Just to be clear, this refers to the Great Conversation of the history of Western Thought and not the Catholic version of talk in purgatory. This week we read and discussed part of the chapter “Snow” in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I discovered several drawbacks of using such a reading for Poetry and Prose Rounds. The first was that it is almost impossible to adequately photocopy part of a chapter from the middle of a 700 plus page hard copy book. The second was that it is a difficult book to summarize quickly for people who are unfamiliar with it. Some sort of understanding of the characters and the various overlapping plots of the book are important to guide any discussion of a portion of the book. Having read this book twice in the past year, I was eager to share a part of it in Rounds.
The summary I gave of the book was this: It is the story of Hans Castorp, a rather fumbling simple-minded German young man who goes to visit his cousin who is a patient at a TB sanatorium in the Swiss alps. He intends to stay three weeks, but becomes sick with TB and stays seven years. Through his various relationships with patients, visitors and hospital staff, he wrestles with issues of time, illness/death, art—so that the book sums up the mental life of the West. At the end of the book he decided he is well and leaves to join the army in WWI. Throughout the book, Mann discusses the interrelationships between art, disease and death. In an essay on Dostoyevsky, Mann writes, “…certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit.”
We talked about the concept of “sick role” from Talcott Parsons and the various rules of sickness within our society. Our first writing exercise was to write about the last time we were sick—not Arthur Frank’s “deep illness” (life shattering/dislocating—more in line with the quote from Mann above), but rather a mild illness of a ‘cold or flu.’ After reading and discussing the dream sequence and ‘awakening’ of Hans Castorp, we each picked out one line of Mann’s work and wrote a poem or prose piece off of it. The phrase I chose was “…a dream poem of humanity.”