On Our Interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

27Sep07

As promised, we agreed to have the president of Iran over for tea on Monday afternoon to discuss The Magic Mountain, the magnus opus by Thomas Mann. President Ahmadinejad has long defended the work — as he did (somewhat controversially) in his speech a few blocks south of us at Columbia University — as one of his favorites in the Western literary canon. The president spent a few minutes admiring the “understated elegance” of our Grosvenor silver-plated afternoon tea set before turning to the topic du jour.

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The Gay Recluse: President Ahmadinejad, can you tell us exactly what makes The Magic Mountain such an important work for you and your followers?

President Ahmadinejad: Do you have a week? (Laughs.) Seriously, I think I would start with the fluid yet arbitrary sense of time in the sanitorium, where years can pass for the patients in the blink of an eye while the seven minutes it takes to get your temperature can seem — no, it actually becomes! — a minor eternity. Mann captures that perfectly. Of course it’s almost a cliche to mention the chapter where Hans gets lost in the snowstorm and thinks that days have passed, when in fact it is only a few minutes, but I’m not a writer — or at least not yet! — so I’ll mention it anyway.

TGR: What did you think of Hans’ obsession with Clavdia?

PA: Obviously I can’t answer that without acknowledging the long shadow of Proust in this regard — not to mention Death in Venice, which is probably a better treatment of obsession — but I personally like to revisit the chapter in which Hans realizes that his obsession is rooted in a schoolboy “crush” he once held for one of his classmates — interestingly enough, a boy — whose eyes had the same color and shape as Clavdia. A lot of my gay friends think this is kind of a cop-out, but again, I think you have to give Mann a lot of credit for making this statement when he did — and how can you not read it as an admission? — which is something Proust never quite did with Albertine. I mean, did Virginia Woolf ever get that far?

TGR: Arguably in Orlando.

PA. Yes, well — I love Orlando for different reasons, but it’s still not as explicit as Mann, if that’s the right word. But the other point I wanted to make is how incredibly moving it is when Hans finally declares his love for Clavdia, not in his native language, but in French! It’s genius, not only because French — comme tout le monde sait! — is truly a language of love and philosophy, but because there’s often something dreamlike and fantastic about speaking a foreign language, and to actually employ this device so unapologetically was really a remarkable feat. I’m not really aware of another work in which this was done so effectively.

TGR: How do you respond to critics who point out that Musil was not a fan of the work?

PA: Are critics even part of the human race? (Laughs.) Look, I’m not trying to elevate The Magic Mountain to the level of Proust or a handful of other twentieth-century works that taken as a whole have probably aged better. Clearly The Magic Mountain is flawed — and Mann just about admits this in his notes that accompany the English translation — particularly in the wooden philosophizing that passes for the characters of Naphta and Settembrini. Musil is a different kind of genius — a true philosopher — so I don’t think you need to raise one at the expense of the other; Mann at his best displays a gift for story-telling that I think is generally absent — even if intentionally so — from Musil’s work. I guess the short answer is that I like them both!

TGR: That’s so true about Naphta and Settembrini, but wouldn’t you agree that the duel was effective?

PA: Mais oui, bien sur! Exactement! You have these hundreds of pages in which the characters discuss and philosophize and deliberate, and to see them dissolve into that kind of violence is both absurd and somehow fantastic, yet ultimately inevitable. That’s what really what’s disturbing about it, the inevitability, and of course we only have to look back at the horror of the first world war to understand what Mann was describing. You look at the world back then and you can’t help but wonder what was going on in their minds! But then again, I guess if you’re in the middle of it, it’s really hard to say what’s right or wrong. After a while, you just want to blow your head off [spoiler alert] just like Naphta. (Laughs.)

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