August 7, 2011

The Magic Mountain of Freedom, Love and Death

I just finished reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (translated from German by John E. Woods), and am writing about it because it’s been such a journey to accomplish this! It only took me 7 years to do it!

My interest was re-ignited (after many years of having put the book down) when I read a post by Jay Winston a while back. He had mentioned it and I had read enough of it years ago to sort of get what he meant, but I also realized that I had some unfinished business with the book.

The relationship between me and The Magic Mountain felt personal. I know that it’s “just a book,” but the work has a density that provides nuance that is not often found in a reading experience. I felt like I was getting to know someone, rather than just reading a book.

And one of the people I was getting to know better was myself…

In a recorded talk by Joseph Campbell, I heard him say that the story of the book coincides with the metaphoric journey through the 7 chakras as a model for personal development—which had been part of what had piqued my interest about 7 years ago.

One of the prerequisites for going to the ‘magic mountain’ is to recognize one’s mortality, and a doctor at the sanitarium in the mountains in the Swiss Alps where most of the book takes place said:

You see, I’ve never met a perfectly healthy person before.

This happened on page 16. So I can understand why someone (like me 7 years ago) who was thinking that they could totally heal through yoga might make it through only some of the book. It was against my conception of the possibilities at the time. I think that I might have believed that I could attain perfect health through yoga, and perfect happiness, too…

You have to have an illness to be a part of the crew on the ‘magic mountain’, and back in the day I was trying to be perfect (even though I’ve never been close…). So while I thought that the book was worthwhile, at a certain point it seemed arduous. A buzz-kill.

But, up on the ‘magic mountain’ illness affords a level of freedom not found elsewhere.

It is my illness that allows me liberty.
~The Magic Mountain

So when someone is sick there are more choices partly because life might be much shorter, and partly because it might break someone out of the trance of doing what is expected of them.

As Hans Castorp, the main character, starts to discover that he, too, might be ill, he allows himself to let go and try a new frame of mind:

…he felt sweeping through him, from head to foot, that sense of dissolute sweetness that had risen up inside him when he had tried out what it must be like to be free of the pressures of honor and to enjoy the unbounded advantages of disgrace…
~The Magic Mountain

A friend tries to dissuade him from continuing:

I urge you: Consider your self-respect, your pride. Do not loose yourself in an alien world. Avoid the swamp, that isle of Circe—for you are not Odysseus enough to dwell there unharmed. You will walk on all fours, you are tipping down to your front limbs already, and will soon begin to grunt—beware!
~The Magic Mountain

But by the time Hans Castorp hears this, he is so deeply on his journey already that this just becomes fuel for the intellectual freedom and gorgeous discussions afforded by a stay at the sanitarium.

I also was fascinated by the thread in the story about his psychological romance with Frau Chauchat.

…”thought” is an all-too-inhibited word for describing how he turned inwardly toward her…
~The Magic Mountain

The book takes readers on a great spiritual journey that includes magnificent transcendent connection and love.

“We dream anonymously and communally, though each in his own way. The great soul, of which we are just a little piece, dreams through us so to speak, dreams in our many different ways its own eternal, secret dream—about its youth its hope its joy, its peace, and its bloody feast.”

“Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts.”
~The Magic Mountain

Then, at the end of the book Hans Castorp finds himself called to the battlefield, but by the time he gets there (after 7 years at the sanitarium) I get the sense that he knows how to handle the implications of that difficult reality.

And I thought that the story could go right into the Bhagavad Gita, a story from ancient India about a relationship with the nature of the universe and love, brutality and transcendence that happens right on the battlefield.

Hans Castorp took time to know himself and to heal on the magic mountain. The way I think about it: we all have a magic mountain inside of us, and we might not even have to go to the Swiss Alps to get a taste of our expanded reality—the one that is just beyond what we tell ourselves everyday. Going on retreat is certainly valuable, and it’s also good to know that we are always available to ourselves if we allow it. I believe that we will always come out of the experience better, more knowledgeable and competent for dealing with the tasks at hand.

I want to try to say it differently: experiences of transcendence are useful. A person can come back to the daily experience of life, after having gone on a grand spiritual journey and be better for having done it. Understanding deeply affects the choices we make.

Be curious! Be adventurous! Explore yourself!

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