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Life and Death 3

Climbing the Magic Mountain.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Experience and authority, active and reactive forces, life and death. How to come alive with this radical freedom we have? How to fill the temporal and spatial extensions of critical freedom?

How to live when authority loses its grip on us, slips away, and the light shines on us to make the next move?

How not to cave under the weight of nihilism, but instead rise up to the will to power, within and without?

What does it mean to be alive with the will to life? What does it mean to be dead to life, to lose resilience and the zest for life, to be dead?

The Challenge

In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain all of these themes and more come alive in the early 20th century, in a story set just before the total destruction of World War I: life and death, authority and experience, sickness and health, reason and faith, music and words, reason and passion, pacifism and terror, time and space, mind and body, humanism and romanticism, Apollo and Dionysus, love and death.

A close examination of this extraordinary work of fiction and we find striking resonances with Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of difference.

The Magic Mountain, Der Zauberberg, is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story of the protagonist, Hans Castorp: a young man’s quest for meaning and enchantment in life. Castorp is “life’s delicate child,” a young hero, like Parzival:

A poor fool, on a quest for the holy grail of what is real in life, what matters.

Castorp ascends the Swiss Alps to Davos, to arrive at a sanitorium for those afflicted with tuberculosis, a raging disease at the time. His purpose: to visit with his cousin Joachim for three weeks. He ends up staying for seven years, and as the story unfolds he is exposed to all of the themes mentioned above.

Mann’s underlying motivations for the story are made clear from the outset:

A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries. He may regard the general, impersonal foundations of his existence as definitely settled and taken for granted, and be as far from assuming a critical attitude towards them as our good Hans Castorp really was; yet it is quite conceivable that he may none the less be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral well-being. (The Magic Mountain)

The Quest

Mann is taking us on an adventure that will expose us to the ideas and beliefs of early 20th century Europe, and will challenge us to evaluate the opinions of a host of characters residing at the sanitorium who embody those ideals and beliefs.

The sanatorium in the sky is seemingly a refuge for curing the body of disease, but is in reality an asylum corralling all of the perspectives on life and society in Europe at the time, free and unfree, wild and tame; an asylum where the disease of thought is brought under the microscope.

Castorp climbs to the sanatorium to discover Apollo in a new light, and simultaneously descends to the heart of the mountain to uncover Dionysus in the depths of the netherworld.

Art, science and philosophy come together as signposts for the young hero who must decide what is life and what is death, and which has more allure:

What views and beliefs will lead to pure experience and freedom, or alternatively, to total authority and destruction.

Castorp is introduced to seven main characters in the sanatorium, but here we will focus on just four: Settembrini, a humanist extolling the virtues of rationality, reason, the Enlightenment, progress; Naphta, a Jew turned Catholic Jesuit Hegelian-Marxist aligned with spirit, faith, mysticism, radicalism, unreason and reaction; Chauchat, a Russian Venus who Castorp falls for, standing in for erotic temptation, lust, passion and love, the sensual in life; and Peeperkorn, Chauchat’s new lover, a larger than life personality who serves as the embodiment of the Dionysian principle.

The dynamic between each of these four characters and Castorp, as well as the similarities and differences they have with one another form the bulk of the story.


At its most basic level, the story is pedagogic, lining up pairs of characters that represent opposing views, and who are vying for Castorp’s following and approval.

The primary conflict plays out between Settembrini and Naphta, who engage in a direct dialectic that takes the form of a contest between Enlightenment rationalism and Hegelian onto-theology.

Settembrini considers himself a pantheist who believes in individualism and freedom, but also determinism and science. Settembrini considers himself a monist, but in fact lines up all of his views on dualistic terms:

Two principles, according to the Settembrinian cosmogony, were in perpetual conflict for possession of the world: force and justice, tyranny and freedom, superstition and knowledge; the law of permanence and the law of change… (The Magic Mountain)

Settembrini throughout pits reason against instinct, mind against body, spirit against nature, work against lethargy, Europe against Asia, the Enlightenment against the Middle Ages.

Imprisoned in duality, caught in a morality based on the belief in truth and objectivity, he is against the flesh, for it loosens the mind, and emanates from death.

While he holds the values of the Enlightenment close to his heart, Mann goes to great lengths to demonstrate that his commitment to them originate in the fear of their opposites.

The active forces of democracy, tolerance and pacifism are based in and energized by their opposite, the reactive forces of despotism, intolerance and terror.


Naphta, the Hegelian, views humanism and rationalism as a rejection of spirit and faith:

Faith is the vehicle of knowledge, intellect secondary. Your pure science is a myth. A belief, a given conception of the universe, an idea — ­in short, a will, is always in existence; which it is the task of the intellect to expound and demonstrate. (The Magic Mountain)

He embraces the Hegelian dialectic, the dualities of thesis and antithesis ultimately resolving in pure Spirit. There is a duality within, between mind and body, but it is resolved in pure Spirit which can only be summoned through faith.

Everything is degraded except Spirit. Naphta has a lust for death: he accepts the Dionysian as the passion of the body, but it must merge or rise to the purely spiritual, ideal, transcendent.

Naphta is a radical: his fascination with death leads to his embracing of terror as the facilitation of pure Spirit. He is a utopian Marxist Christian Jesuit who condones striking terror to heal the world, so as to open the way to the rise of the proletariat as the children of God.


Settembrini and Naphta are presented as opposing sides of a duality articulated along of the lines reason and humanism versus faith and terror, but they each are composed of dualities that are tenuously held together, at times their active beliefs slipping into the opposing reactive; at all times on the brink of self-destruction.

We see this in Naphta, when he retorts to Settembrini:

You will stick to it that Spirit implies frivolity. But it cannot help being what it is: dualistic. Dualism, antithesis, is the moving, the passionate, the dialectic principle of all Spirit. To see the world as cleft into two opposing poles — that is Spirit. All monism is tedious. (The Magic Mountain)

Naphta and Settembrini are both caught in a transcendence that creates a duality internal to their own views, whether that be the faith of Spirit over body, or the reason of mind over body. Neither can accept their own sensuality.


Chauchat is pure sensuality, passion; there is no duality here. She is of the body only and she represents life itself, life as stronger than death.

Chauchat is the pure flow of the sensuous.

Through her, Castorp comes to believe life, the organic, consciousness, is nothing more than a warmth of varying degrees; varying intensities, if you will.

In a contest in this life between passion and chastity, passion will always win the day. For passion and love repressed results only in sickness and death.

The monism of desire, passion and sensibility, restores us back to life; enables us to forget scientific time.

As Castorp falls for Chauchat, the hot cat, he forgets he is on a three week vacation in the Alps; he becomes the enchanted hero caught up in pure duration.


Peeperkorn, the Dionysian, asserts that there is a duty to feel, but his feelings are based in fear. Peeperkorn is Dionysus the irrational, which unbridled can only lead to death.

If Chauchat is Dionysus connected with a passion for life, then Peeperkorn is Dionysus with a fascination for death.

Passion accepted and harnessed in aid of creativity and productivity is the source of life.

Passion repressed, or transmuted into the purely romantic, leads to destruction.

The Choice

Settembrini / Naphta and Chauchat / Peeperkorn pit the mind of reason and faith against the body’s passion and irrationality.

And all four characters have secondary connections. Naphta and Peeperkorn delineate a spectrum from the irrational to the faithful, and the possibility of terror or death. Settembrini and Chauchat delineate a spectrum from passion to human reason, and the possibility of life or death. Settembrini the mind rejects Chauchat the body. Naphta the faithful accepts Chauchat, but only as inferior to Spirit.

We can imagine the four characters as four corners of a world chart. In the upper half, Settembrini and Naphta, transcendence, mind, dualism, static, sickness, identity. In the bottom half, Chauchat and Peeperkorn, immanence, body, monism, dynamic, health, difference.

On the left Chauchat and Settembrini, passion and reason, and the risk of transmutation of the Dionysian into the Apollonian. On the right, death and faith, and the risk of transmutation the romantic into terror and destruction. What then hangs in the balance in the center?

Castorp’s quest is to find what balance is possible in life and death, passion and reason, the romantic and classic, the Dionysian and Apollonian.

In Nietzschean and Deleuzian terms, will he be capable of finding the perspective that enables him to rise to the will to power, to harness overflowing desire in the name of creativity and productivity?

Or will he be pulled apart from the four corners of thought and belief, and destroyed?

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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