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…


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.