Saturday, September 20, 2014


Virtually every day, I take a walk outside with a book. Why the obsession? Sure, I exercise my mind and my body at the same time. Mens sana in corpore sano. But the advantages go deeper than that. Exercise raises levels of endorphins, which help combat depression (or let’s call it melancholia – see the third bullet in this post, as well as dopamine and serotonin, which relieve ADD. And outdoor air does it all much more effectively, supposedly because of negative ions of oxygen. People I pass while walking sometimes ask me how I can concentrate on a book and read at the same time; they generally don’t understand when I tell them that walking actually helps me focus on the book.

But, alas! I’ve hurt my foot and can’t take my daily walk outside today. I’ve been sitting indoors for hours trying to read my daily portion of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and it’s going at least twice as slowly as it normally goes.

Ironically, I’m reading about people who are enjoying the negative ions I’m missing out on. The magic of Mann's mountain comes from the effects of its air on human health. Tuberculosis patients come to the Swiss Alps and Dr. Behrens’s Berghof for a cure. Most actually stay until they die of their disease, but they all find their lives changing in other unexpected ways. The first is the suspension of the feeling of the passage of time. Away from the responsibilities of the “flatlands,” the patients come to find that the month is the smallest useful period of time.

Even more remarkable is the level of philosophical discussion at the sanatorium. Freed from the constraints of time pressure and buoyed on the brain chemistry of alpine living, the inhabitants of the Berghof discuss love, anatomy, the perception of time, Freudian psychology, politics, religion, and more. Some characters talk like teachers everywhere they go, confident in the systems they’ve converted to. There’s Dr. Krakowski, who gives weekly lectures explaining that love equals disease equals life equals death. There’s Settembrini, who preaches the coming of a humanistic utopia. And there’s Naphta, who wants to bring back the Middle Ages with twist and see a unified world of communism led by the Pope.

What they all agree on is that human suffering must be relieved. They’d want my foot to heal, too.

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