Notes on The Magic Mountain: “A Soldier, and Brave”

“I am glad to see that despite your enthusiasm for freedom and progress, you have some feeling for serious things.”

So says Naphta to Settembrini as they stand at the deathbed of the young man. What could be more serious than death? And what greater refutation of liberal optimism, than the fact that every life must end in death? For the moment, as they mourn the deceased, Settembrini, the progressive, lets Naphta, the reactionary, enjoy his morbid victory. There is nothing to say in the presence of death itself.

Just as in Hans Castorp’s vision: while the fact of death calls for kindness and reverence for one another – why not be kind, since life is short? – the actual sight of it, and experience of it, sends a shockwave through us, and we recoil in sorrow and despair just as Hans fled from the murderous witches in his vision of the inside of the temple.

If Hans really did see the truth in his vision, then Naphta has it precisely backwards. It is by taking death seriously that one learns reverence for one’s fellow human beings, and this reverence leads to our insistence that there are such things as human rights, and such rights must be respected. Settembrini, silent as his opponent scores his point, shows the reverence for the fact of death that must lie at the heart of any humanistic world view.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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