Something odd is happening to me. I have started reading Thomas Mann’s great work, The Magic Mountain, or to give it its original title, Der Zauberberg. I’m told that the adjective “zauber” has slightly different connotations to the English “magic.” There are no cute, Disney-influenced overtones to the German word. Rather, it implies sorcery, possibly of a menacing kind.
Early after beginning the novel, I was overcome by sleepiness, and ended up dozing away most of an afternoon, waking flushed and groggy, feeling rather unwell. I forced myself out of the house for a short walk, did some meditation at a nearby Buddhist monastery, and took a longer walk through the bush to get home, enchanted by the magical sight of a fluffy baby lyrebird on the way. Feeling better after this excursion, I presumed I had just been exhausted after Christmas and New Years revels, and that the heat of the summer day had finished me off.
But the next day, when I took out the novel, something similar happened. I didn’t sleep so long this time, but woke with a strange pain in my left shoulder. This time, I thought some more strenuous exercise might be in order, so I went to the local swim centre and did my usual twenty laps in the outdoor pool. Towards the end of my swim, I started to feel congested. There was a sharp, prickling sensation in my chest. The sky clouded over and started to spit at me. I had to interrupt a lap to cough.
Having looked up the word “sputum” in the dictionary earlier in the day (it is of some importance in the novel) I wondered, while continuing to swim, if I was bringing up sputum, or merely phlegm. Would I soon need to carry around a flat bottle with me for the purpose of collecting samples for later examination by medical experts? It was a whimsical, if also disgusting thought – I was imagining myself as one of the consumptive patients living in the sanatorium described in Mann’s novel, set in the German Alps, a good deal higher than the Australian Blue Mountains where I live.
The routine of (largely horizontal) life in the fictional International Sanatorium Berghof is constructed around mealtimes, of which there are five daily: early breakfast, second breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea, and supper. The food is sumptuous and beautifully prepared. At the table where the main character of the novel, Hans Castorp is seated, the dishes are served by a dining attendant who also happens to be a dwarf.
I write this having first consumed my own “second breakfast” for the day, which consisted of an omelette with fresh sage and goats curd, à la Bill Granger, and a roast dandelion soy latte, with honey. I prepared and served this meal myself, which suggests that I am playing both the role of hero, or anti-hero (Castorp is defined by his mediocrity, supplemented with a penchant for philosophical musings – about time, mostly), and that of the dwarf who serves him. This confusion, or amalgamation of roles, can be put down to the fact that I am living in the early twenty-first century, under conditions of advanced capitalism and liberal democracy, whereas Mann’s characters belong to the period before the First World War.
In his novel, the appearance of a dwarf waitress is cause for a slight shock, and heightened politeness on Castorp’s part, quickly fading into simple acceptance of her presence as part of the peculiar status quo in the Berghof. This detail in the novel reminds me of stories I heard a few years ago about how a law firm in Sydney hired dwarves to serve the drinks at its staff Christmas party. I wonder if the organisers were aware that in light of Mann’s famous novel, this suggested that the partners of the firm were not only morally decadent, but likely to be ravaged by internal disease, beneath their flush, rosy-cheeked exteriors. Kim Kardashian might also like to take note.
At this point, I feel a certain obligation to come up with some incisive philosophical observations, supported by cogent historical examples, about the changing symbolism of illness, perhaps drawing on Susan Sontag’s contrast between the spiritualization of consumptives, who were seen to draw closer to God as their illness progressed, and the more recent attitude toward cancer patients, who are likely to feel blamed for their own illness, in line with what I would not hesitate to call the hyperbolic concept of personal responsibility that dominates contemporary Western culture. I might add to this analysis some consideration of AIDS and its interpretation via discourses of sin, messianic catastrophe and redemption (as illustrated in playwright Tony Kushner's Angels in America), and spare some thought for those forms of illness which remain unfigured in any major cultural tropes, negative or positive, and consequently fail to attract significant research funding leading to better treatment…
But I find that lassitude is overtaking me, and realise that I have only a short time to wrap myself in a blanket (the weather here in the mountains having once again turned unseasonably cold) and take a quick kip on the couch before it will be time to meet my friend Nigel for lunch.