Holofields of consciousness — Opportunities in a time of identity crisis
Every moment in our lives carries with it the memory of what was before and an inkling of what is there to come.
Our individual place in the unfolding of history is a puzzling question. All of us witness events of momentous magnitude play out before our very own eyes while we ponder our individual roles in a time of acute trouble.
We can find companions, characters experiencing similar dilemma, in the story of early 20th century novels. Writers like James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil describe characters, who are lost between interior and exterior worlds. Characters, who are often in processes of internal revolt against outside forces of society and power.
This small group of writers, themselves confronted with the pain and suffering of their time, meet the moment by challenging the established structure of linear rational thought. Writing in a flow of unfolding words they depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through one’s mind. The stories create large patterns of intertwined thoughts and affects draped over the potline. Perceptions and emotions create a multidimensional point cloud of events merging into a literary hologram. The reader is taken inside a plethora of mental commotions, flowing fluidly into one another, clashing, eroding, at times shattering into open-ended fragments.
It is not only the unfathomable depth of the troubled characters’ portrait in these books but the unusual depiction of experienced time that challenges the preconceived notion of linearity and boundaries. Time is never absolute, but always specific to the character’s individuality and their experience, it slows down and speeds up as the character moves through the world. A strange notion of time many of us experience during the long month of pandemic-related lockdowns during the last year of crisis. Lived duration does not match calendars and clocks but stretches and compresses depending on the daily experience.
Time crawled slowly, yet it passed so quickly.
“Hundreds of sounds were intertwined into a coil of wiry noise, with single barbs projecting, sharp edges running along with it and submerging again, and dear notes splintering off — flying and scattering. Even though the peculiar nature of this noise could not be defined, a man returning after years of absence would have known, with his eyes shut, that he was in that ancient capital and imperial city, Vienna. Cities can be recognized by their pace just as people can by their walk. Opening his eyes, he would recognize it all again by the way the general movement pulsed through the streets, far sooner than he would discover it from any characteristic detail. And even if he only imagined he could do so — what does it matter? “
Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften
But there is even more we share with these troubled characters.
Robert Musil’s book “The man without qualities” (1930–1943) and its precursor the “Confusions of Young Törless”(1906) both give partially autobiographical accounts of characters falling out of step with a world of power and influence and searching for autonomy and meaning.
Young Törless is a student at a strict military school who is exposed to traumatizing dissonance between his interior sense of value versus the brutal world of violent militarism around him, which is developing into a “mass movement”. Musil writes his book in the military-fanatic time in Austria before the first world war and describes a group of boys in the military school torturing a fellow student collectively. A young student, friend of young Törless utters: “And anyway, I have a liking for these mass movements. Nobody means to contribute anything spectacular, and yet the waves keep rising higher and higher until they break over
everyone’s head.” Törless witnesses the impending brutality of the moment and silently begins nurturing an inner revolt against the dark force attracting so many of his classmates. This inner conflict eventually leads him to a deeper question of experience versus knowledge and his role in the fabric of history.
What have I experienced, what can I know, what can I do? An experience all too familiar to us in the face of systemic racism, a rise in hate crimes, political division lines running right between plates at the dinner table, impending financial crisis, and a all to present climate disaster.
“And there are yet other things in which this incomparability reigns, somewhere between experience and comprehension. Yet it is always of such a nature that in one moment we experience indivisibly, and without question, becomes unintelligible and confused as soon as we try to link it with chains of thought to the permanent store of what we know. And what looks grand and remote so long as our words are still reaching out towards it from a long way off, later, once it has entered the sphere of our everyday activities, becomes quite simple and loses all its disturbing quality.”
Robert Musil, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß
In his later and most famous book “The man without qualities”, Musil introduces us to Ullrich, a slightly older dramatic hero. Ullrich is a young mathematician that serves as a secretary to a committee with the futile project, a utopian “parallel action”, to celebrate the anniversary of a doomed kingdom, the Austro-Hungarian Empire before its fall. After participating in long, tiring, and endlessly redundant committee sessions without a graspable goal in sight, Ullrich starts to seriously question his purpose and sense of reality. He starts doubting himself beyond the utter purposelessness of the project he is participating in.
What he realizes is, that ambivalence towards values and the inability to unite his introspective experience of life with the external structure of power and thought has hindered him from developing truly distinctive intrinsic qualities. He depends on the outer world to shape his character. This has made him (in his own eyes) “a man without qualities”. Trapped in a keenly analytical, yet dramatically powerless passivity, observing the preposterous social laterna magica of anachronistic-thought-world of the war-emphatic nation he is nestled into. Ullrich is incapable of acting and loses himself in emptiness.
“That is the deep relationship between the love story and war. But what remains in the end? That there is one sphere of ideals and one of reality? Symbolic images and suchlike? How deeply unsatisfactory! Is there no better answer?”
Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, p.1752, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg, 1952
When we read about Ullrich and Törless we feel reminded of our own situation. Clashing values and confusion about the feasible future of our society. We hear about the dooming environmental, political, and economic crises on a daily basis. All demand fast and radical change, but we feel helpless and incapable of acting. Hypnotized by the low-key paranoia induced by high-speed recurrent cycles of system failure and quick-fix-restart, data breach, and security update we are looking for a one-fits-all grand narrative. We fail to step back and see beyond our self-inflicted status as “docile bodies”, controlled and dissected into data bits to ask ourselves with true conviction:
What are the ways in which we want to partake in this magnificent and often so beautiful chaos that we call our home, Gaia, with her polyphonic orchestra of life?
Musil famously never finished writing “The man without qualities”, he did not provide us with a field guide to exit the crisis, neither did Joyce nor Proust. So it is on us to finish the story, to find the power within us to stand up to the storm and ask the questions that will lead us onto the path of self-reflection.
We might want to listen to Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned us not to be “human, all to human” but to confront oursleves with the immense limitations we face in the self inflicted ego tunnel of modern life, and to look beyond the realm of human expressivity to see the beautiful landscapes of non-human reality. Reading the expressions of non-human matter, listening to these non-human voices should be our guide out of this tunnel, to realize that yours and mine, that everyone’s engagement matters, that we are not outside but part of the planet, of the society. That we are all partners, siblings, parents, grandchildren, grandparents, friends, neighbors and co-inhabitants, woven into this large pattern of interaction between diverse individuals, human and non-human, each carrying with it the memory of what was before and an inkling of what is there to come.
Because drops become ripples, ripples become waves, and waves become tsunamis of change.