Wednesday, September 14, 2011

MM. Basecamp briefing 1

"Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the moutains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away." 

Umberto Eco

You should not be too much daunted or humbled by the reputation of Thomas Mann. Mann, today, is as much in need of your sympathetic appreciation of his books as he was in the days before his first successes. Strangely and unlike writers like Proust or Joyce, Mann is a Modern Master whose reputation still has to be defended against the attacks of contemporary critics. This old Giant remains in need of friends. Much has to do with who he was and what he said during his lifetime as well as the mood of the time when he was famous as I will explain later.

Despite, the reputation of the Magic Mountain, to be a “splendid novel of ideas”and a masterpiece of twentieth-century world literature, you should not be too worried either about “understanding” what is going on in the pages of the book. “I want to appeal to stupid people too”, Thomas Mann jokingly confirmed in a letter send on fool’s day to Hermann Hesse. Mann and I, understandably, we were immediately a perfect match. I gobbled up his books one after the other: The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, The Buddenbrooks, Joseph and his brothers…In fact, I managed to read the Magic Mountain, even when I was too inexperienced in life and literature to grasp even a fraction of what this huge book had to say. But Mann’s realistic prose and the many descriptions of everyday life, which function as a narrative counterbalance to the philosophical debates on life and death, are captivating enough to pull you through the eight hundred pages, even if you join this reading for pure entertainment.

In that pre-internet era of the eighties, I tried to make sense of the Magic Mountain on my own, understanding it with the poor information I could lay my hands on. I was wrong-footed when I misunderstood Michel Tournier’s remark, when he claimed that the Magic Mountain answered all philosophical questions. I took his offhand remark too literally and I started to read philosophical books to try to uncover by myself what there was to understand about the Magic Mountain. It was of course a ridiculous attempt and I lost myself in an imbroglio of obscure understandings. Futile as the whole enterprise was, these early wild intellectual goose chases, were the start of my very private, autodidactic journey to come to understand Mann’s book.

In his brillant essay: Transfiguration in Silence: Hans Castorp’s Uncanny Awakening, Joseph Lawrence, Professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, argues that a good understanding of Thomas Mann's “Magic Mountain", demands more from the reader than deciphering the multitude of hidden symbolic meanings.

Although the magic Mountain is a straightforward account of the European soul at the brink of the First World War, the novel seems to be too artfully contrived to be just that. On the contrary, the fluctuating meanings of the different symbols and their untrustworthy interpretations enhanced by Mann’s famous free play of irony show us the existence of an inner-world between the lines of the novel. The Magic Mountain is hermetic but also something more. To understand Mann’ s life affirming intention, one needs to try to understand the lived reality that unfolds beyond the text more than merely execute the academic exercise of uncovering the meanings of the multitude of symbols.

Reading between the lines, claims Lawrence, is a skill taught by live itself.

The Magic Mountain is a book that I have, now nearly thirty years after my first reading, always kept close at hand. I regularly reread parts of it (it has a soothing effect on me) and I have in all these years been able to find my way through a great number of critical works, and I have come to understand a little bit more than in those early days.