Robert Musil

From “Man Without Qualities”

Unfortunately nothing is so difficult to represent by literary means as a man thinking. A great scientist, when he was once asked how he managed to hit upon so much that was new, replied: “By keeping on thinking about it.” And indeed it may safely be said that unexpected inspirations are produced by no other means than by the expectation of them. To no small extent they are a success due to character, permanent inclinations, unflagging ambition and persistent work. How
boring such persistence must be! And then again, from another aspect, the solution of an intellectual problem comes about in a way not very different from what happens when a dog carrying a stick in its mouth tries to get through a narrow door: it will go on turning its head left and right until the stick slips through. We do pretty much the same, only with the difference that we do not go at it quite indiscriminately, but from experience know more or less how it should be done.
And although of course a head with brains in it has far more skill and experience in these turnings and twistings than an empty one, yet even for it the slipping through comes as a surprise, it is something that just suddenly happens; and one can quite distinctly perceive in oneself a faintly nonplussed feeling that one’s thoughts have created themselves instead of waiting for their originator. This nonplussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition,
whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think they must see something supra-personal in it; but it is only something non-personal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one’s head.
The better the head, the less perceptible it is in all this. Hence thinking, so long as it is not completed, is really a thoroughly wretched condition to be in, not unlike a colic affecting all the convolutions of the brain; and when it is complete, it no longer has the shape of thought, and this unfortunately is a non-personal shape, for the thought is then extraverted and adjusted for communication to the world.
One cannot, so to speak, catch hold, when a man is thinking, of the moment between the personal and the non-personal. And for this reason thinking is obviously such a source of embarrassment to writers that they prefer to avoid it.



Back to the database of writers | Send more excerpts | Back to Literature | Home