Saturday, January 17, 2009

Notes on Musil I


When is a description of weather not about weather? Here is an example:

A Barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal.

Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, captures the spirit of the summer day in Europe with scientific precision and at the same time creates a paragraph that is not about the weather. It is one of the most arresting and beautiful openings of any novel that I have read (p. 3 of MWQ). As I will soon begin yet again a traversal of this twentieth-century masterpiece I thought, on this winter day as we recover from two days of below zero 'weather', that I would display the opening of Musil's novel. As in Dicken's "best of times and worst of times" Musil captures the complexity inherent in the apparent simplicity of a precise moment. It is just as if our current world's complexity could be subsumed in the clarity of the sun as it shines down on pure white snow whose temperature is degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. I plan to reflect from time to time as I reread Musil's novel and revel in the many insights and comic moments that it contains.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Trans. by Sophie Wilkins, e. by Burton Pike. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1995 (1952)

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