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Robert Musil – Live by our ideas? Or coop them up?

June 30, 2015

Ulrich, the Man Without Qualities, is talking with Clarisse, who has just proposed that the Austrian government celebrate a Year of Nietzsche.

“You want to organize your life around an idea,” he began. “And you’d like to know how to do that. But an idea is the most paradoxical thing in the world. The flesh in the grip of an idea is like a fetish. Bonded to an idea, it becomes magical. An ordinary slap in the face, bound up with ideas of honor, or of punishment and the like, can kill a man. And yet ideas can never maintain themselves in the state in which they are most powerful they’re like the kind of substance that exposed to the air, instantly changes into some other, more lasting, but corrupted form. You’ve been through this often yourself. Because an idea is what you are: an idea in a particular state. You are touched by a breath of something, and it’s like a note suddenly emerging from the humming of strings; in front of you there is something like a mirage; out of the confusion of your soul an endless parade is taking shape, with all the world’s beauty looking on from the roadside. All this can be the effect of a single idea But after a while it comes to resemble all your previous ideas, it takes its place among them, becomes part of your outlook and your character, your principles or you moods; in the act of taking shape it has lost its wings and its mystery.”

Later, he thinks about how better to respond to her idea.

[T]o think without pursuing some practical purpose is surely an improper, furtive occupation; especially those thoughts that take huge strides on stilts, touching experience only with tiny soles, are automatically suspect of having disreputable origins. There was a time when people talked of their thoughts taking wing; in Schiller’s time such intellectual highfliers would have been widely esteemed, but in our own day such a person seems to have something the matter with him, unless it happens to be his profession and source of income. There has obviously been a shift in our priorities. Certain concerns have been taken out of people’s hearts. For high-flown thoughts a kind of poultry farm has been set up, called philosophy, theology, or literature, where they proliferate in their own way beyond anyone’s ability to keep track of them, which is just as well, because in the face of such expansion no one need feel guilty about not bothering with them personally.

[Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities [1940], translated by Sophie Wilkins [1995])

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