhaps, who administer a miniaturized time and for whose “short” life the nimble, mincing steps of our second hand possess the dogged spatial frugality of an hour hand. But it is also possible to imagine creatures whose space requires time to move at a pace so monumental that in their experience our terms for describing intervals like “just now” and “in a bit” acquire the vastly expanded meaning of “yesterday” and “tomorrow.”
It reminds me a bit of when I volunteered for a few years in a maximum security prison and had a chance to get to know some long term inmates. I remember one speaking of “this cotton candy world in here,” which people float through in an almost dreamlike state, detached from reality, where every day resembles the last, and how when they are released back into the outside world (the equivalent of the “flatlands” of the book), they have a Rip Van Winkle sense that they stopped while the world continued, and now they’re hopelessly “behind” where they’re supposed to be in life.
Talking to released prisoners, I remember how more than one commented about how everything seems so much faster on the outside, how they felt like they were moving twice as fast as they were used to in an effort to keep up, yet were getting half as much done. It’s like in prison you shut down a lot of yourself and just kind of “wait it out,” and then you have to somehow get back up to normal speed when the time comes.
There’s a sense in which reading The Magic Mountain itself—or I suppose any book in its own way—raises these issues of the variable perceptions of time.
A lot less takes place in these 700-plus pages than in a typical story of such a vast length. For a time, I was so pleasantly surprised that the book was so much easier to follow than I’d anticipated that that kind of carried me along and kept me favorably disposed toward it. But ultimately, yeah, it started to feel slow and kind of boring, and I found myself wishing it were 400 pages, or 300 or 200, instead of over 700.
But maybe that’s supposed to represent how time is experienced at the Berghof. Not a whole lot happens beyond petty personal disputes and such, everything is slow and routine, and the inhabitants float along, getting gradually accustomed to this lower level of stimulation than was the norm in their old life. And then as a reader you kind of float along with them.
But no doubt another reason I wasn’t more consistently engaged by this book is that my focus tends to be more on a novel’s story, on what’s on the surface, whereas here I’m sure the bulk of the juicy stuff is on other levels. I think Mann is telling us about Europeans in the early 20th century, and perhaps about how many of them lived kind of a pointless, indulgent existence, putting their lives on hold indefinitely while they piddled around, regarding themselves as needing and deserving attention, pity, and assistance for their largely imaginary problems rather than pulling up their socks and taking care of business themselves. Or debating issues in an abstract, Ivory Tower manner like Settembrini and Naphta rather than actually getting down to the nitty gritty of putting their ideas into action. But much of the details and nuance of that is lost on me.
Actually I’m quite surprised how much I’ve found to write about in connection with a book that seemed to me somewhat uneventful and at times boring, and one where I felt like I was missing a lot. Maybe I got more out of it than I thought.
But anyway, while I’m sure I don’t appreciate the writing of Mann the way people who are particularly perceptive about literature do, here and there I was struck by passages that seemed especially well-articulated, insightful, or thought-provoking. I quoted one above about Hans meeting Joachim’s mother at the train station. Here are a couple others that caught my eye:
A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had, it is nevertheless quite possible that he senses his own moral well-being to be somehow impaired by the lack of critique. All sorts of personal goals, purposes, hopes, prospects may float before the eyes of a given individual, from which he may then glean the impulse for exerting himself for great deeds; if the impersonal world around him, however, if the times themselves, despite all their hustle and bustle, provide him with neither hopes nor prospects, if they secretly supply him with evidence that things are in fact hopeless, without prospect or remedy, if the times respond with hollow silence to every conscious or subconscious question, however it may be posed, about the ultimate, unequivocal meaning of all exertions and deeds that are more than exclusively personal—then it is almost inevitable, particularly if the person involved is a more honest sort, that the situation will have a crippling effect, which, following moral and spiritual paths, may even spread to that individual’s physical and organic life. For a person to be disposed to more significant deeds that go beyond what is simply required of him—even when his own times may provide no satisfactory answer to the question of why—he needs either a rare, heroic personality that exists in a kind of moral isolation and immediacy, or one characterized by exceptionally robust vitality. Neither the former nor the latter was the case with Hans Castorp, and so he probably was mediocre after all, though in a very honorable sense of that word.
What I take from this is that there are always limits to what any individual is capable of. Limits not only of physical possibility based on the laws of nature, but restraints imposed by social reality, that is the circumstances created by the intentional and mostly unintentional consequences of the decisions and acts, past and present, of all people. Institutions are created and sustained, people act toward you based on their background beliefs and expectations, etc., making various things possible or impossible, easy or difficult.
You can’t be an astronaut at a time and place in history where there is no space program. You can’t marry Betty Sue and live happily ever after with her if Betty Sue is not agreeable to the notion of marrying you.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. People will wonder why I didn’t do x, y, or z with my life, and I want to say, “Because I can’t just wave a magic wand and make them happen. You don’t simply will yourself into the life you want. The life you have is a product of countless factors, with your choices constituting only a tiny percentage of those factors.”
But then again I hesitate to say that, because it sounds like I’m making excuses. The reality is that in my mind I’m aware of the existence of innumerable factors beyond my control that have an effect on where I end up in life, but rather than using that as a reason to feel better, or less responsible, about the aspects of my life that aren’t what I would like, I tend to get down on myself because I feel like among the most important of life skills that one is obligated to develop is the ability to maneuver around these various impediments and achieve a great deal more success than I have in reaching my goals.
So, yes, the obstacles are real—social reality genuinely does make various things difficult if not impossible for a given person; I’m not just imagining the obstacles and in fact blocking myself—but it’s on me to be resourceful in dealing with these obstacles. That’s not to say the obstacles will be eliminated—the ancient Egyptian still won’t be able to be an astronaut, the 70 year old woman still won’t be able to play in the NBA, and many doors will remain closed to me, but I certainly should have been able to achieve far more in my life than I have, obstacles or no.
Maybe that makes me a mediocrity like Hans (“though in a very honorable sense of that word”), I don’t know. But I’ve just never been good at rising above circumstances and “making” things happen.
That’s all the more true when we add in moral considerations. Certainly, all else being equal, one can achieve more of one’s goals the fewer moral constraints one puts on the means one uses to pursue them. But that’s hardly an acceptable solution—to me—to the problem of finding a way, in spite of the “impersonal world” failing to provide the necessary “hopes nor prospects,” to exert oneself “for great deeds.”
The second passage I wanted to note is this one wherein Hans becomes aware of a certain type of temptation:
It seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless. He tried…imagining how it must be when one is finally free of all the pressures honor brings and one can endlessly enjoy the unbounded advantages of disgrace—and the young man was terrified by a sense of dissolute sweetness that set his heart pounding even faster for a while.
“Honor” strikes me as mostly about one’s reputation, about how one is regarded by others, though I suppose one could have an internalized sense of honor that has to do with how one sees oneself. But interpreting it broadly as basically morality in general, this is the classic conflict between constraining oneself according to a moral code versus the freedom to do as one pleases. Which are you bothered by more: The pangs of conscience when you behave in a way you know is wrong, or the passing up of pleasure, success, and the achieving of various other ends due to limiting for moral reasons what you are willing to do?
There certainly can be an exhilaration, as Hans recognizes, to tossing off the fetters of honor or morality. Indeed, it can even in its way be sweeter to sin when you know it’s sin. That is, however much you might enjoy doing a certain thing if it were morally neutral, there’s that little bonus thrill of rebellion and defiance when you’re violating a moral taboo by doing it. Yet at the same time, you have the accompanying feeling of guilt.
The Magic Mountain ends with a very short section, more like an epilogue, that to me is very powerful in its total mood change.
For the entire book up until this point, Hans and his fellow characters have been presented as individuals—somewhat comic, with more than their share of foibles and eccentricities, more humane than not, mostly attempting to think and communicate rationally, capable of being motivated by love and honor and other such noble impulses, and mostly sympathetic. They can certainly be accused of being delusional in certain respects, idle, ineffectual, out of touch with the world, more wedded to words over actions (consider how the intellectuals Settembrini and Naphta debate endlessly about world events and such but do basically nothing), but they are mostly good, if at times ridiculous, folks.
Then at the end we get the briefest of glimpses of the “real world” that they have been keeping themselves aloof from for so long. It is a time of world war. In re-entering this world, people like Hans cease to be likable, peculiar, unique individuals; they become interchangeable cogs in a maximally irrational, inhumane, killing machine. The relatively innocuous sins of wasting time, being self-absorbed, and losing touch with the world beyond one’s own little insular community are replaced by the sin of seeking to murder as many strangers as possible.