- Novels of ideas: the ideas are reaching, but never get there. They aren't good enough.
- Are they better in philosophy?
- No. But philosophy is at least so clearly off. Inapplicable. Useless.
- Literature has only bad ideas, philosophy is useless.
- Do you know why I like talking with you?
- Do you know why I like talking with you?
- I have good ideas?
- Your ideas are funny.
- Laughable funny, or funny strange?
- Laughable funny. But strange too sometimes.
- And laughable is good? Ideas that get somewhere, even if it is only a laugh?
- No, not if it is only a laugh. I've been doing some reading...
- Let me guess: novels of ideas?
- Right. "Pierre", by Melville. And Musil's "The Man Without Qualities".
- Which theme are you following: brother-sister love, or is it nihilism?
- Alright, yes. The connection between the books is widely known.
- Do you think that the ideas of Melville and Musil are bad?
- I do. But bad can be good.
- When bad teaches.
- Yes. Teaches how to recognize bad.
- Yes. Teaches how to recognize bad.
- And what mistakes have you learned from these novels?
- You and for all I know the whole world anticipate me in seeing the nihilism and incest. But I've found something else.
- And that is?
- Remember the philosophic pamphlet that Pierre finds left behind in a hired coach, "Chronometricals And Horologicals"? God and society have different times. God's timekeeping is Chronometric, its timekeeper is set to Greenwich time no matter where in the world it is taken. Society's timekeeper is the Horological, set to local time, with different times corresponding to the different longitudes. Trying tell time in society by god's time brings you to ruin. Better to compromise. This is an absolutely commonplace idea, though the timekeeper analogy is amusing. My idea is that the novel goes much beyond this statement of compromise, and presents all possible combinations of compromise or its lack dealing with god and society. First of the combinations is compromise both god and society, each adulterating the purity of the other. Don't give everything away, but do a little charity, and be sure you don't harm. A commonplace, as I said. Saying Yes to both god and world. Second, you can also say No to both. Be unconventional and defiant of society, take a stand as an accuser of god. Be a nihilist and existentialist. And third is one more possibility: or do you already know this too?
- Let's see.
- Incest, brother-sister love. We're not talking about sexual acts, though physical attraction is involved. Love is in the service of god, and here is love. Added to which is society and the world, the special brother-sister kind of society that is outside the world. To have a brother is proverbially to be born with a friend, is to be born into a natural society. A society whole and irrefutable.
- Saying Yes to god and society works out very bad if you don't compromise. And if you do compromise it is not much to get exited about. But if the society in which you love is the natural society of brother-sister, there no need for compromise.
- So you're ahead of me there too. Pierre seems crazy because he practices at different times all the combinations of compromise or not of god and society. He is a doomed idealist and he is a nihilist and existentialist. He compromises the truth for the sake of social convention and he practices an uncompromised love of his sister. Well? Is that a good idea or not?
- I like it. But what do you plan on doing with this combinatoric analysis given that you've decided that philosophy and novels have only bad ideas? Do you hope I use it?
- Use it and be funny. Musil is funny but in the wrong way. He takes an ironic attitude to his ideas. He works them out precisely but knows they are limited. In his big novel he writes:
He is a man without qualities...There are millions of them nowadays...What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context -- nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a super-whole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only 'how' it is...
For Musil, that is the human being in society. For what we are in god, what is our "soul", another passage from the novel; much longer, but worth it:
This is a word that has already appeared frequently, though not precisely in the clearest of connections. For instance, as that which the present time has lost or that which cannot be combined with civilization. As that which is stirred, not only into repugnance, by a murderer...As a love of metaphor and simile with many people. And so on.
Of all the peculiarities that this word “soul” has, however, the oddest is that young people cannot pronounce it without laughing. Even Diotima and Arnheim were shy of using it without qualification; for that someone has a great, noble, cowardly, daring or base soul is something that can just about be asserted, but to say outright “my soul” is something that one cannot bring oneself to do. It is distinctly a word for older people; and this can only be understood by assuming that there is something that makes itself more and more felt in the course of life, something for which one urgently needs a name, without finding it, until in the end one reluctantly makes use of that which was originally spurned.
And how then is one to describe it? One can stand still or move on as one will, the essential is not what lies straight before one, what one sees, hears, wants, takes hold of, and masters. It lies ahead, a horizon, a semicircle; but the ends of this semicircle are joined by a sinew, and the plane of this sinew goes right through the middle of the world. In front, face and hands look out of it; the sensations and striving run along ahead of it; and no one doubts that what we do there is always reasonable or at least impassioned. That is, circumstances external to us demand our actions of us in a way that is comprehensible to everyone; or if, involved in passion, we do something incomprehensible, that, after all, is still something with a way and a nature of its own. But however completely understandable and self-contained it all seems, it is accompanied by an obscure feeling that it is merely half the story. There is something the matter with the equilibrium, and man advances in order not to sway, like a tightrope walker. And as he advance through life, leaving behind him what he ha lived through, a wall is formed by what is still to be lived and what has been lived, and in the end his path resembles that of a worm in the wood, which can twist any way it likes, even turning backwards, but always leaves an empty space behind it. And this dreadful feeling of a blind space, a space cut off behind all the fullness, this half that is always still lacking even although everything has become a whole, is what finally causes one to notice what one calls the soul.
One thinks it, feels it, has premonitions of it all the time, naturally, in the most various kinds of surrogates and according to one’s temperament. In youth it is a distinct feeling of uncertainty, in everything one does, as to whether whatever it is is really the right thing. In old age it is amazement at how little one has done of all that one actually intended. In between it is the comfort of being a hell of a chap, efficient, and a good sort too, even though not everything one does can be justified in every detail; or that after all the world isn’t what it ought to be, either, so that in the end all that one has done wrong still amounts to a fair enough compromise; and finally some people even think, away out beyond everything, of a God who has the missing piece of themselves in His pocket. Only love occupies a special position in all this; for it is in this exceptional case that the second half grows on. The loved person seems to stand where otherwise there is always something missing. The souls unite, as it were, dos a dos, so making themselves superfluous. This why after the passing of their one great youthful love most people no longer feel the absence of the soul, so that this so-called foolishness fulfills a meritorious social function.
- He can't resist making a joke of the soul.
- Yes. But the wrong kind of joke, ironic, defensive. Musil said the problem wasn't that we were too reasonable and neglected the soul, but that we were not accurate enough in our examination of the soul. You've just read an accurate examination, no doubt. But what good is it? It is still partial. It makes a joke of the soul. It should be the other way around, the soul should make a joke of the world.
- Can it?
- Think of brother-sister love. Love is of god. If love is to be also in the world, not mere contemplation or religious experience, it has to be active. Something has to happen. The things brother and sister do can be physical, but better, they can be telling stories of what happened out in the world, told to and for each other once back in the private world of brother-sister love.
- And those stories are funny. Not ironic defensive funny, but relieved to be away from the world funny and back in your own private brother-sister society.
- Yes. What do you think?
- I'm not sure funny stories can support a novel of ideas or philosophic masterpiece. Are you going to try?
- I was going to suggest you did.