Saturday, January 16, 2010

Corruption anticipated

Hans gets an x-ray!

And Hans Castorp saw exactly what he should have expected to see, but which no man was ever intended to see and which he himself had never presumed he would be able to see: he saw his own grave. Under that light, he saw the process of corruption anticipated, saw the flesh in which he moved decomposed, expunged, dissolved into airy nothingness — and inside was the delicately turned skeleton of his right hand and around the last joint of the ring finger, dangling black and loose, the signet ring his grandfather had bequeathed him: a hard thing, this ore with which man adorns a body predestined to melt away beneath it, so that it can be free again and move on to yet other flesh that may bear it for a while. With the eyes of his Tienappel forebear — penetrating, clairvoyant eyes — he beheld a familiar part of his body, and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die. And he made the same face he usually made when listening to music — a rather dull, sleepy, and devout face, his head tilted toward one shoulder, his mouth half-open.

The director said, "Spooky, isn't it? Yes, there's no mistaking that whiff of spookiness."

— from page 260 of The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann.

Is it just me, or is "spooky" a funny word? It's just a bit unexpected, with a lightness of touch, just when it's getting all morbid; it stops you from taking it too seriously. This is the sort of thing that contributes to my sense that the Mountain is a funny book. Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but somehow joyous, gently mocking — of its characters, their conventions, and society as a whole.

I mean, "Spooky"! Not "eerie" or "frightening," not "ghostly" or phantasmal," not "weird" or "creepy." Spooooky.

I do not read German, nor do I intend to read a different translation of the Mountain for comparison's sake. I'm reading the translation by John E Woods, from Everyman's Library. Perhaps it's the jacket blurbs — "Woods captures perfectly the irony and humor" — that prejudiced me to read this book in this mood, to invest it with levity, defy the gravity of it. I very clearly hear Mann's tongue in his cheek.

I'm at page 315 this morning. Highlights of the narrative to this point include Herr Settembrini's humanist views, that as much as he most admires the mind, the body is a force to be reckoned with, with the aside that "absurdity is an intellectually honorable position"; and the encounter with Director Behrens and the review of the paintings he daubs in his spare time, with a discussion of how a physician's view of the body informs his art.

A most enjoyable read.

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