That Great Blue Window with the Cloud Curtains

Our excursions to museums have a lot in common with vacations to places distinctive for their history or natural beauty. But to share these experiences we need the proper words, which are most easily acquired by reading the placards by paintings and evenwith helpful picture postcards. Musil sympathizes with our discomfort when we are left to see with our own eyes.

You really do have to understand these people correctly! They are very happy indeed to be on a vacation trip and to see so many beautiful things that others cannot see; but it causes them pain and embarrassment actually to have to look at these things.If a tower is taller than other towers, a precipice deeper than the common precipice or a famous painting particularly large or small, that is all right, for the difference can be ascertained and talked about; it is for this reason that they tend to seek outa famous palace that is particularly spacious or particularly old, and among landscapes they prefer the wild ones….If, however, something is not high, deep, large, small, or strikingly painted, in short, if something is not a phenomenon worth talking about,but merely beautiful, they choke—as though on a big smooth bite that will neither go up nor down, a morsel too soft to suffocate on, and too tough to let a word pass. Thus emerge those Oohs! and Ahs!, painful syllables of suffocation…

Experienced art commentators naturally have their own special techniques about which we might well have something to say; but this would be going too far. And, moreover, even the uncorrupted average man, despite the disagreeable effects of his constriction,feels a genuine satisfaction when standing face to face, as it were, with something acknowledged by experts as beautiful. This satisfaction has its own curious nuances. It contains for instance some of the same pride you feel when you can say that you passedthe bank building at the very same hour when the famous bank robber X must have made his escape; other people feel enraptured just to set foot in the city in which Goethe spent eight days, or to know the cousin by marriage of the lady who first swam the EnglishChannel; there are indeed people who find it particularly wonderful just to live in such a momentous era….What they feel, were they able to put it into words, is as if, behind that great blue window with the cloud curtains, someone had been standing a longtime watching them…

And you may not want to believe it, but it is usually for this very reason alone that we ourselves travel to those places depicted in the postcards we buy, a tendency which does not in and of itself make sense, since it would after all be much easierto simply order the cards by mail. And this is the reason why such postcards have to over-bearingly and over-realistically beautiful; if ever they were to start looking natural, then mankind would have lost something. “So this is what it looks like here,”we say to ourselves and study the card mistrustfully; then we write below: “You can’t imagine how lovely it is…!” It is the same manner of speaking by which one man confides in another: “You can’t imagine how much she loves me…” (95-98)

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