A considerable part of the German intelligentsia…have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss…
a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.
And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments,
can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.
(Lukács, Georg. (1971). The Theory of the Novel. MIT Press, p. 22.)
Atop the Cold Mountain
I came across this passage in an article on Wikipedia while looking up a phrase (The Frankfurt School) which I had never heard before. The article was about the Frankfurt School, a post WWII school of philosophy coming out of Germany. I am not very familiar with philosophy. But the imagery of the passage above is beautiful.
It reminds me of my first year out of law school, when I worked for a small collections firm in South Florida. Every day I would do my hearings, motions, depositions and demand letters, and at lunch I mostly went out on my own to a nearby mall. There was a food court there, with a taco place, and I used to order taco salad quite frequently. While eating my lunch each day, I made a desperate half-hour attempt at improving my German, after three years of rust. I tried to read Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann.
Now my German was not then, and certainly is not now, good enough to understand much of what I read. But I did come away with a very clear sense of place.
A Sense of Place
The setting was, as I recall, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients on a snowy mountain, with clear, refined air. I got the impression that the belief at the time was that the air, itself, had what we might now view as mystical healing properties. That this was, at the time, the height of science.
But the irony—to be up in the mountains, away from all civilization, all family and home, with what was then basically a terminal diagnosis. To be bundled in blankets so one could sit on the porch, midwinter, for health purposes. To sacrifice time and treasure, when both are scarce, in hopes of a miracle cure. To wait out one’s days, alone.
When in truth, the treatment had no remedial effect, besides as a placebo…
This image has stuck with me.
A Popular Locale
The setting has been used again and again, to equally chilling effect, so to speak, in film.
In Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The Labours of Hercules, it was the setting for a murder. All were trapped in a mountaintop hotel, with the murderer in their midst. And no one could escape because of a snowed-in funicular train.
Wes Anderson used it in his filmThe Grand Budapest Hotel. This film is apparently based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer whom I have read a bit of in German, with equal lack of comprehension, sadly. I really probably ought to stick to translations.
But there is something about that trapped feeling, atop a mountain. Lonely. Abandoned. Cold.
Living in Florida, this is not something that I regularly experience.
I imagine the Grand Hotel Abyss, in the passage above, as being similar to the sanatorium in the Magic Mountain, or to the hotels in Poirot and Wes Anderson’s film. Bleak, austere, clean to a fault. Much like snow itself might be, if it were a kind of interior decoration.
For fans of Edith Wharton or Agatha Christie, the Grand Hotel is a familiar place. A luxurious site with every imaginable convenience. Assuming you are of a certain class. The ones who can afford to pay.
Not a bad place to be stuck in, after all. To be entertained, to be wined and dined. These are not painful things. Why shouldn’t we want that for everyone?
Two things spring to mind.
The Height of Science
One, that the height of science does not always remain so. Those receiving an autism diagnosis today are just as subject to quackery as their tubercular predecessors. They are equally at the mercy of the latest “scientific” fads.
Whenever we, as a society, don’t understand a condition, our very ignorance seems to breed a multitude of bizarre and ingenious, and yet unproven, treatments, that rush to fill the void.
Not that all treatments lack merit. I mean only that we should be wary.
Two, that we sometimes apply the twin requirements of quarantine– isolation and exile–when there is no need. These conditions are indispensable in a health facility used to treat those with potentially infectious and deadly conditions.
But people who live with autism experience them too.
We tend to educate them separately, depending on their “severity”. We avoid close contact socially. We push them from our schools, our clubs, our churches, our civic groups and our entertainment venues.
We blame their behavior. Or “poor fit”. Or lack of manpower. Or their parents.
Because we feel safer when they are in quarantine?
But autism is neither infectious nor deadly.
The sanatorium of the Magic Mountain may help describe the way people with autism and their families (as well as those with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and many other conditions)feel. In much the same way, they are isolated or shunned by society. Or manipulated or bankrupted by popular medicine.
The Grand Hotel Abyss is of another type entirely.
The Grand Hotel Abyss, described above, does not, to my mind, house people with autism or their families at all.
The Grand Hotel Abyss is filled instead with self-congratulatory types who contemplate autism, write or speak their frivolous theories and insights, or develop irresponsible treatments. And then clink glasses in the warm dining room, while they enjoy another serenade.
Autism is not the hotel occupant.
It is the Abyss.
- Grander than the grandest hotel
- Cold, clear, serene
- Blindingly brilliant
But is the edge of the abyss “the edge of nothingness, of absurdity?”
Only if you don’t see, if you don’t really look.
We thought in space there was nothing, too.
What now seems absurd does not remain absurd indefinitely, just as science often does not remain science. We must be patient. And perhaps, in time, we will understand.
As I sit in the dining room, writing this, the waiter comes. And it’s true.
Contemplating the abyss—the food really does taste better!
For a quick trip uphill, be sure to pack my flash fiction piece, My Blue Mountain.