Archive for August, 2010

Symbolic Jews

August 26, 2010

Arnheim is a polymath (and a Jew), a successful German industrialist and published author on many topics in the arts and sciences. He is apt to quote poets and philosophers at business conferences, which puzzles many of the attendees, but then those more insightful see his value.

But the world being what it is, with its ingrained prejudice against a life dedicated primarily to its own self-interest and only secondarily to the public good, and its preference for chivalry, public-spiritedness, and public missions above private enterprise, these magnates were the last people in the world to leave this out of their calculations, and they energetically made use of the advantages offered to the public good through customs negotiations backed by armed force, or the use of the military against strikers. On this road, however, business leads directly to philosophy, for nowadays only criminals dare to harm others without philosophy, and so they accustomed themselves to regarding Arnheim junior as a kind of papal legate for their efforts. (I,206)

Meanwhile, the banker Fischel, also a Jew, has reached a career plateau and his wife Clementine, not Jewish, despises him. But what particularly wounds him is his daughter Gerda’s behavior.

Gerda was twenty-three, and the favorite bone of contention of both her progenitors. Leo Fischel thought it was time to start thinking of a good match for her. But Gerda said,”You’re old-fashioned, Papa,” and had chosen her friends in a swarm of Christian nationalists her own age, none of whom offered the slightest prospect of being able to support a wife; instead, they despised capitalism and maintained that no Jew had yet proved capable of serving as a great symbol of humanity. Leo Fischel called them anti-Semitic louts and would have forbidden them the house, but Gerda said, “You don’t understand, Papa, they only mean it symbolically”… (I,221)

Hitler was twenty-four in 1913, a fellow Austrian and would no doubt have been to Gerda’s liking.

Arnheim Glimpses His Soul

August 23, 2010

Arnheim, like everyone, is not on close terms with his soul, but has glimpsed it. Diotima has churned up in him feelings associated with his world-class collection of medieval religious art that he keeps in his Berlin apartment.

This collection was highly esteemed and brought many art historians to Arnheim, with whom he conversed  knowledgeably; but often he sat alone and lonely in his gallery, with a quite different feeling, a kind of horrified amazement, as though he were looking at a half-demolished world. He felt how morality had once glowed with  an ineffable fire, but now even a mind like his own could do no more than stare into the burned-out clinkers. This dark vision of what all religions and myths express in the tale of commandments given originally to men by the gods, this intuition of a pristine state of the soul, a strange fringe of uneasiness around the otherwise complacent expanse of his thoughts. Arnheim also had an assistant gardener, a simple but deep man, as Arnheim put it, with whom he often talked about the life of the flowers because one can learn more from such a man than from the experts. Until one day Arnheim discovered that this gardener’s helper was stealing from him. It seems that he made off with everything he could lay his hands on, in a kind of desperation. The evening Arnheim was informed of this, he sent for the man and reproached him all night long for having allowed his passionate acquisitiveness to lead him astray. It was said that he was extremely upset himself and at times came close to weeping in a dark adjoining room. For he envied this man, for reasons he could not explain to himself. The next morning, he had the police take him away.

This story was confirmed by close friends of Arnheim’s. Now, standing alone with Diotima in this room, he felt rather as he had felt then, sensing something like the soundless flames of the world leaping all around them along its four walls. (I,199-200)

Filling the Void of Soul

August 22, 2010

If we generally experience soul as an emptiness, we must face up to the task of filling that hole.

Arnheim was the first to shake off the spell. To linger in such a a state was, to his way of thinking, impossible, without either sinking into a dull, vacuous, lethargic brooding or else foisting on one’s devotion a solid framework of ideas and convictions that could not but distort its nature.

This method, which admittedly kills the soul but then, so to speak, preserve it for general consumption by canning it in small quantities, has always been its bridge to rational thought, convictions, and practical action, in their successful conduct of all moralities, philosophies, and religions. God knows, as we have already said, what a soul is anyway. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the burning desire to obey only the call of one’s soul leaves infinite scope for action, a true state of anarchy, and there are cases of chemically pure souls actually committing crimes. But the minute a soul has morals, religion, philosophy, a well-grounded middle-class education, ideals in the sphere of duty and beauty, it has been equipped with a system of rules, conditions, and directives that it must obey before it can think of being a respectable soul, and its heat, like that of a blast furnace, is directed into orderly rectangles of sand. All that remains are only logical problems of interpretation, such as whether an action falls under this or that commandment, and the soul presents the tranquil panorama of a battlefield after the fact, where the dead lie still and one can see at once where a scrap of life still moves or groans. Which is why we cross that bridge as quickly as we can. If a person is plagued by religous doubts, as many are in their youth, he takes to persecuting unbelievers; if troubled by love, he turns it into marriage; and when overcome by some other enthusiasm, he takes refuge from the impossibility of living constantly in its fire by beginning to live for that fire. That is, he fills the many moments of his day, each of which needs a content and an impetus, not with his ideal state but with the many ways of achieving it by overcoming obstacles and incidents–which guarantees that he will never need to attain it. For only fools, fanatics, and mental cases can stand living at the highest pitch of soul; a sane person must be content with declaring that life would not be worth living without a spark of that mysterious fire. (I,198,199)

Body and Soul

August 22, 2010

The first session of the Collateral Campaign has just concluded and all the invitees have left Diotima’s apartment, except Arnheim. Diotima is feeling the beginnings of love for him, but she cannot articulate it. She is confused by an unforced metaphor.

And suddenly her chaste mind was troubled by a bizarre notion: her empty apartment, in the absence of even her husband, seemed like a pair of trousers Arnheim had just slipped into. There are such moments, when chastity itself may be visited by such abortive flashes from the pit of darkness, and so the wonderful dream of a love in which body and soul are entirely one bloomed in Diotima. (I,195)

But Arnheim has never been in love. For him pants are sometimes just pants.

Arnheim had no inkling of this. His trousers made an impeccably perpendicular line to the gleaming parquet; his morning coat, his cravat, his serenely smiling patrician head, said nothing, so perfect were they. (I,195)

What exactly is soul?

How to describe it then? Whether one is at rest or in motion, what matters is not what lies ahead, what one sees, hears, wants, takes, masters. It forms a horizon, a semicircle before one, but the ends of this semicircle are joined by a string, and the plane of this string goes right through the middle of the world. In front, the face and hands look out of it; sensations and strivings run ahead of it, and no one doubts that whatever one does is always reasonable, or at least passionate. In other words, outer circumstances call for us to act in a way everyone can understand; and if, in the toils of passion, we do something incomprehensible, that too is, in  its own way, understandable. Yet however understandable and self-contained everything seems, this is accompanied by an obscure feeling that it is only half the story. Something is not quite in balance, and a person pressed forward, like a tightrope walker, in order not to sway and fall. And as he presses on through life and leaves lived life behind, the life ahead and the life already lived form a wall, and his path in the end resembles the path of a woodworm: no matter how it corkscrews forward or even backward, it always leaves an empty space behind it. And this horrible feeling of blind, cutoff space behind the fullness of everything, this half that is always missing even when  everything is a whole, this is what eventually makes one perceive what one calls the soul. (I,196)

We always include it, of course, in our thoughts, intuitions, feelings, in all sorts of surrogate ways and according to our individual temperament. In youth it manifests itself as a distinct feeling of insecurity about whether everything one does is really the right thing, after all; in old age as a sense of wonder at how little one has done of all one had really meant to do. In between, one takes comfort in the thought that one is a hell of a good fellow, even if every little thing can’t be justified; or that the world is not the way it ought to be either, so that one’s failures come to represent a fair enough compromise. Then there are always some people who think beyond all this of a God who has their missing pieces in His pocket. Only love has a special position in this; in this exceptional case the missing half grows back; the beloved seems to stand where ordinarily something was always missing. The souls unite “dos-à-dos,” as it were, making themselves superfluous in the process. This is why most people, after the one great love in their youth is over, no longer feel the absence of their soul, so that this so-called foolishness fulfills a useful social function. (I,196-197)

In the Space of a Laugh

August 21, 2010

Ulrich’s reason seduces him into imagining the world run by wise men. But wasn’t he himself becoming a player?

He felt like laughing. He was himself, after all, one of those specialists who had renounced responsibility for the larger questions. But disappointed, still-burning ambition went through him like a sword. At this moment there were two Ulrichs, walking side by side. One took in the scene with a smile and thought: So this is the stage on which I once hoped to play a part. One day I woke up, no longer snug in mother’s crib, but with the firm conviction that there was something I had to accomplish. They gave me cues, but I flew they had nothing to do with me. Like a kind of feverish stagefright, everything in those days was filled with my own plans and expectations. Meanwhile the stage has continued revolving unobtrusively, I am somewhat farther along on my way, and I may already be standing near the exit. Soon I shall be turned out, and the only lines of my great part that I will have uttered are “The horses are saddled The devil take all of you!” (I,164)

The other Ulrich is not amused.

But while the Ulrich smiling at these reflections walked on through the hovering evening, the other had his fists clenched in pain and rage. He was the less visible of the two and was searching for a magic formula, a possible handle to grasp, the real mind of the mind, the missing piece, perhaps only a small one, that would close the broken circle. This second Ulrich had no words at his disposal. Words leap like monkeys from tree to tree, but in that dark place where a man has his roots he is deprived of their kind mediation. The ground streamed away under his feet. He could hardly open his eyes. Can a feeling rage like a storm and yet not be a stormy feeling at all? By a storm of feeling we mean something that makes our trunk groan and our branches flail to the verge of breaking. But this storm left the surface quite undisturbed. It was almost a state of conversion, of turning back. There was no flicker of change in his facial expression, yet inside him not an atom seemed to stay in place. Ulrich’s senses were unclouded, and yet each person he passed was perceived in some out-of-the-ordinary way by his eye, each sound differently by his ear. He could not have said more sharply, nor more deeply either, nor more softly, nor more naturally or unnaturally. Ulrich could not say anything at all, but at this moment he thought of that curious experience, “spirit,” as he would of a beloved who had deceived him all his life without his loving her less, and it bound him to everything that came his way. For in love everything is love, even pain and revulsion. The tiny twig on the tree and the pale windowpane in the evening light became an experience deeply embedded in his own nature, barely expressible in words. Things seemed to consist not of wood and stone but of some grandiose and infinitely tender immorality that, the moment it came in contact with him, turned into a deep moral shock.

All this lasted no longer than a smile… (I,164-165)

Vital Confusion

August 19, 2010

Ulrich’s reflections have allowed him to break with the ordinary and open his eyes to the city as pure geometry and its inhabitants a life force.

Evening had come; buildings as if broken out of pure space, asphalt, steel rails, formed the cooling shell that was the city. The mother shell, full of childlike, joyful, angry human movement. Where every drop begins as a droplet sprayed or squirted; a tiny explosion caught by the walls, cooling, calming, and slowing down, hanging quietly, tenderly, on the slope of the mother shell, hardening at last into a little grain on its walls. (I,162)

Without knowing why, Ulrich suddenly felt sad, and thought: “I simply don’t love myself.” Within the frozen, petrified body of the city he felt his heart beating in its innermost depths. There was something in him that had never wanted to remain anywhere, had groped its way along the walls of the world, thinking: There are still millions of other walls; it was this slowly cooling, absurd drop “I” that refused to give up its fire, its tiny glowing core. (I,162)

But the life force, the spirit, is shaped and limited by external patterns.

To the mind, good and evil, above and below, are not skeptical, relative concepts, but terms  function, values that depend on the context they find themselves in. The centuries have taught it that vices can turn into virtues and virtues into vices, so the mind concludes that basically only ineptitude prevents the transformation of a criminal into a useful person within the space of a lifetime. It does not accept anything as permissible or impermissible, since everything may have some quality that may someday make it part of a great new context. It secretly detests everything with pretensions to permanence, all the great ideals and laws and their little fossilized imprint, the well-adjusted character. It regards nothing as fixed, no personality, no order of things; because our knowledge may change from day to day, it regards nothing as binding; everything has the value it has only until the next act of creation, as a face changes with the words we are speaking to it. (I,162-163)

The nature of spirit, of the life force is to search through the mass of human thought and artifacts in which we are deluged.

And so the mind or spirit is the great opportunist, itself impossible to pin down, take hold of, anywhere; one is tempted to believe that of all its influence nothing is left but decay. Every advance is a gain in particular and a seperation in general; it is an increase in power leading only to a progressive increase in impotence, but there is no way to quit. Ulrich thought of that body of facts and discoveries, growing almost by the hour, out of which the mind must peer today if it wished to scrutinize any given problem closely. This body grows away from its inner life. countless views, opinions, systems of ideas from every age and latitude, from all sorts of sick and sound, waking and dreaming brains run through it like thousands of small sensitive nerve strands, but the central nodal point tying them al together is missing. Man feels dangerously close to repeating the fate of those gigantic primeval species that perished because of their size; but cannot stop himself. (I,163)

Who is Ulrich?

August 18, 2010

Is Ulrich the sort of person who can be a role model in this aimless world?

It is not difficult to describe the basic traits of this thirty-two-year-old man Ulrich, even though all he knows about himself is that he is as close to as he is far from all qualities, and that they are all, whether or not he has made them his own, in a curious fashion indifferent to him. With a suppleness of mind, owing simply to his being gifted in various directions, he combines a certain aggressiveness. His is a masculine mind. He is not sensitive toward other people and rarely puts himself in their place, except to get to know them for his own purposes. He is not respecter of rights unless he respects the person whose rights they are, which is not very often. With the passage of time, a certain inclination toward the negative has developed in him,a flexible dialectic of feeling that easily leads him to discover a flaw n something widely approved or, conversely, to defend the forbidden and to refuse responsibilities with a resentment that springs from the desire to create his own responsibilities. Despite this need, however, and apart from certain self-indulgences, he lets himself be guided morally by the chivalrous code that is followed by almost all men as long as they live in secure circumstances in middle-class society, and so, with all the arrogance, ruthlessness, and negligence of a man call to his vocation, he leads the life of another man who has made of his inclinations and abilities more or less ordinary, practical and social use. (I,159-160)

 Is he fit to be a philosopher king?

Comparing the world to a laboratory had rekindled an old idea in his mind. Formerly he had thought of the kind of life that would appeal to him as a vast experimental station for trying out the best ways of being a man and discovering new ones. That the great existing laboratory was functioning rather haphazardly, lacking visible directors or theoreticians at the top, was another matter. It might even be said that he himself would have wanted to become something like a philosopher king; who wouldn’t? It is so natural to regard the mind as the highest power, the supreme ruler of everything. That is what we are taught. Anybody who can dresses up in intellect, decks himself out in it. Mind and spirit, in combination with a numinous other something, is the most ubiquitous thing there is. The spirit of loyalty, the spirit of love, a masculine mind, a cultivated mind, the greatest living mind, keeping up the spirit of once cause or another, acting in the spirit of this or that movement: how solid and unexceptionable it sound right down to its lowest levels. Beside it everything else, be it humdrum crime or the hot pursuit of profits, seems inadmissible, the dirt God removes from His toenails. (I,160-161)

 What to do with all this spirit emanating from these great minds?

It is constantly being spewed out in truly astronomical quantities on masses of paper, stone, and canvas, and just as ceaselessly consumed at a tremendous cost in nervous energy. But what becomes of it then?Does it vanish like a mirage? Does it dissolve into particles? Does it evade the earthly law of conservation? The motes of dust that sink and slowly settle down to rest inside us bear no relation to all that expense. Where has it gone, where and what is it? If we knew more about it there might be an awkward silence around this noun, “spirit.”

Qualities in Search of a Man

August 16, 2010

Ulrich discovers that while he may lack qualities, qualities act through him.

Ulrich was a passionate man, but not in the sense of passions as commonly understood. There must indeed have been something that drove him again and again into this state, and it was perhaps passion, but when he was actually excited or behaving in an excited manner, his attitude was both passionate and detached at the same time. He had run the gamut of experience, more or less, and felt that he might still now at any time plunge into something that need not mean anything to him personally so long as it stimulated his urge to action. So without much exaggeration he was able to say of his life that everything in it had fulfilled itself as if it belonged together more than it belonged to him. B had always followed A, whether in battle or in love. Therefore he had to suppose that the personal qualities he had achieved in this way had more to do with one another than with him; that every one of them, in fact, looked at closely, was no more intimately bound up with him than with anyone else who also happened to possess them. (I,156-157)

Ulrich experiences what happens to him as a specific case of a general law.

Put simply, one can take what one does or what happens to one either personally or impersonally. One can feel a blow as an insult as well as a pain, in which case it becomes unbearably intensified; but one can also take it in a sporting sense, as a setback by which one should not let oneself be either intimidated or enraged, and then, often enough, one never even notices it. But in the second case, all that has happened is that the blow has been put in a general context, that of combat, so that it is seen to depend on the purpose it is meant to serve. And it is just this–than an experience derives its meaning, even its content, only from its position in a chain of logically consistent events–which is apparent when a man sees his experience not only as a personal event but as a challenge to his spiritual powers. (I,157-158)

He is not alone in feeling this way.

People were like cornstalks in a field, probably more violently tossed back and forth by God, hail, fire, pestilence, and war than they are today, but as a whole, as a city, a region, a field, and as to what personal movement was left to the individual stalk–all this was clearly defined and could be answered for. But today responsibility’s center of gravity is not in people but in circumstances. Have we not noticed that experiences have made themselves independent of people? They have gone on the stage, into books, into the reports of research institutes and explorers, into ideological or religious communities, which foster certain kinds of experience at the expense of others as if they are conducting a kind of social experiment, and insofar as experiences are not actually being developed, they are simply left dangling in the air. Who can say nowadays that his anger is really his own anger when so many people talk about it and claim to know more about than he does? (I,158)

A Union Hammered Out in Music

August 15, 2010

Clarisse and Walter are at the piano. A messenger arrives to announce Ulrich’s impending visit.

When Ulrich’s note arrived Walter and Clarisse were again playing the piano so violently that the spindly reproduction furniture rattled and the Dante Gabriel Rossetti prints on the walls trembled. The aged messenger who had found house and doors open without being challenged was met by a full blast of thunder in the face as he fought his way into the sitting room, and the holy uproar he had wandered into left him nailed to the wall with awe.

The next instant, Clarisse and Walter were off like two locomotives racing side by side. The piece they were playing came rushing at their eyes like flashing rails, vanished under the thundering engine, and spread out behind them as a ringing, resonant, marvelously present landscape. In the course of this ride these two people’s separate feelings were compressed into a single entity; hearing, blood, muscles, were all swept along irresistibly by the same experience; shimmering, blending, curving walls of sound forced their bodies onto the same track,bent them as one, and expanded and contracted their chests in the same breath. In a fraction of a second, gaiety, sadness, anger, and fear, love and hatred, desire and satiety, passed through Walter and Clarisse. They became one, just as in a great panic hundreds of people who a moment before had been distinct in every way suddenly make the same flailing movements of flight, utter the same senseless screams, their gaping mouths and starting eyes the same, all swept backward and forward, left and right, by the same aimless force, howling, twitching, tangling, trembling. But this union did not have the same dull, overwhelming force as life itself, where this kind of thing does not happen so easily, although it blots out everything personal when it does. The anger, love, joy, gaiety,and sadness that Clarisse and Walter felt in their flight were not full emotions but little more than physical shells of feelings that had been worked up into a frenzy. They sat stiffly in a trance on their little stools, angry, in love, or sad, at nothing, about nothing, or each of them at, with, about something else, thinking and meaning different things of their own; the dictate of music united them in highest passion, yet at the same time it left them with something absent, as in the compulsive sleep of hypnosis. (I,150,151)

The Campaign is Inadvertantly Launched

August 15, 2010

A journalist hears rumors of the planned campaign and composes lengthy articles containing no more than his speculations on the subject. The articles ignite the people’s imagination.

It seems that  the bona fide, practical realist just doesn’t love reality or take it seriously. As a child he crawls under the table when his parents are out, converting their living room by this simple yet inspired trick into an adventure. As a boy he longs for a watch; as a young man with a gold watch, for a wife to go with it; as a man with watch and wife, for a promotion; and yet, when he has happily achieved this little circle of desires and should be peacefully swinging back and forth in it like a pendulum, his supply of unsatisfied yearnings does not seem to have diminished at all. For if he wants to elevate himself above the daily rut, he resorts to figures of speech. Since to him snow is evidently unpleasant at times, he compares it to a woman’s shimmering bosom, and as soon as he begins to tire of his wife’s breasts, he likens them to shimmering snow. He would be horrified if the beaks of his wife’s nipples actually turned to coral, or their billing and cooing turned out come from the horny beak of a real dove, but poetically it excites him. He is capable of turning everything into something else–snow to skin, skin to flower petals, petals to sugar, sugar to powder, powder to drifting snow again–as long as he can make it out to be something it is not, which may be taken to prove that he cannot bear to stay in the same place for long, no matter where he may find himself. Most of all, no true Kakanian could, in his soul, bear Kakania for long. To ask of him an “Austrian Century” would be tantamount to asking him to sentence himself and the world to the punishments of hell by an absurdly voluntary effort. An Austrian Year, on the other hand, was quite something else. It meant: Let’s show them, for once, who we could be!–but, so to speak, only until further notice, and for a year at most. One could understand by it whatever one liked, it wasn’t for eternity, and this somehow touched the heart. It stirred to life the deepest love of one’s country….And so Count Leinsdorf had an undreamed of success.  (I,145-146)

The Count is unprepared for the vigorous response of the citizens.

In almost no time after he had sent out his statement to the press, His Grace had intimations that all those who have no money harbor inside them an unpleasant crank. This opinionated man-within-the-man goes with him to the office every morning and has absolutely no way to air his protest against the way things are done in the world; so instead he keeps his eyes glued to a lifelong secret point of his own that everyone else refuses to see, although it is obviously the source of all the misery in a world that will not recognize its savior. Such fixed points, where the center of a person’s equilibrium coincides with the world’s center of equilibrium, may be, for instance, a spittoon that can be shut with a simple latch; or the abolition of open salt cellars in restaurants, the kind people poke their knives into, so as to stop at one stroke the spread of that scourge of mankind, tuberculosis; or the adoption of Oehl’s system of shorthand, so effective a time-saver it can solve the problems of society once and for all; or conversion to a natural mode of living that would halt the present random destruction of the environment; not to mention a metaphysical theory of the motions of celestial bodies, simplification of the administrative apparatus, and a reform of sex life. (I,147)

The Count had expected a response from those who had earned a measure of respect, but not this.

The one thing His Grace had not reckoned with and that surprised him was the widespread need to improve the world, which was hatched out by the warmth of a great occasion as insect eggs are hatched by a fire. His Grace had not counted on this; he had expected a great amount of patriotism but was not prepared for inventions, theories, schemes for world unity, and people demanding the he release them from intellectual prisons….In this situation he felt an increasingly desperate need for Ulrich… (I,148-149)