The Magic Mountain

Source: Thomas Mann (trans. John E. Woods), extract from The Magic Mountain (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005 [orig. pub. Der Zauberberg, 1924]), pp. 376-378

Text: They even took Karen Karstedt to the Bioscope Theatre in Platz one afternoon, because that was something she truly enjoyed. Being used only to the purest air, they fell ill at ease in the bad air that weighed heavily in their lungs and clouded their minds in a murky fog, while up ahead on the screen life flickered before their smarting eyes – all sorts of life, chopped up in hurried, diverting scraps that leapt into fidgety action, lingered, and twitched out of sight in alarm, to the accompaniment of trivial music, which offered present rhythms to match vanishing phantoms from the past and which despite limited means ran the gamut of solemnity, pomposity, passion, savagery, and cooing sensuality. They watched as a rousing tale of love and murder in the court of an Oriental potentate unrolled silently before them; scene after opulent scene sped past, full of naked bodies, despotic lust, and abject servility blind in its zeal, full of cruelty, prurience, and fatal desire – and then suddenly the filmed slowed to linger revealingly on the muscular arm of an executioner. In short, it had been produced with a sympathetic understanding of its international audience and catered to that civilization’s secret wishes. Settembrini, as a man who formed opinions, would surely have denounced this exhibition as a denigration of humanity, and with honest, classical irony would have castigated the misuse of technology that made such cynical presentations possible – or so Hans Castorp thought, and whispered as much to his cousin. Frau Stöhr, however, who happened to be sitting not all that far from the trio, had apparently abandoned herself to the film; her red, uneducated face was contorted with pleasure.

But, then, it was much the same with all the faces they could see. When the last flickering frame of one reel had twitched out of sight, and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause. There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the element of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nerveless silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time has passed, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.

The despot was dispatched with a knife, his mouth opened for a bellow that no one heard. They now saw pictures from all over the world: the top-hatted president of the French republic reviewing a long cordon, then sitting in his landau to reply to a welcoming speech; the viceroy of India at the wedding of a rajah; the German crown prince on a barracks drill field in Potsdam. They observed the life and customs of an aboriginal village in New Mecklenburg, a cock fight in Borneo, naked savages blowing on nose flutes, the capture of wild elephants, a ceremony at the Siamese royal court, a street of brothels in Japan with geishas sitting caged behind wooden lattices. They watched Samoyeds bundled in furs driving sleds pulled by reindeer across the snowy wastes of northern Asia, Russian pilgrims praying at Hebron, a Persian criminal being bastinadoed. They were present at each event – space was negated, time turned back, “then and there” transformed by music into a skittering, phantasmagoric, “here and now.” A young Moroccan woman dressed in striped silk and harnessed with chains, bangles, and rings, her swelling breasts half-bared, was suddenly brought nearer until she was life-size. Her nostrils were flared wide, her eyes full of animal life, her features vivacious; she laughed, showing her white teeth, held up one hand – the nails seemed lighter than her skin – to shield her eyes, and waved at the audience with the other. People stared in bewilderment and the face of this charming specter, who seemed to see them and yet did not, who was not at all affected by their gaze, and whose laughter and waves were not meant for the present, but belonged to the then and there of home – it would have been pointless to respond. And so, as noted, their delight was mixed with a sense of helplessness. Then the phantom vanished. A bright void filled the screen, the word Finis was project on it, this cycle of entertainments was over, and the people left the theater in silence as a new audience pushed its way in, eager to enjoy another roll of the reels.

Comments: Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a German novelist and short story writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. The Magic Mountain mostly takes place in in a Swiss sanatorium in Davos in the years just before the First World War, and serves as an ironic and cryptic analysis of European society. The visit to the Bioscope is one of the rare scenes in the novel to take place outside the sanatorium. Though the thoughts on the nature of time and the viewing experience are profound, the picture painted of a diverse programme is improbable in its extent and its dubious details (no public film show would have featured travel films of the bastinado or Japanese brothels, for example).