Sunday, October 23, 2011

The intellectually offensive union of sickness and stupidity

No, I'm not the least bit offended by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. But it's so easy to mock the patients who people this novel. And Mann does, and I immensely enjoy his doing so.

Part of the magic of the Mountain: I picked it up again the other week after a hiatus of several months, and it's as fresh and engaging as if I'd left off only the day before. (Why did I leave off at all if it's so good, you ask? I don't rightly know. It demands attention, and once the momentum is interrupted and the spell is broken, it's easy to forget how rewarding time with it is.)

No doubt this magic is connected to Mann's treatment of time as one of the major themes.

What is time? A secret — insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time? What a question! Is time a function of space? Or vice versa? Or are the two identical? An even bigger question! Time is active, by nature it is much like a verb, it both "ripens" and "brings forth." And what does it bring forth? Change! Now is not then, here is not there — for in both cases motion lies in between. But since we measure time by a circular motion closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation — for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here. Moreover, since, despite our best desperate attempts, we cannot imagine an end to time or a finite border around space, we have decided to "think" of them as eternal and infinite — in the apparent belief that even if we are not totally successful, this marks some improvement. But does not the very positing of eternity and infinity imply the logical, mathematical negation of things limited and finite, their relative reduction to zero? Is a sequence of events possible in eternity, a juxtaposition of objects in infinity? How does our makeshift assumption of eternity and infinity square with concepts like distance, motion, change, or even the very existence of a finite body in space? Now there's a real question for you!

Hans Castorp turned these sorts of questions over and over in his own mind — a mind that, since his arrival up here, had tended to quibble and think indiscreet thoughts of this sort and had perhaps been especially honed and emboldened for grumbling by a naughty, but overwhelming desire, for which he had now paid dearly.

Chapter 6 gets very philosophical. We meet Leo Naphta, Jewish-born Jesuit. His conversations with Herr Settembrini, and others, are intense and also confusing (to Hans as well as myself). Various kinds of dualism, religious and philosophical. Free will, politics (in philosophical sense, never actually discussing the real matters of the day), pragmatism. Art and science. There's a section promoting cremation as a more logical alternative to burial.

Hans is finally arriving at some truths.

At this point Hans Castorp spoke up, breaking into their conversation with the courage of simple souls. He stared into space and declared, "Contemplation, retreat — there's something to it, sounds quite plausible. One could say that we live at a rather high level of retreat from the world up here. At five thousand feet, we recline in our lounge chairs — and remarkably comfortable they are — and look down on the world and its creatures and think things over. To tell the truth, now that I stop and think about it, my bed — and by that I mean my lounge chair, you understand — has proved very beneficial over the last ten months, made me think more about things than I ever did in all my years down in the flatlands, I can't deny that."

And still, it's funny.

The mood of pallid Frau Magnus in particular seemed without a glimmer of hope; she exuded bleakness of spirit the way a cellar exudes damp. And perhaps even more explicitly than Frau Stöhr, she represented the union of sickness and stupidity that Hans Castorp had declared intellectually offensive.

Hans, originally at the sanatorium to see his cousin for a 3-week visit, has been there now for over a year. It's almost 2 years since I started reading The Magic Mountain, and suspected I'd be letting the story unfold in near real time. It still captivates me, and I love it for slowing my mind down.

And yet, I'm setting it aside again to indulge in Murakami's 1Q84. Sometimes it all a bit too much for Hans — he needs to stop and consider his friends' philosophizing in his own time and space, somewhere away from them, as do I. And Hans has another order of thinking to do now that his cousin has left to rejoin the world below.

I return to "the bourgeoisiosity of life."
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