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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Viennese Genius

from Chapter 13 (“A Racehorse of Genius Crystallizes the Recognition of Being a Man Without Qualities”) of The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins:

The time had come when people were starting to speak of genius on the soccer field or in the boxing ring, although there would still be at most only one genius of a halfback or great tennis-court tactician for every ten or so explorers, tenors, or writers of genius who cropped up in the papers. The new spirit was not yet quite sure of itself. But just then Ulrich suddenly read somewhere, like a premonitory breath of ripening summer, the expression “the racehorse of genius.” It stood in the report of a sensational racing success, and the author was probably unaware of the full magnitude of the inspiration his pen owed to the communal spirit. But Ulrich instantly grasped the fateful connection between his entire career and this genius among racehorses. For the horse has, of course, always been sacred to the cavalry, and as a youth Ulrich had hardly ever heard talk in barracks of anything but horses and women. He had fled from this to become a great man, only to find that when as the result of his varied exertions he perhaps could have felt within reach of his goal, the horse had beaten him to it.

Austrian stamps

No doubt this has a certain temporal justification, since it is not so very long ago that our idea of an admirable masculine spirit was exemplified by a person whose courage was moral courage, whose strength was the strength of conviction, whose steadfastness was of the heart and of virtue, and who regarded speed as childish, feinting as not permissible, and agility and verve as contrary to dignity. Ultimately no such person could be found alive, except on the faculty of prep schools and in all sorts of literary pronouncements; he had become an ideological phantasm, and life had to seek a new image of manliness. As it looked around, it found that the tricks and dodges of an inventive mind working on logical calculations do not really differ all that much from the fighting moves of a well-trained body. There is a general fighting ability that is made cold and calculating by obstacles and openings, whether one is trained to search out the vulnerable spot in a problem or in a bodily opponent. A psychotechnical analysis of a great thinker and a champion boxer would probably show their cunning, courage, precision and technique, and the speed of their reactions in their respective fields to be the same. It is probably a safe assumption that the qualities and skills by which they succeed do not differ from those of a famous steeplechaser—for one should never underestimate the how many major qualities are brought into play in clearing a hedge. But on top of this, a horse and a boxer have an advantage over a great mind in that their performance can be objectively measured, so that the best of them really is acknowledged as the best. This is why sports and strictly objective criteria have deservedly come to the forefront, displacing such obsolete concepts as genius and human greatness….

And since, now that genius is attributed to soccer players and horses, a man can save himself only by the use he makes of genius, [Ulrich] resolved to take a year’s leave of absence from his life in order to seek an appropriate application for his abilities.

* * * *

It’s been interesting to read this book during Euro 2008. It was written largely in Austria and Switzerland and is set largely in Vienna (albeit in 1913). Among its varied themes are national identity, ecstatic experience, modernization, and the problematic concept of greatness. There are other parallels. Of course the two things have essentially nothing to do with one another, but experiencing them at the same time gives you the impression of a certain odd counterpoint.

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Viennese Genius

by Brian Phillips · June 25, 2008

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