Hans Castorp knows something we don’t. You might wonder why a book like The Magic Mountain is so long: well, it treats of a subject impossible to put into so many words. So you need to sit with it a while, take your time reading it, and gradually the lesson sinks in. Or perhaps it doesn’t, and never truly can. Perhaps we’re all too much of “the world below.”
Have you learned to laugh when the subject of “time” is brought up, the way Hans does? When people talk of “wasting time” and seem to be in so much of a hurry. This is the way of the world below, concerned with business and getting on. Hans now thinks of three hundred years ago as recent history. And even the people of a couple of thousand years ago are near enough that he can see them clearly, as if in the near distance, when he thinks about them.
Have you learned to be serious on the subject of time when it’s just you and your own thoughts, and you’re free to contemplate, and you lie horizontal on your balcony, looking up at the stars? It’s your hard-won deep understanding of time that allows you to shake your head at the worldly, or shrug it off and let it fall away.
By the end of this section of the book, Hans has won his freedom. His uncle, who came to bring him back down to earth, has given up his quest and fled the mountain, fearful that if he remained an hour longer he would be drawn too into its alternate time, and he would lose the world below altogether. Hans is now past this fear in himself. No one will return for him, and he is free to dwell up here in his alternate reality, close to the stars and those highest and most mysterious truths that hold him fascinated.
(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)