Here is Bret Stephens delivering a captivating speech.
The video runs for over 40 minutes, and deserves to be watched for every moment of it.
Jillian Becker comments on just one point:
“It is a cruel misunderstanding of youth to imagine that the heart of man’s desire is to be free. The heart of man’s desire is to obey.”
Bret Stephens quotes this aperçu from Thomas Mann’s huge novel The Magic Mountain. It is spoken by one of the characters, and Stephens believes it to be true.
Yes, many people – even most perhaps – like to be told what to do. They seek leaders, authorities who can and will instruct and direct them, and take responsibility for what then happens; who will give them purposes and causes and reasons, a meaning for their existence.
But it is also true that there is in human nature a perpetual, irrepressible longing for freedom, for self-determination; an impulse to shake off shackles and restrictions, to spread wings and fly.
The contradictions within human nature contend with each other in The Magic Mountain. It is the great novel of the twentieth century, and I endorse what Stephens says about its relevance to our time. A monumental achievement, it is one of the rare works of fiction to which the word “profound” can be – must be – applied.
The story is set in and around a Swiss alpine sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis.
The most important themes Thomas Mann deals with are raised in a debate, carried on day after day through many seasons, between two men who have come to the mountain to be cured of the disease: an Italian rationalist named Settembrini and a Jewish Jesuit (sic) named Naphta. They argue in the presence of the protagonist of the novel, a young man who comes in good health to visit a cousin undergoing the cure at the sanatorium, but stays too long and becomes infected. Settembrini and Naphta vie with each other to win him over, each to his own vision. Their argument is a dialogue of reason with faith, of humanism with nihilism, of science with mysticism, of candor with dissimulation, of restraint with voluptuousness, of classical skepticism with romantic passion, of Life with Death. The statement Stephens quotes is made by Naphta. Youth “feels its deepest pleasure in obedience”, he opines. He means obedience not to the benign orders of a just elder, but to a sinister force: “The order for the day is terror.” Finally, their altercations and rivalry lead them to a duel with pistols. Settembrini, unwilling to kill, fires into the air, upon which Naphta is convulsed with fury and turns his gun on himself. It is the completely logical, only possible, denouement.
Naphta is not, of course, the author’s mouthpiece, though Mann provides him with powerful arguments. Settembrini’s case, though a far better one, is not allowed to be indisputably right in every respect – idealism and reality never being in perfect harmony.
The book ends with the outbreak of the First World War. The reader is brought to ponder the idea that that vast slaughter was an outcome of a deep Settembrini-Naphta conflict in the heart of European man. A failure of reason and an infection of incurable depravity prepared a feast for Death.
A final note: Thomas Mann based Naphta on Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Communist, literary critic, theatre director, and Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived red republic set up in Hungary in 1919. In my own slight satirical novel L: A Novel History, I based my anti-hero Louis Zander also on Georg Lukács. My fascination with him was aroused in the first place by the character of Naphta. This post is linked to the Facebook page of L: A Novel History, where much more about the book may be found.