At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the bobsled was a sporting novelty, a winter season sensation and probably the fastest man-steered vehicle at the time. In Davos, a bobsled run opened at roughly the same time when Hans Castorp stayed there.
But Castorp’s bobsled-related emotions are of a completely different nature. Having just arrived, he learns that in the wintertime, when the roads are impassable, corpses from the highest of the sanatoriums are brought down in bobsleds. And not just brought down but “transported”, a term that introduces an additional accent of technical efficiency. Shocking. There is nothing left of the slow dignity of funeral ceremonies. A rushing sled, recently added to the list of sport disciplines, hardly fits with the seriousness of death. The means of transportation is at odds with the circumstances.
Unconventional means of transportation were often used to achieve an effect of uncanniness: witches’ brooms, flying carpets, the strange chariot in Ezekiel’s vision, Mr Twardowski on a rooster, not to mention the “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest”. In mediaeval representations, the grim reaper was often shown mounted on a fleet steed to make it clear no one would be able to escape him. In Bürger’s Lenora, a dead lover comes for his girl on horseback and we learn from the ballad (which spawned countless replicas, in the Polish language as well) that the “dead can ride apace.”
The Magic Mountain presents a case against what Mann called a “fatal enchantment”, the sources of which he saw in German Romanticism, in Novalis, Schopenhauer, Wagner. In fact, a sled is the perfect choice for the vehicle of the death-as-seductress. After all, death – which promises the ultimate peace and quiet of eternity instead of the chaos of life – is dressed in the novel in the costume of winter. And a beautiful costume at that:
… the panorama beyond the arches of the balcony was magnificent – snow-powdered forests, ravines filled with soft white, a glistening sunlit valley under a radiant blue sky. And of an evening, when the almost circular moon appeared, the world turned magical and wondrous – flickering crystals and glittering diamonds flung far and wide…. Its natural squalor hidden, the world seemed as if under the spell of icy purity, trapped inside a fantastic dream of fatal enchantment.
A regular sled wouldn’t be so out of place. But a bobsled? With its sporty look and amusing name?
On the other hand, there’s nothing as good as comedy to fight off the spells of romanticism. In his essay on Dostoevsky, Mann wrote straight out that fiction was better than journalism in dealing with the demonic because demonism could then speak from within the work in the guise of humour. In another place in the novel, Mann uses the effect in an even more brutal fashion. The following reply is offered to a question about how exactly the human body decomposes:
First of all, your guts burst … there you are, lying on your wood shavings and sawdust, and the gases, you see, swell you up, blow you up until you’re immense, the way frogs look when naughty boys blow air into them, until you’re a regular balloon, and then your abdomen can no longer take the pressure and bursts. Bang!
It’s as if Till Eulenspiegel, ushered secretly onto the stage, has spoken. In reaction to the information about the winter bobsled funerals, Castorp “burst into laughter, a violent, overpowering laugh that shook his chest and twisted his face” – as if he was using the mask of comedy and tragedy at the same time.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak