Sunday, July 11, 2021

A Young Man Reads Anatomy Texts and Wonders What Life Is

From Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924), translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter:

The volumes were heavy, unhandy. Hans Castorp propped them against his chest or stomach as he lay; they were heavy, but he did not mind. Lying there, his mouth half open, he let his eye glide down the learned page, upon which fell the light from his red-shaded lamp, though he might have read, if need were, by the brilliance of the moonlight alone. He read, following the lines down the page with his head, until at the bottom his chin lay sunk upon his breast — and in this position the reader would pause perhaps for reflection, dozing a little or musing in half-slumber, before lifting his eyes to the next page. He probed profoundly. While the moon took its appointed way above the crystalline splendours of the mountain valley, he read of organized matter, of the properties of protoplasm, that sensitive substance maintaining itself in extraordinary fluctuation between building up and breaking down; of form developing out of rudimentary, but always present, primordial, read with compelling interest of life, and its sacred, impure mysteries.

What was life? No one knew. It was undoubtedly aware of itself, so soon as it was life; but it did not know what it was. Consciousness, as exhibited by susceptibility to stimulus, was undoubtedly, to a certain degree, present in the lowest, most undeveloped stages of life; it was impossible to fix the first appearance of conscious processes at any point in the history of the individual or the race; impossible to make consciousness contingent upon, say, the presence of a nervous system. The lowest animal forms had no nervous systems, still less a cerebrum; yet no one would venture to deny them the capacity for responding to stimuli. One could suspend life; not merely particular sense-organs, not only nervous reactions, but life itself. One could temporarily suspend the irritability to sensation of every form of living matter in the plant as well as in the animal kingdom; one could narcotize ova and spermatozoa with chloroform, chloral hydrate, or morphine. Consciousness, then, was simply a function of matter organized into life; a function that in higher manifestations turned upon its avatar and became an effort to explore and explain the phenomenon it displayed —a hopeful-hopeless project of life to achieve self-knowledge, nature in recoil — and vainly, in the event, since she cannot be resolved in knowledge, nor life, when all is said, listen to itself.

What was life? No one knew. No one knew the actual point whence it sprang, where it kindled itself. Nothing in the domain of life seemed uncaused, or insufficiently caused, from that point on; but life itself seemed without antecedent. If there was anything that might be said about it, it was this: it must be so highly developed, structurally, that nothing even distantly related to it was present in the inorganic world. Between the protean amoeba and the vertebrate the difference was slight, unessential, as com- pared to that between the simplest living organism and that nature which did not even deserve to be called dead, because it was inorganic. For death was only the logical negation of life; but between life and inanimate nature yawned a gulf which research strove in vain to bridge. They tried to close it with myriad hypotheses, which it swallowed down without becoming any the less deep or broad.