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.