Ulrich Thinks

Ulrich pulls out a paper he has been working on, something about the mathematical properties of water. The author finds it challenging to portray a man who is thinking.

Unfortunately, nothing is so hard to achieve as a literary representation of a man thinking. When someone asked a great scientist how he managed to come up with so much that was new, he replied: “Because I never stop thinking about it.” And it is surely safe to say that unexpected insights turn up for no other reason than that they are expected. They are in no small part a success of character, emotional stability, unflagging ambition, and unremitting work. What a bore such constancy must be! Looking at it another way, the solution of an intellectual problem comes about not very differently from a dog with a stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door; he will turn his head left and right until the stick slips through. We do much the same thing, but with the difference that we don’t make indiscriminate attempts but already know from experience approximately how it’s done. And if a clever fellow naturally has far more skill and experience with these twistings and turnings than a dim one, the slipping-through takes the clever fellow just as much by surprise; it is suddenly there, and one perceptibly feels slightly disconcerted because one’s ideas seem to have come of their own accord instead of waiting for their creator. The disconcerted feeling is nowadays called intuition by many people who would formerly, believing that it must be regarded as something suprapersonal, have called it inspiration; but it is only something impersonal, namely the affinity and coherence of the things themselves, meeting inside a head. (I,115-116)

The better the head, the less evident its presence in this process. As long as the process of thinking is in motion it is a quite wretched state, as if all the brain’s convolutions were suffering from colic; and when it is finished it no longer has the form of the thinking process as one experiences it but already that of what has been thought, which is regrettably impersonal, for the thought then faces outward and is dressed for communication to the world. When a man is in the process of thinking, there is no way to catch the moment between the personal and the impersonal,  and this is manifestly why thinking is such an embarrassment for writers that they gladly avoid it. (I,116)

 But thought can promiscuously turn from the social and impersonal to powerful but obscure feelings.

The well-known ability of thought as recognized by doctors to dissolve and dispel those deep-raging, morbidly tangled and matted conflicts generated in the dank regions of the self apparently rests on nothing other than its social and worldly nature, which links the individual creatures to other people and objects. But unfortunately the healing power of thought seems to be the same faculty that diminishes the personal sense of experience. A casual reference to a hair on a nose weighs more than the most important concept, and acts, feelings, and sensations , when reported in words, can make one feel one has been present at a more or less notable personal event, however ordinary and impersonal the acts, feelings, and sensations may be.

“It’s idiotic,”Ulrich thought, “but that’s how it is.” It made him think of that dumb but deep, exciting sensation, touching immediately on the self, when one sniffs one’s own skin. He stood up and pulled the curtains back from the window. (I,117-118)



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