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)

The Joy in Things

June 28, 2011

Ulrich is reading the mystics to discover the “other
condition,” that state of ecstasy where reason and emotions fuse to experience transcendent reality. Agathe comes close to that condition with no effort.

During this time and from the moment she had stayed behind
alone, Agathe had been living in a state of utter release from all ties to the world, in a sweetly wistful suspension of will; a condition that was like a great height, where only the wide blue sky is to be seen. Once a day she treated herself to a short stroll in town; at home, she read, attended to her affairs, and experienced this mild, trivial business of living with grateful enjoyment. Nothing troubled her state: no clinging to the past, no straining for the future; if her eye lit upon some nearby object, it was like coaxing a baby lamb to her: either it came gently closer or it took no notice of her at all—but no time did her mind deliberately take hold of it with that motion of inner grasping which gives to every act of cold understanding a certain violence as well as a futility, for it drives away the joy that is in things. (II, 924-925)

She looks at herself in the mirror, the way a lover might
look at her.

On the morning after her brother had left, Agathe was
already considering her appearance with great care: it had begun by accident with her face, when her gaze had landed on it and not come back out of the mirror. She was held fast, much as one who sometimes has absolutely no desire
to walk keeps walking a hundred steps, and then another hundred, all the way toward something one catches sight of and yet does not. In this way she was held captive, without vanity, by this landscape of her self, which confronted
her behind the shimmer of glass. She looked at her hair, still like bright velvet; she opened the collar of her reflection’s dress and slipped the dress off it s shoulders; then she undressed the image altogether and studied it down
to the rosy nails, to where the body tapers off into fingers and toes and hardly belongs to itself anymore. (II, 926)

This image if front of her is still Hagauer’s wife.

It now seemed odd to her that she was actually Frau Hagauer, and the difference between the clear and close relationship that implied and the vagueness with which the fact reached deep into her being was so great that she seemed to herself to be standing there without a body while the body in the mirror belonged to Frau Hagauer, who was the one who would have to learn to cope with its having committed itself to a situation beneath its dignity. Even in this there was some of that elusive pleasure in living that sometimes startles, and it made Agathe, once she had hastily dressed again, go straight to her bedroom to look for a capsule that must be in her luggage. This small airtight capsule, which had been in her possession almost as long as she had been married to Hagauer, and which she always kept within reach, contained a tiny quantity of a drab powder she had been assured was a deadly poison. (II, 928)

But “I’m sort of dead, in a way” was something Agathe felt
often, and especially in moments like this, when she had just been conscious of her young body’s shapeliness and good health, its taut beauty, equally unfathomable in the mystery of what held it together and what made its elements
decompose in death, she tended to fall from her condition of happy confidence into one of anxiety, amazement, and silence: it was like stepping from a noisy, crowded room and suddenly standing under the shimmering stars.

…Still, the thought of giving up life was anything but a
game for Agathe. It seemed profoundly believable to her that all this frustrating turmoil must be followed by a state of blissful repose, which she could not help imagining in physical terms. She felt it this way because she had no need of the suspenseful illusion that the world could be improved, and
she was always ready to surrender her share in it completely, as long as it could be done in a pleasant fashion.
(ii, 929)

…But in the midst of her laughter of the tumult of some
sensual adventure that continued nonetheless, there lived a disenchantment that made every fiber of her body tired and nostalgic for something else, something best
described as nothingness.

This nothingness had a definite, if indefinable, content.
For a long time she had been in the habit of repeating to herself, on all sorts of occasions, words of Novalis: “What then can I do for my soul, that lives within me like an unsolved riddle, even while it grants the visible man the utmost license, because there is no way it can control him?” But the flickering
light of this utterance always went out again, like a flash of lightning that only left her in darkness, for she did not believe in a soul, as it was something too presumptuous and in any case much to definite for own person. On the other hand, she could not believe in the earthly here and now either. To understand this rightly, one need only realize that this turning away from an earthly order when there is no faith in a supernatural order is profoundly natural response, because in every head, alongside the process of logical thought, with its austere and simple orderliness reflecting the conditions of our external world, there is an affective world, whose logic, insofar as it can be spoken of at all, corresponds to feelings, passions, moods. The laws governing these two bear roughly the same relation to each other as those of a lumberyard, where chunks of wood are hewn into rectangular shapes and stacked ready for transport, bear to the dark tangled laws of the forest, with its mysterious workings and rustlings. And since the objects of our thought are in no way quite independent of its conditions, theses two modes of thinking not only mingle in each person but can, to a certain extent, even present him with two worlds, at least immediately before and after that “first mysterious and indescribable moment: of which a famous religious thinker has said that it occurs in every sensory perception before vision and feeling separate and fall into the places in which one is accustomed to find them: one of them an object
in space and the other a mental process enclosed with the observer.

And so, whatever the relationship may be between objects and
feeling in the civilized person’s mature view of the world, everyone surely knows those ecstatic moments in which a split has not yet occurred, as though water and land had not yet been divided and the waves of feeling still shared the same horizon as the hills and valleys that form the shape of things. (II, 930-931)

And in this way her spirit was so filled with itself that
even the liveliest idea had something of the soundless floating quality of a memory about it, everything that came her way spread out into a limitless present. (II,932)

Now she was filled with a fierce longing to recover that
mood, but such moments of highest intensity cannot be willed by force. It was only when her furious efforts proved useless that she realized, with the clarity which a pale day takes on after sunset, that the only thing she could hope for, and what in fact she was waiting for, with an impatience merely masked by her solitude, was the strange propect that her brother had once half-humorously called the Millennium. (II,934)

An Element of Pathology

June 25, 2011

Is Clarisse mad or a prophet (or both)? She has gotten her
brother Siegmund to try to get her permission to visit Moosbrugger, but he has been unsuccessful. The two of them, along with Walter and Meingast, share a vegetarian dinner of wholesome foods and discuss her fascination with Moosbrugger.

“You were telling me about a certain Moosbrugger, that he
was a carpenter…”

Clarisse kept her eyes on him.

“Who else was a carpenter? The Savior! Wasn’t that what you
said?” In fact, you even told me that you had written a letter about it to some influential person, didn’t you?”

“Stop it!” Walter burst out. His head was spinning. But he
had no sooner expressed his protest than it occurred to him that the letter was something else he had not heard about, and growing weak he asked: “What letter?”

He got no answer from anyone. Meingast, passing over his
question, said: “it’s one of the most timely ideas. We’re incapable of liberating ourselves by our own efforts, no doubt about it; we call it democracy, but that’s merely the political term for our psychological state, our ‘you can do it this
way, but you cand also do it another way.’ Ours is the era of the ballot. Each year we determine our sexual ideal, the beauty queen, by ballot, and all we have done by making empirical science our intellectual ideal is to let the
facts do the voting for us. We are living in an unphilosophical, dispirited age; it doesn’t have the courage to decide what is valuable and what isn’t, and democracy means, expressed most succinctly: Do whatever is happening!…”

Clarisse feels that not only Moosbrugger has a special significance but also the sexual deviant they saw from their window. Meingast explains that she is not so much deluded as she is a seeker of a new truth.

“But Clarisse says: ‘It is not by chance that this man
stopped under my window…’ Now, let us try to understand her rightly. She’s wrong, for causally the incident is, of course, a coincidence. But what Clarisse is really saying is: If I regard everything as explained, then a person will never be able to  change the world. She regards it as inexplicable that a murderer whose name, if I am not mistaken, is Moosbrugger happens to be a carpenter; she regards it as inexplicable than an unknown sufferer from sexual disturbances should have stopped just under her window; and so she has fallen into the habit of regarding all sorts of other tings that happen to her as inexplicable and…” Again Meingast kept his listeners waiting awhile; his voice had become reminiscent of a man with a resolve who is firmly but warily tiptoeing up to something, and now he pounced: “And so she will do something!” Meingast ended on a strong note.

It gave Clarisse goose pimples.

“I repeat,” Meingast said, “this is not subject to
intellectual criticism. But intellectuality is, as we know, only the expression or the tool of a life that has dried out, while the point Clarisse is making may arise from another sphere: that of the will…”

Meingast could have continued talking, now that he had hit
his stride: To begin with, the idea of salvation had always been
anti-intellectual. What the world today needs more than anything else is a strong, healthy delusion” was what he had been on the point of saying, but he had swallowed it in favor of the other ending. Second, there was the concomitant
physical meaning implied in the etymology of salvation, its link with “salve” carrying an inference that deeds
alone could save, or at least experiences involving the whole person, neck and crop. Third, he had been prepared to say that the overintellectualization of the male could under certain conditions bring woman to the fore as the instinctive
leader in action, of which Clarisse was one of the first examples. Finally, there were all the transformations of the salvation idea in the history of peoples, and the present movement from salvation as a purely religious concept,
which had been dominant for centuries, toward the realization that salvation must be brought about by resoluteness of will and even, if necessary, by force. Saving the world by force happened to be his central idea at the moment. (II,905-906)

[Walter] appeared to be trying to defend himself and
Clarisse as well, from being misunderstood. Even when her notions seemed to be incoherent, he said, one could always detect behind them an element of pathology that was part of the ferment of the times; it was her most curious
faculty. She was like a dowsing rod pointing to hidden springs—in this case, the necessity of replacing modern man’s passive, merely intellectual, rational attitude with “values.” The form of intelligence of the time had destroyed all
firm ground, so it was only the will—indeed, it couldn’t be done otherwise, then it was only violence—that could create a new hierarchy of values in which a person could find beginning and end for ins inner life…He was repeating,
reluctantly and yet with enthusiasm, what he had heard from Meingast.

Musil published Into the Millenium (The Criminals) in 1932. One could hardly ask for a better summary of the cultural forces destroying Germany: contempt for democracy, appreciation of the irrational, salvation through violence, the worship of action, the creation of a strong delusion/myth and the power of the will.

The Experimental Life

June 19, 2011

Agathe has forged an alteration to her father’s will with the intention of cutting out her estranged husband, Hagauer. Ulrich is troubled by this deceit and struggles with how to address this with Agathe. But what is morality in modern times?

It occurred to him right at the start, for instance, that whenever he had taken a “moral” stance so far, he had always been psychologically worse off than when he was doing or thinking something that might usually be considered “immoral.” This is a common occurrence, for in situations that are in conflict with their surroundings these ideas and actions develop all their energies, while in the mere doing of what is right and proper they understandably behave as if they were paying taxes. This suggests that all evil is carried out with zest and imagination, while good is distinguished by an unmistakable dreariness and dearth of feeling. Ulrich recalled that his sister had expressed this moral dilemma quite casually by asking him whether being good was no longer a good thing. It ought to be difficult and heartbreaking, she had maintained, and wondered why, nevertheless, moral people were almost always bores.

He smiled contentedly, spinning this thought out with the realization that Agathe and he were as one in their particular opposition to Hagauer, which could be roughly characterized as that of people who were bad in a good way to a man who was good in a bad way. Leaving out of account the broad middle of life’s spectrum, which is, reasonably enough, occupied by people whose minds have not been troubled by the general terms good and evil since they let go of their mother’s apron strings, there remain the two extremes where purposeful moral efforts are still made. Today these are left to just such bad/good and good/bad people, the first kind never having seen good fly or heard it sing, thus expecting their fellowmen to enthuse with them about a moral landscape where stuffed birds perch on dummy trees, while the second, the good/bad mortals, exasperated by their competitors, industriously show a penchant for evil, at least in theory, as if they were convinced that only wrongdoing, which is emotionally not quite as threadbare as doing good, still twitches with a bit of moral vitality. (II,893-894)

Ulrich has never personally found satisfaction is any of the passing movements that sought a new ground for morality.

Ulrich was not the man to indulge himself lightly in such exaltation of his feelings, least of all with this letter to write, so he redirected his mind into general reflections. These would have been incomplete had he not remembered how easily and often, in the times he had lived through, the longing for some duty rooted in completeness had led to first one virtue, than another, being singled out from among the available supply, to be made the focus of noisy glorification. National, Christian, humanistic virtues had all taken their turn; once, it was the virtue of chromium steel, another time, the virtue of kindness; then it was individuality, and then fellowship; today it is the fraction of a second, and yesterday it was historical equilibrium. The changing moods of public life basically depend on the exchange of one such ideal for another: it had always left Ulrich unmoved, and only made him feel that he was standing on the sidelines. Even now all it meant for him was a filling in of the general picture, for only incomplete insight can lead one to believe that one can get at life’s moral inexplicability, whose complication have become overwhelming, by means of one of the interpretations already embedded within it. Such efforts merely resemble the movement of a sick person restlessly changing his position, while the paralysis that felled him progresses inexorably. (II,896)

Can morality be re-defined with scientific precision?

Even in his greatest dedication to science he had never managed to forget that people’s goodness and beauty come from what they believe, not from what they know. But faith had always been bound up with knowledge, even if that knowledge was illusory, ever since those primordial days of its magic beginnings. That ancient knowledge has long since rotted away, dragging belief down with it into the same decay, so that today the connection must be established anew. Not, of course, by raising faith “to the level of knowledge,” but by still in some way making it take flight from that height. The art of transcending knowledge must again be practiced. And since no one man can do this, all men must turn their minds to it, whatever else their minds might be on. When Ulrich at this moment thought about the ten-year plan, or the hundred- or thousand-year plan that mankind would have to devise in order to work toward a goal it can have no way of knowing, he soon realized that this was what he had long imagined, under all sorts of names, as the truly experimental life. (II,897)

But Ulrich is not naïve.

The stern glow on his face went out, and his dangerous favorite idea struck him as ridiculous. As though with one glance through a suddenly opened window, he felt what was really around him: cannons, and business deals. The notion that people who lived in this fashion could ever join in a planned navigation of their spiritual destiny was simply inconceivable, and Ulrich had to admit that historical development had never come about by means of any such coherent combination of ideas as the mid of the individual may just manage in a pinch; the course of history was always wasteful and dissipated, as if it had been flung on the table by the fist of some low-life gambler. He actually felt a little ashamed (II,898)

Into the Millenium

June 18, 2011

Agathe tells her brother that she wants to move in with him, at least until her divorce is finalized. He half jokingly proclaims the arrival of the Millennium.

“Do you realize,” Ulrich said by way of an answer, “that we shall be entering into the Millennium?”

“What’s that?”

“We’ve talked so much about the love that isn’t a stream flowing toward its goal but a state of being like the ocean. Now tell me honestly: When they told you in school that the angels in heaven did nothing but bask in the presence of the Lord and sing His praises, were you able to imagine this blissful state of doing nothing and thinking nothing?”

“I always thought it must be rather boring, which is certainly due to my imperfection,” was Agathe’s answer.

“But after everything we’ve agreed on,” Ulrich explained, “you must now imagine this ocean as a state of motionlessness and detachment, filled with everlasting, crystal-clear events. In ages past, people tried to imagine such a life on earth. That is the Millennium, formed in our own image and yet like no world we know. That’s how we’ll live now! We shall cast off all self-seeking, we shall collect neither goods, nor knowledge, nor lovers, nor friends, nor principles, nor even ourselves! Our spirit will open up, dissolving boundaries toward man and beast, spreading open in such a way that we can no longer remain ‘us’ but will maintain our identities only by merging with all the world!” (II,870-871)

In a conversation a little later with Diotema’s husband, Tuzzi, Ulrich turns from the oceanic feeling to the flowing of a stream over a barrier as a metaphor for soul.

“What the psychologists say, I think,” Ulrich continued, “is that what we call conscious actions is the result of the stimulus not just flowing in and out through a reflex arc but being forced into a detour. That makes the world we experience and the world in which we act, which seem to us one and the same, actually more like the water above and below a mill wheel, connected by a sort of dammed-up reservoir of consciousness, with the inflow and the outflow dependent on regulation of level, pressure, and so forth. Or in other words, if something goes wrong on one of the two levels—an estrangement from the world, say, or a disinclination to action—we could reasonably assume that a second, or higher, consciousness might be formed in this fashion….”

Ulrich had gradually become aware that he was expressing, in ignominious form and in curious company, ideas that might be not at all unsuited to explain the feelings that obscurely stirred his own heart. The surmise that in a state of enhanced receptivity an overflowing and receding of experiences might arise that would connect the senses boundlessly and gently as a sheet of water with all creation called to mind his long talks with Agathe, and his face involuntarily took on an expression that was partly obdurate, partly forlorn. (II,876-877)

He goes to see an un-well Diotema, where he comforts her with a kiss and a hold of the hand. He experiences the oceanic loss of self in a small space.

The powder-fine scent of her nearness clung to his face like a puff of cloud. And although this gallant kiss on the hand had been only in jest, it was like infidelity in leaving behind a certain bitter aftertaste of desire, of having leaned so closely over a person that one drank from her like an animal, and no longer saw one’s own image rising back up out of the water. (II,886)




A Showman and His Spectators

June 12, 2011

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.

The Other Condition

June 5, 2011

Agathe asks Ulrich what he has spent his days reading.  He is reluctant to answer, perhaps because he must reply with irony.

Agathe’s relationship to him, which hovered between sister and wife, stranger and friend, without being equitable to any one of them, was not even based on a far-reaching accord between their thoughts or feelings, as he had often told himself, yet it was in complete accord—as he was now almost astonished to note—with the fact, which had crystallized after relatively few days full of countless impressions not easy to review in a moment, that Agathe’s mouth was on his hair with no further claim, and that his hair was becoming warm and moist from her breath. This was as spiritual as it was physical, for when Agathe repeated her question Ulrich was overcome with a seriousness such as he had not felt wince the credulous days of his youth; and before this cloud of imponderable seriousness fled again, a cloud that extended from the space behind his back to the book before him, on which his thoughts were resting, he had given an answer that astonished him more for the total absence of irony in its tone than for its meaning.

“I’m instructing myself about the ways of the holy life.”

He stood up; not to move away from his sister but in order to be able to see her better from a few steps away.

“You needn’t laugh,” he said. “I’m not religious; I’m studying the road to holiness to see if it might also be possible to drive a car on it!” (II,815)

He explained: “The saints say: Once I was imprisoned, then I was drawn out of myself and immersed in God without knowledge. The emperors out hunting, as we read about them in our storybooks, describe it differently: They tell how a stag appeared to them with a cross between its antlers, causing the murderous spear to drop from their hands; and then they built a chapel on the spot so they could get on with their hunting. The rich, clever ladies in whose circles I move will answer immediately, if you should ask them about it, that the last artist who painted such experiences was van Gogh, who is a superb investment and who cut his ear off because his painting didn’t do enough when measured against the rapture of things. But the great majority of our people will say, on the contrary, that cutting your ear off is not a German way of expressing deep feelings; a German way is that unmistakable vacuousness of the elevated gaze one experiences on a mountaintop. For them the essence of human sublimity lies in solitude, pretty little flowers, and murmuring little brooks; and yet even in that bovine exaltation, with its undigested delight in nature, there lurks the misunderstood last echo of a mysterious other life. So when all is said and done, there must be something of the sort, or it must have existed at some time!”

“Then you shouldn’t make fun of it,” Agathe objected, grim with curiosity and radiant with impatience.

“I only make fun of it because I love it,” Ulrich said curtly. (II,817)


This visionary state need not be religious; in fact, religion destroys this condition.

“Anyway, it’s not the only time I taked to you about the kind of vision that gives and the kind that receives, about the male and female principles, the hermaphroditism of the primal imagination and so on—I can say a lot about these things., As if my mouth were as far away from me as the moon, which is also always on hand for confidential chats in the night! But what these believers have to say about their souls’ adventures,” he went on, mingling the bitterness of his words with objectivity and even admiration, “is sometimes written with the force and the ruthless analytic conviction of a Stendhal. But only”—he limited this—“as long as they stick to the phenomena and their judgement doesn’t enter in, which is corrupted by their flattering conviction that they’ve been singled out by God to have direct experience of Him.”…It’s an everlasting pity that no trained scientists have visions! He ended his lengthy reply.

“Do you think they could?” Agathe was testing him.

Ulrich hesitated for an instant. Then he answered like a believer: “I don’t know; maybe it could happen to me!” When he heard himself saying these words he smiled, as if to mitigate them.  (II,819-820)

And secular religion is even more inhospitable.

“And when confessional authority over the spirit and its vocabulary became outmoded, our condition understandably came to be regarded as nothing more than a chimera. Why should bourgeois culture, in replacing the old religious culture, be more religious than its predecessor? Bourgeois culture has reduced this other condition to the status of a dog fetching intuitions. There are hordes of people today who find fault with rationality and would like us to believe that in their wisest moments they were doing their thinking with the help of some special, suprarational faculty. That’s the final public vestige of it all, itself totally rationalistic. What’s left of the drained swamp is rubbish! And so, except for its uses in poetry, this old condition is excusable only in uneducated people in the first weeks of a love affair, as a temporary aberration, like green leaves that  every so often sprout posthumously from the wood of beds and lecterns; but if it threatens to revert to its original luxuriant growth, it is unmercifully dug up and rooted out!” (II,833)


Myth of Unity

June 3, 2011

We end Vol. 1 with Ulrich’s project for applying scientific precision to healing the rift between “literature and reality, metaphor and truth” (I, 647) stalled.

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 rejections, 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. (I,647)

Ulrich turns to myth, looking for a transcendental, mystical solution.

He reunites with his sister at his father’s funeral. His very first impressions of her suggests she is a missing part of himself.

The loose lounging suit of soft wool he put on was patterned in black and gray squares, almost a Pierrot costume, gathered at the waist, wrists, and ankles; he liked its comfort, which felt pleasant after that sleepless night and the long train journey, as he came down the stairs. But when he entered the room where his sister was waiting, he was amazed at his costume, for by some mysterious directive of chance he found his appearance echoed in that of a tall, blond Pierrot in a pattern of delicate gray and rust stripes and lozenges, who at first glance looked quite like himself.

“I had no idea we were twins!” Agathe said, her face lighting up with a smile. (II,734)

As she spoke, he studied her face again. It did not seem very like his own, but perhaps he was mistaken, maybe it was like the same face done in pastels and in a woodcut, the difference in the medium obscuring the congruence of line and plane.

She is a woman without qualities.

There was something in this face he found disturbing. After a while, he realized that he simply could not read its expression, what was missing was whatever it is that enables one to draw the usual inferences about the person. It was an expressive face, but nothing in it was emphasized, nothing combined in the way that normally suggests traits of character. (II,735)

But he recognizes a mind ready for struggle.

When she got excited her face did not pucker up but smoothed out even more under the stress going on behind it, like a glove within which the hand clenches into a fist. (II,744)

 “The human being comes in twos.  As man and as woman….We’re all organisms, after all,” he thought, relaxing, “who have to strain all their energies and appetites in an unkind world to prevail against each other. But together with his enemies and victims each one of us is also a particle and an offspring of this world, not at all as detached from the others and as independent as he imagines.” (II,747)

Can the memories of two people talking of a past familiar to both not only supplement each other but coalesce even before they are uttered? Something of the kind was happening at this moment. A shared state of mind surprised and confused both brother and sister, like hands that come out of coats in places one would never expect and suddenly grasp each other. (II,762)

Their closeness arouses in them questions of good and evil.

She caught up with Ulrich, which left her out of breath, and suddenly questions such as this workaday road had probably never heard before rang out, and the wind was torn to ribbons by words whose sounds no other wind had ever carried in these rural hills.

“You surely remember…,” she exclaimed, and named several well-known instances from literature: “You didn’t tell me whether you could forgive a thief, but do you mean you’d regard these murderers as good people?”

“Of course!” Ulrich shouted back. “No—wait. Perhaps they’re just potentially good people, valuable people. They still are, even afterward, as criminals. But they don’t stay good!”

“Then why do you still like them after their crime? Surely not because of their earlier potentiality but because you still find them attractive?”

“But that’s always the way it is,” Ulrich said. “It’s the person who gives character to the deed; it doesn’t happen the other way round. We separate good and evil, but in our hearts we know they’re whole!”

Agathe’s wind-whipped cheeks flushed an even brighter red because the passion of her questions, which words both revealed and hid, had forced her to resort to books for examples. (II,797)

Agathe has abandoned a “good” husband. Ulrich and Agathe both are sick of “good” people.

“There’s an absurd paradox inherent in those good people,” Ulrich said. “They turn a condition into an imperative, a state of grace into a norm, a state of being into a purpose! In a whole lifetime this household of good people never serves up anything but leftovers, while keeping up a rumor that these are the scraps from a great feast day that was celebrated once. It’s true that from time to time a few virtues come back into fashion, but as soon as that happens they lose their freshness again.” (II,812)

The author warns his readers that to continue the novel at this point is to take risks.

But whoever has not already picked up the clues to what was going on between this brother and sister should lay this account aside, for it depicts an adventure of which he will never be able to approve: a journey to the edge of the possible, which led past—and perhaps not always past—then dangers of the impossible and unnatural, even of the repugnant: a “borderline case,” as Ulrich later called it, of limited and special validity, reminiscent of the freedom with which mathematics sometimes resorts to the absurd in order to arrive at the truth. He and Agathe happened upon a path that had much in common with the business of those possessed by God, but they walked it without piety, without believing in God or the soul, nor even in the beyond or in reincarnation. They had come upon it as people of this world, and pursued it as such—this was what was remarkable about it. (II,826)