Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Magic Mountain (2): Time



2. Time

Mann conceived the conceit of the sanatorium as the cloistered environment in which Hans could come to maturity after visiting his own wife in a similar institution in the years before the First World War. It was, he noted, ‘a charmed circle of isolation and invalidism’ and thus provided a ‘sort of substitute existence’ in which a young person could be weaned ‘from actual and active life.’ This, then, is what Mann does: Hans is deposited in an environment where he could be confronted with what Tedlock describes as ‘the conflicting ideologies and much of the decadence of pre-World War 1 Europe.’ Erich Heller takes this further, saying, ‘The sanatorium is Europe. It is also the world. Man is the patient.’ The reader is left, then, as an uncomfortable observer while Hans is furnished with the learning and knowledge and understanding to make sense of the ideological impasse which has befallen society. Mann describes Hans’s development thus:

What [Hans] comes to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health; in just the same way that one must have a knowledge of sin in order to find redemption.


It is essential, however, that Hans should be given the time and freedom to reach this understanding of his own accord. The novel could not have worked if he were located within the reality of his own time, confronting the various crises unfolding in the world: only by dislocating him in this fashion can he be freed from the bonds of time and history to act as our neutral observer. He is taken out of time in order to make sense of it. Thus, a key element in Hans’s progress towards understanding, and a principal theme of the novel, is time itself.

Time, for someone in a sanatorium – literally waiting to be better – is virtually a meaningless concept. It stretches forward, untouchable, unchangeable, and there is nothing to do within it except wait – wait for what will come, be that either cure or death. Here then, essentially there is no time, there is only the inexorable progress towards an end. Thus, the residents of the sanatorium simply accede to a routine which is as unchanging as it is monotonous, involving rest, food, fresh air, exercise, rest, food, fresh air, exercise and on, and on. Naturally, this would make for a dull novel if there were nothing else, and the theme that such a novel would convey would be unbearably nihilistic; and so there are, within the cloistered atmosphere of progressive non-progress, a series of characters who question all that there is and all that we believe. Thus, we are able to question the constancy of an element that appears, at first sight, to be among the most constant of all our existence: the flow of time itself. Valerie Greenberg explains: ‘the viewpoint of The Magic Mountain is consonant with Einstein's theory: that the measurement of time and space is dependent upon the position of the observer.’ Thus, there are frequent digressions in the novel to examine in more depth this relative process of time. Early on, when looking at the baptismal basin that has been used for generations in his family, Hans is troubled by a ‘strange, dreamy’ sense of time as ‘both flowing and persisting’, of recurring in continuity. When lost in the mountains during a blizzard, Hans is ‘rapt back into the past’ so strongly that time and space are annihilated and ‘one might have said it was a lifeless body lying here on the bench by the waterside, while the actual Hans Castorp moved in that far-away time and place.’ Time, then, in Nietzschean spirit, may recur. It also appears to be flexible. As Hans explains in the novel:

“The days lengthen in the winter-time, and when the longest comes, the twenty-first of June, the beginning of summer, they begin to go downhill again, toward winter. You call that “of course”; but if one once loses hold of the fact that it is of course, it is quite frightening, you feel like hanging on to something. It seems like a practical joke – that spring begins at the beginning of winter , and autumn at the beginning of summer.”


Later, the novel’s omniscient narrator asks: ‘What is time? A mystery, a figment – and all powerful... Would there be no time if there were no motion? No motion if no time?’ Thus, Mann describes time variously as relentless and linear, as circular, and as variable. Further, he explains:

a narrative must have two kinds of time: first, its own, like music, actual time, conditioning its presentation and course; and second, the time of its content, which is relative, so extremely relative that the imaginary time of the narrative can either coincide nearly or completely with the actual, or musical, time, or can be a world away.


William Adair suggests there are, in fact, three “times” in The Magic Mountain: ‘realistic time, a hermetic out-of-tameness, and a speeding through the "years" (content time)’. The latter two, he suggests, are subjective times, subject to the monotonous daily round of sanatorium life, grinding past in excruciating detail but, at the same time, flying past for Hans so quickly that ‘he comes an “old man” in seven brief years.’ Mann would say that even ‘realistic’ time is beyond understanding. ‘Our utmost effort cannot conceive a final limit either to time or in space,’ he writes, continuing ‘we have settled to think of them as eternal and infinite – apparently in the hope that if this is not very successful, at least it will be more so than the other.’

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction
6. Approaches to Mann

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