Saturday, February 27, 2016

Philosophy on the Magic Mountain

Will humanists and theists be fighting forever?

Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is a somewhat dreary, rigidly routine-ized, and heavily allegorical sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. Its inmates while away their days waiting for (or not, as the case may be) clean bills of health from the ruler of this little state- the doctor, who performs occult operations to monitor their tuberculosis.

The hero of the book, Hans, comes to adopt the very static, passive, indeed patient, ethic of the place as a chosen way of life, drifting ever farther from normal conceptions of time, and from any regard for or social conenction with the "flatlands" below. The only fire in his story comes from a pair of philosophers who battle ceaselessly for Hans's mind (his soul is diverted by other temptations, such as a woman). Lodovico Settembrini is the die-hard humanist, atheist, and inheritor of the Italian enlightenment. Reason, and hatred of the old orders of aristocracy, church, and hierarchy are his watchwords. Later on in the book, his antagonist, Leo Naphta makes his appearance, a former Jesuit  and crypto-Marxist given to the most florid romanticism.

It is fair to say that Settembrini is given the best lines, and the most heroic action. Thomas Mann's sympathies are evident. But he portrays Naphta very thoughtfully, in perhaps the most interesting intellectual battle since the Brothers Karamazov.

"For even if the state's ungodliness were not branded on its brow, one need only note a simple historical fact- that its origins can be traced to the will of the people and not, as those of the Church, to divine decree- and thereby proves that the state is, if not exactly a manifestation of evil, then at least a manifestation of dire necessity and sinful shortcomings."
"The state, my dear sir-- "
"I know what you think of the nation-state. 'Above all else, love of the fatherland and a boundless hunger for glory.' That is Virgil. You amend him with a little liberal individualism, and call it democracy; but your fundamental relationship with the state remains completely untouched. you are apparently not disturbed that money is its soul. Or would you contest that? Antiquity was capitalist because it idolized the state. The Christian Middle Ages clearly saw that the secular state was inherently capitalist. 'Money will become our emperor'- that is a prophecy from the eleventh century. So you deny that it has literally come true, making life itself a veritable hell?"
...
"Can it be that your Manchester eyes have failed to notice the existence of a social theory that promises that victory of man over economics, a social theory whose principles and goals coincide exactly with those of the Christian City of God? The Church father called 'mine' and 'your' pernicious words, describe private property as usurpation and thievery. they repudiated private ownership, since, according to the divine law of nature, the earth is the common property of all mankind and therefore it fruits are likewise intended for the common use of all. They tought that only greed, itself a consequence of the Fall, defends the rights of property, since it also invented exclusive ownership. They were human enough, anticommercial enough, to call economic activity per se a danger to the salvation of the soul, that is, to humanity. They hated money and finance and called capitalist wealth fuel for the fires of hell. With all their hearts they despised the economic principle that declares price is the result of the workings of supply and demand, and they damned those who lived by the fluctuations oft he market as exploiters of their neighbors. Even more blasphemous in their eyes was another form of exploitation, that of time- the monstrosity of receiving a bonus, that is interest paid on money, from the simple passage of time and thereby perverting a universal divine institution, time itself, to one's own advantage and the detriment of others."
...
"Well, then- after having been buried for centuries, all these economic principles and standards have been resurrected in the modern movement of communism. The correspondence is perfect, down to the meaning of international labor's claim of dominion over international marketeering and speculation. In the modern confrontation with bourgeois-capitalist rot, the world's proletariat embodies the humanity and criteria of the City of God. ... Its work is terror, that the world may be saved and the ultimate goal of redemption be achieved: the children of God living in a world without classes or laws."
...
"'Form!', he said. And Naphta grandiloquently responded, 'Logos!'".
...
"In caustic words, Naphta forbade Herr Settembrini to call himself an 'individualist', because he denied the polarity of God and nature, and defined the question of humanity, the problem of man's interior conflict, as simply the conflict between the individual and the larger social units, and so was wedded to a bourgeois morality that was tied to life, understood life as an end to itself, saw its sole purpose in unheroic utility, and viewed all moral law as invested in the state; whereas he, Naphta- well aware that mankind's inner conflict was based instead on the contradiction between what the senses register and what transcends the senses- represented true, mystical individualism and was in actuality the genuine man of freedom and subjectivity."
...
"And at this Naphta begged them to forgive him for laughing out loud. The nihilism of the Church, had he said? The nihilism of the most realistic system for exercising authority in the history of the world? Could it be that Herr Settembrini had never been touched by that breath of human irony with which the Church continually made concessions to the world, to the flesh, cleverly acquiescing in order to disguise the ultimate consequences of the ascetic principle and letting the influence of the Spirit establish order by not opposing nature too sternly? And so he has never heard of the refined priestly concept of indulgence, under which even a sacrament was included- marriage, to be precise, which unlike the other sacraments was not a positive good, but a defense against sin, conferred solely to limit sensual desire and to instill moderation, so that the ascetic principle, the ideal of chastity, might be affirmed without defying the flesh with unpolitic severity?"


Etc... round and round they go, in a never-ending battle that remains just as active today between partisans of the transcendent Logos, and those of the embodied mind. Is a utilitarian, economically literate and politically moderate system sufficient for humanity, or is a romantic, mystical transcedence necessary? The truth of romantic & mystical propositions is quite beside the point. The Church was never a scientific institution. Religion cares about a truth behind the veneer of reality- however one calls it, it is a long-standing human fixation both to see ulterior conspiracies and realities behind all phenomena, and to demand the heightened drama and meaning from our lives and world that such fantastical realities generate.

It seems to be, in the end, a temperamental issue, between people with more imagination than sense, and others with more sense than imagination. Intuitions and artistic sensibilities point in one direction, and the facts of history and nature point in another. Whether we need both perspectives is a vexed question, but that we have them and may continue to have them perpetually is pretty clear.

The conflict between Settembrini and Naphtha is also, I think, infused with an allegorical relationship with World War 1 (spoiler alert!). Eventually, the combatants get so worked up that Naphta feels his honor impugned, and insists on a duel. Though Hans tries to mediate and diffuse tensions, seconds are chosen, arms are acquired, and the absurd ritual continues till the fateful morning comes. Settembrini has the first shot and fires into the air, declaring no intention to kill anyone. Naphta is so consumed by the conflict, his honor, and the romantic drama that he shoots himself in the head.

While one might view the rational side of the cataclysm in the system of alliances that were, not all the peaceful nations against the aggressor, as NATO is arranged now, but rather the Metternichian "balance" of the triple alliance vs the central powers, etc. But it was the romantic notions of a cleansing, dynamic, and manly militarism that were probably the more powerful motives toward that world war, and even more, the second.

***

Incidentally, Mann provides a Trumpian figure in this book as well, in the person of Pieter Peeperkorn. Given to great generosity and cryptic nonsensical utternances, Peeperkorn impresses everyone around him, especially Hans, who finds him charismatic and full of feeling, a welcome contrast to the ceaseless pedantry of Naphta and Settembrini. Indeed, Peeperkorn is irresistably magnetic, even if uncouth, incoherent, and generally oblivious, except when it comes to the deepest feelings, where he attacks mercilessly, or kindly, as his spirit moves.


  • Thomas Paine on the fraudulence of all religions.
  • DeLong on Piketty.
  • Euthanasia of the rentier ... some numbers.
  • House hunting while black...
  • Bill Black on Wall Street's shocked disbelief that millennials are infatuated with Bernie. How could they be so blind?
  • Let's pay a little attention to Rubio.
  • Trump and the stupid party / religion.
  • Lindsey Graham lets loose on the stupid party.
  • FOX and its clown posse.
  • Russia and the new cold war.
  • Afghanistan, heading downhill.
  • Is this who we are, lackeys of despots?

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