Where else could you meet with 14 people who have all just finished reading a 700 page novel of ideas and boarding school shenanigans? AND with a group member fluent in German and several participants who speak a smattering of French, Italian and Latin? With a leader who is fluent in classical music? Not just anywhere, but in the Magical Land of Ann Kirkland where your dreams can come true.
To read The Magic Mountain is to be caught in an enchanting dream where you meet fairy tale characters rich in meaning and contradictions, a dream where you lose all track of time and all sense of the flatlands, a dream where you cross “abysses once thought unfathomable,” to contemplate such things as war, harmony, passion, German Romanticism, humanism, dualism, classical Medievalism, the cult of the personality, and disease.
But then do we ever really cross the abyss? Are the depths of the unfathomable ever truly measurable?
Disease, for example. That’s the ticket into the sanatorium. Or is it? And what is disease? Is it a moral deficiency? Or an affliction that strikes only the sensitive and creative? Or is it grotesque, outside of nature, shameful, dark, immoral? Or is it something corporeal, simply a moist spot on the lung? Or is it a narcosis that numbs consciousness, trapping Hans in “fantastic dream of fatalistic enchantment?” What is it?
I don’t know. I’m a doctor and I don’t know. I don’t think Thomas Mann knew either. But he had an interest in questions without easy answers, an interest in “sad, edifying things.”
These are the interests that bring us together in Toronto this week, not so much the sad, but the edifying things, the questions with or without answers, knowing we are enriched just with the asking. Especially as we ask together because The Magic Mountain is a big book, and it is hard to come at it armed only with the experiences of one small life.
How much better to come at it hand-in-hand with a former German Professor, a musician, a nurse, a very well read animal doctor, experts on Odysseus, Aida, and geopolitics, as well as veterans of a contemplative life, well lived. I still don’t completely ‘get’ Mann. I haven’t found “perfect clarity in ambiguity,” but I’m a lot closer to the mountain top than I ever could have climbed on my own.