Sunday, April 06, 2008

"A man of knowledge knows that nothing is true and that the whole truth will be revealed only at the end of time."

After last week's back-and-forth on vice and virtue among Samuel Johnson, William Blake, and Thomas De Quincey, I couldn't very well not share the discussion of vice that I encountered later that day in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1933). Ulrich, the protagonist (and Musil's mouthpiece), arguing with his sister about her forging of their late father's will, says
We're looking to justify what you did. We have established that respectable people are deeply attracted to crime, though of course only in their imagination. We might add that criminals, to hear them talk, would almost without exception like to be regarded as respectable people. So we might arrive at a definition: Crimes are the concentrated form, within sinners, of everything other people work off in little irregularities, in their imagination and in innumerable petty everyday acts and attitudes of spite and viciousness. We could also say: Crimes are in the air and simply seek the path of least resistance, which leads them to certain individuals. We could even say that while they are the acts of individuals who are incapable of behaving morally, in the main they're the condensed expresion of some kind of general human maladjustment where the distinction between good and evil is concerned.
Ultimately, Ulrich doesn't in that conversation quite succeed in convincing either his sister or himself that he actions were acceptable. He does, however, offer a memorable observation about the dangerously disruptive powers of art--those powers that caused Plato to ban artists from his perfect city:
And art? Doesn't it amount to a creation of images that don't correspond to the realities of life? . . . But think of a real work of art: have you never had the feeling that something about it is reminiscent of the smell of burning metal you get from a knife you're whetting on a grindstone? It's a cosmic, meteoric, lightning-and-thunder smell, something divinely uncanny!
It's the sort of line that crops up regularly in The Man Without Qualities and makes slogging through the occasional dull patches in its 1,100 pages worthwhile.

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