Art Anniversary

September 21, 2012
It is comforting to be surrounded by a personal library, containing as it does a history of your intellectual passions. The problem is those books when opened now probably won’t recreate your original passions. Musil wonders why.
If, as is the case from time to time, you happen to reencounter a play or a novel which twenty years ago grabbed hold of your soul, along with the souls of many others, you experience something which has actually never been explained, since apparently everyone takes it for granted: the sparkle is gone, the importance has disappeared, dust and moths fly off at your touch. But why this aging must take place and what exactly is altered in the process, this no one knows. The comedy of all art anniversaries consists of the old admirers making solemn, uneasy faces, as if their collar-button had slipped down behind their shirt front.
It is not the same as reencountering a flame of your youth who has not grown any prettier over the years. For in the latter case you no longer even comprehend what once made you stutter, although at least it has something to do with the touching transitory nature of all earthly pursuits and the notoriously fickle nature of love. But a work of literature that you reencounter is like an old sweetheart who for twenty years has been embalmed in alcohol: not a hair is different, and not a fleck of her rosy epidermis has changed. A shiver rolls down your spine! Now you are supposed to be once again who you were: one semblance demands another. It is a stretching torture, in the course of which the soles have remained in place, but the rest of the body has been twisted  a thousand times around the revolving world!…
…It is, we realize, if appearances do not deceive, related to fashion. Fashion, after all, is not only marked by the one characteristic, namely that you find it ridiculous in retrospect, but also by the other, that as long as a fashion lasts, you can hardly imagine taking seriously the opinions of a man who is not dressed from head to toe just as ridiculously as you yourself are. I would not know what in our admiration of antiquity could shield a budding philosopher from suicide, if not the fact that Plato and Aristotle wore no pants; pants have contributed far more than you might think to the intellectual development of Europe, for without them, Europeans would most likely never have gotten over their classical-humanistic inferiority complex vis-à-vis the antique…
But what conclusions may we draw from the fact that it is just as ridiculously unpleasant t look at old fashions (so long as they have not yet become costumes), as it is ridiculously unpleasant to look at old pictures, or the outmoded façades of old-style houses, and to read yesterday’s books? Clearly, there is no other conclusion except that we become unpleasant to ourselves the moment we gain some distance from what we were. This stretch of self-loathing begins several years before now and ends approximately with our grandparents, that is, the time to which we begin to be indifferent. It is only then that what was is no longer outdated, but begins to be old; it is our past, and no longer that which passed away from us. But what we ourselves did and were lies almost completely in the realm of self-loathing….
How are we to make sense of this? Apparently inherent to the nature of temporal matters is a certain degree of exaggeration, a “superplus” and superabundance. Even a slap in the face requires more rage than you can be accountable for. This enthusiasm of“now” burns up, and as soon as it has become superfluous, it is extinguished by forgetting…
Only great art, that indeed which alone, strictly speaking, merits being called art, constitutes an exception. But the latter has never really fit that well in the society of the living.  (Art Anniversay, 82-86)

That Great Blue Window with the Cloud Curtains

September 6, 2012

Our excursions to museums have a lot in common with vacations to places distinctive for their history or natural beauty. But to share these experiences we need the proper words, which are most easily acquired by reading the placards by paintings and evenwith helpful picture postcards. Musil sympathizes with our discomfort when we are left to see with our own eyes.

You really do have to understand these people correctly! They are very happy indeed to be on a vacation trip and to see so many beautiful things that others cannot see; but it causes them pain and embarrassment actually to have to look at these things.If a tower is taller than other towers, a precipice deeper than the common precipice or a famous painting particularly large or small, that is all right, for the difference can be ascertained and talked about; it is for this reason that they tend to seek outa famous palace that is particularly spacious or particularly old, and among landscapes they prefer the wild ones….If, however, something is not high, deep, large, small, or strikingly painted, in short, if something is not a phenomenon worth talking about,but merely beautiful, they choke—as though on a big smooth bite that will neither go up nor down, a morsel too soft to suffocate on, and too tough to let a word pass. Thus emerge those Oohs! and Ahs!, painful syllables of suffocation…

Experienced art commentators naturally have their own special techniques about which we might well have something to say; but this would be going too far. And, moreover, even the uncorrupted average man, despite the disagreeable effects of his constriction,feels a genuine satisfaction when standing face to face, as it were, with something acknowledged by experts as beautiful. This satisfaction has its own curious nuances. It contains for instance some of the same pride you feel when you can say that you passedthe bank building at the very same hour when the famous bank robber X must have made his escape; other people feel enraptured just to set foot in the city in which Goethe spent eight days, or to know the cousin by marriage of the lady who first swam the EnglishChannel; there are indeed people who find it particularly wonderful just to live in such a momentous era….What they feel, were they able to put it into words, is as if, behind that great blue window with the cloud curtains, someone had been standing a longtime watching them…

And you may not want to believe it, but it is usually for this very reason alone that we ourselves travel to those places depicted in the postcards we buy, a tendency which does not in and of itself make sense, since it would after all be much easierto simply order the cards by mail. And this is the reason why such postcards have to over-bearingly and over-realistically beautiful; if ever they were to start looking natural, then mankind would have lost something. “So this is what it looks like here,”we say to ourselves and study the card mistrustfully; then we write below: “You can’t imagine how lovely it is…!” It is the same manner of speaking by which one man confides in another: “You can’t imagine how much she loves me…” (95-98)

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

September 4, 2012

Musil compiled some of his short, mostly newspaper, writings in 1935 in “Posthumous Papers of a Living Author.” The edginess of many of them may in part be due to his resentment over his lack of recognition, but they are nonetheless delightful in an outsiders kind of way. This quote is taken from a NYT book review and is a full chapter. I will excerpt passages in future posts.


If over the course of the years you are compelled to pass through painting exhibitions, then surely one day you are bound to invent the term paintspreader. He is to the painter what the penpusher is to the poet. The term gives order to a hodgepodge of disparate phenomena. Since the beginning of our reckoning of time penpushers have lived off adaptations of the Ten Commandments and a few fables handed down to them by antiquity; the assumption that paintspreading is likewise based on a few fundamental principles is not therefore altogether out of the question.

Ten such principles would not be too few. For if you apply ten artistic principles effectively, that is, combined in alternating order, the result, mistakes in calculation notwithstanding, is three million, six-hundred twenty-eight thousand, and eight hundred different combinations. Each of these combinations would be different from the others, and all of them nonetheless still the same. The connoisseur could spend his life counting: one-two-three-four-five . . ., two-one-three-four-five . . ., three-two-one-four-five . . . and so on. Naturally the connoisseur would be indignant and would perceive this as a threat to his accomplished abilities.

It also seems that after several hundred thousand paintspreaders the whole business would become ridiculous, and they would then switch artistic ”directions.” You can see what an artistic direction is, the moment you set foot in an exhibition hall. You would be more hard-pressed to recognize it, if you had to pass before a single solitary painting; but spread over many walls, artistic schools, directions, and periods are as easily distinguishable, one from another, as wallpaper patterns. On the other hand, the theoretical underpinnings of these various schools, directions, and periods usually remain unclear. This is by no means meant as a slight upon the paintspreaders; they produce honest work, are well versed in their craft and are personally, for the most part, distinctive fellows. But the production statistics level out all differences.

We do however have to acknowledge one disadvantage that works against them: the fact that their paintings hang openly on the wall. Books have the advantage of being bound, and often uncut. They therefore stay famous longer; they maintain their freshness, and fame, after all, begins at that point at which you have heard of something but are not familiar with it. The paintspreaders, on the other hand, have the advantage of being more regularly sought out and ”written up” than are the penpushers. If it weren’t for the art market, how difficult it would be to decide which work you prefer! Christ, in his day, drove the dealers out of the Temple: I, however, am convinced that if you possess the true faith, you must also be able to sell it; then you could also adorn yourself with it, and then there would be a great deal more faith in the world than there is now!

Another advantage enjoyed by painting is that there is a method to it. Anyone can write. Perhaps everyone can paint too, but this fact is less well known. Techniques and styles were invented to envelop painting in a shroud of mystery. Not everyone can paint like someone else; to do that, you have to first learn how. Those elementary school children so rightfully admired nowadays for their painting talents would flunk out in any art academy; but the academic painter must likewise take great pains to unlearn his acquired technique in order to drop his conventions and draw like a child. It is, all in all, a historic error to believe that the master makes the school; the students make it!

If we examine the matter more closely, however, it is not true either that anyone can write; quite the contrary, nobody can – everyone can merely take dictation and copy. It is impossible that a poem of Goethe’s could come into being today; and even if by some miracle, Goethe were to write it himself, it would still be an anachronistic and in many ways dubious new poem, even though a splendid masterpiece of old! Is there any other explanation for this mystery than that this poem would not seem as though it had been copied from any contemporary poem, except perhaps for those poems that were themselves copied from it? Contemporaneity always means copying. Our ancestors wrote prose in long, beautiful sentences, convoluted like curls; although we still learn to do it that way in school, we write in short sentences that cut more quickly to the heart of the matter; and no one in the world can free his thinking from the manner in which his time wears the cloak of language. Thus no man can know to what extent he actually means what he writes and in writing, it is far less that people twist words than it is that words twist people.

Is it possible then too that not everyone can paint after all? Clearly, the painter cannot, not in the sense that the paintspreader associates with the word. The painter and the poet are above all, in the eyes of their contemporaries, those who cannot do what the paintspreaders and the penpushers can do. This is why so many penpushers consider themselves poets and so many paintspreaders painters. The difference usually only becomes apparent once it’s too late. For by that time, a new generation of pushers and spreaders have come of age who already know what the painter and poet have only just learned.

This also explains why the painter and the poet always appear to belong to the past or the future; they are forever being awaited or declared extinct. If, however, on occasion one actually happens to pass for the real thing, it isn’t always necessarily the right one. (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, 69-72)

A Longer Sentence

April 7, 2012

News item:

    One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.) (NYT, 02/18/2008)

Following is Proust’s longest sentence. I have outlined in the form I used elsewhere: a level in indentation should be able to be read straight down, ignoring the indents. The indents, though, are the life of the sentence. I have never read a more lacerating, brutally honest statement. Yes, it could have been broken into sentences, but at the expense of its escalating intensity.

  • Their honour precarious,
    • their liberty provisional,
    • lasting only until the discovery of their crime;
  • their position unstable,
    • like that of the poet one day fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London,
    • and the next driven from every lodging,
    • unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head,
    • turning the mill like Samson and saying like him:
      • “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!” excluded even,
        • except on the days of general misfortune when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews round Dreyfus,
      • from the sympathy—at times from the society—of their fellows,
        • in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are,
        • portrayed in a mirror which,
          • ceasing to flatter them,
          • accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves,
          • and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love
            • (and to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love)
          • springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable disease;
  • like the Jews again
    • (save some who will associate only with those of their race and have always on their lips the ritual words and the accepted pleasantries),
    • shunning one another,
    • seeking out those who are most directly their opposite,
      • who do not want their company,
    • forgiving their rebuffs,
    • enraptured by their condescensions;
  • but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected,
    • the opprobrium into which they have fallen,
      • having finally been invested,
    • by a persecution similar to that of Israel,
      • with the physical and moral characteristics of a race,
      • sometimes beautiful,
      • often hideous,
      • finding
        • (in spite of all the mockery with which one who,
          • more closely integrated with,
          • better assimilated to the opposing race,
          • is in appearance relatively less inverted,
        • heaps upon one who has remained more so)
        • a relief in frequenting the society of their kind,
          • and even some support in their existence,
        • so much so that,
          • while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults),
        • they readily unmask those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it,
          • with a view less to injuring them,
            • though they have no scruple about that,
          • than to excusing themselves,
          • and seeking out
            • (as a doctor seeks out cases of appendicitis)
          • cases of inversion in history,
          • taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves,
            • as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them,
          • without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm,
          • no anti-Christians before Christ,
          • that the opprobrium alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning,
            • to every example,
            • to every punishment,
          • by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men
            • (even though it may be accompanied by high moral qualities)
          • than certain other vices which exclude those qualities,
            • such as theft,
            • cruelty,
            • breach of faith,
          • vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men;
  • forming a freemasonry far more extensive,
  • more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges,
    • for it rests upon an identity of tastes,
      • needs,
      • habits,
      • dangers,
      • apprenticeship,
      • knowledge,
      • traffic,
      • vocabulary,
    • and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional,
      • involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting,
      • to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor,
      • to the man who has sought healing,
      • absolution or legal defence in the doctor,
      • the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse;
  • all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true,
    • for in this life of anachronistic fiction the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon,
    • the prince,
      • with a certain insolent aplomb born of his aristocratic breeding which the timorous bourgeois lacks,
      • on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the ruffian;
    • a reprobate section of the human collectivity,
      • but an important one,
    • suspected where it does not exist,
    • flaunting itself,
      • insolent and immune,
    • where its existence is never guessed;
  • numbering its adherents everywhere,
    • among the people,
    • in the army,
    • in the church,
    • in prison,
    • on the throne;
  • living,
    • in short,
    • at least to a great extent,
  • in an affectionate and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race,
    • provoking them,
    • playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it—
      • a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others,
      • a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal when these lion-tamers are devoured;
  • obliged until then to make a secret of their lives,
  • to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray,
  • to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from,
  • to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary,
    • a social constraint that is slight in comparison with the inward constraint imposed upon them by their vice,
    • or what is improperly so called,
      • not so much in relation to others as to themselves,
      • and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.


Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 29111-29148). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


November 24, 2011

The black servant boy Soliman, I am surprised to learn, was modeled after the real thing…

Offended Child

September 18, 2011

Ulrich is pondering the source, range and meaning of the emotions. He understands the limits of a purely material explanation.

So if the scientific goal may be said to be a broad and wherever possible ironclad anchoring in the realm of nature, there is still blended with it a peculiar exuberance, which can be roughly expressed in the proposition: What stands low stands firm. In the overcoming of a theological philosophy of nature, this was once an exuberance of denial, a ‘bearish speculation in human values.’ Man preferred to see himself as a thread in the weave of the world’s carpet rather than as someone standing on this carpet; and it is easy to understand how a devilish, degrading desire for soullessness also rubbed off on the emptiness of the soul when it straggled noisily into it materialistic adolescence. This was later held against it in religiously straitlaced fashion by all the pious enemies of scientific thinking, but its innermost essence was nothing more than a good-natured gloomy romanticism, an offended child’s love for God, and therefore also for his image, a love that in the abuse of this image still has unconscious aftereffects today. (II,1245-1246)

It is then surprising if what comes to light behind the physiological explanations of our behavior is ultimately, quite often, nothing but the familiar idea that we let our behavior be steered by chain reflexes, secretions, and the mysteries of the body simply because we were seeking pleasure and avoiding its opposite? And not only in psychology, also in biology and even in political economy–in short, wherever a basis is sought for an attitude or a behavior–pleasure and its lack are still playing this role; in other words, two feelings so paltry that it is hard to think of anything more simple-minded. The far more diversified idea of satisfying a drive would indeed be capable of offering a more colorful picture, but the old habit is so strong that one can sometimes even read that the drives strive for satisfaction because this fulfillment is pleasure, which is about the same as considering the exhaust pipe the operative part of a motor! (II,1247)


The Do-Gooder

September 5, 2011

Lindner is a man who approached Agathe when she was distraught over her relations with Ulrich. She judged Lindner to be a good man. Lindner would have been pleased if she had said that directly to him. For he is a do-gooder, a pursuit he follows with great single-mindedness. (Think of the dedicated foot soldier of any leftwing party.) First, the do-gooder is the anti-Nietzsche:

As the pious soul of the Salvation Army employs military uniform and customs, so had Lindner taken certain soldierly ways of thinking into his service; indeed, he  did not flinch from concessions to the “man of power” Nietzsche, who was for middle-class minds of that time still a stumbling block, but for Lindner a whetstone as well. He was accustomed to say of Nietzsche that it could not be maintained that he was a bad person, but his doctrines were surely exaggerated and ill equipped for life, the reason for this being that he rejected empathy; for Nietzsche had not recognized the marvelous counterbalancing gift of the weak person, which was to make the strong person gentle. And opposing to this his own experience, he thought with joyful purpose: “Truly great people do not pay homage to a sterile cult of the self, but call forth in others the feeling of their sublimity by bending down to them and indeed, if it comes to that, sacrificing themselves for them!”  (II,1136-1137)

These ideas must have given him wings, for he had no idea who he had got the terminus of the trolley line, but suddenly there he was; and before getting in he took off his glasses in order to wipe them free of the condensation with which his heated inner processes had coated them. Then he swung himself into a corner, glanced around in the empty car, got his fare ready, looked into the conductor’s face, and felt himself entirely at his post, ready to begin the return journey in that admirable communal institution called the municipal trolley. He discharged the fatigue of his walk with a contented yawn, in order to stiffen himself for new duties, and summed up the astonishing digressions to which he had surrendered himself in the sentence: “Forgetting oneself is the healthiest thing a human can do!” (II,1139)

Against the unpredictable stirrings of a passionate heart there is only one reliable remedy: strict and absolutely unremitting planning; and it to this, which he had acquired early, that Lindner owed the successes of his life as well as the belief that he was by nature a man of strong passions and hard to discipline. He got up early in the morning, at the same hour summer and winter, and at a wash basin on a small iron table washed his face, neck, hands, and one seventh of his body–every day a different seventh, of course–after which he rubbed the rest with a wet towel, so the bath, that time-consuming and voluptuous procedure, could be limited to one eventing every two weeks. …and after Lindner had washed himself in the glow of stimulating examples he also took advantage of drying himself off to do a few exercises by skillful manipulation of his towel, but only in moderation. It is, after all, a fateful mistake to base health on the animal parts of one’s person; it is rather, intellectual and moral nobility that produce the body’s capacity for resistance; and even if this does not always apply to the individual, it most certainly applies on a larger scale, for the power of a people is the consequence of the proper spirit, and not the other way around. Therefore Lindner had also bestowed upon his rubbings-down a special and careful training, which avoided all the uncouth grabbing that constitutes the usual male idolatry but on the contrary involved the whole personality, by combining the movements of his body with uplifting inner tasks. (II,1140)

Truly, it shortly afterwards became one of the most popular human possibilities to subject oneself to a “regimen,” which may be applied with the same success to overweight as it is to politics and intellectual life. In a regimen, patience, obedience, regularity, equanimity, and other highly respectable qualities become the major components of the individual in his private, personal capacity, while everything that is unbridled, violent, addictive, and dangerous, which he, as a crazy romantic, cannot dispense with either, has its admirable center in the “regimen.” Apparently this remarkable inclination to submit oneself to a regimen, or lead a fatiguing, unpleasant, and sorry life according to the prescription of a doctor, athletic coach, or some other tyrant (although one could just as well ignore it with the same failure rate), is a result of the movement toward the worker-warrior-anthill state toward which the world is moving… (II,1145)


The Simplifying Effect of Stupidity

August 28, 2011

Ulrich makes progress in his thoughts on the nature of morality. He more precisely defines morality as the governance of feelings. But whereas mankind has steadily improved the governance of thought, through logic and science, the management of feelings has made little if any progress.

…He was on the verge of bringing up the neglected difference between the way in which various historical periods have developed the rational mind in their own fashion and the way they have kept the moral imagination static and closed off, also in their own fashion. He was on the verge of talking about this because it results in a line that rises, despite all skepticism, more or less steadily through all of history’s transformations, representing the rational mind and it patterns, and contrasting with a mound of broken shards of feelings, ideas, and potentials of life that were heaped up in layers just the way they were when they came into being, as eternal side issues, and that were always discarded. (II,111)

In all its manifestations, from the inspired ideas of original thinkers to the kitsch that unites all peoples, what Ulrich called the moral imagination, or, more simply, feeling, has for centuries been in a  state of ferment without turning into wine. Man is a being who cannot survive without enthusiasm. and enthusiasm is that state of mind in which all his feelings and thought have the same spirit. Your think it is rather the opposite, that it is a condition in which one overpowering feeling–of being carried away!–sweeps all the others along with it? Your weren’t going to say anything at all? Anyway, that’s how it is. Or one way it is. But there is nothing to sustain such an enthusiasm. Feelings and thought become lasting only with each other’s help, in their totality; they must somehow be aligned with each other and carry each other onward. And by every available means, through drugs, liquor, fantasies, hypnosis, faith, conviction, often even through the simplifying effect of stupidity, man is always trying to achieve a condition like it. He believes in ideas not because they are sometimes true but because he needs to believe; because he has to keep his feelings in order. Because he must have an illusion to stop up the gap between the walls of his life, through which he feelings would otherwise fly off in every direction. The answer is probably at least to seek the conditions of an authentic enthusiasm, instead of giving oneself up to transient delusory states. But although, all in all, the number of choices based on feeling is infinitely greater than whose based on clear logic, and every event that moves mankind arises from the imagination, only the purely rational problems have achieved an objective order, while noting deserving the name of a joint effort, or even hinting at any insight into the desperate need for it, has been done for the world of feeling and imagination. (II,1126)

“Isn’t it obvious?” Ulrich said in reply to Arnheim. “Today we are facing too many possible ways of living. But isn’t it like the kind of problem our intellect deals with whenever it is confronted with a vast number of facts and a history of the relevant theories? And for the intellect we have developed an open-ended but precise procedure, which I don’t need to describe to you. Now tell me whether something of the kind isn’t equally possible for the feelings. We certainly need to find out what we’re here for; it’s one of the main sources of all violence in the world. Earlier  centuries tried to answer it with their own inadequate means, but the great age of empiricism has done nothing of its own so far…” (II,1127-1228)

Ulrich knew very well that it was still unclear. What he meant was not a life of “research,” or a life “in the light of science,” but a “quest for feeling” similar to quest for truth, except that truth was not the issue here. (II,1128)

It is now 1914 and the Parallel Campaign is splitting into two well-meaning, increasingly passionate camps: the pacifists and militarists, those for universal love and those for national identity. General Stumm von Bordwehr asks Ulrich how he is to report this to his superior officers.

“Why don’t you simply report,” Ulrich responded, “that it’s the Millennial War of Religion. and that people have never been as unprepared to fight it as now, when the rubble of ‘ineffectual feelings,’ which every period bequeaths to the next, has grown into mountains without anything being done about it. So the War Ministry can sit back and serenely await the next mass catastrophe.” (II,1127)

A History of Morality

August 23, 2011

A tension has grown between Agathe and Ulrich as Ulrich wrestles with the meaning of morality, a crisis provoked by Agathe’s forging of her father’s will to exclude her husband.

“I hardly know where to start,” he said, “without boring you. May I tell you what I understand by morality?”

“Please do,” Agathe said.

“Morality is regulation of conduct within a society, beginning with regulation of its inner impulses, that is, feelings and thoughts.”

“That’s a lot of progress in a few hours!” Agathe replied with a laugh. “this morning you were still saying you didn’t know what morality was!”

“Of course I don’t. That doesn’t stop me from giving you a dozen explanations. The oldest reason for it is that God revealed the order of life to us in all its details…”

“That would be best,” Agathe said.

“But the most probable,” Ulrich said emphatically, “is that morality, like every other form of order, arises through force and violence! A group of people that has seized power simply imposes on the rest those rules and principles that will secure their power. Morality thereby tends to favor those who brought it to power. At the same time, it sets an example in so doing. And at the same time reactions  set in that cause it to change–this is of course too complicated to be described briefly, and while it by no means happens without thought, but then again not by means of thought, either, but rather empirically, what you get in the end is an infinite network that seems to span everything as independently as God’s firmament. Now, everything relates to this self-contained circle, but this circle relates to nothing. In other words: Everything is moral, but morality itself is not!’ (II,1112-1113)

But morality as a repressive force cares only about governing the emotions that play a part in maintaining social order. It ignores what it does not need.

“For centuries now,” Ulrich went on, “the world has known truth in thinking and accordingly, to a certain degree, rational freedom of thought. But during this same time the emotional life has had neither the strict discipline of truth nor any freedom of movement. For every moral system has, in its time, regulated the feelings, and rigidly too, but only insofar as certain basic principles and feelings were needed for whatever action it favored; the rest was left to individual whim, to the private play of emotions, to the random efforts of art, and to academic debate. So morality has adapted our feelings to the needs of moral systems and meanwhile neglected to develop them, even though it depends on feelings: morality is, after all, the order and integrity of the emotional life.” (II,1116)

Ulrich’s aim is always to find a way to unite reason with the soul.

…For him morality was neither conformism nor philosophic wisdom, but living the infinite fullness of possibilities. He believed in morality’s capacity for intensification, in stages of moral experience, and not merely, as most people do, in stage of moral understanding, as if it were something cut-and-dried for which people were just not pure enough. He believed in morality without believing in any specific moral system. Morality is generally understood to be a sort of police regulations for keeping life in order, and since life does not obey even these, they come to look as if they were really impossible  to live up to and accordingly, in this sorry way, not really an ideal either. But morality must not be reduced to this level. Morality is imagination. This was what he wanted to make Agathe see. And his second point was: Imagination is not arbitrary. Once the imagination is left to caprice, there is a price to pay. (II,116-117)


Overcoming Contingency

July 31, 2011

Clarisse’s emerging madness provides her husband Walter with an insight into the creative process. She, like an artist, crashes barriers and discovers new connections. Unlike an artist, her vision of coherence is purely private. Walter wants to believe Clarisse is in a type of “other condition,” but his rationality restrains him from fully communing with her.

…Something had happened! With this one notion in her head, Clarisse felt like someone emerging from a thunderstorm, still charged from head to toe with sensual energy. In front of her, a few yards beyond the bottom of the small flight of stone steps she had come out by, she saw a shiny blackbird with a flame-colored beak, dining on a fat caterpillar. There was an immense energy in the creature, or in the two contrasting colors. One could not say that Clarisse was thinking anything about it; it was more like a response coming from behind and all around her. The blackbird was a sinful body in the act of committing violence. The caterpillar the sinful form of a butterfly. Fate had placed the two creatures in her path, as a sign that she must act. One could see how the blackbird assumed the caterpillar’s sins through its flaming orange-red beak. Wasn’t the bird a “black genie”? Just as the dove is the “white spirit”? Weren’t these signs linked in a chain? The exhibitionist with the carpenter, with the Master’s flight…? Not one of those notions was clearly formed in her; they lodged invisibly in the walls of the house, summoned but still keeping their answer to themselves. But what Clarisse really felt as she stepped out on the stairs and saw the bird that was eating the caterpillar was an ineffable correspondence of inner and outer happenings.

She conveyed it in some curious way to Walter. The impression he received instantly corresponded with what he had called “invoking God”; there was mistaking it this time. He could not make out what was going on inside Clarisse, she was too far away, but there was something in her bearing that was not happenstance, as she stood facing the world into which the little flight of stairs descended like steps leading down to a swimming pool. It was something exalted. It was not the attitude of ordinary life. And suddenly he understood; this was what Clarisse meant when she said: “It’s not by chance that this man is under my window!” Gazing at his wife, he himself felt how the pressure of strange forces came flooding in to fill appearances. In the fact that he was standing here and Clarisse there, at such an angle to him that he had to turn his eyes away from the direction they had automatically taken, along the length of the garden, n order to see her clearly—even in this simple juxtaposition, the mute emphasis of life suddenly outweighed natural contingency. Out of the fullness of images thrusting themselves upon the eye something geometrically linear and extraordinary reared up. This must be how it could happen that Clarisse found a meaning in almost empty correlations, such as the circumstance of one man stopping under her window while another was a carpenter. Events seemed to have a way of arranging themselves that was different from the usual pattern, as elements in some strange entity that revealed them in unexpected aspects, and because it brought these aspects out from their obscure hiding places, it justified Clarisse’s claim that it was she herself who was attracting events toward herself. It was hard to express this without sounding fanciful, but then it occurred to Walter that it came closest to something he knew very well—what happens when you paint a picture. A painting, too, has its own inexplicable way of excluding every color or line not in accord with its basic form, style, and palette of colors, while on the other hand it extracts from the painter’s had whatever it needs, thanks to the laws of genius, which are not the same as the usual laws of nature. At this point he no longer had in him any of that easy, healthy self-assurance which scrutinizes life’s excrescences for anything that might come in handy and which he had been extolling only a little while ago; what he felt was more the misery of a little boy too timid to join in a game. (II,1005-1006)