How from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring

September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Your comments on Thomas Mann struck a chord — like you, I have always thought the man divine, largely like you — on the strength of The Magic Mountain, but also of Dr Faustus (the third chapter!  the third chapter!).  But then, also like you, when I came to read his diaries, I suffered a shock:  they were empty and stupid.  This has not stopped me from re-reading The Magic Mountain (as I constantly do), but it has made me wonder how from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring.

Do you suppose one could argue that it isn’t really a great work and only seems to us that way because of the cunning way in which the author has jumbled up certain topoi and themes?  Is it possible, do you reckon, that The Magic Mountain is, to use a metaphor, no more than a spread of tarot cards:  the motifs of the cards (the hanging man, death, sun, glass mountain, bottomless pit) juxtaposed will strike anyone looking at the spread as full of all sorts of hidden meanings while the person who lays them out can be any common fool?

And while I am at it, many thanks for your wonderful Castorp.  I read him with such intense, such unalloyed delight, that, having finished, I just flipped right back to the beginning and began all over again.  Somehow, I believe it will read even better on the Sopot quay:  I will make that my project next spring.

I myself am contemplating another Magic Mountain prequel, one taking as its hero Mynherr Pepperkorn, to be set in Indonesia and narrated by — who else? — Old Marlowe.  A cameo appearance by young Joseph Conrad would be de rigeur.

Indonesia is full of tarot topoi:  smoking volcanos and shady groves of ancient trees, shadow puppet theater (we are to gods like the puppets’ shadows are to them), the royal ballet (in which the only unmasked dancer, Rama, strives to achieve the wooden expression of a mask), spices and opium, Bugis pirates and Chinese triads, ancient stone temples in the jungle, sharks, and snow-white Indian bullocks.  Juxtaposed in any old way, they should make a great novel?

The problem, is, of course, that by the time he appears in Davos, Old Pepperkorn is a fool, not unlike perhaps Thomas Mann of the diaries himself; so it is hard to imagine him a hero of a thinking book; but he could be:  perhaps in his youth he was uncommonly intelligent, driven, and blessed by an acquiring mind; and only in time, drink, malaria, disappointment in love, and perhaps a stroke made him into a mere shadow of himself?

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