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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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Thomas Mann was one of the most influential German novelists of the twentieth century.1 Born in Lübeck on 6 June 1875, Mann grew up in an atypical household marked by a contrast between the upper middle-class German milieu of his merchant father and the artistic ideals of his Brazilian-German mother.2 This distinction was reflected throughout Thomas Mann’s ← xiii | xiv → literary career as a tension between the desire to be accepted by the public (‘Mich verlangt auch nach den Dummen’ [I want the stupid ones, too])3 and a sense of artistic exclusiveness.4 Mann’s aloofness from his social milieu arguably contributed to his developing critical interest in culture during the first quarter of the twentieth century.5 This sociological interest was inextricably linked to Mann’s reading of philosophy and psychology, and these three disciplines together profoundly influenced Mann’s world view, which changed following the experience of World War I from conservative support of the monarchy of Wilhelm II, glorification of war and of social hierarchies, to a focus on humanity, peace, democracy and the individual.6

Thomas Mann’s changing sociological, philosophical and psychological views are evident in his novel Der Zauberberg [The Magic Mountain], which he began in 1913 and finally published in November 1924. Initial work on the novel was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, when Mann turned his attention to the Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of an Unpolitical Man] (1915–18). As he explained in a letter of 25 March 1917: ‘Die Betrachtungen...

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