This essay intervenes in the contemporary debate surrounding the Bildungsroman and its roots in German Idealism through a new reading of the idea of “life” in two major modern texts: G. W. F. Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art and the famous “Research” chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I establish three key points: 1) Hegel pioneers a bio-aesthetics that grasps the work of art as a distinctly social and historical, reflective manifestation of organic life; 2) Mann’s novel achieves a kind of self-conscious knowledge of the Bildungsroman in particular as such a manifestation; and 3) Karl Marx’s analysis of the alienation of humanity from its “species-being” under capitalism accounts for the opposition between nature and culture, animality and rationality, that drives Mann’s modernist experiment with genre: his innovation of what I call “the novel of deformation.”

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