Archive for July, 2011

Overcoming Contingency

July 31, 2011

Clarisse’s emerging madness provides her husband Walter with an insight into the creative process. She, like an artist, crashes barriers and discovers new connections. Unlike an artist, her vision of coherence is purely private. Walter wants to believe Clarisse is in a type of “other condition,” but his rationality restrains him from fully communing with her.

…Something had happened! With this one notion in her head, Clarisse felt like someone emerging from a thunderstorm, still charged from head to toe with sensual energy. In front of her, a few yards beyond the bottom of the small flight of stone steps she had come out by, she saw a shiny blackbird with a flame-colored beak, dining on a fat caterpillar. There was an immense energy in the creature, or in the two contrasting colors. One could not say that Clarisse was thinking anything about it; it was more like a response coming from behind and all around her. The blackbird was a sinful body in the act of committing violence. The caterpillar the sinful form of a butterfly. Fate had placed the two creatures in her path, as a sign that she must act. One could see how the blackbird assumed the caterpillar’s sins through its flaming orange-red beak. Wasn’t the bird a “black genie”? Just as the dove is the “white spirit”? Weren’t these signs linked in a chain? The exhibitionist with the carpenter, with the Master’s flight…? Not one of those notions was clearly formed in her; they lodged invisibly in the walls of the house, summoned but still keeping their answer to themselves. But what Clarisse really felt as she stepped out on the stairs and saw the bird that was eating the caterpillar was an ineffable correspondence of inner and outer happenings.

She conveyed it in some curious way to Walter. The impression he received instantly corresponded with what he had called “invoking God”; there was mistaking it this time. He could not make out what was going on inside Clarisse, she was too far away, but there was something in her bearing that was not happenstance, as she stood facing the world into which the little flight of stairs descended like steps leading down to a swimming pool. It was something exalted. It was not the attitude of ordinary life. And suddenly he understood; this was what Clarisse meant when she said: “It’s not by chance that this man is under my window!” Gazing at his wife, he himself felt how the pressure of strange forces came flooding in to fill appearances. In the fact that he was standing here and Clarisse there, at such an angle to him that he had to turn his eyes away from the direction they had automatically taken, along the length of the garden, n order to see her clearly—even in this simple juxtaposition, the mute emphasis of life suddenly outweighed natural contingency. Out of the fullness of images thrusting themselves upon the eye something geometrically linear and extraordinary reared up. This must be how it could happen that Clarisse found a meaning in almost empty correlations, such as the circumstance of one man stopping under her window while another was a carpenter. Events seemed to have a way of arranging themselves that was different from the usual pattern, as elements in some strange entity that revealed them in unexpected aspects, and because it brought these aspects out from their obscure hiding places, it justified Clarisse’s claim that it was she herself who was attracting events toward herself. It was hard to express this without sounding fanciful, but then it occurred to Walter that it came closest to something he knew very well—what happens when you paint a picture. A painting, too, has its own inexplicable way of excluding every color or line not in accord with its basic form, style, and palette of colors, while on the other hand it extracts from the painter’s had whatever it needs, thanks to the laws of genius, which are not the same as the usual laws of nature. At this point he no longer had in him any of that easy, healthy self-assurance which scrutinizes life’s excrescences for anything that might come in handy and which he had been extolling only a little while ago; what he felt was more the misery of a little boy too timid to join in a game. (II,1005-1006)

The Rational and the Astral

July 24, 2011

Ulrich’s new millennium project has one big danger: it may become ungrounded in the actual world. Ulrich is careful to preserve rationality. Clarrisse, like Moosbrugger, is not similarly constrained by a rational boundary. Ulrich and Agathe, for instance, speak deeply about the division of the sexes and the quest for re-integration, referencing Plato’s myth along the way. Now let Clarrisse take up that theme, and witness the boundaries disappear. This exchange with Meingast is her struggling to define her mission to cultivate the hero in Walter by denying him sex, which would “murder” that hero. Note also the light this throws on her fascination with Moosbrugger, the sex murderer.

“…I attract Walter in a way that’s not quite right.”

“I can imagine,” the Master answered, this time with a sympathetic look. “There is something boyish about you.”

At this praise Clarisse felt happiness bouncing through her veins like hailstones. “Did you notice before,” she eagerly asked him, “that I can change clothes faster than a man?”

A blank expression came over the philosopher’s benevolently seamed face. Clarisse giggled. “That’s a double word,” she explained. “There are others too: sex murder, for instance.”

The master probably thought it would be wise not to show surprise at anything. “Oh yes, I know,” he replied. “You did say once that to satisfy desire in the usual embrace is a kind of sex murder.” But what did she mean by “changing,” he wanted to know.

“To offer no resistance is murder,” Clarrisse explained with the speed of someone going through one’s paces on slippery ground and losing one’s footing through overagility.

“Now you’ve really lost me,” Meingast admitted. “You must be talking about that fellow the carpenter again. What is it you want from him?”

…”Do you have much self-control?” he asked.

“Well, yes and no,” Clarisse said candidly. “But I told you, if I let him have his way, I’d be a sex murderer!” Warming to her subject, she went on: “My woman friends say they ‘pass out’ in the arms of a man.I don’t know what that is. I’ve never passed out in a man’s arms. But I do know what it’s like to ‘pass out’ without being in a man’s arms. Your must know about that too; after all, you did say that the world is too devoid of illusions…!”

Meingast waves this off with a gesture, as if to say she had misunderstood him. But now it was all too clear to her.

When you say, for instance, that one must decide against the lesser value for the sake of the higher value,” she cried, “it means that there’s a life in an immense and boundless ecstasy! Not sexual ecstasy but the ecstasy of genius! Against which Walter would commit treason if I don’t prevent him!”

…”Is what you want connected with Moosbrugger? Meingast probed.

“That’s hard to say. We’ll have to see what comes of it,” Clarrisse replied. “I’m going to abduct him. I’m going to create a scandal!”


This exchange has a kind of strange logic. We now explore the root of that strangeness, a kind of mad science of metaphor.

The double words were signs, scattered throughout the language like snapped-off twigs or leaves strewn on the ground, to mark a secret path. “Sex murder” and “changing” and even “quick” and many other words–perhaps all others–exhibited double meanings, one of which was secret and private. But a double language means a double life. Ordinary language is evidently that of sin, the secret one that of the astral body. “Quick,” for instance, in its sinful form meant ordinary, everyday, tiring haste, while in its joyous form everything flew off it in joyful leaps and bounds. But then the joyous form can also be called the form of energy of innocence, while the sinful form can be called all the names having to do with the depression, dullness, and irresolution of ordinary life. There were these amazing connections between the self and things, so that something one did had an effect where one would never have expected it; and the less Clarisse could express all this, the more intensely the words kept coming inside her, too fast for her to gather them in. But for quite some time she had been convinced of one thing: the duty, the privilege, the mission of whatever it is we call conscience, illusion, will, is to find the vital form, the light form. This is the one where nothing is accidental, where there is no room for wavering, where happiness and compulsion coincide. Other people have called this “living authentically” and spoken of the “intelligible character”; they have referred to instinct as innocence and to the intellect as sin. Clarisse could not think in these terms, but she had made the discovery that one could set something in motion, and then sometimes parts of the astral body would attach themselves to it of their own accord and in this fashion become embodied in it. For reasons primarily rooted in Walter’s hypersensitive inaction, but also because of heroic aspirations she never had the means of satisfying, she had been let to think that by taking forceful action one could set up a memorial to oneself in advance, and the memorial would then draw one into itself. So she was not at all clear about what she intended to do with Moosbrugger, and could not answer Meingast’s question. (II,1001-1002)

She is There

July 10, 2011

Musil’s metaphors are direct, bold, one might say masculine. These examples are taken from successive essays where Ulrich spends time with Bonadea (the nymphomaniac) and his sister Agathe.

The pure Diotima consoles the sexually afflicted Bonadea (“the ignoble mystery of nymphomania as a kind of female sword of Damocles, which, she said, might hang by a thin tread even over the head of a vestal virgin”) with a kiss. She “kissed her on that unchaste mouth with a heroic effort that would have been enough to make her press her lips on the blood-dripping bristles of a lion’s beard.” (II,957)

Diotima thereby develops a clinical interest in sex, reads the literature, but cannot quite apply the lessons to her men, Arnheim and Tuzzi. “…while her soul with its enigmas eluded her like a fish one tries to hold bare-handed, the suffering seeker was surprised to find plenty of advice in the books of the zeitgeist, once she had decided to deal with her fate from the physical angle, as represented by her husband.” (Ii,957)

Bonadea finds herself adopting Ulrich’s analytical style, though not with ease. “To get a really rapturous response from the love partner, the partner must be respected as an equal and not just as a will-less extension of oneself,” she went on, caught up in her mentor’s mode of expression like someone sliding helplessly and anxiously across a polished surface, carried along by his own momentum.” (II,962)

Bonadea has had a chance to mix with powerful men at Diotima’s salon and is surprised that she did so without the usual “hurricane” of glandular disturbance. ” And she thought of all the other famous men she had recently me, without even remembering whether they had short legs or long ones, were fat or lean, for all she saw in them was the radiance of their celebrity rounded out by a vague physical mass, much as the delicate frame of a young roast pigeon is given substance by a solid mass of herb stuffing.” (II,965)

Agathe has finally arrived at Ulrich’s home. He is forced to see his hodge-podge interior through her eyes and is embarrassed. He has always experience feminine company with ironical detachment. This is different and unsettling. He experiences her presence in an almost wordless, non-metaphorical way.

But in the midst of all this activity, he could only think, incessantly, that for his whole life, and up to a few hours ago, he had lived alone. And Agathe was here. This little sentence, “Agathe is here now,” repeated itself in waves, like the astonishment of a boy who has received a new plaything; there was something mind-numbing about it and, on the other hand, a quite overwhelming sense of presence too, all of which expressed itself again and again in the words: Agathe is here now. (II,973)

[Helping Agathe with her dress] Bending over close to the moving, delicate, yet full and fresh skin of her shoulders, intent upon the unaccustomed task, which raised a flush on his brow, Ulrich felt himself lapped by a pleasing sensation not easily put into words, unless one might say that his body was equally affected by having a woman and yet not having a woman so close to him; or one could just as easily have said that though he was unquestionably standing there in his own shoes, he nevertheless felt drawn out of himself and over to her as though he had been given a second, far more beautiful, body for his own.

This was why the first thing he said to his sister when he had straightened up again was: “Now I know what your are: you are my self-love!” It may have sounded odd, but it really expressed what it was that moved him so. “In a sense,” he explained, “I’ve always lacked the right sort of love for myself that others seem to have in abundance. And now,” he added, “by some mistake or by fate, it has been embodied in you instead of myself!”

It was his first attempt that evening to pass a verdict on the meaning of his sister’s arrival. (II,975)

The Fall of Man

July 10, 2011

Ulrich meditates on the nature of feelings after a chance
encounter with a supremely rationalist astronomer colleague, who asks the

“What do you think of Koniatowski’s paper?” she asks Ulrich.
Ulrich had nothing to say. “Kneppler will be furious,” she said, “but Koniatowski’s critique of Kneppler’s deduction from Danielli’s theorem is interesting, don’t’ you agree? Do you
think Kneppler’s deduction is possible?”

Ulrich shrugged his shoulders. (II,939)

In the ensuing exchange Fräulein Strastil is confounded by
Ulrich’s rejection of the truth universally acknowledged that it’s good to get
away from the city and lie about in an alpine meadow for a few days.

Fräulein Strastil doubted that he was feeling on sufficiently
elementary level.

Ulrich claimed that the only elementary level, besides eating
and love, was to make oneself comfortable, not to seek out an alpine meadow. The natural feeling that was supposed drive people to do such tings was actually a modern Rousseauism, a complicated sentimental attitude. (II,940)

This gets Ulrich thinking on the nature of feelings.

“Feeling is rare enough. To keep feeling at a certain temperature, to keep it from cooling down, probably means preserving the body warmth from which all intellectual development arises. And whenever a person is momentarily
lifted out of his tangle of rational intentions, which involve him with countless alien objects, whenever he is raised to a state wholly without purpose, such as listening to music, for instance, he is almost in the biological condition of the a flower on which the rain and the sunshine fall.” He was willing to admit that there is a more eternal eternity in the mind’s
pauses and quiescence than in its activity; but he had been thinking first “feeling” and then “experiencing”: a contradiction was implied here. For there were
experiences of action at is peak! Though one could probably assume that by the time each experience had reached it acme of radiant bitterness it was sheer feeling; which would bring up an even greater contradiction: that in its greatest purity the sate of feeling is quiescence, a dying away of all activity. Or was it not a contradiction, after all? Was there some curious connection by which the most intense activity was motionless at its core? (II942)

(This last thought recalls how, in Agathe’s heightened awareness,
“The pure light of this conscience outshone this dark point, which
nevertheless, like the core of a flame, formed its center.” (II,925))

This meditation on feelings has prepared him to attack his
central problem, Agathe’s challenge to ethics.

And suddenly, as he felt himself swing aboard the trolley,
he said to himself: “I shall have to make Agathe see that morality is the subordination of every momentary state in ouThis principle had come to him all at once in the form of a definition. But this highly polished concept had been
preceded and was followed by other which, though not so fully developed and articulated, rounded out its meaning. The innocuous business of feeling was here set in an austere conceptual framework , it was given a job to do, with a
strict hierarchy of values, vaguely foreshortened, in the offing: feelings must either be functional or refer to a still-undefined condition as immense as the open sea. Should it be called an idea or a longing?

The decent, uncomplicated thing to do would be to correct
the wrong done to Hagauer, to repent, in other words. But might there be another way to goodness?

“Putting it presumptuously,” he thought, “this means: Saul
did not make good each single consequence of his previous sins; he turned into Paul!” Against this curious logic, however, both feeling and judgment raised the customary objection that it would nevertheless be more decent—and no deterrent to more romantic future possibilities—to straighten out accounts with one’s brother-in-law first, and then to plan one’s new life…But here again Ulrich felt it was impossible to take one’s bearings from the normal conditions of goodness if one wanted to press on into the realm of unconditional goodness. The mission laid upon him, to take the first step into uncharted territory, would apparently suffer no abatement (Ii,945-946)

This mission runs the risk of bloodless sterility.

“What’s the point, in the face of all this vainglory, of looking for some result beyond, behind, beneath if all? Would that be a philosophy? An all-embracing conviction, a law? Or the finger of God? Or, instead of that, the assumption that morality has up to now lacked an ‘inductive stance,’ that it is much harder to be good than we had believed, and that it
will require an endless cooperative effort, like every other science? I think there is no morality, because it cannot be deduced from anything constant; all there are are rules for uselessly maintaining transitory conditions. I also assume that there can be no profound happiness without a profound morality; yet my thinking about it strikes me as an unnatural, bloodless state, and it is absolutely not what I want!” Indeed, he might well have asked himself much more simply, “What is this I have taken upon myself?” which is what he now did.
However, this question touched his sensibility more than his intellect; in fact, the question stopped his thinking and diminished bit by bit his always keen delight in strategic planning before he had even formulated it. It began as a dark tone close to his ear, accompanying him; then it sounded inside him, an octave lower than everything else; finally, Ulrich had merged with his question and felt as though he himself were a strangely deep sound in the bright, hard world, surrounded by a wide interval. So what was it had really
taken on himself, what had he promised? (II,948-949)

He thought hard. He knew that he had not merely been joking
when he used the expression ‘the Millennium,” even if it was only a figure of speech. If one took this promise seriously, it meant the desire to live, with the aid of mutual love, in a secular condition so transcendent that one could only feel and do whatever heightened and maintained that condition….In sum, what it more or less came to was that Ulrich believed in the “Fall of Man” and in “Original Sin.” That is, he was inclined to think that at some time in the past, man’s basic attitude had undergone a fundamental change that must have
been roughly comparable to the moment when a lover regains his sobriety; he may then see the whole truth, gut something greater has been torn to shreds, and the truth appears everywhere as a mere fragment left over and patch up again.
Perhaps it was even the apple of “knowledge” that had caused this spiritual change and expelled mankind from a primal state to which it might find its way back only after becoming wise through countless experience and through sin. But
Ulrich believed in such myths not in their traditional form, but only in the way he had discovered them; he believed in them like an arithmetician who, with the system of his feeling spread out before him, concludes, from the fact that none of them could be justified, that he would have to introduce a fantastic hypothesis whose nature could be arrived at only intuitively. That was no trifle! (II,949)