The Magic Mann and Returning Home

In the world of art (as in other areas of life) there are things that capture us and don’t (or won’t, – can’t – let go, by which I mean, of course, that it is we who don’t (etc.) let go. We are taken, transported, one might even say, consumed. My opinion is that such circumstances are a matter of returning, of somehow, in some way, going home, a circumstance, of, let’s say, nostalgia. We are born, grow, go hither and thither, geographically and in all manner of other ways of being and of doing, and as with many who “fall far from the tree,” or don’t fall, but choose (a dangerous word, in my opinion) to “fall,” we seem, a lot of us, maybe even most, to long for return to our roots, to, one might say, our true selves.

Now, the self, or true self (and whether there is a self or not, and what is meant by “true self”) is a huge topic not appropriate for this venue, or the venue, not for the topic. But it seems to me that what captivates us is what resonates, which sounds redundant, and is simply (simplistically?) a matter of longing – a longing for home —  again, a nostalgia. I don’t know a better way to put it (though there you have a few ways), though I’ll venture to say that the world is a scary place (not a friendly universe, as a poet-friend insisted a few days ago), and that what we long for, in our strange state of being (separate in our fleshly prisons, prey to all sorts of things beyond our control, and conscious of mortality) is a comfort zone. It might be a place, a certain town; it might be a region, it might be land or sea, it may, as said, have nothing to do with geography (but probably cannot escape it). It might be a certain time period, so we could say, it is a circumstance of space and time, of some duration. It has to do with reconnecting with the truest self we know – not necessarily consciously – with what is comfortable, authentic, with what feels real. You know it when it happens. You know you’re “there.”

I could segue into a discussion of why we are taken by this or that, into a full-blown monologue on free will vs. determinism, and how either applies to art in its various forms – all opinion, of course. But that’s a huge topic, having to do with everything that makes a particular person who he/she is (which sounds a lot like a deterministic viewpoint, but can be either one). I’ve gotten into a lot of trouble for my views (I tend to be a reductionist, a non-mystic, maybe a terrible [or highly successful] bore.)

There are certain things we read, see, hear, etc., that stay with us, for years, for decades. Currently I’m reading “The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann, and if, fortuitously, I have years or decades left, I can tell already that it will “make the list” of resonant things, things that snare, things that are in some way or somewise a homecoming. Stories like “Little Herr Friedemann,” “The Joker,” and, most of all, “Tonio Kroger,” speak to me in a language I understand (or think I do); it’s like being courted, wooed. The themes resonate. I have lived the life of an outsider, have been disenfranchised, have been (perhaps) an artist of some type. The conflict, or, let’s say, dance, of art and life, of art vs. life, of intellect – or preferably, asceticism (a self-nurture/sustaining), living in one’s head via books, music, art, versus “simply” (and the parenthesis is important) living – all of these are not foreign to me; in fact, I feel an intimacy with such ponderings.

But what I love most about Mann (and to include “Death in Venice,” of course), is that, while I feel a kinship with character, theme, or both, the author also “makes” me think. While shuttling me home (one could also say “bringing the mountain to Mohammed”), he also leads me astray, or shall I say, he expands upon home, denoting the streams and creeks and thistles and underbrush of hidden shade-flowers I had heretofore missed. “The Magic Mountain,” of which I have read only 200 pages, but which has to do with illness and wellness (and I could say, but those are just organic manifestations of something deeper, as a doctor says, except that I don’t exactly agree) – and with, of course, a mountain, in all its strangeness (even somewhat for me, who has lived in the mountains for 21 years) – it speaks to me in so many ways, so far, I could not number them – even Mann’s profound attention to detail, Proustian, really, his well-rounded characters (Jamesian) – something keeps me in this book, and I’ll never “escape.” Nor would I wish to do so.

Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” has always “been” with me, been by me; my mind turns to it over and again. Perhaps, in such situations, we are, if unconsciously, grappling with certain themes before reading them. Why, of course. A main theme (at least to/for me) in the book is this: Should the individual, any individual, all individuals, be expected to accommodate himerself (if you’ll pardon this invention, if it even is one) to the world? Or should the world – the individuals in it, accommodate the individual, and here we speak of the so-called abnormal, or not-normal individual, the one who doesn’t fit the mold, or who cannot, by way of genes (to include brain chemistry), nurture and upbringing (environment) accommodate, or, as some might say, snap to, fit in, get with the program?

Just the other day a writer was mourning her writing was rejected by publishers over and again. I had encouraged this person to “play the game,” by which I meant that the world of art, like all other worlds, is tainted, political (let’s ignore for now the philosophical implication that if all is X, nothing is X). By “play the game,” I meant, in this instance, rewriting one’s biography, hedging a little, – not lying – but, since the person lived in a small town in a rural bible-Belt state, it might be best to say, rather, in a submitted biography (because, unfortunately, blind-reading is not the norm), X lives in the shadow of the so and so mountains, where she (I can’t recall exactly now the quasi-fabrication; so it goes with quasi’s!) reads the work of so and so (name “big” authors), is an (insert writerly past-time here), and is a direct descendant of Shakespeare (ok, not this last). I suggested using one’s full name, no nicknames. I suggested that a longer name was more impressive than shorter. I had once read “a name is a map,” and it made sense to me. I said, “sound as impressive as you can,” in other words, you’re facing a bear: make yourself big (we learn that, living in the mountains surrounded by national forest). I was ashamed, but I once knew a poet who said (and I already knew) “it’s about who you know.” She said, “send this here, that there; I know the editors, will put in a good word.” That was thrilling and appalling. Why can’t our writing stand on its own? Why must one (seemingly) have to be associated with a university to be noticed? And so forth.

I realized, somewhat in astonishment, that, in urging my friend to be in some small ways, really, disingenuous (again, not utterly false), that I was “taking the side” of the father in “The Metamorphosis:” (paraphrase here:) “He must learn to adapt!” That “he” would be Gregor, of course. I had always sympathized with the sister, who wanted to accommodate, even coddle, her unfortunately bedeviled, grotesquely transformed (if metaphorically) sibling. I have always championed the underdog – the challenged, the disabled, the – different, the minority. After all, isn’t such a stance what all the world’s religions behoove? And I was nothing if not VERY religious when young. But back to the book: it’s one of a very few I’ve ever re-read. And it’s somewhat startling to find oneself on opposite sides of where one was when reading it. It must be that the things that abide are the things that somehow relate back to … so many things, such an indefatigable web of things, it would all be too complex to unravel: sort of like, well, love: love is a combination of chemical reactions in an outrageously complex array.

In high school, I took a James Joyce elective and became as if electrified: someone spoke my language! I recognized this language as though the English I’d been using were a second one. Eureka! stream of consciousness, and the technique had no name until the teacher gave it one. All I knew was that I was on fire. It wasn’t just the stories and poems, it wasn’t “Ulysses” (no fire can withstand “Finnegan’s Wake,” by the way), it was Joyce himself: I read every biography I could find. (In those days, we relied upon the library.) I have to ties whatever to Ireland. But every biography struck a chord I couldn’t name. Somehow I “knew” Joyce. Everything transported me toward, and then I ricocheted back. There was no explanation for this. I simply could not get enough of the biographies of James Joyce: a veritable addiction.

James Joyce Joyce

The Ray Bradbury story “Frost and Fire” nabbed me the same way. Life to death: six days? Anyone who, like I, has had a chronic illness involving grand (by which I mean large, not wonderful) fatigue, and who can wilt at any moment, for whom each day is like waiting for a bomb (pardon the hyperbole) of fatigue to explode, making all the preceding time precious but also rife with anxiety, because the day ends in that moment – anyone who lives this scenario will probably feel “at home” in this story.

The same happens with some poems, like this one, by Robinson Jeffers: (In a previous essay I quoted my favorite, “Compensation”), so have chosen another close to my heart (I mean “heart,” the romantic notion, not the blood-pumping muscle):


Civilized, crying: how to be human again; this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold; look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God; you will love God and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the star’s rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to be human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.

The list would not be endless; that’s the point, but it would be wise to stop here, while tipping my hat to “The Marshes of Glynn,” (Sidney Lanier), “The Beast in the Jungle,” (short story, Henry James), and these lines from Milton’s “Lycidas,” over which I remember my high school teacher exclaiming, perseverating, for their language, their music: I thought I saw tears in her eyes.

Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.

Don’t get me started on “Harold and the Purple Crayon” (Crockett Johnson). The concept of that book still amazes me; I think it’s genius. Some 27 years after nursery school, I married Harold. Really, this is just not the place. My secret (until now) theory is that the problem had to do with a blue pen. Just. Wrong.

Music: In college, I listened to a Bach organ prelude, a record (round black vinyl thing with a hole, played on turntable, which… just google it) over, over and OVER – I remember the title as “Have Mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ,” although I can’t find such a title now (obviously I lost the record) – I do find something similar, however. And due to that not-knowing, the question arises: has the piece stood the test of time, personal time? If it does not move me as it did then, something is off: it is not the same music, or it cannot be one of the homecoming “specials.” Those things that take one on the inward journey “home” don’t suddenly fall out of favor; they remain. Upstairs in my little room, this piece’s playing over, over and over again, I wrote a poem about listening to it, which I lost, but for the first few lines. If you’ll pardon me for posting something of my own, here it is:

Ode to Bach
On listening to an organ prelude

Sitting, staring, stopped,
I wait with singular patience
until the music croons and swarms
to deeper than remembrance,
melody warm with the semblance
of things late lost to thought.
Passive like this,
I contemplate the harmony
like poured honey, melting
beneath a circumstance of tones.

Then there was and is Pachelbel’s “Canon in D:” This one I also discovered in college: I may have listened 20 times a day or more. Given these two pasttimes (an odd word, or perfect, maybe, in this context), it’s a miracle I ever graduated. Is it the basso ostinato (I am a person who has rocked myself to sleep since forever) – I mean, is it the repetition, is it the beautiful melody all built upon an ostinato? Is it the joy inextricably mixed with melancholy? What of the middle that goes back almost only to the ostinato, and which, to me, is like twinkling stars? What does that mean, like twinkling stars? And why do twinkling stars mean so much? And … ignoring the fact that stars only seem to twinkle…but who’s the authority on that? I remember I could listen to the Canon only at full blast. Something was at work. Shall I say it? It was one of the most astounding pieces I’d ever heard. (The scenery in this one looks exactly like where I live, except for the scenes of a lot of water that’s not snow.)

Another is the 2nd movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto #2, – 51 seconds in occurs the deceptive cadence that so struck me when listening to the piece with my father, for the very first time, that even today I shiver upon hearing it. That’s an easier thing to decipher: I listened to it with my father before… – but wait! What “took” us at that time? What did we have in common in our pasts such that we were both so enticed? Here is another ekphrasis; it concerns my father’s return date from the hospital: Feb. 18th, 1988.  He had been pronounced completely cancer-free three days prior.

Concerto Grosso
for my father

You and I listening to Chopin,
a quiver through us both,
taken, staring,
somewhat petit mal,
(in retrospect),
that descending chord,
indelible cascade
that didn’t resolve to its tonic
but instead, to the minor sixth,
f minor: the everything of that.
Years pass, and again
the deceptive cadence
the master wrote,
I hear,
and you were.

There are others: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, the beginning of which is based simply (do I have a “thing” for simplicity as a building block for great and complex work? And if so, why?) on two notes in the melody: c d c d c, then descent by a fourth; without passing tones, what you have is a c and a g! There is another favorite: the 2nd movement of Vivaldi Gloria; also, Albinoni’s “Adagio” – oh my!


Then, there is Bach’s “Siciliano,” and also, one of the most romantic love songs of all time, Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of Love” and in a totally dissimilar vein, Gary Jules’s “Mad World.”

Film: There are movies that have transfixed me, another way of saying, what I’ve said above about returning, resonance (recognizance?), nostalgia: “Dogville,” with its unflinching look at human nature, “The Sweet Hereafter,” which tackles the concept of blame, of meaning itself (if there’s anything humans can’t stand, it’s chance or vagary), and “The Sea Inside,” about a paraplegic man fighting for 29 years for the right to die with dignity. Films from childhood include (and none of these lists are exhaustive, of course, “The Miracle Worker” (and over the years I’ve read everything I can find on Helen Keller and Laura Bridgman both, as though sense-deprivation/disability were genetic in my family – but it isn’t, so….? I don’t know.)  “Fantastic Voyage and “The Wizard of Oz” were both enthralling. Of all the Disney movies I watched with my children, my favorite is not the one we watched 1000 times (per kid), but only 999 times each: “Pinocchio.” I can’t articulate why “Pinocchio.” It’s something to do with conscience, no doubt. (I have a rather hilarious, baudy, embarrassing anecdote regarding obsessive ethics, from when I was nine, but must move on.) It’s something about a conscience’s being a separate entity (surely as amazing and mind-bending as “It” in “A Wrinkle in Time,” as an actual entity: evil itself), and it must have, inevitably, to do somewhat with my Enneagram (but that has its home, remember) as rescuer type (alarmingly, only when stressed). Something in me has always wanted to be a real girl, it might be said. Something “gets” me about a wooden boy’s wanting (as though wood can want, as though Data on “Star Trek” can want to be humorous) to be a real boy, something about such a paradox (and there is an actual Pinocchio paradox that involves the lying). Something about the characterization, the love you can feel for the puppet by its maker, and something about the scene I see over and over, Gepetto’s serene bedding down, right by the window, – all of that speaks in some personal tongue – harks back, takes me somewhere long missed – I can’t banish it, nor do I wish to.

So why am I sharing these examples with you? I am sharing the idea of returning home, sharing that, to me, what ensnares us is basically a longing to return to something very fundamental in ourselves – and I do mean selves – because the circumstances could have to do with the self at various periods of our lives. They have to do with genetics, with the senses, with particular combinations of being, doing and perceiving. Think about the Jeffers line: “..what we love, we grow to it/we share its nature…” What I’m speculating is that maybe what we love shares our nature. We love, because we are receptive, which means the aforementioned is too far-fetched. An inanimate object’s, say, sharing? Perhaps it’s that we love X because we have already shared its nature.

Maybe I’m sharing, for you to get to know me. But why? Maybe I ask too many questions. But why? Here’s a thought:  I’d be interested in hearing what transports you (and why, insofar as you can determine), since you are a reader of this blog. I might want to explore what has moved and continues (will most likely always continue) to move you. Maybe it’s that, now having gathered some things together, I am drunk on these special somethings, so drunk that now I’m desperately in need of an undesignated driver.

Posted by Julie Shavin

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