Missing Magic Mountain (no, not the theme park)
Lots of 19th century “innovations” are gone for good reason: horse-drawn wagons, the Saturday bath, walking across continents, surgery without anesthesia… novelties like these are lamented by no one except history buffs and masochists.
But one 19th century institution missing from our world is a true loss: the health retreat. Back in the day they were called sanatoriums: resorts set up for the “improvement or maintenance of health, especially for convalescents.” Today the idea of withdrawing from life to recover a bit health is so odd that most people, hearing the word “sanatorium” translate it as “nut house.”
My oh-so-slow recovery from my latest medical travail makes me long for this old tradition.
I ache to check out of my life for a time and into another, one where meals are prepared and laundry is done and my duties consist of napping, reading, and taking long walks through woods and meadows.
Thomas Mann wrote about life in a health sanatorium in the novel The Magic Mountain. A young man of no great intellect or ambition named Hans Castorp visits a friend recovering from tuberculosis in a mountain retreat. So taken is Hans with the sanitarium’s disconnect from the real world (the “flatlands” he calls it) he finds excuses to stay until, with a doctor’s eager encouragement, he imagines himself into tuberculosis and becomes a patient for seven years.
It might seem odd a book with such a subject was so influential on my young life. I found the lure of Hans’ introspective and purposeless life both horrifying and irresistible. Having spent a childhood in too much solitude caused by an introspective nature and aimless wandering around the country followed by a 1960s adolescence (no one should have been allowed to turn 16 in 1968) I wanted desperately to plant myself in some situation with defined and gentle borders. So I then thought anyway.
Mann’s deft novel talked me into the world, not out of it. The book laid bare the siren song of isolation and withdrawal; it showed me what is lost if you do not engage the world. The Magic Mountain was for me a necessary cautionary tale. For all the trials and tears I’ve had in this life, I don’t regret for a minute having engaged it.
Now though, after four years of medical ordeals that only an insane optimist or a fool would voluntarily endure, I long for a break. The miseries of the last year in particular leave me exhausted and in desperate need of renewal. I long for Mann’s mountain with its wooded paths and dining rooms, if only for a while.
In the 19th century there were health sanatoriums priced for nearly all but the poorest. Those with less means did not get the elegant treatment described in The Magic Mountain but they had places to go. Not any more.
Today a “health spa” is something you “do” for a weekend; a resort where you pay lots of money to have mud thrown onto your body and be served tiny little portions of gourmet greens with artisan bread and a Napa chardonnay. Activities are planned for the day, right down to the Swedish massage and the meditation hour. The spas of the 21st century are no place to go if you need to stitch your life back together after too much trauma.
I took break once before without succumbing Hans’ tubercular temptations. In 1996, after my first near-death experience (a “mere” bout of killer pneumonia) I went away to a little cottage – a studio really – on the beach. I slept and walked and slept more and rode my bike and wrote poems and was beholden to no one. When I arrived I could barely walk a block. By the time I left I was bicycling miles every day. So much changed – so much healed – in that one calendar month of March 1996. How I long to do it again.
How odd the idea is to us now: Go away and rest? For weeks? But what would you do? Restore? What’s “restore?” Dump everyone and everything you love for a month of solitude? Solitude? Do they have cellphone and WiFi there?
I for one don’t find it an odd idea at all. If I could only visit The Magic Mountain. Just for a month, I swear. One month.