In 1912, the young novelist Thomas Mann accompanied his wife, Katia, to the Wald Sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland, so she could receive treatment for tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis—often called “consumption” because one of the symptoms is rapid weight-loss—is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease usually attacks the lungs—resulting in coughing, bloody sputum, fevers, chills. It is transmitted by coughing, sneezing, spitting, or speaking, and nearby people breathe in the airborne bacteria. Most people who develop tuberculosis are asymptomatic, or have what is called “latent tuberculosis.” They can’t spread the disease and are for the most part are unaffected by it. For those who are symptomatic, it can be deadly: 50 percent of those who don’t get treatment die.
Evidently, tuberculosis has been around a long time, in animals as well as humans. We know from forensic archaeology that prehistoric bison had it in North America over 17,000 years ago. Human remains in the New World test positive as far back as 100 AD. In the early 1800s, one in four deaths in England were attributed to it, and even by the end of the nineteenth century, one in six deaths in France were caused by it. It wasn’t until the 1940s with the advent of antibiotics—in particular, streptomycin—that the disease was finally brought under control.
Katia hadn’t presented any symptoms of the disease and had tested negative in the rudimentary tests they had in those days. Most likely, she was suffering from exhaustion: she had, by age thirty, given birth to four children and endured two miscarriages in five years. In addition to child-rearing, she managed a large household, and acted as Thomas Mann’s typist and appointment secretary.
Katia Mann was admitted as one of the first patients at the Wald Sanitarium; Mann traveled with her to keep her company. While the young couple was there, the managers of the sanitarium suggested that Mann do as the patients did: take rest cures and constitutionals, eat and drink, socialize, and—why not, Herr Mann?—get himself examined.
Mann, simultaneously alarmed and amused at the idea that everyone was probably a little sick, left as soon as he could. Katia came with him. But the sanitarium, as well as the disease, left a mark on him. Up in the mountains, he had caught some kind of bug—one that threatened to morph into a short story or a novella: a follow-up to his wildly successful and moody Death in Venice but written in a comic vein—a little light piece of humor and death.
Then, in 1914, war broke out and everything changed. The novella grew, from an account of an odd vacation into one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Published in 1924, The Magic Mountain is a strange fantasy: absurd yet profound, its Olympian symbolism undercut by medical irony. It takes place in the years before the war and treats the sanitarium as a microcosm for Europe’s spiritual and moral sickness:
The extraordinary pastness of our story results from its having taken place before a certain turning point, on the far side of a rift that has cut deeply through our lives and our consciousness. It takes place, or, to avoid any present tense whatever, it took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War.
The war occasioned for Mann a need to look closely at the social illnesses that had made the conflict possible: ethnic pride without solidarity; science without conscience; propriety but no morals; nationalism but no humanism; empty scholasticism that privileged the ability to argue over the need to devote oneself to a cause; the misapplication of heroic ideals to a modern capitalist industrial reality; and, ultimately, a savage vision of the individual and culture.
At the heart of the novel is the journey of a young, ordinary, painfully average man-child by the name of Hans Castorp, who travels to the Berghof Sanitarium to visit his cousin Joachim, a patient there. What was meant to be a stay of three weeks becomes a seven-year sojourn at altitude, during which Hans confronts the meaning of life, death, and suffering among a community of Europe’s physically and spiritually sick.
Our cities have been in turmoil for weeks. George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin days ago not far from where I used to live in Minneapolis. My family and my tribe, the Ojibwe—many clustered in South Minneapolis—have been caught up in this deadly conflict, one that is neither new nor of our choosing. For people of color, America has for centuries been an inhospitable mountain on which we toil and in whose cold shadow we live.
Many of my family and friends are patrolling the streets as citizen protesters; I also have relatives patrolling Minneapolis as members of the police department, National Guard, and Air Force. In addition to the social sickness that is pitting us against one another, and setting our cities ablaze, we are all enduring a pandemic. Sickness is, often, a metaphor: a way of thinking about our collective social body. Never have the symbolic and the actual been in such a close and crushing embrace.
It’s hard not to feel that we are all caught up, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, in forces outside our control, despite the fact that real change seems to be one of the results of our unrest. Speaking to Hans, the narrator tells him that “the wicked dance in which you are caught up will last many a little sinful year yet, and we would not wager much that you will come out whole.” But just as Castorp traveled to the Swiss Alps to become acquainted with illness, he also came into contact with a more thoughtful, philosophical, moral system (at the sanitarium and within himself) that might have led to a different outcome for him and for Europe. And this makes me think of a different mountain. Closer, more real.
As I write from this place, on the outskirts of Los Angeles—far from my tribe and far from home—I am reminded of another mountain, a monolith more profound and lasting in its significance perhaps than either Mann’s fictional one or America’s symbolic one.
In January, not long before the pandemic arrived, I traveled to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, some sixty miles from Albuquerque. Acoma is maybe the oldest continuously inhabited city in North America—the Acoma people have been living atop their mountain, a 357-foot mesa, for over a thousand years. And before they were here, millennia ago, the people who would become known as the Pueblo received a series of sacred instructions that provided the political and cultural shape of their society and directed them to migrate to various locations where they would flourish as Pueblo people, Acoma among them.
Down to this day, the community understands itself as living in a compact with metaphysical forces that provided a refuge and a way to survive in exchange for living by certain spiritual and cultural precepts. What Acoma Pueblo is embodies a response to recurring calamities—beginning with the initial directive to migrate to the mesa, and followed by war with other tribes, conflict, and great change. That later tumult and crisis resulted from European contact, beginning in the sixteenth century, the conscription of Acoma labor to build the massive mission church, the punitive and painful mission system, followed by American incursions, compulsory boarding schools, almost endless land claims against the government, and a struggle for personhood in New Mexico, one of the last states to grant suffrage to Native peoples, which did not happen until the early 1960s.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to the governor of Acoma, Brian Vallo, on the phone. I’d met him before, in person, so could picture his strong, squarish face, dark skin, and a powerful build that gives him a youthful presence, though I’d guess his age at around forty. I like his style: he always seems to wear cool shoes and his glasses are chunky and retro. But mixed in with the modern is a deep, even ancient, reserve that seems authentically Pueblo to me. My tribe, the Ojibwe, has a different feel, a different relationship with time, I think.
For all his customary vigor, on the phone Vallo sounded tired. Exhausted, in fact. Covid-19 had come to Acoma and the challenges for the community and its leadership are crushing. They’d closed off their mountain—“The Rock,” as he calls it. No one—not even tribal members—can visit unless they live there.
The threat is real: as of the last week of May, the rate of infection at the nearby Navajo Nation surpassed that of New York City: 2,300 cases per 100,000 people. The rate of infection among smaller tribes is even worse. Zia Pueblo has an infection rate ten times that of New Mexico, and double that of New Jersey. Vallo is a humble man and so it makes sense he would reach out to other leaders in his community for help.
“I asked some of my cultural leaders why our people didn’t record their experiences of the past, the lessons they learned when confronted with difficult situations like disease in our community,” said Vallo. These leaders didn’t have a straightforward answer for Vallo. “But they did reassure me that life won’t end abruptly,” he told me. “Life will go on, even if our struggles last a long time, as Covid-19 will,” he said.
I can hear the pain in his voice—it’s a personal pain but it is also bigger than that. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “Because of Covid we aren’t living like true Acomas, we are living in isolated units, small nuclear family settings separated from each other.” The norm is for large, multigenerational families to be in daily contact.
“We’ve had two deaths due to Covid at Acoma and we can’t engage with one another to mourn,” he went on. “I feel so bad about this. I see the fear in people’s eyes. We look at one another fearfully. We avoid each other. The fear is everywhere.”
Nevertheless, most people at Acoma have been abiding by social-distancing orders, according to Vallo; children and elders cannot leave the Pueblo, they aren’t traveling, they are respecting curfews set by their leaders.
“The vast majority are listening to us,” he said. “There is a concept—úú’stí’thuu’kai’ii—in our language, which means to be obedient but it’s more than that. It’s a recognition that we live in accordance to natural laws. This is one of our most significant cultural values.” Not everyone lives by it: some elders and teenagers aren’t wearing masks or staying put. “There aren’t many like that,” he explained. “Some of them come from families who are already struggling or in trouble.”
Like most other Pueblo people I’ve met, Vallo is very circumspect when it comes to discussing tribal knowledge with outsiders. Even though I am Native, with a tribe to call my own, I’m still an outsider at places like Acoma. So when Vallo shares aspects of the Pueblo past and Pueblo thinking, he steers wide around the specifics.
“When I think about our cultural leaders, especially those who live on The Rock, I think that their shoulders aren’t like ours,” he told me. “They are much wider and stronger. They fulfill such a great responsibility—and for this I am optimistic.
“Most Acoma don’t live on The Rock, only some do and it’s a hard life up there: no running water, no electricity, no modern conveniences,” he went on. “But they do it because they have spiritual work to do up there, Acoma people are sacred. Everything there [on The Rock] sustains us. Our cultural leaders protect the people and our resources, and they do it for us and for all humanity.”
Vallo said no more and, for a moment, neither did I. The idea that the cultural leaders at Acoma were sitting in constant session and attending to the health of the world—to theirs, to yours, to mine—moved me deeply.
“We look to The Rock on a daily basis,” he resumed, eventually. “One thing that helps us understand this time is that we have a word for the disease. We call it hiya’stíní. We respect it because we understand it as a living being. We fear it and respect it. We acknowledge it and speak to it.”
The way he said “acknowledge” was tinged with some other kind of understanding than the one I have. “It [the virus] is a being and so it deserves a level of respect. It’s time here will be short-term. And, eventually, it will be retired.” Vallo sounded revived then. “I’m really grateful for our traditions,” he said. “Illness is part of our being and it’s our responsibility to take care of all illness.”
Most Americans think of Native Americans as people from the land that time forgot. In America but not of it. Yet—being the contrarian that I helplessly am—I find myself arguing that Native Americans and Americans share more in common than they do not; then, when outsiders tell me that we are all alike, I find myself arguing the opposite.
But Vallo touched something in me when he talked about The Rock and the Pueblo’s relationship to it that feels true of my tribe and my community, but perhaps not true of the rest of America. We see ourselves as from a certain place much more powerfully and much more often than we think of ourselves as individuals. We are the people of our homelands, that is who we irreducibly are. So it makes sense that we have a more pronounced sense of common purpose, if not obedience, than other people who are trained to put more stock in individualism and individual rights.
This sense of togetherness gives Vallo hope and it gives me hope, too. It gives me hope when I think of the virus—and when I think again of Hans Castorp and The Magic Mountain. Two thirds of the way through the novel Hans gets lost in the mountains during a snowstorm. He falls asleep and has a vision. It is a sublime vision of the relationship between life and death and our struggle with both:
Love stands opposed to death—it alone, and not reason, is stronger than death. Only love, and not reason, yields kind thoughts. And form, too, comes only from love and goodness: form and the cultivated manners of man’s fair state, of a reasonable, genial community—out of silent regard for the bloody banquet. Oh, what a clear dream I’ve dreamed… I will keep faith with the death in my heart, but I will clearly remember that if faithfulness to death and to what is past rules our thoughts and deeds, that leads only to wickedness, dark lust, and hatred of humankind. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall grant death no dominion over his thoughts. And with that I shall awaken…
The people of Acoma are keeping faith, too. And I wonder: Will America keep that faith? And when will we awaken?