Time in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Part 1.

“Can one tell-that is to say, narrate-time, time itself, as such, for its own sake?   That would surely be an absurd undertaking.”  So Thomas Mann asks and answers one of the fundamental questions of his novel.  It is the “magic” of the “magic mountain” that obscures definite flatland time and establishes the verities of timelessness and infinite space.  However, Mann qualifies this thought by stating that one can only tell a story of time by assuming that time is  something flowing, a succession where one event follows another.  Mann actually views time as something inordinately complex and puzzling.  Humans lack any time organ that could measure it precisely.  Also, watches and clocks have no “feeling for the limits, divisions, or measurements of time.”  A concept of time must embody its actual value, relative value, circular quality, its relation to change and its essential unreality.  Time is so central to his work that he includes two complete sections:  “Excursus on the Sense of Time” and “By the Ocean of Time”, which are philosophical interpretations of time.

He speaks about the scientific definition of time:  the measurement of motion in space.  However, time is extremely relative like the distance from one place to another.  A long train journey might take twenty hours, by foot it would be greatly longer and in the mind it might take but a second.  And the motion of the seasons is also relative.  The calendar might indicate a regular succession of months, but in appearance and in effect, spring might be a phase of winter and autumn might reflect pieces of summer.  The very equinoctial movements are only relative for they anticipate each subsequent season in the midst of a current season.  The seasons flow with time not with the “actual state of the calendar.” Relative time flows like a piece of music.  It is a succession that requires more than one sound, but needs others to form a pattern.  Mann speaks of relative time as a “line composed of a succession of dimensionless points…  that goes on bringing about changes.”

Time is also circular.  After eons or seconds, all is as it was in the beginning.  Time cannot be shortened by novelty.  At first, novelty may seem to pass quickly, but as one becomes accustomed to the novelty, one shifts back to the old life and it is if the novelty has never existed.  Even monotony cannot make time seem long; “great spaces” of monotonous time merely shrink together and make the longest life appear short.  Earth’s very movement and the motions of the planets return to the point they have set out from.  Time is so much of a circle that Mann says it is a “cessation of movement–for the there repeats itself constantly in the here, the past in the present.”  But, at the zero point, an acceleration begins that leads through subsequent changes until finally zero is reached again.  And time change in a cell can be compared to time change in the individual.  An individual is born only to die, but in death he has only “closed his eyes on time.”  In fact, the individual has an abundance of time and is “timeless.”  The dissolution process of death is caused by combination with oxygen in the process of oxidation.  Here the circular time is complete, because life also rests on oxidation.  Living consists in dying and the dead partake of life processes.

About Robert M. Weiss
From an early age, I've taken great pleasure in reading. Also, I learned to play my 78 player when I was quite young, and enjoyed listening to musicals and classical music. I remember sitting on the floor, and following the text and pictures of record readers, which were popular in the 1940s and 50s. My favorites were the Bozo and Disney albums. I also enjoyed watching the slow spinning of 16s as they spun out tales of adventure. I have always been attracted by rivers, and I love to sit on a boulder with my feet in the water, gazing into the mysteries of swirling currents. I especially like inner tubing on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. Since my early youth, I've been interested in collecting minerals, which have taught me about the wonderful possibilities in colors and forms. Sometimes I try to imagine what the ancient Greeks must have felt when they began to discover physical laws in nature. I also remember that I had a special passion for numbers, and used to construct them out of stones. After teaching Russian for several years, I became a writer, interviewer, editor, and translator. I continue to delight in form, and am a problem solver at heart.

5 Responses to Time in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Part 1.

  1. ladynyo says:

    It’s been decades since I read “Magic Mountain”, or anything much by Mann, but your essay is ‘timely’. LOL! I have just finished writing (for 8 years, mostly ignored, shelved a novel of 21st century Japan and a travel back (by a kimono possessed) to the 16th century. A time warp I would call it. So your essay on time certainly gives clarity and substance to an issue that we stly not think in these many faceted concerns. I enjoyed this very much. I will continue to check out your blog. Great, provocative, writing.

    And thank you for reading “Some Spring Tanka”. I have to search harder in my files for more as I couldn’t find those I wanted to. Now, the issue as to whether they are ‘proper’ tanka or not, I leave to others. They are older, and I didn’t do the study that was necessary for understanding the ins and outs of tanka. That took later years. I will try to add to this “Some Spring Tanka” today. Thank you, Robert.

    Also, I had to laugh at your “About….”. Seems we were brought up in the same ways….50’s and 60’s for me were listening and ‘singing along’ with E Puritani, ]Norma, Tosca. Learning the librettos, liner notes, all this mostly from Deuche records. Name slips me of the recording company. All with M. Callas as the main feature. I went on to study opera and then dropped it. The 60’s. Didn’t pick it up again until 1990-2000 and did concerts here in Atlanta during those years. it was a childhood gratification that took ‘form’.


    • Thanks, Jane for your kind comments and observations. Thomas Mann was a favorite author of mine when I was in college in the 70s. I was intrigued by his extensive knowledge of science and the way he applied it to his novel. So, I am also returning in time to an earlier stage.
      I must admit I know nothing about tanka. I did appreciate the poem and liked your earlier analysis of the Manyosho. It got me thinking.
      I studied Chinese literature in college, but not a scrap of Japanese literature. However, I’ve been intrigued by women writers such as Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon. They wrote before Western women really got a handle.
      I look forward to reading more of your intriguing and insightful posts. You seem like a lady with many interests.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ladynyo says:

        Thank you, Robert. I do have many interests, but that comes from ditching college in the late 60’s and many bad experiments. What many don’t realize that Japanese literature early on was an imitation of Chinese everything…and reading and writing in Chinese was only the domain of Japanese men. it was almost forbidden to Japanese women. Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon and a few others had to learn Chinese on the sly. However, the dominance of Japanese women as authors, poets came about when they developed the
        language into something specifically Japanese….breaking with the forms of Chinese…also in sentiment. I have very slowly taught myself Japanese by an early love of Arthur Waley’s translations, but that was just a beginning. I go back and forth with tanka….there is much involved in the structure, etc…and it takes years of serious study to get a handle on it and life has much more about it. LOL! Thank you, Robert, for your very kind comments yourself. Tanka is a very worthwhile study for so many different reasons. And I am so glad you know about the great Man’yoshu. So many readers and writers don’t and I believe it makes them poorer for it. I also will be reading more of your blog. You are a very interesting writer.


  2. berlioz1935 says:

    The topic, or concept, of time, interest me greatly. I have never read the book (only saw a movie of which I can’t remember time being discussed. Since reading your blog and the comments by you and ladynyo I became so intrigued, that I ordered the book today. This gap in my education (Bildungslücke) has to be closed.

    They promised me that the book could arrive here between the end of and the end of July. There is something to look forward to.


  3. Peter, I assume you’re reading Der Zauberberg in the original German. I used the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation from Vintage Books. It pleases me greatly that my post and comments inspired you to read this great novel. I know you will enjoy it and give you a profound read. I’ll be interested in hearing your impressions of Thomas Mann’s towering masterpiece.


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