Sunday, December 6, 2009

Joseph de Maistre and The Magic Mountain

Trying to be clear about the meaning of the word 'modernity', or at any rate what I myself thought it meant, I set down the following remarks in the Introduction to my book on Shakespeare, Shakespearean Questions (2007):

"A realist, like Machiavelli, Shakespeare had no illusions about the future. It would be, he knew, a world that hardly bothered any longer to pretend that the state has morals as well as interests; a world in which one necessarily renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s—who leaves one in no doubt about what that is—while the question of what in this life belongs to God becomes harder and harder to answer; and ideas of a transcendent Good, or of Reason, disappear entirely. He could not have foreseen, though he might have guessed, that modernity would be characterized by a cacophony of different and sometimes incompatible gods, goods and rights; free markets, free elections, a free press; secular governments and societies; utilitarian politics, Machiavellian politicians, parliamentary democracies—and ‘authenticity’, a term which no longer refers, merely, to the provenance of certain documents or works of art but to a quality that the irresistible power of the corporate state and its innumerable institutions has forced us to demand and invent: what Marianne Moore calls “aplace for the genuine.” Shakespeare anticipated the concept of authenticity in Hamlet and Coriolanus, as he anticipated the concept of (modern) cynicism and embodied it in Iago, some hundreds of years before Europe caught up with him. Finally, we must include the deep premise of King Lear, which is also the premise of all scientific inquiry: nature is all.

"The world I have been referring to as ‘modern’ is the relatively safe and prosperous world that a fortunate few inhabit (temporarily perhaps) now: the modern, western or westernized world that the scientific revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment managed somehow or other to produce."

I knew when I wrote these words that I'd left out something huge, Germany, where Enlightenment ideas and assumptions were not generally acceptable in the 19th century, for obvious reasons: everyone knew what such ideas and assumptions had led to in France;
serious people in Germany throughout the 19th century—and well into the 20th—were more likely to be influenced by the totalitarian conservatism of Joseph de Maistre than by Voltaire or Rousseau. [See the essays on de Maistre that I posted in February, 2008.] It is easy to understand why this story is not well known: de Maistre, the arch-reactionary, is a scary thinker who puts the executioner and the inquisitor ahead of the legislatures and the courts; he despised democracy, science and "human rights;" he set his face against the entire liberal tradition, and he lost—or rather his cause, a totalitarian Church, lost; which doesn't quite explain why de Maistre has virtually disappeared from the history books, despite the fact that his ideas were still being taken seriously in Germany, between the wars: by the philosopher and theologian, Ernest Troelstch, for instance, and by a very great writer and novelist, Thomas Mann. One of most important characters, or voices, in his great novel—or allegory—The Magic Mountain, is based on de Maistre: it is the Jesuit, Naphta who speaks for and in the intransigent spirit of that radical and terrifying thinker. The other voice, with whom Naphta is locked in eternal combat, is that of the liberal humanist, Settembrini, who brilliantly but also somewhat predictably defends the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, and modernity, which for now at least seem to have won the day. It was not at all clear, in 1924, when Mann's novel was published, and it certainly would not have been clear to Mann himself, who or what—Naphta or Settembrini, de Maistre or America—would finally win out.

I call this novel an allegory and I make it sound like uninterrupted intellectual warfare of a kind that only academics or ideologues could possibly take pleasure in. It is richer and more various than that—though, admittedly, at 700 pages, too long. Nobody has time to read such long books, especially books written so long ago.

The events of the novel occur during the years preceding the great war. The hero of the book, Hans Castorp, is an intelligent young engineer from Hamburg. He comes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanitorium in Switzerland, but is himself diagnosed as tubercular and ends by staying there for seven years. These are, as it turns out, his formative years. His mind is formed by the arguments of Naphta and Settembrini who, also ill, are living nearby, and regard him as someone whose mind and soul are worth fighting over. Settembrini, at least, loves him like a son. Meanwhile he falls hopelessly in love with another patient, a married woman who eventually returns to Daghestan where she will, presumably, be destroyed by war and revolution. By 1914, his body cured—a rarity—his education complete, but lost and fit for nothing, with no idea what to do with himself, Mann sends him off to the trenches and leaves them there with a shrug; he too will in all probability, says the narrator, be destroyed.

This novel is about death, among other things: the death, above all, of European civilization as Mann had known it (he was born in 1875). For he knew that WW I was just the beginning, that the peace of 1918 was just an intermission.

I can see that I have not succeeded in showing why this is a book that everyone should read. I've actually read it twice.


  1. The Magic Mountain is a delight to read, filled with idea after idea, as well as with believable characters and a doomed romance. Mann, who enjoyed ideas and makes the reader enjoy them, is clearly a product of the Enlightenment. He knew that the world is real and that people are intelligent. And he knew that intelligence is needed to understand the complexity and beauty of ideas and of life.

  2. I've found your two posts on The Magic Mountain fascinating, and I agree with you that it is a novel everyone should read. I'm interested in this observation:

    The other voice, with whom Naphta is locked in eternal combat, is that of the liberal humanist, Settembrini, who brilliantly but also somewhat predictably defends the ideas and values of the Enlightenment, and modernity, which for now at least seem to have won the day. It was not at all clear, in 1924, when Mann's novel was published, and it certainly would not have been clear to Mann himself, who or what—Naphta or Settembrini, de Maistre or America—would finally win out.

    Mann described Settembrini as 'sometimes a mouthpiece for the author but by no means the author himself'. Thus, I think we can see that Mann's view was broadly modern and rationalist. As you say, Mann did not know, but seemed to sense what was to come in forthcoming years, and yet my sense of his writing is still that he is optimistic about modernity. Elsewhere, though, you write:

    Hume was right: reason is and can only be the slave of the passions. That's why people and their states fight wars.

    And I think this, too, is a valid point. Nonetheless, it seems to me that much modernist writing is far more pessimistic than Mann, and contemporary writing in particular seems to have lost the sense of hope that I find in him. I'd be interested to know if you agree with that.

    Anyway, thanks for a thought provoking piece.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I hope you won't be annoyed if I say that 'optimism' and 'pessimism' are pretty blunt instruments; and if we are going to talk about hope, we need to be clear about what we are hoping for.

    It occurs to me now, seeing my careless reference to Hume quoted back at me, that what he really said was that reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. That 'ought' is hard to understand. Why ought reason to be the slave of the passions?

    For almost 100 years, Joseph de Maistre had been the foremost
    philosopher of radical (or reactionary) Catholic conservatism—and
    later, fascism; Thomas Mann, brilliantly, turned him into a Marxist
    prophet of overwhelming dialectical and moral power. I don't see how anyone—outside England and America, perhaps— reading The Magic Mountain in the 1920s or 30s, could have thought that democracy or Settembrini's form of liberal humanism stood a chance. Was it Lord Acton who, in 1914, said "the lights are going out all over Europe and will not be lit again in our lifetime"?

  4. Many thanks for taking the time to write back. I greatly appreciate it.

    Yes, optimism and pessimism are rather blunt, I agree. I'm working my way through these issues and trying to come to some conclusions. I think I'm looking at it in a teleological sense, and seeing a palpable difference between the humanism of Mann and of others. For example, the endings of Demian and The Magic Mountain both result in the death in the First world War of the main protagonist, and yet my sense of Hesse's work is that it is far less optimistic than Mann's. Hesse's is infected by a gnostic distaste for our situation which I think Mann eschews. And so, while I agree with your point that TMM warns of the catastrophe about to overwhelm democracy, I think that Mann believed this would be a temporary crisis and that humanity would, finally overcome it. In that sense, the First and Second World wars merge into one another as the great crisis, and the defeat of Hitler indicates that the teleological vision of the liberal humanist can prevail.

    Reason as the slave of the passions: that is a fascinating observation. I'll have to go and look at the passage of Hume to investigate it further. I agree that Mann was concerned that humanity was falling into irrationality. He wrote:

    The twentieth century has in its first third taken up a position of reaction against classic rationalism and intellectualism. It has surrendered to admiration of the unconscious, to a glorification of instinct, which it thinks is overdue to life. And the bad instincts have accordingly been enjoying a heyday. We have seen instead of pessimistic conviction deliberate malice. Intellectual recognition of bitter truth turns into hatred and contempt for mind itself.

    This again links to the gnostic impulses I see in other writers. It is a topical point, because I see much of this debate being rehearsed again in contemporary writing and society. There is a sense of fin de siecle abroad in western culture at the moment, and that seems to be producing a reaction against rationalism. That is something which I think is dangerous, which is why I am intrigued by Hume's message, as you describe it, that "reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions". You are right, that "ought" is hard to understand.

    Thanks again for your fascinating comments. There's much to ponder here.

  5. Too many big words. Gnosticism was once a Christian heresy, the point of which I have forgotten; at least it meant something. I'll bet you can't explain briefly and simply what 'gnostic' means now—or 'rationalism' which dates from a time when there were philosophers who believed that Reason alone, independently of the dogmatic authority of the Church, could tell us how we ought to live. (I simplify.) If reason is merely reasoning, without normative power, 'rationalism' becomes ethically meaningless.

    Piers Lewis

  6. Gnosticism, for me, is the attempt to establish on Earth a perfect state through the acquisition and use of some special knowledge. It establishes an elite, those who have the knowledge, who are regarded as being perfect. Effectively, it’s trying to create a state of heaven on Earth. Marxism and fascism could be seen as gnostic – a visionary leader with the one true word, and if one follows him one will achieve greatness.

    Rationalism: yes, indeed, this is where I’m struggling. I think I am, as you suggest, taking too literal a view of rationalism. It is this issue of a normative power that I’m missing.

  7. Scratch my garbled question. You have given me a clear, brief account of modern—or perhaps I should say 20th century— gnosticism, and I see how it connects or might be thought to connect with that ancient heresy. You sound as if you think the world, or parts of it, might still be receptive to someone who brings the one true word. Perhaps, but not soon; the world will long remember the agonies of the 20th century. In any case, climate change will soon put an end to the idea that anyone, possessed of any special knowledge whatsoever, could possibly establish a heaven on earth, or even such reasonably liberal, democratic states as now exist. People in the next century will look back on this time as a golden age. Is that pessimistic enough for you?