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Forces of Ambiguity

Life, Death, Disease and Eros in Thomas Mann’s «Der Zauberberg»


Jessica Macauley

Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg (1913–1924) illustrates a change in the author’s conceptions of life, death, disease and Eros following World War I. Set in a Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium, the novel’s main protagonist, Hans Castorp, comes into contact with three pedagogic figures who each represent a different attitude towards these themes. The humanist Settembrini, for example, affirms life but is repulsed by Eros, disease and death; the Jesuit ascetic Naphta glorifies erotic suffering and death while denying life; and the coffee magnate Peeperkorn celebrates life and Eros – yet to a pathological extent.

This book relies on intertextual theory to examine the relation of these conceptions of life, death, disease and Eros within the novel to the thought of Novalis, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Exploring the dialogic clash of their conceptions together with the sociological implications of their work, this author investigates how the relationships between Der Zauberberg and the intertexts influence the reader’s interpretation of the nature of life, death, disease and Eros as well as the effect they have on the culture depicted in the novel.

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Chapter 6: Decadence and the erotic: The powers of immorality


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Decadence and the erotic: The powers of immorality

Culture versus nature: Morality, Eros and disease

The death drive discussed in Chapter 5 is linked to the degeneration of culture. This is clear from the following fragment by Nietzsche: ‘Eine Art Selbstzerstörung, der Instinkt der Erhaltung compromittirt … Der Schwache schadet sich selber … das ist der Typus der decadence …’ [A form of self-destruction, the preservation instinct compromised … The weakling damages himself … this is the decadent type …].1 Considering the association of the death drive with Eros,2 knowledge of Nietzsche’s text leads the reader to question whether Eros might also be linked to the disintegration of culture portrayed in Der Zauberberg. The present chapter seeks to answer this question by examining the themes of Eros, death, disease and culture in the novel, beginning with an investigation of Eros and its relation to morality.

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