Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Bewitchment of the Magic Mountain

Notes on reading
The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

"Yes, it's top-notch, your having come,' he said, and there was feeling in his nonchalant voice.  "And let me tell you it's quite an event for me.  First of all, just the variety of it--I mean it's an interruption, a break in the endless everlasting monotony."
"But I would think time ought to pass quickly for you all," Hans Castorp suggested.
"Quickly and slowly, just as you like" Joachim [Hans' cousin] replied.  "What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't really pass at all, there is no time as such, and this is no life--no, that it's not," he said, shaking his head and reaching again for his glass." (p 14)

Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain is very much the education of "an ordinary young man";  yet is so much more than this, with questions about young Hans Castorp's very ordinariness and his being in time.  Yes, this question of the status and nature of time is central to the story at the outset.  From the first page when we are told Hans "long trip" is  "too long, really, for so short a visit", time as experienced by Hans and the reader through the narrative's presentation is in a sort of flux.  

Hans' time is stretched out while he is on the Mountain so that a planned visit of only three weeks becomes a stay of seven years.  It is in the fifth paragraph of the novel, in the chapter titled "Arrival", that the narrator shares these words about space and time:
"Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time;  from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways.  Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing the individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state---indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and philistine into something like a vagabond.  Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink;  and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly."(p 4)

Hans has not planned to take this short visit "seriously" but he soon finds, as he crosses the abyss between his old world and that of the magic mountain, that he is imbibing an alien air that quickly removes his inhibitions and exerts a profound force on his being.  He is experiencing what the author earlier, in his foreword, describes as the necessary time for the telling of his story, "for when was a story short on diversion or long on boredom simply because of the time and space required for the telling?  . . . Seven days in one week will not suffice, nor will seven months.  It will be best for him if he is not all too clear about the number of earthly days that will pass as the tale weaves its web about him.  For God's sake, surely it cannot be as long as seven years!" (p xii)

So we begin this modern novel with time as experienced by our ordinary young protagonist being stretched in ways that do not conform to everyday chronological time.  There will also be disease and the bewitchment of death.  Love, as well, will be present as a captive of the magic on the mountain.  Ultimately the bewitchment of the Magic Mountain will capture the reader in its "alien air".


Brian Joseph said...

I very rarely begin a book ant finish it.

About fifteen years ago I started this book and stopped at about Twenty Percent of the way through. This was not reflective of any shortcomings in the book. It was due to the fact that at the time I felt that I was not versed enough in some of the intellectual trends that Mann was exploring.

I feel that I am little more prepared to scale the mountain these days and may give it another go soon.

I will be on the lookout for your theme of time when I do so.

James said...


Thanks for sharing your experience. I have had similar experiences and found that when the time was right I could return and finish the book. Mann's novel is certainly filled with ideas from other thinkers: Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to name some of the most important influences. Some find his narrative voice too formal and stifling; it does require some getting used to.

If you have not already read it, Death in Venice provides a good introduction to Mann and some of the same themes that reappear in The Magic Mountain; this is especially true of disease and death.