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The Holiness of the Heart’s Affections

Davos, Switzerland. Creative Commons.

This month, we at JCF are highlighting Joseph Campbell's Romance of the Grail, and I’m reminded once again of the very careful reader Campbell was, and his love for innovative literature. Medieval romances are certainly one example, and Modernist literature is another. Campbell recognized the genius of Thomas Mann, and Mann’s valorization of hard-won, often bitter experience and the role it played in the achievement of self-realization. In his fiction, Mann displays a gift for exploring the archetypal struggle humans have with “a factor unknown in itself;” or what C.G. Jung called God:

To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse. (Jung, C. G., et al. Letters, V.2: 1951-1961, p. 525. Princeton U.P., 1975.)

When Campbell wrote about a specific text or a body of literary work, be it mythology or modernist literature, he wrote about it because he loved it, because he found it to offer a valid paradigm for living, and was in some essential way, life affirming. And it isn’t hard to see how much he loved the Grail romances. Nor is it hard to see how much he loved Thomas Mann. He once remarked in a conversation after viewing the original Star Wars trilogy, that he “…thought real art had stopped with Picasso, Joyce, and Mann. Now I know it hasn’t.” (Larsen, Stephen and Robin. Joseph Campbell: a Fire in the Mind: the Authorized Biography) Mann’s novella, A Death in Venice, was on Campbell’s legendary Sarah Lawrence reading list, and he often mentioned The Magic Mountain in his lectures over the years.

In the early chapters of The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp’s Grail Adventure begins when he leaves the flatlands of his Hamburg home for a three-week vacation (which turns into seven years) to visit his consumptive cousin, Joachim, who currently resides in a rather luxurious sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, near Davos. Mann explicitly compared Castorp to Perceval, Gawain, or Galahad, searching for “knowledge, wisdom, consecration, the philosopher's stone, the aurum potabile, the elixir of life.” (Smith, Evans Lansing. The Arthurian Underworld of Modernism: Thomas Mann, Thomas Pynchon, Robertson Davies. Spring, Vol. 4, No. 2. 1990)

Dr. Krokowski, one of the treating physicians at the sanitarium, was also it seems, a psychoanalyst — or at least an enthusiast of psychoanalysis, and the first of his weekly lectures Hans attended was titled, “Love as a Force Conducive to Illness.” (Mann, 137) Dr. Krokowski insisted that repressed or “unsanctioned love reappeared in the form of illness! Any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action…” (ibid. 151) Correspondingly, in Romance of the Grail, Campbell notes that, “The pain of love is the sickness unto death that no doctors can cure.” (p. 101) He goes on to describe the indelible scene in which Tristan and Iseult decide to have a glass of wine together, but rather than wine, they unknowingly drink the love potion that was intended for Iseult and King Mark, her intended husband, so that they would be certain to be in love with one another. Iseult’s nurse tells Tristan, “…you have drunk your death!” He replies, “If by death you mean the pain of my love for Iseult, that’s my life.” (ibid. 102)

Meanwhile, back on the magic mountain, Hans surreptitiously takes his skis and goes out onto the mountain. He can see a strong winter storm approaching, but he defiantly ignores it and continues to push himself past his physical limits, and past his ability to orient on the slopes of the mountain. Soon the storm overcomes him, but fortunately, he finds shelter underneath the overhanging roof of a shed. Completely exhausted, he has a vision of a tropical idyll in which its residents are happy, beautiful, young, and innocent. But behind this scene is revealed another, darker, apparently pagan backdrop, in which two wizened, half-naked old women are dismembering and eating an infant. In her wonderfully insightful introduction to this edition of the text, A.S. Byatt remarks of this scene:

The lovely order is intimately connected to the mystery of the dismembered god […] the ‘courteous and charming’ people are intimately connected to ‘that horror.’ They are interdependent, health and horror [...] In the snow he sees that neither is right. What matters is his heart-beat, and love. (xii)

Reading Campbell and Mann, we are given to understand that all life rests upon a foundation of death; in fact, it’s that deathly foundation that makes life so sweet. Death inhabits us as much as life, it’s always at work in us and on us — unseen, unheard, often undetected; every dysphoric mood intones its looming presence. If there is tragedy related to death, it’s located in the inability to make peace with the necessity of dying. If we can say yes to death — especially our own — we realize, as Campbell so memorably put it, that “We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living)

Thanks for reading,


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