Volume 73, Issue 1, Winter 2021
Modernism and the Turn Toward Religion
The Burial of the Dead in Mann’s The Magic Mountain
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, readers of modernist literature have often been reminded of the flu epidemic of 1918-1920. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) anatomizes pre-war bourgeois society as represented by the inmates of a tuberculosis asylum in Davos, Switzerland. The novel typifies a concern in modernist fiction with the proper rites for the burial of the dead, which I explored in an earlier study, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel. This essay argues that that Mann sees the novel, as a genre, as having a particular ability to represent the process of mourning because of its powers of ironic distancing: it can represent both the public ritual of the funeral service and the private thoughts of the mourner, which may or may not accord with official sentiment. More generally, the modern novel shows how we project our own desires and fears onto the dead.