The late great German novelist Thomas Mann has been celebrated for his explorations of time—its ability to speed up and slow down in a sort of life-rubato, its tendency to switch gears, to drift and drag and fly by all at once. Some readers, myself included, have reported feeling this very sense of time shifting tempos while reading Mann’s magnum opus, The Magic Mountain.
So what, you say. Time passes. This theme is—no pun intended—as old as time. But unlike most pontificators on the nature of time—after all, few other topics lend themselves better to being spoken of at such length—Mann does not understand time simply through a concrete series of words and actions. His time is not chronological or even logical on the surface—it is discursive, maze-like, an amalgam of tempos. Allegro here, lento there, a hop-step when times are cheerful and a death knell when they’re rough. Mann’s time is, in a word, musical. It is legato: passages describing snowflakes drifting gently down and settling on the ground and all of it happening oh. so. slowly. It is staccato: barbs exchanged between masters of repartee in conversations akin to ideological rap battles. It has breaks in rhythm, slurs and blurs.
So it comes as no surprise that Mann’s most formative influence was not a writer but a composer—fellow countryman Richard Wagner. In his essay, “The Sorrows and Greatness of Richard Wagner”, translated by Mann’s longtime friend Helen T. Lowe-Porter, Mann explores the spell Wagner casts on listeners. He asks of him, “What was it that drove [people] into the arms of his art—what but the blissfully sensuous, searing, sense-consuming, intoxicating, hypnotically caressing, heavily upholstered—in a word, the luxurious quality of his music?” Although he had mixed feelings about Wagner as a person—Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, while Mann was a spokesman for anti-Nazi intellectualism—Mann could never break free of his influence.
In fact, one has the same feeling reading through Mann as when listening to Wagner: that everything seems strangely familiar. And it is. Wagner pioneered what critics call the leitmotif, a “theme associated throughout the work with a particular person, situation, or sentiment” according to the OED. (Think of Darth Vader always being announced by a series of sinister “dun-dun-dun”s). Mann borrowed it. The recurrence of old themes in his Magic Mountain takes us from the present back to the past back to the present without having recourse to the ever-annoying and inaccurate flashback. The leitmotif mimics the flickering feeling of memory in a way classic, linear music can’t. There is no more “before” and “after”. Past and future blur. Linearity, so neat and clean and spare, is bent and warped into a series of spirals running inward and into each other. Themes appear, reappear, invert and subvert themselves in passage after passage. What you end up with is something “sense-consuming, intoxicating”—a self-referential, interwoven and interconnected whole that grows richer each page you turn and note you hear.
This is why Wagner’s operas feel like an immersion that is hard to swim out of. He plunges us into a timeless mythological age of Rheingold and magic swans, of Holy Grails and Valkyries. His operas seem to last forever, intensifying this hypnotizing effect. The worst parts of his opera—chanted recitatives that advance the plot and nothing else—seem to drag on for hours. But the best of his music accomplishes just what Mann said they did: the melodies consume the senses, intoxicate the soul, and before you know it they have transformed into something else entirely. Harmonies and new melodic strains melt into a throbbing outpouring of sound. Time lapses. The recitatives restart. Time resumes.
So with Mann. The litany of adjectives he uses to describe Wagner, “sensuous, sense-consuming, intoxicating”, just as easily come to mind when reading Mann’s rhapsodies on music’s ability to transcend, bend, and blend in and out of time. Like listening to Wagner’s operas, reading Mann’s books rarely goes at a steady pace. You burn through some of his chapters presto and slog through others. Mann mimics the experience of music and life itself—the boring parts drag, the transcendent ones zoom past.
In his lovely excursus on music in The Magic Mountain, “Fullness of Harmony,” Mann shows us the marvelous time-shifting and soul-sifting effects a gramophone has on protagonist Hans Castorp. Castorp has been living in a tuberculosis sanatorium for several years when the staff acquires the gramophone, “an overflowing cornucopia of artistic enjoyment.” Holing himself up in the playing room, “our beloved hero” Hans listens to record after record of music. Eventually he strikes upon what one may infer as Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that lovely swirl of consonant and dissonant sounds, of whole-tone scales and vivid tonal color. While listening to this music, Hans enters “a single fugitive moment that yet held all eternity in its consummate bliss…Forgetfulness held sway, a blessed hush, the innocence of those places where time is not”.
And here is where Mann hits upon the intoxicating seductive elixir that is music. It dissolves time, is outside of time, and yet, is a series of divisions in time—rhythm and beat, after all, are based on temporal durations. So what gives? Mann does not give us an answer. Instead he immerses us in this mixture of time and timelessness over and over in his bursts of poetic inspiration.
None of us get very far when we look into the nature of time. Mann argues in his Magic Mountain that man is so out of touch with time that, without a watch, he is entirely incapable of knowing how much time has passed. And though Mann investigates time again and again in The Magic Mountain, he never hits upon what it is exactly. He only records how it feels, how it bends the perceptions and experiences of the characters that people his world. The same can be said with music—whether music is within time or outside of it, whether we can transcend time through music or not, how music can be where time is not, Mann never really states. He asks all the questions but offers no answers.
Like us, Mann runs into that huge roadblock: trying to articulate what time and music are in words. Each of us knows what both feel like, but we cannot break them down into a logical definition that truly defines them. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing—maybe the exaltation of listening to music wouldn’t be there if we unraveled its mystery. Maybe we should stop trying to figure it out and instead let ourselves fall under its spell. The result is nothing short of magic.
Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue