Archive for the ‘A Sort of Introduction’ Category

Precision Defined

September 6, 2010

Ulrich’s aim is to live his life with precision. Judged by the contents of libraries, this is hard to do.

If someone were to discover, for instance, that under hitherto unobserved circumstances stones were able to speak, it would take only a few pages to describe and explain so earth-shattering a phenomenon. On the other hand, one can always write yet another book about positive thinking, and this is far from being of only academic interest, since it involves a method that makes it impossible ever to arrive at a clear resolution of life’s most important questions. Human activities might be graded by the quantity of words required: the more words, the worse their character. All the knowledge that has led our species from wearing animal skins to people flying, complete with proofs, would fill a handful of reference books, but a bookcase the size of the earth would not suffice to hold all the rest, quite apart from the vast discussions that are conducted not with the pen but with the sword and chains. The thought suggests itself that we carry on our human business in a most irrational manner when we do not use those methods by which the exact sciences have forged ahead in such exemplary fashion. (I,264)

What would life be like if pared down to the essentials?

The answer would possibly be that a life’s work can as easily be imagined as consisting of three poems or three actions as of three treatises, in which the individual’s capacity for achievement is intensified to it highest degree. It would more or less come down to keeping silent when one has nothing to say, doing only the necessary where one has nothing special to do, and, most important, remaining indifferent unless one has that ineffable sense of spreading one’s arms wide, borne aloft on a wave of creation. One will observe that this would be the end of  most of our inner life, but that might not be such a painful loss. The thesis that the huge quantities of soap sold testify to our great cleanliness need not apply to the moral life, where the more recent principle seems more accurate, that a strong compulsion to wash suggests a dubious state of inner hygiene. It would be a useful experiment to try to cut down to the  minimum the moral expenditure (of whatever kind) that accompanies all our actions, to satisfy ourselves with being moral only in those exceptional cases where it really counts, but otherwise not to think differently from the way we do about standardizing pencils or screws. Perhaps not much good would be done that way, but some things would be done better; there would be no talent left, only genius; the washed-out prints that develop from the pallid resemblance of actions to virtues would disappear from the image of life; in their place we would have these virtues’ intoxication fusion in holiness. In short, from every ton of morality a milligram of an essence would be left over, a millionth part of which is enough to yield an enchanting joy. (I,264-265)

In the Castle

July 28, 2010

Ulrich, at the command of his father, travels to the Imperial residence to engage in the great campaign to celebrate the monarchy on its seventieth year. Kafka’s castle is revealed to be somewhat stiff and vacant.

The first thing that happened when Ulrich arrived in his cab at the Imperial Hofburg was that the cabbie stopped in the outer courtyard and asked to be paid, claiming that although he was allowed to drive through the inner courtyard, he was not permitted to stop there. Ulrich was annoyed at the cabbie, whom he took for a cheat or a coward, but his protests were powerless against the man’s timid refusal, which suddenly made him sense the aura of a power mightier than he. When he walked into the inner courtyard he was much impressed with the numerous red, blue, white, and yellow coats, trousers, and helmet plumes that stood there stiffly in the sun like birds on a sandbank. Up to that moment he had considered “His Majesty” one of those meaningless terms which had stayed in use, as one may be an atheist and still say “Thank God.” But now his gaze wandered up high walls and he saw an island—gray, self-contained, and armed–lying there while the city’s speed rushed blindly past it. (I,83-84)

The powerful Imperial chamberlain, Count Stallburg, receiving his visitor at the heart of the castle, resembles the Wizard of Oz.

But when he entered Count Stallburg’s presence, Ulrich was received by His Excellency inside a great hollow prism of the best proportions, in the center of which this unpretentious, bald-headed, somewhat stooped man, his knees bent like an orangutan’s, stood facing Ulrich in a manner that could not possibly be the way an eminent Imperial Court functionary of noble birth would naturally look–it had to be an imitation of something. His Excellency’s shoulders were bowed, his underlip drooped, he resembled an aged-beagle or a worthy accountant. Suddenly there could be no doubt as to whom he reminded one of: Count Stallburg became transparent, and Ulrich realized that a man who has been for seventy years the All Highest Center of supreme power must find a certain satisfaction in retreating behind himself and looking like the most subservient of his subjects. (I,84-85)

Ulrich takes advantage of this audience with the powerful man to blurt out awkwardly a defence of Moosbrugger.

Ulrich’s slip had momentarily made him lose his presence of mind, but oddly enough his mistake seemed not to have made a bad impression on Count Stallburg. His Excellency had been nearly speechless at first, as though someone had taken off his jacket in his presence, but then such spontaneity from a man so well recommended came to seem to him refreshingly resolute and high-spirited. He was pleased to have found these two words, intent as he was on forming a favorable impression. He wrote them immediately (“We hope that we have found a resolute and high-spirited helper”) in his letter of introduction to the chairman of the great patriotic campaign. When Ulrich received  this document a few moments later, he felt like a child who is dismissed with a piece of chocolate pressed into its little hand….He scrutinized the insidious simplicity of the decor with curiosity, and felt quite certain in deciding that even now he was still unimpressed by it. This was simply a world that had not yet been cleared away. But still, what was that strong, peculiar quality it had made him feel? Damn it all, there was hardly any other way to put it: it was simply real.  (I,86-87)


July 28, 2010

Moosbrugger has killed a destitute prostitute with a fury of knife strokes. At his trial he appears anything but a psychopath with his friendly, open look of a genial dog.

The Moosbrugger case was currently much in the news. Moosbrugger was a carpenter, a big man with broad shoulders and no excess fat on him, a head of hair like brown lamb’s wool, and good-natured strong paws. His face also expressed a good-natured strength and right-mindedness, qualities one would have smelled (had one not seen them) in the blunt, plain, dry workaday smell that belonged to this thirty-four-year-old man and came from the wood he worked with and a job that called as much for mindfulness as for exertion.

Anyone who came up against this face for the first time, a face blessed by God with every sign of goodness, would stop as if rooted to the spot, because Moosbrugger was usually flanked by two armed guards, his hands shackled with a small, strong steel chain, its grip held by one of his escorts. (I,67)

Ulrich is immediately fascinated by this man, for reasons he cannot yet understand.

When Ulrich first laid eyes on that face with its signs of being a child of God above handcuffs, he quickly turned around, slipped a few cigarettes to the sentry at the nearby court building, and asked him about the convoy that had apparently just left the gates; he was told…Well, anyway, this is how something of the sort must have happened in earlier times, since it is often reported this way, and  Ulrich almost believed it himself; but the contemporary truth was that he had merely read all about it in the newspaper. It was to be a long time before he met Moosbrugger in person, and before that happened he caught sight of him only once during the trial. The probability of experiencing something unusual through the newspaper is much greater than that of experiencing it in person; in other words, the more important things take place today in the abstract, and the more trivial ones in real life. (I,68-69)

Moosbrugger may not be all that different from the rest of us.

Moosbrugger asserted that he could not possibly be a sex murderer, because these females had inspired only feelings of aversion in him. This is not implausible–we think we understand a cat, for instance, sitting in front of a cage staring up at a fat, fair canary hopping up and down, or batting a mouse, letting it go, then batting it again, just to see it run away once more; and what is a dog running after a bicycle, biting at it only in play–man’s best friend? There is in this attitude toward the living, moving, silently rolling or flitting fellow-creature enjoying its own existence something that suggests a deep innate aversion to it. And then what could one do when she started screaming? One could only come to one’s senses, or else, if one simply couldn’t do that, press her face to the ground and stuff earth into her mouth. (I,70)

We know already that Ulrich is inclined to position a criminal act in a higher view of society’s shared responsibility. He develops this philosophical view here.

Ulrich was especially taken with the fact that Moosbrugger’s defense was evidently based on some dimly discernible principle. He had not gone out with intent to kill, nor did his dignity permit him to  plead insanity. There could be no question of lust as a motive–he had felt only disgust and contempt. The act could accordingly only be called manslaughter, to which he had been induced by the suspicions conduct of “this caricature of a woman,” as he put it. If one understood him rightly, he even wanted the killing to be regarded as a political crime, and he sometimes gave the impression that he was fighting not for himself but for this view of the legal issue. (I,75)

Of course there was the matter of the blood on the hands, the knife thrown away, the change into fresh clothes.

The judge added it all up, starting with the police record and the vagrancy, and presented it as Moosbrugger’s guilt, while to Moosbrugger it was a series of completely separate incidents having nothing to do with one another, each of which had a different cause that  lay outside Moosbrugger somewhere in the world as a whole. In the judge’s eyes, Moosbrugger was the source of his acts; in Moosbrugger’s eyes they had perched on him like birds that had flown in from somewhere or other. To the judge, Moosbrugger was a special case; for himself he was a universe, and it was very hard to say something convincing about a universe. Two strategies were here locked in combat, two integral positions, two sets of logical consistency. (I,75)

Moosbrugger is sentenced to death.

Even as the guards were leading him out, he turned around, struggling for words, raised his hands in the air, and cried out, in a voice that shook him free of his guards’ grip: “I am satisfied, even though I must confess to you that you have condemned a madman.”

This was a non sequitur, but Ulrich sat there breathless. This was clearly madness, and just as clearly it was no more than a distortion of our own elements of being. Cracked and obscure it was; it somehow occurred to Ulrich that if mankind could dream as a whole, that dream would be Moosbrugger. (I,76-77)

Effect of a Man Without Qualities on a Man With Qualities

July 21, 2010

Walter is jealous of Clarisse’s long walks with Ulrich. He fears the influence Ulrich has on her.

He was bad for Clarisse. He ruthlessly exacerbated something inside Clarisse that Walter dared not touch: the cavern of disaster, the pitiful, the sick, the  fatal genius in her, the secret empty space where something was tearing at chains that might someday give way. (I,61)

He challenges her on what Ulrich has said.

Clarisse couldn’t help giggling again. “He says things have become more complicated meanwhile. Just as we swim in water, we also swim in a sea of fire, a storm of electricity, a firmament of magnetism, a swamp of warmth, and so on. It’s just that we can’t feel it. All that finally remains is formulas. What the meaning in human terms is hard to say; that’s all there is. I’ve forgotten whatever I learned about it at school, but I think that’s what it amounts to. Anybody nowadays, says Ulrich, who wants to call the birds ‘brothers,’ like Saint Francis or you, can’t do it so easily but must be prepared to be cast into a furnace, plunge into the earth through the wires of an electric trolley, or gurgle down the drain with the dishwater into the sewer.”

“Oh sure, sure,”Walter interrupted this report. “First, four elements are turned into several dozen, and finally we’re left floating around in relationships, processes, on the dirty dishwater of processes and formulas, on something we can’t even recognize as a thing, a process, a ghost of an idea, of a God-knows-what. Leaving no difference anymore between the sun and a kitchen match, or between your mouth at one end of the digestive tract and its other end either. Every thing has a hundred aspects, every aspect a hundred connections, and different feelings are attached to every one of them. The human brain has happily split things apart, but things have split the human heart too.” (I,65)

The Times Changed

July 21, 2010

The cultural revolution of the first years of the twentieth century lost direction and energy, replaced by ascendant stupidity.

So the times changed, like a day that begins radiantly blue and then by degrees clouds over, without having the kindness to wait for Ulrich. He evened the score by holding the cause of these mysterious changes that made up the disease eating away genius to be simple, common stupidity. By no means in an insulting sense. For if stupidity, seen from within, did not so much resemble talent as possess the ability to be mistaken for it, and if  it did not outwardly resemble progress, genius, hope, and improvement, the chances are that no one would want to be stupid, and so there would be no stupidity. Or fighting it would at least be easy. Unfortunately, stupidity has something uncommonly endearing and natural about it. If one finds that a reproduction, for instance, seems more of an artistic feat than a hand-painted original, well, there is a certain truth in that, and it is easier to prove than that  van Gogh was a great artist. It is also easy and profitable to be a more powerful playwright than Shakespeare or a less uneven storyteller than Goethe, and a solid commonplace always contains more humanity than a new discovery. There is, in short, no great idea that stupidity could not put to its own uses; it can move in all directions, and put on all the guises of truth. The truth, by comparison, has only one appearance and only one path, and is always at a disadvantage. (I,56-57)

Cultural Revolution

July 21, 2010

The new century (20th) looks back on the old one.

The just-buried century in Austria could not be said to have covered itself with glory during its second half. It had been clever in technology, business, and science, but beyond these focal points of its energy it was stagnant and treacherous as a swamp. It had painted like the Old Masters, written like Goethe and Schiller, and built its houses in the style of the Gothic and the Renaissance. The demands of the ideal ruled like a police headquarters over all expression of life. But thanks to the unwritten law that allows mankind no imitation without tying it to an exaggeration, everything was produced with a degree of craftsmanship the admired prototypes could never have achieved,… (I,52)

 The new century unleashed a long suppressed energy, if not a clear purpose.

There were those who loved the overman and those who loved the underman; there were health cults and sun cults and cults of consumptive maidens; there was enthusiasm for the hero worshipers and for the believers in the Common Man; people were devout and skeptical, naturalistic and mannered, robust and morbid; they dreamed of old tree-lined avenues in palace parks, autumnal gardens, glassy ponds, gems, hashish, disease, and demonism, but also of prairies, immense horizons, forges and rolling mills, naked wrestlers, slave uprisings, early man, and the smashing of society. These were certainly opposing and widely varying battle cries, but uttered in the same breath. An analysis of that epoch might produce some such nonsense as a square circle trying to consist of wooden iron, but in reality it all blended into shimmering sense. (I,53)

Lucky the person who has lived through such a time.

 If one does not want to, there is no need to make too much of this bygone “movement.” It really affected only that thin, unstable layer of humanity, the intellectuals, who are unanimously despised by all those who rejoice in impregnable views, no matter how divergent from one another (the kind of people who are back in the saddle today, thank God); the general population was not involved. Still, even though it did not become a historical event, it was an evenlet, and the two friends, Walter and Ulrich, in their early youth had just caught its afterglow. Something went through the thicket of beliefs in those days like a single wind bending many trees–a spirit of heresy and reform, the blessed sense of an arising and going forth, a mini-renaissance and -reformation, such as only the best of times experience; whoever entered the world then felt, at the first corner, the breath of this spirit on his cheek. (I,53-54)

His Best Friends

July 20, 2010

Walter, married to Clarisse, was Ulrich’s best friend since childhood.

Whenever he got there, they were playing the piano together. It was understood that they would take no notice of him until they had finished the piece; this time it was Beethoven’s jubilant “Ode to Joy.” The millions sank, as Nietzsche describes it, awestruck in the dust; hostile boundaries shattered, the gospel of world harmony reconciled and unified the sundered; they had unlearned walking and talking and were about to fly off, dancing, into the air. Faces flushed, bodies hunched, their head jerked up and down while splayed claws banged away at the mass of sound rearing up under them. Something unfathomable was going on: a balloon, wavering in outline as it filled up with hot emotion, was swelling to the bursting point, and from the excited fingertips, the nervously wrinkling foreheads, the twitching bodies, again and again surges of fresh feeling poured into this awesome private tumult. How often had they been through this! (I,45)

Clarisse wants Walter to be heroic in the style of Beethoven, but Walter is being drawn down to Wagner.

Ulrich knew that Clarisse refused her body to Walter for weeks at a time when he played Wagner. He played Wagner anyway, with a bad conscience; like a boyhood vice. (I,47)

Like Ulrich, Walter has been considered promising.

Such older people were accustomed to say the he simply lacked will power, but it would have been equally valid to cal him a lifelong, many-sided dilettante, and it was quite remarkable that there were always authorities in the worlds of music, painting, and literature who expressed enthusiastic views about Walter’s future. In Ulrich’s life, by contrast, even though he had a few undeniably noteworthy achievements to his credit, it had never happened that someone came up to him and said: “Your are the man I have always been looking for, the man my  friends are waiting for.” In Walther’s life this had happened every three months. Even though these were not necessarily the most authoritative people in the field, they all had some influence, a promising idea, projects under way, jobs open, friendships, connections, which they placed at the service of the Walter they had discovered, whose life as a result took such a color zigzag course. He had an air about him that seemed to matter more than any specific achievement. Perhaps he had a particular genius for passing as a genius. If this is dilettantism, then the intellectual life of the German-speaking world rest largely upon dilettantism, for this is a talent found in every degree up to the level of those who really are highly gifted, in whom it usually seems, to all appearances, to be missing. (I,48-49)

Clarisse feels betrayed by Walter. Her goal as a young woman was to marry a genius.

Clarisse was not as gifted as Walter; she had always felt it. But she saw genius as a question of willpower. with ferocious energy she set out to make the study of music her own. It was not impossible that she was completely unmusical, but she had ten sinewy fingers and resolution; she practiced for days on end and drove her ten fingers like ten scrawny oxen trying to tear some overwhelming weight out of the ground. She attacked painting in the same fashion. She had considered Walter a genius since she was fifteen, because she had always intended to marry only a genius. She would not let him fail her in this, and when she realized that he was failing she put up a frantic struggle against the suffocating, slow change in the atmosphere of their life. It was at just this point that Walter could have used some human warmth, and when his helplessness tormented him he would clutch at her like a baby wanting milk and sleep; but Clarisse’s small, nervous body was not maternal. She felt abused by a parasite trying to ensconce itself in her flesh, and she refused herself to him. (I,50-51)

Ulrich Overtaken by Racehorse

July 20, 2010

Ulrich had won some recognition in his new field of mathematics and was now on the verge of being “promising.”

 And one day Ulrich stopped wanting to be promising. The time had come when people were starting to speak of genius on the soccer field or in the boxing ring, although there would still be at most only one genius of a half back or great tennis-court tactician for every ten or so explorers, tenors, or writers of genius who cropped up in the papers. The new spirit was not yet quite sure of itself. But just then Ulrich suddenly read somewhere, like a premonitory breath of ripening summer, the expression “the racehorse of genius.” It stood in the report of a sensational racing success, and the author was probably not aware of the full magnitude of the inspiration his pen owed to the communal spirit. (I,41)

A psychotechnical analysis of a great thinker and a champion boxer would probably show their cunning, courage, precision and technique, and the speed of their reactions in their respective fields to be the same. It is probably a safe assumption that the qualities and skill by which they succeed do not differ from those of a famous steeplechaser–for one should never underestimate how many major qualities are bought into play in clearing a hedge. But on top of this, a horse and a boxer have an advantage over a great mind in that their performance and rank can be objectively measured, so that the best of them is really acknowledged as the best. This is why sports and strictly objective criteria have deservedly come to the forefront, displacing such obsolete concepts as genius and human greatness. (I,42)

 Ulrich considers his remaining alternatives to reaching the state of genius.

But what had he really meant to do? At this point he could have turned only to philosophy. But the condition philosophy found itself in at the time reminded him of the oxhide being cut into strips in the story of Dido, even as it remained highly doubtful that these strips would ever measure out a kingdom, and what was new in philosophy resembled what he had been doing himself and held no attraction for him. All he could say was that he now felt further removed from what he had really wanted to be than he had in his youth, if indeed he had ever known what it was. With wonderful clarity he saw in himself all the abilities and qualities favored by his time–except for the ability to earn his living, which was not necessary–but he had lost the capacity to apply them. And since, now that genius is attributed to soccer players and horses, a man can save himself only by the use he makes of genius, he resolved to take a year’s leave of absence from his life in order to seek an appropriate application for his abilities. (I,44)

Three Attempts to Become a Great Man

July 19, 2010

Ulrich had always thought himself destined to become a great man; the first attempt was as a soldier.

This man who had returned could not remember any time in his life when he had not been fired with the will to become a geat man; it was a desire Ulrich seemed to have been born with. Such a dream may of course betray vanity and stupidity, but it is no less true that it is a fine and proper ambition without which there probably would not be very many great men in the world.

The trouble was that he knew neither how to become one nor what a great man is. In his school days his model had been Napoleon, partly because of a boy’s natural admiration for the criminal and partly because his teachers had made a point of calling this tyrant, who had tried to turn Europe upside down, the greatest evildoer in history. This lead directly to Urich’s joining the cavalry as an ensign as soon as he was able to escape from school. The chances  are that even then, had anyone asked him why he chose this profession, he would no longer have replied: “In order to become a tyrant.” (I,31-32)

He next tried to find a path to greatness through engineering.

But when Ulrich switched from the cavalry to civil engineering, he was merely swapping horses. The new horse had steel legs and ran ten times faster.

From the moment Ulrich set foot in engineering school, he was feverishly partisan. Who still needs the Apollo Belvedere when he had the new forms of a turbodynamo or the rhythmic movements of a steam engine’s pistons before his eyes! Who could still be captivated by the thousand years of chatter about the meaning of good and evil when it turns out that they are not constants at all but functional values, so that the goodness of works depends on historical circumstances, while human goodness depends on the psychotechnical skill with which people’s qualities are exploited? Looked at from a technical point of view, the world is simply ridiculous: impractical in all that concerns human relations, and extremely uneconomic and imprecise in its methods; anyone accustomed to solving his problems with a slide rule cannot take seriously a good half of the assertions people make. (I,33-34)

It is hard to say why engineers don’t quite live up to this vision. Why, for instance, do they so often wear a watch chain slung on a steep, lopsided curve from the vest pocket to a button higher up, or across the stomach in one high and two low loops, as if it were a metrical foot in a poem? Why do they favor tiepins topped with stag’s teeth or tiny horseshoes? Why do they wear suits constructed like the early stages of the automobile? And why, finally, do they never speak of anything but their profession, or if they do speak of something else, why do they have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis? (I,34)

Finally, he settles on mathematics, the soul of the modern world.

Thinking over his time up to that point today, Ulrich might shake his head in wonder, as if someone were to tell him about his previous incarnations; but his third effort was different. [Mathematics] is the new method of thought itself, the very wellspring of the times and the primal source of an incredible transformation. (I,35)

Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddely realized in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Münchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethologic study of a bird’s vocalizing. We have gained reality and lost dream. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. (I,36)

The only people who actually lived in ignorance of these dangers were the mathematicians themselves and their disciples the scientists, whose souls were as unaffected by all this as if they were racing cyclists pedaling away for dear life, blind to everything in the world except the back wheel of the rider ahead of them. But one thing, on the other hand, could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. (I,37)

A New Mistress

July 19, 2010

Ulrich is beaten up by three angry men and, as predicted, he fights back but soon takes a philosophical attitude toward the event. He provides this commentary to a woman who has come to his aid.

At this point he went back in his mind to the sequel of last night’s adventure. As he regained his senses from the beating he had suffered, a cab stopped at the curb; the driver tried to lift up the wounded stranger by the shoulders, and a lady was bending over him with an angelic expression on her face. This child’s picture-book vision, natural to moments of consciousness rising from the depth, soon gave way to reality: the presence of a woman busying herself with him had the effect on Ulrich of a whiff of cologne, superficial and quickening, so that he also instantly knew that he had not been too badly damaged, and tried to rise to his feet with good grace. In this he did not succeed as smoothly as he would have liked, and the lady anxiously offered to drive him somewhere to get help. Ulrich asked to be taken home, and as he really still looked dazed and helpless, she granted his request. Once inside the cab, he quickly recovered his poise. He felt something maternally sensuous beside him, a fine cloud of solicitous idealism, in the warmth of which tiny crystals of doubt were already hatching, filling the air like softly falling snow and generating the fear of some impulsive act as he felt himself becoming a man again. (I,23-24)

He had put the emphasis on the wings and on that bright, mute bird–a notion that did not make much sense but was charged with some of that vast sensuality with which life simultaneously satisfies all the rival contradictions in its measureless body. He now noticed that his neighbor had no idea what he was talking about, and the soft snowfall she was diffusing inside the cab had grown thicker. (I,25)

Two weeks later Bonadea had been his mistress for fourteen days. (I,26)