The Magic Mountain By Thomas Mann Summary and Analysis Chapter 6

Now that Walpurgis Night is over and Clavdia Chauchat has departed, Castorp takes off the fool's cap she put on his head and returns to studying botany. Left with nothing but Clavdia's farewell present and the framed X-ray portrait of her upper body, he slowly moves away from her and further up the path toward self-awareness. Now the path will lead steeply upward and Castorp will reach its high point during the snow adventure. Settembrini, of course, is unable to see that it is not only in spite of, but because of, his involvement with Clavdia that Hans resumes his search for knowledge and insight. Settembrini's understanding of Castorp's education does not go beyond the cynical inquiry of how Hans enjoyed the "pomegranate" of sensuality, suggesting that one who has tasted of the fruit of perdition is irretrievably lost. More than ever, Settembrini now appears as the moralist and rationalist par excellence, one who dismisses disease as mere illusion, the result of a lack of reason. In this context, it is interesting to note that Settembrini never actually meets Clavdia, the embodiment of what he battles against. Just how obstinate Settembrini is becomes clear when he, convinced of his hopeless condition, says that he will move into the town of Davos to complete his work for the encyclopedia. The subject of his contribution, it will be remembered, amounts to an attempt to conquer disease and death by denying its essence.

If Settembrini represents the purely ethical approach to life, the equally intellectual Naphta, whom he introduces to the cousins, represents the purely esthetic one. Extremely intense and lost in their respective positions, these two adversaries charge the sanatorium atmosphere with sheer mental brilliance. There is one trait in Naphta that makes him radically different from Settembrini: As an intellectual, Naphta is doomed by his irrational mentality to fight his rationality. This renders him a living paradox which he will be driven to solve eventually by committing suicide.

Naphta exerts a greater influence on Hans Castorp than Settembrini because our hero, in a way the embodiment of both his educators, is sensitive enough to respond to this tension in the newcomer. It is that part of Naphta he cannot grasp which fascinates him most, thus proving Naphtha's point that humanity always tends to be drawn to the irrational elements rather than those that lend themselves to rational analysis.

All the endless discussions between Settembrini and Naphta deal with the question of whether or not a monistic principle prevails in the cosmos (as the Italian contends) or whether spirit and matter are engaged in eternal conflict as two autonomous forces (as the Spaniard claims). It is important to understand that estheticism is related, in Mann's view, with disease and, ultimately, death. This is also a part of Schopenhauer's ultra-romantic philosophy in a nutshell: the purely esthetic, sensual, and mystical mode of life as the great temptation toward death, the final consoler.

The discussions of Naphta and Settembrini cover a wide variety of subjects, beginning with politics and soon involving theology. Settembrini argues that natural law alone is the basis of democracy, whereupon Naphta replies that the concept of natural law is but a mutilation of divine law and that the so-called democratic ideal is merely the last attempt of the West to fend off the new order already building up in the East. When the Spaniard learns that Settembrini is a Freemason, he does not hesitate to call this organization a surrogate for the church and claims its success is not the result of the principles of enlightenment it cherishes but of its mystical rituals. At one point, when Castorp is overwhelmed by a beautiful fourteenth-century pieta, Naphta, to whom it belongs, says it is natural for Hans to be overwhelmed because only spiritual beauty reaches real intensity. Settembrini counters that he prefers Greco-Roman art with its balanced proportions to Gothic art with its emphasis on physical distortion in the interest of the spiritual. In reality, the Italian continues, Naphtha's exaggerated enjoyment of the pieta's expression of pain illustrates his desire for the experience of the purely physical; suffering always intensifies this experience, often to the point of a perverted sensuality. Naphtha's sympathy with disease even makes him argue that the sick people of the world would lose their status of priority in life and the healthy ones their best chance to gain salvation (through practicing charity) if there were no misery. Settembrini defends rationality to an absurd point, claiming to have healed insane people merely by looking at them "rationally." The relationship between esthetic appreciation, sensuality, and death is an integral part of Castorp's gradual spiritual growth, as was demonstrated most explicitly in his study of pathology and Behrens' sinister role in it.

From the pieta, the discussion of the two men switches to the Inquisition, whose cruelties Settembrini cites to make Castorp think twice about Naphtha's ideas on suffering. The Spaniard retorts, however, that even the worst tortures of the Inquisition were committed to save souls, something that cannot be said of the butchering of the French Aconites, who were convinced that when they killed a man they killed all of him — body and soul — for good. Naphta corners Settembrini by telling him that if he understood the essence of the Inquisition, he would know that rationalists of his (Settembrini's) kind instituted it.

More than ever before, Mann demonstrates his thorough familiarity with medieval philosophy and that of its forerunner, St. Augustine. The heading "Of the City of God" is a direct translation of St. Augustine's masterpiece, and "Deliverance by Evil" reflects his concept of Felix culpa (literally, "happy guilt"), whose essence is that deliverance can come only through sin and subsequent repentance. These ideas run through the entire novel, and although they are never wrapped in religious terminology, Mann justifies Castorp's disease as the prerequisite for his growing maturity. When Settembrini carries on about the merits of the rationalistic work ethic of the "West," Naphta comes back at him by explaining the teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century theologian. His symbology of humanity's progress toward perfection, which was a progression toward pure contemplation, was "Western" too; this is of course the main point Naphta wants to make.

The trouble is that neither Settembrini nor Naphta really understands Clairvaux. For Settembrini, the dawn of humanity begins with the Renaissance at best (really with the French Revolution). His mind is therefore incapable of comprehending the full meaning of a symbol: Negating any non-rational component within him, a symbol remains inaccessible to him. All he gets out of Clairvaux is a cheap distortion of the symbol of the "bed of repose," standing for communication with God. Here we have an aspect of Settembrini which is too easily overlooked: He, too, has strong touches of sensuality about him, but he does not grant them room. Like disease, he simply suppresses the urge for sex, and when its pressures become too strong, he transfers his reaction to the level of jokes. In this connection, the reader may recall some of his crude approaches to female patients at the very beginning, which caused Castorp to call him a windbag. Denying humanity's sensual level of existence, he is bound to be a prude. Naphta, on the other hand, reacts in the other extreme. Although well-versed in theology, he, too, is a victim of his extreme — and therefore wrong — position. He cannot derive anything but voluptuousness from the spirit dwelling in the body.

Naphta's voluptuousness again becomes apparent when he questions Settembrini as to whether monism does not bore him. Humanity, according to Naphta (whose name, incidentally, is also that of a flammable, volatile liquid) does not long for liberty, but for terror. Communism, of which early Christianity availed itself, may therefore get along very well with Catholicism, he argues, although the two are opposites in terms of their beliefs. His views, always preferring some form of error to compromise, are rooted in his conviction that death is an independent force. At Joachim's deathbed, he goes so far as to assert that virtue cannot be where there is reason, nor has religion anything to do with reason and morals because it has nothing to do with life.

What keeps drawing the two adversaries toward each other may also be expressed in terms of what they lack. Settembrini's deficiency is that he lacks an entire sphere of human existence — the intuitive or spiritual one; Naphta's flaw is that he lives only in this sphere. By carrying their deficiencies to absurd extremes, each of these men forfeits his own standpoint which, up to a point, makes sense. Mann stresses the futility of their intellectualism in the face of ultimate reality — a reality which kills both Settembrini and Naphta. Castorp is fascinated by their brilliance, but he has matured enough to realize the countless contradictions within each "system," much less between the "systems" and the men advocating them. He gradually arrives at a more harmonious view of the world. When Joachim insists they did not come to Davos to get wiser, but healthier, Hans reminds him that these inconsistencies are only superficial ones and that they ought to be reconciled. "Dividing the world up into two hostile camps," Castorp chides his cousin, "is a grievous error, most reprehensible."

As implied above, Naphta's views are not all wrong, as, indeed, Settembrini's are not all wrong. What the Spaniard propagates is wrong only in that it is carried to self-defeating extremes. Suffering and disease may indeed intensify experience beyond that which is accessible to the "healthy" and "normal." The diseased organism, as Castorp's case illustrates, may be more restless and therefore more eager to learn; more sensitive and therefore more capable of learning; closer to physical dissolution and therefore more "spiritualized." Almost by necessity, the superior human being is in some way deficient or, expressed differently, diseased. This is why perfectly balanced or "normal" people tend to be average people; it is also the reason they do not come to grief as easily as do sensitive ones. They take, as does Joachim, the "direct" path to life.

Naphta's failure does not consist in preaching these basically true aspects of life but in raising them to the position of exclusiveness. There is little doubt, for instance, that the vast majority of people really need some kind of authority — more, certainly, than Settembrini thinks, who judges people by his own demand for freedom. Freedom, however, is no absolute good, nor is anything else if elevated to exclusiveness. Although Naphta is right in principle, he fails here because he winds up advocating outright terror. Similarly, the discrepancy between his justified reply to Settembrini — that it is naive to judge the Inquisition by a modern-day standpoint — and his reactionary defense of medieval practices in today's church is frightening. It is both absurd and dangerous to propagate these practices in a time that has long since given up the theological prerequisites for them. (To understand the Inquisition, we must understand its underlying belief that the soul's salvation presupposes the death of the guilty body.)

Thus, Mann takes sides neither with Settembrini nor with Naphta but remains eager to advocate the ideal of aloofness from all extremes. As a result, his approach is essentially ironic. Irony keeps him from the danger of seeing somebody or something only from a certain angle and only at a given moment. Mann is a great believer in the elusive quality of reality, and he prefers to depict its myriad, scintillating moods rather than supply a system of neat little tags.

Hereditary and environmental factors, which Mann emphasizes as most instrumental in forming man, enhance this irony. Their discussion is resumed here at precisely the points where Naphta is about to drive home an idea to Settembrini or Castorp. It immediately reduces Naphta to the level of a product of his heritage: his Jewish ancestors, the cruel customs of his native Poland, and the accident that led him to Catholicism. The Spanish and the "Eastern" characteristics of Mann's ethnic "system" are accountable for Naphta's irrationality, cruelty, and sympathy with disease and death.

We have seen that each of the novel's characters is described in terms of another one, and often in terms of its opposite. One of these sets of characters is Hans Castorp and his cousin Joachim Ziemssen. Now, more than ever before, we can measure Castorp's growing self-awareness (and confusion) by the increasingly violent reactions of Joachim here. Joachim responds to his cousin's growing interest in botany, for instance, by telling him he understands him less than ever before. If Castorp gets tired of the intellectual fireworks of his discussion partners, he nevertheless derives insights from them. This is not true of Joachim: All he remembers of these discussions is Naphta's Jewish nose. Typical of a mind that judges by "racial" characteristics (essentially different, it must be stressed, from Mann's ideas on ethnically conditioned modes of behavior), Joachim refuses to think because thinking only confuses matters. Again Mann's irony forbids him to side with Castorp against his cousin. The purely intellectual approach to life is quickly shown to be inadequate and, using the farcical suicide later on, even as self-destructive.

The situation between the cousins climaxes when Castorp explains to Joachim that the sudden, unusual change in weather is merely the outward sign of the unusual state of affairs on the magic mountain. Joachim's impatience with Hans erupts because the latter has matured enough to accept this change. (Once upon a time, the reader will recall, our hero was utterly confused by the unusual climate.) Joachim makes plans to leave, demanding that Behrens let him return to the army; because he is a military man to the core, he departs. Before Joachim leaves, however, he implores Hans to follow him while there is still time. He even calls Hans by his first name. (Settembrini, too, will call him by his first name at the outbreak of the war.) Hans does get Behrens' permission to leave but then refuses to go.

Irony plays an important role in Joachim's life. He, who has literally lived for the day he would be permitted to return to the world of law and order, is forced to give it up again because of his failing health; and, to make things worse, he has to return to the sanatorium just when the maneuvers, a symbol of strict obedience to authority, are about to begin. Not only his serious attacks, but also his behavior — his overly reserved treatment of his girlfriend Marusja, for instance — indicate his death is near. Nothing can keep him, however, from formally applying for an extension of his leave. Never has he ceased to be a deeply committed man.

Eerily and symbolically enough, the beard growing around his dying face gives him the added likeness of an honorable warrior. It is true that Joachim has been sick all along, but he contracted his deathblow while he was with his unit "down below." He is a victim of fanatical call to duty, and "honor was the death of him," as the cynical Behrens sums it up. Appropriately, he is buried in a soldier's grave pierced by roots-the roots which never permitted him to become exposed to any flights of fancy. He is responsible for his own death, but contentment and harmony on his deathbed are the reward for his moral life. Joachim is, as our hero will explain to Clavdia, the prototype of the kind who travels the "regular, direct, and honest" path to life.

There are other confrontations besides that between the cousins which exemplify the degree to which Hans Castorp has become part and parcel of the sanatorium world. Uncle Tienappel's arrival and his sudden departure serve no other purpose than to show the futility of his attempt to retrieve our renegade hero. It also illustrates convincingly how James Tienappel, like every other sensitive newcomer, becomes inevitably embroiled in the lures of the magic mountain and would, if he stayed, be privileged (and condemned) to share his nephew's fate. In fact, this new ambassador of the flatlands goes through the same dizzying experiences Hans once went through. And the heavy tongue, the feverish head, and the protruding veins all seem, in Behrens' opinion, to indicate that he is sick enough to stay "up here." Also, the uncle's sexual excitement mounts, and, as was the case with Hans long ago, he shows it not only by approaching a sensually attractive lady patient, but by asking Behrens to describe the process of physical decomposition to him. The thematic leitmotif of the affinity between sensuality and an exaggerated concern for the body's origin and makeup is taken up again. As one more parallel sensation which we remember from Hans' earlier days, Uncle Tienappel's sense of time becomes vague and his self-assurance begins to dwindle. Hans Castorp fully understands his uncle's reactions as those of initial adjustment-even though he is beyond them now. New insights have slowly led him away from the deep sensuality of his days with Clavdia (the fact that she is away has, of course, helped him), and his concept of time has lost its haunting vagueness because he has become used to it. "We don't feel the cold" is the stereotype with which he counters his uncle's complaints, emphasizing the different standards of the mountain world and his loyalty to them.

Like "Walpurgis Night," the section entitled "Snow" warrants separate treatment. As far as Hans Castorp's educational process is concerned, the two sections are opposites. "Snow" brings Castorp's temporary attainment of his ideal whereas "Walpurgis Night" brought a temporary abandonment of an ideal. Both scenes are perfect battlefields for the forces of reason and sensuality in Castorp's life. And, as in "Walpurgis Night," Settembrini's warnings (the very words he shouted after Hans at the carnival) and Clavdia Chauchat's enticements (here in the form of the recurring mention of the pencil motif) play a leading role in this battle. That these warnings and enticements are the product of Castorp's overwrought imagination merely heightens their vividness and increases their effect. The present scene, with all its hallucinations and visions, superimposed upon each other, drawn together by leitmotifs, and whirling around in the emerging circular concept of time, reflects as a microcosm the scintillating macrocosm of the whole magic mountain world. Our hero's wanderings among the marvels of this world are condensed here in the hike away from the Berghof and his almost fatal entanglement with nature.

Fascinated by the phantasmagorical landscape of an unusually deep winter, Castorp decides to learn how to ski so that he can venture into higher altitudes. This climb exposes our hero to the danger of succumbing to the awesome power of undiluted nature. On several previous occasions, the climate has been called unusual, but here the aspects of extremity and incalculability prevail. Described as "blinding chaos" and "white dark," snow is the paramount symbol (as sand will be in Chapter 7) of confusion, the harbinger of Castorp's sympathy with death.

This sub-theme of snow symbolizing death finds its most explicit expression in Castorp's musings about snowflakes as too symmetrical and therefore opposed to the principle of life. He has outgrown his teacher Settembrini's notion of life as something regular, consistent, and purely rational. On the contrary, his studies of nature have shown him that these qualities are represented purest in inorganic nature. At the same time, he loves snow and enjoys it with an eminently defiant attitude. Hans is aware of his growing distance from the sanatorium, but he continues to climb and dismisses his own misgivings as "cowardice." His voracious appetite for primitive nature triggers the association with Clavdia Chauchat in him, thus demonstrating that his craving for the experience of nature is but another form of sensuality. He has never ceased to toy "with forces so great that to approach them nearly is destruction." Nowhere else is the close proximity of supreme insight and death so frighteningly revealed as during this almost fatal, yet indispensable, adventure. The blinding fury of the snowstorm, the vivid presence of Clavdia's greenish eyes touched off by the reflection of blank ice, the effects of a glass of wine — all these combine to drive him on. Having lost his bearings, he moves around in circles and loses his sense of time. This is Schopenhauer's philosophy about the inviting, soothing quality of death. Yet it is Schopenhauer about to be overcome by Goethe's life-asserting humanism in the ensuing vision.

The vision Hans Castorp has while standing up against a cabin is the most comprehensive and profound of his many intrusions into the mysteries of life and death. More lucidly than any other one, it affords him a glimpse into the dual nature of human existence and quickly leads him on toward his triumph — the transcendence of dualism. That it springs directly from his exhaustion is consistent with the idea, dominant throughout the novel, that disease and suffering are, in the last analysis, positive forces serving spiritual growth — provided that they are not granted independence apart from life.

Not white, gray, and black, but green, blue, and gold are the colors of the world of perfect harmony Hans sees. Glimpses of a luxuriant park where he watches the serene "children of the sun," mythical figures symbolizing the life-asserting forces, play among antique buildings and mingle in Castorp's mind with faint memories of happy holidays at the Mediterranean. A boy standing apart from his playmates and alternately smiling at Hans and the vision of harmony he shares with him, suddenly looks past him, his expression reflecting horror. Following the boy's eyes, Hans Castorp now sees a landscape of crumbling temples and a baby being dismembered by two witches, symbols of the dark forces slumbering in humanity. Desperately trying to escape the bloodthirsty vividness of his dream, Hans Castorp wakes up. Checking his watch, he realizes that all these visions of bliss and horror have been crammed into only a few minutes. Time lasts as long as we experience it.

Hans Castorp knows he has glimpsed into the future state of social bliss, but also into what Settembrini terms "cultural backsliding," which always lurks behind it. The scene is highly symbolic, the countless allusions to Mediterranean civilization (the Italian tenor, the mention of Naples, Sicily, and Greece) suggesting Mann's belief in the rational and peaceful quality of "Western" life and the "moss-covered" and "weathered" temples, the statue's "empty eye-sockets," and the gray witches suggesting the decayed world of political reaction. The sunny and shady sides of the temples represent the dual aspects of man, his reason and his irrationality.

What is new about this dream is the purely negative aspect of death and the disgust with which Castorp treats it. There is not a trace left of the temptation to surrender to it that he displayed only a few minutes ago. Pondering his vision, Castorp realizes that man dreams not only individually, but also communally; that he who knows the body, that is, life, also knows death; that all "interest in disease and death is only an expression of interest in life" — in short, that man is the master of opposites just as he is their inventor. He now sees the utter sterility of the intellectual efforts of Settembrini and Naphta, neither of whom will be able to solve anything without the spark of love. It cannot be man's task to fight life in the name of unbridled reason (Settembrini) or to throw humanity back into barbarism by advocating the abandonment of all reason (Naphta). Since abstract systems can only be born of man, he must be superior to them. Thus Castorp now vows to side with man, who alone is worth fighting for, and to let death have no "sovereignty over his thoughts."

Castorp, it seems, has accomplished his goal. Yet his supreme insight turns out to be little more than a fleeting moment's caper. We hear that "even that same evening it was no longer so clear as it had been at first." Is our hero's moment of triumph perhaps only the result of wishful thinking, part of his "dream of thoughts" that lingers after the actual vision is over? A number of questions arise here: Can Hans Castorp (Everyman) realistically be expected to develop his insights steadily and consistently without backsliding? Does he fail to live up to the ultimate goal, or his ultimate vision, because the task is superhuman?

Even if we exonerate Castorp from the charge of deliberate irresponsibility, the nagging feeling remains that he has failed and that his failure is somehow connected with his impotence in the face of decisions. Confronted with endless alternatives, he never really makes a choice; when he sometimes comes close to making one, he does not stick to it nor act it out. He conspicuously lacks the capability of putting his insights to use; his unwillingness to commit himself gradually turns into a tragic inability to do so.

Throughout his educational journey, Castorp is encouraged by his educators to devote his efforts to some cause. Yet Hans embraces the very opposite: aloofness and noninvolvement. This was, of course, Thomas Mann's intention. Castorp learns so well that he overshoots the limit. As a result, Hans is suspended between Yes and No. This was the author's ironical intention. It shows that every idea, including that of aloofness and noninvolvement, will inevitably work against humanity if carried to extremes.

Hans Castorp's education does not (cannot) proceed in a linear fashion. Being the medium in which all experience, including that of his journey of education, takes place, time can be no linear continuum. At the outset, it will be remembered, this aspect of time was the one Castorp believed in. Studying the orbits of stars and musing how millenniums ago the ancients engaged in the same pursuits, he now concludes that time must consist of circular motion. This view of time as the perennial recurrence of events, already exemplified by Castorp's wandering around in circles, prevails in this chapter. It leads to the realization that a succession of events (linear movement) is impossible in a circular medium.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Characterizing a literary work as a Bildungsroman means that




Quiz