The Magic Mountain and The Middle of the Journey: Analogous Tales


by Sam Bluefarb (November 2011)

Although Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) is best known for his criticism, his unfinished, posthumous novel, The Journey Abandoned (2008), sparked a renewed interest in him as novelist without prejudicing his greater importance as a critic. This reawakening led to a reappraisal of what had been his first—and only–novel, the underestimated The Middle of the Journey (1947).  For many years, I have ruminated over how that work might have been influenced by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), and how it resembled the earlier novel in a number of ways. Mann’s of course is the incomparably greater work; yet both are quintessentially representative of their times.

The settings of both novels are insular microcosms of the larger world beyond them—in Mann’s novel. a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps; in Trilling’s, a summer place in Connecticut. In The Magic Mountain, the sanatorium represents a cross-section of middle-class European society on the eve of the First World War, a Europe not yet at war but riven by rivalries that will bring on war. It is a society lulled by a false sense of security resulting from one hundred years of relative peace. But it is also a society whose complacent assumptions would be shattered not only by the war, but by the seismic upheavals of twentieth century thought–Einstein's theory of relativity, Planck's quantum mechanics, Freud’s psychoanalysis. These would have a more profound and lasting effect on Western thought and mores than the trauma of the war itself, tragic and catastrophic as that conflict was.

Despite their obvious differences—The Middle of the Journey is roughly one third the length of Mann's novel and of less complexity–they share significant similarities: the preoccupation with time; the struggle for the souls of two young men; “liberal” humanism versus illiberal fanaticism; disease, and the preoccupation with death, or the avoidance of its mention.

Yet in The Middle of the Journey death enters at several levels: John Laskell’s brush with it from scarlet fever; the death of Elizabeth Fuess, a young woman he had been in love with and was planning to marry; his need to talk about it with his friends the Crooms, even as they wish to avoid the topic; the death of Susan Caldwell, a young girl who dies of a heart attack, with implications beyond that event.

By contrast, death in The Magic Mountain is openly broached, if only to vociferously deny its indignity. Hans Castorp, Mann’s Bildungsroman hero, vehemently objects to the furtive way the dead in the sanatorium are disposed of: To spare the sensibilities of the patients, corpses are quickly spirited out and moved down to the village—”trundled” down on a sled in winter. Castorp protests: ’We live here. . .next door to dying people. . .not just that we all act as if it were no concern of ours, but we're even protected [from]. . .seeing it. And now they'll sneak the horseman–[an expired patient]–out while we're eating supper or breakfast. I find that immoral!’”* And death is a perennial, if not always an imminent visitor, presided over by the sanatorium’s head doctor, Hofrat Behrens, who seems more at home with teaching patients how to die (i.e., to quietly accept death) than how to cure them.

John Laskell, Trilling's Hans Castorp, encounters another form of denial when, at the invitation of his liberal friends, Nancy and Arthur Croom, he goes up to convalesce at their summer place. But whenever he wants to talk about the recent death of his sweetheart and his own brush with death, they either avoid the topic or dismiss it as irrelevant, or as Nancy would put it, “morbid.” To which Laskell testily responds: “[It's] as if you thought that death was politically reactionary.”*  Later, in a response of her own, newly pregnant Nancy lectures him:

“I do think you care more about the past than you do about the future, John. And that's your right, it's understandable. I do understand it. . . . But it makes you tolerant of things I can't be tolerant of. I don't think about them, I just feel them. . .here.” And she laid her hand upon herself and her developing child that was her guarantee [of the future.]”

But it is his girl’s death and his own brush with death that has brought about a significant inner change in Laskell and awakened in him the frisson of mortality: “His new perception of. . . time. . .struck him with very great force.” Since his illness, Laskell's sense of the past has come to dominate the present: time and mortality have converged.  But the Crooms will have none of it; they see the past and passing time not only as an irrelevancy—if they see it at all—they hardly understand its bearing on their own lives. Thinks Laskell: “[I]n their house. . .[they] had shut themselves off from [passing time] as snugly as they would have shut themselves off against a storm. . . .”

It is in those weeks of convalescence that Laskell's nostalgia for things past begins to grow. But whenever he wants to talk about his girl’s death, Nancy waves it aside; talk of illness and death gets on her nerves. She sees her friend as a prisoner of the past; but unlike her, Laskell (because of his recent grave illness) is now dramatically made aware of transience. In Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England (1883),* Emerson speaks of two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future. And Nancy, as we can see from her exchange with Laskell, has rejected the past and appropriately identified herself with the progressive future. However, by relegating him to the moribund, reactionary past, she effectively cuts him off from “the world of [activist] men.”

*          *          *

Early on, Hans Castorp will come to meet two patients–Herr Settembrini, liberal humanist, and Leo Naphta, revolutionary Jesuit–each engaged in a debate over whether Settembrini’s liberal world view is to be preferred over Naphta’s garbled mixture of absolutist communism and militant Jesuitry. It is a debate that literally turns out to be a life-and-death struggle, not only between the disputants, but for their young friend’s soul: “[Hans felt] trapped between them. . . .” But in spite of his seeming lack of interest in the debate, Castorp has taken a liking to Settembrini, though, ambiguously, he finds himself fascinated by the dialectical brilliance of Naphta, the “caustic little Jesuit.” But while the humanist may be the more likable, Naphta, in his ability to expose the shallowness of Settembrini’s liberal humanism, is the more formidable and–in an odd way–Talmudically dexterous.[1]

In the hallucinatory sub-chapter “Snow,” Hans Castorp has an epiphany that will give him a greater insight into himself and others, though it seems to have been a passing phase. Up in those magic heights, he wanders off and finds himself lost in a blinding snowstorm; yet it is through his lostness that he seems to undergo a clarity of vision that his normal, everyday perceptions have been impervious to. His senses may have been dulled by his near-frozen condition, but his mind–notwithstanding its hallucinatory spiralings (or possibly because of them)–takes on a clarity that he has never before so profoundly experienced. Lost in that snowstorm, he has experienced a sequence of vivid dreams—from the serene visions of sunny seas to the dark apparition of two half-naked witches tearing an infant apart. Yet if this was a dream (and one must take Mann’s word for it), it also verges on something akin to a mystical experience. For that experience leads to a revelation that slams into the barren intellectualism of his two friends. “'For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. And with that I shall awaken.'” (Italics in the original). On waking (or recovering) from his dream, he glances at his watch and is surprised to learn that what had seemed to last for hours, had in fact lasted only minutes! Time and the tricks it plays with perception is of course a central motif that runs through The Magic Mountain, even as it does, to a lesser degree, in The Middle of the Journey.

[His watch] was ticking. It had not stopped. . . . Amazing! Could it be that he had lain there in the snow for only ten minutes

or a little longer. . . . ?

On his arrival back at the Berghof, Castorp will have gained an insight—“awakened”–into a truth that transcends the sterile doctrines of Faustian Settembrini and Mephistophelean Naphta; he will have learned that their reliance on intellect, unmitigated by compassion and love, leads to the death of the soul. That larger truth has left enough of an effect on him for him to conclude that Settembrini’s liberal humanism and Naphta's communist absolutism are flawed. Each in his own way is a true believer: For the humanist, his faith lies in rational enlightenment and progress; for the Jesuit, his faith lies in a draconian communist theocracy. Further, unlike Settembrini, who is a gradualist, Naphta is a revolutionary, or as Castorp views him, “a revolutionary of reaction;” and each is a mirror-image of the other. Eventually, Castorp loses patience with their increasingly sterile debates and blows up: “[T]hey're both windbags.”

*          *          *

Just as Hans Castorp has his counterpart in John Laskell, so Naphta, has his in Trilling's Gifford Maxim (a character based on the late Whittaker Chambers). But in spite of their shared values—deep commitment to a transcendent Absolute, a sense of the tragic–there is a world of difference between them. Even as Maxim has deserted the communist movement and its ideology, Naphta has embraced it. Like his prototype Chambers, Maxim has severed his ties with the Communist Party and its underground; like Chambers, he, too, has “come in from the cold.” And although he is an American, there is something vaguely “foreign” about him: His Russian surname resonates with conspiratorial associations evocative of those emblematic Russian terrorist-revolutionaries: in history, Nechayev’s Nihilism and Bakunin’s Anarchism; in fiction, Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin and Joseph Conrad’s Verloc. In one degree or another, all are given to self-dramatization, just as Whittaker Chambers gave himself conspiratorial airs, according to those who knew him, Lionel Trilling perhaps being the most knowledgeable.

A side-note: After his break with communism, Chambers became a Quaker, with its Inner Light, its silent communal meditations, its pacifism; but it isn’t at all sure if Chambers ever consistently followed those practices. On the other hand, Gifford Maxim shows no signs of an incipient pacifism or move toward anything so formal as the Quaker “friendly persuasion.” Indeed, one senses that he would be anything but pacifistic if it came to a showdown between the Soviet Union and the free west. Unlike Naphta’s Jesuitry, Maxim is not drawn to a church, Catholic or any other. The only inkling we have of a progression toward some sort of formal doctrine is suggested near the end of the novel. “But his [Maxim’s] faith was still somewhat new. He had no doubt begun to formulate his religious beliefs at the same time that he was doing his ‘special and secret’ work.”

Early on, Philip Rahv* was to point out those idiosyncratic mannerisms Chambers affected in his underground days —in some ways, more than affectations alone, because of his very real fears of assassination. Maxim, too, takes on the precautions of the hunted man, and for much the same reasons.

The Maxims, the Naphtas, the Settembrinis, and the Crooms—these are types set in a mold, each a prisoner of his own dogma. On the other hand, Hans Castorp and his “double,” John Laskell, are not cast in such iron molds; their natures are more malleable, more receptive to a diversity of ideas. This is even more true of Castorp than of Laskell, since Castorp is more neutral at the outset. But while Laskell shares the leftist creed with the Crooms, he is not as committed as they. However, after Elizabeth’s death and his recovery from his illness, his view of the world has begun to change. He can no longer subscribe to the reductive simplicities of the movement; but neither can he follow Gifford Maxim into another authoritarian ideology, or faith.  In the end, it all leads to the death of his illusions.

*          *          *

Maxim and the Crooms have begun their political journeys from identical ideological positions (and passions); but Maxim, like his model Chambers, had come to the movement much earlier than the Crooms—so it’s implied–and was more seriously involved than they.  But while they play at revolution, Maxim is the hardened, more authentic revolutionary. After his break with the Party, he tells Laskell that he was a “professional.”  For him, results, not ideology, were what counted. The means were not “delicate” or “charming.” They were “brutal.”  

In the rupture between the Crooms and Maxim–Trilling speaks of Maxim as “Nancy’s teacher”—Trilling manages to get off a prophetic shot: “[Laskell] was able to see them (Maxim and the Crooms) both as equally, right was perhaps not the word, but valid or necessary. They contradicted each other, the administrator [Alger Hiss / Arthur Croom], and the revolutionary [Chambers / Maxim], and perhaps, eventually, one would kill the other.” As, indeed, Chambers eventually “killed” Hiss?

Even after Maxim has owned up to the brutish methods of the communist underground, the Crooms continue to be in denial; for them, the only explanation for his “strange” behavior—his break with the Party, his fear for his life–is that he must be insane.

On one occasion, a local handyman—Duck Caldwell–in a fit of anger, slaps his daughter. The girl has a weak heart, and the assault may have exacerbated that condition, since she dies not long after. Until then, Nancy had regarded Duck as a “real person.” Afterwards, in spite of her romantic view of him—”'Duck does have a kind of gamekeeper look.’”–she no longer wishes to have him around. Still, she is not yet ready to hold him responsible. “It's not his fault–it's not.'” And when Maxim challenges: “'Why isn't it his fault, Nancy?'” Arthur comes to her rescue. “'Nancy means. . .that social causes, environment. . .lack of education. . .all go to explain [an] individual's action.'”

If, for Nancy, Duck has been a loveable if irresponsible “gamekeeper,” by any charitable stretch, there is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between Lawrence’s Mellors and Trilling's Duck; while Mellors is a life force, Duck Caldwell is anti-life: he is not a loving spouse and partner to Emily Caldwell–he marries her after getting her pregnant (which may be his one saving grace!)–and he has nothing but contempt for the Crooms, who ironically idolize him. On the other hand, Mellors brings joy into Connie Chatterley's life, and rough-hewn though he is, he treats her with a tenderness and respect foreign to Duck. If until now Nancy has looked upon the man as another Mellors, she will later come to be repelled by him, even as she cannot find it in her heart to hold him responsible for his daughter's death: “It's not his fault.”

*          *         *

The idea of time is a major motif that runs through The Magic Mountain, not of time's passing by the clock as of something that plays tricks with one's sense of daily routine—a perception particularly endemic to those “taking the cure” up on the Berghof. On the other hand, in The Middle of the Journey time is a sub-theme; it acts as a catalyst that will bring about a new sense of reality to Laskell. For it is his illness that has made that reality—the realization of how close he came to dying—more intense. The recognition of swiftly passing time has given him an appreciation of life in the quotidian present as opposed to some distant progressive future.

*          *          *

Although Settembrini, the cosmopolitan humanist in Mann’s novel, possesses far more learning and sophistication than his American counterparts, the Crooms–set aside the gap in generations, eras, and issues–there is a startling similarity in their pristine visions, all the more incredible in his case, given his European sophistication; We expect more from Settembrini than we do from those innocent Americans. Notwithstanding his mocking sense of humor—something the Croom’s obviously lack—Settembrini shares their idealistic utopianism. Says the humanist: “[We would] eradicate human suffering by combating it with practical social work. . .whose ultimate goal is the perfect state.”[sic!] Paradoxically, the teasing “Satana,” the supreme ironist, utters that pronouncement without a trace of irony. Perhaps such fatuity—and perhaps Mann meant it to be as ludicrous as it sounds!–can be excused, given that it was enunciated as a serious proposition a few years before the arrival of that other “perfect state,” in 1917. Not for nothing did Mann consider The Magic Mountain an ironic work.

As for the differences between humanist Settembrini and his arch-rival, the Jesuitical Naphta, they are not merely philosophical; they become more personal, more deadly. Yet polarized as they are, each is a perverse symbiotic double of the other; and each needs the other to complete his respective symbolic function. Just as the dialectic cannot exist without its thesis-antithesis and resolution in a synthesis, that synthesis will come in the form of a duel between the two, and the ineluctable tragedy that follows. Thus dead intellectuality sees its resolution in the ultimate elenchus!

Of the two opponents, Leo Naphta is the more formidable; for like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, whom he most closely resembles, he can show how chimerical Settembrini's version of freedom is. But there is no redemptive savior to kiss Naphta's forehead as a returned Christ kisses the forehead of Dostoyesky's Grand Inquisitor.

In the end, while Maxim has made a valiant effort to seek Laskell's sympathy, if not his understanding, the younger man cannot bring himself to ally himself with someone whose friendship has attenuated beyond repair. He is still in limbo, caught between a renegade and those true believers, the Crooms; he can never again think of them as comrades in a common cause. If he and the Crooms remain ambiguous “friends,” polite formality will replace the earlier warmth and trust. One can guess that Laskell will eventually move away from both Gifford Maxim and the Crooms. But what a character does after a novel ends is idle speculation, though there are hints. Toward the end of The Middle of the Journey, when Maxim and Laskell part, each to go his own way, “Neither. . .offered to shake hands in farewell.” Similarly, so far as we know, Trilling and Chambers–classmates at Columbia, sharers of the Left Ideal, more than casual acquaintances, yet something less than friends–never had any further contact.                                      

*Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924, New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

*Lionel Trilling, The Middle of the Journey (New York: The Viking Press, 1947).

*American Transcendentalist Web.

[1] His father was a  shochet, slaughterer of animals in the Biblically prescribed (i.e., Kosher) manner.. A shochet must be an observant Jew of impeccably religious character and practice.

*Philip Rahv, “The Sense and Nonsense of Whittaker Chambers,” Partisan Review, 19, no. 4, 1952. 


Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.

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