Saturday, July 14, 2007


"Persons who would before never have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed into uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere become blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top. Not that these people and ideas were bad, not at all; it was only that a little too much of the bad was mixed with the good, of error with truth, of accommodation with meaning. There even seemed to be a privileged proportion of this mixture that got furthest on in the world; just the right pinch of makeshift to bring out the genius in genius and make talent look like a white hope, as a pinch of chicory, according to some people, brings out the right coffee flavor in coffee. Suddenly all the prominent and important positions in the intellectual world were filled by such people, and all decisions went their way. There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent and goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can't put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period's seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitely arrived."--Robert Musil, 1930

I'm reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities for a possible reading group in the fall. I read the first 336 pages of this 1000+ page unfinished opus 15 years ago while reading for generals. At that time I remember finding the text vastly entertaining, the tone so wryly satiric, but never falling into caricature or farce. It's just that Musil was able to see how stupid people are. And he didn't really hold it against them, really. It isn't as if stupidity is uninteresting -- there are as many varieties of it as there are of anything else one could name. And of course adding chicory to coffee is a matter of taste -- for one it enhances, for another it ruins, no need to say that one view or the other is stupid, thick, or stubborn. Musil is always gracious in allowing that things which seem to make no sense must be sensible to someone, even if only as trivial vanities and statements of some subjective verity.

The sense one gets from his book -- and why it's so hard to pin down -- isn't the viewpoint of someone above it all, looking down on human frailties and laughing up his sleeve. As the above quotation indicates, the point of view is of someone who has seen the pageant go by and has noted, not bitterly, not desperately, but somewhat good-humoredly that it really wasn't a pageant worth taking part in. Fifteen years ago, when I was in my early 30s, that perspective seemed that of a "cold, hard eye," perhaps of a wisdom won from disenchantment. But I was still ready for enchantment, or at least wanted to believe I was, but the more I read Musil, the more I too found myself unable to believe in the passions such as the ego conceives of them. I saw the book as a bracing tonic.

Turning 48 in a few weeks, I feel closer than ever to the tone and outlook of this quotation. The feeling of "something missing in everything" is only too apparent somehow, even though I probably have as many enthusiasms currently as I usually do, but that's just habit. One senses none of them is really going to provide a new lease on life. Often I like to speak as though "the world has really grown worse" (in many ways it has -- who would deny it?), but I know that what is really at work is the fact that the "new era" is simply one in which I have to admit my age, as it were. Musil turned 50 the year he published the first volume of Der Mann. It just seems time to read him straight through.


swiss said...

nice one donald. i've been looking for an excuse to start reading this for while and this post may well be it. thanks for that.

Donald Brown said...

My "pleasure," I suppose....