A Showman and His Spectators

One of the oddest of the novel, this essay deals with an exhibitionist whose activities are witnessed from an upper story window by Ulrich, Clarisse, Walter and their new guest, Meingast. First, the scene:

Clarisse had for a while been watching a man who had something wrong with him, but she couldn’t make what it was. His gait was by turns hesitant and negligent; he gave the impression that something was wrapping itself around his will to walk, and every time he had torn through this he walked for a bit like anyone who was not hurrying but not stopping either. The rhythm of this irregular movement had caught Clarisse’s attention; as the man passed a streetlamp she tried to make out his features, which struck her as hollow and numb. When he passed the next-to-last streetlamp she decided that it was an insignificant, unpleasant, and furtive face, but as he approached the nearest lamppost, the one almost beneath her window, his face looked extremely pale, and it floated around on the light as the light floated around on the darkness, so that the thin iron post of the streetlamp looked very straight and aroused beside it, striking the eye with a more penetrating vivid green than it really warranted. (II,854)

Now a solitary woman neared his hiding place, but when he was still separated from her by the streetlamps, he could already see her detached from all her surroundings, bobbing up and down on the waves of light and darkness, a black lump dripping with light before she came closer. Ulrich, too, saw her, a shapeless middle-aged woman approaching. She had a body like a sack filled with gravel, and her expression was not congenial but domineering and cantankerous. But the gaunt pale man in the bushes knew how to get at her without her noticing until it was too late. The dull motions of her eyes and her legs were probably already twitching in his flesh, and he was getting ready to assault her before she had a chance to defend herself, to assault her with the sight of him, which would take her by surprise and enter into her forever, however she might twist and turn. (II,856)

There was nothing at all accidental about this evening; it was not even by chance that the man had chosen Clarisse’s window to stand under. She was firmly convinced that she had a baneful attraction for men who had something wrong with them; it had often proved to be so! Taken all in all, it was not so much that her ideas were confused as that they left out connections, or that they were saturated with affect in many places where other people have no such inner wellspring. (II,857)

A girl passed by who might have been around fifteen and was obviously late coming from somewhere; she seemed lovely to him, a small, hastening ideal: the depraved man felt that he now really ought to step out  and speak to her in a friendly way, but this plunged him into wild terror. His imagination, ready to conjure up anything that could even be suggested by a woman, became fearful and awkward when confronted with the natural possibility of admiring this defenseless little creature approaching in her beauty. The more she was suited to please his daylight self, the less pleasure she provided his shadow self, and he vainly tried to hate her, since he could not love her. So he stood uneasily at the borderline between shadow and light and exposed himself. When the child noticed his secret she had already passed by him and was about eight paces away; at first she had merely looked at the leaves moving without realizing what was going on, and when she did she could already feel secure enough not to be scared to death: her mouth did stay open for a while, but then she gave a loud scream and began to run; the scamp even seemed to enjoy looking back, and the man felt himself humiliatingly abandoned. He wrathfully hoped that a drop of poison might somehow have fallen into her eyes and would later eat its way through her heart. (II,860-861)

This is Musil writing at his best.  He gives a materiality to light and dark that heightens the sense of conflict in the demented man’s mind. Thematically, I see several possibilities. First, this scene will be forever associated with Meingast, who is introduced in this chapter. Meingast is modeled on Ludwig Klages, the father of handwriting analysis and somebody we would now call a new ager (Hermann Hesse loved him). Musil himself seems to have taken the idea for the “other condition” and the possibility for a kind of secular ecstasy from Klages. But, with this introduction, I do not expect his portrayal as Meingast will be favorable. Musil may also be attempting to differentiate true perversion from the erotic feelings of Ulrich for his sister. And finally we have another view of Clarisse’s emerging madness and her fascination with the Moosbrugger type.


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