Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Magic Mountain (3): Death and nature

3. Death and nature

The concomitant of time, of course, is death, and death hangs heavily over The Magic Mountain. From the beginning, there is an aura of death surrounding Hans Castorp, from the early demises of his family to the gradual loss of those he loves in the sanatorium. Indeed he almost seems in thrall to death and, if not actually embracing it, then he certainly does not repel it. This is emphasised by his passivity, his acceptance of illness – particularly his own – and the sanguinity with which he accepts the various deaths of those around him in the course of the novel. Only Mme Chauchat seems to arouse any emotion in him. It is not exactly a death wish he has but nor, initially, does his attitude appear to represent any joy in living. All of this Mann achieves through creating an interior, subjective view of life, hermetically enclosed within the sanatorium, so that we are faced with layers of constriction – from Castorp’s passivity through to the dreamlike quality of the magic mountain itself.

For all that, this is not a morbid novel. Indeed, as Ames points out, Mann himself denied such accusations: ‘Against the charge that he used disease and death for romantic horror he maintained that he invoked them as "great teachers".’ Thus, while Hans is told by Dr Behrens that ‘living consists in dying’, and is therefore a seductive mistress, the pedagogue Settembrini is simultaneously teaching him of its dangers. Irvin Stock notes:

there have been moments when Settembrini…has opposed the bias toward death and affirmed the " bourgeois" emphasis on life in ways that seem to be spared his author's usual irony, and it was he to whom Hans Castorp—and the reader—listened with respect. "Death," he has said, "is worthy of homage as the cradle of life, the womb of polygenesis," but "severed from life," it exerts "a vicious attraction" for, he adds later, it "unlooses," it brings "deliverance," not "from evil... but ... by evil. It relaxes manners and morals, it frees man from discipline and restraint, it abandons him to lust". Our hero has to know from his own mountain experience that this is true. And though the novel is one long demonstration of the value for life of such "relaxation," it will now show itself as a warning against valuing it for its own sake, over life.

Mann gives his most explicit evidence of this when he suggests:

It is a fact that a man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own. Whether he realizes it or not, he illustrates the pertinence of the adage: So long as we are, death is not; and when death is present, we are not. In other words, between death and us there is no rapport.

Thus, through the course of the novel, Hans Castorp is reconciled to death in a way that is different from the almost romantic attachment he felt towards it at the beginning. As Mann explains:

even Hans Castorp, in the course of his experiences, overcomes his inborn attraction to death and arrives at an understanding of a humanity that does not, indeed, rationalistically ignore death, nor scorn the dark, mysterious side of life, but takes account of it, without letting it get control over his mind.

This is perhaps the key to the novel: appreciating the ways in which Castorp comes to this accommodation with death and reaches a mature approach to life is integral to understanding its complexities. The novel is a bildungsroman, and the learning journey we are taken on is that of Hans Castorp. From a callow youth, he becomes a wise and educated man, and his education comes in the form of science, art, mythology, philosophy and love.

Of these, a key element of the novel is its approach to science. Science is clearly fundamental to The Magic Mountain and, indeed, Malte Herwig notes: ‘A comparison of the novel with [identified] scientific sources shows that the author sometimes copied whole phrases and integrated them into the narrative.’ Greenberg also points to Mann’s understanding of Goethe’s scientific stance as being key to The Magic Mountain:

Thomas Mann frequently made reference in his diary to his preoccupation with Goethe in relation to The Magic Mountain. In an entry of 15 June 1921 he notes: "In the evening as I read Bielschowsky's chapter on Goethe as a scientist the meaning and the idea of The Magic Mountain became clear to me". The Magic Mountain is steeped in science to the end, I propose, of achieving a modern version of the Goethean ideal described above.

Goethe could be described as a Romantic scientist in that, for him, the study of nature was paramount and the pursuit of scientific discovery was a spiritual as much as a practical process: there is an interconnectedness of art and nature and science and learning that helps to define the truths and reality which shape our culture. Thus, Greenberg continues, ‘a central theme of The Magic Mountain is the relationship of science to art’. Ames, meanwhile, comments that ‘[Mann’s] art is under the aegis of science.’ He then continues: ‘To say that he made considerable use of science is not to say that his central theme is science, the guide of life. Yet it may not be amiss to say that also.’ This, then, clearly represents a humanist response to scientific progress, in that our everyday reality is shaped by a combination of scientific discovery and artistic beauty, as enunciated by Hans Castorp, for example, when he says:

". .. you can see how the things of the mind and the love of beauty come together, and that they always really have been one and the same – in other words, science and art.”

This is exemplified most fully in the extraordinary scene where Hans is examining the x-ray of his beloved Mme Chauchat:

It was a small negative... it revealed matter for a humanistic eye: the transparent reproduction of the human form, the bony framework of the ribs, the outline of the heart, the arch of the diaphragm, the bellows that were the lungs; together with the shoulder and upper-arm-bones, all shrouded in a dim and vaporous envelope of flesh – that flesh which once, in Carnival week, Hans Castorp had so madly tasted.

This, then, is human perfection: here, the beauty of the human body and the stirrings of love are rendered in stark scientific form – literally the flesh laid bare. Mann continues: ‘It hovered before his eyes – the image of the human form divine, the masterpiece of organic life.’ And yet, in beauty there is also death, for The Magic Mountain is steeped, too, in degeneration. And so, when contemplating the x-ray of his own hand, ‘for the first time in his life [Hans] understood that he would die’. Romanticism is never wholly romantic.

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction
6. Approaches to Mann

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Magic Mountain (2): Time

2. Time

Mann conceived the conceit of the sanatorium as the cloistered environment in which Hans could come to maturity after visiting his own wife in a similar institution in the years before the First World War. It was, he noted, ‘a charmed circle of isolation and invalidism’ and thus provided a ‘sort of substitute existence’ in which a young person could be weaned ‘from actual and active life.’ This, then, is what Mann does: Hans is deposited in an environment where he could be confronted with what Tedlock describes as ‘the conflicting ideologies and much of the decadence of pre-World War 1 Europe.’ Erich Heller takes this further, saying, ‘The sanatorium is Europe. It is also the world. Man is the patient.’ The reader is left, then, as an uncomfortable observer while Hans is furnished with the learning and knowledge and understanding to make sense of the ideological impasse which has befallen society. Mann describes Hans’s development thus:

What [Hans] comes to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health; in just the same way that one must have a knowledge of sin in order to find redemption.

It is essential, however, that Hans should be given the time and freedom to reach this understanding of his own accord. The novel could not have worked if he were located within the reality of his own time, confronting the various crises unfolding in the world: only by dislocating him in this fashion can he be freed from the bonds of time and history to act as our neutral observer. He is taken out of time in order to make sense of it. Thus, a key element in Hans’s progress towards understanding, and a principal theme of the novel, is time itself.

Time, for someone in a sanatorium – literally waiting to be better – is virtually a meaningless concept. It stretches forward, untouchable, unchangeable, and there is nothing to do within it except wait – wait for what will come, be that either cure or death. Here then, essentially there is no time, there is only the inexorable progress towards an end. Thus, the residents of the sanatorium simply accede to a routine which is as unchanging as it is monotonous, involving rest, food, fresh air, exercise, rest, food, fresh air, exercise and on, and on. Naturally, this would make for a dull novel if there were nothing else, and the theme that such a novel would convey would be unbearably nihilistic; and so there are, within the cloistered atmosphere of progressive non-progress, a series of characters who question all that there is and all that we believe. Thus, we are able to question the constancy of an element that appears, at first sight, to be among the most constant of all our existence: the flow of time itself. Valerie Greenberg explains: ‘the viewpoint of The Magic Mountain is consonant with Einstein's theory: that the measurement of time and space is dependent upon the position of the observer.’ Thus, there are frequent digressions in the novel to examine in more depth this relative process of time. Early on, when looking at the baptismal basin that has been used for generations in his family, Hans is troubled by a ‘strange, dreamy’ sense of time as ‘both flowing and persisting’, of recurring in continuity. When lost in the mountains during a blizzard, Hans is ‘rapt back into the past’ so strongly that time and space are annihilated and ‘one might have said it was a lifeless body lying here on the bench by the waterside, while the actual Hans Castorp moved in that far-away time and place.’ Time, then, in Nietzschean spirit, may recur. It also appears to be flexible. As Hans explains in the novel:

“The days lengthen in the winter-time, and when the longest comes, the twenty-first of June, the beginning of summer, they begin to go downhill again, toward winter. You call that “of course”; but if one once loses hold of the fact that it is of course, it is quite frightening, you feel like hanging on to something. It seems like a practical joke – that spring begins at the beginning of winter , and autumn at the beginning of summer.”

Later, the novel’s omniscient narrator asks: ‘What is time? A mystery, a figment – and all powerful... Would there be no time if there were no motion? No motion if no time?’ Thus, Mann describes time variously as relentless and linear, as circular, and as variable. Further, he explains:

a narrative must have two kinds of time: first, its own, like music, actual time, conditioning its presentation and course; and second, the time of its content, which is relative, so extremely relative that the imaginary time of the narrative can either coincide nearly or completely with the actual, or musical, time, or can be a world away.

William Adair suggests there are, in fact, three “times” in The Magic Mountain: ‘realistic time, a hermetic out-of-tameness, and a speeding through the "years" (content time)’. The latter two, he suggests, are subjective times, subject to the monotonous daily round of sanatorium life, grinding past in excruciating detail but, at the same time, flying past for Hans so quickly that ‘he comes an “old man” in seven brief years.’ Mann would say that even ‘realistic’ time is beyond understanding. ‘Our utmost effort cannot conceive a final limit either to time or in space,’ he writes, continuing ‘we have settled to think of them as eternal and infinite – apparently in the hope that if this is not very successful, at least it will be more so than the other.’

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction
6. Approaches to Mann

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Magic Mountain (1): Hans Castorp and the magic mountain

This has ended up being too long for a single post, so I'm splitting it into six parts. More to follow...

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain

In 1907 Hans Castorp, a fit and healthy young man, goes on a short visit to his consumptive cousin Joachim in a sanatorium in Davos Platz, high in the Swiss Alps. There he stays for the next seven years, only the First World War shaking him back into the reality of ‘down there’ in the ‘flatlands’. Despite having nothing worse than a slight fever, he chooses to remain in a hospital where, as he explains, ‘[e]verything... is out of the ordinary. The spirit of the place... is not conventional.’ During his time in the sanatorium, Castorp, learns about life and love, and love and death, he engages in intellectual debate, develops from a naïve ingenue into someone of considerable intellect and, finally, realises it is time to leave the hermetic universe of the magic mountain and return to the brute realities of uncivilised civilisation.

Thus, the magic mountain, this idyllic retreat from reality, becomes a place in which Mann can explore his ideas. So what exactly is the world of Davos Platz? What does it represent? Thomas Mann has carefully constructed a parallel world in which ideas are played out as action, but not in the mundane (in both the earthbound and the commonplace senses of the word) ways we are used to in our real existence. Rather, the ideas and ideals investigated in the novel are exploded in a series of almost parodic, highly stylised, greatly exaggerated scenes. The duel between Settembrini and Naphta, for example, is the clash of totalitarianism and liberalism played as high farce; the suicide of the Dionysian Peeperkorn, meanwhile, is on the surface an extreme over-reaction to events, but it points to the imperative for such a character – a lover of life, a nurturer of the senses, a sensualist – to be enmeshed in, central to the affairs of life, which Peeperkorn, usurped in the affections of Mme Chauchat by Hans Castorp, could no longer claim. And so Mann presents us with ourselves in gaudy relief, all the better to see our faults, our foibles. How better to observe the fatuity of our actions than to see them through the distorting lens of caricature?

This, alone, would be enough to make The Magic Mountain an important novel, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that its greatness lies merely in the fact that it presents a caricatured mirror-image of 1920s civilisation: that would be a recipe for literary meaningfulness, but not greatness and, further, it would run the risk of didacticism. What makes this novel great is its central character, Hans Castorp, the ‘simple-minded but shrewd young hero’, as Mann describes him, and the serial dialectical interplays between him and those who presume to teach him – Settembrini, Naphta, Peeperkorn, Joachim, Mme Chauchat and Doctor Behrens. In this way, Mann weaves an extraordinarily complex fabric in which he can explore the inextricable interconnectedness of death and time, time and myth, myth and science, science and art, art and education, education and life, life and death. It builds into a portrait of a world of great beauty which, nonetheless, finds itself on the cusp of terror. A paean to humanism, it sends a strong warning to us all and suggests – only suggests – a means of salvation.

Hans Castorp is, initially at least, an everyman figure, identified by EW Tedlock as both modern man and Mann himself. He is described as ‘life’s delicate child’, a vision of humanity in its innocence, surrounded by death, somewhat in thrall to it, capable of artistic sentiment, of great learning and advancement, but also vulnerable to malevolent forces. When he arrives at the sanatorium he has just completed his studies as an engineer but is nonetheless a ‘simple soul’ who knows nothing of the world. As the novel progresses he begins, almost imperceptibly, to attain great knowledge and understanding. As Van Meter Ames suggests:

Hans Castorp's education begins when his training as an engineer is completed. He does send for some books on "scientific engineering, technique of ship-building, and the like," but neglects them for text-books in "anatomy, physiology, biology," and the question, "What was life?"

Nonetheless, Ames continues, in the early stages of the narrative, ‘[s]till [Hans] is not interested in the kind of problem that genuine research would tackle. He simply slides into dreams.’ Thus, he remains in the sanatorium for seven years, hermetically isolated, outside reality. It is only latterly, when his romantic attachment to death is shaken by his love of life, that he begins to apply his intellect to any useful purpose. By then he has consumed the learning provided by the pedagogical Settembrini, has appraised the philosophy of the Jesuit Naphta, understood love through both its loss (in the shape of Peeperkorn) and its discovery (through Mme Chauchat), and has finally become prepared to leave the sanatorium behind and re-enter the world below.

1. Hans Castorp and the magic mountain
2. Time
3. Death and nature
4. Science and myth
5. Rationalism and reaction
6. Approaches to Mann

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt, singer and musician from Georgia, USA, has died, aged 45. Chesnutt was a paraplegic after a car accident in his teens, and although there is no official confirmation yet, it seems that he took his own life because he was depressed by his disability and, in particular, the cost of his medical care. If that is the case, it is a tragic irony that his death came on the day after President Obama got his far-reaching health care proposals through Senate.

Friday, December 25, 2009


This is Jim Eldon, a wonderful folk singer and musician who plays in true traditional style (but not without the occasional punk influences flitting in and out). I'm fortunate enough to see him busking in my home town from time to time. As a Scot, I'm continually baffled by the English's lack of pride in their own heritage, but Jim is a stalwart.

Anyway, happy Christmas if you're that way inclined. Happy holiday if you're not.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The shortest day

An observation from Thomas Mann, on this, the shortest day of the year:

“The days lengthen in the winter-time, and when the longest comes, the twenty-first of June, the beginning of summer, they begin to go downhill again, toward winter. You call that “of course”; but if one once loses hold of the fact that it is of course, it is quite frightenening, you feel like hanging on to something. It seems like a practical joke – that spring begins at the beginning of winter, and autumn at the beginning of summer. You feel you’re being fooled, led about in a circle, with your eye fixed on something that turns out to be a moving point. A moving point in a circle. For the circle consists of nothing but such transitional points without any extent whatever; the curvature is incommensurable, there is no duration of motion, and eternity turns out to be not “straight ahead” but “merry-go-round”!’

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time and music and narration

Can one tell - that is to say, narrate - time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking. A story which read: "Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward" and so forth - no one in his senses could consider that a narrative. It would be as though one held a single note or chord for a whole hour, and called it music. For narration resembles music in this, that it fills up the time. It "fills it in" and "breaks it up," so that "there's something to it," "something going on" ... For time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life. Both are inextricably bound up with it, as inextricably as are bodies in space. Similarly, time is the medium of music; music divides, measures, articulates time, and can shorten it, yet enhance its value, both at once. Thus music and narration are alike, in that they can only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another; and both differ from the plastic arts, which are complete in the present, and unrelated to time save as all bodies are, whereas narration - like music - even if it should try to be completely present at any given moment, would need time to do it in.

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

From reading contemporary American literature, there is a sense, over the past few years, that America is falling out of love with itself. Novels in response to 9/11, like DeLillo’s Falling Man and Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have focused on shortcomings in American society; globalisation and the McDonaldifying of the world – in Benjamin Barber’s term, McWorld – is no longer a source of pride, but of angst; and such is the extent of the uncertainty that post-apocalyptic nightmare is becoming the order of the day. The world is in trouble, and America is at the root of it. Much of this, one imagines, is a reaction to the nadir of the George W. Bush presidency but, that notwithstanding, none of it is particularly new: DeLillo, for example, has been exploring the same territory consistently throughout his career, with Mao II, from 1992, being a particularly clear example, but the scale and rate of disaffection appears to be accelerating. An early work which shows initial symptoms of the malaise is Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, a biting satire of the consumer culture that has overtaken America. It is a big, sprawling book, a family saga which relentlessly exposes and picks away at the sores that American society generally keeps concealed behind a façade of togetherness and domestic harmony. It is extremely funny, but its humour is barbed, mordant, unsettling. It is a work of some power.

The idea of corrections is the metaphorical thread which runs through the novel, and encompasses corrections of individual characters’ behaviours, the activity of big business, new technology, globalisation, health and social care developments, the financial markets and so on. In each case, there is a ‘correction’ which has wider implications than the protagonists realise, and the way Franzen manages to blend the personal devastation of family tragedy and wider, social, political and financial concerns, is impressive. What is common throughout is the sense of confusion, the perception that events are spiralling out of control, that nothing is as good as it should be, which appears to be so occupying American literature at present. There is, throughout, an ambiguity, a dogged determination on the part of the author to ensure there are no easy binary oppositions and therefore no obvious sides that the reader can choose: the bad things are never wholly bad, the good characters never wholly good. Nothing is easy, nothing is certain. In this, it seems, the novel is a clear reflection of its author. Colin Hutchinson develops this theme when he notes: ‘From one perspective, Franzen embodies the white, male, middle-class mainstream… From another perspective, [he] is the marginalized agent of besieged intellectual dissidence.’ Suggesting such reversals and complications are typical of Franzen’s work, Hutchinson argues that he is torn between the discourses of ‘the libertarian legacy of the 1960s counterculture and the communitarian renaissance response to Reaganism in the 1980s and ’90s; between experimental and realist literary practices; between a radical and a pragmatic political outlook; and between a rejection of, and a persistent adherence to, traditional distinctions between “high” and “low” culture.’

The novel tells the story of the Lambert family – father Alfred who is falling into the terrifying void of Parkinson’s disease, his put-upon but grasping wife Enid and their three grown-up children, who are living their lives in a ‘spirit of correction’, aiming to break free from the rigidity of their upbringing. Indeed, on the surface, each of the three is radically different from their straight-laced parents. Denise marries young, to a much older man, divorces him and has a number of affairs, including two lesbian liaisons; Chip is a fading academic who is sacked for conducting an improper sexual relationship with a student and eventually becomes embroiled in an extensive internet fraud operation in Lithuania; and Gary, although ostensibly a more conservative individual than his siblings, working as a banker and living in the suburbs with his wife and three children, is equally flawed, an incipient alcoholic who refuses to conform to the conventions of his profession by working long hours or actively seeking preferment. At the same time, however, each of the three also displays unmistakeable similarities to their parents: Denise’s protestant work ethic is a clear echo of her father’s, as is Gary’s almost irrational stubbornness, and his meanness is hilariously counterpointed with that of his mother while, at the end of the novel, Chip is the one who remains to look after his father and adopts the role of responsible adult.

What is most impressive, but also most unsettling, about The Corrections is that despite Franzen’s (at times simplistic) renunciation of the capitalism and market forces which serve to alienate individuals and dehumanise society, this is not a plea for humanism which is blind to the faults of humanity. However alienating modern society may be, much of the problems of the Lambert family are caused by their own foibles. Hutchinson suggests The Corrections is ‘a novel imbued with the feeling, particularly evident throughout Western society since the 1980s, that a precious sense of collectivity has been eroded, if not lost completely.’ He goes on to suggest it is a ‘critique of libertarian individualism in the context of a consumerist economy.’ This is the sense in which the novel must be read – with the focus on the individual and not wider society – and if one does it is a fine piece of work. Others, however, take a different view. Suzanne Rohr, for example, calls it a ‘novel of globalisation’, but that is not, for me, its true focus. Certainly, as a self-proclaimed social novelist, Franzen aims to explore issues affecting contemporary society, but nonetheless the focus remains on the individual members of the Lambert family, and their concerns are as much personal as they are social. This is a novel about human beings, not about globalisation; its intent is deeper than simply a corrective for society. James Annesley, in describing the novel as being restricted in terms of its “social” ambitions, suggests, it ‘offers a critical image of contemporary social and economic conditions. Malign, inhuman, and corrupting globalization is seen as a destructive force.’ Yes, perhaps, and Annesley’s is a relevant interpretation of the novel, but his focus is too much on the its ‘critique of corporations’ and not enough on its analysis of human frailty.

James Wood considers this focus on the family to be a fault of the novel. The travails of the Lamberts, he suggests, are not substantial enough to be equated with the corrections in the global financial, social and health markets. Thus, for him, the central conceit of ‘corrections’ is no more than a play on words. James Annesley concurs, suggesting ‘some of the difficulties identified by Wood could have been resolved had Franzen been able to produce a more convincing blend of the private and the public.’ I believe both Wood and Annesley underestimate the power of Franzen’s domestic narrative. The ending, remember, reverts almost entirely to the family: that, then, is the real focus of this novel, its central driving force, its raison d’etre. Annesley’s contention is that the lives of the Lamberts are ‘‘informed by a sense of determinism’, in which ‘[p]rivate lives are tied to social change, with the stock market providing a dominant and defining corection. The result is a homological novel that sees capital, technology, politics, and industry as parts of a base upon which the superstructures of individual lives are built.’ But that is only partly true, and there are many episodes which do not conform to this interpretation. Enid’s decision, for example, to destroy the Aslan ‘personality optimiser’ drugs suggests a strength of individual will, rather than a dominant correction by the health superstructure. Chip’s conversion at the end is not in any way correlative to determinism, and the touchingly complex nature of Denise’s relationship with her father, when she discovers the true extent of his sacrifice for her sake, feels convincingly real, highly emotional and truly personal. She changes, she is changed by experience, by knowledge, by the hard, stark truth. This is not a deterministic change, but one of those reassessments – corrections – that life occasionally forces on us all. Annesley’s reading of the novel is premised on it being a social realist ‘novel of globalization’ and, having established that, he goes on to suggest that in this pursuit it is a failure, but he is underestimating the importance of the Lambert family to Franzen’s themes, and he is underplaying the powerful family dynamics which are evidenced in the narrative. Annesley does concede, however, that in the ending of the novel Franzen does transcend some of the perceived weaknesses:

When Franzen’s conclusion eschews determinism and inclines towards a more subtle reading of private lives and social experience, he gestures towards a more complex and dialectical sense of the relationships between the literary text and material conditions, The conclusion is that if Franzen can pursue the implications raised in his ending, he may yet muster the “cultural authority” needed to write a “social novel” that offers an effective engagement with globalization.

I believe that, in insisting on describing The Corrections in terms of an engagement with globalization, Annesley is not accurately reflecting what the novel’s intentions are and, thus, his contention is flawed: since this was not Franzen’s aim it is unfair to criticise him for not achieving it.

The Corrections is a good novel but it is not a great one. Many of the narrative strands verge on cliché and some of the characterisation is stereotyped. It is also far too long, with the feeling, at times, that the reader is being beaten over the head with the message. In the section featuring Gary and his family, for example, although the writing is uniformly good, every possible nuance of the characters and their position has already been relayed to the reader long before its conclusion: Franzen, one feels, does not realise when his work is done and a scene has been mined of its full potential. The first section featuring Denise, too, suffers because it comes immediately after the crisis with her father when he falls (to his death, we erroneously suppose) from the upper deck of a ship. The reader is reluctant, at this stage, to be drawn yet again into the past for another series of corrections just at the moment when the narrative has taken a dramatic leap forward in the present. It feels a curiously clunky transition and the subsequent description of Denise’s early life is, to be honest, rather dull. That it subsequently becomes an essential piece of the narrative makes it doubly unsatisfying. But these are minor quibbles. There is no doubt that The Corrections is an impressive piece of fiction.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Duncan Williamson

I've written before about Duncan Williamson, who died a couple of years ago. He was one of the last of the real Scots Travellers, a singer and storyteller and continuer of the tradition, and his death was a tremendous loss. I was surfing this morning and came across this YouTube clip, which I think is stunning. The info says it is a song Duncan heard in the US but, presumably because of the way Duncan sings it, it sounds as though it could have come from my home area of Perthshire. His voice is extraordinary for a man of that age, and there is something truly haunting about this song. I can't get it out of my head.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Speech is civilization

I'll finish The Magic Mountain tonight, so more to follow, but for now here is another fine quote from the mouth of Herr Settembrini:

"You are silent... You do not love the Word, or you have it not, or you are chary with it to unfriendliness. The articulate world does not know where it is with you. My friend, that is perilous. Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictious word, prserves contact - it is silence which isolates. The suspicion lies to hand that you will seek to break your silence with deeds."

And in just this way, every tyrannical power, from the first, seeks to control speech, to limit dialogue, to ensure that debate is only ever held under the conditions of its own choosings. 'We are the way,' they say. 'Our interpretation is correct; you must only follow our guide.'

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jung's Red Book

Weighing in at $195, this is probably a Christmas present or a reservation at the library but, fifty years after it was completed, Carl Jung's Red Book, or Liber Novus, has been published. I came across a reference to this a few months ago, oddly enough and now here it is: the world is full of coincidences.

Jung delayed publication of this work because it is so highly personal, and so highly charged. The fear, as Kathryn Harrison describes it in her NY Times review, was that 'anyone who read it might conclude what Jung himself first suspected: that the great doctor had lost his mind.'

What is presents is a series of pictorial representations of the waking dreams which beset him in 1913 and which convinced him he was 'menaced with a psychosis'. I find the idea of this fascinating: Jung seems literally to have suffered the sort of spiritual breakdown which fuelled the Modernist movement. He saw these visions as prophesies, a link between his own unconscious and world affairs. Isn't it easy to look at The Waste Land, for example, and see it as much the same thing?

There appears to be a strong element of gnostic thought in Jung's beliefs (as there is in Modernism in general). Of individuation, for example, Harrison explains: '“Individuation” is the word Jung used for the integration of conscious and unconscious required for a person to reach psychological wholeness, an evolved state of being he did not consider within the reach of every person.' This chimes directly with the gnostic interpretation of the spark of knowledge which resides in each of us, but which only a very few of us are capable of uncovering.

Anyway, it looks like a fascinating book.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Wanna buy a typewriter - slightly used?

I seem to think this came up a few months back, but it seems to be back in the news again - a full page article in today's Guardian, no less. Cormac McCarthy is auctioning his typewriter which he has used since the 1960s. "I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence, I would put this at about 5m words over a period of 50 years," he is reported as saying.

The apostrophe key, of course, is practically unused.

I have to say, I think the estimate of $15,000 - $20,000 seems a bit low to me. I expect it will go for much more.

[UPDATE: It sold for $254,000... That's an expensive typewriter...]

More Magic Mountain

"We humanists have all of us a pedagogic itch. Humanism and schoolmasters – there is a historical connexion between them, and it rests upon psychological fact: the office of schoolmaster should not – cannot – be taken from the humanist, for the tradition of the beauty and dignity of man rest in his hands."

Even allowing for the (charmingly) pompous nature of Settembrini's dialogue, I have to say I recognise this... I'm not a teacher, but lifelong learning is my passion. I'm not directly involved in it these days, but I can't stop myself from engaging people and trying to encourage them into some form of learning, formal or informal.

I also like this quote because Mann/Settembrini follows it up with some rude remarks about religious types, but to post that too would be pandering to my particular prejudices, so I shall refrain. If you're interested, go and read it yourself.

You see, I'm at it again...

Settembrini reminds me strongly of someone I knew many years ago when I was doing my librarianship degree. I was initially entranced by him because he just seemed to know so much and to have such wide experiences. But, gradually, I began to think I was hearing the same narrow range of experiences repackaged over and over, and started to think he was pompous and a bit shallow. It wasn't until too late that I realised it was me who was pompous and shallow, and not Chris. But that's how you learn in life, I suppose. I'd hate to be that 21 year old again.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Music, the half-articulate art

Settembrini the humanist, speaking in The Magic Mountain:
“... I love and reverence the Word, the bearer of the spirit, the tool and gleaming ploughshare of progress. – 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. Music is to all appearance movement itself – yet, for all that, I suspect her of quietism. Let me state my point by the method of exaggeration: my aversion from music rests on political grounds."

To exaggerate my point, my aversion to Settembrini's argument rests, too, on political grounds. We have discussed and argued reason and rationalism on this blog several times, and I tend to be an ardent follower of rationalism, but Settembrini's exaggerated argument here is dangerous. It is an Apollonian approach and yet, perversely, it doesn't give space for beauty. It has the rigidity and serious-mindedness of a Calvinist. Dreaminess, for them is something to be abjured: it is irresponsible, dangerous. Nonsense. I struggle with the Jungian or Voegelinian concept that rational man has lost touch with some inner consciousness, but I do agree that rationalism must still find a place for beauty, and that not everything must conform to standards of absolute clarity.