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The Magic Mountain

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 05 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a3032
  1. Thomas Rütten
  1. thomas.rutten{at}

    The Magic Mountain tells the story of Hans Castorp, an “ordinary young man.” At the beginning of the novel Hans is on his way from Hamburg to Davos to visit his cousin, who is being treated for a lung complaint at one of the Swiss resort’s sanatoriums. As the tale unfolds, Hans’s intended three week visit turns into a seven year stint at the sanatorium, which ends only when Hans is catapulted into the Flanders battlefields at the outbreak of the first world war.

    To this day The Magic Mountain ranks among the best selling titles of its German publisher, Fischer Verlag, which recently reissued the novel in a new edition with a separate volume of detailed annotations.1 The swiftly commissioned English translation, published in 1927, as well as Mann’s considerable international reputation2 (he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1929), no doubt contributed to the book’s early worldwide success. Variously labelled a bildungsroman or a tuberculosis or sanatorium novel, and in terms of genre classified as an intellectual novel, it soon attracted doctors and patients as readers and, indeed, early critics. As recently as 1994 the novel occasioned in-depth exchanges between medical professionals and literary historians and gave rise to the establishment of the Davoser Literaturtage, an interdisciplinary conference held every two years in the novel’s original locale.

    The “compendium of speculations about the meaning of tuberculosis” (Susan Sontag) has proved a veritable treasure trove for a wide variety of historical medical discourses. The publication of Mann’s diaries in the late 1970s enabled scholars to further identify his medical sources and to retrace his meticulous study of various medical texts.3 Similarly Mann’s novel mobilises and reflects on contemporary discourses on tuberculosis,4 psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud), parapsychology, and pre-Freudian neurosis (neurasthenia, hysteria, epilepsy, railway disease).

    In addition, Mann had visited his wife, Katia, who had wrongly been given a diagnosis of tuberculosis, at the Davos Waldsanatorium in 1912; and Katia’s (now lost) letters not only kept her husband informed on her progress for months but also provided important real-life material on which Mann would eventually base almost all the characters featured in The Magic Mountain.5 The author also visited various clinics, operating theatres, and radiology laboratories, sought detailed advice from doctors, and consulted, again and again, the relevant entries in encyclopaedias.

    The result was a complex epic experiment, conducted under the hermetic conditions of a sanatorium environment and with Hans Castorp, “life’s problem child,” at its centre—an experiment analysing competing ideologies, ways of life, ethical codes, and, significantly, medical concepts, institutions, and mentalities. True to the motto “placet experiri” (“it pleases to experiment”), Mann used this formidable literary laboratory to describe, negotiate, and contest received notions of the body, mortality, masculinity, health, disease, and cure.

    Such “dense representation” may account for the fact that, in 1999, the executive partner of an internationally renowned drug company declared in a letter to me that The Magic Mountain was “compulsory reading” for his “office staff and the sales force in the field.” Similarly, the Spanish physician and medical historian Luis Montiel, who had first read the book as a teenager, recently acknowledged that it had directly shaped his “concept of medicine” and his “ideas about medical history and its importance in medical training.”6 What other medical novel could possibly claim to have occasioned such resounding responses?


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a3032


    • First published 1924

    • 1. Mann T. Der Zauberberg (ed M Neumann). Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 2002. The best available (though still somewhat flawed) translation into English is that by John E Woods, published in 1995. See also T Buck, “Mann in English,” in R Robertson (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002:235-48.

    • 2. For biographical information see H Kurzke, Thomas Mann: Life as a Work of Art, translated by L Willson, Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    • 3. These include Ludimar Hermann’s (1838-1914) textbook on physiology Lehrbuch der Physiologie, Oscar Hertwig’s (1849-1922) Allgemeine Biologie, and the two volume study Vom Tode by the Danish surgeon Oscar Thorwald Bloch (1847-1926). On Hermann see J H Schawalder, Der Physiologe Ludimar Hermann (1838-1914), Berlin, Zurich, Königsberg: Juris Druck, 1990. On Hertwig see Paul Weindling, Darwinism and Social Darwinism in Imperial Germany: The Contribution of the Cell Biologist Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922), Stuttgart: G Fischer (in association with Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz), 1991. Also on Hertwig and Hermann in The Magic Mountain see C Virchow, “Medizin und Biologie in Thomas Manns Roman Der Zauberberg: Über physiologische und biologische Quellen des Autors,” in T Sprecher (ed), Das “Zauberberg”-Symposium 1994 in Davos, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1995:117-71. On Bloch in The Magic Mountain see Thomas Rütten, “Sterben und Tod im Werk Thomas Manns,” in T Sprecher (ed), Lebenszauber und Todesmusik: Die Davoser Literaturtage 2002, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2004:23-5.

    • 4. See T Dormandy, The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis, London and Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1999. This is an excellent account, in which, however, The Magic Mountain is under-represented.

    • 5. Probably treading, to some extent at least, in Johannes Uhtenwoldt’s footsteps. See Unter Kranken und Gesunden in Davos: Die Geschichte eines Kur-Urlaubs, 1907 (self published); also R Pabst, “Der entzauberte Berg,” Focus 1 (30 December 2002):44-6.

    • 6. Montiel L, “‘Sie wären ein besserer Patient als der!’ Thomas Mann und die klinische Medizin,” in T Sprecher (ed) “Was war das Leben? Man wusste es nicht!” Thomas Mann und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen: Die Davoser Literaturtage 2006, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2008:51-67 (p 51).

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