Switzerland or Bust

Return to Magic Mountain

Ever since I finished Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I have been trying to find a way of explaining why it’s worth reading that prioritises the words on the page rather than my idiosyncratic response to them. 

All roads (in this case, trains) lead to Davos.

That response matters a great deal to me. I wouldn’t have written this piece if it didn’t. But I want to make clear that it was made possible by content available to anyone who reads the novel, no matter how divergent their experience may be from my own. 

“It teaches us how to map time. And how to read the maps of time made by others.”

That’s what I wrote to a friend the other day. At the time, it felt like a profound insight. Now it seems distressingly simplistic. Still, I have to begin somewhere, so it might as well be with maps. 

About three-quarters of the way through the novel, right after Hans Castorp’s cousin Joachin Ziemssen, sadly returned from his regimental life in the flatlands, passes away, the narrator — perhaps too impersonal to be conflated with Mann himself — delivers a lengthy excursus on the difficulty human beings confront when they have to deal with time.  

“We lack an internal organ for time,” he explains. “Left on our own without external clues, we are totally incapable of even approximate reliability when estimating elapsed time.” In this sense, we are all like the castaway or prisoner who must maintain a record of his exile by inscribing marks on an external object.

He invokes the example of the rescued miners who, after being trapped underground for ten days, were shocked to learn it had been that long, having believed that their ordeal had only lasted three. “It appears that under confusing conditions, man in his helplessness tends to experience time in a greatly diminished form rather than to overestimate it.”

It is in this chapter that he describes the book we have been reading as a Zeitroman, a “time novel” intended to explore the problems that time poses for us and, by coupling these reflections with a narrative, help us to track its passage, not only in Hans Castorp’s life, but in our own lives as well. 

This is why Mann describes the sanatorium and its surroundings so precisely. 

We need to know how the tables are arranged in the dining hall, so that we may grasp the importance of a change in seating assignments. 

We need to know the trail Castorp takes on his solitary constitutionals and the bench where he sometimes sits down to “play king” — his way of describing free-associative rumination — so that we recognise the horror of witnessing his two most important mentors, Settembrini and Naphta, tracing that same route on their way to a pointless duel.

Following Castorp’s story, readers participate vicariously in the cognitive mapping that comes to burden almost every spot he visits regularly with a wealth of contradictory memories. 

If it proves impossible to take direct hold of time, because we lack that organ the narrator describes, the only way we can keep its passage from eluding us altogether is by weaving it together with space. 

After I finished The Magic Mountain, I was overcome by a profound sense of loss. Like Hans Castorp, I had been enchanted. And just as Hans Castorp’s liberation plunges him into mortal peril — he signs up to serve in the German army at the beginning of the Great War – I had a strange foreboding that mine would also put me at risk.

So I decided to start the novel over, listening to the portion that I had initially read on the page. 

Though this might seem like a perverse reaction, one indicative of my melancholy temperament, it struck me as preferable to the alternative, feeling cast back into the harsh reality I had been using the help of this virtual sanatorium to survive. 

That’s how I came to understand how perfectly the beginning of the book lays the groundwork for what will follow. 

More specifically, I realised that the narrator’s digression about the “time novel” was anticipated in the novel’s short preface, which I had initially rushed through, searching for a plot. 

That’s when he explains that his tale has the character of something that happened very long ago, despite belonging to the recent past: 

“The extraordinary pastness of our story results from its having taken place before a certain turning point” — the German word is Wende, which has a stronger sense of epochal transformation — “on the far side of a rift that has cut deeply through our lives and consciousness”.

“It takes place,” he continues — the German word is spielt, which translates literally as “plays” — “or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place” — the German word is now spielte, which equates to “played” — “back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, with whose beginning so many things began whose beginnings, it seems, have not yet ceased.”

In other words, his tale has the character of something that happened very long ago, not in spite of how recently it transpired, but precisely because of that proximity to the present: 

“Is not the pastness of a story that much more profound, more complete, more like a fairy tale, the tighter” — the German word for “tighter” is dichter, which can indicate proximity, but also means “more densely”  and carries faint overtones of the noun Dichter, the word for “poet” — it fits up against the ‘before?’”

The narrator is trying to describe something strange that happened in the relatively short amount of time that transpired between the opening events of the novel, which occur in 1907, and the time of its completion in the early 1920s. 

But the only language up to the task is emphatically spatial. There is a rift and, forcefully pressed up against its far side, like the earth that mounds up on the edge of a geologic fault, the tale he is about to tell.

This is what I had in mind when I told my friend that The Magic Mountain teaches us how to map time. By itself, time slips through our fingers. But when its passage is spatialised, as a kind of temporal topography, we locate our memories in a way that makes it possible to retrieve them later. 

I love maps. I love them so much that I read the same ones over and over. I retrace steps I will never make for real and ones I’ve made far too often to need the help of a map.

The map at the Linda Vista trailhead near my house falls into the latter category. Even now, after having walked every inch of the small network of trails a hundred times over, not to mention period forays into the territory adjoining them, I still stop to study it. 

Thomas Mann was here.

To be sure, all the time I spend reading maps helps me when I need guidance. 

I can find my way to most places without the assistance of the automated GPS systems that supposedly make the need to read maps obsolete. 

And, because I always check the map before heading to an unfamiliar destination, I can help traveling companions who are relying on those systems to cope with their occasional failures. 

Few things give me more pleasure than seeing an unfamiliar landscape for the first time, comparing its appearance to what I imagined while looking at the map. I also derive deep satisfaction from gradually closing the gap between the abstraction afforded by a map and my own experience of a place, mentally adding tags to it with each successive trip. 

Eventually, even the difficult-to-recall curves on a topographic map start to align with my memories of traversing the space it describes, as has become the case for the Linda Vista trail system. 

It’s that repetition that distinguishes me from most map readers. I read maps to imagine the future, the way they are intended to be used. 

But I also read maps to remember the past and to collapse the distance between the times I’ve spent at a particular location or along a particular route. 

The Magic Mountain transports the vast majority of readers out of their everyday reality, into a world where the privilege is as rarified as the air. That was true when the novel was first published in 1924 and remains so nearly a century later. But it fails to make good on the promise of adventure. 

Although Mann periodically adorns his story with the trappings of travel literature — as when Hans Castorp goes astray while skiing in a sudden snowstorm or when he and the other companions of the wealthy coffee planter Myneer Peperkorn make an excursion to visit a waterfall — all roads lead back to the Berghof sanatorium, a world in miniature with all the freedom of a snow globe.

Only the characters who somehow resist its enchantment, like Clavdia Chauchat and Castorp’s cousin Joachim Ziemssen, get to see a truly different landscape. Like those two principal characters, however, they have a way of ending back up there before too long. 

For long-term guests like Castorp, it is almost impossible to recall their former existence. The sanatorium makes ordinary maps seems as fantastical as the medieval ones that mapped the territory of Prester John.

Mann’s genius is to show how the constraints imposed by life in a medical facility, even one as luxurious as the Berghof, facilitate limitless exploration of the human psyche. Because the sanatorium’s patients can’t go many places, they go places where their counterparts down below fear to journey. 

The extreme repetitiveness of their daily routine makes it necessary to find innovative ways of marking time. 

Instead of planning voyages to distant destinations, studying the routes they might take to reach them, they wear the same paths smooth. But by grouping experiences at certain familiar locations together, they are able to register the passage of time, reconstructing its topography. They map it. And attentive readers begin to map it alongside them. 

When I started the novel over, listening to portions I had read on the page, I perceived a rift much like the one the narrator describes in the preface. This time, I was walking the Linda Vista trail network, passing the same spots where I remembered hearing key events from the second half of the novel. 

Rounding a bend on the north loop as I headed up the trail, I listened to Castorp’s bemused arrival at the Berghof Sanatorium while recalling that I had traversed this same stretch, this time on my way down, when Myneer Peperkorn was insisting that Hans Castorp and his other newfound acquaintances continue to drink the night away. 

More consequentially, I heard about Castorp’s strange same-sex crush on a fellow teenager while walking the same portion of the middle trail where I had listened to the consummation of its heterosexual double with Clavdia Chaucat, the parallel reinforced by his memories of sharing a pencil in both instances. 

The strangeness of listening to the beginning of the novel after reaching its end further complicated my already complex response to it. Sometimes, I would experience an intense body memory of the first time I encountered a passage on the page, whether in English or German. 

In particular, I remembered my initial headlong rush into the story, which had brought me to the point where Hans Castorp, after at first mocking the way they do things at the sanatorium, begins to see its merits. Back then, during the summer of 2015, I was a very different person in a very different world. 

The rifts that would later open up between then and now were just starting to become visible. 

Although still dismissed by the mainstream media as an unserious outsider candidate with no chance of winning the presidency, Donald Trump was drawing the kind of crowds that would  soon make him a frontrunner for the Republican nomination. 

And the problems that would soon stretch my family to the breaking point, while already perceptible, were easy to dismiss as temporary. 

When I think back on that time, it seems to belong to a past as distant as the pre-World War I period that Mann’s narrator references in the novel’s preface. So distant, in fact, that I have difficulty recollecting that period with any clarity. 

Hell, I find it a easier to summon detailed memories of my early childhood, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, than I do of Barack Obama’s second term. 

Part of that has to do with getting older, I realise. But it’s not only that. The recent past feels so distant because we haven’t yet learned to retrieve it safely. Cordoned off in our minds, it forces us to make detours in the course of retrieving memories from more distant days, thereby transforming into a kind of negative space.

Only when we are able to conceptualise it in topographic terms, using the kind of mental maps that bind memories from different times to the same location, will we be able to turn it into something positive.

That is perhaps The Magic Mountain’s greatest gift to us. It’s a historical novel in which the major events of history are felt almost entirely as absence, the “after” on the other side of that rift.

Knowing what is to come shapes our response to the novel, dividing us from the characters who, of course, do not. Knowing what was to come in my own life, during the seven years after I started reading the novel, suffuses the memories of those days with a melancholy afterglow.

By teaching me to map time, Thomas Mann’s masterpiece provides a way of bridging that divide. I think it has the potential to perform similar feats for anyone who reads it with care.

This article is the third and final article in a series. The Thomas Mann Mountain, and The View From Davos, are the first two.

Photographs courtesy of daves_archive1 and Charlie Bertsch. Published under a Creative Commons license.