Monday, August 2, 2021

A Trip to the Movies in Switzerland, c. 1912

This is from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924), which I listened to for hours and hours on my latest set of long drives. The setting is a resort town in the Swiss Alps, circa 1912, based on a stay Mann made in Davos in that year. 

Life flitted across the screen before their smarting eyes: life chopped into small sections, fleeting, accelerated; a restless, jerky fluctuation of appearing and disappearing, performed to a thin accompaniment of music, which set its actual tempo to the phantasmagoria of the past, and with the narrowest of means at its command, yet managed to evoke a whole gamut of pomp and solemnity, passion, abandon, and gurgling sensuality. It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation; full of cruelty, appetite, and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner’s arms. Constructed, in short, to cater to the innermost desires of an onlooking international civilization.  . . .

The despot died beneath the knife, with a soundless shriek. Then came scenes from all parts of the world: the President of the French Republic, in top-hat and cordon, sitting in a landau and replying to a speech of welcome; the Viceroy of India, at the wedding of a rajah; the German Crown Prince in the courtyard of a Potsdam garrison. There was a picture of life in a New Mecklenburg village; a cock-fight in Borneo, naked savages blowing on nose-horns, a wild elephant hunt, a ceremony at the court of the King of Siam, a courtesans’ street in Japan, with geishas sitting behind wooden lattices; Samoveds bundled in furs, driving sledges drawn by reindeer through the snowy wastes of Siberia, Russian pilgrims praying at Hebron; a Persian criminal under the knout. They were present at all these scenes; space was annihilated, the clock put back, the then and there played on by music and transformed into a juggling, scurrying now and here. A young Moroccan woman, in a costume of striped silk, with trappings in the shape of chains, bracelets, and rings, her swelling breasts half bared, was suddenly brought so close to the camera as to be life-sized; one could see the dilated nostrils, the eyes full of animal life, the features in play as she showed her white teeth in a laugh, and held one of her hands, with its blanched nails, for a shade to her eyes, while with the other she waved to the audience, who stared, taken aback, into the face of the charming apparition. It seemed to see and saw not, it was not moved by the glances bent upon it, its smile and nod were not of the present but of the past, so that the impulse to respond was baffled, and lost in a feeling of impotence. Then the phantom vanished. The screen glared white and empty, with the one word Finis written across it. The entertainment was over, in silence the theatre was emptied, a new audience took the place of that going out, and before their eager eyes the cycle would presently unroll itself again. 

This scene reminds me again of how middle class Europeans had in that era access to more knowledge and images of the world than anyone had ever had before. This, to me, was Europe's real gain from the imperial era, not money (it cost more to administer colonies than they ever paid in taxes) but knowledge. I am reminded of something from my own childhood, the Travelogue, in which a speaker who had visited some exotic land regaled his audience with stories while showing films or slides of gorgeous scenery and exotic customs. I, full of unbounded curiosity, loved them. And of course there was National Geographic and many similar publications.

The west gathered the knowledge of the whole world to itself, and feasted on it.

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