Thursday, June 26, 2014

boundless space

The universe is not listening to Therese Weichbrodt, and it's clownish to think that the universe will bend itself to your will; that's why she is a clown, the little one against the big one, taking herself seriously when all she's doing is playing a game.

Because it's a game of pretending, if you think your will is going to change the mind of time.

That's what you should believe when you are talking about this book, in which Mann makes it so very clear that time does not stop. Reason wins, seeming like fate (“the good fight which, all her life, she had waged against the assaults of Reason”). The clues were there from the start. Readers were allowed to see them but the characters were blind. The ability to see fate is a privilege, like the ability to see ghosts – you, reader, enter into this privilege of form -- “great by the perfection of its art,” writes the translator in a short preface, “a triumph of style” -- and there's the form in front of you, a shape that you can start to grasp immediately when you look for it, beautifully, lucidly, the big physical gathering at the start when everybody comes to lunch, then the slow disintegration from one species of misfortune to another until the book ends with a small group of characters (the only ones left) pinning their hopes on another gathering in the afterlife: they've lost their fortune on earth, and religion is being discussed again as it was on page one.

Inside that large form you can begin to puzzle out little forms, sub-stories, and so on, so that even the fractal details make up the shape of fate, aside from those static, independent moment, like the piano being played on the shoulder.

I can say that the action in Mann's story is striving against Therese Weichbrodt but I can't say that the book disagrees with her, or that the author thinks her faith is silly, especially not in retrospect when I remember that other characters in Mann's books have reached out for unobtainable essences and been thwarted fatefully, “beauty” in Death in Venice, going away finally into the “misty, boundless space” of the sea as Aschenbach dies (tr. Martin C. Doege). And tragedy, for Mann, seems to depend on this image of the unrequited open hand. Do you learn to reach for an ideal? asks Mann in general. The Buddenbrooks have a spiritual tragedy as well as a financial one and a physical one. They don't learn to reach.

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