Monday, December 13, 2010

Midwest paralyzed by snow

A long time ago, writing about snow in Honey From Stone, I quoted Thomas Mann's 1924 novelThe Magic Mountain, specifically the part when Hans Castorp, the novel's protagonist and a patient in a Alpine sanatorium, gets caught in a snow storm while out on a solitary skiing adventure. He considers snowflakes that have fallen onto his sleeve -- "little jewels, insignia, orders, agraffes," he calls them, "uncannily anti-organic, life-denying, icily regular in form." I wrote:
For Castorp, the rigid symmetry of the snowflakes was terrifying. But I know what Hans Castorp could not have known (because…science had not yet probed the interior of the ice crystal), that the snowflake is more than a life-denying hexagon of solid water. The snowflake is icily regular, but it is also chaotic; it is the seal of Abel and the mark of Cain, a dactylogram of the eternal conflict between order and disorder that rages at the heart of creation.
When I wrote Honey From Stone I was using H. T. Lowe-Porter's 1927 translation of the novel, which I read as a young man. There has since been a new 1995 translation, by John E. Woods, which I have been reading lately.
Hans Castorp stepped out from under a tree to let a few [snowflakes] fall on his sleeve and to examine them with the connoisseur's expert eye. They looked like shapeless tatters, but more than once he had held his good magnifying glass up to them and knew that they were collections of dainty, precise little jewels: gemstones, star insignia, diamond brooches -- no skilled jeweler could have produced more delicate miniatures. Yes there was something special about that light, loose, powdery white stuff that weighed down the trees, covered the breadth of the land, and carried him along on his skis, something that made it different from the sand on the shore at home, of which it had reminded him. It was not made up of tiny grains of rock, but, as everyone knew, consisted of myriads of water droplets, violently gathered up and frozen into manifold, symmetrical crystals --- little pieces of an inorganic substance, the wellspring of protoplasm, of plants and human beings…And yet absolute symmetry and icy regularity characterized each item of cold inventory, Yes, that was what was so eerie -- it was anti-organic, hostile to life itself…Life shuddered at such perfect precision, regarded it as something deadly, as the secret of death itself.
Well, yes and no. Yes, water is the wellspring of life. But life is more than water, more than oxygen and hydrogen. And there is something about the snowflake -- that exquisite balance of order and chaos -- that surely touches upon the mystery of life. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of how the snowflake's symmetry is maintained: How does a water molecule attaching itself on one branch of the flake know what is happening on the other branches? On the scale of molecules, the faces of the growing crystal are light-years apart. Forced "tiling"? Vibrations of an almost unimaginable refinement? Or are we still missing something, some anti-entropic principle, perhaps the same something that will help explain the awesome, endless dance of the DNA?

Thomas Mann's majesterial novel is all about life and death, order and chaos, entropy and anti-entropy, health and disease. Science has learned an astonishing amount about life and death; the biology shelves here in the college library are as burdened with books as the boughs of Castorp's trees were burdened with snow. It is easy to recognize life; more difficult to say what it is. A single snowflake rebukes our ignorance.