paul ricoeur on narrative, identity and robert musil


The lesson that narrativity also has its unsettling cases is taught to perfection in contemporary plays and novels. To begin with, these cases can be described as fictions of the loss of identity. With Robert Musil, for example, The Man without Qualities — or more precisely, without properties (ohne Eingenschaften) — becomes ultimately nonidentifiable in a world, it is said, of qualities (or properties) without men. The anchor of the proper noun becomes ridiculous to the point of being superfluous. The nonidentifiable becomes the unnameable. To see more clearly the philosophical issues in this eclipse of the identity of the character, it is important to note that, as the narrative approaches the point of annihilation of the character, the novel also loses its own properly narrative qualities … To the loss of the identity of the character thus corresponds the loss of configuration of the narrative … these unsettling cases of narrativity can be reinterpreted as exposing selfhood by taking away the support of sameness.

—from Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992



georg simmel and the painter of modern life

I’ve always found Charles Baudelaire’s famous phrase “the painter of modern life” to sum up the task at hand for the modern artist. But after the realism of Zola and Balzac and Drieser, and the psychological and formal experimenting of Joyce and Musil and Beckett, the novel seems to have abandoned its efforts to properly protray and understand the exterior and interior lives of the city. Curiously, the rise of sociological thought seems to concide with the novel’s surrender in this matter… 

Georg Simmel’s essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” must be one of the great secret landmarks of twentieth century social thought. In just six thousand words Simmel provides an acute diagnosis of the modern condition, which he encapsulizes as conflict between the self seeking to assert its integrity and the vast forces of the polis — a condition into whose unplumbed depths more and more of us diasppear with every passing day. The essay’s opening paragraphs show us the broad scope and nuanced sensibility of Simmel’s thought, and provide us with a trustworthy précis of our contemporary plight:

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation. The eighteenth century called upon man to free himself of all the historical bonds in the state and in religion, in morals and in economics. Man’s nature, originally good and common to all, should develop unhampered. In addition to more liberty, the nineteenth century demanded the functional specialization {1} of man and his work; this specialization makes one individual incomparable to another, and each of them indispensable to the highest possible extent. However, this specialization makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others. Nietzsche sees the full development of the individual conditioned by the most ruthless struggle of individuals; socialism believes in the suppression of all competition for the same reason. Be that as it may, in all these positions the same basic motive is at work: the person resists to being leveled down and worn out by a social-technological mechanism. An inquiry into the inner meaning of specifically modern life and its products, into the soul {2} of the cultural boy,  so to speak, must seek to solve the equation which structures like the metropolis set up between the individual and the super-individual contents of life {3}. Such an inquiry must answer the question of how the personality accommodates itself in the adjustments to external forces. This will be my task today.
The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli. Man is a differentiating creature. His mind is stimulated by the difference between a momentary impression and the one which preceded it. Lasting impressions, {4} impressions which differ only slightly from one another, impressions which take a regular and habitual course and show regular and habitual contrasts-all these use up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly. Precisely in this connection the sophisticated character of metropolitan psychic life becomes understandable – as over against small town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche {5} and grow most readily in the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations. The intellect {6}, however, has its locus in the transparent, conscious, higher layers of the psyche; it is the most adaptable of our inner forces. In order to accommodate to change and to the contrast of phenomena, the intellect does not require any shocks and inner upheavals; it is only through such upheavals that the more conservative mind could accommodate to the metropolitan rhythm of events. Thus the metropolitan type of man-which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants – develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. The reaction to metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of the personality. Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life, and intellectuality branches out in many directions and is integrated with numerous discrete phenomena.