Ulrich Wonders How He Got Here

Ulrich looks around the house he lives in and sees it decompose itself into lines and curves, an alarming sensation.

He looked around, contemplating his environment. All these circular lines, intersecting lines, straight lines, curves and wreaths of which a domestic interior is composed and that had piled up around him were neither nature nor inner necessity but bristled, to the last detail, with baroque overabundance. The current and heartbeat that constantly flows through all the things in our surroundings had stopped for a moment. “I’m only fortuitous,” Necessity leered. “Observed without prejudice, my face doesn’t  look much different from a leper’s,” Beauty confessed. Actually, it did not take much to produce this effect: a varnish had come off, a power of suggestion had lost its hold, a chain of habit, expectation, and tension had snapped; a fluid, mysterious equilibrium between feeling and world was upset for the space of a second. Everything we feel and do is somehow oriented “lifeward,” and the least deviation away from this direction toward something beyond is difficult or alarming. This is true of even of the simple act of walking; one lifts one’s center of gravity, pushes it forward, and lets it drop again–and the slightest change, the merest hint of shrinking from this letting-oneself-drop-into-the-future, or even of stopping to wonder at it–and one can no longer stand upright! Stopping to think is dangerous. It occurred to Ulrich that every decisive point in his life had left behind a similar feeling. (I,134)

He tries to recover his spirits by taking a slow, relaxing walk but again finds an alien world, one that he will have to struggle with to assert himself.

Ulrich had stopped in front of a church. Good heavens, if a gigantic matron were to have been sitting here in the shade, with a huge belly terraced like a flight of steps, her back resting against the houses behind her, and above, in thousand of wrinkles, warts, and pimples, the sunset in her face couldn’t he have found that beautiful too? Lord, yes, it was beautiful! He didn’t want to weasel out of this by claiming he was put on earth with the obligation to admire this sort of thing; however, there was nothing to prevent him from finding these broad, serenely drooping forms and the filigree of wrinkles on a venerable matron beautiful–it is merely simpler to say that she is old. And this transition from finding the world old to finding it beautiful is about the same as that from a young person’s outlook to the higher moral viewpoint of the mature adult, which remains absurdly didactic until one suddenly espouses it oneself. It was only seconds that Ulrich stood outside the church, but they rooted in him and compressed his heart with all the resistance of primal instinct against this world petrified into millions of tons of stone, against this frozen moonscape of feeling where, involuntarily, he had been set down. (I,135-136)

He feels powerless in this world he has been dropped into, one already created.

It flashed on Ulrich with surprising suddenness, as he appreciated the architectural fine points of this sacred edifice, that one could just as easily devour people as build such monuments or allow them to stand. The houses beside it, the firmament above, the indescribable harmony of all the lines and spaces that caught and guided the eye, the look and expression of the people passing below, their books, their morals, the trees along the street…it all seems at times as stiff as folding screens, as hard as a printer’s die stamp, complete–there is no other way of putting it–so complete and finished that one is mere superfluous mist beside it, a small, exhaled breath God has no time for anymore. (I,136)

Ulrich that he has reached this moment in his life through a series of accidents.

At this moment he wished he were a man without qualities. But it is probably no so very different for anyone. Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession, and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change. It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time. In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whose appearing is as surprising, all in all,as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently. What is even more peculiar is that most people do not even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life had merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune. Something has done to them what flypaper has done to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape. (I,136-137)


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