On the Medical Aspects of The Magic Mountain
The publication of The Magic Mountain caused something of a stir, not only among writers, but also among doctors. Many of them took the novel to be an attack on medical conditions at Davos or at sanatoriums in general. Some went so far as to set up lists of the novel's key figures and match them with their alleged counterparts in real life. There were even people who threatened Mann with lawsuits and others who could not understand why the director of the sanatorium at Davos did not quit his position in disgust.
Yet there were also countless favorable comments from medical circles. One well-known physician thanked Mann for directing the attention of professional people to the extreme psychological pressures to which patients are exposed as a result of their time-consuming rest cures and the whole mode of life these involve. Another renowned doctor was so impressed by the author's firm grasp of the medical techniques and terminology relating to the treatment of tuberculosis that he devoted a lecture to the medical aspects of The Magic Mountain.
Whatever their view, the majority of doctors commenting on the book did not see that it was not about the problems of medicine, let alone about the people engaged in it. Mann's choice of setting in a sanatorium for the high-altitude treatment of tuberculosis as well as his detailed description of life there had led many to believe just that. The truth is that the author needed the sanatorium atmosphere as an appropriate framework within which to develop his diagnosis of European society as morally decadent. Davos is a symbol enabling Mann to present his case in the tangible terms of concentrated, physical decay.
The fact that tuberculosis was rampant during the first quarter of the twentieth century is another reason for the author's choice of this disease. Above all, however, there is a personal motivation: his wife's illness, her prolonged stay at Davos, and his visit there. At Davos, Mann actually met most of the people whom he — under different names, of course — recast in the roles of his Magic Mountain characters later on. The novel's excursions into the realm of parapsychology, very much in vogue in Munich after World War I, are also the result of Mann's own experience.
Mann's reaction to the comments on his alleged assaults on the medical profession was primarily one of dismay at the gigantic misunderstanding. In an open letter to the editor of the German Medical Weekly, he conceded that it is tempting to take the novel as but "a parallel to Upton Sinclair's epic of revelation about conditions in the Chicago stockyards." But it is difficult to see the resemblance of this novel to The Jungle. The latter was extremely popular in Germany, but it does not contain a fraction of the artistic complexity and philosophic dialectic of The Magic Mountain. The Jungle was intended as an attempt at social remedy; Mann's novel was not.
The Magic Mountain is a novel about the ideal of self-education in which Castorp represents the age-old resistance of youth to the attempts of adults to teach and guide. It is also a novel full of metaphysical ambitions in which a young man, through the experiences of death and disease, gradually gropes his way toward a humanistic ideal. It is, furthermore, a novel about growing political awareness without ever prescribing a fixed political view beyond that of the broad principles of democracy. Essentially, however, The Magic Mountain stands as its author's diagnosis of a decadent society caught in nationalistic selfishness. Whatever else the novel may be, its medical aspects remain secondary. They are a means, not an end. As Mann once worded it, "Medicine and music are the two neighboring spheres of my art."