ExperimentalExperience

In Bed With Robert Musil: Part I

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion, Writers on August 7, 2009 at 7:43 am

I am traveling with Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities.

I have a bad habit of writing in books I read. I will usually do it on the inside flap of the cover and never on the pages of the book itself. Readings will provoke thought, but more often, I will simply note down a page where I found a sentence or an idea particularly interesting.

What I love about Vintage International’s edition of Musil’s book is that it comes with a number of blank pages towards the end. This is not the only excellent thing about the version; the bindings are superb and allow the reader to bend and fold the book comfortably into his hands without cracking the spine. And its porportions are an excellent example of the size a book should actually be – easy to hold, carry, bend, store and pack.

Any by the way, one copy of A Man Without Qualities read with focus and reflection far outweighs the value of a thousand random and insipid books on a Kindle (who came up with that retarded name?) or any other electronic book readers. Do you really want to carry yet another recharger? Call me backward, old fashioned or just 43-years of age, but I can’t see how a reading medium that reduces your gazpacho soup recipe to the same form and flow as your The Adventures of Amir Hamza can really work for anything other than simple, easy, low-concentration fare.

Call me sceptical, but never thickheaded, I remain open to the idea that it may be more convenient to carry your entire library with you wherever you go, but is it really what reading is all about? And why is it that I can read 100 pages from the printed edition of A Man Without Qualities without tiring, while I can barely make it through a digital, multi-page online article on Salon or The New York Times Magazine?

I ponder.

So, back to Musil. I am traveling in India with him by my side, and I am taking you along for the ride. Over the course of the next few weeks, some snippets of insights that perhaps will also encourage others to read this wonderful European novel.

Patriotism remains a disease despite all attempts at modernity and greater moral civility. This passage could just as well have been written about Pakistan, India and a number of other nations determined to ‘celebrate’ their purity and superiority through banal and insipid and definitely artificial symbols and rituals:

Patriotism in Austria was quite a special subject. German children simply learned to despire the wars sacred to Austrian children, and were taught to believe that French children, whore forebears were all decadent lechers, would turn tail by the thousands at the approach of a German soldier with a big beard. Exactly the same ideas, with roles reversed and other desireable adjustments, were taught to French, English, and Russian children, who also had often been on the winning side…But in Austria, the situation was slightly more complicated. For although the Austrians had of course also won all the wars in their history, after most of them they had had to give something up.  (page 13)

The following passage should be read by most in America’s conservative and lunatic fringe right wing, including the making-too-many-apperences-on-TV and clearly determined to outline his warmongering credentials, the hideous John Bolton, former Permanent US Representative to the UN during the repugnant George W. Bush Administration:

Uninitiated observers have mistaken this for charm, or even, for a weakness of what they thought to be the Austrian character. But they were wrong; it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters; a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. (page 30)

And a wonderfully funny moment when Ulrich considers the consequences of his choice of a career in the field of mathmatics:

We have gained reality and lost dream. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toe; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly as though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it more frantically ever since, unable to share off that rotten feeling of antlike industry…The inner drought, the dreadful blend of acuity in matters of detail and indifference towards the whole, man’s monstrous abandonment in a desert of details, his restlessness, malice, unsurpassed callousness, money-grubbing, coldness, and violence, all so characteristic of our times, are by these accounts solely the consequence of damage done to the soul by keen logical thinking! (page 36)

I loved this statement that had me thinking since I read it:

Then Clarisse and Ulrich took a walk through the slanting arrows of the evening sun, without Walter; he remained behind at the piano. Clarisse said:

“The ability to fend off harm is the test of vitality. The spent is drawn to its own destruction. What do you think? Nietzsche maintains it’s a sign of weakness for an artist to be overly concerned about the morality of his art.” She had sat down on a little hummock. Ulrich shrugged.

More in the coming days on this wonderful work, but I highly recommend it!

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  1. [...] masterwork A Man Without Qualities that I am reading now as I wrote in an earlier blog piece called In Bed With Robert Musil Part I …it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. [...]

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