The body appears in The Magic Mountain in two versions: as a specific, individualised, concrete body, and as a substrate, a fluid, elementary, rather vague prime matter. “Above”, in Davos, there is a lot of the body because illness makes you “even more physical”, turns you into “only the body”. The body can declare independence and live its own life.
From the first moments on the mountain, his own body surprises Castorp. He feels cold though his face is burning, has trouble breathing, his heartbeat accelerates. The presence of other guests in the sanatorium is also manifested at first by anonymous bodily signals and those are signals that have very little in common with articulated speech. “Giggles, gasps” can be heard from behind the wall, the act then turning “bestial”. From behind a door, in turn, coughing can be heard, which sounds as if “someone was stirring feebly in a terrible mush of decomposing organic material,” “as if you were looking right down inside and could see it all – the mucus and the slime.”
The body’s needs, appetites and rebellions need no words. They manifest themselves in other ways – through coughing, gasping, blushing, accelerated heartbeat. For many months, until the bizarre proposal on Walpurgis Night, Castorp doesn’t exchange a word with Madame Chauchat, doesn’t talk to her “in the manner appropriate for the educated West”. And yet there is very intense communication between them. Signals, looks, gestures or blushes, whether conscious or not, are telling enough. A spectacle in its own right develops out of this, a theatre show without words, based solely on bodily expression. A genuine virtuoso of body language is, of course, Mynheer Peeperkorn who mumbles, unable to formulate a single cohesive sentence, and yet makes a strong impression and attracts everybody’s attention.
The body is not limited to the outer form: the face, the figure, the forms of behaviour. It is topographically matched by depth, that which is inside, or underneath. When Castorp looks at his cousin, undressed for the auscultation, he sees a “slender, yellowish-brown, youthful torso”. Joachim is a “perfect adult male, an absolute Apollo Belvedere to a T”.
On another occasion, in the radiology room, Castorp is actually able to “peer into the void” of a man and he sees the body in another form, or rather without form: there are “darker spots and blackish ruffles” around the skeleton, something like a “sack, or maybe a deformed animal … like some sort of flapping jellyfish,” “phantomlike and hazy like a fog,” a “pale uncertain aura.” All the X-ray portraits – of Joachim, Castorp, Clavdia, other people – look similar.
The anatomical and physiological studies that Castorp will then devote himself to, let alone Settembrini’s and Naphta’s disputes, by no means result in the body becoming familiar. They only emphasise its ability to change, to constantly oscillate between a state of decomposition and a state of higher organisation, the stubborn vitality that cares nothing about the order of human life.
Thomas Mann’s novels are always populated by crowds of characters. The Magic Mountain is also full of them, but even the most marginal ones have been equipped with characteristic features, including physical ones. Adriatica von Mylendonk always has a sty on her eye, and Herr Gänser is “thick-lipped”. There is no doubt, however, that underneath, under what seems to be individual features, everyone is made of the same, soft and formable, matter. The body is a first-rate raw material.
translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak