- The Magic Mountain
It is essential to break with all so-called idealism of the kind that broods over how the word ought to be and would lovelessly impose on the world the result of its thinking. . . . A labor of Sisyphus, for the antinomies of the world are inherent in existence itself; they are existence, the very fullness thereof. . . . An intellectual leader may be expected . . . to step outside the interplay of contraries, recognize the inherent polarities, and find their equilibrium, but not to postpone the attainment of the equilibrium by putting more weight on the one pole than on the other.(Letters  113)
"Odd entertainment, which had really little or nothing in common with a novel in the usual sense of the word" (Sketch 61). So Thomas Mann described the novel he began in 1912 and completed, after a three-year interruption, in 1924. He was exaggerating, but he was pointing toward a truth. This account of the intellectual development of a "simple-minded, though pleasing young man" (2, 9)1 to a condition very like genius is not every reader's cup of tea, not even every serious reader's. As a work [End Page 487] of fiction it tends to meet with two objections. It is thought by many to sink under its enormous freight of ideas; and, by those who don't disapprove of ideas in art, it is often considered unsatisfactory because Mann believes in none of them himself, his famous irony being at bottom nihilistic. Of course, one is free to prefer fiction of another kind. But in what follows I want to look back at the novel's art and its meaning to show why both these objections are wrong.
My own view is that The Magic Mountain is one of the two or three best novels of our time, and in what it helps us understand the most valuable. I find that all (or almost all—enough) of its contending ideas, and even of Hans Castorp's dangerously explicit scientific studies, turn into living fiction, into a narrative that is absorbing, dramatic, moving, funny (to the point of making us laugh out loud), and often lyrically beautiful. To convey as human drama the working and growing of intelligence, precisely this is the achievement of Mann's art. Moreover, the novel's vast intellectual scope also belongs to its artistic effect. For a major source of our pleasure in the parts is the sense of the complex whole they darkly promise, which means too of the partialness of the parts, the one-sidedness of every idea conveyed by the author's famously ironical manner. This not only keeps us smiling amid the intensities and profundiities. It provides its own kind of suspense as well. It is always a dramatic as well as an intellectual climax when, in scene after scene, those promises of a deeper illumination are increasingly fulfilled. Finally, there is the supreme artistic effect of the grandeur and the moral beauty of that deepening illumination.
As for the novel's meaning, what we find in Hans Castorp's education is that Mann's smile at all ideas doesn't mean "no"; it means "yes, but." He seems a nihilist only to those who look for ideas in which they can come to rest. The fact is, the novel will at last say its own "yes." But this will be not to one or another of its "counterpositions," but to man, who is "the lord of counterpositions" (496, 685) or—to put it in the story's terms—to what leads Hans Castorp, our representative, safely through the dangers of the magic mountain. For appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, our hero is saved at the end.2 [End Page 488]
"Nobody has ever loved his own ego," Mann wrote in the essay "Goethe and Tolstoy" (1922); "nobody was ever egocentric in the sense of conceiving of his own ego as a cultural task . . . without reaping . . . educational influence in the outer world" (Essays 160). Mann was surely thinking of the reason for his own influence, as well as for his great predecessors'. All his work explores a single "egocentric...