There was a moment while reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities when, like in the careful balance of piano and strings in a late Brahms’ piece, the immense breadth of Musil’s conception became briefly visible.
It is a book that merits slow reading, inevitable as one writes entire passages into one’s notebook. Often I wish there was as little to read as must have been the case in Montaigne’s day, when it was still possible to read everything. In 1571, when Montaigne retired to his tower to study, the printing press was still a novelty. How he must have treasured his Rabelais, Chaucer and Calvin. This extended fragment of The Man Without Qualities captured my attention.
“If it is the fulfilment of man’s primordial dreams to be able to fly, travel with the fish, drill our way beneath the bodies of towering mountains, send messages with godlike speed, see the invisible and hear the distant speak, hear the voices of the dead, be miraculously cured while asleep, see with our own eyes how we will look twenty years after our death, learn in flickering nights thousands of things above and below this earth no one ever knew before; of light, warmth, power, pleasure, comforts, are man’s primordial dreams, then present-day research is not only science but sorcery, spells woven from the highest powers of heart and brain, forcing God to open one fold after another of his cloak; a religion whose dogma is permeated and sustained by the hard, courageous, flexible, razor-cold, razor-keen logic of mathematics.
Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddenly realised in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Munchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethological study of a bird’s vocalising. We have gained reality and lost dreams. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it move frantically ever since, unable to shake off that rotten feeling of antlike industry.”