Thursday, October 2, 2008


In a short piece by Robert Musil called "The Perfecting of a Love," I was struck by this passage. In the story, "she" (Claudine) is away from her husband, with whom she shares, seemingly, a completely symbiotic love, which she found after a failed earlier marriage and a youthful period of aimless erotic encounters. But now she's away from her husband for the first time and is suffering from a temptation not visited upon her by another person, so much as it's a state of restless uncertainty about her own identity.

And then she had been assailed by the secret thought: 'Somewhere among all these people there is someone -- not the right one, someone else -- but still, one could have adjusted oneself even to him, and then one would never have known anything of the person that one is today. For every feeling exists only in the long chain of other feelings, each supporting the next; and all that matters is that one instant of life should link up with the next without any lacuna, and there are hundreds of different ways in which it can do so.' And for the first time since the beginning of her love the thought had flashed through her mind: 'It is all chance -- by some chance something becomes reality, and then one holds to it, that's all.'

For the first time she had felt her being, down to its very foundations, as something indeterminate, had apprehended this ultimate faceless existence of herself in love as something that destroyed the very root, the absoluteness, of existence and would always have made her into a person that she called herself and who was nevertheless not different from everyone else. And it was as if she must let go, let herself sink back into the drift of things, into the realm of unfulfilled possibilities, the no-man's-land. And she hurried through the mournful, empty streets, glancing in through windows as she passed, wanting no other company than the clatter of her heels on the cobbles -- reduced to that last sign of physical existence, hearing nothing but her own footsteps echoing now in front of her and now behind her.

The idea that whoever one is, whoever one loves, whatever one does, might just as well have been something or someone else is, perhaps, not so surprising a thought. Perhaps we all entertain it every now and then, but, if so, it's usually, I suspect, so as to feel more empowered, to be able to assert that we aren't "summed up" by what our life and love and work have been up to this point. That something remains yet ahead. But here Musil gives yet another account of what he calls, in The Man Without Qualities, "living in the subjunctive": the sense that everything "might just as well have been something else." The difference in gender -- Claudine here and Ulrich in MWQ -- makes for a difference in situation as well. Ulrich deliberately does not profess any purpose -- no great love, no great work -- because he sees his life as "indeterminate" in that unmasking sense. But Claudine's situation is more tantalizing -- for, as she says, it's not that there is some "perfect" or "correct" love out there to be discovered, it's the recognition that any love would be the same -- in the sense of causing a similar transformation, a similar identification, a similar certainty -- regardless of what kind of life it led one. It's the startling idea, which the mind is slow to grasp and which, when it does, it tends to register ironically, that one's emotions have at some point made one's life what it is. No problem, so long as those emotions remain in force. But should they alter . . .

It may be that, in our day, we easily take off one mask and put on another. Perhaps it requires a stretch of the imagination to even understand what kind of epiphany it is that Claudine experiences here. It comes about with an almost Jamesian acceptance of the idea that only the life that one recounts to oneself -- the one we live between our ears -- can truly determine the value of one's existence, and that, if we fail, it is in ourselves we find our hell. Or, as Dylan might say, "to keep it in your mind and not forget that it is not he or she or them or it that you belong to." Here, that not belonging to anything external, that not accounting for yourself in the terms supplied by those desired "realms" (to use Musil's term), is to assume that one belongs to oneself, that one is or has or inhabits a self that is separate, determinate. But what "the subjunctive" asks one to realize is that everything by which one recognizes this "self" could just as easily have been something else. And what then does that "you" belong to?

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

This man who's been drinking, and giving you the eye?
I don't know that guy.


But that's another sense of being someone else: the "evil twin" comes along and takes you over, makes you do things that you would not otherwise do.