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.

“Have You Not Done Tormenting Me With Your Accursed Time!”–Pozzo, From Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

Bert Lahr As Estragon In Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

Bert Lahr as Estragon In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

In Act 2 of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, the previously conceited and self-assured Pozzo has lost the watch that regulated his life and gone blind.  His slave, Lucky, has become dumb, which is in stark contrast to the long, rambling, and disturbing speech he gives in Act 1.  In Beckett’s work, virtually all of his characters suffer from some physical ailment that makes life even more painful for them.  Vladimir, the more intellectual side of man, suffers from kidney problems, while Estragon, the more earthy side of man, suffers from pains in his feet.  The above photo shows Estragon suffering from acute pain, both mental and physical.  But Waiting for Godot is about more than pain;  it is about time and its manifestations.  The very title implies time.  In Beckett, time exists as an abstract entity, but it does initiate specific changes that are crucial to the dramatic power of the play.  It is not surprising that the play is often described in musical terms, because music embodies time and variations in tonal patterns.  When we examine the events of Act 2 as opposed to Act 1, we see some musical parallels.  On the whole, although Estragon and Vladimir don’t change in Act 2, the people around them do and they create a more menacing, threatening tone.  Pozzo, who dragged Lucky as his slave on a long rope in the previous act is now blind and guided by Lucky, who is now dumb and on a short rope.  Also, Lucky wears a different hat.  His previous one remains on the stage.  In the second act, Vladimir is alone with the Boy, Mr. Godot’s messenger, as Estragon is asleep.  Without Estragon’s loud, whiney voice, the scene is subdued and unbearably sad.  The hopelessness that Vladimir feels when he learns that Mr. Godot “does nothing” is tangible throughout the audience and the confined space of the theater.  “Tell him that you saw me” are the last words that Vladimir says to Godot’s messenger.  While Vladimir can recognize the Boy, the latter can’t recognize him.  Beckett appears to be saying that our existence is so meaningless that our individual characteristics count as nothing.  Quite a contrast to Pozzo’s trumpeting ego and arrogance in Act 1.  Time inevitably brings death to a human life and both acts deal early with words about death.  In Act 1, Vladimir and Estragon discuss the possibility of hanging themselves.  In Act 2, Vladimir sings about a dog that a cook beats to death with a ladle.  He repeats the last words of the song four times, the last line five times, “Then all the dogs came running and dug the dog a tomb.”  Time has done its job.  The crescendo arrives with Pozzo’s anguished outburst:  “Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time!…, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that enough for you?  Then, what follows is Beckett’s view of life that reverberates in several of his works:  “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”  Pozzo and Lucky go off, leaving an ominous silence.  But, throughout all the darkness and despair, the once barren tree has produced a few leaves and Vladimir and Estragon’s friendship will continue…

“Like The Wind Across Your Face, Lucas Boy.”

The previous year is already gone, replaced by a new year.  Thus, it seems fitting to quote marshal Micah Torrance’s description of the passage of time from The Rifleman:  “Like the wind across your face, Lucas boy.”  He is an older man talking to a younger man, Lucas McCain, about the fleeting nature of time, a major theme in the show.

The series shows the special relationship between widower, Lucas McCain and his son Mark.  We see how Mark changes, from a ten-year-old to an adolescent and how this affects the relationship with his father.  He learns to accept people’s differences(another major theme), and learn there is a time for different things in life.  But, even in the early episodes, Mark takes an active role in defending his father and saving his life.  The Rifleman really deals with Mark’s education in the broadest sense, from going to the confines of the schoolhouse to learning about survival amidst rugged terrain.  His interaction with his father gives the show its dynamic, as they confront outlaws, outcasts, people uncertain of what they want and people who are too proud to admit they may be wrong.

In the last episode, we see Mark with a potential girlfriend, though it is clear Mark is not ready for commitment.  If the series had continued, Mark would have become an adult, which was not what The Rifleman was about.  As an audience, we are visual witnesses to the characters’ swift aging, and we are forced to accept Micah’s statement about the sudden rush of time.

A Pool Of Memories

My Grandma Lillian’s swimming pool provided a treasure of childhood memories.  Since my family lived next door to her, summer visits to the pool were frequent.  I recall the flashes of brown and green as fins dropped to the bottom.  Later, these fins served as bats when we played pool baseball.  If you hit the rubber ball over the diving board, you were given a home run.  Any ball hit on the side was ruled a foul ball.  To throw a swimmer out, you needed to hit the designated base before the swimmer.  In those halcyon days, energy didn’t seem to be a factor.  And when we did get tired, we were usually rewarded with hot dogs, and paper cups of cold, sparkling lemonade.

The right side of the pool displayed a jacuzzi-like effect, because that’s where the recycled water shot into the pool.  I remember water spurting all over my skin.  The left side of the pool provided another attraction:  the filter.  I remember Dad dropping in a colorful display of liquids, and the flushing sound as the filter went about it’s business.  I also recall Dad holding a large jug of chlorine, which later burned our eyes and got into our lungs.

When our basset hound, Peter, was around, we’d take him into the pool area, because his brother, Adam, lived on the other side of the wire fence.  It was amusing to see the dogs approach each other and look into each other’s deep, doleful eyes.  The bassets continued to meet until Adam was poisoned.  Peter looked for him, but never found him.

A jump in the pool was just the thing to dispel thoughts of ringed atolls, complex numbers, and future exams.  These thoughts washed way in frolicsome play.  Water became the main focus and doing laps via crawl or frog kicks was just the thing.  And lying flat on your back or grabbing some object to float on was the order of the day.  Time was never thought of, but  was present nonetheless.  High school, which seemed like a distant vision, had become only too real as well as college, which was approaching.  Soon, unbeknownst to me, the gates to Grandma Lillian’s pool would never admit me again.  And when the gates would open, they would belong to another family, building their own pool of memories.

Some Reflections On Life

Today I engaged in some reflections on life.  I realize at birth we are given a certain bundle of energy and a finite time interval.  The extent that we get fulfillment in life depends on how we nurture, and cultivate this energy and how wisely we use the time allotted to us.  Anything that increases our energy or strengthens it is to the good.  Anything that drains our energy or seeks to reduce it is something we need to avoid.  Energy, of course, comes in different forms:  mental, and physical.  When we utilize our physical and mental energy in a positive manner, or when we refine it and use it in a way to better ourselves, this is a road to fulfillment.  The time interval each of us is given varies tremendously, but most of us can do something with the time we do have.