Jerome Robbins

Thalatta, thalatta*

And — what does it mean to say that the sea has been present in the novel from the very beginning?

Though Castorp comes form the sea (Hamburg — like Mann, who came from Luebeck), The Magic Mountain itself is set on a mountain top in a landlocked country — an epitome of estrangement from the sea.  The sea is mentioned only one other time in the novel and is otherwise notable only by its absence (given Castorp’s — unfulfilled — profession of naval engineer).

Perhaps it means that the sea was somehow present in Mann’s mind as he wrote the novel, then?

This would not be surprising:  the sea marks permanently those who have grown up — or long lived — in intimate proximity to it (as I, who have, should know).  And Mann was a boy form the sea-coast: perhaps the most moving fragment of The Death in Venice is the description of a teary, gray dawn over the Adriatic viewed from Aschenbach’s hotel room.  The novelist explains:

There were profound reasons for his [Achenbach’s] attachment to the sea: he loved it because as a hard-working artist he needed rest, needed to escape from the demanding complexity of phenomena and lie hidden on the bosom of the simple and tremendous; because of a forbidden longing deep within him that ran quite contrary to his life’s task and was for that very reason seductive, a longing for the unarticulated and immeasurable, for eternity, for nothingness. To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?

All beach lovers everywhere perceive the sea as strangely restful, and so does — dully — Aschenbach (“he needed rest”).  But the sea’s effect goes deeper than mere physical rest:  the sea produces a  calming of the mind.  The regular crash of the waves, their swaying movement seem to hypnotize us and induce a kind of ecstasy, not the wildly breathless sort, but the content, knowing, peaceful:  the feeling that everything is right with the world.  Unsurprisingly, this experience, sometimes called Adamic, is also known as oceanic. The unperceptive Achenbach notices the effect but — how typical of the dullard — misdiagnoses its causes.

Whence does this sea-effect come?  No one knows, but the connection to the sea is universal and prehistoric; Melville puts it rather well, if too wordily to quote here at length (I mean especially the three paragraphs of Moby Dick‘s first chapter starting with “Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon…” etc.**  See here).  It isn’t only the Greeks, you see.  It’s so ancient and so ingrained, it may well be hard-wired/evolved:  as a species we may have emerged, dolphin-like, from the sea (see the Acquatic Ape hypothesis).

Mesmerized, our mind becomes inchoate.  In Tonio Kroger Mann describes it:

While I am writing, the sea’s roar is coming up to me, and I close my eyes. I am looking into an unborn and shapeless world that longs to be called to life and order, I am looking into a throng of phantoms of human forms which beckon me to conjure them and set them free…


But what does it mean for the sea to be present in a work of art — when it is not even mentioned?

Ravel’s piano concerto in G is an interesting case of this.

It has an unusual place in my mental library of music:  while I have discovered all my favorite works thanks to someone’s superior interpretation — a musical composition seems always gray and indifferent until the right performance suddenly clears the cobwebs and makes its shiny details glow — in this one case, I have always had a strong suspicion that no one, not even Argerich/Abbado, have done it justice.  Listening to the middle movement especially gives me the strange sensation of, on the one hand, immense pleasure, and yet, on the other, insouciance:  I cannot shake off the impression that it can be played better, more movingly, that there is something the interpreter is missing, some deeper layer he has not penetrated.  It is as if, uniquely of all music, I could perceive something important in that one piece, without an interpreters’ assistance, yet something which I am too dull — Aschenbach-like — to name.

I have never realized it was the sea.

Jerome Robbins did:  his ballet En Sol (published as part of the Hommage a Jerome Robbins DVD) casts the whole concerto by the sea:  dancers wear beach costumes, move as if they were swimming, there are ball games, crabs, etc.  And in the middle movement — the pas de deux — Marie-Agnes Gillot moves like the sea, she sways from side to side like a water-born buoy, sways and keels over like a wave which then, bouncing off the shore, keels back upon itself.  (Her partner is technically good, but wooden: but ignore him, think of him as a rock on the shore, watch only her).  The pas-de-deux isn’t merely beautiful — which it is — it is also, to me, a revelation of what I have found so mesmerizing about the middle movement all these years, unawares: its ocean-like fluctuation.

I suppose there is some way in which The Magic Mountain is similar to the middle movement of Ravel’s concerto.  It too is slow, uneventful, and mesmerising.


And speaking of The Magic Mountain — whose Mynher Pepperkorn chapters I reread last night (with burning cheeks — my life’s become pretty much one great project of never-ending rereading of four authors:  Parnicki, Mann, Kawabata and Proust) an idea for a different prequel occurred to me, one which I am qualified to write:  a prequel taking as its hero not Hans Castorp and Gdansk, but the Indonesian Dutchman of regal expression and incoherent speech and — Java.  Why, it could be narrated by Marlow and feature a cameo appearance by Korzeniowski.  And it could feature many of my loves:  Penang, the Pearl in the Crown; Solo batiks; Jogjya shadow-puppet theater; Dutch Indonesian literature, beautiful and no longer read by anyone.  The plot, of course, must center about the diabolical invention which in the end takes Mynheer’s life, the ultra-Victorian bit of engineering and craftsmanship, the silver-and-ivory mechanical viper.

“Pieter Pepperkorn shall now take unto himself a glass of schnapps.”

*Not Thalassa, Thalassa, which is koine, but Thalatta, Thalatta, which is Attic

**Especially this paragraph:

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand — miles of them — leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues, — north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?