The Path of a Woodworm

[Redon: The Lost Angel Opened Black Wings (from MOMA website)]


Although most recommended books are read after about a year of lag time (time spent finding the book, purchasing the book, and then having the book sit on the little shelf that holds my books-in-waiting), Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities was found, purchased, and cracked open in about a week.

If you stack all three volumes up in a neat pile, you have about six inches of paper to work through, or 2400 pages. And so, while I don't think I'll be finishing this endeavor anytime soon, I am quite certain that it won't take me as long as Proust has taken me (V. 6 of Proust is still sitting on my books-in-waiting shelf, dusted occasionally).

This book is funny! At times, very funny. And it is also beautifully written, filled with intriguing characters and bursting with interesting, slightly befuddling metaphors. For example, his description of soul:

In her sufferings she read a great deal and discovered that she had lost something, the possession of which she had previously not been much aware of: a soul.

What is that? It is easily defined negatively: it is simply what curls up and hides when there is any mention of algebraic series.

But positively? It seems successfully to elude every effort to pin it down.

But he doesn't end there, and in light of the fact that the next passage in which this is addressed is really, really good, I will reproduce it here:

The most peculiar of all the peculiarities of the word "soul," however, is that young people cannot pronounce it without laughig. Even Diotima and Arnheim were shy of using it without a modifier, for it is still possible to speak of having a great, noble, craven, daring, or debased soul, but to come right out with "my soul" is something one simply cannot bring oneself to do. It is distinctly an older person's word, and this can only be understood by assuming that in the course of life people become more and more aware of somethiing for which they urgently need a name they cannot find until they finally resort, reluctantly, to the name they had originally despised.

How to describe it then? Whether one is at rest or in motion, what matters is not what lies ahead, what one sees, hears, wants, takes, masters. It forms a horizon, a semicircle before one, but the ends of this semiciricle are joined by a string, and the plane of this string goes right through the middle of the world. In front, the face and hands look out of it; sensations and strivings run ahead of it, and no one doubts that whatever one does is always resonable, or at least passionate. In other words, outer circumstances call for us to act in a way everyone can understand; and if, in the toils of passion, we do something incomprehensible, that too is, in its own way, understandable. Yet however understandable and self-contained everything seems, this is accompanied by an obscure feeling that it is only half the story. Something is not quite in balance, and a person presses forward, like a tightrope walker, in order not to sway and fall. And as he presses on through life and leaves life lived behind, the life ahead and the life already lived form a wall, and his path in the end resembles the path of a woodworm: no matter how it corkscrews forward or even backward, it always leaves an empty space behind it. And this horrible feeling of blind, cutoff space behind the fullness of everything, this half that is always missing when everything is a whole, this is what eventually makes one perceive what one calls the soul.
[emphasis mine]

This week should be a good week--I'm in DC on business and actually have a lot of time to read and think. I found a poem (by way of helping my brother with a paper) that I had never known before: "There's a certain Slant of light" by E. Dickinson. That will be next.