Thomas Mann’s reputation as a difficult, ponderous, heavyweight novelist, and the erudite allusions, serious subject matter, and philosophical themes of The Magic Mountain (1924) have led readers to ignore the comic and satiric tone that enlivens his morbid novel. His method is very different from the somber and solemn way most authors—like Tolstoy, Gide, and Solzhenitsyn—write about disease and death. Mann’s dark comedy, tinged with fear and disgust, takes place in the luxurious remote enclosed society of the International Sanatorium Berghof. He indicates the magic of the place with a witty game of recurring numbers. The young, naïve Hans Castorp, who leaves his ordinary life in Hamburg to visit his tubercular cousin Joachim Ziemssen, generates much of the comedy. Hans gradually progresses from incomprehension to knowledge and to eager acceptance of the distorted medical, social, and sexual customs on the magic mountain.
Hans lives with a cast of bizarre characters who, monstrously perverted by illness and egoism, engage in frenetic sexual activity or carry their intellectual disputes to extremes of aggression. Mann satirizes, in the vivid portraits of Dr. Behrens and the psychiatrist Dr. Krokowski, the mingling of science, mysticism, and financial greed in the medical profession. Comedy lightens the mood of the novel and enables the moribundi to endure their agony in the “Chamber of Horrors.”
Mann’s playful numerology, like all his comic scenes, has a serious aspect. The number seven or its multiples keep reappearing in unexpected places as part of the magic of the mountain. Seven is a magical number. There are seven days of creation in Genesis, seven spheres in the sky, seven wonders of the ancient world, seven days of the week, seven cardinal virtues, seven deadly sins, and, in Revelation, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven vials, and seven angels. There are seven chapters in the novel, seven generations of Castorps baptized with the same silver basin, and Hans was seven years old when grandfather died. There are seven tables in the dining room of the sanatorium, and Hans eventually sits at all of them. Clavdia Chauchat (whose name in French means “hot cat”) has room seven; Hans has room 34 (3+4=7). Seven people take the momentous trip to the waterfall.
Hans lives with a cast of bizarre characters who, monstrously perverted by illness and egoism, engage in frenetic sexual activity or carry their intellectual disputes to extremes of aggression.
Time is also measured in sevens. Patients wait seven minutes to read the thermometer and the concert lasts for seven minutes. The X-rays need seven days to be developed, and Hans associates Clavdia with his boyhood love, Pribislav Hippe, after seven days at the Berghof. Hans originally plans to stay for only three weeks (7 x 3 days), and Walpurgis Night is celebrated after seven months. Hans’s vision in the “Snow” chapter occurs during the twenty-first month of his stay and he skies into the storm on “seven-league slippers.” His sick cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, leaves after 7 x 70 days and dies at seven o’clock at night. Hans remains on the mountain for seven years. The first five letters of Settembrini’s name mean seven in Italian, and he’s named after the revolutionary Septembrists, themselves named after the seventh month of the old Roman calendar. Mann twice refers to the legend of the Christian seven sleepers of Ephesus, who hid in caves to escape persecution and slept for 189 (7 x 27) years. John Donne refers to this legend in “The Good-Morrow” when he asks, “Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?”
Mann amusingly describes Hans’s shocked reaction to the pathological atmosphere as Joachim slyly initiates the young novice into the weird ways of the sanatorium. Upon arrival, Hans notices the lame porter with tuberculosis of the bone; the dwarf waitress; the corpses sent down the mountain by bobsled; the fumigation of his room after the recent death of a patient; the noisy and outrageous sexual behavior of the “bad Russian couple” next door. Almost at once, from being healthy and normal, he develops cold feet, flushed face, fever, and palpitations; suffers attacks of giddiness and nausea; feels distaste for his normally pleasurable Maria Mancini cigars; and is bewildered by the irregularity of time and the erratic mountain weather.
Mann’s deliberately over-the-top description, when Hans hears his first profoundly unhealthy tubercular cough, makes it sound like death itself. It was
coughing like to no other Hans Castorp had ever heard, and compared with which any other had been a magnificent and healthy manifestation of life: a coughing that had no conviction and gave no relief, that did not even come out in paroxysms, but was just a feeble, dreadful welling up of the juices of organic dissolution.
Not to be outdone, the patient Caroline Stöhr, well aware of the orgasmic aspect—her description is the verbal equivalent of swelling Wagnerian music—is extremely enthusiastic about the entire process:
She began to talk about how fascinating it was to cough. It was a solid satisfaction, when you felt a tickling come in your chest, deep down, and grow and grow, to reach down after it, and get at it, so to say.
Hans experiences physical and mental changes as soon as the mountain begins to work its magic, and readily submits to its hermetic pedagogy as the intellectual enemies Settembrini and Naphta fight for control of his comparatively simple mind. Ironically and absurdly, Hans plans to visit the Alpine health resort for only three weeks and winds up, with his will dissolved, by staying for seven years.
Hans’s Uncle James Tienappel, in a comic version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, arrives for a visit and is greeted by his nephew. He has the same shocked response as Hans had when he first arrived and was greeted by Joachim, and James’s conventional reaction to the sanatorium accentuates its oddity. An old hand by now, Hans intensifies his shivering uncle’s confusion and discomfort by telling him that the patients (like the dead) don’t feel the cold and that corpses are sent down the mountain on bobsleds. He insists that the “outbreak of disease had something jolly about it, [like] an outburst of physical gratification.” He shocks James by announcing that he plans to prolong his pathological lotus-eating, to postpone his engineering work in the flatlands and to stay for another six months. As with Hans, Uncle James has a hot head and cold body. His nasal passages are obstructed and Behrens tells him that he’s anemic. He notes the mummified patients, wrapped in blankets and taking their horizontal rest cure on the balconies; he’s upset by the all-pervasive bad breeding in that strange place; and, though normally quite reserved, bursts out laughing for no apparent reason.
Like Hans with Clavdia and Joachim with Marusja, Uncle James is attracted to the voluptuous figure of the alluring Frau Redisch:
her bosom was very white and voluptuous, the breasts pressed together so that the crease between them was visible for some way; and the mature and elegant gentleman was as much shaken by this discovery as though it possessed for him a new and undreamed-of significance.
Finally, Uncle James takes the advice that Settembrini gave Hans—to leave as soon as possible—and that Hans had recklessly ignored when he first arrived. To save himself from enchantment and perdition, James suddenly vanishes. His disappearance removes the last obstacle to Hans’s indefinitely extended visit.
Mann satirizes all the characters in the novel. Dr. Behrens (whose name echoes Bruhns, the maiden name of Mann’s mother) seems to work hand-in-glove with the owners of the Berghof by unnecessarily prolonging the stay of his profitable patients. In Mann’s comically unreal world, sickness is valued more highly than health. No one ever gets cured, and those bold enough to leave are usually forced to return and pay for their rashness with their lives. The Berghof, though extremely infectious, allows paying visitors. Hans—who chooses to be near Joachim rather than stay in a healthier guest house in Davos—does not contract tuberculosis (as he thought) from an hereditary predisposition to the disease, but instead becomes infected after he arrives.
The head nurse, Adriatica von Mylendonk, carries around expensive thermometers and sells one to the vulnerable Hans. Edhin Krokowski, a kind of witch-doctor dressed in a black smock and wearing hideous footgear, dubiously explores the unconscious, mesmerism, and the paranormal. The Kirghiz-eyed Clavdia Chauchat, though beautiful and sexy, displays the “Asiatic” side of her character by biting her nails, rolling bread pellets, walking in a slinky way, sitting in a slouching posture, and slamming the dining room door to call attention to her late arrival.
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Hans makes a fool of himself by his obviously besotted love for Clavdia. She crowns him with a dunce cap after he declares his passion during the festivities on Walpurgis Night. The liberal humanist Ludovico Settembrini is described as a long-winded Italian organ grinder. The absurdly fanatical Jewish Jesuit, Leo Naphta, is a madman and bloodthirsty reactionary who defends torture and the Spanish Inquisition. The wealthy Dutch East Indies’ planter Pieter Peeperkorn has an impressive physical presence, but makes no sense when he pours out a torrent of incoherent words that are eventually drowned out by the natural force of a waterfall. He repeatedly exclaims “settled!”—though everything he says remains vague.
The Jew Sonnenschein and the anti-Semite Wiedemann wrestle like rowdy boys on the dining room floor. The attractive young Russian, Marusja, cannot control her foolish, unwarranted, yet pathetic and even endearing laughter, and is disfigured by tubercular ulcers on her swelling bosom. Even the noble Joachim Ziemssen makes anti-Semitic remarks about Naphta’s Jewish nose and puny physique, and—like a stern Prussian soldier—insists that war is necessary to maintain a healthy martial spirit in society.
The dimwitted Caroline Stöhr makes a series of comic malapropisms. She says “magnet” for “magnate,” “obscure” for “obscene,” Erotica for Eroica, “ring of Polycrates” for “heel of Achilles,” and “Benedetto Cenelli” for “Benvenuto Cellini.” Another patient says “steriletto” instead of “stiletto.” Hans mocks the repulsive but intriguing society he’s suddenly thrust into by noting
the goings-on of the Russian pair next door, the table-talk of the stupid and afflicted Frau Stöhr, the gentleman rider’s pulpy cough daily heard in the corridor, the utterances of [the violent and suicidal] Herr Albin, the impression he received of the manners and morals of the ailing young folk about him.
Sexual congress, like winter athletics, is an energetic activity that is strictly forbidden by the medical authorities. But the mostly young patients—feverish and with plenty of leisure time, far from the social restraints of the flatland and with nothing to lose—are desperately eager for a final sexual fling. The passionate adventures of the patients are a desperate attempt to seize a moment of pleasure before their final extinction. They are obviously wasting away, but eat like wolves. Though no one behaves quite as crudely as the “bad Russian couple,” any distraction that helps to overcome boredom and depression at the Berghof is always welcome. Sex vies with gossip, food, drink, gambling, gramophone, magic lantern, cinema, and séances as the principal amusements of the patients.
The guests secretly pass around and eagerly read a cheap volume, literally translated from the French, called The Art of Seduction. When Peeperkorn’s late night drinking party gets out of control, Dr. Behrens hears of the outrage and “approaches by forced marches.” He’s angry when patients reduce their treatment to little more than “flirtation and temperature,” and annoyed when the narcissistic ladies wear their “most costly lace underwear” when preparing for their scheduled examination. Behrens shows Hans his obscene engraving given to him by an Egyptian princess who was a lesbian. Fed up with the intense but unlicensed sexual activity, he refers to the street in Naples, named for a Spanish viceroy and notorious for criminals and prostitutes, by angrily exclaiming, “I’m a doctor! . . . I’m not a pimp. I’m no Signor Amoroso on the Toledo, in Napoli bella.”
The libidinous Romanian Captain Miklosich, “him of the waxed mustachios and swelling chest,” vaults over the partitions on the balcony to have his way with the all-too-responsive ladies. He was a man, the narrator explains with a certain envy, “for whom, when in the society of ladies, it could never be dark enough: a man without any and all refinement—though he did wear a corset—and, by nature, simply a beast of prey.”
Hans is the principal vehicle of Mann’s satiric comedy. He nervously anticipates and then shudders whenever Clavdia slams the door, but cannot take his eyes off his beloved. The other patients have the same comic reaction to Hans’s infatuation as they did to his congenial fever. They “enjoyed seeing him flush and pale when the glass door slammed” and, on the terrace after dinner, “actually stood about in groups to observe the infatuated youth.” Despite their ill-disguised mockery, he gallantly tries to pick up Clavdia’s fallen napkin, draws the curtains when the sun shines in her eyes and carries around her precious X-ray (for which he has erected a special little stand beside his bed) instead of her photograph. He rushes after her when walking on the town path with the breathless Joachim, absurdly imitates her slouching posture at the dinner table and even copies her by letting the door slam when he enters the dining room. Obsessed by Behrens’ oil portrait of Clavdia and wishing to symbolically possess it, Hans takes it off the wall and carries it around the room with him in order to observe it even more closely. The unfortunate Wehsal, also hopelessly infatuated by Clavdia, assumes a squirely and subservient role with Hans, following him about and carrying his coat on their expeditions around the valleys. Behrens, Hans and Peeperkorn, it transpires, all sleep with the promiscuous and elusive Clavdia.
Mann’s playful numerology, like all his comic scenes, has a serious aspect. The number seven or its multiples keep reappearing in unexpected places as part of the magic of the mountain. Seven is a magical number.
Dr. Behrens himself had once suffered from tuberculosis. To keep up the patients’ morale and make light of their disease, the “brilliant operator” (in both senses of the word) assumes a hearty joking attitude about illness and pretends that it’s not a truly serious matter. He calls the thermometer a silver cigar and describes the flasks of oxygen as if they were bottles of wine. He insists, when once again extending the stay of Joachim—who’s no good at illness—that the Berghof is “not a convict prison, nor a Siberian penal settlement!” If Joachim will only wait another six months, Behrens assures him, he’ll be able to capture the capital of the Muslim Ottomans, traditional enemy of the Austro-Hungarians: “you can take Constantinople single-handed; you’ll be strong enough to command a regiment of Samsons.”
Behrens states that Hamburg, Hans’s native city, “simply revels in humidity and sends us a tidy contingent every year.” When Hans announces his fever, Behrens replies, “Not bad at all, for a beginner—shows talent.” Hans’s fellow patients, excited by his fever and welcoming the latest victim,
shook their fingers at him, they winked maliciously, they put their heads on one side, crooked their forefingers beside their ears and waggled them in a pantomime suggestive of their delight at having found him out, who had played the innocent so long.
Behrens tells Hans—in his characteristically facetious manner—that one of his patients, whose collapsed lung had been overfilled by an inexperienced doctor in Zurich, “was overtaken by a perfect paroxysm of laughter.” But he also announces, with unseemly levity, that a moribund patient has “an utterly insufficient remnant of sound lung tissue.” He is quite ready to leave his “hygienic dying-bed” and “take up the horizontal for good and all”—in the grave. Behrens strongly disapproves of patients who make dreadful scenes and refuse to die in the proper way. When Hans innocently but rhapsodically asks, “What is the body? . . . What is the flesh?,” Behrens deflates him with a succinct reply: “water.” When Behrens tells Hans that he’s cured and may leave, Hans, as eager to remain in Davos as Joachim is to return to his regiment, simply refuses to believe or obey him. Despite the supposedly scientific practices, medicine in the Berghof remains primitive and mystical. The German medical association, outraged by Mann’s portrayal of the ineffectual, even cruel treatment at the Berghof, actually lodged a formal protest and had to be publicly placated.
When they first meet, Dr. Krokowski mocks Hans’s naïve assertion about his tip-top physical condition by stating, “Then you are a phenomenon worthy of study. I, for one, have never in my life come across a perfectly healthy human being.” In his simplified Freudian lectures to his captive audience, Krokowski asserts that disease is not primarily organic, but essentially a manifestation of repressed sexuality, that “all disease is only love transformed.” Hans’s sudden fever and catarrh, after he’s been smitten by Clavdia, seem to support Krokowski’s bizarre psychoanalytic theory. Hermine Kleefeld and other members of the Half-Lung Club unnerve Hans and anyone else who comes near them with a macabre whistling through their surgical pneumothorax. Even Joachim—aware that the patients’ prestige increases with the gravity of their disease and imminence of their death—is impressed by a “first-class haemorrhage.”
The tubercular victims are rewarded for being sick with a brief but luxurious life sentence in the Berghof. Carried away by his own pathological interests, which he considers part of his morbid, thrice-orphaned heritage, Hans rapturously but rather insensitively asks the grieving Mexican mother who’s lost both her sons: “Don’t you like the sight of a coffin? I really do. I find it a handsome piece of furniture, even empty; when someone is lying in it, then, in my eyes, it is positively sublime.” Though usually well mannered, Hans, carried away by what passes for normal behavior on the mountain, simply ignores the fact that her own son has just been lying in the coffin.
The most extreme example of Mann’s dark gallows humor is Anton Ferge’s excruciatingly detailed description—weirdly acceptable in the polite society of the sanatorium—of the shock to his pleura (the membrane around the lung), which he’d suffered during Behrens’ pneumothorax operation. The lack of anesthesia allowed Ferge to observe and analyze his own excruciating torment. He positively revels in the gory details of the exposure and violation of his body, a kind of surgical rape, enlivened by his subjective account of what the pleura desires: “The pleura, my friends, is not anything that should be felt of; it does not want to be felt of and it ought not to be. It is taboo. It is covered up with flesh and put away once and for all; nobody and nothing ought to come near it. And now he uncovers it and feels all over it. My God, I was sick at my stomach. Horrible, awful; never in my life have I imagined there could be such a sickening feeling, outside hell and its torments.” Ferge’s macabre details, which delight his listeners, illuminate the contrast in the novel between the two aspects of the human body: the robust outward appearance and inward decay of the patients, the lively external behavior and inward suffering of the victims, who actually boast about the progress of the disease that will inevitably kill them.
The comic elements in The Magic Mountain have a structural as well as thematic function. They disappear after the sudden departure of Uncle James, Hans’s last tie to the flatland, and vanish as the novel speeds up and races toward its tragic climax in a series of dramatic episodes: Hans’s ironically life-affirming vision in the “Snow” chapter, the death of Joachim, the suicide by snake poison of the vital but impotent Peeperkorn, the suicide of Naphta in his duel with Settembrini, the undignified burst of violence in the dining room, and Hans’s return to the flatland to sacrifice himself, in place of Joachim, when the war breaks out. The sanatorium is closed at the end of the novel, and the sick patients are sent down to the flatland to rejoin the sick society.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 2, on page 37
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