Compulsion and Liberation

As a soixant-huitard who enthusiastically participated in the May événements in Paris, I found Musil’s depiction of the inception of a street action quite accurate. A handful of youth galvanize a crowd to march on Count Leinsdorf’s palace, in protest of the Campaign.

Trading speculations and saying things that were not at all in character, Walter fell in with the rest, who were gradually transforming themselves from small crumbling groups of people, just waiting, and other people walking aimlessly along, into a procession  that advanced toward the supposed scene of events, still without any definite intent yet visibly growing in density and energy. Emotionally they were still at the stage where they were like rabbits scampering about outside their burrows, ready to scurry back inside at the slightest sign of danger, when from the front of the disordered procession, far ahead and out of sight, a more definite sort of excitement came rippling back toward the rear. Up there a group of students, young men anyway, who had already taken some sort of action and had returned from “the battlefield,” joined the vanguard, and sounds of talking and shouting too far away to be understood, garbled messages, and waves of excitement were running through the crowd and, depending on the listeners’ temperaments or what scraps of information they snatched up, spread indignation or fear, the itch to fight or some moral imperative, causing the gathering mob to thrust forward in a mood guided by the kind of commonplace notions that takes a different form inside every head but are of so little significance, despite being uppermost in the consciousness, that they join in a single vital force that affects the muscles more than the brain. In the midst of this moving throng Walter also became infected and soon found himself in that stimulated but vacuous state rather like the early stages of drunkenness. Nobody really knows the exact nature of the change that turns individuals with a will of their own into a mob with a single will, capable of going to the wildest extremes of good or evil and incapable of stopping to think anything through, even if most of the individuals involved have spent their lives dedicated to moderation and prudence in the conduct of their private affairs. A mob in a  state of mounting excitement for which it has no outlet will probably discharge all that energy into the first available channel, and  those among its participants who are the most excitable, sensitive, and most vulnerable to pressure, those at the extreme ends of the spectrum who are primed to commit sudden acts of violence or rise to unprecedented levels of sentimental generosity, are most likely to set the example and lead the way; they are the points of least resistance in the mass, but the shout that is uttered through them rather than by them, the stone that somehow finds its way into their hands, the emotion into which they burst, is what opens the way along which the others, who have been generating excitement among themselves to the point where it must be discharged, then come surging in a frenzy, giving to what happens the character of mob action, which is experienced by those involved in it as both compulsion and liberation. (I,683-684)


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