The Other Condition

Agathe asks Ulrich what he has spent his days reading.  He is reluctant to answer, perhaps because he must reply with irony.

Agathe’s relationship to him, which hovered between sister and wife, stranger and friend, without being equitable to any one of them, was not even based on a far-reaching accord between their thoughts or feelings, as he had often told himself, yet it was in complete accord—as he was now almost astonished to note—with the fact, which had crystallized after relatively few days full of countless impressions not easy to review in a moment, that Agathe’s mouth was on his hair with no further claim, and that his hair was becoming warm and moist from her breath. This was as spiritual as it was physical, for when Agathe repeated her question Ulrich was overcome with a seriousness such as he had not felt wince the credulous days of his youth; and before this cloud of imponderable seriousness fled again, a cloud that extended from the space behind his back to the book before him, on which his thoughts were resting, he had given an answer that astonished him more for the total absence of irony in its tone than for its meaning.

“I’m instructing myself about the ways of the holy life.”

He stood up; not to move away from his sister but in order to be able to see her better from a few steps away.

“You needn’t laugh,” he said. “I’m not religious; I’m studying the road to holiness to see if it might also be possible to drive a car on it!” (II,815)

He explained: “The saints say: Once I was imprisoned, then I was drawn out of myself and immersed in God without knowledge. The emperors out hunting, as we read about them in our storybooks, describe it differently: They tell how a stag appeared to them with a cross between its antlers, causing the murderous spear to drop from their hands; and then they built a chapel on the spot so they could get on with their hunting. The rich, clever ladies in whose circles I move will answer immediately, if you should ask them about it, that the last artist who painted such experiences was van Gogh, who is a superb investment and who cut his ear off because his painting didn’t do enough when measured against the rapture of things. But the great majority of our people will say, on the contrary, that cutting your ear off is not a German way of expressing deep feelings; a German way is that unmistakable vacuousness of the elevated gaze one experiences on a mountaintop. For them the essence of human sublimity lies in solitude, pretty little flowers, and murmuring little brooks; and yet even in that bovine exaltation, with its undigested delight in nature, there lurks the misunderstood last echo of a mysterious other life. So when all is said and done, there must be something of the sort, or it must have existed at some time!”

“Then you shouldn’t make fun of it,” Agathe objected, grim with curiosity and radiant with impatience.

“I only make fun of it because I love it,” Ulrich said curtly. (II,817)

 

This visionary state need not be religious; in fact, religion destroys this condition.

“Anyway, it’s not the only time I taked to you about the kind of vision that gives and the kind that receives, about the male and female principles, the hermaphroditism of the primal imagination and so on—I can say a lot about these things., As if my mouth were as far away from me as the moon, which is also always on hand for confidential chats in the night! But what these believers have to say about their souls’ adventures,” he went on, mingling the bitterness of his words with objectivity and even admiration, “is sometimes written with the force and the ruthless analytic conviction of a Stendhal. But only”—he limited this—“as long as they stick to the phenomena and their judgement doesn’t enter in, which is corrupted by their flattering conviction that they’ve been singled out by God to have direct experience of Him.”…It’s an everlasting pity that no trained scientists have visions! He ended his lengthy reply.

“Do you think they could?” Agathe was testing him.

Ulrich hesitated for an instant. Then he answered like a believer: “I don’t know; maybe it could happen to me!” When he heard himself saying these words he smiled, as if to mitigate them.  (II,819-820)

And secular religion is even more inhospitable.

“And when confessional authority over the spirit and its vocabulary became outmoded, our condition understandably came to be regarded as nothing more than a chimera. Why should bourgeois culture, in replacing the old religious culture, be more religious than its predecessor? Bourgeois culture has reduced this other condition to the status of a dog fetching intuitions. There are hordes of people today who find fault with rationality and would like us to believe that in their wisest moments they were doing their thinking with the help of some special, suprarational faculty. That’s the final public vestige of it all, itself totally rationalistic. What’s left of the drained swamp is rubbish! And so, except for its uses in poetry, this old condition is excusable only in uneducated people in the first weeks of a love affair, as a temporary aberration, like green leaves that  every so often sprout posthumously from the wood of beds and lecterns; but if it threatens to revert to its original luxuriant growth, it is unmercifully dug up and rooted out!” (II,833)

 

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