Archive for the ‘Criticism’ category

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann

November 28, 2011

A Man’s a Man for a’ that . . .

Returning to this large novel after twenty-five years, in the 1996 translation by John E. Woods, one notices the following:

1. The central figure, Hans Castorp, is not attractive–things happen to him, largely. This fits with the general theme of passivity in the novel, most of whose characters are taking the Alpine cure for their TB at a sanatorium above Davos. The first 200 pages or so establish the lay of the land, so to speak, as Hans Castorp discovers what life is all about “up there”; then, the action is largely made up of his efforts to sort out how to live while avoiding a return to the “flatlands.” (He comes from Hamburg, a stand-in for Mann’s own Lübeck, both flat areas indeed, where, appropriately, Plattdeutsch is spoken.)

2. Hans Castorp’s mentor, the cheerful humanist Settembrini, moves to the valley halfway through the novel. Whether this has any symbolic or other meaningful significance is hard to see, but for plot mechanics, it opens things up a bit and forces the action out of the sanatorium itself. Such simple considerations matter even in the most ambitious of works.

3. The Magic Mountain is not modernist in the tradition of English-language novels–James, Conrad, Joyce–there is an apparently omniscient narrator, with gravitational attraction to Hans Castorp–no events are narrated that don’t involve him or give us his thoughts, rather than someone else’s (one exception–his friend Joachim sees him enter the psychoanalysis clinic). There are some apparent slips in later chapters where the narrator acts as though the “we” is identified with those up on the Mountain, perhaps the director, Dr. Behrens himself. There is even a slip of an “I.”

4. One of the last chapters, “Fullness of Harmony,” describes Hans Castorp’s discovery of the gramophone and his love of certain specific works. Wagner is not mentioned, but the novel’s climax is distinctly Wagnerian–after so much raffiniert talking, differences are settled suddenly, with a gunshot. Listen to Act II of Tristan.

Early stethoscopes


Addison’s “Westminster Abbey”

April 17, 2011

On attending the funeral of a good friend’s mother yesterday, Addison’s “Westminster Abbey” came to mind. This simple and famous little essay connects pagan and Christian thought on mortality. Where Horace warns the rich man that he will meet the same fate as the poor, Addison welcomes the commonality of all. The Spectator disclaims any melancholy, but few other words could describe the emotions of the rippling last paragraph as well, if not a resigned hope:

Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
Regumque turres, O beate Sexti,
Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam:
Jam te premet nox, fabulæque manes,
Et domus exilis Plutonia.

“Pale death knocks with impartial foot at the huts of the poor and at the towers of kings, O happy Sextus. The shortness of the span of life forbids us to cherish remote hope; already night overtakes thee, and the fabled shades, and the wretched house of Pluto.”

—HOR. i. 4. 13.[1]

When I am in a serious humour, I very often walk by myself in Westminster Abbey, where the gloominess of the place, and the use to which it is applied, with the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it, are apt to fill the mind with a kind of melancholy, or rather thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I yesterday passed a whole afternoon in the churchyard, the cloisters, and the church, amusing myself with the tombstones and inscriptions that I met with in those several regions of the dead. Most of them recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day, and died upon another: the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to all mankind. I could not but look upon these registers of existence, whether of brass or marble, as a kind of satire upon the departed persons; who had left no other memorial of them, but that they were born and that they died. They put me in mind of several persons mentioned in the battles of heroic poems, who have sounding names given them, for no other reason but that they may be killed, and are celebrated for nothing but being knocked on the head.

Glaukon te, Medonta te, Thersilochon te. HOM. IL. P.216.

Glaucumque, Medontaque, Thersilochumque.VIRG. Aen. vi. 483.

The life of these men is finely described in Holy Writ by “the path of an arrow,” which is immediately closed up and lost.

Upon my going into the church, I entertained myself with the digging of a grave; and saw in every shovelful of it that was thrown up, the fragment of a bone or skull intermixt with a kind of fresh mouldering earth, that some time or other had a place in the composition of a human body. Upon this, I began to consider with myself what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.

After having thus surveyed this great magazine of mortality, as it were, in the lump; I examined it more particularly by the accounts which I found on several of the monuments which are raised in every quarter of that ancient fabric. Some of them were covered with such extravagant epitaphs, that, if it were possible for the dead person to be acquainted with them, he would blush at the praises which his friends have bestowed upon him. There are others so excessively modest, that they deliver the character of the person departed in Greek or Hebrew, and by that means are not understood once in a twelve month. In the poetical quarter, I found there were poets who had no monuments, and monuments which had no poets. I observed indeed that the present war had filled the church with many of these uninhabited monuments, which had been erected to the memory of persons whose bodies were perhaps buried in the plains of Blenheim, or in the bosom of the ocean.

I could not but be very much delighted with several modern epitaphs, which are written with great elegance of expression and justness of thought, and therefore do honour to the living as well as to the dead. As a foreigner is very apt to conceive an idea of the ignorance or politeness of a nation, from the turn of their public monuments and inscriptions, they should be submitted to the perusal of men of learning and genius, before they are put in execution. Sir Cloudesly Shovel’s monument has very often given me great offence: instead of the brave rough English Admiral, which was the distinguishing character of that plain gallant man, he is represented on his tomb by the figure of a beau, dressed in a long periwig, and reposing himself upon velvet cushions under a canopy of state. The inscription is answerable to the monument; for instead of celebrating the many remarkable actions he had performed in the service of his country, it acquaints us only with the manner of his death, in which it was impossible for him to reap any honour. The Dutch, whom we are apt to despise for want of genius, show an infinitely greater taste of antiquity and politeness in their buildings and works of this nature, than what we meet with in those of our own country. The monuments of their admirals, which have been erected at the public expense, represent them like themselves; and are adorned with rostral crowns and naval ornaments, with beautiful festoons of seaweed, shells, and coral.

But to return to our subject. I have left the repository of our English kings for the contemplation of another day, when I shall find my mind disposed for so serious an amusement. I know that entertainments of this nature are apt to raise dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds, and gloomy imaginations; but for my own part, though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this means I can improve myself with those objects, which others consider with terror. When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.

Addison's Walk at Magdalen College, Oxford

Addison's Walk, Madgalen College, Oxford

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, by Robert Alter

August 8, 2010

Facing west from California’s shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar . . .


This book is based on lectures given by the author at Princeton in 2008. It is not an encyclopedia. It limits its study to fiction, though Lincoln’s speeches get some attention and there is a brief mention of Whitman. So, much is left out–Jonathan Edwards and his Shining City on a Hill (in the original and as recalled by Reagan/Noonan); Whitman’s long, scriptural verses; Emily Dickinson’s short verses based on Scriptural diction as recalled in Wesleyan hymns.

The first chapter, “Style in America,” is the most valuable and interesting. The author shows that the King James Bible really was the Bible, with no competitor to speak of, through the turn of the twentieth century. It had its influence on the rhythm of prose, on vocabulary, and simply as the reference point of a largely Bible-based culture. An entire book in this manner would have been exciting and useful.

The scope of the book turns to close reading of several fictional works. The argument for biblical influence is most persuasive in the chapter on Moby-Dick. Alter highlights this passage from Chapter 81, “The Pequod meets the Virgin“:

“As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said – ‘Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!’ This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!”

Here, the style of the passage is entirely biblical–not only the rhythm, but the content itself is a struggle and argument with the Bible itself in applying it to the great green world out there. As Alter observes, the book of Job brought out the leviathan as the justification for God’s power over man–God created the leviathan, and so who is a man to argue with the justice of God?

Alter’s next examples, though, are not nearly so close to the Bible, and the stretch to make a connection becomes unconvincing and tiresome. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! has the advantage of a biblical quotation or near-quotation as the title, but Faulkner’s prose has its source not in the Bible, but the bottle. For Bellow (Seize the Day), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), the Bible is a ghost, and they don’t believe in ghosts.

Alter limits his use of the King James Bible to the Old Testament. This means that events in the life of Jesus as source for allusion, parody, and rhyme get no attention. Alter is certainly right to say that the Bible doesn’t get the attention any more that it once had; but the life of Jesus, it seems, is still somewhat familiar to most Americans, especially the stories of birth, death, and resurrection. Even on the level of style alone, this could justify a detailed study. Also absent is the influence of the letters of St. Paul and the Book of Revelation. Why Hawthorne gets no mention is unexplained.

Not everyone likes to read encyclopedias, or to write them, so Alter shouldn’t be blamed that he didn’t write one. Still, only Moby-Dick shows much closeness in style to the KJV; the rest is padding. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips [is] wise.” (Prov. 10:19 KJV)

Some Things Are Unspeakable

April 4, 2010

What are you supposed to say about being? Heidegger gave half a book to the subject. The phenomenon is a way of getting at it, if you must import your terms from Greek, and so it went, from Heidegger to Husserl to Edith Stein and Wojtyla. Whether phenomenology will take hold as way of explaining Christian thought or was only a fillip of the last pontificate, we will see.

It’s not much that English speakers want to write books about, rather than just keeping your head down and getting on with things. If one is going to consider being as more than just the time that the light switch is on, there must be something to say.

Taking up the Kantian challenge, “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Stevens found that metaphor had to do, and so said in twelve lines what wasn’t quite said in a shelf of continental philosophy.


The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

–Wallace Stevens

Seventy Years On

September 1, 2009

Reading this poem would be one way to mark the day.

The new English immigrant to the United States had left a mess behind him. With Yeats gone, the younger man picked up the variable three-footed line of another occasional poem, “Easter 1916,” and applied a more elaborate rhyme scheme. The ending of the penultimate stanza gave him trouble later, however, and he altered it to suit his distaste for easy magic words, but we all seem to like better the first version, written before the month was out.

The Oxen of the Sun

June 16, 2009

In honor of Bloomsday, let us consider the fourteenth chapter of Ulysses, “The Oxen of the Sun.” It is a fractal image of the novel, mimicking the structure and ambitions of the larger work. Pound’s motto was “Make it new,” but even he gasped for air when he opened each package mailed from Trieste or Zurich with the latest chapter. He sent Joyce a telegram, “New style not needed in every chapter!”

Stephen Dedalus falls in with his roommate Buck Mulligan and his fellow medical students at a nursing hospital. “Deshil holles eamus Deshil holles eamus Deshil holles eamus,” begins the chapter in a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Latin. (Let us go to the right [deasil–clockwise/right] down Holles [street].”) The narrative continues through the developments of English prose style up to an American evangelist. The style, really a series of styles, is appropriate to the subject of awaiting a birth. The Homeric parallel fits because the shoptalk of the medical students dishonors the sacred event occurring next door, just as the Greeks slaughtered the sacred oxen of Apollo. Stephen has lost his faith but can still see that much.

The reader seeking an introduction to Ulysses might start here. After 87 years, the novel reads best as an encyclopedia of writing tricks. This is fitting and proper; Joyce mined Saintsbury’s  History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) in composing this chapter. No one reads Ulysses for the narrative now, if ever that was true.