Thursday, November 6, 2008


Today is Robert Musil's birthday (b. 1880), and rather than go on about his life -- which as a tale of undeserved neglect and bad breaks as well as profound accomplishment puts to shame that of a whining contemporary author I commented on recently -- I just want to quote at length this passage which I read sometime last month and which I found ravishing. It's one of those passages that draws one in, creating a shared sense of feeling that one just knows is going to go somewhere unexpected by the end, but that, while it's happening, is remarkable enough because of its sustained lucidity. Then suddenly the trap closes and we're pitched from, first, an aimless stroller, then to a vague criminality, and then to that enclosed bubble that is the consciousness of the Man without Qualities, and which finally seems to be the modus vivendi of the writer himself:

For whenever his travels took him to cities to which he was not connected by business of any kind, he particularly enjoyed the feeling of solitude this gave him, and he had rarely felt this so keenly as he did now. He noticed the colors of the streetcars, the automobiles, shop windows, and archways, the shapes of church towers, the faces and the façades, and even though they all had the usual European resemblances, his gaze flew over them like an insect that has strayed into a field bright with unfamiliar colors and cannot, try as it will, find a place to settle on. Such aimless, purposeless strolling through a town vitally absorbed in itself, the keenness of perception increasing in proportion as the strangeness of the surroundings intensifies, heightened still further by the connection that it is not oneself that matters but only this mass of faces, these movements wrenched loose from the body to become armies of arms, legs, or teeth, to all of which the future belongs -- all this can evoke the feeling that being a whole and inviolate strolling human being is positively antisocial and criminal. But if one lets oneself go even further in this fashion, this feeling may also unexpectedly produce a physical well-being and irresponsibility amounting to folly, as if the body were no longer part of a world where the sensual self is enclosed in strands of nerves and blood vessels but belongs to a world bathed in somnolent sweetness. These were the words that Ulrich used to describe to his sister what might perhaps have been the result of a state of mind without goal or ambition, or the result of a diminished ability to maintain an illusory individuality, or perhaps nothing more than that 'primal myth of the gods,' that 'double face of nature,' that 'giving' and 'taking vision,' which he was after all pursuing like a hunter.
--Robert Musil, "A Family of Two" in The Man Without Qualities, Part III: Into the Millennium (The Criminals), trans. by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike

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