The sky is falling (or so I’m told).

I feel as if I’m in a chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, being sequestered in Cleveland (a city relatively unknown to COVID-19 so far, save the few documented cases brought from D.C. this week) as I watch the Eastern seaboard melt down from afar, and witness doomsdayers and naysayers alike bicker on social media about what the appropriate response should be. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m taking precautions with my personal hygiene, but I’m also bearing in mind that a true victim of the panic doesn’t look like you or me, but rather like a passenger on the Grand Princess in the Bay Area, who waited an eternity to know if and when they could safely disembark, quarantine and get treated as necessary.)

In part, the lack of perspective about illness is a major theme in life and times of Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Hans Castorp. Nestled in a Swiss Alpine sanatorium, Castorp is surrounded by wealthy tuberculoids whose problems often have little to do with their supposed disease, but the manner in which they deny or exaggerate their ill health at the encouragement of Dr. Behrens, the resident medical expert and entrepreneur. As Castorp’s two-week vacation to visit an ailing cousing morphs into a seven-year incarceration, he comes to realize that the rampant illness in the Alps is not tuberculosis, but blind faith in the self-interested system of treatment which prioritizes its own existence over genuine care for patience. Obsession and hypochondria prove themselves to be games for those with an upper hand, as Castorp’s fellow patients appear to become more and more helpless, no matter how much money they have. (Of course, this is all a metaphor for the demise of all sectors of society during the First World War, who trusted that their governments would keep them safe, when in fact they were all used as canon fodder.)

While one cannot dispute the motives for the lockdown in Italy or the refusal to dock the Grand Princess in San Francisco, the jockeying of mass hysteria has proven itself to be a white-collar game. I’m continually shocked at the inability of people to realize that shutting things down is really only going to prey on those who need transparency the most. I’m not a huge fan of Mayor DeBlasio, but his decision to keep NYC public schools open is very wise. On a humanitarian level, 100,000+ children dependent on school meals will remain fed, and their parents will maintain a chance of continuing to earn wages. From the epidemiological perspective, maintenance of certain patterns of contact and communication can make the virus easier to track and study (after all, it’s easier for the CDC to gain access to a school facility than walk into a person’s home, at least in the United States). I cannot contain my fury that a school like Harvard is shutting down dorms, encouraging more population movement as students scramble to get housing (many with limited financial resources, and no guarantee as of yet of remuneration from the school) while expecting them to keep up with a high level of academic rigor.

I don’t claim any direct experience with poor health or disease, but my entrenchment in the LGBT community places me in closer proximity to narratives of communicable disease than many of my heterosexual counterparts. Anyone familiar with HIV/AIDS will know how incredibly painful it is to see normally reasonable people become incredibly selfish in their impulse to collapse rather than confront the reality of an epidemic. How much more could have been known earlier on if the City of New York had not undertaken a systematic approach to outright destroying the spaces of communication rather than carefully studying how they might be tracked? For all the freedoms Americans enjoy on an individual level, there can be no denying that we are susceptible to the forces of groupthink that would callously throw society’s vulnerable under the bus.

(For my straight friends, if you look at your Facebook feed, you will notice that older and gayer the friend, the less likely they will be to give into your self-pandering. This is not coincidental. This is a manifestation of differentials in privilege.)

Ich mußt’ auch heute wandern
vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
da hab’ ich noch im Dunkel
die Augen zugemacht.

Und seine Zweige rauschten,
als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
hier find’st du deine Ruh’!

Just now my journey took me
past it at dead of night,
and even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.

And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
“Come here to me, lad,
here you will find your rest”!

I’ve been on a Twentieth Century German literature kick lately, particularly with writers from the 1920s and 1930s (Hesse, Man, Roth, Broch, Döblin, etc.). Willful blindness, while a common theme for many authors remembering the upheavals of the First World War, is peculiar in Mann’s Magic Mountain, where music symbolically upholds Hans Castorp’s clinging to his impetus to blindly protect himself. I admit to having been perplexed by the famous line uttered by Castorp’s liberal friend, Settembrini, that “there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect.” Music, of course, like any art or media has the ability to lift the soul and embolden. But it also can have the effect of disarming the senses, prompting one to hand over not only their ears, but their sensibilities.

“Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze.”

Unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where vague, fictitious pieces (such as the famous “Vinteuil Sonata”) prompt flurries of memory and distraction, The Magic Mountain shows a darker side of music’s powers. All around the sanatorium, great works from the German musical canon are constantly playing on phonographs, or in the bar with visiting musicians, or otherwise running through Hans Castorp’s mind. But the moments of intersection only arise at moments of significant challenge to the protagonist’s view of how the world ought to look. Through the two authors are sometimes compared because of their verbose expressions of appreciation for music, in many ways they could not be more dissimilar: where Proust would capitalize on excess, Mann expounds on raw inhibition.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, the fifth movement from Schubert’s Winterreise, once a simple tune which the patients listened to in the sanatorium becomes a point of refuge for Hans Castorp in the trenches. Singing to himself in the trenches of World War I, it is not so much that Castorp is in denial of his mortality, but that rather that he would continue to romanticize it and seek some means of self-redemption, rather than transcendence. Of course this is part of the sick charm of Schubert’s Winterreise, as a man who is love drunk would willingly sacrifice his life in the cold. The message isn’t one of romance or beauty, but of the dangers of fear, obsession and isolation. There is no modulation or smooth transition into the second verse – moving suddenly from E Major to E minor, the musical material from verse is repeated almost verbatim in the new key, only to return back to E major in the third verse. It lacks subtlety, poise and even profundity, save that of exhibiting the singer’s distraction in so willingly giving into the impetus to curl up and self-destruct. (N.B., I don’t like Winterreise personally, but serves as a perfectly fine metaphor for the dangers of sentimentality and saccharine self-wallowing in Thomas Mann’s epic novel.)


My concerns about much of society’s inability to see past the tip of its nose have been dim for a while, but the latest trends in relation to COVID-19 have made it all the bleaker. American liberalism and values of self-individuation are being clung to, even at the expense of the economic fibers which support the rights a lot of us hold dear. The disease at the end of the day will likely be manageable, but only if those of means resign modes of self-pitying and protection.

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