Robert Musil on Human Experience
Robert Musil distinguished between two territories of human experience — the ratiod and nonratiod. Of the ratiod, he writes, “Above all the chief characteristic is that in it, facts can be unambiguously described and communicated.” Of the nonratiod, he wrote, “In this region facts do not submit, laws are sieves, events do not repeat themselves, but are infinitely variable and individual.” (Quoted by Bence Nanay, in “The Dethroning of Ideocracy,” The Monist, January 2014, page 7.)
Musil argues that we are nominally tethered to the ratiod, which perhaps could be characterized as “everyday existence,” while the nonratiod serves not just as a leitmotif, but as an opening onto the infinitely larger and more complex universe that we actually inhabit — life’s sometimes baleful, sometimes gorgeous randomness, like a meteor we see coming at a great distance, impossible to avoid, its embrace glancing us and leaving scars; or we prove to be that meteor, despite our intention.
In Musil’s Diaries, he writes down scenes from life. They’re almost reportorial, but then they blur into stories and parts of novels, or the stories and novels assimilate them. In my diaries, certain episodes stand out within a landscape of sameness. They seem to follow upheaval, as if border conditions create a space or rupture through which this other landscape opens out. Crossing carries risks. One way or another, we find an everyday again — different and possibly more valued than the one we left.
I wrote a poem that riffs on Musil’s take.
Rational life has doors, gates in hedges,
shadows behind columns, other rooms.
Irrational wraps her hair up, then slips.
Time and space alter on both sides. Back’s
another place, the child minutely older,
one touch different from another, lips
and much else ache with memory. Later
the ink’s a slightly different hue, words
and lines colored, darkened, lightened.
There’s no way to know. Each side’s
a mystery to the other, but she bleeds
in both, bears signs of crossing. Bears
perhaps another, minutely sparked.
The poem suggests that the space or rupture is present and sought for in the everyday, but that our decision to pass through it is almost accidental and yet central to experience — one way that we gain a knowledge of another in the most direct and intimate sense.
We live in the everyday “as if” much that we take on faith is true. And then life turns these words back at us. This is especially difficult for those who crave proofs. Convention is the sum of what we agree on, but it too is provisional. It may gain from acquired gravity, but its currency is strictly limited. Proofs against what? Who agrees and what are the limits of their agreement? “As if” is the abiding context of everyday life, a self-limiting factor — that is, an article of faith — but also how we try to ground ourselves and prevent further mishaps.
Could we choose to live a purely ordinary or extraordinary life? Musil suggests that this misses both life’s contingency and their inseparability: they bleed into each other and, as my poem asserts, we bleed in both.