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Noga Arikha: Reading ‘The Magic Mountain’ in a flattened world

Friday 22 January 2021

Set in a sanatorium in the Alps, Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel diagnoses our current condition. Its main character emerges into the horror of World War One. What will we emerge into?

Three summers ago, in Sardinia, I started reading Thomas Mann’s lyrical novel The Magic Mountain. Every night, after a day of turquoise seas, I left the Mediterranean sun for the Alpine air and snowy peaks. For some reason, once the summer ended I dropped the book. I am not alone in having done so, but it is unclear why I did, since I had been ensconced in it. Now that I have finally resumed its reading, I am again gorging on the brilliance, the irony, the chiselled precision of it all. And I have realised, with dismay, that the world has eerily come to resemble the tuberculosis sanatorium where the book is set and, so to speak, stuck. 

For we feel stuck. If we are lucky, we manage to run our lives as we must – work and administration, meetings, plans, projects, duties, the school run and homework, and always the shopping, cooking, cleaning. We communicate, phone, Zoom. Sure, we can also see each other in the flesh, on occasion – one on one, or outside – and sure, there are always books, music and cinema at home. It is all so quasi-normal that the threadbare nature of this normality has become hard to notice. But once we recall or fleetingly relive what life was like “before”, the realisation hits that social life inheres in fluctuating groups of people criss-crossing each others’ paths. Liveliness depends on variety, unpredictability, the contagion of ideas and the undirected flow of chaotic conversation. 

Flatness is what this is. No longer enriched by the various embodied interactions that normal days once were made of, there is no bounce to our lives – beyond the computer screens that still allow for interactions but are frustratingly disembodied, indeed, flattened approximations of the real thing. No accident, besides the accident of contagious illness. The silent presence of the virus is like a soft snowstorm: billions of invisible particles that, in bulk, have become the main substance, extinguishing noise, blanketing and flattening out the details of variegated landscapes. Voices would normally resonate in the thin air of winter, but they are muffled by our face masks.

Our lives flattened by a virus, just as the lives of the patients Thomas Mann draws in the Alps are flattened, their prospects determined entirely by the state of their lungs, unless they decide to flee the clinic and return to their lives down in the “flatlands”. The Berghof sanatorium is a luxurious place; it is in fact the Schatzalp in Davos. Its patients are fortunate – and, in this respect, it is not at all a miniature version of our pandemic-ridden world. But the echoes are inevitable. There are the very ill and the dying, tragically. There are the acutely ill who recover. The chronically ill who keep coughing, and whose temperature never drops down to normal for long enough. The unknowingly contaminated ones, who seem healthy but whose lung X-rays harbour signs of pathology the doctors dislike and that warrant what is tantamount to an arrest. And there is everyone else: for the illness can strike anyone, any time. The doctors are not immune either.

The hero, Hans Castorp, had set out to visit his “good cousin Joachim” for what he planned would be three weeks. He was a seemingly healthy, ambitious, 23-year old graduate when he embarked on the spectacular rail ride up into the heights to pay his courtesy visit. But once there, he swiftly becomes a patient too. And so he stays, beset with an illness he had never suspected – as if the cause of the illness were the clinic that is supposed to be the place of cure. The state of health is no longer the norm here: one can only stay if one is ill, though the cause of his, and indeed other patients’ illness, is never clear. His engineering ambitions are put to a side. He adopts the mandatory “rest cure”, often falling asleep on the freezing balcony, in view of the snowy peaks and dramatic crags, protected in his lounge chair by luxurious camel blankets and thick gloves, wrapped in fur-lined sleeping bags, reading about biology and life, and fantasising about exotic Clavdia Chauchat, the high-cheekboned, cat-eyed woman from Dagestan. He dutifully takes his temperature as many times a day as has been ordained the director, Dr Behrens. 

The three weeks turn into months, and soon into a full year. The routine becomes Castorp’s life – for what will turn out to be a whole seven years. There are the sumptuous meals three times a day, taken in a large dining hall, each patient always at the same seat. There is mingling, there are Christmas and Carnival and Easter parties. There are walks to town, hikes in the mountains. But the sanatorium is its own world, where people go to heal, or to die. The only events besides the meals and parties are arrivals, regular health checks, departures, and deaths. The calendar has flattened to just weeks passing, whose rhythm is set merely by the feasts.

Castorp now has all the time in the world to contemplate “the eternal monotony of time’s rhythm, of the diverting, standard segmentation of the normal day, which was always the same, to the point where each day was so confusingly like, so identical with, the next that it could be taken for it, a fixed eternity that made it hard to understand how time could ever bring forth changes”. Salience has disappeared. Conversations happen, and they can be animated – indeed they are often as significant and distinct as are the various inmates Thomas Mann has brought into existence here. With the resident psychoanalyst and biweekly lecturer (on love and death) Dr Krokowski, Castorp has discussions “about life as an impudency of matter, about illness as life’s lascivious form”. Metaphysics resonate up here. Castorp has time for them, as well as for the study of botany, astronomy, or history. But thoughts, investigations, passions and exchanges are confined within the Berghof and don’t resonate in the world beyond it.

We too, like Castorp, are stuck in a sanatorium where nothing much is allowed to happen beyond the thoughts in our heads, our online and phone exchanges, and whatever home life we are blessed with or condemned to. But within the confines of the book, the sanatorium is confined too: there is a world beyond the Berghof, even though it has receded far below the Alpine heights, and exists merely in the form of letters, parcels, and those who have freshly arrived from down “below”. Our plight now is worse than that of the Berghof residents because, in these Covid days, there is no place beyond the ailing world. I may be able to put the book away, its realm safely contained within its covers. But the pandemic roils on.

And so all the activities we ordinarily engage in, which we normally count on to confer meaning on our lives, have become an escape from what has become the central story – Covid – and its central setting – the spherical sanatorium that is our Earth. Meaninglessness is overflowing into individual meanings, amorphousness into the patterns we create.

Humans everywhere are waiting for an ending to this parenthetical moment before the prolonged drama about to unfold. We are standing in an antechamber before the advent of a time in the near future whose stuff is unpredictable. There is a heavy irony to the Berghof being set in Davos, where the moves of big business are decided year after year, and big words spoken from the Alpine heights. We do know that millions of people will lose whatever livelihoods they had – and many have already. Some of us will change lives, make drastic decisions – or have done so already. But a vast number of us are flattened to a strangely basic state, whose characteristics are hard to define but which is physiological as much as anything. The bounce we miss was always a distraction from this baseline. 

At best we can do as Castorp does, who, up there on his balcony before the majestic peaks and skies, uses time – wide open as it has become – to inquire into its nature. He listens to his breathing and heartbeat, wonders about the flesh he is made of. It is a sublime, desperate place, perfectly suited to philosophical wonder. But as Montaigne said, to philosophise is to learn how to die. And we want life. We want face-to-face meetings, free movement, travel, hugs, embraces, cafés, dinners, parties and cocktails, maskless singing and shouting, matches, plays, shared sweat, filled lecture halls. We want normality. We will return to it once the flattening snow has melted. It is not certain how quickly we will forget what it had been like – one tends to blank out the details of illness, pain, and hospital stays. But we will be returning to it from a new vantage point.

I am not done with The Magic Mountain yet, though I will probably reach the last page before the pandemic is done with us. I know that the novel, which was first published in 1924, closes just as World War I has broken out, with Hans Castorp leaving the Berghof for the folly of mass destruction down below, and disappearing into thin air. We can only hope that, when we exit this global sanatorium and end our state of flattened suspension, we will be mingling again in a better world than the one he found. And that this will happen in 2021 – not in seven years. 

Noga Arikha is a historian of ideas and philosopher, the author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007) and an Associate Fellow of the Warburg Institute in London