In the Space of a Laugh

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)

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