It is evening and we are in Director Behrens’ apartments in the sanatorium Berghof. Director Behrens; Hans Castorp, our protagonist; his cousin Joachim Ziemssen; and the narrator of The Magic Mountain are with us. The narrator is describing Hans Castorp’s reaction to a painting by Behrens of Frau Clavdia Chauchat, another sanatorium resident.
The narrator is speaking:
“Where her tender, though hardly meager bosom lost itself under the bluish drape, its subdued shimmer of white seemed taken from nature. The bare skin had obviously been painted with feeling, and despite a certain aura of sweetness, the artist had been able to endow it with scientific reality and lifelike accuracy. He had used the grainy surface of the canvas under the oils to suggest its uneven texture, particularly where the collarbone delicately protruded. He had not failed to include a mole just where the breasts began, and between their soft swellings there was a hint of pale bluish veins. Under the beholder’s gaze, a barely perceptible shiver of sensitivity seemed to pass over this naked flesh—or to put it more boldly, you could imagine that you saw perspiration, the invisible vapors of life, rising from the flesh, that if you were to press your lips against the surface, you would smell a human body, not paint and varnish.” (255)1
The narrator here takes us on a tour of Director Behrens’ apartments and his painting of Frau Chauchat. In this magnificent novel of ideas, Mann’s narrator also takes us on a tour of the organization and social structure of the sanatorium and the unfolding mental landscape of Hans Castorp. For those of you not acquainted with The Magic Mountain or who have been separated from it for many years, the story is fairly straight forward. Hans Castorp, a young engineer just beginning his apprenticeship goes on holiday to visit his cousin Joachim Ziemssen, a patient at the Berghof, a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. He intends to stay three weeks but his visit extends to seven years. The Magic Mountain is the story of this sojourn and Hans Castorp’s relationship to the residents of the sanatorium and the village in the valley below.
Even though the narrative is linear and fairly easy to follow, the substance of the novel is extremely complex. An abundance of themes and ideas are analyzed, dissected and put on display for the reader. This complexity of thought has proven fertile ground for academics. Concepts both real and imagined have appeared on their examining tables: disease and its enhancement of the appearance of health (a little fever brings an attractive blush to the cheeks); disease as a mark of “belonging;” the coming of age of Hans Castorp; the role of alchemy in his development; modern man’s search for “insight” that will give meaning to life; the inference of homoeroticism in the relationship of the two cousins; and even the latent homosexuality in Mann himself expressed in his diaries. Then there is the pencil—the one Hans Castorp borrowed from Pribislav Hippe, the infatuation of his youth. From a distance, he was obsessed with Hippe and borrowed his pencil to be near him or to have something of his to hold, just as on Walpurgis night he wooed the long mooned over Clavdia Chauchat and borrowed her pencil. At the end of the evening she invited Hans Castorp to her room by turning to him in the doorway and saying over her shoulder, “Don’t forget to return my pencil.” (338) Perhaps one of the more provocative lines in literature.
Clearly there is much to think about in The Magic Mountain, but here I have narrowed my interest to the concept of time that permeates the novel. In fact I would argue that this is a “time novel,” a Zeitromanin the sense that time defined by the growth of entropy constitutes the basic tone and structure of the work or what I call its “underpainting.”
The purpose of this essay then, is not to worry over the individual ideas and symbols that abound in the novel as interesting and edifying as that may be, but to discuss the story’s underpainting and to identify the layers of semitransparent glazes given substance, resonance and vibrancy by the arrow of time as defined by entropy, the measure of disorderliness in the universe. In closed systems, that is, systems that do not react with outside influences entropy tends to increase slowly or remain constant. In our analysis, the Berghof is a closed system and I argue in this essay that entropy in the sanatorium either increases or remains constant.
The technique of underpainting is well known in the world of art. Pioneered by Giotto di Bondone in the 14th century and used by artists in the Middle Ages including Jan van Eyck, Titian, Leonardo daVinci, and Michelangelo to name just a few. It is a layering technique in which a sketch often in tones of gray or green, but not necessarily, lay out the artist’s basic idea. It is argued that this underpainting and the subsequent buildup of semitransparent glazes and/or paint are what give the incredible depth and vitality to the work of the great masters. In the finished painting the underpainting is not there and yet it is. It’s seen in the depth and structure of the painting. 2
Underpainting may be a strange term to use in relation to a novel and certainly it differs from that of a painting in that the underpainting in the novel flows into the work from the writer’s mind and hand. It might be argued, however, that this underpainting is no different from a story’s theme. A theme, for example, is generally thought of as the moral, idea or message of a novel; an abstract idea given expression by the events in the story. An underpainting, however, does more than express a theme. Just as an underpainting participates in and permeates the meaning and structure of a painting, in the novel it participates in the tone and direction of the work and in addition plays a fundamental role in forming its structure. It is my contention than that time is the underpainting of The Magic Mountain; the tonal and structural expression of the novel’s basic theme. So how then does time provide the tone, direction and structure of Mann’s complex novel of ideas?
In his wonderful book, From Eternity to Here, 3 Sean Carroll suggests that time comes to us in three different aspects. First, time labels moments in the universe by serving as a coordinate. Second, it measures the duration elapsed between events. This duration is what we experience as rhythm and occurrence. Finally, time is a medium through which we move. “We move through it, or—equivalently—time,” Carroll says, “flows past us, from the past, through the present, toward the future.” And most important for our discussion, time is the agent of change. 
Carroll’s first two aspects of time, location and duration permeate The Magic Mountain and scholars have focused on their place in the novel.4 I will discuss them as well because all three aspects are mingled in the novel. But it is time as directional and as the agent of change that forms the underpainting in The Magic Mountain. It is what Carroll calls the “arrow of time” defined by the growth of entropy. As mentioned above, in its simplest expression, entropy is the measure of disorderliness in the universe. An egg, for example, in its original state is low entropy or high order, but when it is dropped and broken on the floor its entropy has increased substantially. And it is highly unlikely that the broken egg will morph back into its original form. “Irreversible processes,” Carroll says, “are at the heart of the arrow of time.” 
As time passes then entropy or disorderliness tends to increase in the universe. In addition to entropy, Carroll reminds us that there are other “arrows of time:” “the cosmological arrow of time (the universe is expanding), the psychological arrow of time (we remember the past and not the future), the radiation arrow of time (electromagnetic waves flow away from moving charges, not toward them, and so on.”  In this look at time in The Magic Mountain, I focus on the arrow of time as the one defined by the growth of entropy or the increase of disorderliness. That this aspect of time as an active player in the novel is hinted at by Henry Hatfield in his essay “The Magic Mountain” when he says, “Finally one can venture the supposition that the effects brought about by time in this novel render time an active force, almost a character.”5 The effect brought about by time here is the increase in entropy. In his discussion of cause and effect as an indicator of the direction of time, Carroll also tells us, “[P]art of the distinction we draw between ‘effects’ and ‘causes,’ is that ‘effects’ generally involve an increase in entropy.”  Causes also tend to involve the input of energy.
To set the stage, however, let’s first look at time as a coordinate—location in time and space in the novel. It is only in the Forward to the story that we hear Thomas Mann speak. It is Hans Castorp’s story he tells us, his alone. It “is a story that took place long ago, and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history and must necessarily be told with verbs whose tense is that of the deepest past.” (xii) The datedness of the story is not to be measured by days or orbits around the sun, “it does not actually owe its pastness to time—an assertion that is itself intended as a passing reference, an allusion, to the problematic and uniquely double nature of that mysterious element.” Here Mann’s intent—Vorsatz,translated as Forward, means purpose or intention—is in fact to place the novel in time, and that moment is just before the Great War. He locates the story in a specific moment of time because everything was different after that moment. “It takes place,” he tells us, “or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, with whose beginning so many things began, whose beginnings have not ceased.” (xii)
Let’s pause for a moment and remind ourselves that all time is contextual—location is always in reference to something, duration must also be in reference to something and entropy too must be in reference to something in the novel. In our universe, the earth and gravity are our context for location,events provide our context for duration or rhythm, and the Big Bang provides our reference point for entropy. In the novel, our reference point for location is Davos-Platz, Switzerland before the Great War. Events in the novel provide our context for duration or rhythm and the arrival of Hans Castorp at the train station in Davos-Platz provides our reference point for entropy. It is our Big Bang in the novel, or to put it another way, entropy, disorderliness increases in the novel from that point.
It is clear then that time is a necessary component of location. We like to think of time as flowing, carrying us into the future, like the hymn says, “Time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away;..” Our sense of a past flowing into the present and carrying us into the future is one way time affects us and I’ll talk more about that when I focus on entropy. Carroll notes, however, that time is not a thing that carries us in its flow. Time is something we construct from the correlation of events arranged in a sequence. (22-23) From a subjective perspective then, rather than a flow, we can see time more like packets of information that awaken our self-awareness and locate us in space and time—now I am writing at my computer, now I’m in the kitchen pouring coffee, then Marilyn and I were on the beach, now I am on my way to work, Bob and I will meet at the diner tomorrow at three o’clock—packets of information that locate us in time and space.
Hans Castorp can be seen in this same light. He is in the snowstorm on the mountaintop, now in Behrens’ apartments before the portrait of Clavdia Chauchat, now before the Berghof x-ray machine, then in a dream on the edge of the sea, now in the lounge chair with Clavdia Chauchat on Walpurgis night, at the séance in Hermine Kleefeld’s apartment—packets of information locating Hans Castorp in tranches of space cut by time. In fact, Mann has conveniently cut his novel into slices of space and time for us with his chapter headings: Arrival, Room 34, In the Restaurant, etc.
In a further example, Hans Castorp is enamored of Frau Chauchat and meals give him a time to observe her. “Yes, the meals in the dining hall,” the narrator says, “with its seven tables held the greatest fascination for Hans Castorp. He regretted the end of each, but his consolation was that very soon, in two or two and a half hours, he would be sitting there again—and once he sat down it would be as if he had never stood up. What happened in the meantime? Nothing.” (136)
This appears to be a very common aspect of time and one we’ve all experienced. But in fact time to determine location represents a profound concept. In the paragraph above, Hans Castorp is placed in a location in space carved out by time, just as he placed himself in the dining hall, and our inclination would be to call these occurrences events. We wouldn’t be wrong at all. Carroll tells us that if we denote a certain position in space at one definite moment in time, physicists call that an event. He goes on to say, “So we need four numbers—three coordinates of space and one of time—to uniquely pick out an event.” We’re used to thinking of the world as a three-dimensional accumulation that keeps happening over and over again with slight variations each time. “We’re now suggesting,” Carroll says, “that we can think of the whole shebang, the entire history of the world, as a single four-dimensional thing where the additional dimension is time. In this sense, time serves to slice up the four-dimensional universe into copies of space at each moment in time…” 
From a literary perspective we can think now of the novel as events or copies of space (the Berghof, the village, the mountains) in a four-dimensional universe sliced into segments by the dimension of time—packets of information in the life of Hans Castorp captured in tranches of space carved out by time and laid out before us. And it is from a unique perspective that we view this world. Along with our narrator, we are outside the novel’s time and see all of Hans Castorp’s history at once, the beginning and the end in a sequence of correlated events. This correlation leads us now to duration and rhythm, the measure of time between events.
Mann tells us in the Forward that he understands two natures of time, and in the chapter, “A Stroll by the Shore,” these two aspects of time are defined by our narrator. First, “real” time, he says, is an element of life, like an element of music which “itself measures and divides time.” Here it is clear the narrator is talking about time as Carroll’s measure of duration that elapses between events. That appears to be “real time” for Hans Castorp. Second, there is narrative time, or “story time” and story time he divides into the story’s “real time” that defines its movement and presentation, and the time of its contents which he calls “imaginary time” that can run concurrent with the story time or stretch into light-years. (532)
The novel’s “real time” then matches to some degree what Carroll calls synchronized repetition, a diversity of processes that repeat over and over again in a reliably predictable manner.  We understand this phenomenon as clock time, the time of the seasons, the movement of the planets, the turn of the days. It can also be experienced as duration or rhythm and as Mann warned us in the Forward, we meet it constantly in The Magic Mountain. In fact, Hans Castorp’s experience of the repetition or the measure of time between processes would appear at first glance to be the dominant aspect of time in the novel. And it would seem that these repetitions double back on themselves in a cyclical manner. All motion is circular in space and time, Hans Castorp says. And he cites the laws of periodicity and the conservation of energy. (Remember that even though Hans Castorp is “an ordinary young man,” he is also an engineer.) As a result, he asks if there can be progress in this cyclical process when motion is a closed system without direction. In the rigid structure of life in the Berghof for example: five meals per day, rest cure and modest exercise in between, temperature taken four times each day, the thermometer held in the mouth for exactly seven minutes each time, mail delivered once each day, and so it goes…and comes apparently. This repetitive sameness of the days, months and seasons yields the idea for Hans Castorp that there is no time. “But since we measure time by a circular motion,” the narrator says, “closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation—for the then is constantly repeated in the now, and the there in the here.” (339) This is a nice allusion to St. Augustine’s concept of “presentism” where past and future exist only in the present.6 And just in case we miss the point, the narrator reminds us that the scholastics of the Middle Ages claim to know that time is an illusion and a result of our sensory perception; the actual state of things is a permanent now. (537)
Hans Castorp echoes this idea of the scholastics that time is an illusion. “There is nothing actual about time,” Hans Castorp tells his cousin. “If it seems long to you, then it is long, and if it seems to pass quickly, then it is short. But how long or short it is in actuality, no one knows.” How long an activity takes can vary greatly, “according to how we feel it.” (64) We would certainly agree with Hans Castorp that we can feel time. And so does Carroll. “As humans we feel the passage of time,” he says. The periodic process in our metabolism—breaths, heartbeats, electrical pulses, digestion, rhythms of the central nervous system create the sensory perception of time. And our internal rhythms can be affected by external conditions or our emotional states. This, he argues, leads to the impression that time is passing more quickly or more slowly for us. It is only sensation, however, because “the truly reliable clocks ticking away inside our bodies—vibrating molecules, individual chemical reactions—aren’t moving any faster or slower than usual.” 
Carroll’s reference to the rhythms of the human body brings us to the almost compulsive fixation of the novel on the body and the viscous workings of the human organism. It is clear that the novel sees the body as a diseased organism and that disease is a universal characteristic of nature. Poor Hans Castorp, quite healthy, arrives at the Berghof to visit his cousin and is diagnosed as anemic, then a moist spot is found on his lung which he uses as an excuse to remain in the sanatorium. When his moist spot is cleared up he is diagnosed with streptococci, which also fails to test out, (626) and then a new moist spot is found. (617) Then there’s poor James Tienappel, Hans Castorp’s uncle who gets himself up to the Berghof to convince his nephew to return home. He too is diagnosed as anemic. Director Behrens suggests that it would be a good move if Tienappel would spend a few weeks in the sanatorium. “In his condition,” Behrens says, “one could do nothing wiser than to live for a while as if one had a light case oftuberculosis pulmonum, which is always present at any rate.” (426) Tieneppal succumbs and follows the residents’ pattern: he participates in the rituals of the dinners, falls in love like Hans Castorp and Joachim, takes his rest cures on his balcony, attends Dr. Krokowski’s lecture and is generally molding into life at the Berghof until the fish and sorbet dinner on his eighth day when in response to his question about the decomposition of the body, Director Behrens answers in rather colorful language, “[You] blow up until you’re immense,…” he says, “until you’re a regular balloon, and then your abdomen can no longer take the pressure and bursts. Bang! You relieve yourself noticeably… your bowels gush out. Yes, and after that you’re actually socially acceptable again. If granted a holiday, you could visit your heirs without causing much offense. You stink yourself out, so to speak.” This is apparently too much for James Tienappel and the next morning he has vanished back to the flatlands without the accompaniment of Hans Castorp. (431)
Why should these comments of Director Behrens prompt Tieneppal to depart the Berghof so suddenly? Remember, in a closed system, entropy either tends to increase slowly or remain the same. With its isolation and order, the Berghof is a closed system and designed to keep entropy the same: to keep the sanatorium in a state of equilibrium. That is why time seems to stop for its inhabitants. “Where uniformity reigns,” the narrator says, “movement from point to point is no longer movement; and where movement is no longer movement, there is no time.” (537) But when Director Behrens tells his story of the body’s decomposition energy is added to the system and when energy is introduced to a system, entropy tends to increase. The sense of time for Tieneppal is revitalized, it suddenly lurches ahead and this awareness prompts his hasty retreat to the flatlands. In this hermetically sealed box, the sudden awareness of time creates in Tieneppal a great sense of loss and with it a greater fear of detachment from what might be called “the world of space and time.”
Closed systems are essentially isolated from outside influences. Open systems interact significantly with the outside world, exchanging both entropy and energy.  Just as our solar system is a closed system yet teaming with objects that are open systems, exchanging energy and entropy, the Berghof is also comprised of open system objects. Chief among these are human beings who thrive with the energy of life. It is life, Director Behrens tells us, that holds the body together, even though matter is being transformed. Over time, this energy is slowly dissipated and, “As we age,” Director Behrens says, “muscles grow tough, because of increased collagen in the connective tissue—that’s the glue,…the chief component of bones and cartilage.” And when energy is spent and life releases its tenacious grip, the form gives in to the disintegration. This is simply part of the trend in nature to arrive at states of maximum disorder, the leveling down of differences. When all energy is degraded into evenly distributed heat of low temperature, life comes to a stop and, “we evaporate, our chemical elements resolve into simpler chemical compounds, into inorganic matter.” (262)
Dissolution is not reserved for the human body, however. It permeates the entire novel: Hans Castorp’s mental state, the culture of the Berghof, its environment, everything. Everything increases in disorder. In the chapter on “The Great Petulance,” the narrator tells us, “Like the old demon, this new one had always been around, sprouting up here and there to hint at its presence, but as it spread now, it became clear that by temperament Hans Castorp was less suited for worship of this creature. All the same, the moment he let himself go the least little bit, he noted to his horror that his words, gestures, and expression, too had succumbed to an infection no one in the place could escape.”(673) For the disease, which we call disintegration and which the narrator now calls an infection no one can escape, we would call entropy—the inevitable increase in disorderliness. And entropy, Carroll says, “has a stubborn tendency to increase or at least stay constant as time passes—that’s the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics. 
Well, it is not my purpose here to analyze the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Look to Sean Carroll’sFrom Eternity to Here for that. My suggestion is that entropy as outlined by Carroll offers insight into the concept of time underlying the narrative in The Magic Mountain. Care is called for, however. When we say that entropy measures disorder, Carroll tells us that it’s “a shorthand translation of a very specific concept into somewhat sloppy language…” Nonetheless, he says that this informal idea comes very close to the truth.  As faithful as I want to remain to the scientific concept of entropy, however, mine is a literary analysis and this basic model of entropy as a measure of disorderliness related to the arrow of time should serve my purpose without doing scientific damage to the concept.
I pointed out above that in his ruminations about time Hans Castorp holds the thought that time is measured by circular motion; that it is closed in on itself, and as a result its motion and change are rest and stagnation; remember “for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here.” (139) This may well be what Hans Castorp thinks and what he experiences, but it is decidedly not the world Thomas Mann has created in The Magic Mountain. Mann has given us a linear universe that begins in a state of low entropy, high order, and proceeds through increasing entropy, disorder, to a state of chaos.
When Hans Castorp descends from the train at Davos-Platz he intends to stay for three weeks. His life is laid out before him; as an engineer he is ready to begin his internship at the engineering firm of Tunder and Wilms. A proper young man of good upbringing, he wears a hat, he closes doors quietly behind himself, he pursues his civilized morning routine, he uses formal pronouns and he carries his bookOcean Steamships and reads from it occasionally. The sounds of lovemaking from the room next to his offend his sensibilities and the loud bang of the neglected door closing behind Clavdia Chauchat in the dining hall astounds him. He is indeed a very ordinary, proper young man. This beginning suggests for us a state of low entropy or high order.
At the Berghof, however, Hans Castorp is in an isolated system, “hermetic” in fact, and Carroll tells us that in closed systems entropy either tends to increase or remain constant. The Magic Mountain fits this pattern; it is a study of the increase in entropy, disorder, in an isolated system, in our case the Berghof. Hans Castorp slowly acclimates himself to the organization and lifestyle of the sanatorium. The conventions he arrived with are slowly eroded away and his three week stay morphs into a seven year sojourn. Toward the end of the novel, he no longer wears a hat, he lets the door slam behind him, and he addresses Clavdia Chauchat with familiar pronouns. In addition he falls into a stupor which he calls a demon. Since the second departure of Clavdia Chauchat, “it had seemed to the young man as if there were something uncanny about the world and life, as if there were something peculiar, something increasingly askew and disquieting about it, as if a demon had seized power, an evil and crazed demon, who had long exercised considerable influence, but now declared his lordship with such unrestrained candor that he could instill in you secret terrors, even prompt you to think of fleeing. The demon’s name was Stupor.” (618) And what Hans Castorp saw was “life without time, without care or hope, life as a stagnating hustle-bustle of depravity, dead life.” (619)
One of the great ironies in The Magic Mountain is that the Berghof, with all its state of the art medical practices and equipment does not promote life. Resistant to the input of energy and its own energy degraded, its differences are leveled down and the Berghof offers now life without time, as Hans Castorp says, “dead life.”
The Berghof is not always successful, however, in its efforts to resist the intrusion of new energy and for a brief moment at least, Hans Castorp does find time again. It is in the rhythm and duration of music. A new gramophone is introduced, which he commandeered. It led him into the world of music. (626) As the operator of the new machine, Hans Castorp dispensed music with great pleasure. But the music that stayed with him and perhaps served as his connection to sanity was Shubert’s Lindenbaum, from his youth. (640) Nonetheless, the narrator tells us that the gramophone was Hans Castorp’s truncated musical coffin in which each song decayed into “some electrical gramophone music.” (643)
At the same time, life in the Berghof continued its disintegration which is documented in “The Great Petulance.” In addition, Settembrini’s philosophical discussions with Naphta collapse into an argument resulting in a senseless duel in which Naphta shoots himself. (696) On his way to the duel, Hans Castorp admits that he no longer trusts himself or his world. (693)
And then the descent into chaos—the archduke is murdered. At this news, this influx of new energy, the Berghof explodes like a rotting corpse and noticeably relieves itself of its inhabitants…they gush out from its bowels and scatter to the far corners of the earth from whence they came. (702) And Hans Castorp is no exception. “Where are we?” the narrator asks, “What is that? Where has our dream brought us?” It is the flatlands and it is war, the full chaos of war. And Hans Castorp is among the young men who “hurl themselves down before projectiles howling toward them, only to leap up and rush on, shouting courage in brash, young voices—they have not been hit. Then they are hit, they fall, flailing their arms, shot in the head, the heart, the gut. They lie with their faces in the mire and do not stir. They lie, arched over their knapsacks, the backs of their heads buried in the soft ground, their hands clutching the air like talons. But the wood keeps sending new men, who hurl themselves down, leap up, and, with a shout or without a word, stagger forward among those who have already fallen.” (704-705) And what of our friend whom we’ve followed for these seven hundred pages; is he among the fallen? No, the narrator tells us, “He gets up, he limps and stumbles forward on mud-laden feet singing thoughtlessly: And all its branches ru-ustled,/As if they called to me—And so, in the tumult, in the rain, in the dusk, he disappears from sight.” (706) It is the Lindenbaum he is singing as he goes from us, stepping on the hand of a fallen comrade, pressing it into the mud with his hobnailed boot—music, the rhythmic structure of time and duration which now binds him to space, holds him, we have to believe, in some sort of real space/time context in the vortex of this ultimate chaos, until…