Magic Mountain on Goodreads — On Experiencing Mann’s novel

In this conversation with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, Karolina Watroba discusses her first book  “Mann’s Magic Mountain: World Literature and Closer Reading,” published with Oxford University Press. 

Dr Karolina Watroba — a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Modern Languages at All Souls College, University of Oxford, where she is also affiliated with the German Sub-Faculty and the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation Research Centre. She works on modern literature and film across eight European languages and beyond, with a focus on material in German, English, and Polish.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Let us start with the very basic but key question. Your book explores the diverse interpretations of, polemics with, and simply, the literary experiences with the classic piece of literature, “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann. Before we move to the content of your really great book, could you share with us your experience of reading Mann’s masterpiece for the first time? Some of your thoughts you have already revealed in an essay for The Point Magazine, but could you elaborate on it for our audience? When was the first time you read it, and what did this book mean to you? How did you relate to Mann’s other readers, where did you look to find out about the experiences of other readers?

Karolina Watroba: I first read “The Magic Mountain” the summer before starting university. At the time I did it out of a vague feeling that I somehow ought to read it if I’m about to start a degree in German literature at Oxford. In my essay for The Point that you kindly mentioned, I looked back at this first reading to contextualize it not only as a personal memory (or a personal anecdote), but more as a cultural experience that was conditioned or at least heavily influenced by the social and cultural context in which I grew up. 

This was an interesting exercise to do, after years of careful study to go back to that first experience and try to see it in a wider context. And the way I do it in the essay is partly by comparing my own memories to other reports or descriptions of reading experiences by other readers of Thomas Mann, ranging from essays by Susan Sontag, Alice Munro, or Carlos Fuentes to an online book club on Goodreads, to marginal notes in a copy owned by Thomas Mann’s friend (or actually a frenemy, because his comments are quite mean). So, all these readers in various ways contend with the immense erudition that “The Magic Mountain” is often seen to embody.

All these readers, explicitly or implicitly, ask themselves: why do people write books like this, and even more importantly, why do we read them, and how do we read them? What do we get out of them? What cultural functions do these huge, magisterial novels serve? 

One more thing I’d add here is that, interestingly, when I first read “The Magic Mountain” I didn’t actually have this instinct to discuss it with others straight away. Partly because I didn’t know many people who had actually read it, although I knew a lot of people who had spoken about feeling that they should read it at some point. But there is also a deeper reason. I’m often struck by how extremely bookish people, including many literary scholars, find it very challenging to talk about books to people who are not academics. As I thought about it at the beginning of this project, I came to realize that there really is a gap between all those amazing complex ideas, research and scholarship discussed in academic publications and specialist conferences, and those readers who are not part of academic institutions, but who still read these books. And arguably as scholars we devote so much energy to these books not least because they matter to people who are not us. This led me to think about how we could close this gap — I thought the first step is to actually listen to what these non-academic readers, as I call them, have to say about the books we study as academics, to see what we can learn from them and how to draw connections, and sometimes contrasts, between these different kinds of readings. 

We will discuss these sources later in our conversation indeed. Let us turn now to what you mentioned — the non-academic readership. Because your book, as I understand it, shares the conviction that academic literary criticism somehow precludes a more emotional engagement with a literary masterpiece. This was evident when you quoted Elif Batuman and her experience and impressions when reading Russian classical authors (we will come back to that later as well). Could you explain what kinds of insights are missed if we do not appreciate non-academic interpretations as valid or sophisticated enough? In other words, why should academics seriously engage with Goodreads reviews of “The Magic Mountain” or other accounts that are not “professional”? Why should we democratize academic literary studies and allow for a more emotional engagement with a book when interpreting it?

I think the answer to this question in some ways is easy and in other ways extremely difficult. The easy part to me is simply that people do have intense emotional responses to books. Sometimes they are positive, sometimes they are negative – even  a feeling of boredom can be an emotional experience that can be studied in its own right. That’s a huge part of why people write books and why people read books, why we tell stories and why stories play such a huge part in many — if not all — cultures around the world, across time, right until the present day, and probably into the future. If this phenomenon is so important, then obviously we should study it, we should take it seriously, rather than trying to ignore it. That to me is the easy part. 

The real question though, the really difficult question, is different. In fact, I would say there are two questions. One: some literary scholars would say —aren’t emotional reactions less valuable, or less important than other, more intellectual types of engagement with books? They would say: “oh, people do have those emotional reactions, but maybe they are not as valuable, so we should not engage with them because we should promote more important, more valuable ways of engaging with books”.

To this I would say: first of all, that intellectual and emotional responses are not separate.

Over the last few decades, researchers in various branches, including not just literature, but cognitive studies, psychology and so on have come to agree on this basic recognition that this sharp distinction between the emotional and the intellectual is not really helpful. But even is somebody is really wedded to this distinction, I would say that so far, literary scholarship has been extremely unbalanced in privileging certain kinds of responses to literature over others, to a degree that is so extreme that it definitely creates space for at least some research on those more emotional aspects of our responses to books. 

But then there is still the second, more difficult question. How can we study these emotional experiences that people have with books? And here some scholars would say that this can only be meaningfully done through scientific experiments. For example, when you have readers in laboratories, you can track their eye movements as they move across a page, or you can put them in an fRMI scanner. Or a slightly different approach, but still very wedded to scientific disciplines in social and natural sciences, would be to use sociological tools such as surveys. You define a big group of readers and make them read the same thing and ask specific questions about what they have read. Then you can try to map their responses to variables such as age and gender or levels of education. 

There is definitely a place for this kind of study and people are doing it with various books and in various ways, it’s a rapidly developing field, but I don’t think it’s the only way and it’s not the approach that I have chosen. I’m more interested in comparing readers across various historical contexts and in seeing how individuals make sense of books, or how they negotiate their aesthetic attachment to books in real life. Overall, I am less interested in a systematic overview of how a specific group of people reads a specific book, and more interested in identifying compelling case studies which can shed new light on books that as scholars we think we are fully familiar with. I’m interested in those moments of connection with readers very different from me — very far away from me in time or in space — who make me see a book, in this case “The Magic Mountain”, differently, and through this unlock new perspectives for me on broader cultural topics and dilemmas. This is not to say that other approaches are not legitimate, valid, or interesting. It’s just about what kind of knowledge I gravitate towards, also in other people’s research, and a kind of knowledge I think I am good at producing, and a kind of knowledge that I think we in the Humanities are well positioned to offer, and that perhaps other disciplines do not capture so well.

How much of a revolution was your book at Oxford? I mean, how much does it diverge from the standard teaching of literature at that university or at universities in general. Do you see yourself breaking a tradition of writing about literature? 

Well, I think the word revolution is too strong. But definitely I had a sense of doing something different to what I’d been taught. Still, I was building on the approaches that I had been taught as a student and frameworks offered to me by my supervisors at Oxford. But I was very tempted to do something that people haven’t done before, especially things that raised eyebrows at first. It can sometimes be a hard sell in a place like Oxford to explain to people why looking at Goodreads or Amazon reviews or reviews on people’s personal blogs is valid and can yield some interesting, valuable insights. 

But I still came to this project very much grounded in research methods that some would consider old-fashioned — I didn’t just discard them and started doing my own thing completely anew, I tried to integrate those different approaches. I kept thinking of the people who would read my book, and tried to make it speak both to people who already think it’s interesting to look at Goodreads and to people who maybe don’t even know what Goodreads is, because their experience of the literature universe is so different that they are not even aware of those developments online or they have never considered them important before. I tried to write by forging a bridge between people who might not share methodological convictions, but are all interested in the same object. So “The Magic Mountain” is really the glue that holds it all together. 

And so far, I’ve had very positive experiences with people responding to the book. I think I managed to make it attractive to people who are profoundly steeped in those canonical modernist classics —especially Thomas Mann — because they really appreciated the novelty of this approach and how it doesn’t leave the book itself behind, which I think had initially been a worry to some. But also I think I managed to make the book attractive to people who are interested in those new developments on the literary scene, such as readers on the Internet, and those unconventional sources, but maybe would not have applied these methods to a well-established classic like “The Magic Mountain”. 

In this context, let us talk about literary criticism. This is another broad area of discussion nowadays. What would you expect from literary criticism? Would you still draw a strict line between academic reviews and popular ones? I guess not, based on what you said just before. What kind of features would you like to have in a perfect book review? I ask that because in a book by Philippa Chong published two years ago, an argument was made that a lot of contemporary critics do not have a fixed position in magazines or newspapers. The market for book reviews is becoming more democratic. Do you think that this serious treatment of non-academic readers might actually revive literary criticism or open some new avenues?

First of all, it’s useful to distinguish between literary criticism and literary scholarship. Historically and institutionally these have often been seen as two separate fields, for better or worse. Literary scholarship is an academic discipline; the kind of writing that literary scholars produce is not necessarily aimed at the general public at all. Within this discipline you have a lot of different approaches: from material book history to how books reflect and co-create social realities, systematically describing aesthetic conventions and developments, and so on. 

That’s literary scholarship as traditionally understood, whereas literary criticism is much more associated with the literary market as it is at a given time. It’s about writing reviews or judging literary prizes. It tends to be more public facing. These are important differences, but I don’t think it’s that useful to see them as two entirely separate pursuits. There is always at least some overlap. You have academics reviewing books for literary magazines, for example. In an ideal world I’d like to see as much productive cross-fertilization between these two domains as possible. That’s also what I have tried to achieve in writing the book and now in promoting it. For example, literary criticism is one type of material that I look at in my book, but also writing an essay for The Point was a way to try and position the ideas from my book for a slightly different audience. 

You also touch on an aspect that I perhaps should have or could have highlighted more in the book, which is the precise boundary between academic and non-academic, or professional and non-professional readers. I do say in the book that this distinction is meant more as a provocation — because in fact, the boundaries between academic and non-academic readers are often very blurry. But what is a crucial part of this distinction is the institutional environment that surrounds it. In particular, given precarious employment conditions, many early career literary scholars who start out aiming to become professors, or at least are trained as though they were going to become professors, they gradually decide, or are forced, to leave academia entirely or partially.

To me, the most exciting thinkers on literature at the moment – like Elif Batuman who I write about a lot in the book and who you have already mentioned – they occupy precisely this space: connected to academia with its peculiar institutionalized reading practices in some ways, but disconnected or even excluded from it in other ways. 

And now, what does this mean. Does this mean democratization? Well, in some ways, yes, because more people are involved in this business of talking about books in various roles with different career paths. There is more variety, diversity of perspectives. But equally we could and maybe should focus more on the much less positive sides of this phenomenon, for example, the fact that universities often rely on the work of such para-academics, as some have called them, without proper acknowledgement or remuneration. Usually those who exist in this space and suffer the most from these conditions come fromso-called non-traditional academic backgrounds. It doesn’t sound so democratic if you put it that way. 

To sum up, I would say that drawing strict lines between various types of writing about books is not productive if we exclude certain voices and if we assume from the outset they are less interesting, less sophisticated, less valuable. In other ways, I think it is politically important to keep highlighting those real barriers that make it impossible for some people to exist in the academic space full time even though they would like to and are well qualified to do so. It’s quite a complex issue.

Now I wanted to ask you about closer reading that you mention in the title of your book. What does it actually mean to practice closer reading in the context of Mann’s masterpiece? What is this process? You mentioned already that alongside some sources that directly refer to “The Magic Mountain”, you engage with artefacts such as commercials, memoirs, anime movies, also soldiers’ letters. What was the selection process for your sources because it seems that it’s a mélange of different ideas. 

First, the practice of closer reading. I can’t explain it without starting with the much more familiar term, which is close reading. That’s a key skill in the toolkit of literary scholars, it consists in analyzing how meaning unfolds in literary texts on the level of a sentence or individual word choices. It encourages paying attention to style, rhetoric and detail, and it grounds your interpretation of a text in textual detail. This is what I spend a lot of my time teaching students. But sometimes this technique has been criticized as old-fashioned and lacking. One prominent alternative championed in recent years has been the so-called distant reading. Rather than focusing on these tiny textual details and starting there, it works with huge corpora, assessing large-scaled literary trends through data mining. Now, both can be done well or badly, but my point in the book is that these are not the only two options, and that distant reading is not the only possible solution to address the shortcomings or dissatisfaction with close reading. 

One particular dissatisfaction is that close reading can lead us to focus so closely on the text that we forget or ignore how texts are part of the world — how they work in the world, what readers do with them, what they do to their readers.

The danger for close reading is that in staying so close to the text, as we often tell our students to do, we might end up ignoring factors like the emotional closeness that readers might feel in relation to a text, which will inevitably impact how they read it.

I’m operating here with metaphors of proximity and distance because we are often told to value the objectivity of a distant observer, that that’s the role of a scholar. But I think what is really needed in literary scholarship is a more nuanced attitude. Those are the kinds of reflections I want to encourage and make possible through this phrase “closer reading” which I think naturally arouses interest, especially among those who have been trained in the tradition of close reading. 

One way to describe this method is to say that I want to close read not just texts but also what readers do with texts. I try to be as creative as possible when selecting my sources to perform this act of closer reading. Usually, when literary scholars are interested in learning how readers have responded to texts, they draw on quite a narrow selection of well-established sources. Reviews are the most basic tool in this context, maybe letters if we have any written by readers often to the authors themselves, maybe essays, memoirs, sometimes marginal notes. I used all of these types of sources but I also tried to think outside the box, for example, what other cultural artefacts are out there that can give us an insight into how people have responded to “The Magic Mountain”. 

Defining it in those broad terms allowed me, as you have mentioned, to look at things like an anime movie by Hayao Miyazaki, the great master of anime. Hans Castorp, the protagonist of “The Magic Mountain”, is a very important character in Miyazaki’s recent movie, which was extremely successful in Japan and which was entangled in political discussions in which, unexpectedly, Hans Castorp started to play a prominent role because of the ideological function he served in the film. I wanted to find traces like this, traces of specific readings of “The Magic Mountain”, and through careful contextualization and cross-comparison with other types of sources I try to reconstruct what we can learn from examples like this, what we can learn both about “The Magic Mountain” itself and the uses to which people have put “The Magic Mountain” over the years. 

The central argument of the book is that you can’t neatly separate the two. You can’t really separate what “The Magic Mountain” means, from what readers have done with the “Magic Mountain”. 

One of the sources that you have chosen is particularly striking. When discussing the economic dimension of “The Magic Mountain”, you highlight the links that the organizers of the World Economic Forum are trying to establish between their event and the book. Why do you think this literary connection is important for the organizers of the WEF? And a broader question linked to that; what kind of legitimacy do the books (or their authors) give to events like this? Do you think that it is pure snobbery or is it something deeper?

This is one of my favorite examples in the book. The link is there, whether we like it or not.

The World Economic Forum was founded by Klaus Schwab, a German economist who says that one of the reasons he chose Davos as the setting for the Forum was that this is where “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann is set.

Of course it also helped that Davos opened a huge conference centre just when he was looking for a suitable location! But to this day in the Forum’s promotional materials this connection to “The Magic Mountain” is repeatedly made. A parallel is drawn between the European elite in Thomas Mann’s novel comfortably lifted above everyday concerns as they stay in this sanatorium for months and years, discussing the political and social situation around the world, but in very abstract terms for most of the duration of the novel. Reality doesn’t reach them in the Davos sanatorium, or at least that is what they’d like to think. In Thomas Mann’s novel all this is complex, beautifully described, this multi-layered nature of reality which the patients at the Davos sanatorium experience. 

With the World Economic Forum, we again have the wealthy world elites who gather in this place regularly. You could also say, they discuss real-world concerns in abstract terms, to the point where this becomes really problematic and has been the motivation for many critiques of the World Economic Forum over the years. Now, what I found fascinating, is that to my knowledge no literary scholars of “The Magic Mountain” have ever commented on this, at least publicly, in a book or article. In fact, I don’t think I have ever come across anybody who had known about this connection at all. So if nothing else, I think this sheer contrast between how this world event – which clearly is what most people associate with Davos today – is linked to “The Magic Mountain” and how it has been completely overlooked – I think this is so stark, and symbolic of this gap between literary scholarship and the world outside academia. The striking nature of this contrast has compelled me to have a short section about the World Economic Forum in my book in the first place. 

The second step was to try and shift the discourse from just responding to this connection by laughing it off, by saying “of course, World Economic Forum, what else will they come up with, this is clearly a misreading of “The Magic Mountain”, this is just laughable”. I understand why people have this kind of reaction. But I think it’s more productive and interesting, rather than asking whether this is legitimate at all, to look at the kind of language and metaphors that are used in the World Economic Forum’s promotional materials and compare it to other types of discourse that surrounds “The Magic Mountain”: be it academic interpretations or impressions of other readers. This allows us to see it not as a sort of aberration – the World Economic Forum adopted a genealogy in “The Magic Mountain” – but more as part of a pattern where different readers try to claim the book as a certain symbol of erudition, often as a symbol of superiority and intellectualism; they try to weaponize it and use it for their own ends. Once we start seeing those connections then what the WEF organizers do stops coming across as a strange exception, but in fact can be shown to be typical of a certain type of response to “The Magic Mountain” which we can trace across time. Some readers react very strongly to those intimations of erudition and try to portrait themselves as participating in it, worthy of it, sharing it, or in contrast, some feel a lot of shame, they feel inferior, and thematize this feeling in interesting ways. 

I will come to this question of erudition in a moment, but can we return to the problem of establishing connections between these huge books, important masterpieces, literary prizes and other social events. Why do you think it’s so important for the social event to be legitimized by a famous author who is known for his/her erudition? 

Part of it is just that’s how cultural capital works. To appear more intellectually respectable, especially if your endeavor, like the World Economic Forum, is subject to so much relentless criticism, you try to adopt some lineage that is supposed to show how the roots of what you’re doing are much more respectable, you are an heir to this earlier tradition that people value. However, I also think that many readers of “The Magic Mountain” have a desire to immersively reenact the novel in their own life. So Davos, quite irrespectively of the World Economic Forum, every year receives — as they were once called in a newspaper article — “Magic Mountain” pilgrims who go to all the different places that are mentioned in the book, even though Davos today would be completely unrecognizable to Thomas Mann or his characters. 

But there is something about the world-building in this book that creates this really evocative space and lifestyle, this way of experiencing time that invites this desire for immersive reenactment. This clearly is a feature of the design of the novel which starts with a very evocative chapter in which the protagonist enters this enchanted world. As readers we reenact this through the pure act of reading because we enter this fictional world as the main character enters his world. The next step is to try to experience it in some other way — I show many examples of authors, sometimes authors ideologically really opposed to Thomas Mann, like Konstantin Fedin, one of the founding fathers of socialist realism in Soviet Russia. He writes his communist version of “The Magic Mountain” which is still set in a sanatorium in Davos. Konstantin Fedin does not have much in common with the organizers of the World Economic Forum, and yet they had the same impulse – for a type of immersive reenactment of the novel – which they followed in their different ways. 

Let us come back to this erudition problem that you mentioned already. You wrote in your book that “The Magic Mountain” forces the reader to confront their anxieties about not being a good enough reader. Was Mann really so competent or erudite or rather was he just skillful in making such an impression on his readers?

This is an important part of my book. I have two answers to this. One: Thomas Mann was both erudite and not erudite because how we construct erudition as a cultural trope is very different to what it actually looks like in real life. Thomas Mann was very aware of that contrast and spent a lot of intellectual energy in writing the book to somehow balance this cultural image of erudition and what it looks like if you try to do it in real life. His book reads as a work of an incredible polymath who knows everything about everything and can give you very factually precise anecdotes about every aspect of history, science, philosophy, politics, across ages, across Europe and beyond. The characters in the book, especially Naphta and Settembrini, two especially philosophically inclined patients, are able to speak in page-long monologues where they invoke lots of examples and draw connections, disagree with each other and come up with better examples… 

Genetic criticism looks at how Thomas Mann composed such passages, what he based them on, and explanations he has given in letters to other people about his composition process. We have a lot of evidence that allows us to reconstruct this process: it required a lot of extra reading on various topics in culture and science, often quite popular books.

Thomas Mann would pull together all those different sources, sometimes would paraphrase whole passages from those books — on occasion so closely that today he perhaps could be accused of plagiarism.

He claimed in his letters that he then promptly forgot all his sources. If you asked him about this or that a few years later, which readers sometimes did in their letters, he just wouldn’t remember the details. 

Does this mean that he was not erudite? No, I think the book speaks for itself. It’s a very suggestive vision and he manages to skillfully meld all those different sources that he has come across during his work. He melds them in sometimes surprising ways or finetunes the tone of a passage that he half-plagiarizes from another book in such suggestive ways with his stylistic flourishes. That is an incredible achievement. However, it is not quite the achievement that the reader imagines as they read it. The book is made to look like a perfect, untouchable creation that doesn’t have any cracks, is just perfect and ideal. 

Another great example for this mechanism is the use of French in the book. Famously, there are several passages, especially one quite lengthy passage which is almost entirely written in French. It’s a key scene in the novel. It would really be good to be able to understand it! When people discuss this example, they often say: “Well, Thomas Mann’s readers at the time would have been educated differently to how they are educated now, so they could read it” — but Thomas Mann was not extremely fluent in French. He drafted those passages himself but then he ran it by a friend who was much better at French. In fact, another reader in Mann’s time who was much more fluent in French went through his own copy of the book writing snide comments in the margins about all the little mistakes that Thomas Mann made in the French. That is a very different image to the image of the implied author that another reader might construct in their mind as they read. That’s why ultimately my answer to the question if Thomas Mann was really erudite or not, is both yes and no. 

Then the really interesting thing is how readers respond to it. I show a whole array of possible responses, from readers who are clearly very self-assured and find unique pleasure in pointing out those little mistakes Thomas Mann made in the French, to readers who are insecure.

I have discovered a pattern of young women reading “The Magic Mountain”, many of these women become incredibly famous, accomplished, influential thinkers and writers, like Susan Sontag and Alice Munro; for them, the experience of reading “The Magic Mountain” as a young woman becomes a formative one of both intimidation and aspiration and ambition.

It becomes this tool of self-formation and intellectual development. “The Magic Mountain” is often discussed as a “Bildungsroman” — a novel of education, although more precisely it’s education and formation of the self. But, in fact, this is not just something that happens in the novel or that is a theme in the novel, this is also a recurrent theme in responses to the novel, in how readers approach the novel itself. 

It is super interesting that you discovered this pattern of young women reading Thomas Mann — this is something not so well known or not known at all. Coming back to this image of Thomas Mann as erudite, I think a similar interesting perspective on Mann was shared by Colm Tóibín in his fictional biography of Thomas Mann — he presented him as a person who is not so knowledgeable in politics. In this reading, Mann just pretends to understand politics and writes about politics as if he’d understood political nuances, but in fact he is just criticizing his brother’s views and does not really engage with true political life.

We are approaching the centenary of the publication of “The Magic Mountain”, so it’s a good moment to take stock and think about Thomas Mann. Tóibín is part of this wave of new readings of Thomas Mann, or ones which place the emphasis differently. Maybe biographers, scholars, critics and readers are becoming a little bit more irreverent when approaching Thomas Mann, because for a very long time he has been sanctified as this canonical giant. I think that to keep him interesting to readers and to keep him in circulation as an important author, we need to balance this out with other new approaches. 

There have certainly been many interesting approaches to him like this, including a very interesting recent book about Thomas Mann’s time in exile in the US. A lot of it is precisely about his role as a political — well, not quite an activist, and not quite a thinker — but certainly a prominent public persona during the Second World War. But if you look at the actual content of his political statements, many of them come across of incredibly banal. Many of them not really correct or not particularly convincing. However, this book, “Thomas Mann’s War” is excellent at bringing out Thomas Mann’s skills as a savvy promoter of himself, almost a marketer participating in the new processes of mass circulation. He was criss-crossing the US, including provincial towns, to give lectures and sell more of his books, he was working with his publishers and various players on the literary scene to become a global celebrity, as some scholars have called him. I think this is all part of this broader wave of trying to reframe Thomas Mann and change his reputation somewhat. 

My last question regards a broader problem: the phenomenon of auto-fiction where authors describe their lives, their experiences, relying on references to other books. You mentioned this strategy when describing the main protagonist of “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami, when Toru tries to make sense of his friend’s death by reading Mann’s book. But there is much more — let us take, for example, Deborah Levy or Jenny Erpenbeck or Anna Burns. You mentioned also Elif Batuman and her experiences reading Russian authors; and there is a lot of more recent works like Claire-Louise Bennett’s book ”Checkout 19”, where she describes how she read or did not read some books and what impression they made on her. Perhaps this phenomenon could be boiled down to a broader question that you pose in your book: what do we need culture for? Would you dare to answer it?

That’s a good way of posing this question: will I dare to answer it. This is a question that really drives my research and a lot of my research interests. But I don’t think it serves this question well to answer it directly; I find it extremely difficult to answer it directly in a way that would convey how momentous my answer is, because it always sounds too generic or vague. Unfortunately, as scholars in the humanities, we are often forced to defend our discipline by answering questions like this in funding applications and similar contexts, and I find that we often fall short. Because what can we say? We can say that culture is a tool for thinking, culture is how we make sense of our lives. We all need culture to survive, to find meaning in life. None of this sounds particularly convincing to me because it’s vague, general, difficult to defend in detail. 

My book was an attempt to answer this question, but rather than falling back on those generic statements, presenting a series of connected case studies that show various answers to this question, I hope in compelling ways, ranging from the testimony of German prisoners of war in the US who used “The Magic Mountain” to make sense of their experience of the war and in the internment camps, and other moving, intense, personal stories like this. But at the same time, I never want to slip into this melodramatic mode: “This is what culture is for!”, this heroic narrative about how good culture is for us. I also tried to be very attentive to the ways we use culture to our own ends which are not always good and morally laudable. For instance, I try to contextualize an open letter that one of those prisoners of war wrote to Thomas Mann by showing how this is not just a beautiful moving testimony of how this particular reader (and perhaps a whole generation of readers) engaged with Thomas Mann’s book, but there is also so much self-interest at stake. These prisoners of war are trying to appeal to the American armed forces which will soon determine their futures in post-war Germany. All my case studies are very much of their time, and contextualized with reference to their geographical, historical, social, cultural contexts. I try not to idealize this saving grace of culture and be more realistic and hopefully, through that, more convincing. I hope to try to show that both the promise that culture holds for us, but also the dangers, or the darker sides, or the morally grey zones in how people will use culture, how they put it to use.

In collaboration with Isabel Lasch and Karen Culver

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity

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