Musil on Metaphor

Bonadea is desperate for Ulrich’s attention. She bursts into Diotema’s salon with a wild story about saving Moosbrugger. Ulrich sees through her and feels a sudden tenderness.

Ulrich went up to her and put his arm around her shoulder; together they turned and looked into the darkness outside. A faint glimmer of light from the house was dissolving in the infinite darkness beyond so that it looked like a dense mist softening the air, and Ulrich felt as if they were staring out into a mildly chilly October night, though it was late winter; the whole city seemed wrapped in a vast woolen blanket. Then it occurred to him that one could just as well say that a woolen blanket resembled a night in October.

“…It’s as though I had dreamed that the tip of your breast is like a poppy leaf. Does that give me the right to think it is any such thing?”

He stopped to think. So did Bonadea. He was thinking, “One human being, when you think of it, means nothing more to another one than a string of similes.” Bonadea’s thinking concluded with: “Come, let’s get away from here.” (I,633)

The metaphor of the poppy leaf and nipple, recalls Ulrich, occurred in a dream.

Now he experience a moment of that special lucidity that lights up everything going on behind the scenes of oneself, though one may be far from being able to express it. He understood the relationship between a dream and what it expresses, which is no more than analogy, a metaphor, something he often thought about. A metaphor holds a truth and an untruth, felt as inextricably bound up with each other. If one takes it as it is and gives it some sensual form, in the shape of reality, one gets dreams and art; but between these two and real, full-scale life there is a glass partition. If one analyzes it for its rational content and separates the unverifiable from the verifiable, one gets truth and knowledge but kills the feeling. Like certain kinds of bacteria that split an organic substance into two parts, mankind splits the original living body of the metaphor in the firm substance of reality and truth, and the glassy unreality of intuition, faith, and artifact. There seems to be nothing in between, and yet how often a vaguely conceived undertaking does succeed, if only one goes ahead without worrying it too much! Ulrich felt that he had at last emerged from the tangle of streets through which his thoughts and moods had so often taken him, into the central square where all streets had their beginning. (I,634-635)

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2 Responses to “Musil on Metaphor”

  1. Michael A. Roberts Says:

    Cf. Doderer, “Demons,” Part 3, Ch. 11, “The Fire”: “But every metaphor that life shatters implies a loss of human freedom. For freedom can exist only so long as fictions and metaphors are stronger than crude reality and thus uphold our dignity. In fact every shattered metaphor is nothing but the flag of human freedom trodden into the dust….” Broch, Doderer, Musil–all work in this most Viennese, and most precarious, of media, metaphor, waiting to be shattered in yet another war.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      I think the biggest danger to a powerful metaphor is not so much being shattered as it is dying slowly. A dead metaphor is a cliche, an habitual thought that provides no insight. This lead Proust to at once praise and condemn habitual thought: Good in that habit lets us endure the experience of the banal; Bad in that it dulls our ability to experience that which is so new that there is no direct definition or words to express it.

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