Stupid, Precise Crystallometry

The chapter “Snow” in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain can be seen as a concentrated version of many of Hans Castorp’s experiences at the sanatorium. Like the Magic Mountain itself, the snowy Alpine wilderness can be seen as existing outside of time and space, and invokes in Hans Castorp the sensations of dizziness and confusion which occur in an environment which denies the possibility of progress. The wild also offers all the temptations and risks associated with the pursuit of transcendence and Naphta’s void, and so Hans Castorp’s adventures play out the conflict between Settembrini and Naphta’s ideologies in the context of a direct and immediate experience of nature’s indifference.

Hans Castorp gets lost in the wilderness initially because it is a thrilling physical experience mirroring the vastness and incomprehensibility of his own intellectual struggles. The dangerous regions of the wild recall the “uncharted and dangerous regions” of the mind in which his discussions with Settembrini and Naphta take place, and so he experiences a feeling of sympathy for the elements. This sympathy drives him to explore the wilderness because he feels an affinity for the snowstorms and so feels ashamed merely watching them from a distance. Once he intimately experiences nature’s power, however, Hans Castorp realizes that his sympathy with the elements is not reciprocated.

Hans Castorp soon realizes that nature is heedless of his presence, and this leads him to feel sympathy for himself as a fragile organic being. He feels his heart “stirring, pounding from the climb—the cardiac muscle, whose animal shape and pulses he had observed.” The very physical feeling in his heart causes him to feel “a simple and reverent sympathy with his heart, his human heart, with its questions and riddles, beating all alone up here in the icy void.” He feels now the intensity and power of his heart as a physically beating thing, and as the seat of his consciousness striving for answers in the face of an indifferent nature. Just as he acknowledges in his research, that “[enhanced consciousness] turned against the organism that bore it, [and] strove to fathom and explain the very phenomenon that produced it [in] a hope-filled and hopeless striving,” he sees that man is nothing more than an ineluctably conscious being striving to comprehend itself in the midst of a world that does not care. Once Hans Castorp realizes that his chances of escaping the snowstorm alive are not good, it becomes clear that his battle against nature’s indifference is not merely a struggle for dignity, but rather a struggle for his real and fragile life.

Meanwhile, Hans Castorp’s explorations in the wild continue to imitate his more imprudent tendencies at the sanatorium. His desire to press “deeper and deeper into the wild silence” of the Alpine wilderness recalls his desire to explore the mystical and chaotic void of timelessness in the sanatorium. He hopes to extend his thrilling contact with nature for as long as possible, which recalls his sudden fear that he will have to leave the sanatorium before he is ready. In a similar gesture, Hans Castorp realizes that “he had secretly, and more or less purposely, been trying to lose his bearings all this time, to forget in what direction the valley and town lay—and he had been totally successful at it.” This realization recalls the way that the dizzying, exhilarating sensations which Hans Castorp has experienced from the beginning of his stay at the sanatorium have encouraged him to stay beyond his initially planned visit of two weeks, and lose himself in the timelessness of the sanatorium.

Hans Castorp’s adventures in “Snow” involve a further deconstruction of the concepts of time and space and consequently share many of the qualities of his metaphysical experiments at the sanatorium. The concept of space disintegrates as the few visual markers of the snow-covered landscape disappear in a “veil of blinding white,” which obstructs Hans Castorp’s view and makes it impossible for him to see. The environment in “Snow” shares a sense of “primal monotony” with the environment of the shore, where the narrator suggests that “time drowns in the unmeasured monotony of space. Where uniformity reigns, movement from point to point is no longer movement.” The concept of progress becomes as nonsensical in the snowy wilderness as it is in a world isolated from the passage of time. Hans Castorp’s attempts to make progress only lead him in futile circles, anticipating Naphta’s comment later in the text that progress is “like the proverbial patient who keeps shifting in bed, hoping each new position will bring relief,” and revealing that Settembrini’s notions of the supreme value of progress are out of place in this particular environment. Once Hans Castorp realizes that progress is impossible at this point, “a merciful self-narcosis sets in” and so he soon falls asleep and begins to dream.

Hans Castorp dreams of a paradise where people are filled with such great reverence and dignity that his heart opens “painfully, lovingly wide.” However, behind this scene and informing everyone’s lives is a terrible scene of witches dismembering and devouring a child. Hans Castorp interprets this dream as an indication of the only fitting way to confront death: he believes that the people in his dream community are only so “courteous and charming to one another… out of silent regard for that horror.” These people in the dream, like all the characters in the novel itself, are aware of the terrible spectacle of death but here in the dream they are neither overcome by fear, nor do they attempt to conceal or ignore the spectacle. Instead, their knowledge of death only leads them towards greater dignity and love for one another. Hans Castorp’s hypothermic dream marks a turning point in the novel, because it leads him through a new kind of thought process unmarked by his usual dilettantism and haphazard intellectual curiosity. His thoughts after the dream represent an entirely new direction for him because he takes a firm intellectual stance of his own, in which he first explicitly rejects certain aspects of the ideologies of Settembrini and Naphta and then posits his own ideal for humanity.

Following his dream, Hans Castorp recognizes the mutual underlying concerns which plague Settembrini and Naphta’s conflicted and uncompromising ideologies, and discovers that both men are too mired in the structural constraints of their respective ideologies to recognize death and human dignity as the problems which provide the foundation for their ideological concepts. As a result of his experiences in the snow, he has experimented in the flesh and in the spirit with progress and circularity, defiance and self-narcosis, and has very nearly succumbed to the seductive powers of death and its apparent powers of transcendence. Yet he is only able to engage in such experiments as a living human being. Hans Castorp thinks to himself: “death or life—illness or health—spirit or nature. Are those really contradictions? I ask you: Are those problems? No, they are not problems, and the question of their nobility is not a problem either.” The ostensibly contradictory positions of Settembrini and Naphta cannot be truly contradictory because they are all creations of the conscious human mind, and consequently are unified in that they can only occur through man.

After reconciling to himself the contradictions of Settembrini and Naphta’s ideologies, Hans Castorp proposes an ideal of his own. He concludes emphatically that “for the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts.” His advocacy of goodness and love in the face of death can be seen as a simple assertion of pride and defiance as an organic being. The narrator offers a description of love later in the text which integrates Hans Castorp’s advocacy of love with his earlier “simple and reverent sympathy” with his human heart. The narrator suggests that love is “always simply itself, both as a subtle affirmation of life and as the highest passion; love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay.” Hans Castorp’s sympathy for his heart is an expression of love for organic life, and this sense of love arises only out of the contrast between his own human heart and the real and physical threat of death surrounding it. Love is directed at that which is “destined to decay,” and so any expression of sympathy with organic life is also a defiant rejection of inorganic life, such as the “stupid, precise crystallometry” of the snowflakes which threaten to cover up Hans Castorp’s pounding heart.

Hans Castorp’s new and more thorough understanding of the relationship between organic and inorganic life finally allows him to tear himself from his dreaming sleep and thus rescue himself from the grasp of hypothermia. He is pleased to discover that his heart “beats not for purely physical reasons, the way fingernails grow on a corpse. It beats for human reasons and because [his] spirit is truly happy.” This realization offers a resolution to the problem of human corporeality which has plagued Settembrini and Naphta throughout the text. The propensity of the human form towards disintegration and decay cannot be problematic, because those are the qualities of organic life which distinguish it from the “absolute symmetry and icy regularity” of the snowflakes which are “anti-organic, hostile to life itself.” Although succumbing to self-narcosis and the indifference of the snowflakes seems to offer to Hans Castorp the possibility of transcending his soon-to-be decaying corporeal form, to wish away the irregularity and capacity for decay which marks organic life would be to deny its value in favor of the lifeless, soulless physicality of inorganic life. By choosing to return to the sanatorium rather than languishing in the snow, Hans Castorp expressly rejects the possibility of transcendence in favor of the immanent form of organic life.

At the end of the novel, the narrator recalls Hans Castorp’s forgotten revelatory dream: “there were moments when… you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death… will love someday rise up out of this, too?” The narrator leaves us with a question, similar in form to the transcendent aspirations of the two pedagogues, but which involves a more heightened consciousness of itself because it is founded upon an implicit recognition of the inevitability of the very corporeality which it aspires to transcend. Asking the question without any desire for resolution must be sufficient, because an affirmative answer would undermine the value of human life as it exists in our immanent reality.

By examining the errors of Settembrini and Naphta, it becomes apparent that the only way to affirm the value of both the transcendent and immanent aspects of human life is to recognize transcendence as an unresolved possibility. Both men are limited in their ideologies because both fear and thus attempt to disregard the immanent reality of the carnal body, a mistake which at times reduces their respective ideologies to a tangle of error and confusion. In contrast, Hans Castorp’s initial role as a dilettante and his subsequent experiences in “Snow” have allowed him to embrace an immanent vision of humanity through his sympathy with organic life, which offers an immediate and compelling reason to live without entirely precluding the possibility of transcendence.

Cross-posted at Embryos and Idiots


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