The Magic Mountain and the Flatlands

by Matthew Raley

The question I’m wrestling with these days is what to do about evangelical music. I have been arguing (here and here) that sacred music should edify people by bringing them together before God, but that evangelical music mostly doesn’t try. Instead, it merely pleases groups as segments of the consuming masses.

I divert today into what may seem an irrelevant story, but I plead your patience.

I think too much attention has been paid to recent demographic changes in America and their impact on evangelicalism. For these changes to have any context, we have to examine developments farther back in Western culture. Today, I’ll sketch some problems in modernism concerning human individuality, problems that shifted the foundations of art music generally, and specifically undermined sacred music’s mission to edify, as I’ll sketch next week.

Consider Thomas Mann’s character Hans Castorp, protagonist of The Magic Mountain.

Hans is from a bourgeois family in Hamburg. In the decade before World War I, he is about to take up his business career as a shipbuilder. On the cusp of this flatland life of science and profit, he journeys to Davos, high in the Swiss Alps, to visit his cousin being treated for a lung infection in a sanatorium. Hans stays there seven years, during which he has a spiritual and philosophical journey.

What does this fictional bourgeois individual feel about his place in the world?

Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Gifford Lectures (The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York: Charles Scribner’s Books, 1941), might have answered that Hans was enduring his own gradual destruction.

Many modernists saw the defining human ability as reason. Niebuhr called these the idealists, tracing their philosophical roots back to the classical anthropologies of Plato and Aristotle, among others. The individual human mind, through the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, could express its greatness by mastering nature.

Hans comes from this rationalist, dominating culture: the shipbuilder from the flatlands.

But other modernists reacted against this view, as well as against its social consequences. They saw relatedness to nature as the defining human characteristic, a view which Niebuhr called romanticist. The romanticists saw primitive social forms and physical drives as more authentic than the machine-like operations of reason. For the individual to express himself, he needed to reach back to this natural vitality.

Which is why Hans stays on the mountain seven years. There, he is interacting with himself, with the mythic power of the altitude, the snow, the erotic, the night sky. The flatlands were not enough.

Niebuhr said (p 21),

The conflict between rationalists and romanticists has become one of the most fateful issues of our day, with every possible religious and political implication. Modern man, in short, cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.

Hans is adrift in this confusion, listening to the perpetual debates of the other residents of Davos, who are a kind of microcosm of European social history and ideologies.

Niebuhr analyzed that history. The bourgeoisie rebelled against the feudal order during the Renaissance, and created the modern world through its relentless application of reason and science. “This bourgeois individual felt himself the master of his own destiny and was impatient with both the religious and the political solidarities which characterized both classical and medieval life.” (p 22)

Hans the shipbuilder ought to be on top of the world.

But by using his reason this way, said Niebuhr, the bourgeois individual destroyed his freedom. Niebuhr asserted that “he lost this individuality immediately after establishing it by his destruction of the medieval solidarities. He found himself the artificer of a technical civilization which creates more enslaving mechanical interdependencies and collectivities than anything known in the agrarian world.” (p 22)

By the 19th century, the bourgeois individual was longing to regain his freedom, and he tried through romanticism (pp 81-92). But early romanticism (e.g. Rousseau) dissolved him into a universal consciousness, and romantic nationalism (e.g. Schleiermacher) swept him into a racial collective consciousness, while romantic nihilism (e.g. Nietzsche) unbound him from every restraint and empowered him with cruelty to express his own will.

It is these debates that Hans spends his time listening to, and the reader waits in vain for some resolution that will transform the shipbuilder into a man of vitality.

Hans finally leaves the mountain and is swept into World War I. The reader’s last look at him is not as an individual, but as a soldier in a mass of others on a flatland industrialized battlefield.

In modern times, Niebuhr said, the idea of individuality is “a tragically abortive concept,” destroyed by both of the modern movements that tried to guard it, idealism and romanticism. We are still living with the impact of this failure, only further down the slope of degradation. The American consumer lacks any rationale for living as an individual in community. He wants to be himself. But his sense of community is so dessicated that he ends up looking and sounding like everyone else.

What this death of individuality did to music is the next part of the story.

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