More Dispatches from The Magic Mountain

In The Magic Mountain, the irony is so thick — you never know what to believe. Every revelation is flawed; every moment has its twin, its ironic other side.

Except — for the first time, really — on page 590.

The narrator says this:

“Isn’t it grand, isn’t it good, that language has only one word for everything we associate with love — from utter sanctity to the most fleshly lust? The result is perfect clarity and ambiguity, for love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity in its mostly fleshly. Love is always simply itself, both as a subtle affirmation of life, and as the highest passion; love is our sympathy with organic life, the touchingly lustful embrace of what is destined to decay. Benificence, charity, mercy, pity is assuredly found in the most admirable and the most depraved passions.”

In the John E. Woods translation, he leaves the Latin word caritas untranslated, as Mann did in the original German. But, to me, that’s a word that is a bit lost, since I didn’t pay quite enough attention in Ms. Gibson’s 10th-grade Latin class (sadly, I now realize). So I substituted all four of the meanings that would have inhered in the word for the biblically-schooled, 1920s reader: Benificence, charity, mercy, pity.

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