The nonsensical arguing in The Magic Mountain is brilliant

coverSo, people call The Magic Mountain “a novel of ideas.” But they’d be hard-pressed to say what the ideas actually are, because when the characters argue, it doesn’t really make any sense half the time. Today, I read a chapter that highlighted this. At the end of maybe 10 or 15 pages of arguing about the differences between rational humanism and Christian mysticism, the book’s narratorial voice says:

“The Object,” cried one, the other: “The Ego!” “Art” and “critique” were bandied back and forth, then once more “nature” and “soul,” and as to which was the nobler, and concerning the “aristocratic problem.” But there was no order nor clarity, not even of a dualistic and militant kind. Things went not only by contraries, but also all higgledy-piggledy. The disputant not only contradicted each other, they contradicted themselves.

It’s wonderful. Any book can have characters argue about real positions and real philosophies, but that’s honestly a bit boring, because then you feel like you might as well just go out and read a book about those things. It takes a genius to construct weird half-sensical pseudophilosophies and have the characters argue about those. Because there is a sort of poetic order to the things they talk about.

In the fuzziness of his rationalism, Settembrini does exemplify the way that a whole lot of notions seem to go hand in hand even though there’s no real link between them, for instance, anarchism often tends to be weirdly aligned with a worship of technology which is also weirdly aligned with nationalism and they’re all, sometimes, weirdly aligned with a sort of aristocratic love of hero-dom, while still being weirdly aligned with democratic ideals. A bunch of things get mushed together not because there’s a rational connection between them, but because the same kind of person tends to be drawn to all of them. 

Also, the confusion does serve a novelistic purpose: it reminds us of how muddled-up and turned-around people tend to get when they argue. Generally literary arguments are such neat and tidy things. They’re like debating matches. People have positions, they stake out their ground, and they tussle. I’m reminded, for instance, of Portrait of Dorian Gray, where the elegant aesthete from the first chapter is able neatly shove off balance everyone who disagrees with him (about anything, really). But real arguments aren’t like that. There’s a heatedness to them that makes you start saying crazy shit.

That’s why it’s funny when the book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp begins to interject with some vapid, uncertain contribution. You want to read him as being stupider than the other arguers (which, perhaps, he is), but the real difference between them is that his absurdities aren’t as polished and delivered with as much conviction.

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