Quote of the Day: Robert Musil

From chapter 38 of The Man Without Qualities (my translation from the Swedish translation):


“Moral is the fixation of human behaviour within a society, but primarily their inner urges and impulses, that is their emotions and thoughts… Of course I don’t know it. But despite that I can give you a dozen explanations. The oldest being that God has revealed the order of life to us in its finest detail…”

“That would be the most wonderful,” said Agathe.

“But the most likely is,” Ulrich intoned, “that moral, like all other order, arises through force and violence. A ruling group which has succeeded in acquiring the power simply charge the others with the restrictions and basic principles through which it secures its dominion. But simultaneously it depends on those who have made it great and powerful. Simultaneously it thereby acts as a role model. Simultaneously it is itself changed through feedback. All this is of course far too complicated than can be described briefly, and while it in no way happens without intelligence (but in no way through intelligence but rather experientially), it eventually results in an incomprehensible network that stretches over everything and everyone, apparently as necessarily as God’s heaven arches above us. Now everything is attributed to this domain, but this domain is not attributed to anything. In other words: everything is moral, but moral itself is not moral!”

“That is, feeling is neither true nor false! Feeling has remained a private matter! It has been consigned to suggestion, to imagination, persuasion!”

“For centuries”, Ulrich carried on, “the world has known the truth of thought and thus through reason known, at least to a certain degree, freedom of thought. Meanwhile feeling had neither the strict schooling of truth nor freedom of movement. For every moral has in its time regulated feeling only to a strictly limited extent and only as far as certain basic principles and fundamental emotions were necessary for the actions that pleased it; but the rest it has given over to arbitrariness, to the play of personal emotions, the uncertain striving in the arts and in the academic debate. Moral has, then, adapted emotions to the needs of the moral and thus neglected to develop them, despite itself being dependent on them. For it is the order and unity of emotions… But it is only another expression of a state of passion arming itself against the whole of the world.”

“Moral was to him neither dominion nor wisdom of thought, but the infinite fullness of life’s possibilities. He believed in some potential for elevation of moral, in different levels of experiencing it, and not just, as is habitual, in stages of insight into it, as if it was something ready-made for which humans simply weren’t pure enough. By this people certainly think of police regulations, through which life is kept in order, and since life does not obey them, they give the impression of not really being possible and in this barren way is thus given a sheen of ideal. But moral must not be reduced to this plane. Moral is fantasy… And secondly: fantasy is not arbitrary.”

“He had been about to talk about the all-too-little considered difference between the way in which different times have developed reason and the way in which they have fixated and locked-in the moral fantasy.”

“Everything from the extraordinary humans’ epiphanies to the sentimental garbage that unites the people forms what Ulrich called the moral fantasy, or more simply put feeling, one slow fermentation throughout the centuries, without the brew clearing. The human is a being who cannot cope without passion. And passion is that condition, under which all her emotions and thoughts are of the same spirit. You think, almost to the contrary, that it is the condition when an emotion is overwhelmingly powerful, one single – entrancement! – which forcibly pulls all others with it?… Lasting is achieved only by emotions and thoughts in contact with each other, in their wholeness, they must in some way be aimed in the same direction and mutually pull each other along. And by any means, by intoxication, suggestion, faith, conviction, often also only by the simplifying effect of stupidity, the human longs to create a similar state [of lasting]. She believes in ideas, inte because they are many times true, but because she has to believe. Because she has to keep her emotions in order. Because with an illusion she must fill the tear between her life-walls, through which her emotions would otherwise be scattered by all [four] winds. The right thing would, instead of devoting yourself to transient illusory states, surely be to at least seek for the causes of the true passion. But despite the number of decisions that are caused by emotions being all-in-all infinitely greater than the sum of all settlements made by pure reason and despite all events that affect humanity having sprung from fantasy, only matters of reason reveal themselves as being superhumanly ordered, and for the other [the order of passion] nothing has happened that would deserve being called a collective effort or even hint at an insight into its despairing necessity.”

“We find ourselves these days facing too many possibilities of feeling and life. But is this difficulty not similar to the one that reason overcomes when face with a great deal of facts and a history of relevant theories? And for reason we have found a strict, if incomplete, approach, that I need not describe to you. I ask you now, if not something similar would be possible for feeling as well? We would without doubt yet want to clarify why we exist – this is one of the main causes of all acts of violence in the world…”

“That would mean a growing relationship with God!”

“That wouldn’t be the worst thing surely?” Ulrich said, not without a certain mocking sharpness before this hasty anxiety. “But I havn’t taken it that far!”

“How do you imagine this application of our theoretical approach to thinking in practice?”

“Ulrich knew very well that it was yet unclear. He meant neither ‘a life as researcher’ nor a life ‘in the light of science’, but a ‘search for feeling’ kind of like the search for truth, with the only difference that here there was no question of truth.”


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