Hans Castorp’s “inner rot”

I take the phrase “inner rot” from a friend of mine, the one who recommended, wisely, that I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It is an apt phrase: there is something rotten, lethargic, about Castorp’s condition. Not the tuberculosis, which though within the bounds of the flesh is still external, but something even further inward, too deep to show on an x-ray. Not for nothing does the novel’s increasingly Settembrini-esque narrator describe Castorp’s sanatorium-bound existence as “hermetic.” He is sealed off from the world, never quite able to make contact with it. Something has unsuited him for the world and its industry, though no one can quite say what—ineffable rot.

And yet, it escapes all moralism. Settembrini and Naphta both try, to be sure, but their speeches slide off their target as if he were coated in oil. Oh, to be sure, a phrase here and an idea there will stick, but never the whole, never the intended point. He is immune. Moralism cannot save him, because his rottenness does not perceive itself as such. So it hears these moralistic judgments and transmutes them, until they have lost all of their original force, and taken on another. It is no accident that it is the outbreak of war that draws him back to the flatlands, war and nothing else. And is this salvation for him? Our narrator would like us to think so, but our narrator suffers from a certain rottenness of his own, that of the lightly mocking genius…


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