Mann, Thomas Entries

The Magic Mountain


Lately I've been reveling in Claire's and Frances's thoughts on In Search of Lost Time; they're bringing back to me the lovely, leisurely quality of Proust's prose, and sorely tempting me to re-read. But if, for the moment, I'm going to resist venturing again into the adolescent misadventures of Marcel and Albertine, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain makes an interesting companion study. Never since Proust, for one thing, have I come across a novel so delightfully obsessed with the human perception of time. But whereas In Search of Lost Time concerns itself largely with memory - with the schematic memories that become dulled and unreal through the machinations of habit, and with the unexpected details that bring true memory back to us in all its vividness and life - The Magic Mountain is preoccupied with our fluid perceptions of current time. In his narrative of one Hans Castorp's unexpectedly prolonged stay at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, Mann pays careful attention to the supple, subtle ways in which time flexes and compresses under our feet:

A great many false ideas have been spread about the nature of boredom. It is generally believed that by filling time with things new and interesting, we can make it "pass," by which we mean "shorten" it; monotony and emptiness, however, are said to weigh down and hinder its passage. This is not true under all conditions. Emptiness and monotony may stretch a moment or even an hour and make it "boring," but they can likewise abbreviate and dissolve large, indeed the largest units of time, until they seem nothing at all. Conversely, rich and interesting events are capable of filling time, until hours, even days, are shortened and speed past on wings; whereas on a larger scale, interest lends the passage of time breadth, solidity, and weight, so that years rich in events pass much more slowly than do paltry, bare, featherweight years that are blown before the wind and are gone. What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony - uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death.

As Hans Castorp abandons himself to the uniformity of life at the Sanatorium Berghof, where time is never measured in units smaller than the month and a casual three-week visit can easily stretch into a life-altering sojourn of seven years, he experiences both this compression of time, and the fluid lack of certainty that comes with the unobserved passage of years. In this comfortable, cosmopolitan, yet hermetically sealed mountain environment, far above the bustle of the "flatlands," breathing in air that "had neither odor nor moisture nor content, that evoked no memories," he loses track of how long his stay has become. He even takes to saying "yesterday" when he means "a year ago," and "tomorrow" for "next year." Each time he sits down to one of the Sanatorium's lavish meals (and there are five of them every day), he has the eerie sensation that no time has passed at all since the last one: "once he sat down it would be as if he had never stood up." He finds himself in a state of mental suspended animation, despite the fact that he continues to move around, conduct conversations and love affairs, and despite the gathering world conflicts whose effects can be felt even at the cloistered sanatorium.

Because another thing that connects In Search of Lost Time and The Magic Mountain is the First World War, which interrupted the composition of both works, and looms large in the retrospective vision of the second. Mann's novel was begun in 1912, radically expanded and revised after 1918, and published in 1924, although it's set during the escalating hostilities that led to World War I. Whereas the War seems like little more than a footnote in Proust, it casts a sinister allegorical light over the whole of The Magic Mountain. The impression of a narcissistic Europe, detached from the catastrophic reality toward which it is careening, blissfully taking its collective temperature and gazing at its collective navel, is brilliantly communicated via the antics of the Berghof guests. The civilians are ignorant and self-absorbed, easy prey for any passing fad, and the soldiers (like Hans Castorp's cousin Joachim Zeimssen) just want to do battle, with no regard for the justice or injustice of any particular war. The intellectuals, represented by the self-proclaimed humanist Settembrini and the medievalist totalitarian Naphta, are hopelessly confused in their labyrinthine arguments: the humanist seems to believe in eugenics in the name of progress and war with Austria in the name of a united world, whereas the religious man advocates communistic terrorism in the service of God. The sanatorium director seems by turns melancholic and crass, concerned mainly with "puffing" the reputation of the place and retaining his bevy of pan-European guests (one hardly ever hears of a patient released from the place as cured). Mann's cuttingly ironic narrative voice, which I found hilarious as well as sobering, takes careful aim at the ridiculous in everyone, whether it be Hans Castorp's unthinking bourgeois triviality,

"I don't understand," Hans Castorp said. "I don't understand how someone can not be a smoker - why it's like robbing oneself of the best part of life, so to speak, or at least of an absolutely first-rate pleasure. When I wake up I look forward to being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to it again, in fact I can honestly say that I actually only eat so that I can smoke, although that's an exaggeration, of course. But a day without tobacco - that would be absolutely insipid, a dull, totally wasted day. And if some morning I had to tell myself, there's nothing left to smoke today, why I don't think I'd find courage to get up, I swear I'd stay in bed."

or Settembrini's bizarrely tainted idealism:

As technology brought nature increasingly under its control, he said, by creating new lines of communication - developing networks of roads and telegraph lines - and by triumphing over climatic conditions, it was also proving to be the most dependable means by which to bring nations closer together, furthering their knowledge of one another, paving the way for people-to-people exchanges, destroying prejudices, and leading at last to the universal brotherhood of nations. The human race had come out of darkness, fear, and hate, but now it was moving forward and upward along a shining road toward a final state of understanding, inner illumination, goodness, and happiness - and technology was the most useful vehicle for traveling that road...But to achieve this goal, it was necessary above all to strike at the Asiatic principle of bondage and obduracy at its vital center point, at the very nerve of resistance - in Vienna. One must deal a fatal blow to Austria and crush her, first to avenge past wrongs and second to open the way for the rule of justice and happiness on earth.

I think the last two quotes give a good idea of the humor and elegance of Mann's prose, which made this novel a delicious reading experience for me and helped me through some of the denser philosophical passages. And despite the ridiculousness of the characters, there is also much in them that's likable. They are almost deliriously irrational, but Mann makes it clear that they live in an irrational world - how else can they react? How is one to "choose life," to be life-affirming and constructive, in a Europe veering wildly yet nonchalantly toward meaningless destruction? Settembrini repeatedly argues that Hans Castorp ought to leave the sanatorium, to return to "real life" down below, and that choosing to stay in the artificial protection of the sanatorium is choosing to glorify death and illness. And yet is Castorp's final departure, heading for trenches as the war finally erupts, a choice of life? Mann leaves us to decide for ourselves. The final battlefield scene may evoke more life and more death, more strong feeling and more ambiguity, than any other part of the novel. Which is perhaps only appropriate.

There were moments when, as you "played king," you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round - will love someday rise up out of this, too?

(The Magic Mountain was my fifth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Germany.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography