Magic Mountain and Der Lindenbaum -- Part 1


There are a few literary passages which can have a profound effect on me, no matter how many times I read them. Two chapters out of Magic Mountain, are, for me, a wondrous marriage of myth, literature, philosophy and even social commentary. The Snow chapter and then its companion-piece, Fullness of Harmony. When I first read Magic Mountain, I focused on these chapters, trying to make sense of Hans' dream, his relationship with Schubert's Lindenbaum, and his exodus from the mountain. When I wrote about this recently, I thought that perhaps I had been wrong in my original writing. I now see that I had seen well at both times -- but that I had ignored the significant object itself!

Initially, I wrote that Hans is both a “prosaic soul” and a visionary personality. For seven years he exists under the dreamy enchantment of the mountain, content to experience anything and everything in the name of
placet experiri. His languid acceptance of ideas and dreamy excitement for knowledge are interrupted in a sort of interlude chapter by a transcendent vision that is acute and vigorous; it takes up his confused and tangled thoughts, sorts them, reveals the shining truth, and provides Hans with the answer he sought -- the answer to the meaning and purpose of life.

As Hans succumbs to the power of the snowstorm, he experiences a vision that connects him to the pure truth of the “great soul” and in that connection, Hans understands his responsibility to life and humanity. This final vision reveals to Hans the true state of the relationship between life, death, and love, and provides him with his satisfactory answer --
For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. Hans’ final task is to find a way to carry his answer with him when he leaves the mountain, a task he accomplishes through his relationship to the Lindenbaum song. This song acts as a “significant object;” it translates the universal revelation of Hans’ vision into an object of individual expression, and at that moment of translation, becomes the object through which Hans can overcome himself and show his true devotion to the universal. Hans leaves the mountain as a “prosaic soul,” a soul that has denied self-indulgence and embraced a courteous, respectful love for humanity.

That's what I first wrote -- when I first grappled with these passages -- but where I failed initially was not in my grand conclusions, but rather in my understanding of how Hans triumphs over himself, of how he understands love, life and death, and finally, I did not understand what it is that happens when Hans overcomes himself and rests backward on the universal -- for, as he says,

We don't form our dreams out of just our own souls. We dream anonymously and communally, though each in his own way. The great soul, of which we are just a little piece, dreams through us so to speak, dreams in our many different ways its own eternal, secret dream -- about its youth, its hope, its joy, its peace, and its bloody feast.

What I realized after reading The Waves was that Hans had seen to the bottom and kicked over the traces -- As one piece of the larger being, Hans dreamed on a level much removed from his own everyday world. He transcended his world of reality and found himself in a world of the universal, but it was not a painless movement; Hans came dangerously close to death in the snowstorm. The physical suffering he experienced as he was forced to submit to the elements was key in the development of his vision. He looked on the living, breathing park of trees from death’s very doorstep -- Hans cannot be expected to maintain his vision when he returns to his reality; it would be altogether too powerful to dwell on. To live with his vision constantly, he would have to be constantly at the edge of life, constantly struggling with the warring desires to submit in fear or to challenge in provocation. Hans has to respond to his vision as the sunny people do to their bloody feast: he “kicks over the traces” so that he might continue living, but he keeps his respect and reverence for the truth he has seen deep in his heart.

The struggle is how Hans' lesson can be remembered -- for how is it possible? I was thinking of Kierkegaard -- the difference between the hero and Abraham, also the absurd position of the man of faith who constantly triumphs over the self to rest in the absolute -- becoming both greater than himself and less than himself.

But this story is about more than one man's personal growth -- this is the story of the growth of man, writ large. The
Foreword makes this quite clear --

The extraordinary pastness of our story results from its having taken place before a certain turning point, on the far side of a rift that has cut deeply through our lives and consciousness. It takes place, or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place before the Great War, with whose beginning so many things began whose beginnings, it seems, have not yet ceased.

I ignored this in my past readings -- preferring to see this all as a story of a single dreamy little bourgeois man -- but this was wrong. Without understanding what this meant to Mann and his world, I would never have been able to understand the 'new word of love' that Hans has found at the end of the
Snow chapter.

Love stands opposed to death -- it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts. And form, too, comes only from love and goodness: form and the cultivated manners of man's fair state, of a reasonable, genial community -- out of silent regard for the bloody banquet.
And so now I hope to understand this better -- Hans' great question posed to the world -- to nature, humanity, life -- and its answer.