Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Sex-scene from Man Without Qualities

Finally I am done with the first volume of The Man Without Qualities. It is obviously an extraordinary book. When I picked it up, I hadn't thought that I would read it this far and now after reading more than 700 pages I am ready to plunge into the next volume too and to read through the unfinished drafts and manuscripts and alternate endings (another thousand pages).

Anyway, I will try to write a summary of the first volume with my own personal impressions sometime later. For now here is a (loooong) extract from towards the end of the book. I am going to return the book back to the library so I thought I should copy something here. It can be read without much context too. Basically Ulrich is the main character in the novel, the titular man without qualities. He is very sharp and has an ironic and detached attitude to everything around him. He is also irresistibly attractive to women! Gerda on the other hand is a minor character, a girl in her early twenties and sexually immature. It is basically an analysis of PCGA (Pre-Coital Guilt Attack). Okay, I made that up. But I bet there is some term like that in pyschiatry. Also a good illustration for the mind-body problem.

Here it is:


[But]Ulrich had put his arm around her again because, knowing that he had something important to do since hearing the news about Arnheim, he first had to finish this episode with Gerda. He was not at all reconciled to having to go through everything the situation called for, but he immediately put the rejected arm around her again, this time in the wordless language which, without force, states more firmly than words can do that any further resistance is useless. Gerda felt the virility of that arm all the way down her spine. She had lowered her head, with her eyes fixed on her lap as though it held, gathered as in an apron, all the thoughts that would help her to reach that "human understanding" with Ulrich before anything could be allowed to happen as a crowning act. But she felt her face looking duller and more vacuous by the moment until, like an empty husk, it finally floated upward, with her eyes directly below the eyes of the seducer.

He bent down and covered this face with ruthless kisses that stir the flesh. Gerda straightened up as if she had no will of her own and let herself be led the ten steps or so to Ulrich's bedroom, leaning heavily on his as though she were wounded or sick. Her feet moved, one ahead of the other, as if she had nothing to do with it, even though she did not let herself be dragged along but went of her own accord. Such an inner void despite all that excitement was something Gerda had never known before; it was as if all the blood had been drained from her; she was freezing, yet in passing a mirror that seemed to reflect her image from a great distance she could see that her face was a coppery red, with flecks of white. Suddenly, as in a street accident when the eye is hypersensitive to the whole scene, she took in the man's bedroom with all its details. It came to her that, had she been wiser and more calculating, she might have moved in as Ulrich's wife. It would have made her very happy, but she was groping for words to say that she was not out for any advantage and had come only to give herself to him; yet the words did not come, and she told herself that this had to happen, and opened the collar of her dress.

Ulrich had released her. He could not bring himself to help undress her like a fond lover and stood apart, flinging off his own clothes. Gerda saw the man's tall, straight body, powerfully poised between violence and beauty. Panic-stricken, she noticed that her own body, still standing there in her underthings, was covered with gooseflesh. Again she groped for words that might help her, that might her less of a miserable figure where she stood. She longed to say something that would turn Ulrich into her lover in a way she vaguely imagined as dissolving in infinite sweetness, something one could achieve without having to do what she was about to do, something as blissful as it was indefinable. For an instant she saw herself standing with him in a field of candles growing out of the earth, row upon row to infinity, like so many pansies, all bursting into flame at her feet on signal. But as she could not utter a single word of all this, she went on feeling painfully unattractive and miserable, her arms trembling, unable to finish undressing; she had to clamp her bloodless lips together to keep them from twitching weirdly without a sound.

At this point Ulrich, who saw her agony and realized that the whole struggle up to now might come to nothing, went over to her and slipped off her shoulder straps. Gerda slip into bed like boy. For an instant Ulrich saw a naked adolescent in motion; it affected him no more, sexually, that the sudden blinking of a fish. He guessed that Gerda had made up her mind to get it over with because it was too late to get out of it, and he had never yet perceived as clearly as in the instant he followed her into bed how much the passionate intrusion into another body is a sequel to child's liking for secret and forbidden hiding places. His hands encountered the girl's skin, still bristling with fear, and he felt frightened too, instead of attracted. This body, already flabby while still unripe, repelled him; it made no sense to do what he was doing, and he would have liked nothing better than to escape from this bed, so that he had to call to mind everything he could think of that would help him to see it through. In frantic haste he summoned up all the usual reasons people find nowadays to justify their acting without sincerity, or faith, or scruple, or satisfaction; and in abandoning himself to this effort he found, not, of course, any feeling of love, but a half-crazy anticipation of something like a massacre, a sex-murder or, if there is such a thing, a lustful suicide, inspired by the demons of the void who lurk behind all of life's images. This reminded him of his brawl with the hoodlums that night he met Bonadea, and he decided to be quicker this time. But now something awful happened. Gerda had been gathering up all her inner resources to alchemize them into willpower with which to resist the shameful terror she was suffering, as though she were facing her execution; but the instant she felt Ulrich beside her, so strangely naked, his hands on her bare skin, her body flung off all her will. Even while somewhere deep inside she still felt a friendship beyond words for him, a trembling, tender longing to put her arms around him, kiss his hair, follow his voice to its source with her lips; and imagined that to touch his real self would make her melt like a fragment of snow on warm hand--but it would have to be Ulrich she knew, dressed as usual, as appeared in the familiar setting of her parental home, not this naked stranger whose hostility she sensed and who did not take her sacrifice seriously even as he gave her no time to think what she was doing--Gerda suddenly heard herself screaming. Like a little cloud, a soap bubble, a scream hung in the air, and others followed, little screams expelled from her chest as though she were wrestling with something, a whimpering from which cries of ee-ee bubbled and floated off, from lips that grimaced and twisted and were wet as if with deadly lust. She wanted to jump up, but she couldn't move. Her eyes would not would not obey her and kept sending out signals without permission. Gerda was pleading to be let off, like a child facing some punishment or being taken to the doctor, who cannot go one step farther because it is being torn and convulsed by its own shrieks of terror. Her hands were up over her breasts, and she was menacing Ulrich with her nails while frantically pressing her long thighs together. This revolt of her body against herself was frightful. She perceived it with utmost clarity as a kind of theatre, but she was also the audience sitting alone and desolate in the dark auditorium and could do nothing to prepare her fate from being acted out before her, in a screaming frenzy; nothing to keep herself from taking the lead in the performance.

Ulrich stared in horror into the tiny pupils of her veiled eyes, with their strangely unbending gaze, and watched, aghast, those weird motions, in which desire and taboo, the soul and the soulless, were indescribably intertwined. His eye caught a fleeting glimpse of her pale fair skin and the short black hairs that shaded into red where they grew more densely. It occurred to him that he was facing a fit of hysteria, and he had no idea how to handle it. He was afraid that these horribly distressing screams might get even louder, and remembered that such a fit might be stopped by an angry shout or even by a sudden, vicious slap. Then he thought that this horror might have been avoided somehow led him to think that a younger man might persist in going further with Gerda even in these circumstances. "That might be a way of getting her over it," he thought, "perhaps it's a mistake to give in to her, now that the silly goose has let herself in too deep." He did nothing of the sort; it was only that such irritable thoughts kept zigzagging through his mind while he was instinctively whispering an uninterrupted stream of comforting words, promising not to do anything to her, assuring her that nothing had really happened, asking her to forgive him, at the same time that all his words, swept up like chaff in his loathing of the scene she was making, seemed to him so absurd and undignified that he had to fight off a temptation to grab an armful of pillows to press on her mouth and choke off these shrieks that wouldn't stop.

At long last her fit began to wear off and her body quieted down. Her eyes brimming with tears, she sat up in her bed, her little breasts drooping slackly from a body not yet under mind's full control. Ulrich took a deep breath, again overcome with repugnance at the inhuman, merely physical aspects of the experience. Gerda was regaining normal consciousness; something bloomed in her eyes, like her eyes, like the first actual awakening after the eyes have been open for some time, and she stared blankly ahead for a second, then noticed that she was sitting up stark naked and glanced at Ulrich; the blood came back in great waves back to her face. Ulrich couldn't think of anything better to do than whisper the same reassurances to her again; he put his arm around her shoulder, drew her to his chest, and told her to think nothing of it. Gerda found herself back in the situation that had driven her to hysteria, but now everything looked strangely pale and forlorn: the tumbled bed, her nude bed in the arms of a man intently whispering to her, the feelings that had brought her to this. She was fully aware of what it all meant, but she also knew that something horrible had happened, something she would rather not focus on, and while she could tell that Ulrich's voice sounded more tender all it meant was that he regarded her as a sick person, but it was he who had made her sick! Still, it no longer mattered; all she wanted was to be gone from this place, to get away without having to say a word.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I find it funny or strange that I am reading it too...........
till now, i hadnt really bothered to read German lit., that means more than the english translation.....

Alok said...

He explains what he means by "qualities" in the novel, so it doesn't really matter. but yes you lose all the sound, "eigenschaften" sounds great. btw, it is also a pun on "self-made man" which is also explained in the book. again something missing from the english title. but even then it is a wonderful phrase.

Alok said...

i don't know how eigenschaften is used in German but the word qualities with its scientific associations also works well in the context of the book which is about scientific way of looking at the world and ourselves (among many other things).

Antonia said...

alok on which side :) are you on regarding the mind-body problem? I wonder why you think that this is a good illustration for this problem?

Eigenschaften in german is not really used in scientific context, rather to describe something and then to sum up its characteristics, a car is red and fast's used for characteristics or abilities of something

Alok said...

Hmm. Let's see. I am a monist too I think. But not an Idealist. I think things exist independent of our mind. it is a very complicated subject actually, I haven't really understood much from whatever I have read.

Illustration of not really the philosophical problem but it shows how in intense emotional states mind-body coordination gets disrupted and complex. mind becomes helpless against body and body becomes helpless against mind. Moosbrugger passages also discuss similar things. Actually it is one of main themes of the book, relationship between the mind and the body and what really we mean when we say mind or "soul."

Jabberwock said...

Yay, at last a sex scene on this blog!

Antonia said...

is it not rather society and all its fuckedup morals instead the mind-body problem? AIt seems to me that it is much more plausible to assume a psycho-socioligical problem. Desire and taboo, just as Musil writes and Gerda not ready for sexuality or sex at least with Ulrich.

Alok said...

jabberwock: :) (smiley attack!)

antonia: yes, that's true. I agree entirely. When one starts seeing oneself from the categories and perspectives that society invents and imposes on us, it leads to all kinds of psychological problems. It is a very good example of that situation.

Antonia said...

did you get to know already to beautiful Agathe?

Alok said...

No, Haven't met her yet. Hopefully by next week :)

Antonia said...

you'll love her.
Oh I am jealous, you are yet a virgin to those wonderful pages and gardenchapters about Ulrich and Agathe that are yet to come and you can dive into this wonderful pleasure now, like the first one walking in freshly fallen snow.

No seriously, those are some of the most beautiful pages on love I ever read, those ones on Agathe and Ulrich.
very special.

Alok said... :) You make it sound so exciting.

I have got the second volume here. Will start soon.