Plagues, isolation, the boredom of waiting around, or why everyone should read The Magic Mountain, right now.


Thomas Mann differs with the bromide that “Time flies when you are having fun”. He argues, in his masterwork The Magic Mountain, that time flies fastest when you are bored, that time having fun can spread out as each moment is savoured. His main character, Hans Castorp, is visiting/imprisoned in a sanitarium on the top of said mountain, with a variety of other patients recovering (or not) from the dread tuberculosis. He thinks a lot about time and boredom.

The Magic Mountain is the perfect sort of book to read during this time of waiting, this forced enclosure. I personally am envious of the sanitarium, where you are fed four times a day, ushered on healthy walks, and expected to lay about wrapped in woolen blankets for prolonged periods of time. It’s truly not that different from pandemic self-protection, except that a. no one is fixing me meals and b. there is no convivial shared time.

But our situation shares a lot with what Mann describes. We’ve been living for almost a year now in an arrested state, holding back from projects, friendly gatherings, romance, family events, education, meaningful work, travel, ukulele gangs…We could be in a sanitarium given the way we have had to live.

In another similarity, our world, as Mann’s, is regulated by doctors, who examine the situation and tell us, no, you must stay here, in the enclosure, things are not better yet.

It is profoundly boring. And the time is slipping away. I can barely recall last summer, let alone the fall. I forced myself to do a weekly stitch-along project last year just to mark the time, as otherwise there are no guidelines through the fog. I dread beginning another one, and the time challenges it will reveal.

For all the guests at the sanitarium, time is flexed and changed, spun into fever dreams or secretive trysts, whisking by too fast and yet not at all. I can feel that change in our time, too. I barely know what time it is, let alone what day. Calendars are proliferating in my apartment, each an almost bare map of a life not quite lived.

I do not easily get bored. I have 1000000 projects on the go, a zillion things I SHOULD be doing, way too many books to read (including the 727 page long Mann book), places to walk, and god knows, exercise to be done (so I don’t end up further towards the ‘Asiatic-flabby’ of Mann’s book (or just plain flabby without even the interest of the Asian background- I once had muscle tone and am desperately seeking it)).

My arm gift to you. You are on your own for legs.

I’ve seen countless postings about how boredom is good for you, how it stimulates creativity, etc etc. I am beginning to doubt the effectiveness of long term boredom, though working on my books does seem somehow more enchanting.

But it’s all SO BLAH! There is something to be said in that one’s life only matters if someone else sees it, ergo the mass migration to happy family social media, and try as I might, I have trouble assigning my own value to my little embroideries or weirdly knitted scarves or writings that suffer from too many commas…If no one sees me or what I am doing, does anything actually matter? (Maybe I need to put more cat photos up on Instagram?)

“Now, now”, I hear my more motivated friends say. “You still have value, even just sitting there.”

Hmm. NOT the way I was raised.

Be that as it may, I wonder about the times to come, when we step out into the light again, when we can wander freely about our environment, laugh in a bar with friends and strangers over a beer or two. Will we end up like the characters in this novel, and be loathe to extend outwards again? Will we find ourselves longing for the sweatshirt days, the quiet of an unbusy world, the reduced demand from our previously oh so busy lives?

In the book, few people escape the sanitarium. Many die, many commit suicide, and our hero gets sent to the warfront. Their time on the mountain is a special time aside, girt round with threats and death and an undercurrent of banal evils. In our time, we struggle with lack of contact, lack of employment, and profound mental illness, and are forced to hang about, while outside our circle, death and destruction reigns. Will we be able to escape the pandemic? Will we ever feel safe in a crowd again? Or will it linger, like the ghost of TB spots, shadowing our lives?

I’ve been essentially alone now for ten months, with the occasional jaunt out to see a few friendly faces and my desperate conversations at the grocery store being my only social contact. I have almost forgotten how to speak. I see the news where people continue to gather and cause the virus to remain a threat and I am growing to hate those people. The non-maskers, the people campaigning against the vaccine, the partiers. Each news item means more weeks of isolation for me, and so many others.

I can’t wait to escape. I need to bump myself off others to know I exist.

Aw, shaddup!

PS: Do listen to the excellent podcast on this book via The History of Literature.

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