Saturday, May 12, 2007

Muddling Through, or The Man without Qualities in the light of current events

I will do my best not to re-reread Robert Musil's enormous beast of a novel (amounting to over 1700 pages), but having leafed through it in search of something that might be relevant to the Roubaud novel, I've found that practically each chapter in Musil contains enough ideas to spawn a novel of its own. While I waited for the bus, rode on the bus, and sat in the frigid breakrooms of the grey glass box I worked in, I read these characters' fascinating conversations. No one around me seemed to be having such conversations. Talk was of tax reporting or legal documentation or how best to reissue checks to shareholders. As if that was the most important thing to talk about. This in their free time. The office-dwellers became cardboard cutouts as opposed to a character who:
"gave his thoughts an even more general and impersonal form by setting the relationship that exists between the demands "Do!" and "Don't!" in the place of good and evil. For as long as a particular morality is in the ascendant--and this is just as valid for the spirit of "Love thy neighbor" as it is for a horde of Vandals--"Don't!" is still only the negative and natural corollary of "Do!" Doing and leaving undone are red hot, and the flaws they contain don't count because they are the flaws of heroes and martyrs. In this condition good and evil are identical with the happiness and unhappiness of the whole person. But as soon as the contested system has achieved dominance and spread itself out, and its fulfillment no longer faces any special hurdles, the relationship between imperative and taboo perforce passes through a decisive phase where duty is not born anew and alive each day but is leached and drained and cut up into ifs and buts, ready to serve all sorts of uses. Here a process begins, in the further course of which virtue and vice, because of their common root in the same rules, laws, exceptions, and limitations, come to look more and more alike, until that curious and ultimately unbearable self-contradiction arises which was Ulrich's point of departure: namely, that the distinction between good and evil loses all meaning when weighed against the pleasure of a pure, deep, spontaneous mode of action, a pleasure that can leap like a spark from permissible as well as from forbidden activities."
As an aside here, I find this rather interesting in light of the last election where the current administration used as a selling point their clear course of action as opposed to the Democrats indecisiveness. Action is, above all, the important thing. In the book, certain intellectuals and aristocracy in Austria decide on something called the Parallel Campaign, whose slogan is "Action!" The reader, not the characters, knows that WWI is looming.

"Ulrich stubbornly expanded on his point: 'What one needs in life is merely the conviction that one's business is doing better than one's neighbor's [...] --everything that can assure a person that he is in no way unusual but that in this way of being in no way unusual he will not so easily find his equal!'
Walter had not yet sat down again. He was full of unrest. Triumph. 'Do you realize what you're talking about?' he shouted. 'Muddling through! You're simply an Austrian, and you're expounding the Austrian national philosophy of muddling through!'
'That may not be as bad as you think,' Ulrich replied. 'A passionate longing for keenness and precision or beauty, may very well bring one to prefer muddling through to all those exertions in the modern spirit. I congratulate you on having discovered Austria's world mission.'"

But back to the original quote:
"Indeed, whoever takes an unbiased view is likely to find that the negative aspect of morality is more highly charged with this tension than the positive: While it seems relatively natural that certain actions called "bad" must not be allowed to happen, [...] the corresponding moral traditions, such as unlimited generosity in giving or the urge to mortify the flesh, have already almost entirely disappeared; and where they are still practiced they are practiced by fools, cranks, or bloodless prigs. In such a condition, where virtue is decrepit and moral conduct consists chiefly in the restraint of immoral conduct, it can easily happen that immoral conduct appears to be not only more spontaneous and vital than its opposite, but actually more moral, if one may use the term not in the sense of law and justice but with regard to whatever passion may still be aroused by matters of conscience. But could anything possibly be more perverse than to incline inwardly toward evil because, with all one has left of a soul, one is seeking good?"

1 comment:

Casey said...

This is awesome! I don't even know what you're talking about, but I love it -- a) because it's a prophecy, and b) because it's what I'm trying to say about my silly dissertation chapter on Melvillian ethics.

Where, similarly, action is the thing...

Have I made myself clear at all? Sometimes blog-comments-sections aren't enough!