Time of the Magicians. Review by Joerge Dyrkton

A comment in light of Thomas Mann

Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians (2020) details the lives and thoughts of the four greatest German-speaking philosophers in the period following the First World War: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer and Heidegger. The subtext is the Weimar Republic culminating in the 1929 Davos debate high in the Swiss Alps, where Heidegger confronted Cassirer against a background of rising Nazism.

As Eilenberger acknowledges, the inspiration for the title of the book comes from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), where the narrative begins before the onset of war. There is much in the novel that relates to Eilenberger’s work. In The Magic Mountain a young man, Hans Castorp, visits his cousin Joachim for three weeks at a sanitorium in Davos only to be told that he, too, suffers from a mild form of tuberculosis. In the end Castorp stays for seven years, and while testing the crisp air he meets an array of different people representing various ways of thinking. The central conflict is between the character Settembrini, a “wind-bag” humanist who speaks of Enlightenment and democracy, and Naphta, who, as his noxious name suggests, is a medieval thinker advocating the mystical union of man’s spirit with death. More simply: they represent the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger.

Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), for example, is an attempt to reinforce neo-Kantianism along the lines of public reason. It served as the intellectual underpinnings to the Weimar Republic, never fully accepted by disillusioned Germans who were denied a seat at the Versailles negotiations in 1919. Enter Heidegger’s monumental Being and Time (1927) which speaks of “thrownness” in an unavoidable world of facticity and works to overcome Kant as well as the intellectual associations between the Copernican, Scientific – and French – Revolutions. Moreover, Heidegger’s anti-humanism can also be understood as an attempt at philosophical rejuvenation in the context of the grim chasm of 1914-18 which generated serious questions over the nature of existence.

Of course, the pathology of decline infuses life on the Magic Mountain, and Eilenberger’s account of the Davos debate is also rich in meaning, as Cassirer was bedridden in the days prior to his encounter with Heidegger. In fact, it was Cassirer’s wife who had to sit next to Heidegger in the dining room. The vigorous and healthy Heidegger sought to occupy himself on the Swiss slopes and spent many hours slaloming. One wonders if Heidegger ever thought of his own contest with Cassirer as an act of philosophical life imitating art in The Magic Mountain, given Mann’s Nobel Prize awarded in 1929.

Absent from Eilenberger’s account of the Davos debate is a central point in The Magic Mountain: Naphta and Settembrini represent the struggle in the German mind between East and West. As Hans Castorp puts it: “somewhere between the two intolerable positions, between bombastic humanism and analphabetic barbarism, there must lie something which one might personally call the human”. He also neglects the title of another work by Mann, Mario and the Magician (1929), which alludes to the rise of Hitler’s charisma and its dangerous potency. In other words, Mann as an author over time shifts his two legs – Settembrini and Naphta – in favour of the West, which indeed occurs in The Magic Mountain (and in his relationship with his own brother, Heinrich). Yet the central question remains: which of the four philosophers discussed by Eilenbeger can be considered a “magician”? The answer must undoubtedly be Heidegger in light of his pathetic turn toward the Nazis. But if one seeks magicians who were truer to themselves, then perhaps look instead to Wittgenstein, Benjamin and Cassirer.

-Joerge Dyrkton