This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
The Magic of the Mountain:
A Metaphor for the American College
The great German poet Goethe, always fond of paradox, once proposed in characteristic fashion his sense of the relationship between literature and life. Nothing, he said, can so alienate us from life as literature can. Nothing, he went on, can more firmly bind us to life than literature.
My forty years in higher education have persuaded me that one can propose a like paradox for a college education. It can hold us forever aloof, content to look down on life from the distance; clinical in our detachment; contemptuous and calculating our advantage over the unsophisticated. But it can also return us to life able to live and serve it better, armed with the understanding that our individual life takes on meaning and worth when it is given to the larger life of humankind.
It was surely that latter idea of higher education's functioning which moved Thomas Jefferson to declare that an educated citizenry would secure the future of the fledgling United States. The scores of liberal arts colleges which came into being in the early decades of the new Republic were inspired by the same idea.
Thomas Mann, the twentieth century's Goethe in so many ways, shared his predecessor's concern that literature and ideas could so engage people that they would be lost to life forever, dwelling in a private world of aesthetic pleasures and contempt for ordinary folk. The tensions of Mann's novels and short stories run between the poles of deathly intellectualism and the banalities of everyday living. In Mann's early works, his protagonists seem doomed to be forever hostile to the workaday world of commerce and industry by their being devoted to ideas and the arts. Their sensibilities alienate them from home and parentage, setting them apart from the lives their schoolmates grow into comfortably and surely.
But in the works of his maturity, the great novels that are among our century's finest achievements, Thomas Mann explores a Goethean spiral path which can lead his alienated protagonists back to life--at a higher level. The novel that is central to his life's work, The Magic Mountain, parodies the action of Goethe's Faust, as it proposes a very different path to life from that we see in Goethe's play. Professor Faust's painful journey to find his humanity begins with his embracing magic as a way to escape the university where he is the prisoner of forms and practices that are deathly. It is a very different notion of magic Mann's novel evokes, at a place of death in many guises. Yet the sanitarium, in the Swiss village of Davos that is the story's locale, ultimately affords Hans Castorp an understanding of life such as he would never have known, had he remained in his flatland home.
Anybody who reads The Magic Mountain on an American college campus will at once savor the amusing parallels between the world of the sanitarium and the world of students in a residential college. For example, Mann tells us that the patients give up reading the newspaper and fail to write letters home because they lose themselves in the gossip of the dining hall, in love affairs, or in the entertainments the management thoughtfully provides. The sanitarium is a place where people argue passionately about world events, while ensuring that they remain at a safe distance from them. The patients consume huge amounts of food, though they complain about the eternal sameness of it. Those in charge try to conceal the fact that the doctors don't really cure anybody, even while they go on charging very high fees and insisting that the patients, just by being in residence for a few years, will go home someday thinking themselves much better than they were when they arrived.
But as readers work their way into Mann's novel, they see deeper parallels. They come to understand that Mann's central interest, amidst his account of the diseased persons in the place, is in the processes of his protagonist's growth and change which we can call Castorp's liberal education. Readers come to see, too, that the tuberculosis which has brought the patients to Davos is the physical partner of their spiritual diseases: self-indulgence, apathy, chauvinism. Mann thought these the sicknesses of all Europe before World War I, even as TB was the international physical ailment. They are the sicknesses which beset our campuses today.
High above the world of healthful life, in the place of death, Mann's hero comes to understanding. Davos educates him as he had not been educated in the flatland, graduate engineer though he is. Mann celebrates Davos as a place of magic because its effect on his protagonist is so extraordinary, so complete, as to defy rational explanation. Reasonable interpretation cannot account for the transformation Hans Castorp undergoes or for the influence certain persons and experiences have upon him. Mann calls it magic, a sort of alchemy, a lovely mystery. Yet, in his meticulously composed preface to his novel, Mann is at some pains to stress that, while Hans Castorp is an altogether typical young man, his experiences on the mountain are peculiarly and privately his. Castorp's story, as Mann puts it, doesn't happen to everybody. Indeed, to some extent the magic of the mountain is of the hero's making. He is the catalyst, bringing the elements of the Davos world into an alchemical union with one another, creating gold out of what for others is only dross.
Is Castorp's education, then, reserved only for his hero or at best a very special few? Surely Mann would not spend 700 pages to propose that. Rather, I believe, he wishes us to understand that Castorp's education is available to anybody who has his hero's essential characteristics--his willingness to open himself to experience of the unfamiliar, his insistence on knowing, his love for his origins--and who can learn from his circumstances. As we follow Castorp to the mountain and live his seven years there with him, we must remember that, while Mann emphasizes that the journey is uniquely Castorp's, he would have us see that those characteristics of Castorp which redeem him are those of uncorrupted youth everywhere.
When first we meet Hans Castorp, on the novel's opening page, he is on his way to visit a sick cousin. He is traveling by train across the heartland of Europe, where in earlier times Caesar's legions, Napoleon's citizens army, and Bismarck's Prussians had marched. Yet, as though to impress upon us that his hero is no giant of history, Mann at once tells us that his Hans Castorp is a very average fellow indeed, a youth with no special gifts and no claim at all to distinction. He is an altogether characteristic representative of the middle class, more concerned with creature comforts than with what he might make of his life, more given to relaxation than hard work.
We travel with Castorp along ravines and precipices as the train struggles up into the mountains of Switzerland. Eventually he alights in Davos expecting to find only a sort of hotel for invalids, where he will spend a few weeks being pleasantly pampered. He doesn't at all appreciate his cousin's casual remark: "Your ideas really get changed here!" He doesn't suspect that he has entered a drastically different world, separated from his home by psychological and spiritual distances far greater than miles or altitude might account for.
The sanitarium has its own calendar and celebrates its own holidays. The standards of the flatland--in language, manners, social relationships--are consciously abandoned and often mocked at. Davos is a self-contained microcosm where the days and weeks take on uniform character, their passage marked only by mealtimes and the ritual exercises imposed on the patients. We must count it a first instance of magic in the place, then, that Hans Castorp, so much the child of his bourgeois parentage, eagerly embraces his new circumstances and unreasonably turns his back on the flatland, wondering that he had wanted no more from life than to make a comfortable living.
We must take it that it is Castorp's very naiveté and middle class blandness that attract to him persons who are intent on becoming his teachers. In his first months on the mountain he is exposed to minds so much more sophisticated than his own that he can only gasp at their brilliance. They show him new worlds beyond his imagining, seeming to conjure up the marvels of the universe and the glories of humanity's achievement before his eyes, new worlds which begin to demand his full attention and energy. Yet, with time, Castorp begins to see that these "teachers" cannot resist turning the unwritten page that he is into their own text. They are so convinced of the superiority of their own convictions that they cannot imagine his wishing to embrace any other. Though they insist they want only to free him from the fetters of his middle class prejudices, their behavior argues that they wish to make him the captive of their particular philosophy. But Castorp, having learned only since he came to the mountain that he can think independently, resists them. He senses that there can be no single way to understand life in all its complexity. Very quickly, through another seemingly magical process, Castorp grasps that the sanitarium, a place deliberately isolated from the flatland, can grant him an understanding of himself such as he would never have known, had he remained caught up in the dance of life down below. The detachment affords a view of the world that is sometimes telescopic, sometimes panoramic, sometimes microscopic.
So, as his teachers turn more and more to arguing with one another the superiority of their particular positions, Castorp seeks the truth of his existence through private reading, observing, and thinking. And what he comes increasingly to understand, is that learning, when it is carried on for its own sake, moves people farther and farther away from the world and the concerns of ordinary humanity. Yet it is to that everyday world, he recognizes eventually, that he must owe his allegiance. For Thomas Mann finds ways to let his hero see, sometimes shocking him harshly with the recognition, that he and all the others on the mountain owe their advantaged position to the labors of those who toil down there in the flatland. It is not enough, Castorp recognizes in a magic moment, to view life through the peepholes created by biology, chemistry, history, economics, psychology and all. He must accomplish a synthesis of those separate modes and then put his comprehensive understanding into the service of humanity.
That realization comes to Castorp in one of the most remarkable episodes in the novel, in a chapter called "Snow."
Until this moment Castorp has been overwhelmed by a chaos of information, blown this way and that by the strong winds of vigorous intellectual debate. He has lacked a center of belief about which to organize his understandings. He has had no compelling faith upon which to stand firm against efforts to overpower him with argument. Determined now to think his way through his confusion, he seeks utter solitude on the snow-covered heights above Davos, where he can be certain he will have nobody's company. Up there he soon finds himself caught in a violent blizzard and unable, despite his best efforts, to find his way. Sinking into the deep snow, surrounded by the elemental powers of nature gone mad, he lies at death's door.
And then there comes to him a dream, a vision of a sun-lit Mediterranean shore, a locale he is able to identify as the cradle of Western civilization. Even as he dreams, he recognizes that he is composing his vision out of the elements of his experience on the mountain. The synthesis of his dream-vision becomes the vehicle for his triumphant recognition that the vital forms of our civilization--social, political, artistic--came into being in response to the cruel destructiveness of death.
It is out of love for life, love for the human potential we glimpse in every child, that civilization has developed. And we best express our love for humankind, Castorp concludes, in the creating and recreating of those forms which support and enhance life. In that recognition, succinctly, is Mann's definition of the purposes of education.
That inspiring recognition rouses Castorp and he struggles up, out of the blanketing snow that threatens his little existence. Fully awake, he declares the central significance of his dream: It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only in the forms that love creates does life triumph over death and take on importance.
That faith Castorp exuberantly voices, but by the time he returns to the sanitarium the details of the dream have already begun to fade. It is as though Mann wished to say that Castorp's vision had been the product of a state not to be realized in daily living. It was a dream at the very edge of life, in an exalted state of simultaneous terror and reckless courage, born of the will to push to human limits in defiance of chaos.
What Castorp must now do--all that remains for him to do on the mountain, the action of the novel seems to say--is to find a way to translate the essential elements of his vision into a metaphor, a way of organizing all he has learned so that he may carry it with him always, in capsule form so to speak. He needs a symbol that will inspire him afresh whenever he faces death's agents--cynicism, nihilism, and barbarism--in the flatland.
So, in the next magic moment of the novel, we find Castorp standing before a new discovery: music, specifically music on phonograph records, an ingenious wedding of the forms of art and technology that Mann calls "the German soul brought up to date." Out of the host of musical selections the management has provided, Castorp chooses a half dozen pieces which have a special significance for him, making them the distillation of his life on the mountain. One record evokes a particular person; another a special mood; a third a crucial experience. But there is one record, a well-known ballad, which itself becomes the summation of the others, a magical representation of all that his dream revealed to him. The song is simple love given permanent beauty by death-denying form and it is simultaneously the expression of his deep feeling of belonging to both the mountain and the flatland. In that song Castorp finds realized the essential paradox of the magic mountain: that he has learned the closest affection for life at the greatest distance from it.
With Castorp having put Davos into his favorite song and made it portable, there is nothing left for him to learn or to dream upon the mountain. There is nobody to hold him there, no reason for him to remain. And yet he stays on. The mountain cannot show him a reason he should leave it. At this point magic seems to have no say (any more than it does at the end of Faust). It is life, rushing along down below, that finally calls him home.
His reason to go is the outbreak of World War I, for, as that explodes, Castorp recognizes that all he has learned to cherish in the name of life is threatened by the mad outburst of the elemental passions in mankind. All that he has come to celebrate in the simple word "goodness"--home, family, decency, love of beauty, and innocent happiness--seems about to be overrun, its fragile structures destroyed by tyrants and vandals. And now Castorp thinks on the words of the man who has been dearest to him among those who have tried to teach him: "Whoever is unable to offer his person, his arm, his blood, in the service of the ideal is unworthy of it."
So Castorp goes home to the service of life, back to the flatland where once again the warring legions rage: destroying churches, closing colleges, burning books, and smashing phonographs. We last see him in the uniform of his country's army, taking the place of his cousin, a professional soldier whom death claimed on the mountain. Castor takes the role of Pollux. Bullets fly and shells explode, the products of a perverted creativity, and with many of his companions Castorp falls into the mud. But, as once before in the snow, he refuses to lie there and let death claim him. With the song on his lips that he has brought from the mountain, he gets up and charges the enemy, in the name of hope for a better world, of faith in love that is stronger than death. I quote Thomas Mann for the last time: "Up he gets and staggers on, limping on his earthbound feet, all unconsciously singing."
With that we come to the end of Hans Castorp's story. Here his creator parts company with him, certain that, whatever befalls him, he will always fight for what Mann has chosen simply to call "goodness." There is in the end, The Magic Mountain says, something worth giving one's life for.
Mann has shown us the ultimate magic of the mountain: the transformation of the naive youth he calls "the still unwritten page" into the man his creator thinks a hero for his time. We have seen the processes of his education which have prepared him to be that hero, letting him become one who can carry into life all that he has learned and translate it into the service of his less fortunate fellows. He has become a man willing to give his life for the ideal. He has become Jefferson's educated citizen.
Thomas Jefferson and those pioneering educators who followed him in the creation of uniquely American colleges believed that liberal education would equip their graduates to combat successfully the cynicism, the nihilism, and the barbarism which would inevitably threaten a democracy. They believed the colleges would provide students with a vision which would inspire them to give their lives to those ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Their colleges would celebrate those values which sustain and enhance the lives of ordinary humanity, Castorp's "goodness." Students in those colleges, given the advantage of being distanced for a time from the demands of making a living, would understand their moral obligation to the society which afforded them that advantage. Having stood for a time apart from the dance of life, they would return to it knowing its larger patterns and movements, and thus able to lead their fellows through it.
Such was the magic mountain character of America's colleges in their beginnings. For many generations of students they provided vision and celebrated the best of American values. But in recent decades they have been overwhelmed by the consequences of an alien doctrine: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. At first the justification for the research-driven graduate school, this has become the ruling doctrine of higher education. It is the source of the self-centered behavior of our campuses and of the cynicism among our students. Our colleges must recapture the magic mountain metaphor, if they are not to be lost altogether, snowed under in the chaos of little interests, passionately argued.
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