Archive for the ‘Pseudoreality Prevails’ Category

The Novel and a Warm Belly

October 31, 2010

The slowness of rural and small town life allows a natural life narrative to arise among inhabitants.

Everything feels so simple, he felt. One’s feelings get drowsy, one’s thoughts drift off like clouds after bad weather, and suddenly a clear sky breaks out of the soul, and under that sky a cow in the middle of the path may begin to blaze with meaning; things come intensely alive as if there were nothing else in the world. A single cloud drifting past may transform the whole region: the grass darkens, then shines with wetness; nothing else has happened, and yet it’s been like a voyage from one seashore to another. Or an old man loses his last tooth, and this trifling event may become a landmark in the lives of his neighbors, from which they date their memories. Every evening the birds sing around the village in the same way, in the stillness of the setting sun, but it feels like something new happening every time, as though the world were not yet seven days old! In the country, he thought, the gods still come to people. A man matters, his experiences matter, but in the city, where experiences come by the thousands, we can no longer relate them to ourselves; and this is of course the beginning of life’s notorious turning into abstraction. (I,708)

 But life in the city does not release us from the need for meaning-giving narrative. This need fed the growth of that modern phenomenon, the novel.

But even as he thought all this, he was also aware of how this abstraction extended a man’s power a thousandfold and how, even if from the point of view of any given detail it diluted him tenfold, as a whole it expanded him a hundredfold, and there could be no question of turning the wheel backward. And in one of those apparently random and abstract thoughts that so often assumed importance in his life, it struck him that when one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: “First this happened and then that happened…” It is the simple sequence of events in which the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things is represented in a unidimensional order, as a mathematician would say, stringing all that has occurred in space and time on a single thread, which calms us; that celebrated “thread of the story,” which is, it seems, the thread of life itself. Lucky the man who can say “when,” “before,” and “after”! Terrible things may have happened to him, he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This the trick the novel artificially turns to account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crunching through snow and ice at ten below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device, which even nursemaids can rely on to keep their little charges quiet, this tried-and-true “foreshortening of the mind’s perspective,” were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers. They usually have no use for poems, and although the occasional “because” or “in order that” gets knotted into the thread of life, they generally detest any brooding that goes beyond that; they love the orderly sequence of facts because it has the look of necessity, and the impression that their life has a “course” is somehow their refuge from chaos. It now came to Ulrich that he had lost his elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface. (I,708-709)

It is just this discovery of a style of depicting Ulrich’s life that classifies The Man Without Qualities as modernist, to use Josipovici’s definition.

Compulsion and Liberation

October 29, 2010

As a soixant-huitard who enthusiastically participated in the May événements in Paris, I found Musil’s depiction of the inception of a street action quite accurate. A handful of youth galvanize a crowd to march on Count Leinsdorf’s palace, in protest of the Campaign.

Trading speculations and saying things that were not at all in character, Walter fell in with the rest, who were gradually transforming themselves from small crumbling groups of people, just waiting, and other people walking aimlessly along, into a procession  that advanced toward the supposed scene of events, still without any definite intent yet visibly growing in density and energy. Emotionally they were still at the stage where they were like rabbits scampering about outside their burrows, ready to scurry back inside at the slightest sign of danger, when from the front of the disordered procession, far ahead and out of sight, a more definite sort of excitement came rippling back toward the rear. Up there a group of students, young men anyway, who had already taken some sort of action and had returned from “the battlefield,” joined the vanguard, and sounds of talking and shouting too far away to be understood, garbled messages, and waves of excitement were running through the crowd and, depending on the listeners’ temperaments or what scraps of information they snatched up, spread indignation or fear, the itch to fight or some moral imperative, causing the gathering mob to thrust forward in a mood guided by the kind of commonplace notions that takes a different form inside every head but are of so little significance, despite being uppermost in the consciousness, that they join in a single vital force that affects the muscles more than the brain. In the midst of this moving throng Walter also became infected and soon found himself in that stimulated but vacuous state rather like the early stages of drunkenness. Nobody really knows the exact nature of the change that turns individuals with a will of their own into a mob with a single will, capable of going to the wildest extremes of good or evil and incapable of stopping to think anything through, even if most of the individuals involved have spent their lives dedicated to moderation and prudence in the conduct of their private affairs. A mob in a  state of mounting excitement for which it has no outlet will probably discharge all that energy into the first available channel, and  those among its participants who are the most excitable, sensitive, and most vulnerable to pressure, those at the extreme ends of the spectrum who are primed to commit sudden acts of violence or rise to unprecedented levels of sentimental generosity, are most likely to set the example and lead the way; they are the points of least resistance in the mass, but the shout that is uttered through them rather than by them, the stone that somehow finds its way into their hands, the emotion into which they burst, is what opens the way along which the others, who have been generating excitement among themselves to the point where it must be discharged, then come surging in a frenzy, giving to what happens the character of mob action, which is experienced by those involved in it as both compulsion and liberation. (I,683-684)

Metaphor as a Metaphor for Life

October 27, 2010

Ulrich realizes that his life has followed two tracks, which he sees metaphorically as two trees.

These two trees were the shape his life had taken, like a two-pronged fork. He could not say when it had entered into the sign of the tree with the hard, tangled branchwork, but it had happened early on, for even his immature Napoleonic plans had shown him to be a man who looked on life as a problem he had set himself, something it was his vocation to work out.

…Harder to recognize because more shadowy and dreamlike were the ramifications of the other tree that formed an image for his life, rooted perhaps in some primal memory of a childlike relationship to the world, all trustfulness and yielding, which had lived on as a haunting sense of having once beheld the whole vast earth in what normally only fills the flowerpot in which the herbs of morality send up their stunted sprouts. (I,646)

He sees a way to integration through another metaphor.

Now, as he realized that this failure to achieve integration had lately been apparent to him in what he called the strained relationship between literature and reality, metaphor and truth, it flashed on Ulrich how much all this signified than any random insight that turned up in one of those meandering conversations he had recently engaged in with the most inappropriate people. These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. But even what there is in life of common likes and dislikes, accord and rejection, admiration, subordination, leadership, imitation, and their opposites, the many ways man relates to himself and to nature, which are not yet and perhaps never will be purely objective, cannot be understood in other than metaphoric or figurative terms.  No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. (I,647)

Musil on Metaphor

October 26, 2010

Bonadea is desperate for Ulrich’s attention. She bursts into Diotema’s salon with a wild story about saving Moosbrugger. Ulrich sees through her and feels a sudden tenderness.

Ulrich went up to her and put his arm around her shoulder; together they turned and looked into the darkness outside. A faint glimmer of light from the house was dissolving in the infinite darkness beyond so that it looked like a dense mist softening the air, and Ulrich felt as if they were staring out into a mildly chilly October night, though it was late winter; the whole city seemed wrapped in a vast woolen blanket. Then it occurred to him that one could just as well say that a woolen blanket resembled a night in October.

“…It’s as though I had dreamed that the tip of your breast is like a poppy leaf. Does that give me the right to think it is any such thing?”

He stopped to think. So did Bonadea. He was thinking, “One human being, when you think of it, means nothing more to another one than a string of similes.” Bonadea’s thinking concluded with: “Come, let’s get away from here.” (I,633)

The metaphor of the poppy leaf and nipple, recalls Ulrich, occurred in a dream.

Now he experience a moment of that special lucidity that lights up everything going on behind the scenes of oneself, though one may be far from being able to express it. He understood the relationship between a dream and what it expresses, which is no more than analogy, a metaphor, something he often thought about. A metaphor holds a truth and an untruth, felt as inextricably bound up with each other. If one takes it as it is and gives it some sensual form, in the shape of reality, one gets dreams and art; but between these two and real, full-scale life there is a glass partition. If one analyzes it for its rational content and separates the unverifiable from the verifiable, one gets truth and knowledge but kills the feeling. Like certain kinds of bacteria that split an organic substance into two parts, mankind splits the original living body of the metaphor in the firm substance of reality and truth, and the glassy unreality of intuition, faith, and artifact. There seems to be nothing in between, and yet how often a vaguely conceived undertaking does succeed, if only one goes ahead without worrying it too much! Ulrich felt that he had at last emerged from the tangle of streets through which his thoughts and moods had so often taken him, into the central square where all streets had their beginning. (I,634-635)

Complex Irrationalism

October 12, 2010

Gerda is torn between being submissive with Ulrich or her own woman with the insipid Hans. She and Hans have a virtue of not allowing lust to tarnish their mystical relationship. And no wonder:

Hans was a colorless young man, bony without being tall or strong, who tended to wipe his hands on his hair or his clothes and peer, whenever possible, into a small round tin-framed pocket mirror, was exactly how Gerda pictured the early Roman Christians, forgathering in their underground catacombs in defiance of their persecutors. It was not an exact correspondence of details that she meant, after all, but the basic general feeling of terror shared with the early Christian martyrs, as she saw them. Actually, she found the well-scrubbed and scented pagans more attractive, but taking sides with the Christians was a sacrifice one owed to one’s character. For Gerda the lofty demands of conscience had thereby acquired a moldy, slightly revolting smell, which went perfectly with the mystical outlook Hans had opened up to her. (I,602)

Something else attracts Gerda to Hans and his followers. It is the promise of a mystical release, not unlike that experienced by the intensely religious in the old days.

If nowadays anyone told a story of God speaking to him personally, seizing him painfully by the hair to lift him up to Himself, or slipping into his breast in some nuninous, intensely sweet way, no one would take any of these details embodying the experience literally, least of all God’s professional functionaries, who, as children of a scientific age, feel an understandable horror of being compromised by hysterical and maniacal adherents. Consequently we must either regard such experiences, of frequent and well-recorded occurrence in the Middle Ages and in classical antiquity, as delusions and pathological phenomena, or face the possibility that there is something to them, something independent of the mythical terms in which it has hitherto been expressed: a pure kernel of experience, in other words, that would have to pass strict empirical test of credibility, where long before anyone could deal with the next question,what conclusions to draw from this with regard to our relationship to the Beyond. And while faith based on theological reasoning is today universally engaged in a bitter struggle with doubt and resistance from the prevailing brand of rationalism, it does seem that the naked fundamental experience itself, that primal seizure of mystic insight, stripped of religious concepts, perhaps no longer to be regarded as a religious experience at all, has undergone an immense expansion and now forms the soul of that complex irrationalism that haunts our era like a night bird lost in the dawn. (I,602-603)

Maintaining our Equilibrium

October 7, 2010

It is not just clothing that helps us project a sense of self, a statement that one is at ease in what is in fact a vast and nearly incomprehensible cosmos.

For it is not only clothes that have such power, but convictions, prejudices, theories, hopes, faith in something or other, ideas, even thoughtlessness insofar as it is its quality of self-reflexiveness that gives it a sense of its own rightness. All these, by endowing us with the  properties we lend them, serve the aim of presenting the world in a light that emanates from ourselves, and this is basically the task for which everyone has a method of his own. With great and varied skills we create a delusion that enables us to coexist serenely with the most monstrous things, simply because we recognize these frozen grimaces of the universe as a table or a chair, a shout or an outstretched arm, a speed or a roast chicken. We are capable of living between one open chasm of sky above our heads and another, slightly camouflaged chasm of sky beneath our feet, feeling as untroubled on earth as if we were in a room with the door closed. We know that our life is ebbing away both outward into the inhuman distances of cosmic space and downward into the inhuman microspace of the atom, while we go on dealing with a middle stratum, the things that make up our world, without troubling ourselves at all over the fact that this proves only a preference for impressions received in the middle distance, as it were. Such an attitude is considerably beneath our intellectual level, but that alone proves what a large part our feelings play in our intelligence. Our most important psychological machinery is, in fact, kept in motion to maintain us in a certain equilibrium, and all the emotions, all the passions in the world are nothing compared with the immense but wholly unconscious effort human beings make just to preserve their peace of mind. This works so well that there seems no point in drawing attention to it. But looked at closely, it does seem to be an extremely artificial state of mind that enables a man to walk upright among the circling constellations and permits him, surrounded as he is by an almost infinite unknown, to slip his hand with aplomb between the second and third buttons of his jacket. (I,574)

Musil on Fashion

October 7, 2010

Bonadea is hurt by Ulrich’s rejection. She adopts a strategy of insinuating herself into the Parallel Campaign. She suspects Ulrich is in love with Diotema and so begins to transform herself into her rival’s likeness.

The poise and beauty of her idol, and the latter’s sense of fulfillment, then rippled upward inside her like the tiny, shallow, warm waves of a mysterious if not yet deeply consummated union, much like sitting at the ocean’s rim dabbling one’s feet in the surf. What she did was akin to an act of religious worship–from the times when primitive man crept bodily into the masks of the gods down to the rites and ceremonies of civilization, so carnal a joy of faithful mimicry has never quite lost its power!–and had all the greater hold on Bonadea because of her compulsive love of clothes and adornments. When Bonadea studied her appearance in a new dress in her mirror, she could never have imagined a time to come when leg-of-mutton sleeves, little curls framing the forehead, and long bell-shaped skirts would be replaced by knee-length skirts and hair cut like a boy’s. Nor would she have argued against it; her brain was simply incapable of imagining such a possibility. She had always dressed like a lady and contemplated the latest fashions, every six months, with reverence, as though she were face-to-face with eternity. Even though an appeal to her intelligence could have brought her to admit that such things were transitory, it would in no way have lessened her reverence for them. The tyranny of the mundane entered her bloodstream unnoticed, and the times when one turned down the corner of one’s visiting cards, or sent one’s friends New Year’s greetings, or slipped off one’s gloves at a ball, were so long gone by the time one did not do any of these things that they might as well have been a hundred years in the past: that is, wholly unimaginable, impossible, and outdated. Which is why Bonadea without her clothes on was such a comical sight, stripped as she was of all her ideological protection too, the naked victim of an inexorable compulsion that was sweeping her off her feet with the inhuman force of an earthquake. (I,572)

‘Hurrying on past the thought of seeing Bonadea naked, we ponder the power of clothes to project our inner being into the world.

Clothes, when abstracted from the flow of present time and their transmogrifying function on the human body, and seen as forms in themselves, are strange tubes and excrescences worthy of being classed with such facial decorations as the ring through the nose or the lip-stretching disk. But how enchanting they become when seen together with the qualities they bestow on their wearer! What happens then is no less than the infusion, into some tangled lines on a piece of paper, of the meaning of a great word. Imagine a man’s invisible kindness and moral excellence suddenly looming as a halo the size of the full moon and golden as an egg yolk right over his head, the way it does in old religious paintings, as he happens to be strolling down the avenue or heaping little tea sandwiches on his plate–what  an overwhelming, shattering, sensation it would be! And just such a power to make the invisible, and even the non-existent, visible is what a well-made outfit demonstrates every day of the week. (I,573-574)


October 6, 2010

General Stumm resumes his musings on the mysterious nature of the civilian world. As a military man he knew quite well the problem of maintaining order among the “unredeemed” peoples of Kakania, the Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Bosnians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Italians and more. But now all he hears from the civilians is the need for a redeemer.

Not that the General regarded this as something to be taken anymore literally than anything else people were saying. “If the Redeemer were to come again today,” he said to himself, “they would bring down his Government just like any other.” Judging by his own personal experience, he supposed that this came of too many people writing too many books and newspaper articles. “How wise of the army to forbid officers to write books without special permission,” he thought, and was startled to feel a hot wave of loyalty for the first time in ages. He was obviously starting to think too much! It all came of keeping company with the civilian mind, which had evidently lost the advantage of having a firm perspective on the world. The General saw this clearly now, and it enabled him to understand all that palaver about redemption from yet another angle. The General’s mind strayed back to distant memories of his classes in religion and history for support along this new line of thought, and if his welter of ideas could have been lifted bodily out of his head and ironed out, it would have looked more or less as follows: To begin briefly with the ecclesiastical aspect of things, as long as one belied in religion, one could defenestrate a good Christian or a pious Jew from any story in the castle of hope or prosperity, and he would always land on his spiritual feet, as it were, because all religions included in their view of life an irrational, incalculable element they called God’s inscrutable will. Whenever a man could not make sense of things, he merely had to remember this rogue element in the equation, and his spirit could rub its hands with satisfaction, as it were. This falling on one’s feet and rubbing one’s hands is called having a working philosophy of life, and this is what modern man has lost. He must either give up thinking about his life altogether, which is what many people are quite content to do, or else he finds himself strangely torn between having to think and yet never quite seeming to arrive at a satisfactory resolution of his problems. This conflict has in the course of history taken on the form of a total skepticism as often as it has that of a renewed subjection to faith, and its most prevalent form today is probably the conviction that without a spiritual dimension there can be no human life worthy of the name, but with too much of it there can be none either. It is on this conviction that our civilization as a whole is based. It takes great care to provide for education and research, but never too well, only enough money to keep education and research properly subordinated to the great sums expended on entertainment, cars, and guns. (I,567-568)


October 5, 2010

Count Leinsdorf, like many in Europe at that time, had a dislike of Germany. But Diotima had a great liking for a particular German, Arnheim, and this difference had begun to have a subtle cooling effect on their relations.

Even though she never failed to treat the great nobleman with all due reverence, something had gone out of her radiance toward him, something like the change from a summer sun to a winter sun. (I,558)

The world apparently needs its negative entities, images of the unwanted, which attract to themselves all the disgust and disharmony, all the slag of a smoldering fire, such as life tends to leave behind. Out of all the “could be” there suddenly crystallizes, to the stunned amazement of everyone concerned, the “it is,” and whatever drops away during this disorderly process, whatever is unsuitable, superfluous, unsatisfying, seems to coagulate into the vibrant universal hatred agitating all living creatures that is apparently so characteristic of our present civilization, which compensates for all our lack of satisfaction with ourselves by allowing us to feel that easy dissatisfaction so readily inspired by everyone else. Trying to isolate specific scapegoats for this displeasure is merely part of the oldest psychotechnical bag of tricks known to man. Just as the medicine man drew the carefully prepared fetish from his patient’s body, the good Christian projects his own faults onto the good Jew, whom he accuses of seducing him into committing advertisements, high interest rates, newspapers, and all that sort of thing. In the course of time people have blamed their troubles on bad weather, witches, socialists, intellectuals, generals, and in the year before the Great War, Austrians saw a most welcome scapegoat of sort in Prussian Germany. Unfortunately, the world has lost not only God but the Devil as well. As it projects its unwanted evil onto the scapegoat, so it projects its desired good onto ad hoc ideal figures, which it reveres for doing what it finds inconvenient to do for itself. We let others perform the hard tricks as we watch from our seats: that is sport. We let others talk themselves into the most one-sided exaggerations: that’s idealism. We shake off evil and make those wo are spattered by it our scapegoats. It is one way of creating an order in the world, but this technique of hagiolatry and fattening the scapegoats by projection is not without danger, because it fills the world with all the tensions of resolved inner conflicts. People alternately kill each other or swear eternal brotherhood without quite knowing just how real any of it is, because they have projected part of themselves onto the outer world, and everything seems to be happening party out there in reality and partly behind the scenes, so that we have an illusory fencing match between love and hate. The ancient belief in demons, which made heavenly-hellish spirits responsible for all the good and bad that came one’s way, worked much better, more accurately, more tidily, and we can only hope that, as we advance in psychotechnology, we shall make our way back to it. (I,559-560)


Future Leaders

October 3, 2010

On the very eve of the great catastrophe, the young are already planning the next one. Fischel, the banker, is in despair at how his life turned out. His wife is cold and his daughter has taken up with a group of “Christian-Germanics.”

Hans Sepp, the graduate student, who had not the slightest prospect of being able to keep a wife, had come into the household as a tutor but, owing to the conflicts that were tearing the family apart, had become its tyrant. Now he was discussing with his friends, who had become Gerda’s friends, at the Fischels’, how to save the German aristocracy from being ensnared by Diotima–of whom it was said that she made no distinction between persons of her own race and those of an alien race–and caught up in the nets of the Jewish spirit. While in the presence of Leo Fischel [a Jew, JE] this sort of talk was usually tempered with a certain philosophic objectivity, he still heard enough of certain terms and principles for it to get on this nerve. They worried that such a campaign, which was bound to lead to total catastrophe, should have surfaced in an era not destined to bring forth great symbols, and the recurrent expressions “deeply meaningful,” “upward humanization,” and “free personhood” were enough by themselves to make the pince-nez quiver on Fischel’s nose every time he heard them. He had to stand by while there proliferated in his own house such concepts as “the art of living thought,” “the graph of spiritual growth,” and “action on the wing.” He discovered that a biweekly “hour of purification” was held regularly under his roof. He demanded an explanation. It turned out that what they meant by this was reading the poems of Stefan George together. Leo Fischel searched his old encyclopedia in vain for the poet’s name. But what irritated him most of all, old-style liberal that he was, was that these green pups referred to all the high government officials, bank presidents, and leading university figures in the Parallel Campaign as “puffed-up little men”; then there were the world-weary airs they gave themselves, complaining that the times had become devoid of great ideas, if there was anyone left who was ready for great ideas; that even “humanity” had become a mere buzzword, as far as they were concerned, and that only “the nation” or, as they called it, “folk and folkways” still really had any meaning. (I,521)

 Stefan George, with his mysticism and emphasis on power, heroism and loyalty to a strong leader, was to become a favorite of the Nazis. But even Fischel had to admit that these youth’s passion and constant debates on sensuality had an appeal.

Wiser than their years, they disdained “lust” and “the inflated lie about the crude enjoyment of “animal existence,” as they called it, but talkd so much about supersensuality and mystical desire that the startled listener reacted willy-nilly by feeling a certain tenderness for sensuality and physical desires, and even Leo Fischel had to admit that the unbridled ardor of their language sometimes made the listener feel the roots of their ideas shooting down his legs, though he disapproved, because in his opinion great ideas were meant to be uplifting. (I,523)