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4.0 out of 5 stars
Railing Against Science, July 22 2002
Thomas Mann is at the quintessence of twentieth century thought in The Magic Mountain. Those of you who have read Proust might find the book's central thesis similar: (And indeed, the book does have a theme, as much it rambles and tries to confuse you) the subjectivity and illusory reality of Time. From there Mann is a thinker unto himself for he makes sure that you take that statement through all its corollaries. You can't measure the passing of time objectively, and if you had lost your senses (or perhaps you are seriously ill) you will have soon lost grip of its passing; before you've gone to tea again, dinner, and to your second rest cure, you're in your death throes. On the "Magic" Mountain, what's to separate the three weeks that Hans, our main character, initially intends to stay from the seven years it does take him to "be cured," when each day is characterized by monotonous routine?
OK, I'll admit it, this book is not for philistines looking for entertainment, as more than one reviewer has found out. This is cold, hard metaphysics, at times strikingly expressed. The book tempts you to think death is nothing if not constantly occurring, and time nothing other than a "flat-land" device for slowing down that omnipresent decomposition and oxidation of your body, "the natural burning off of life."
Yes, reader, science is at work in this novel. And if I were to flesh out the thesis further, the grotesque and often painful imagery of the sanatorium is Mann's great argument against what science -- medicine -- or further, the industrial revolution -- has given old, antedeluvian society. New ideas work like a disease, no less .. a terminal, horrible dehumanization that makes you doubt all measures in life -- allowing the blinkered Western Civ nothing left but the absolute nihilism.
Beyond the ideas, there is art in Mann's very prolix creation. Unlike other disjointed novels that delve into a character's subconscious, Mann manages to weave it all together. Cliches, slips of the tongue, and dreams hide and obscure fuller, interconnected emotions and strivings that are expressed directly only at brief, lucid moments in the prose -- an original and ingenious device. For example, at the beginning of the book the reader can make no sense of Hans' dreaming and fantasizing about his schoolboy crush for another boy name Hippe -- whose only direct contact he had was that he borrowed a pencil from him. Hans connects this image and episode with his current infatuation for terminally ill guest Clavdia Chauchat. For two hundred pages this point is drawn upon from various angles until finally Mann concocts an occasion where Hans asks Clavdia for a pencil .. and the dialogue, gestures, and body language mirror exactly that long ago encounter with Hippe. It strikes you and comes out of nowhere. Clavdia leaves Berghof the next day, just as Hippe left Hamburg in Hans's youth, leaving the latter to dream and ponder further.
Hans is very much an anti-hero .. while at the same time he is the novel's draw. He's pathetic, lazy, all too comfortable with the disturbing atmosphere of the terminally ill that Mann sketches around him. But unlike everyone else, he seems to be able to preserve simple human optimism and beauty that is obvious dead all around him. Though it's absurd and perverted hope and happiness -- and meant be so. Disturbingly so. Hans is not hopeful about leaving .. rather he is able to look forward to death, all while reclining on his balcony, smoking his cigars, and taking general pleasure as his temperature rises and he becomes presumably more ill. The "Magic" pervades him.
The best that can be said for Mann is this stuff is original while maintaining a great depth of allusion and allegory. Mann doesn't forget he's German -- there's plenty of Faust here. Even a passing reference to Schiller that sticks in your mind. The book abounds with representations and caricatures of Western thought .. everyone is present at the death march that is Mann's portrait of dying Western culture.