Pseudoreality Prevails

In the news…

There was another new record for high-altitude flight; something to be proud of. If he was not mistaken, the record now stood at 3,700 meters and the man’s name was Jouhoux. A black boxer had beaten the white champion, the new holder of the world title was Johnson. The president of France was going to Russia; there was talk of world peace being at stake. A newly discovered tenor was garnering fees in South America that had never been equaled even in North America. A terrible earthquake had devastated Japan–the poor Japanese. In short, much was happening, there was great excitement everywhere around the turn of 1913-1914. But two years or five years earlier there had also been much excitement, every day had had its sensations, and yet it was hard, not to say impossible, to remember what it was that had actually happened. (I,390)

What is all this? History?

Examined close up, our history looks rather vague and messy, like a morass only partially made safe for pedestrian traffic, though oddly enough in the end, there does seem to be a path across it, that very “path of history” of which nobody knows the starting point. This business of serving as “the stuff of history” infuriated Ulrich. The luminous, swaying box which he was riding seemed to be a machine in which several hundred kilos of people were being rattled around, by way of being processed into “the future.” (I,390-391)

Ulrich tries to answer the question of history.

Answer Number One: Because world history undoubtedly comes into being like all the other stories. Authors can never think of anything new, and they all copy from each other. This is why all politicians study history instead of biology or whatever. So much for authors.

Answer Number Two: For the most part, however, history is made without authors. It evolves not from some inner center but from the periphery. Set in motion by trifling causes. It probably doesn’t take nearly as much as one would think to turn Gothic man or the ancient Greek into modern civilized man. Human nature is as capable of cannibalism as it is of the Critique of Pure Reason; the same convictions and qualities will serve to turn out either one, depending on circumstances, and very great external differences in the results correspond to very slight internal ones.

Digression One: Ulrich recalled a similar experience dating from his army days. The squadron rides in double file, and “Passing on orders” is the drill; each man in turn whispers the given order to the next man. So if the order given up front is: “Sergeant major move to the head of the column,” it comes out the other end as “Eight troopers to be shot at once,” or something like that. And this is just how history is made.

Answer Number Three: If, therefore, we were to transplant a generation of present-day Europeans at a tender age into the Egypt of 5000 B.C., world history would begin afresh in the year 5000 B.C., repeat itself for a while, and then for reasons nobody could fathom, gradually begin to deviate from its established path.

 Digression Two: The law of world history–it now occurred to him–was none other than the fundamental principle of government in old Kakania: “muddling through.” Kakania was an incredibly clever state.

Digression Three or Answer Number Four: The course of history was therefore not that of a billiard ball–which, once it is hit, takes a definite line–but resembles the movement of clouds, or the path of a man sauntering through the streets, turned aside by a shadow here, a crowd there, an unusual architectural outcrop, until at last he arrives at a place he never knew or meant to go to  (I,391-392)

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