ddoctor and patient

thomas mann's snow

word, image and time in narrative literature


An unforgettable fragment from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp who, caught in a snow storm, falls asleep when taking shelter, and dreams of southern regions, where he continues his wanderings through the galleries of a temple complex. While the journey unfolds phase after phase, time seems to expand ever more - until Castorp, after his awakening, has to ascertain that there is still plenty of time before the evening meal.

The vicissitudes of time in this 'time novel' (Zeitroman) will appropriately be dealt with below. But, in this essay, I choose to highlight still other characteristics of this story: that, notwithstanding the articulation through an unrelenting ostinato in an ever broader measure of time, it is the literary equivalent of what, in the realm of film, is called a 'one-shot', and, in the realm of theatre a 'scene': the rendering of one uninterrupted appearance, a long and moving, but single image, hence, for the most diverse senses at that. Such a one-shot is in every respect the counterpart of the visual, single and still image - the painting or the photo, which serve as a paradigm in nearly all the theories of the image. To emphasise the contrast, I could have analysed a filmed one-shot - think of Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark. But a narrated one-shot has the additional charm that it highlights still another difference with the paradigm: that in narrative literature, an image is conjured up by what I call image conjuring signs. That makes it very appropriate to, finally, make it clear that a narrative literature is in the first place a question of images for the most diverse senses in the mind, and only in the second place a question of words (see soon my text: mimesis and literature).

Some theoretical considerations, hence, on occasion of the lecture of a text that is too precious to be dissected with the lancet of theory, but that nevertheless inspired me to undertake that task...


Let me first emphasise that Thomas Mann's story is not bisensory like audiovisual films and theatre, not even monosensory as implied in the old adage ''ut pittura poesis', but multisensory.

To begin with, there are the rather scarce descriptions of Hans Castorp's visual appearance ('in seiner langärmeligen Kamelhaarweste, seinen Wickelgamaschen und auf seinen Luxusski'), but above all those of his movements, mostly indirectly through the evocation of the landscape in which the visual appearance is moving ('Hans Castorps lange, biegsame Sohlen trugen ihn in allerlei Richtung: entlang der linken Lehne gegen Clavadel...'). Second, there are the auditory appearances. During the excursion, they are negative: Thomas Mann conjures up the silence of the snow landscape, not least through opposing it to reminiscences of the roar of the sea in Sylt. That silence contrasts strongly with the dream, where not only the song of birds and voices are to be heard, but also music, not to mention the whispering of the cannibalistic witches in the temple. Olfactive impressions are very scarce: only in the beginning of the visual dream do we smell 'balsamierte Luft' and 'Duft des Tieflandes'. Tactile sensations fail in the beginning, but they become more and more frequent when the snow storm breaks out: the vast visual panoramas implode into the narrow space surrounding the body where not only the wind becomes tangible ('als der erste Windstoss ... ihm traf'), but above all the cold ('schnitt das wie mit Messern ins Fleisch'). The tactile sensations are a transition to the perceptions of organic processes in the body ('Atemknappheit', 'dem rührenden Menschenherzen in der organischen Wärme seiner Brustkammer'), from whence it is only a step to the perception of the soul (emotions like 'sein Hers offnete sich', 'dankbar atmend') and the spirit - the unrelenting thinking of Hans Castorp. Thoughts are in essence words pronounced silently (monologue interieur). A transitional form are the sentences that Hans Castorp speaks to himself: 'Aber geschehen muss etwas, ich kann mich nicht hinsetzen und warten'. At the extreme of this spectrum are, finally, the self-observations ('Er nahm wahr dass er mit sich selber sprach'). A special status has to be conferred to the dream images. In fact, the dream images are perceptions of the dreaming Castorp, on which he reacts with dreamed thoughts (images in the image). But in as far as the reader perceives these images through the dreamer, they are sensory appearances in their own right.

I have tried to visualise the many changes of sensory domain during the course of the story (see table). I could have provided a separate line for every single appearance. But, for clarity's sake, I have grouped the sensory appearances: appearances for the outer senses alternate with appearances for the inner senses. The grouping is not arbitrary: it reflects their alternation in the text. The ever renewed description of the spatial position of Hans Castorp, ever again completed with the description of impressions for the outer senses, alternates with a journey in the diverse domains of the inner senses. Such grouping not only makes the table more transparent, it also visualises the measure that articulates the whole story in the first place: the ostinato that is formed through the relentless alternation of rest and movement of Hans Castorp. It also shows that the text is a kind of triptych. After an exhaustive first part (begin of the excursion of Hans Castorp until his taking shelter), comes the dream as a second part, which is followed by a third part that describes the return. In the first panel, the perspective on space is shrinking gradually: broad panoramas make place for mountain walls and slopes (Tannenabsturz hinab in Schneedunst und andererseits ein Felsenaufstieg), to eventually dissolve into the perspectiveless cloud of snowflakes around the body in which Hans Castorp perceives his organs before evaporating into soul and spirit. The second panel is itself a diptych: a visual dream - in which the ostinato of the snow is continued in the galleries of the temple complex, is followed by what Thomas Mann calls a 'thought dream'. The third panel brings the reader back to the world of the sanatorium in two finale beats of the ostinato.


That the reader, in the tact of this ostinato, cyclically runs through a broad array of sensory domains, does not mean that he is dealing with a multiple or composite appearance, like in a polyptych or in a standard multi-shot film. Whether the appearance is single or multiple depends on the temporal (and hence; spatial) continuity. On a closer look, there are temporal ruptures in the introduction to Thomas Mann's story, as well as between the story and the next chapter. But the story itself continues undisrupted: Hans Castorp is continually perceptible from the beginning of the excursion, over his turning in circles in the blizzard, his falling asleep in the snow, his dreaming and awakening, to his return in the sanatorium. Nowhere is there an interruption ('an hour later', 'after he has fallen asleep' or 'meanwhile'...). To be sure, the story is not rendered from one and the same perspective: the author zooms in, on the spatial as well as on the temporal level. But, whether time flows faster or slower, it continues to flow uninterrupted.

The impression of articulation is caused by the continuous shift in sensory domains, not by ruptures in the flow of time. But change of sensory domain does not suffice to turn a single image into a multiple one: it only adds a new sensory domain to the old one. When a character is first introduced visually, and begins to speak only after a while, there are not two shots, but only one, in which an initially purely visual image eventually turns into an audiovisual one.

One might object that, in a film, the separate sensory domains do not alternate: even when there are temporary hiatuses - passages where there is no sound, but only image, or no image, but only sound - the visual and the audible dimension are synchronous, It is a misconception, however, to think that such would not be the case in a narrative. The misconception originates in the assimilation of the narrative as an image - as a sequence of images, with the narrative as a sequence of words. In a film or in the theatre, the character remains visible when it begins to speak. But when the narrator has to conjure up such an audiovisual image, he has to first conjure up the visual image and then the auditory one, or the other way round. It is only in the mind of the reader that both appearances merge into a single audiovisual image. That is clearly apparent from the following passage: 'Da war wohl zu seiner einen Seite ein Tannenabsturz hinab in Schneedunst und andererseits ein Felsenaufstieg mit ungeheuren, zyklopischen, gewölbten und gebuckelten, Höhlen und Kappen bildenden Schneemassen. Die Stille, wenn er regungslos stehenblieb, um sich selbst nicht zu hören, war unbedingt und vollkommen, eine wattierte Lautlosigkeit, unbekannt, nie vernommen, sonst nirgends vorkommend. Da war kein Windhauch, der die Bäume auch nur aufs leiseste gerührt hätte, kein Rauschen, nicht eine Vogelstimme. Es war das Urschweigen, das Hans Castorp belauschte, wenn er so stand'. In this fragment - that leaves the reader speechless in the first place - Thomas Mann first conjures up a visual appearance, and then an auditory one (italicised by me). Both merge into a single audiovisual image in the mind. But the process does not stop with the addition of a second sensory dimension. Next to the visual and auditory, also olfactive, tactile, and even a whole array of interoceptive appearances follow suit. When the wind carves like a knife in Hans Castorp's skin, when his breath is cut off, when the readers hear him thinking, yes even see his dreams, all these appearances are combined with the other outer perceptions in one single, continuous, moving multisensory image. Just like with the audiovisual image, there may be a temporary hiatus in one of the sensory domains - for instance when Castorp seems not to feel or to think. Or, equally like with the audiovisual image, the attention can shift from the visible to the audible. But in neither case is there a temporal rupture in the multisensory appearance of Hans Castorp.

However that may be: the alternation in the table, which is already a simplification of the alternation in the text, creates the false impression of a succession of sensory domains. In reality, the reader is moving in a multisensory world, where, in the worst case, some domains are temporarily inactive, and where it is only the attention that shifts from domain to domain.


Apparently, the image consists of a changing multisensory image whose sensory domains are scanned successively. The real narrative - the image - has to be clearly distinguished from the apparent narrative, the chain of words that conjure it up - the word. Once the distinction made, it appears that there is an often important difference between the succession of image conjuring words and the succession of the images of the conjured up real narrative.

Already the example of the audiovisual description of the silent snow landscape clearly demonstrates that the duration of the appearance of an image does not necessarily coincide with the pronunciation of the words that conjure up that image. The visual appearance of the landscape continues to appear when the author describes the silence that reigns in it, and the audiovisual landscape as a whole continues to appear when Hans Castorp is floating on the train of his thoughts. Conversely, the silence which is described after the visual appearance of the landscape, was already audible when the author begins to describe the visual appearance of the landscape, and the audiovisual appearance of the silent landscape as a whole was already there as the backdrop of the trajectory of Hans Castorp.

That does not imply that there are no images that coincide with their conjuring up: just think of the regularly returning descriptions of how Hans Castorp sets out again and again to lose himself in the snow. But, as a rule, it is only the beginning of the appearance that coincides with the pronunciation of the words that conjure it up: Hans Castorp's 'stöckeln' begins with the pronunciation of 'stöckelte er sich irgendwo bleiche Höhen hinan', but the image of the snow landscape that is evoked further in the text reveals that Castorp's 'stöckeln' continues after its conjuring up has finished ('kein Gipfel, keine Gratlinie war sichtbar, es war das dunstige Nichts, gegen das Hans Castorp sich emporschob').

Only in rare cases does the duration of the appearance fully coincide with that of the image conjuring words, like in the four movements in the following sentence: 'Er stieß sich ab, schlürfte auf seinen Kufen fort, fuhr am Waldrande den dicken Schneebelag der Schräge ins Neblige hinunter und trieb sich, steigend und gleitend, ziellos und gemächlich, weiter in dem toten Gelände umher'. Here, every movement appears and disappears on the rhythm of the corresponding sentences, except for the last one, where the movement continues when Thomas Mann describes the 'dune landscape' in which it takes place.

That the reading of the words coincides with the duration of the appearance is principially the case when speech or thoughts are rendered in direct speech. Thus, a few lines after the 'dunstige Nichts' Hans Castorps speaks to himself 'Praeterit figura hujus mundi'. But, these words do not conjure up images: rather is it the reader who reduplicates Hans Castorp's speaking - not otherwise than an actor who reduplicates the speaking of his character.

Next, some of the images do not belong to the mulitsensory image of the story: they are only conjured up to help conjuring up an image that belongs to the story indeed. I will call such images 'instrumental images'. A good example is the reference to the arrival in the sanatorium when Hans Castorp drinks his port wine 'die sofort eine Wirkung zeitigte, ganz ähnlich derjenigen des Kulmbacher Bieres am Abend seines ersten Tages hier oben'. In a similar vein, Thomas Mann emphasises the 'Totenstille' of the snow landscape by conjuring up an image of the roaring North Sea: 'Es war schön im winterlichen Gebirge, - nicht schön auf gelinde und freundliche Weise, sondern so, wie die Nordseewildnis schön ist bei starkem West, - zwar ohne Donnerlärm, sondern in Totenstille, doch ganz verwandte Ehrfurchtsgefühle erweckend.' These words are written a few lines before the sentence with which I illustrated the construction of an audiovisual image. In both cases, on the level of the sensory domains of the story, nothing corresponds to the chain of image conjuring words: there are only 'black holes' (or in ore scheme: yellow cells).

And - last but not least - there are the text fragments that do not conjure up images at all - that are just discursive passages, which nevertheless contribute to the way in which the images of the story are constructed. Thus, the thoughts about man as 'Kind der Zivilisation' serve to make it clear 'dass stundenlang ein heimlich-heilger Schrecken sein Gemüt beherrscht hatte'. Even a purely orienting remark like 'Es war nachmittags um drei Uhr.' may highlight the contrast between chronological and experienced time. That holds especially for integral theoretical chapters in the book as such, like the 'Exkurs über den Zeitsinn', which draws the attention to the structuring of time in the book as a whole.

That may suffice to make it clear that there is no point-to-point relation between image conjuring text and conjured up images, but rather a network of chaotic temporal relations - complete anachrony - between the sequence of image conjuring words and the images that changes in its various sensory domains.

It is not superfluous to point to the fact that there is a kind of flash back or flash forward here (analepsis and prolepsis), but that these 'anachronous' relations have nothing to do with flashbacks or flash forwards in the traditional sense of the word of a relation, not between image conjuring words and image, but between image and chronological time. In the relation between image conjuring words and conjured up images, there is not only prolepsis and analepsis, but also the strange relation of 'going on after being conjured up' or 'beginning before being conjured up', not to mention negative relations like those of the 'black holes', which are impossible in the relation between conjured up images and chronological time. Reason enough to have a closer look at the latter relation.

 "Du gehst und gehst . . . du wirst von solchem Gange niemals zu rechter Zeit nach Hause zurückkehren,
denn du bist der Zeit und sie ist dir abhanden gekommen."

Strandspaziergang, Der Zauberberg, Thomas Mann.

There is not only a difference between the story as a succession of words and the story as a succession of images, there is also a difference between the story as a succession of events in what I will call noumenal time (the chronology of the happenings), the story experienced as a succession of perceived images in what I will call phenomenal time (the succession and the duration of the happenings as experienced in the narrative), and real time, the duration the events would have in the real world.

A view on the story in noumenal time is obtained by ordering all the events in a chronological order. In a standard narrative, there are often more than one narration lines, and the events of the story are mostly narrated in another order than the chronological one. Thomas Mann's narrative has the advantage that it is a single appearance. This allows me to concentrate on another aspect; the relation between phenomenal and real duration of the event. In theatre and film there are no problems (film in slow or fast motion put aside) since the duration of each appearance coincides with the duration of the event in an existing or non-existing world. In narrative literature, on the other hand, there is as a rule a difference between phenomenal and real duration. An ordering of the events of 'Schnee' on such an objective time scale shows that the events are not evenly distributed along the time axis. On some parts of the trajectory the events are more dense than on other parts: apparently, the author zooms in with a time lens in variable degrees

The question is how such a difference between real and phenomenal duration can arise. That is in the first place a consequence of the fact that time is conjured up by words, so that there are from the beginning two time levels. The words can thereby refer to different scales of time. In the sentence 'They emptied their goblets', the words refer to a scale of minutes, in the sentence 'They walked the whole afternoon' to a scale of hours, and in the sentence, 'they lived happily ever after', to a scale of years. When reading the three sentences one after another, the impression is that time is accelerating with each sentence. That the three sentences consist of quasi the same number of words only enhances the effect. The expansion of time is measured against a fixed measure: the time of the pronunciation the words. What role the image conjuring words play in this context, becomes fully apparent, when it turns out that the extent to which time is prolonged or shortened depends upon the number of words that have to be read. A good example is the following sentence of Thomas Mann, that I give first in a shortened version: 'Er stieß sich ab, schlürfte fort, fuhr hinunter, und trieb sich umher'. In that version, there are three movements of zooming out. But, in the original version, the number of words increases with each expanding move: 'Er stieß sich ab, schlürfte auf seinen Kufen fort, fuhr am Waldrande den dicken Schneebelag der Schräge ins Neblige hinunter und trieb sich, steigend und gleitend, ziellos und gemächlich, weiter in dem toten Gelände umher'. Time is still accelerating, but with each twist of the lens, the duration of accelerated time increases accordingly.

Words can exert that effect because the imagination cannot rely on the usual clues for duration. In his 'Strandspaziergang', Thomas Mann describes how the wanderer loses every sense of time when walking alongside the surf of the sea under a grey sky - denn du bist der Zeit und sie ist dir abhanden gekommen... In the absence of other clues, time is measured by the duration and the cadence of the words that conjure up the events. The life of the couple that lived happily after, lasts as long as it takes to pronounce the corresponding words. That is so true, that it lasts longer when the words are simply stretched. And it lasts even longer when the duration is stuffed with events, like the births of the children of Papageno and Papagena in Mozart's Magic Flute.

It is as if, in the narrative, the normal clues for the measuring of time are replaced with the ticking of a syllabic clock: the duration of the number of words serves as a measure - an analogous sign - for the duration of the image. The more words are summoned up to conjure up an event in a give time scale, the longer it seems to last. In 'Schnee', the first half of the excursion is evoked with merely a couple of sentences, whereas the visual dream, which lasts only some minutes, takes several pages. The duration of that first half is prolonged (and provided with more sensory domains) through the description of silence and the rendering of the thoughts and feelings of Hans Castorp. It is here that the import of instrumental images and ordinary discursive passages becomes evident: the often circumstantial reflections on man as a 'Kind der Zivilisation' help to make 'dass stundenlang ein heimlich-heilger Schrecken sein Gemüt beherrscht hatte' into an experienced phenomenon. The increasing of the number of words through the introduction of instrumental images, that do not belong to the story either, have a similar effect: 'Auf Sylt hatte er, in weißen Hosen, sicher, elegant und ehrerbietig, am Rande der mächtigen Brandung gestanden wie vor einem Löwenkäfig.'

The combined effect of changes in the scale of time and in the ratio of real to syllabic time is measurable not only on the level of single representations, but also on that of the book as a whole. A crude measure may be that the first 200 pages cover three weeks and the next 1000 ones seven years. It pays to visualise the variable relation between real and phenomenal time in the story of Hans Castorps' excursion in the snow. In rreal time, the excursion takes three hours and a half. It can be subdivided in seven phases: (1) 'Bald nach Tische' (let us say 14.00) he sets out to the mountains. (2) Shortly before three o-clock (say at 14.45) he decides to not return. (3) It is 'nachmittags um drei Uhr' when it begins to snow. (4) According to 'Sollte er glauben, daß sein Herumirren kaum eine Viertelstunde gedauert hatte?' the blizzard begins at 16.15, (5) About16.30, Castorp falls asleep and has the visual dream (say until 16.40) and (6) the thought dream, from which he awakes around 17.45 (Es fehlten zwölf, dreizehn Minuten daran. Erstaunlich! Konnte es denn sein, daß er nur zehn Minuten oder etwas länger hier im Schnee gelegen), and about half past five, he is back in the village again. Converted in lengths, this yields the following timetable:

the mountains

Let us assume that phenomenal time is determined exclusively by the number of words that is needed to conjure up a given real time span (and not also by the conjured up time scale), it suffices to count the lines per phase of the above time table to get the visualisation below of the variable stretching of time:

visual dream

Since Thomas Mann is above all interested in telescoping time, he does not spare any effort to enhance the effect. He succeeds in stretching time additionally through setting ambivalent points of reference. Thus, already after some thirty lines, he suggests that Hans Castorp has embarked on his way back (das Erleichterungsgefühl, das sich meldete, wenn auf dem Heimweg die ersten menschlichen Wohnstätten im Geschleier wieder auftauchten) before he decides to set out 'in das dunstige Nichts'. Whereas he thus suggests that it is halfway the afternoon, Hans Castorp assesses that is only three o'clock. Or the darkness of the blizzard long before dawn gives the impression that it is already late in the evening. And when Hans Castorp then says to himself 'So kann ich notfalls die ganze Nacht stehen', the impression arises that it is already night, which is only confirmed in that Hans Castorp falls asleep indeed, and in that he find himself suddenly - as appear later: in a dream - in a southern country in full noon. Over the first real layer of some three hours, a second one is laid of more than 24 hours, so that the second timetable above should be rendered eight times as long. Since the real time is some three (or twenty four) hours, and since it takes a good hour to read the story, the ratio of the compression of time is 3 or 8.

And, finally, time is not always prolonged or shortened, for there are also passages in direct speech: Hans Castorps monologues and thinking. In the beginning, they are absent, but the become more and more frequent and longer as time telescopes, to eventually encompass a 'monologue interieur' of some 120 lines! On the apogee of its extension in the visual dream, time is thus stretched anotherthree times: the crowning glory of Thomas Mann's undertaking! Through the shift to the visual dream, the reader is bereft of all the points of reference in the present of the snow landscape, and through the shift from the timeless world of the spirit also from his sojourn in the qua time and place undetermined southern landscape. Only after the reference points for time are thus thoroughly eliminated, and at the same time seems to last ever longer, first through the increase of numbers per time-unit, then through the shift to the thought dream in direct speech, has the feeling of an extending time become so strong, that it comes as a complete surprise that Hans Castorp has not moved to warm southern regions, but has apparently fallen asleep in the snow and only dreamt his journey, during a dream that lasted only a few minutes, as Thomas Mann triumphantly lets Hans Castorp ascertain through having him look at his clock.

By the way, the above does not mean that there is necessarily a discrepancy between the time of the conjuring up of the images and the time of the images themselves. Where the difference is the rule in narrative literature, the coincidence is the rule in image conjuring music (see Steve Reichs Different trains.)


The temporal relation between the single moving image and rreal time is, hence, very transparent: either there is identity or analogy (shortening or prolongation). By contrast, the relation between the temporal succession of image conjuring words and that of the images that are conjured up is a chaotic one. Since words are indispensable, however, there will be a propensity to smooth out the discrepancy through a reciprocal adaptation of the multisensory image and the chain of image conjuring words.

First, there is the adjustment on the plane of the articulation - the composition - of the multisensory image. The more sensory domains, the greater the possible conflict between the diverse events in the separate dimensions. In a supposedly real excursion of Hans Castorp, an observer that would dispose of the same sensory entrances to the event as in the narrative, would not know on which event to concentrate first in the chaotic succession of overlapping inner and outer appearances. The narrator has to rearrange the events so that the events do not overlap, and that the manifold appearances in the same sensory dimension are condensed in orderly sequences, Only thus can the chaos of overlapping and dispersed impressions be replaced with an orderly succession in the separate sensory domains. In 'Schnee', this leads to the ostinato of alternating inner and outer perceptions. The reading of the text - the execution of the instructions for the production of the multensory image, thus comes to coincide with the shift of the attention of the reader over the diverse sensory domains. Such arrangement has the additional charm that the events can be described more penetratingly - the equivalent of closing the eyes to better hear silence. When the separate domains are then combined into an encompassing audiovisual image, the image is far more penetrating than a real perception of a real multisensory world.

That the multisensory image is more adjusted to the linear succession of the image after its 'linearization', that does not mean that both levels now completely coincide. To begin with, that the succession of words is linear, does not imply that such is also the case with the succession of images. Next, the many instrumental images do not belong to the succession of images, and many a passage does not conjure up images at all. And, finally, many passages are written in direct speech. The chain of words that constitute the 'verbal story' as an instruction - a verbal score - to produce the multisensory image, turns out to be a heterogeneous hodgepodge, the terms of which relate chaotically to the conjured up images. The hodgepodge can be homogenised by shifting the attention from what the words conjure up, refer to, or imitate, to what they have in common as pure sounding entities; the duration of their pronunciation. Only from this perspective can a homogenous chain of sounding syllables be obtained. It suffices, then, to use the purely temporal qualities of the chain of syllables as an analogous sign for the duration of the conjured up images, and the chaotic temporal relations between words and images are transformed into a parallelism.

It is precisely as a result of such reciprocal adaptation that the illusion can arise that a narrative consists of words, and not of (a) multisensory image(s), to the effect that the three-fold layering of time in the narrative is overlooked.

Sie tun es, aber sie wissen es nicht.

 Karl Marx/Georg Lukacs

There are three temporal levels hence, and Thomas Mann is a master in manipulating the image conjuring and temporal characteristics of the word in view of conjuring up a fascinating image, the movement of which deviates in variable degrees from real time.

All the more remarkable is it, then, to find that he seems not to be aware of a differences between the narrative text and the images conjured up by it, so that he conceives of merely two levels. That is more than apparent from his considerations in another chapter of the 'Magic Mountain", the chapter 'Strandspaziergang': 'Die Erzählung dagegen hat zweierlei Zeit: ihre eigene erstens, die musikalisch-reale, die ihren Ablauf, ihre Erscheinung bedingt; zweitens aber die ihres Inhalts, die (...) fast, ja völlig mit ihrer musikalischen zusammenfallen, sich aber auch sternenweit von ihr entfernen kann'. He compares this with dreams (of opium smokers) 'deren imaginärer Zeitraum ihre eigene Dauer um ein Gewaltiges überstieg'. Things are totally different with music, which is evolving in its own, real time: 'Ein Musikstück des Namens »Fünf-Minuten-Walzer« dauert fünf Minuten'. The only difference that remains here, is the difference between phenomenal and real time, as it is described in another theoretical chapter in the 'Magic Mountain': Exkurs über den Zeitsinn. There is no mention any more of image conjuring words that entertain complex temporal relations with the images conjured up: as is apparent from the example of the opium smokers, Thomas Mann conceives of musikalisch-reale Zeit as of a sequence of images, whereas the musikalisch-ideëlle Welt seems rather to be the equivalent of real time ('Träume also,'deren imaginärer Zeitraum ihre eigene Dauer um ein Gewaltiges überstieg'. Apparently, Thomas Mann seems to take the words of the story for the images, after the example of the dream images of the opium smokers. That leads to various theoretical inconsistencies. There is, as a matter of fact, only one time in music, so that acceleration or retardation are inconceivable here, just like in theatre of film, where there is only place for prolepsis and analepsis. How then, would acceleration, which is unthinkable in music, be possible in a dream? Only the introduction of a third dimension, and the recognition of the existence of image conjuring words, allows us to better understand what is really at stake.

Thomas Mann cannot be blamed for this theoretical misunderstanding. His thinking, just like that of Proust and Joyce, who were equally mesmerised by the temporal phenomena described above, owes much to contemporary ideas about time (Bergson) and the increasing anti-mimetic mood in art philosophy. It is only in 1925, the year after the publication of the Magic Mountain, that with Boris Tomaševski (fabula verus sjuzet) the then prevailing ideas were refined, first by E.M. Forster (story versus plot), then by Tzvetan Todorow and Émile Beneviste ('discours' versus 'histoire'), Günther Müller and Eberhardt Lämmert (Erzählzeit versus erzählte Zeit), to eventually be codified by Gérard Genette ('récit' versus 'histoire') in 1972. That, after so much investigation, nobody has discovered that in fact three levels have to be discerned, is rather something of a mystery to me. Here is not the place to explain this mystery. It suffices to say that whoever does not discern immediate of mediated mimes - whoever does not recognise that, in a narrative, the words are no images, but merely instruments to conjure up images for diverse senses, cannot but treat a verbal narrative on the same footing as a theatre play or a film. He cannot but be induced to equate the sound of the spoken words with the sound of music ('musikalisch-reale Zeit'), or to understand the visual appearance of written language as a visual image - in the spirit of the old adage 'ut pittura poesis' - (still with Mitchell). He simply cannot understand that only the multisensory images in the mind of the reader are the counterpart of the sounds of music, or of the shapes and colours of visual images, or of the audiovisual performance of actor in the theatre.


However complicated the temporal relations between the chain of image conjuring words and the chain of conjured up images, however much the text may conjure up images that are 'black holes' that do not belong to the story, however much the text consists of information or discourse that only mediates the construction of an image, there nevertheless appears in the mind of the reader only one single, continuous, multisensory image, even when the attention shifts from one of its sensory dimensions to the other.

That should not make us blind to the existence of black holes also on the level of the images of the story itself; many an image in 'Schnee' is meant to be a metaphor. Since a metaphor refers to something other than itself, it threatens to disappear from the stream of images. Nearly notable - since also to be read literally - is the snow, which, apparently is meant as a metaphor for the 'Unheimliche, Wiederorganische, Lebensfeindliche' or for the 'hochgefährliche' discussions with Naphta and Settembrini. More striking are the 'Maria with child' in the first episode of the dream, the 'Hermes' who points to the temples (as, in ancient times, he used to lead the deceased to the realm of the dead): as outspoken individual figures, they contrast sharply with the groups in the southern scenes. That suggests that they have an extraordinary importance, and that feeling is heightened through the incongruousness of their presence in the context of singing and dancing young people. Their meaning can still be inferred from the scene itself. But it is only the two statues, the appearance of which is not telling in itself, that compels the reader to look for the meaning elsewhere (e.g. with Persephone and Demeter, through whom the journey is placed in the context of the XIth song of the Odyssey: the journey into the Hades). These are already more substantial black holes in the stream of images, comparable to 'La Liberté' in Delacroix' painting. Also the two witches that cannibalise children clearly refer to something other than themselves, although that image - which to my knowledge is not borrowed from mythology, speaks for itself, and is, as far as that aspect is concerned, is more kindred to Goya's Kronos. But a black hole in the full meaning of the word is the thought dream. To be sure, as a dream in direct speech it is audible, but as an interpretation of the visual dream, it makes forget the words in which it is formulated. That is all the more the case, since it is not Hans Castorp who is thinking here, but rather Thomas Mann who uses Hans Castorp as a mouthpiece. The interpretation of the visual dream only induces the reader to interpret the images of which it consists as further metaphors: the scene before the temple, condensed in the image of mother and child, comes to contrast the scene with the witches in the temple. Through such metaphorising of the dream, also Hans Castorps excursion in the snow is transformed into a metaphor, metaphorisation that was already announced in the above mentioned digressions on the snow, wherewith the whole story is eventually transformed into a sign - an allegory, the very negation of the image.

It is not my intention to digress on the tenor or the justification of this interpretation of Thomas Mann. Rather have I to stress the fact that, before being transformed into a metaphor, the story is in the first place an image, pure sensuousness, even when this applies more to the - therefore so impressive - prelude in the snow, than for the visual dream, which is all too readily conceived as a metaphor, not to mention the thought dream, which, although it plays a key role in the evocation of the expanding time, cannot properly be called an image. The way in which Thomas Mann describes how a patient suffering from tuberculosis cannot resist to the lure of a potentially life-threatening excursion in the snow and a snowstorm, is far more eloquent - strikes the deepest chords of the soul - than the philosophical construction in which the story is supposed to fit. Here as elsewhere, the image transcends its subordination to the sign.

What goes for the story from a single chapter, applies also to the book as a whole. Thomas Mann bluntly admits that all the figures in his book are 'lauter Exponenten, Repräsentanten und Sendboten geistiger Bezirke, Prinzipien und Welten'. But he proudly adds: ' Ich hoffe, sie sind deswegen keine Schatten und wandelnde Allegorien.' Justifiably so. For, even when the showing narrator often trips over the demonstrating philosopher, the artistic instinct of Thomas Mann preserves the Magic Mountain of becoming a - as will by now be evident: non-verbal - philosophical treatise.


Although the story of Hans Castorp in the snow may also be read as a part of a 'philosophischer Roman' - as a non-verbal metaphor and hence a non-verbal statement on the world, the validity of which can be discussed - it is in the first place a magnificent example of an impressive image, that, against the background of a theory of mimesis, can be characterised as a single, moving, multisensory image, that is conjured up by image conjuring signs, the temporal composition of which contributes to a unique experience of expanding time.

© Stefan Beyst, April 2013.

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