This summer I began to re-read one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature primarily for his novels Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924).
In 1995 a new English translation of the novel was published that I found preferable to the older translation I had first started to read many years ago. So with a new translation in hand, I began reading the book again. Ι say I’m reading the book again because although I have read a good part of it at least twice, I have never managed to finish it. I seem to get to page 300 or so and then move on to other things without finishing it. Mann said that he thought the book properly should be read twice, once to get the overall story and the second time for the symbolism and the deeper meaning. So this time, I suppose I’m taking his word and I am determined to finish it.
The novel tells the story of the young Hans Castorp who in the years prior to WWI comes for a three-week visit to his cousin Joachim, a patient at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the mountains in Davos, Switzerland. During his first three weeks as a visitor, Castorp is diagnosed with a lesion on his lung and ends up becoming a resident of the sanitarium for the next seven years. Mann envisioned the book as a reflection on two themes. First the novel was a symbolic description of the terminal sickness of Europe in the years prior to the first World War and second it was a reflection on our human experience of the passage of time
Mann’s reflections on time were influenced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity and his description of our movement through space-time, as well as by Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological studies of time consciousness, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will, and numerous other philosophical, psychological, and political thinkers of the day. The sanitarium serves as the stage on which a wide variety of these ideas and political positions battle for the allegiance of young hero of the novel.
Einstein’s observations about the fourth dimension of time or rather the inseparability of space and time had a profound impact on the structure of the novel. Einstein’s work on general relativity was first published in 1915, seven years prior to the publication of The Magic Mountain. To plot a location at any given time we need the latitude and longitude (the X and Y axes) and the elevation (the Z axis). That is how three-dimensional space is ordered and accounted for in scientific and mathematical terms. Without accounting for the fourth dimension of time, however, our location is still indeterminate. If you and I, for example, are in the same location on the X, Y, and Z axes at different times, then we cannot say in the present moment that we are in the exact same location. As we move through space we also move through time.
For me, the most remarkable thing about the novel is the way in which Mann in the telling of the story reflects on the way in which we experience the passage of time. Have you ever noticed. when you travel to an entirely different location than that to which you are accustomed in every day life, that time seems to go slower than when were are at home in our usual locales? In that circumstance a single day can seem like two or three days. In the novel, Castorp’s first day seems almost to last forever. The first week seems to last for weeks. By the third week, looking back it seems as if he has been on the mountain for long, long time and yet the time, the time he has spent there seems to have flown by. The first three hundred pages or so of the novel are devoted to the first three weeks of Castorp’s stay. Or, to look at it another way, the first five chapters narrate the first year of Castorp’s stay, and the last two chapters, the remaining six years. In these last six years, time seems to fly by almost unaccounted for as if in the twinkling of an eye.
I thought a lot about Mann’s reflections on the experience of the passage of time during my trip to Stuttgart in late July to present a paper at an academic conference. The first days of my trip (after accounting for jet-lag) seemed to last forever but by the end of the conference it seemed as if the time had just flown by. How is that, I wondered, and what, if anything, are we to do about it?
The narrator of the novel gives a partial answer:
Habit arises when our sense of time falls asleep, or at least, grows dull. … We know full well that the insertion of new habits or the changing of old ones is the only way to preserve life, to renew our sense of time, to rejuvenate, intensify, and retard our experience of time—and thereby renew our sense of life itself. That is the reason for every change of scenery and air, for a trip to the shore: the experience of a variety of refreshlng epìsodes. The few days in a new place have a youthful swing to them, a kind of sturdy, long-stride— that lasts for about six to eight days. Then, to the extent that we “settle in,” the gradual shortening becomes noticeable.
As we seek to live rewarding, fulsome lives, we need to structure time and space away from the grind of everyday life in which time seems to contract and in which the hum-drum is the ordinary state. This does not mean that we should never put down roots. Without solid deep roots, like plants in a drought, we would perish. Our human roots, unlike plants, do not stay in the same location all day. We move around even as we are rooted in homes, families, and communities, including the church. On occasion, however, we seem to need the experience of a new place to slow the passage of time, so that in that new time, we can rediscover ourselves and perhaps come to a new awareness of our passing through time. Castorp, living in a sanitarium in which death was a frequent occurrence, observes that we all are moving endlessly toward death. This memento mori serves to bring our temporal limits to consciousness and to awaken us to ourselves so that in the time we have left (and we never know how much that is), we can make the most of our lives.
Now that I have gotten this off my chest (Castorp might have appreciated this pun), I should get back to my “re-reading.” The enchanted mountain awaits my summiting. I’m now on page 301….