Friday, January 31, 2014

Watching a herd of grazing cows

 Frederik de Moucheron, Mountain Scene with Herd of Cattle, second half of the 17th century

In the course of one of those long conversations in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, Ulrich tries to convince his sister Agathe that a profound mystical experience can be had whilst "sitting on a fallen tree or a bench in the mountains, watching a herd of grazing cows."  But, he cautions, "what's normal is that a herd of cattle means nothing to us but grazing beef.  Or else a subject for a painting, with background.  Or it barely registers at all."  Our minds tend to focus on merely practical questions and minor deliberations - we don't see the paper, only the calculations that appear on it.  Agathe interrupts him: "And suddenly the paper tears!"  When this happens the landscape is no longer paintable and the pictorial plane becomes, in Ulrich's words, "an ocean swell of sensations ... everything somehow flows over into you, all boundaries gone."

From there the conversation turns away from the imaginary view to consider broader questions on the nature of goodness and love.  But a few pages later (page 833 of the Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike translation), Ulrich turns the conversation back to those cows and asks Agathe to imagine "some high bureaucrat" sitting there (I meet a lot of high bureaucrats in my work so can imagine the scene).  "When he looks at the herd of cows he neither counts them, classifies them, nor estimates the weight on the hoof of the animals grazing before him; he forgives his enemies and thinks indulgently of his family."  But regrettably such a feeling only lasts as long as his vacation.  "Mysticism, on the other hand, would be connected with the intention of going on vacation permanently.  Our high official is bound to regard such an idea as disgraceful and instantly feel - as in fact he always does towards the end of his vacation - that real life lies in his tidy office.  And do we feel any differently?" Ulrich is a scientist and sceptical by nature, but concludes that even religious people "are so infected with the scientific way of thinking that they don't trust themselves to look into what is burning in their innermost hearts..."

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