How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

5 Comments

Filed under Classics, Essay, German Literature, Short Stories

5 responses to “How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

  1. Love that quote. Absolutely – and every nation/politician/party thinks it’s got the truth (and history) on their side.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The thought “If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it. ” is wonderful. It can be applied to so many other things where we see lots of hand wringing but no action (gun crime for example!)

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  3. What a fabulous quote Melissa. And as you say, we really haven’t learned have we? This world does seem to be descending into chaos. 😦

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  4. Liz

    Great post, Melissa. I vaguely recall reading that Mother Theresa was once asked to join a march against war. She said no, but I will join a march in favour of peace. I hope I have remembered this right – I think it would have sparked a good conversation with Musil.

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  5. That is an excellent quote and feels pertinent to my own country as it hurtles towards leaving an organisation one of whose founding principles was maintaining peace.

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