There were moments when, as you “played king,” you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around — will love someday rise up out of this, too?
So closes Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It is a complicated, complex, and ultimately ambiguous novel whose hero, Hans Castorp, is at once ordinary and extraordinary, familiar and strange, healthy and sick. As has been noted frequently, The Magic Mountain can be read as a coming-of-age novel, a Bildungsroman, and a parody of that same genre; Hans Castorp seems both to learn and not learn anything in the short-long journey leading up to the final event of the novel, the “thunderbolt” of the Great War.
Hans Castorp has spent the last seven years of his life at the Sanatorium Berghof. Initially going to the sanatorium to visit his sick cousin for a mere three weeks, we quickly realize that Hans himself is sick, despite all his attempts to deceive us — and himself. “Up there” on the mountain, away from the quotidian flatlands of Europe, our (extra?)ordinary hero begins his quest, his exploration of art, culture, philosophy, and politics, all in the company of the sick and the dying, shifting between time’s different registers.
A question confronts the reader at the end of the novel: has Hans Castorp wasted his life? The Magic Mountain is in a way a long preface, a long story leading up to a climactic moment. So much so that the novel opens by making reference to the past of legend, beyond all memory, as that period before which the Great War broke out. But The Magic Mountain is also a story punctuated by many climatic moments — most of which explore some of the novel’s central themes, like the “Walpurgis Night” (Chapter 5) or the “Snow” (Chapter 6) episodes. As Paul Ricouer has observed (see Time and Narrative, II, pp. 112-30), Mann has provided us with the fictional material to reflect upon the imaginative variations of time and narrative, life and death, nature and culture. The novel itself wonders aloud at the experience of time and its narration, leading the reader to think of the novel’s temporal demarcations as musical “movements” rather than the interrupted staccato of abrupt chapters. Depending on how one tells the story, how one arranges time and plot, our life can be cast as tragedy or comedy or something else entirely. And we can see this readily in the life of Hans Castorp: considered as a whole his life might fit either of these genres — or in not really being whole at all, in being cut off, his life might simply be an incomplete part.
Insofar as The Magic Mountain is a work dedicated to exploring the ways in which we can tell stories and their relation to time, it is also an exploration of the narratives of life, of the stories we tell ourselves, the ones we find ourselves in, and those we leave as monuments to be read and told to future audiences. Yet as The Magic Mountain makes clear from the outside, we might be deceived about ourselves. By the novel’s opening, Hans Castorp has become highly practiced in the art of self-deception, a deception that, through the work of the story’s narrator, we as readers are sympathetically led to participate in, even while we are given signs to escape from, or at least be made aware of, our own self-deceptions. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say, with Alexander Nehamas, that The Magic Mountain can work as a cautionary tale about the illusions of self-awareness (see The Art of Living, pp. 19-32).
After all, the narrator seems to indicate that Hans learned too late the lesson of love bequeathed by his “adventures in flesh and spirit” (p. 706). This is the “dream of love” which Hans Castorp perceives clearly, in the midst of a snowstorm (i.e. the “Snow” episode mentioned above), during which the magic mountain has been obscured from view, and all sense of time has been lost. It can be described as a kind of kairotic moment from which Hans quickly recovers/relapses. “For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts.” (p. 476) At the novel’s end we are left in ambivalent doubt about Hans Castorp’s fate, but we are nonetheless given a hint that he may have, ever-so-briefly, embraced the good of love and life that enabled him to return to the flatlands of Europe, to play his role in the great festival of death having learned — and maybe forgotten again — how to live. One of the many questions Hans Castorp faced — or did he? — becomes the reader’s own.