More than once in these columns, I’ve mentioned my long-standing view that people live and die by ideas.
Still, as I’ve come to recognize, that’s not entirely true. It has to be qualified. For example, it’s very hard to dissent from a group consensus, and a lot more than ideas go into that. There are habits, tastes, inherited opinions, and just the sense of belonging you get when you share the attitudes of the people who count in your life.
Yet, there is a truth-seeking component — the speck of dust in the raindrop — even in habits and beliefs deeply ingrained in a culture.
Take for example the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico. They worshipped their emperor. Still, when the Spaniards arrived, with their horse and armor and canon, it was clear that even the wisest of Aztecs had less competence for conquest than these strange Europeans. So there was a truth-seeking speck, within even the most devout Aztec believer. The new evidence for the wisdom of the stranger spoke louder than an inherited consensus fixed for generations.
Why then do I now question the view I’ve long held: that people live and die by ideas? Apart from physical necessities, what else is there?
There is Personality.
It can trump ideas. Recently, we have watched a series of debates between candidates for the presidency of the United States. In one of the two parties, the nearly-last man left standing was the man who dominated the stage – not by a better argument, but by picking on the irrelevant personal weak spots of his rivals. In other words, he “won” by the force of his Personality. People who know that he has cheated on every woman he ever married, now want him to marry the United States of America!
Such is their faith in Personality.
I’ve finally finished Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, thank goodness. It’s rather an uphill climb, but I was not reading it for its literary qualities. I wanted to learn about the ideas that permeated Europe before the outbreak of World War I. The ideas are presented in the form of characters whom the young hero, Hans Castorp, meets during his stay in an alpine sanatorium where he’s being treated for TB.
As the novel unfolds, Hans conceives a passion for a fascinating young Russian woman, Clavdia, whose TB allows her a freedom not conventionally granted to a nineteenth-century European woman. The morning after their one wild night together, Clavdia leaves the sanatorium. Hans, hopelessly smitten, can only wait on the Magic Mountain, hoping for her return.
Alas, when she finally reappears, it is on the arm of a new companion, a man repeatedly described as a “Personality.” That’s where I got the idea. From Thomas Mann. Danke schön.
What characterizes the Personality is his … I dunno what. He seldom speaks a coherent sentence. He’s intelligent but it’s never clear whether he can talk normally. He’s physically imposing and Filled to the Brim with Life Force. He loves to eat, drink, maybe to dance, perhaps to make love (though he’s pretty old by the time he connects with the beautiful young Clavdia).
Eventually the Personality has a man-to-man talk with Hans. They admit that both have a passion for Clavdia and that the younger man was there first. They agree that Clavdia has not so much preferred the older to the younger, as recognized who between them has the stronger Personality. They agree that the man chooses and the woman acquiesces, just by acknowledging the greater male force.
Is this true? I read it with great interest. There is surely truth in it. Not a truth women talk about – even to each other – but a truth they can recognize. It’s why a powerful man who looks like the very devil can be found surrounded by delectable younger women.
But it is not only women who are thus affected. Hans Castorp himself is drawn to the Personality, an attraction even stronger than his supposedly deathless attachment to Clavdia.
Hans’s circle of friends on the Magic Mountain includes two rival intellectuals who each try, by ingenious argument, to win Hans over to their competing views. One intellectual is described as a secular humanist who champions universal rights and world progress. His rival is a mystical, authoritarian Catholic who belongs to the Jesuit Order.
The Personality never bothers to refute these two competing intellectuals. Instead, the mere presence of his powerful Personality reduces them and their opinions to insignificance.
Having worked up an outsized expectation about the Personality – where will he lead Hans? – where will he take us? – Mann has no good outcome to offer the reader. Instead, his Personality takes arsenic and commits suicide. Why does he do such a horrible thing? Perhaps he senses that his natural powers are declining. Perhaps he feels that he has drunk the cup of life to the dregs and can drink it no more. We aren’t told.
Clavdia has been left with a corpse to dispose of and an ersatz “widowhood” to carry — ersatz since she and the Personality aren’t married. (She has a husband in Russia.) Having succumbed to the Personality’s magnetism when he first turned it on her full force, she is now defenseless against the morbid imprint of his “abdication,” as she names it accurately to Hans. It may be that neither she nor Hans will ever love again.
What is Personality? For a woman? For a young and suggestible male? For a nation, in no mood to be moved by reasonable arguments about ideas and policies?
I don’t know exactly. We are a civilization compounded of many influences, but prominent among them is the classical culture of Greece and Rome and the extraordinary God-to-people partnership recorded in Hebrew scripture. Beyond those inherited resources, when we are all out of ideas, we are liable to fall back on the natural force of untamed Personality.
In my experience, when your ideas fail you, it’s time to rethink them and come up with more adequate ones. To abandon ideas and the attainments of high culture for the magnetism of Personality is to prepare a major let-down when Personality runs out of its
steam and bluff.