Monday, October 06, 2008

A Babylonian Madhouse

An excerpt from Robert Musil's essay "Helpless Europe" collected in "Precision and Soul". More excerpts available on google books.


[And] so we arrive at the present day. The life that surrounds us is devoid of ordering concepts. We are inundated by a jumble of facts from the past, facts from the specialized sciences, facts from life. Popular philosophy and topical discussion are either content with the liberal scraps of an unfounded faith in reason and progress, or invent the familiar fetishes of epoch, nation, race, Catholicism, the intuitive man - all of which share, negatively, a predilection for sentimental carping at the intellect and, positively, a need to seek a foothold, to find gigantic skeletons, however ethereal, on which to hang the impressions that constituted our one remaining bit of substance. (This is incidentally, one of the literary disputes over culture versus civilization; it is also one of the major reasons why Expressionism was not much more than a charade: a soil that remained fundamentally impressionist could nurture it no further.) So timid have we become in matters of straightforward judgment and the shaping of reality that we habitually come to view even the present as history. Every new "ism" that crops up is hailed as the harbinger of a new humanity, and the end of every school year rings in a new epoch!

Thus everything belonging to the realm of the mind finds itself nowadays in profound disorder. Acting from tradition, and hardly aware of the reasons anymore, people attack the spirit of facts and numbers without offering anything but its negation to replace it. For if we proclaim - and who doesn't to some degree? - that our age lacks synthesis, or culture, or a sense of religiosity, or community, this is hardly more than singing the praises of the "good old days," since no one can say what cultures, religions, or communities would look like today if our laboratories and airplanes and the whole mammoth body of our society were to include them within their synthesis, and not simply dismiss them as outdated. This is merely to demand that the present surrender itself. Uncertainty, enervation and a pessimistic cast are today the hallmarks of soul.

Naturally this is all reflected in an unprecedented intellectual fragmentation. Our age accommodates side by side and in totally uncoordinated fashion such oppositions as individualism and social solidarity, aristocracy and socialism, pacifism and militarism, the lionizing of "culture" and the bustle of civilization, nationalism and internationalism, religion and natural science, intuition and rationalism, and so on ad infinitum. Excuse the analogy, but our age has an upset stomach, and it keep regurgitating bits and pieces of the same food without digesting it. Even a casual glance reveals that this kind of antitypicality - this posing of problems as pairs of opposites, this agglomeration, or these "either-or" formulations - means that too little intellectual work is being done. There is in every either-or a certain naivete, which may well befit the evaluator but ill-becomes the thinker, for whom opposites dissolve in series of transitions. And indeed, corresponding to this mode of inquiry on the practical level, an intellectual profile of our society shows a splinter-group collectivism carried to the extreme. Every reading circle has it poet; the political parties of the farmers and the manual labourers have their different philosophies; there are perhaps a hundred publishing houses in Germany, each with its more or less loosely organized circle of readers; the clergy has its network, but the followers of [Rudolf] Steiner too have their millions, and universities their prestige. I once even read something in a waiters' union newsletter about how the weltanschauung of the restuarant worker must forever be upheld.

It is a babylonian madhouse; a thousand disparate voices, ideas, and tunes assault the wanderer's ear from a thousand windows at once, and it is clear that individual is turned into a playground of anarchic forces, and morality and the intellecet disintegrate. But in the cellar of this madhouse we hear the hammering of the a Hephaestian urge to create; humanity's archetypal dreams are being realized, like flight, our seven-league boots; seeing through solid bodies, and an incredible wealth of fantasies such as in centuries past were the blissful magic of dreams. Our age creates these wonders, but it no longer feels them. It is a time of fulfillment, and fulfillments are always disappointments; our time lacks a sense of longing, a sense of some challege it hasn't yet mastered, but which gnaws at its heart.

No comments: