Thursday, December 31, 2020

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Source of book: borrowed from my wife’s collection. 


From time to time, I borrow one of my wife’s Persephone Books, for a change of pace. Here is what I wrote to introduce the last one:


My wife discovered the small British book publisher, Persephone Books, a few years back, when she was looking for her own copy of The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, if my memory serves. Although it could have been Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. In any event, the publisher describes its goal as:


Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. 


From the three I have read so far, I would say this is accurate. These books aren’t in the pantheon of classics, but aren’t exactly fluff either. They are interesting, and represent a different kind of literature than either genre boilerplates or the heavy and turgid literary novels which characterized much of the 20th Century. One might say that they fall in a traditionally disrespected category: women’s literature. For much of history, women were given little shot at literacy - that was for men only. This wasn’t universal, of course, and it started to crack in a serious way with the Feminist movement, which insisted that women were the equals of men - and should be educated accordingly. That said, with the explosion of literate women, the fusty old men who had controlled social standards felt they had to denigrate “novels” as less worthy than the old Greek and Roman “classics” (which, conveniently, were taught only to men.) This prejudice against the things women read - and write - continues into our own time, with “chick lit” incurring particular dismissal, even as male-oriented boilerplate books feature the same (or worse) imaginative and formulaic writing.


In addition to the two listed above, I read Good Evening, Miss Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes last year. 


This book caught my eye because it was written by Monica Dickens, the great-grandaughter of Charles Dickens. It turned out to be a rather fun semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in England in the Interwar Period. The book is semi-autobiographical, but not in the strictest sense. The major events of the book do not match her life particularly well, but are loosely based on her emotional and romantic experiences. For example, rather than work at her mother’s dress shop (in the book), Dickens worked as a domestic servant and later nurse, writing about these experiences in non-fiction works. In addition, she drew from her experience as a journalist in later fiction. I mean, she had quite the fascinating life. 


The title does not refer to the protagonist, who is the much more ordinary Mary Shannon, raised upper-middle-class by a widowed mother. Rather, it is a reference to Tennyson’s “Mariana,” a rather melodramatic Victorian poem best known to many of us for the opening lines, which Henry Higgins makes Eliza Doolittle recite with a mouth full of marbles


With blackest moss the flower-plots

Were thickly crusted, one and all


Mary is forced to recite this during her brief foray into drama school, which...well, I’m getting ahead of myself. 


The story opens at the end, technically, with Mary awaiting word on whether her beloved husband has been killed in action in World War Two. Although the book never says for sure, it is at least implied that he has. The opening of the book is quite good. 


Mary sometimes heard people say: ‘I can’t bear to be alone.’ She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself. 


That’s quite the introvert statement. Then, Mary flashes back for the rest of the book to the various formative episodes in her own life. First are the memories of her extended family’s country estate, Charbury, which she would visit every holiday and summer, along with cousins and aunts and uncles. To her, it was a kind of heaven, the place where time stood still, and everything was right with the world. Plus, she is madly in love with her older cousin Denys, and thinks that the feeling is mutual. (Although less common now, first cousin marriage is legal in most places, and used to be considered normal and desirable.) Alas, Charbury is sold after the death of Mary’s grandmother. 


Another incident in the book involves an evening in London with her eccentric actor uncle Geoffrey, who gets drunk, takes off with a woman, and leaves Mary to fend for herself and get back home on her own. (Which she is able to do - she’s a teen.) It is pretty amusingly written. 


Later, Mary is enrolled at a private girls’ school (and Denys to Eton), which is not a particularly pleasant experience for her. In real life, Monica got expelled from St. Paul’s Girls’ School for tossing her uniform in the Thames - she was quite the character, apparently, just like Mary. She does make a lifelong friend there, though, and has some experiences, but as she puts it, “But it was not Charbury.” 


In addition to antagonizing her teachers, Mary has a traumatic experience attending a ball with Denys, who she still imagines is practically engaged to her. It turns out, he never thought that, and ends up snogging with another girl. 


After school, Mary is a bit at loose ends, and attempts two potential careers. First, she goes to Drama School, which ends, naturally, in disaster...and hilarity. Some of the best scenes in the book occur in this chapter, culminating in the disaster that gets her expelled. Her partner for the scene she must play is both connected to the stage (so he has a job even if he does poorly) and naturally talented, so he never bothers to rehearse with her, leaving her frustrated. At the end, when she has to re-do the scene with him in a runoff for first place (for him, not her), she burlesques it and sabotages the whole thing. And gets expelled, to her great relief.


I have to quote a great line from this chapter:


Mary sighed, and thought about love. One most have it; one must have the paradise of an imperfect lover, and she was as far away from finding it as she had ever been. She had thought that Denys was the answer to everything, and when she had found that he wasn’t she had been left alone with no one on whom to pin the burden of romantic devotion.  


Next, she studies dressmaking in Paris so she can work for her mother. And ends up engaged to Pierre, the son of a wealthy banker, who charms her, but is clearly unsuitable for her. (She wants to live in England, he in France, so…) She breaks it off at the last minute, but not before we have some awkward and humorous scenes of him with her family in the English countryside. Pierre isn’t horrible, particularly for an entitled rich boy. He’s just...very French and very much a rich kid. He is the “dream lover” so to speak, but not really practical for everyday life. I also cannot but be reminded of a recurring character in one of my favorite comics, Foxtrot, Pierre, the dream lover of Paige. 


 Pierre is also, interestingly, best around women, unlike most of the British men in Mary’s life. 


He was always at his best in mixed company, demonstrating his prowess at the art of whose existence most Englishmen were ignorant - how to treat women. 


Ultimately, what changes Mary’s mind is the memory of advice from her Granny.


‘The smallest doubt in your mind,’ she had said, ‘must be enough to show you it’s not the right man. That doubt won’t disappear after you’re married; it will grow until it becomes first an annoyance, and finally, perhaps, even a hatred.’


This is so true, and I can cite numerous examples from my legal practice. By doubts, of course, neither Granny nor myself really means imperfections - we are all imperfect, even my wife (although not by much.) These are doubts that the match is right. I had no doubt I was making a good match with Amanda, and I have turned out to have exceptional taste in women. But those who ignore the legitimate doubts tend to have marriages that end poorly. 


Eventually, Mary does find true love, in the form of Sam Howard, a young architect with a sense of humor and kindness. He is perhaps a bit too good to be true, but not really. He’s just a nice guy, nothing special to look at, but who charms Mary by being himself. They meet through a mutual client - Mary is driving the old lady around to see houses as inspiration for the one Sam is to design for her estate back in the United States. The fact that Mary ends up hospitalized with appendicitis lends plenty of drama to the meeting, and the fact that Sam sees her at her worst and still likes her is a point in his favor. 


There are a couple of good lines in this section. First is Mary’s thoroughly legitimate complaint about the lack of good coffee in Britain. I don’t know what it was, but the “instant coffee” at the one London hotel I stayed at was definitely not coffee or even a coffee-like substance. The only good coffee I had during our trip there in 1998 was at an internet cafe. But other than that, I learned my lesson and stuck to tea. Once we moved over to France, it was back to good java. 


She had got through lunch all right. She had managed to toy with the food when the pains began to subside, and had even drunk a cup of tepid black coffee, made by that secret formula known only to provincial hotels which ensures that coffee shall taste of anything - gravel paths, bitter aloes, charcoal, soap - but never of coffee. 


I cannot improve on that description. 


The final quote is in reference to a subplot. Mary’s widowed mother lives with Uncle Geoffrey until his marriage, but has an ongoing relationship with Gerald. Gerald is married to an invalid who refuses to get a divorce (ah, the good old days.) But, finally, she...wait for it...runs off with the interior decorator, freeing Gerald to marry Ms. Shannon. 


For years, his wife had lain palely on her chaise longue, refusing to divorce him, and having one of her nerve storms if he ever touched on the subject. Then one day, having exhausted the medical books in the house and unable to think of any new ailments, or feeling, perhaps, that she had done a good job of spoiling Gerald’s life, and ought to start on somebody else, she had run away with the interior decorator who was supposed to be designing a new colour scheme for her bedroom. Not run literally, of course, but driven exhaustedly away in a cream-coloured coupe, according to the cook who had been slicing beans at the kitchen window and had seen her go. 


That’s the sort of humor and wit that I loved about the book. I also found it fascinating that Dickens doesn’t make Mary the most likeable character. She is naive, selfish, melodramatic, petty, and very human. But she is still fascinating, and you cannot help rooting for her. I think a good author can be known by this: that the character which is a stand-in for the author is no romanticised, idealized version of themselves, but present with all the flaws and foibles. 


This book is, to a degree, chick-lit, at least in theme. But it is, if not intended to be Serious Literary Fiction™, it is nonetheless well written and a joy to read. I am tempted to try to find Dickens’ non-fiction accounts of her working first as a cook, and then as a nurse. They do appear to be out of print, but available on the used market for not too much. If her true stories are as witty as her fiction, it should be a fun experience. 



The book cover has a painting, Amity, by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, which I rather liked. 




Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


I actually borrowed this book for two reasons. First, Peter Enns keeps recommending it as a quick and to the point introduction to the major discoveries in physics in the last 100 years. Although I am already familiar with the topics themselves, I figured I should read it and see if it is worth recommending to others for similar reasons. But also because my twelve year old is currently devouring books as fast as I can bring them home, and he is fascinated with science right now. (Also with Patrick O’Brian…) 

The book lives up to its reputation. In a mere 81 pages, it covers Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the size and age of the universe, subatomic particles, theories of spacetime that try to reconcile Relativity with quantum mechanics, and a handful of other more esoteric fundamental questions, such as humanity’s place in the universe. Although Rovelli wrote it in Italian, the English translation (by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) reads smoothly yet precisely. Neither translator appears to have a background in physics, but they clearly did their homework to make sure the concepts came through exactly in the translation. 


As I mentioned, I was already familiar with the concepts both from academic learning and from some great books I have read over the last few years. In fact, here are the ones that come to mind on these topics:


How Old is the Universe? by David Weintraub

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

The Little Book of Black Holes by Steven Gruber and Frans Pretorius

Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud

Death From the Skies by Philip Plait


That said, the book is a worthwhile one, particularly for introducing people who don’t tend to pick up 500 page books on science, but want a basic idea of what the heck physicists are talking about. Rovelli (and translators) make the topics come alive, with writing that is beautiful as well as precise. 


I did note a few quotes. First is in the section describing the disagreement between Einstein and Niels Bohr over quantum mechanics. Einstein, despite his own experience in having his theories mocked, couldn’t quite embrace the idea of uncertainty and probability governing the micro world, or the concept that interaction affects things. They did eventually come to peace with each other after a fashion. 


For years, their dialogue continued by way of lectures, letters, articles. During the course of the exchange both great men needed to backtrack, to change their thinking. Einstein had to admit that there was actually no contradiction within the new ideas. Bohr had to recognize that things were not as simple and clear as he’d initially thought. Einstein did not want to relent on what was for him the key issue: that there was an objective reality independent of whoever interacts with whatever. Bohr would not relent on the validity of the profoundly new way in which the real was conceptualized by the new theory. 


Rovelli notes that even now, we have the same impasse. Quantum Mechanics is indeed weird, and often counter-intuitive. But it very clearly works to explain the world - we wouldn’t have nuclear anything without it. Rovelli’s own theory (and he is a renowned theoretical physicist) is that “reality” is only interaction. It is the interaction of matter-energy and spacetime that make up reality. As he puts it in a later chapter:


There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. The illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes, just as a calm, clear Alpine lake consists in reality of a rapid dance of myriads of minuscule water molecules. 


There is also an amazing passage that speaks to the science denialism and rejection of expertise that plagues our country in the time of Trumpism. 


But many times in the past we have realized that it is our immediate intuitions that are imprecise: if we had kept to these we would still believe that Earth is flat and that it is orbited by the sun. Our intuitions have developed on the basis of our limited experience. When we look a little further ahead, we discover that the world is not as it appears to us: Earth is round, and in Cape Town their feet are up and their heads are down. To trust immediate intuitions rather than collective examination that is rational, careful, and intelligent is not wisdom: it is the presumption of an old man who refuses to believe that the great world outside his village is any different from the one that he has always known. 


Our understanding of the world has changed immensely in the last century, as has our understanding of many other things. This same refusal to believe in a reality outside of one’s immediate experience and intuition also plagues our politics. 


I also love a passage near the end of the book, where Rovelli looks at the nature of humanity in light of our understanding of science. 


I am, as Spinoza maintained, my body and what happens in my brain and heart, with their immense, and, for me, inextricable complexity. 

The scientific picture of the world that I have related in these pages is not, then, at odds with our sense of ourselves. It is not at odds with our thinking in moral and psychological terms, or with our emotions and feelings. The world is complex, and we capture it with different languages, each appropriate to the process that we are describing. Every complex process can be addressed and understood in different languages and at different levels. These diverse languages intersect, intertwine, and reciprocally enhance one another, like the processes themselves. The study of our psychology becomes more sophisticated through our understanding of the biochemistry of the brain. The study of theoretical physics is nourished by the passions and emotions that animate our lives. 

Our moral values, our emotions, our loves are no less real for being part of nature, for being shared with the animal world, or for being determined by the evolution that our species has undergone over millions of years. Rather, they are more valuable as a result of this: they are real. They are the complex reality of which we are made. Our reality is tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past that haunts us and serenity. Our reality is made up of our societies, of the emotion inspired by music, of the rich intertwined networks of the common knowledge that we have constructed together. All of this is part of the self-same “nature” that we are describing. We are an integral part of nature; we are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions. This is what we have learned from our ever-increasing knowledge of the things of this world. 


Definitely bonus points for mentioning Spinoza. And also, this is such a great example of my experience that one need not believe in a specific version of God (or any version at all) in order to experience wonder and humanity. Indeed, all too often, it is those who loudly assert that to abandon their specific view God is to lose wonder, that seem to have the least of it. Enns is correct that our vastly altered view of the cosmos must inevitably lead to a reconsideration of our theology. In this instance, Rovelli too recognizes that, and it fills him with wonder. As it does Enns. And as it does me. 


I believe I will be recommending this book to people in the future. I am also glad that my kids get to read this stuff when they are young. My hope is that science will never be a source of fear and distrust for them, and that they will always be filled with wonder at this universe we are part of. 


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

 Source of book: I own this.


It is always a bit intimidating to review a book that is the favorite book of someone who reads this blog. In this case, longtime commenter Ann. It’s not quite as intimidating as reading an English Lit teacher’s favorite, at least. 


Anyway, I found a lovely Franklin hardback edition of this book back before Covid, and decided to make a point of reading it this year. Actually, I have done pretty well the last several years at reading some books in translation - I think it is important to experience works from around the world - but I haven’t read that much translated from German. If I am remembering correctly, those works would be Faust, Siddhartha, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Schumann on Music. Which, I guess, isn’t bad, now that I look at it. 


The Magic Mountain isn’t really like anything else I have read. It was originally intended by Mann to be a short story, based loosely on his wife’s stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium and his brief visit; but obviously, it grew beyond anything the author had anticipated, with my edition consisting of more than 700 pages of small (but readable) print. And that is a good place to start: the book is more than 700 pages about a stay in a sanitarium. Mann’s explanation is pretty amusing, actually. He was indeed advised to stay there longer, and felt the same pull that Hans Castorp does.


If I had been Hans Castorp, the discovery might have changed the whole course of my life. The physician assured me that I should be acting wisely to remain there for six months and take the cure. If I had followed his advice, who knows, I might still be there! I wrote The Magic Mountain instead. 


So yes, a long book about wanting to stay in a sanitarium. But that is just the surface, of course. 


Hans Castorp, the rather naive hero, comes to the Berghof, a fictional name for a real place, to visit his ill cousin Joachim. (You can stay there now that Davos has become a resort town.) He begins to feel ill, and is diagnosed as tubercular himself. The stay eventually stretches out to seven years, before Hans leaves to enlist as a soldier in World War One. Along the way, Joachim makes a failed attempt to return to his normal life as a soldier, returning to die. Hans also meets and is influenced by five main characters, who likely represent philosophical ideas. 

With a view like that, I would be philosophical too....


That’s kind of a basic outline, at least. The interpretation of the novel is a much more difficult manner. In a short essay written a quarter century after the book, Mann encourages the reader to read it at least twice, in order to understand the themes. I could see where this would be helpful, but in the end, the novel remains ambiguous and ambivalent. 


It is certainly easy to see a few themes. Death, illness, time, and the meaning of life are pretty obvious. Likewise, there are many extended discussions between the characters about philosophical ideas current in pre-war Europe. Like Hans, Mann seems to waver between ideas, pulled first one way then another, and finding some form of resolution only in the sense that he commits to his destiny as a soldier (and likely cannon fodder) in the war. 


The five characters are fascinating. First is Joachim, who exemplifies the old-school idea of duty and country and obedience. He wants nothing more than to return to his life as a soldier, and dies, if not on the battlefield like a true hero, in a hero’s manner, unflinching to the end. For all that, he is also a decent human being, and in that sense, perhaps the most admirable of the characters, even though his philosophy seems shallow and outdated. Particularly in light of the change in warfare from the nobility’s occupation to wholesale slaughter in the trenches. 


The next is Clavdia Chauchat (spelling differs in translations - I’m going with the one in mine), a married (but separated) woman given the “exotic” ethnicity of Kyrgyzstan, with its meeting of East and West. Clavdia is described often as a “slant-eyed beauty,” which isn’t particularly comfortable to read in the 21st Century, although it was probably normal for the 1930s. Hans falls in love with Clavdia, and proceeds to obsess over her for most of the book. About midway through the book, on Walpurgis Night, he declares his love for her in an extended conversation all in French. (Note: I am not fluent in French, although it’s relationship to English means I could pick up a few words here and there. I used google for a bit, but I do not promise that I understood much of the nuance of this section.) Clavdia represents erotic love and temptation, and serves as a distraction for Hans from his quest for enlightenment. Unfortunately, she is not as well developed of a character as would have been nice - there really are no developed female characters in the book. 


In contrast to Joachim and Clavdia who represent ideas by who they are, the next two are given pages and pages and pages of time to tell us in excruciating detail who they are and what they stand for. 


Settembrini is an Italian humanist, representing the values of the Enlightenment. Except for his curious loathing of music, he is probably the closest to my own values. I am a bit puzzled by how Mann writes this character, mostly because in the first part of the book, he seems to play Settembrini for laughs, as kind of a comic exaggeration of the humanist writer; while by the second half, after his antagonist has been introduced, Settembrini seems to become a stand-in for the author’s own views. Despite this seeming midstream change, I rather enjoyed Settembrini. 


Later in the book, we are introduced to Settembrini’s frenemy and main antagonist, Naphta, who is (believe it or not), a Jew who becomes a Jesuit, and espouses a peculiar totalitarian theocratic communism. Yes, you read that right. Times (and places) are different in the book than the 21st Century United States, to say the least. Here, our “christian” religious sorts set themselves up as the polar opposite of communism, instead making common cause with the far right, advocating for unregulated capitalism, social darwinism, and in some cases fascism. (That last one dates back to the KKK, though, so it is pretty clearly an American phenomenon.) It was a bit weird to see leftist theocracy, I must say. Naphta is based on a real person, György Lukács, likewise a Jew turned Jesuit. And yes, the book does take a weird turn into Rosicrucianism at one point. 

That said, Naphta isn’t entirely wrong about everything. He makes some solid points, and scores some hits against Settembrini’s more elitist beliefs. 


Finally, there is Myneer Peeperkorn, a Dutch capitalist dying of malaria and drunkenness. He is a Dionysian force, full of vitality, but lacking in any self-discipline or intellectual depth. He reminds me at times of Trump, and not in a good way. Hans falls under his spell, not least because Clavdia has become Peeperkorn’s lover, so Hans subsumes his sexual frustration into hero worship. 


I suppose one could also mention the bizarre seance scene near the end, where Hans flirts with, then rejects spiritualism; and the more wholesome obsession that Hans develops with classical music once the sanitarium buys a gramophone. 


My favorite scene, though, is the one where Hans skis up to a magnificent viewpoint, and has an epiphany in the gathering snow and darkness. To be fair, the scene also horrified me, because (in the practical sense) was foolish as hell and nearly got himself killed of hypothermia. But that is why I am safe to hike with - I plan a lot better, to say the least. Sorry about that digression. I really did love the scene, and the language was transcendent like the epiphany itself. I myself have stood on mountains and felt that, and it wasn’t just the hypoxia. 


In a book this long, it was inevitable that I would write down a bunch of quotes that I liked. 


First was an early conversation between Hans, Joachim, and Settembrini - when the latter is still being played more for laughs. Settembrini expresses his belief that there is nothing noble in illness and suffering, and it may be a sign of weakness or moral defect. As it turns out later, Settembrini doesn’t really believe all this in practice - he is ill too, of course, and suffers with dignity. In fact, this early statement is Hans’ naive response, in reference to the vulgar and tasteless Frau Stohr. (She later demands tastelessly that “the Erotica” be played for Joachim’s funeral…) 


“That seems so strange to me: diseased and stupid both - I don’t exactly know how to express it, but it gives me a most peculiar feeling, when somebody is so stupid, and then ill into the bargain. It must be the most melancholy thing in life. One doesn’t know what to make of it; one wants to feel a proper respect for illness, of course - after all there is a certain dignity about it, if you like. But when such asininity comes on top of it - “cosmic” for “cosmetic,” and other howlers like that - one doesn’t know whether to laugh or weep. It is a regular dilemma for the human feelings - I find it more deplorable than I can say. What I mean is, it’s not consistent, it doesn’t hang together; I can’t get used to the idea. One always has the idea of a stupid man as perfectly healthy and ordinary, and of illness as making one refined and clever and unusual. At least as a rule…”


 While Settembrini goes perhaps a bit too far, he has a fascinating response, which has a lot of truth in it:


“Disease has nothing refined about it, nothing dignified. Such a conception is in itself pathological, or at least tends in that direction. Perhaps I may arouse your mistrust of it if I tell you how ancient and ugly this conception is. It comes down to us from a past seething with superstition, in which the idea of humanity had degenerated and deteriorated into sheer caricature; a past full of fears, in which well-being and harmony were regarded as suspect and emanating from the Devil, whereas infirmity was equivalent to a free pass to heaven.” 


 My own religious experience combines elements of both of these. (As does our culture.) Certain diseases - particularly cancer - can be considered as revealing good character and coming with a certain dignity in the “fight.” Whereas nobody “fights” against diabetes or heart disease. And there certainly is a tradition in which the suffering of disease is seen as purifying. On the other hand, the “wealth and health are signs of godliness” idea is also strong (and getting stronger) in American white religion, as a result of the embrace of social darwinsm in economic policy. 


I might also add here that my wife’s experience as an ICU nurse involves a lot of dying people. And there are those who have died of Covid insisting until the moment they were intubated that Covid wasn’t real. So being ill doesn’t guarantee a focus on higher things, nor does it insulate one from asininity. 


Soon afterward Settembrini dismisses music as a higher art:


“Music? It is the half-articulate art, the dubious, the irresponsible, the insensible. Perhaps you will object that she can be clear when she likes. But so can nature, so can a brook - what good is that to us? That is not true clarity, it is a dreamy, inexpressive, irresponsible clarity, without consequences, and therefore dangerous, because it betrays one into soft complacence. Let music play her loftiest role, she will thereby but kindle the emotions, whereas what concerns us is to awaken the reason.” 


Booo! I was gratified that later Mann let Hans become enamored of music, which gives me hope he doesn’t feel the same way. Music can, of course, be used for evil - think of the way that certain jingoistic songs unite a people to slaughter another. But music also has always been political. Where you find an oppressed people, there you find the flowering of musical creativity and musical power. 


For the first part of the book, the main opposition to Settembrini’s ideas comes from Hans’ own assumptions. For example, he mistrusts the idea of “humanism” as being akin to the temptation of Satan. Hans also advocates for a view of death that seems to set itself up as the opposite of life; thus his experience of being orphaned makes him cynical about the process of living. Settembrini responds to this with another intriguing argument. 


“[T]he only sane, noble - and I will expressly add, the only religious way to think of death is as part and parcel of life; to regard it, with the understanding and with the emotions, as the inviolable condition of life. It is the very opposite of sane, noble, reasonable, or religious to divorce it in any way from life, or to play it off against it....For death is worthy of homage, as the cradle of life, as the womb of palingenesis. Severed from life, it becomes a spectre, a distortion, and worse. For death, as an independent power, is a lustful power, whose vicious attraction is strong indeed; to feel drawn to it, to feel sympathy with it, is without any doubt at all the most ghastly aberration to which the spirit of man is prone.”


Again, not sure I agree with Settembrini entirely, but I do think that one of the reasons that American Christianity deals so poorly with death is that it hasn’t fully embraced the truth that life and death are inseparable, if for no other reason than the laws of physics. It is bizarre to me that supposed Christians seem less capable than the atheists in my life at accepting the inevitability of death. Hans himself eventually comes to understand this as he borrows the doctor’s biology books, and questions whether life itself is a form of infection that afflicts matter. 


Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward desired and death, was taken precisely then, when there took place that first increase in the density of the spiritual, that pathologically luxuriant morbid growth, produced by the irritant of some unknown infiltration; this, in part pleasurable, in part a motion of self-defense, was the primeval stage of matter, the transition from the insubstantial to the substance. This was the Fall. 


There is a lot here that reminds me of the essays I recently read by Loren Eiseley. Our modern understanding of life and origins must inevitably alter our understanding of ourselves and the Divine. Again, I am not agreeing with all of the ideas here - and Hans himself muses, digests, and comes to his own synthesis. 


The beginning of Chapter Six (the chapters are long and have many subchapters) is pretty good.


What is time? A mystery, a figment - and all-powerful. It conditions the exterior world, it is motion married to and mingled with the existence of bodies in space, and with the motion of these. Would there then be no time if there were no motion? No motion if no time? We fondly ask. Is time a function of space? Or space of time? Or are they identical? Echo answers. Time is functional, it can be referred to as action; we say a thing is “brought about” by time. What sort of thing? Change! Now is not then, here not there, for between them lies motion. 


That’s a pretty poetic explanation of Einstein’s work, honestly.  


It isn’t until nearly 400 pages in that we meet Naphta, and his slippery sophistry. I was particularly struck by an early dialogue, in which he insists on a form of Presuppositionalism, one which has utterly poisoned our religious and political discourse here in the United States, for the last 150 or so years.    


“The great schoolmen of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were agreed that what is false in theology cannot be true in philosophy. We can, if you like, leave theology out of the argument; but a humanity, a cultural conception, which refuses to recognize that what is philosophically false cannot be scientifically true, is not worthy of the name.” 


And thus, according to Naphta, Galileo was wrong. And really, this is the exact argument that Fundies make for everything from Young Earth Creationism to a cruel and ignorant approach to human sexuality. Theology (aka ideology) trumps reality. Which is Naphta’s argument. Settembrini parries with a question:


“Answer me this, answer me in the presence of these two young listeners: Do you believe in truth, in objective, scientific truth, to strive after the attainment of which is the highest law of all morality, and whose triumphs over authority form the most glorious page in the history of the human spirit?”


As to the first part, hell yes! I believe in objective, scientific truth. And I also agree that the triumph of absolute truth over authority is indeed one of the greatest developments of modern times. Fundies would disagree with both, of course. They do NOT believe in absolute truth, but in absolute authority, which is very different. And it gives them power, naturally. Naphta’s response is too long to quote, but it combines a weird (to my ears) combination of a claim that “truth” means whatever profits mankind and that ignorance of science paired with theological correctness is true enlightenment. The first is both an example of Naphta’s commuinist syncretism and the prelude to the nasty assertion that mankind’s good consists in “salvation” by believing the right things. In a later conversation, Naphta again takes a pretty pernicious turn in his rhetoric, claiming that humanitarian progress was actually a hindrance to the soul-saving enterprise. 


They would have provided neither one side nor the other; the ailing and wretched as little as the strong and prosperous, these latter not having been piteous for pity’s sake, but for the salvation of their own souls. Successful social reform would have robbed them of their necessary justification, as it would the wretched of their sanctified state. The persistence of poverty and sickness had been in the interest of both parties, and the position could be sustained just so long as it was possible to hold to the purely religious point of view.


Damn. You can hear this today from white “christians” who are adamantly opposed to any government intervention on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. The rich (them, usually) spiritually profit from giving a pittance in charity to the poor, while the poor get to be purified by suffering. Everyone benefits! But actually give the working poor a living wage, and, well, all that great spiritual benefit dries up. Right? Sigh. It is weird to see the same sickening rhetoric still being used today to oppose social reform. I’m sure there is zero connection between their philosophy and their relative wealth and privilege in our society, right? On a related note, Naphta, the Jesuit sworn to poverty lives in an ostentatious and comfortable manner, while the humanist Settembrini has to live on what his writing can bring him, reusing the same threadbare coat year after year. 


Finally, near the end, before the quarrel between Settembrini and Naphta takes an unnecessary and tragic turn, Naphta expresses yet another viewpoint that has poisoned Fundies’ ability to embrace reality. 


But even worse was the way he talked about science - in which he did not believe. He did not believe, he said, in it, because it was permissible to exercise choice, whether to believe in it or not. It was a belief, like any other, only worse, stupider than any; the word “science” was the expression of the silliest realism...was not the idea of a material world existing by and for itself the most laughable of all self-contradictions? 


This is how we have gotten to the point we are with Covid, the election, and so many other things. There is a Conservative Fantasy World, in which belief in reality itself is a “choice.” Believe or not, as you wish. Except that Fundies genuinely believe that it is sinful to believe reality over dogma. Go down that road, and soon you start burning witches, so to speak, eliminating those pesky reminders of a reality that doesn’t fit neatly with ideology. Naphta goes there all too easily, just following the natural implications of his philosophy. 


Switching gears a bit, the scene surrounding Joachim’s death is interesting for what it reveals about the various characters. I can’t get into it all, but it was well written. I do want to quote the doctor, Hofrat Behrans, about the process of death. 


I know what death is, I am an old retainer of his; and believe me, he’s overrated...But about death - no one who came back from it could tell you anything, because we don’t realize it. We come out of the dark and go into the dark again, and in between lie the experiences of our life. But the beginning and the end, birth and death, we do not experience; they have no subjective character, they fall entirely in the category of objective events, and that’s that. 


Ecclesiastes gives a similarly non-committal answer about death. Who is to know that the spirit of man rises to heaven? Or, as Rabelais put it, death and the afterlife are “the big perhaps.” 


It isn’t until most of these philosophical discussions are over that the most bombastic event occurs. Indeed, it occurs after the mountaintop epiphany. Mynheer Peeperkorn shows up, and quickly becomes the focus of the entire social world at the sanatorium. What is bizarre is that he is able to sound profound and string everyone along, without actually saying anything. Here is just one example. 


In a rather low voice he said: “Ladies and gentleman. Very well. Very well indeed. Very. Settled. But will you keep in mind, and - not for one moment - not one moment - lose sight of the fact - but no more. On this point not another word. What is incumbent on me to say is not so much - it is in the first place simply this: it is our duty - we lie under a solemn - an inviolable - No! No, ladies and gentlemen! It was not thus - it was not thus that I - how mistaken to imagine that I - quite right, ladies and gentlemen! Set-tled. Let us drop the subject. I feel we understand each other, and now - to the point!”  

He had said absolutely nothing. But look, manner, and gestures were so peremptory, perfervid, pregnant, that all, even Hans Castorp, were convinced they had heard something of high moment; or, if aware of the total lack of matter and sequence in the speech, certainly never missed it. 


This is the same thing that puzzles me about the appeal of Trump. Other than his fairly clear appeal to xenophobia and racism, not with dog whistles but with a bullhorn, his actual policies are devoid of any substance. Just like Peeperkorn uses “settled” and “very well” and “I feel we understand each other” - phrases he uses all the freaking time - Trump uses “winning” and “great” and “beautiful” and all these other Trumpisms that have no meaning. And yet some people I know still insist he actually has all these great plans. In reality, he never had a plan. For anything other than “build a giant fucking wall to keep brown-skinned people out.” That’s the only plan he ever had. And it shows particularly biggly when it comes to Covid. And no, “do nothing” is not a plan, just a vapid policy that has led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. 


Not surprisingly, Peeperkorn turns out to have a retrograde view of women. He trots out the “women want to be loved” thing. Hans, under his influence, makes a statement of his own, which is, interestingly, a lot deeper than Peeperkorn’s view.


You ask a woman, “Do you love him?” And she tells you: “He loves me so much!” and rolls her eyes up, or else rolls them down. Imagine an answer like that from one of us - if you will pardon me putting us in the same category. Perhaps there are men who would answer like that, but they are poor-spirited creatures - their women wear the breeches, if you will forgive the expression. I should like to know what kind of self-appraisement is at the bottom of the feminine answer. Is it that the woman thinks she owes a man boundless devotion merely because he has conferred the favour of his choice upon so lowly a creature? Or does she see in the man’s love an infallible sign of her personal excellence?


Peeperkorn’s most interesting statement of the entire book, in my view, comes when he lets his guard down with Hans. 


Man is intoxicated by his desire, woman demands and expects to be intoxicated by it. 


I am rather doubtful that this is anywhere near universal these days, although it seems perhaps a nice phallocentric explanation for gender inequality. And, in the context of the book, it may be reasonably compatible with the actions of Hans, Peeperkorn, and Clavdia. 


Goodness, there is so much more I could say. Mann strongly implies that the ways of Naphta and Peekerkorn are self-destructive, and I agree with him in that. It is sad to see their ignoble ends, though, as they each have a degree of sincerity and vibrance that give the book its life. While Hans’ enlistment in arguably history’s most senseless war is a letdown. The Magic Mountain, the ascending quest for enlightenment, Hans’ journey seem to portend greater things for him. But, as in the case of Galahad (which Mann seems to have used as inspiration), enlightenment is incomplete. We glimpse but cannot grasp the Grail. The quest ends with the dissolution of the Round Table and the death of Arthur and all he stands for. It certainly must have felt like that to Mann, completing the book in the aftermath of the destruction of the flowering youth of Europe. The old world had passed, although it would take until the end of the Second World War before Europe was truly willing to discard the corpse of monarchy and nationalism and embrace a new world. 


I am sure I missed so many things in this book, and perhaps will never see everything that Mann intended. There are clearly leitmotifs throughout, parallel events, and interlocking ideas, only some of which I noted fully. Whatever the case, this was quite the read, an epic in which little “happens” in the physical world, while a whole world happens in the psyche. A special thanks to Ann for her encouragement to read this book, and for her perceptive and helpful comments on my blog over the last decade. 




Davos is now famous as a place where the ultra-rich get together for the World Economic Forum, and it is perhaps the most famous Swiss resort town. 


I have been to Switzerland once, for just a few days, as part of a trip I took during law school. We went in October, which was pretty darn magical. No significant snow, cool days and cold nights, and brilliant sunshine. I love the mountains as it is - my heart is in California’s Sierra Nevada. But man, I really want to return to Switzerland. We went to a far less commercial spot, Gimmelwald, above Interlochen (think Louis Agassiz, who postulated the Ice Age), and were the only people at this small farmhouse lodge. My regret is that I ran out of daylight before I hiked to the top of the Schilthorn. And man, the morning view of the Jungfrau was spectacular. That is what came to my mind throughout this book. I too could have stayed there forever...