I was rushing to a spot where the promising light might lead to a good photo of this familiar landscape, focused on my goal. But I was also rushing to the end of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the book that had been my fitful companion for the past seven years, focused on that goal as well.
It’s the kind of experience that only became possible at the end of the 1970s, when the Sony Walkman debuted. And one which only became easy with the advent of streaming and downloading through platforms like Audible.
Typically, when our minds are split in this way, we are paying less attention than we should.
Maybe the music or podcast we are listening to fades into the background, becoming comforting noise. Maybe we’re so immersed in what we are hearing that we neglect the data coming from our other senses. I know this is often the case with me when I listen to a favourite album on the road. Although I still drive well under those circumstances, I stop thinking about the process.
This time was different. I was doubly locked in, as they say in the world of sports, registering my surroundings with depth and precision, but every bit as mindful of the words that narrator David Rintoul was speaking. The closer I got to my physical destination, the more intense this doubling became, turning what a casual observer might take for distraction inside out.
This was a far cry from the way I had been trained to read literature, in an upright chair, with light that wasn’t too bright, and potential distractions kept to a bare minimum. If that was the way to give a text its proper due, what I was doing now must be downright disrespectful. Yet I knew, deep inside, that I had never been more intensely involved than I was right now.
I could recall plenty of occasions when I was completely focused on the text in front of me, whether at my own desk, in a library, or crammed into the middle seat on a flight. Whereas my concentration then had derived from forgetting that the mind is a part of the body, now it was inextricably bound up with the physical activity of hiking. But this had not dispersed it. On the contrary, the fact that my bodily sensations were not being suppressed actually intensified my concentration.
Maybe I was onto something. For decades, commentators have been worrying about the decline in reading, both among young people and adults.
Maybe, with all the media bombarding us each and every day, the solution is not to teach people how to block out distractions and create a safe space for reading, but to find ways of incorporating it into activities that don’t seem amenable to it. To take advantage of what technology makes possible instead of trying to ward off its pernicious influence.
That’s what motivated me to write this piece. It goes against the grain of everything I was taught in school and a lot of what I’ve been told by editors.
Is it self-indulgent to devote so much time to reflecting on an experience that it would be hard for me to repeat, much less anyone else? To be sure. But if we spent more time reflecting on the ways in which we not only see but also feel ourselves in texts, and how they become part of us, the reading of literature would be easier to promote.
When I had started out from the Linda Vista trailhead twenty minutes before this epiphany, I had decided to take the longer, northern loop, anticipating the particularly photogenic vistas it offers in broken light.
Although Pusch Ridge looked strangely dull at the moment, despite the blue skies overhead, I had a feeling that the sun would eventually break through. And when it did, the flecks of mica in the mountain’s granite face would make it glow.
As I rounded the corner of the longest switchback and began to double back, climbing towards the southeast, I realised that the clouds along the horizon were thicker than I had realised. Instead of lighting up, the mountain began to darken.
But something rarer and more wonderful was happening. Individual rays started to shoot through a small gap between the clouds and the horizon, making the slope I was on intensely bright.
When I turned to my left, the beauty of the scene was overwhelming, the orange blossoms of the ocotillo and light green prickly pear radiant against the shadow-dimmed face of Pusch Ridge in the distance. It felt as though someone had cast a spell over the landscape.
This was the moment I had been hoping for. And I was completely here for it, as the saying goes.
But as I began to scramble off the trail to find the best vantage point for the photo I wanted to take, I realised that my book was also reaching a climax.
I was 100% present, on this slope overlooking my home of Oro Valley below. Yet I was also 100% elsewhere, on the very different slope overlooking Davos, Switzerland, in the Berghof Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, where The Magic Mountain’s protagonist Hans Castorp was suddenly realising that it was time to return home to the far-away flatlands.
I reached up to press the pause button on my Bluetooth headphones, right as the novel was describing the impersonal nature of Castorp’s liberation. I waited for the paragraph to end. And then I took my pictures. But those few seconds had cost me. Although the scene was still magnificent, the mountain was no longer so dark.
I was still struggling to make sense of the strange convergence I had just experienced. It felt too momentous for me to explain. I knew I wanted to mark it in some way, though, and began to edit the best photos I had taken.
Preparing to share a photo on social media is one of the few activities that is always guaranteed to make me feel better.
I sort through my shots, decide which ones might be good enough, edit them slightly – usually in an effort to match my own memory of what the scene looked like – and then debate which one to post. Frequently, I decide that none of them is good enough or that the timing is wrong. What matters to me most is the process.
This time, though, I found one I was happy with, I considered sharing it without commentary. Then I had an inspiration. Instead of trying to summon the right words to describe my feelings, I could use Thomas Mann’s. I decided to use the paragraph that had delayed me just enough to miss the peak of the light.
Although I didn’t have the English-language text on my phone, I did have the original German. In seconds, I scrolled down to the correct passage, then cut-and-pasted it into my post. Here’s how it reads in the excellent John E. Woods translation to which I had been listening:
He saw that the enchantment was broken, that he was released, set free – not by his own actions, as had to admit to his shame, but set free by elementary external forces, for whom his liberation was a very irrelevant matter.
After my post was live, I went back and listened to this passage a few more times. While I had strongly identified with Hans Castorp’s situation at many points while I was making my way through The Magic Mountain, I had somehow neglected to notice the most obvious correspondence between his life and mine.
He spends seven years at the Berghof Sanatorium. I had begun reading The Magic Mountain seven years before.
Castorp learns a great deal during his stay, much of it from suffering he could not have imagined before becoming a resident. I have learned a great deal during the past seven years, much of it from suffering I could not have imagined previously. He becomes deeply invested in a landscape that at first seems strange and even disturbing. The same thing happened to me in the desert.
Most of all, I shared his sense of being in prolonged exile, held captive by forces beyond his control. Like him, I initially regarded my predicament as a temporary state of emergency, one that would soon give way to a normal state of affairs. But the longer it lasted, the harder it became for me to perceive it that way.
A few months turned into a few years without me realizing it. By the time I resumed my progress through The Magic Mountain in the fall of 2020, after a long hiatus, my personal misfortunes were being mirrored by the pandemic, which imposed a state of emergency on the entire planet. Remembering what life was like before everything went awry became increasingly difficult. Just as Castorp struggles to imagine ever returning to his former life, so did I.
Discerning these parallels may seem like a silly exercise for someone like me to undertake. When I do it, I am directly contradicting what my teachers told me.
Even if a book feels intensely “relatable”, as young people today are fond of saying, the authority figures inside my head keep telling me that the proper way of responding to literature is to turn that connection into a dispassionate analysis that minimises its importance, if not concealing it altogether.
I learned to heed their bidding. That’s what made it possible for me to succeed in my classes, instead of being punished for writing essays that were too personal, as more adventurous friends of mine were. Even as I was happy to be getting high marks, I was ashamed by this willingness to submit to authority.
To be honest, this institutionally sanctioned approach to texts had bothered me long before I had the language to explain why it did.
Once I reached the stage in my education to make sense of it fully, I devoted myself to finding a suitable alternative, one that could acknowledge what individuals who read a particular book, watched a particular movie, or listened to a particular album could agree upon, but also make room for the subjective experience that distinguished their responses from each other.
Eventually, I came up with what I call autobiographical criticism, which seeks to situate interpretation within the personal history of the person who performs it. That doesn’t mean concluding that all interpretations are equally valid.
A text consists of content – words, images, sounds – that is available to everyone who encounters it. None of that content can be wished away, no matter how much individuals might want to focus only on the portions that are most meaningful for them.
The late-nineteenth-century novel Huckleberry Finn contains a passionate critique of slavery. It is also full of the N-word and therefore hard to read and almost impossible to teach below the university level.
The children’s books published under the pen name Dr. Seuss, such as The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Who Stole Christmas! are among the most compelling and inventive tools for teaching young children to have fun with the English language. But the racism some of his books demonstrate towards people of Asian descent doesn’t go away just because people remember them fondly from childhood.
I have repeatedly argued that critics should explain how and why an author, painter, or musician has been meaningful for them — even if that meaning is largely negative — rather than striving to cultivate an air of imperious objectivity. That is the autobiographical component of autobiographical criticism.
Sometimes you will see reviews with a parenthetical aside that begins “Full disclosure:”, followed by information intended to acknowledge bias. The critic knows the artist personally. Or the artist has worked for the same magazine. Or is in the employ of the same corporate entity.
I contend that these asides should not be the exception, but the rule, that each and every piece of criticism would be better served by disclosing something about the path that makes the critic respond in a particular way.
However, autobiographical criticism can’t meet the standard of criticism unless it counterbalances this subjective dimension with a dogged insistence on paying close attention to what is there for all to see or hear. Reading or listening “between the lines” only makes sense so long as those lines don’t get neglected in the process.
Although I have tried to put this approach into practice for the last twenty-five years, I have almost always done so when writing about what used to be called popular culture: music, film, and television.
Because a lot of other people have made the case for focusing on audience response to this kind of material, most notably within the tradition of cultural studies, I have felt like part of a movement. Hell, there is an entire series of books, the 33 and 1/3 series, each one devoted to one noteworthy album, exemplifying the autobiographical criticism I have in mind.
It’s different with literature. To be sure, more criticism of this sort has appeared in recent years. You sometimes see traces of it in scholarly publishing, particularly in the work of critics whose racial or ethnic heritage, gender identity, sexual preference, and/or class background puts them on the margins of the traditional academy, in which being white, male, straight, cis, and at least middle-class has been the ideologically enforced norm. And there is a growing list of books in which authors tackle books that matter to them, not as a literary critic might, but with a personal touch, such as ig Publishing’s excellent Bookmarked series.
Yet for all that, there still remains a sense that major novelists and poets should be treated differently than popular artists.
This explains why, despite being a proponent of autobiographical criticism, I was reluctant to admit that I had responded to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in such a personal way.
Much as I felt the need to share the remarkable convergence I experienced on the trail, to give a sense of what had brought me and the novel to that point, I could still feel the voice of my teachers from long ago telling me to keep it to myself, to distil my passionate response until all the colour had been drained away.
I was dealing with a novel nearly a hundred years old, one which helped secure its author the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature, and seems increasingly suspect – given the other honorees of that era – for that reason.
A novel that has largely been displaced from the canon, first because of its relatively conservative approach to literary form and then because of its subject matter. The decadent bourgeois European society that World War I rendered hopelessly obsolete didn’t appear all that pertinent to a world preoccupied with the Cold War.
If I cared about The Magic Mountain, wouldn’t my time be better spent making a case for its potential value to others, instead of its impact on me?
This article is the first in a series. Read The View From Davos next.
Photographs courtesy of Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.