RETURN TO THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN

By Brian Patrick Bolger

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The Montréal Review, April 2024

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Imagine if Hans Castorp, the trainee Ship Builder from Hamburg, the protagonist of Mann's portentous novel 'The Magic Mountain', was to go back there today. To the secluded death lingering sanatorium perched within red skies and white mountains like the Berghof in Berchtesgaden, in Elysium. For are not these white mountain dwellings from another world, a demi world, a place where the 'unthinkable' can be thought? For it is away from rationality, in the realm of the Gods, in swirling ice, perhaps in the unconscious, or dasein; it is where the world freezes, gives itself up to thought and contemplation. It is the final hiding place of the humanity away from the melting glaciers and storms below.

The setting for 'The Magic Mountain' was the Schatzalp Sanatorium near Davos, in the Swiss Alps. It was set amongst the cold clouds at the top of the mountain, a place so high 'they have to bring their bodies down on bobsleds, in the winter.'1 Here a thriving business in death encountered that 'fin de siècle' crisp atmosphere of Freud and Nietzsche confronting reason, where the wealthy tuberculosis patients could at least die in contemplation. It was then the clashing of Teutonic plates, the meeting of nineteenth century humanism with the dark arts of the irrational, the fire of Zarathustra as he comes down from the Mountains. It was the time pre-empting Weimar, when liberalism and rationality were in ruins. In the distance, not far over the mountain tops, the soft rumbling of war was approaching, and a new age of industrial, technological slaughter was about to commence.

Anyone who has spent time in hospital knows how one at first rebels against the institutionalisation, the way of being, the clock, the meals, the self examination. But eventually you succumb to the inevitability of it, the downright mundane, the course of tablets. In fact, the hospital becomes real being; it places a type of immediacy on you, whilst you have, at the same time, endless self examination, of regrets, of wasted time. What you realise then is that the circumspection is pointless; you are 'in the world' so to speak and have to deal with it. When you are ill you are 'in the world'; a separation from the remote world of forms or categories. It is a visceral world of magnified emotions, pettiness. Human rights, philanthropy and ivory towers crumble away and you are left clinging to nature, to the senses.

Our protagonist now, Hans Castorp, is working for a bioethics firm in Hamburg. He suffers with depression and was given a three week sojourn in the Schatzalp, recently undergone a renaissance having been saved from dereliction by an anonymous and wealthy IT guru from Geneva. Now its clients are the miserable rich, if there is such a thing. It was home however to a secret cohort of 'Philosophers' (as the brochure called them) which struck Hans as peculiar for a medical establishment. Perhaps a form of psychotherapy, but it wasn't. Because the analysts knew that self examination or regression was the antithesis of what was needed. Hans realised something was out of sorts then, and as the taxi climbed, winding and alone, into the white above, there was no signal on his phone. He remarked this to the driver, a trunk of a man in a brown crew neck sweater who smoked cigars all the way from the station, a one hundred kilometre jaunt, who assured him that it was 'the least of his worries'.

The taxi driver, a Mr Parsifal, carried his luggage into the Schatzalp. A gold plaque in the entrance showed the names of previous visitors; there was Goethe, Holderlin and Nietzsche, Wagner and Thomas Mann nonetheless. There were others mentioned in the brochure at Reception; Conrad, Oppenheimer, Madam Curie, Wittgenstein. There was something which attracted them all, a Holy Grail of sorts, for up here in the chilling serene blue air, there was a 'reckoning', an equation to work out, a Weimarian dilemma. You just couldn't rely on the world 'out there'.

The Schatzalp was run by an aristocratic Swiss couple, Harry Haller and his wife Hermione, who, due to financial 'difficulties', had been reduced to the trade of 'Hotelier'. It resembled those huge hulks of hotels sticking out like a big fat Galley ship, dotted about the Swiss Alps. They were reduced to this, even though they made a good business of it. The guests who came were intrigued by the 'Magic Mountain' book. Their resentment was borne in a tiresome (but ever so polite) look, particular to the aristos, when the affluent middle classes of Europe turned up. Unrefined, some wearing training shoes and shouting into mobiles. For them it was a 'wellness' holiday. They had guests asking (for the umpteenth time) if Hans Castorp would be residing there. They politely grimaced and Hermione would reply, 'You never know, anything can happen up here.'

So, what would they discuss now at the Magic Mountain? For it feels as if we are, to some extent, at another 'fin de siècle'. The twenty first century. Those themes of time, of nationality, of impending war, of being, haven’t gone away. They haven’t been 'resolved'. It's a new type of materialism, a new type of technology. AI is just an extension of technology of the industrial world. We are still stuck in the world of forms, of systems, of 'science'. We are at the late stage of Junger's conception of the 'Worker' epoch. 2 'The Worker' was the zeitgeist of the twentieth century; the mode of being was work. Yet it isn’t the mode of the agricultural world of the seasons, of harvests and sun time. It is the total mobilisation, the total atomisation of being. The worker mode was aligned with the 'market' and a sordid attempt to unite liberalism and democracy. The worker mode was evidenced in Capitalism, Fascism and Communism. It's underlying motif was materialism, lacking a political theology. We never accepted the Hegelian world of community, of spirit. Kant took the upper hand and reduced the world to a morality of the 'categorical imperative' and that's where morality lies now. A set of humanistic universal rules. A humanistic rechristening of Christianity. There was that sense of 'end of history' optimism post World War Two, with New Deals, welfare and schools. This was obliterated as early as Vietnam, when technology running amok was engulfed in napalm.

The highest stage of capitalism, Marx remarked, was imperialism (or 'globalisation', which sounds a bit more caring for sensitive liberals). Marx was correct in this but failed to determine that the real 'dominion' was played out over various forms of materialism: capital, five year plans, or fascist super states. There was no moral high ground for communism. Nietzsche was right in mocking all conceptions, especially English ones, of 'good and evil'. If Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx were to meet at the Schatzalp, they would all disagree no doubt. Some would need to apologise. Hegel and Marx for their 'end of history' nonsense. Kant for his imperatives and morality wrapped in Prussian Protestantism. Nietzsche would have nothing to apologise for, as he essentially got the future right, the 'fin de siècle' roar of a sea of nihilism, the murder of god, a tide which has never receded. But what a meeting that would be!

If the mode of the twentieth century was the 'worker', then the mode of the twenty first century will be 'War'. It is a movement from becoming to being; a realisation that ideas or Plato's forms or categories as the prototypes for societies are self evidently wrong, but still applied. From Flanders fields, to Dresden, to Hiroshima, Vietnam, to Gaza, the epoch is engulfed in the hate and flames of 'systems'. It is a rejection of the metaphysical world, a continuation of nihilism, the encapsulation of what Mircea Eliade deemed as a retreat from the sacred, for the profane. Yet what is misunderstood is that all secular ideas are residues of the sacred. Within liberalism, all ideas of equality, rights etc. are versions of a Christian ethic. In this liberalism and humanism, and the modern notions of cultural Marxism are locked into a very simplistic genre, appealing to good and evil, black and white, there is no nuance and a vulgarity of intellect. When this one aspect of the profane becomes dominant (i.e., scientific reason) then we have the 'apocalypse now' of modernity.

The twenty first century will be a retreat to the monasteries, the Magic Theatres of political theology, after the apocalypse; a search for what Patocka called the 'care for the soul'. Eliade knew a type of life without the sacred means that man becomes a machine, an archetype of technology:

'A purely rational man is an abstraction; he is never found in real life. Every human being is made up at once of his conscious activity and his irrational experiences.'3

Yet when Hans Castorp entered the Schatzalp Hotel, unstable on the wooden steps, he had no need to offer his name. An envelope was waiting for him. Inside was a Hermes Notebook, made from antique leather. Hans was taken aback for a moment, a kind of 'Deja vu', as he walked along timber panelled corridors. There were no prints or watercolours, no old photographs of the Hotel or Swiss peasants guiding horses up inclines. There were curious daguerreotype photos, turned jaundiced, pale faces inside the frames, some of them screaming. He stopped at one. A young woman, wrapped in hospital whites, stood at right angles to the camera, her demeanour one of foreboding, as if on the cusp of tragedy. It was as if she was looking from the twentieth century into the twenty first.

Hans Castorp opened the diary. There was a typed entry, in Helvetica, and a black and white picture of a large wooden timbered panel with iron rivets. The door seemed to be almost real, except that it was framed.

The entry read:

'Tonight at the Magic Theatre
For Madmen Only
Price of Admission: Your Mind!
The Twenty First Century..

NOT FOR EVERYBODY

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Brian Patrick Bolger has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in the US, the UK, Italy, Canada and Germany in magazines such as 'The American Spectator', 'Asian Affairs', 'Salisbury Review', 'Deliberatio', 'L'Indro Quotidiano Indipendente di Geopolitica',  ’The National Interest’, ‘GeoPolitical Monitor’, ‘Merion West’, ‘Voegelin View’, 'The Montreal Review', ’The European Conservative’, ‘Visegrad Insight’, The Hungarian Review' ,’The Salisbury Review’, ‘The Village’, ‘New English Review’,   ‘The Daily Globe’,  ‘American Thinker’, ‘The Internationalist’, ‘Philosophy News’. His new book Nowhere Fast: Democracy and Identity in the Twenty First Century is now published by Ethics International Press.

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1 Mann, T. (2023). The Magic Mountain. Must Have Books.

2 Jünger, E., Hemming, L. P., & Costea, B. (2017). The Worker: Dominion and Form. Northwestern University Press.

3 Eliade, M. (1968). The Sacred and the Profane: The nature of religion. Harvest.

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