Saturday, April 10, 2010

Danse macabre

Der Zauberberg! I'm halfway up the mountain! I give you here some of my thoughts on the remainder of chapter 5 of The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, after Hans bought a thermometer and saw his x-ray (a copy of which he carries in his wallet).

Let us note that I have yet to discover what is magic about it — the book's magic is undeniable, but that of the mountain itself is still not clear to me. Certainly it does not restore to vigour the bodies that come for repose there, though its effect on Hans's spirit may be seen to be restorative. He seems to have awoken from a slumber — he has achieved a kind of freedom from the life below; others may call his general demeanour slightly fevered.

The magic most in evidence is the distortion of time. It's kind of appropriate that I left off from this book just after Christmas at around the sanatorium's Christmas celebrations and now after a few days of intense reading at Easter I'm all caught up to Easter (beginning of chapter 6).

Time passes, time passes, and Hans is completely enamored of Madame Clawdia Chauchat, much as her door-slamming continues to rile him. It excites him now beyond reason.

Hans sits on the veranda, chatting with other women, hoping to catch her attention. It's all very ridiculous because we know he wants to make Clawdia jealous, make some impression on her, and we know it's a feeble plan and we know it's the sort of thing that Clawdia would never fall for.

Hans follows up on the rumours he's heard that Doctor Behrens has painted a portrait of Clawdia, and he contrives to be invited to see it. The doctor is modest: "Well, I know her more internally, subcutaneously, if you get my drift. From her blood pressure, tissue firmness, and lymph circulation." Hans ensure the portrait stays close as they have their coffee. They (with cousin Joachim, of course) discuss beauty and physiology. The coffee mill is of an erotic design. The doctor explains the physiological processes behind blushing and goosebumps.

Hans takes to studying anatomy, biology, etc. He meditates on the miracle of life, and of the nervous system.


Christmas comes and there is a death among them, and Hans, in defiance of the usual practice, wants to know everything about it. With complicated motives, he resolves to bring about a moral revolution; he will bring flowers and birthday greetings and conversation and diversion to those who are seriously ill, the ghosts of the sanatorium. It's a kind of spiritual cleansing he claims, but it's also perverse and gruesome, the details of disease he embraces, the intensity with which he now dances with death.

Herr Settembrini marvels at Hans; this charity wasn't to be expected from "one of life's problem children," who himself needs looking after. And then it is Mardi Gras, or Walpurgis Night (as this section of the chapter is titled), or both, and carnival is upon them. Settembrini describes Madame Chauchat as Lilith (that is, he calls her Lilith and explains the Hebrew reference to the boys, but it's not clear whether she herself defines herself this night as Lilith). I sense there must be some witchly treachery about her.

There are games, and Hans needs a pencil, so he asks her, and this is only the third (or maybe second?) occasion on which they've actually spoken. The elaborate dance of their flirtation escalates. She tells him she'll soon be leaving the sanatorium. I suppose he feels he has nothing to lose.

The bulk of their conversation is in French; Russian would be out of the question for Hans, and she's simply not comfortable in German, nor are the evening's festivities conducive to it. So Hans accommodates her in the language of love. Everything is translated into English in my version, but their French is rendered in italic type, and I think even the look of it, its slant and flow, contribute to a certain crazy frenzy, the feeling of being carried away.

Their exchange, or at least Hans's part in it, is weird, extremely intimate, and, dare I say, erotic, in a macabre, fleshly, sort of way.

What an immense festival of caresses lies in those delicious zones of the human body! A festival of death with no weeping afterward! Yes, good God, let me smell the odor of the skin on your knee, beneath which the ingeniously segmented capsule secretes its slippery oil! Let me touch in devotion your pulsing femoral artery where it emerges at the top of your thigh and then divides farther down into the two arteries of the tibia! Let me take in the exhalation of your pores and brush the down — oh, my human image made of water and protein, destined for the contours of the grave, let me perish, my lips against yours!

When finally they parted, I wanted a cigarette.
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