Diotima is a distant cousin of Ulrich, who has married well. Her salon will become the seat of the great patriotic campaign. Ulrich visits her for the first time.

“I’ve been expecting you,” she said, leaving Ulrich uncertain whether she meant this as a kindness or a rebuke. The hand she gave him was plump and weightless.

He held it a moment too long, his thought unable to let go of this hand at once. It rested in his own like a fleshy petal; its pointed nails like beetle wings, seemed poised to fly off with her at any moment, into the improbable. He was overwhelmed by the exaltation of this female hand, basically a rather shameless human organ that, like a dog’s muzzle, will touch anything and yet is publicly considered the seat of fidelity, nobility, and tenderness. (I,94)

Ulrich is curious about her thoughts on the campaign.

No, Diotima did not have anything specific in mind. How could she? No one who speaks of the greatest and most important thing in the world means anything that really exists. What peculiar quality of the world would it be equivalent to? It all amounts to one thing being greater and more important, or more beautiful and sadder, than another; in other words, the existence of a hierarchy of values and the comparative mode, which surely implies an end point and a superlative? But if you point this out to someone who happens at that very moment to be speaking of the greatest and most important thing in the world, that person will suspect that she is dealing with an individual devoid of feelings and ideals. This was Diotima’s reaction, and so had Ulrich spoken. (I,95-96)


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