Time In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Part 2.

Time is unreal, because the whole of any picture cannot be perceived at once.  Although the hands of a watch tick away, they cannot be said to be measuring minutes.  No one can know what the hands in truth are measuring for they are unaware of the divisions they pass over.  Grass grows so unobservably that it seems not to be growing.  However, at some minute grass appears from the seed.  This reflects the Greek paradox of being coming from non-being and furthers the mysterious notion of time as motion.  According to Mann, time has moved to bring changes according to a “succession of dimensionless points”, but at any one point the momentary effect on the grass is imperceptible.  As Piet Hein said in one of his Grooks, “We glibly speak of nature’s laws, but do things have a natural cause?  Black earth turned into yellow crocus is undiluted hocus pocus.”  Furthermore, the unreality of time rests on the premise that the immediacy of now varies with each person, with each event and with each thing.  According to the way it is interpreted, the same interval can be exciting, monotonous, capable, wasteful or productive.  Time is there in the feeling of the beholder, which Marcel Proust explored in depth in A la recherche du temps perdu.  As an entity, as a circular function that cannot go anywhere, time is a “hastening while” that “streams silently and ceaselessly on.”  So Thomas Mann develops the magic quality of time as a background against which seven years in the life of Hans Castorp takes place.

Actual time in the novel is sometimes represented by the number seven.  The book has seven chapters and the plot interval covers the seven years from 1907-1914.  There are seven tables in the sanatorium dining room, each of which is occupied by Hans Castorp during his seven years there.  The room of Frau Chauchat, “the charmer” is numbered seven.  Of course, the number seven has symbolic Biblical meaning.  Mann may be implying that the “new” Hans Castorp emerges within the Biblically significant number of years.  The seven years do change Hans through his own efforts.  There is unmeasured time for self-education in depth.  Self-study in books opens widespread areas of learning in the structure and function of the body, in the structure of snowflakes, in the functions of government, in the beginnings of the world, in the preservation of food and in the efficiency of the x-ray.  Time permits Hans Castorp to acquire encyclopedic knowledge.  It is interesting to note that in our modern era, educator Howard Gardner has identified seven distinct intelligences and French topologist, Rene Thom writes about seven elementary geometric catastrophes, so central to his Catastrophe Theory.

Time also becomes a relative concept as Hans Castorp stays longer away from the flat-land, under the influence of the magic mountain.  And the magic of timelessness becomes operative.  The days go by and Hans Castorp’s stay is lengthened to a month, then to six months, then to a year, then to seven years.  Hans loses all sense of time and cannot remember how long he has been on the mountain.  He becomes so engrossed that he forgets the flat-land and becomes part of the timeless spirit of the mountain.

The circular quality of time affects Hans when he welcomes back his cousin, Joachim, from the army.  He completes the circle of his own arrival as he meets his cousin on the same train, at the same station, and at the same time of the year.  The plot development is also circular.  Hans Castorp finally returns to the very place from where he started;  the flat-land.  He disappears on the battlefield of World War I, having completed the circular journey up and down the mountain.  And the higher one goes on the mountain the more unreal a measured minute becomes.  In the snowy vastness there is only the magic of timelessness…

 

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.

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