Quotes & Commentary #33: Mann

Quotes & Commentary #33: Mann

“What good would politics be, if it didn’t give everyone the opportunity to make moral compromises?”

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Why do we have politics? Specifically, why do we have distinct political parties, and periodic elections in which these parties compete for power?

Competitions only exist when there is a zero-sum game. In a situation in which success benefits every party, no competition exists; only cooperation. Yet the reason that humans tend to congregate in groups—whether in families, tribes, villages, kingdoms, states, or nations—is that humans have much to gain from living with one another. That is, society is not a zero-sum game. Anyone with a friend attests to this fact.

Social groups persist because, most of the time, the personal interest of each member is aligned with that of every other. This is, of course, not to deny that there is exploitation and conflict within groups; it is only to assert that, broadly speaking, members have more to gain from staying within the group than from leaving it. For all the members of a durable group, there exists a sizeable overlap in their interest. (By “interest” I mean what is needed and desired.)

If we were to imagine a scenario in which there was no overlap in the interest of each member, then a group would never form, since cooperating would benefit nobody. In such a situation, we would expect to see a Hobbesian war of all against all, since every individual would benefit only at the expense of another.

If we were, on the contrary, to imagine a scenario in which the interest of each member overlapped completely, then this would be a true utopia. In such a state, no elections would be necessary because everyone would agree on what to do; no political parties would form because nobody would be argue; and coercion, exploitation, and conflict of every kind would be entirely absent.

Clearly, we are not living in either of these hypothetical worlds, but in a medium between these two extremes. Yet I think that we are much closer to the conflict-free utopia than the anarchical chaos; otherwise, stable nation-states would not exist.

Nearly all the citizens in a nation have much to gain from cooperation. By and large, what is good for my neighbors is good for me. When my neighbors are succeeding in the stock market and advancing in their careers, I probably am too. When they are living in peace and safety, so am I. When they are benefiting from clean streets, strong healthcare, good schools, safe products, and a fair justice system, I am reaping the same benefits. Since our interests are aligned, we have no reason to fight.

Political strife arises when interests are out of alignment. This can occur for a variety of reasons; but a major cause is demographics. Differences in sex, age, religion, race, class, career, and geography can translate into differences in interest; and differences in interest translate into political conflict. Any proposed policy that benefits men at the expense of women, city dwellers at the expense of rural farmers, the professional class at the expense of the working class, or any other combination imaginable, will almost necessarily lead to argument. This is so, because it is in these situations that the basic foundation of government—the overlap of interest—breaks down.

If these conflicts of interest were not addressed and instead allowed to grow, they could become existential threats to the state. Some mechanism is needed to resolve conflicts before they get out of hand; and this method must be deemed fair and legitimate by most of the group, or it won’t succeed. The modern solution is to have periodic elections in which political parties compete for power. This form of nonviolent competition is, by and large, perceived as fair; and the imprimatur of the majority lends legitimacy to the results.

Besides difference of interest, there is another reason that members of a state might come into political conflict: difference in preferred means, or methods, for achieving shared interests. That is, even if two individuals want the same thing, they might disagree about the best way to get it. Two Americans may want economic prosperity, for example, but disagree about which economic policy would most effectively promote this prosperity. They disagree about the how and not the what.

This type of conflict may be even more common than the former type. Luckily, these conflicts normally do not pose existential threats to the state. Even more luckily, unlike conflicts about goals, conflicts about means can be solved, or at least advanced, through rational argument. As our understanding of economic systems improves, for example, we can rule out bad strategies and develop better ones. Vigorous debate, scientific study, historical research, and the input of experts are all valuable resources when deciding questions of method.

But when a conflict is about goals and not means, when two people’s interests are opposed—when each of them will benefit at the expense of the other—then no amount of rational argument can resolve the conflict. Reason only helps us to determine the best way to achieve our interests; reason cannot dictate our interests.

Political conflict, therefore, primarily exists for two reasons: conflicts of interest, and disagreements about means of achieving shared interests. If this is true, then you should expect to see conflicts forming along certain, predictable lines. Conflicts of interest should form around demographic lines, since different demographic groups often benefit at the expense of one another. You would also expect to see different “philosophies of government”—strategies for accomplishing common goals—that concern themselves with questions of shared interest, such as healthcare, the economy, and national security.

It seems to me that this is exactly what we find when we look at the political situation. People divide themselves up into political parties along relatively sharp demographic lines, according to self-interest. Since no individual belongs to just a single demographic group, but to many at once, the way that this division plays out is quite complex. The policies that would benefit one group at the expense of another—like economic redistribution, protectionist tariffs, or anti-immigration policies—are usually the banners behind which the party’s supporters rally.

By contrast, goals that potentially benefit everyone, like economic prosperity, do not lead to this demographic splitting, but rather to differences in proposed strategies. These differences in strategy form the subject of truly substantial political debate (a rare thing). Yet because each party has different constituents, usually these different strategies would not benefit everyone equally, but rather one demographic group would benefit more than another. The conflicts of means and of ends, while separate in theory, are in practice hopelessly mixed up.

Seen this way, political conflict arises when there are conflicts of interest between major demographic groups, and the conflict is governed by the logic of self-interest. Political conflict is a competition like any other, a clash of self-interested parties using all the resources at their disposal to win the prize.

But if that is so, why is political discourse so intensely moralistic? That is a question for another day.

Review: The Magic Mountain

Review: The Magic Mountain

The Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.

In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.

I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.

The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.

Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.

The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.

When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.

Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.

What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.

Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.

Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.

But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.

Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.

Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.

When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.

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