If something that affects a person is too overwhelming for him, whether sudden fright or an unremitting spiritual pressure, it can happen that this person suddenly “loses his head.” He can begin to howl, basically no differently from the way a child howls; he can “blindly” rush away from a danger or just as blindly rush into it; he can be overcome by an explosive tendency to destroy, swear, or wail. Altogether, instead of purposeful behavior that would be appropriate to his situation he will engage in a great many other kinds of behavior that always appear to be, and in reality all too often are, aimless, and indeed counterproductive. We are most familiar with this kind of contrariness as “panic fear”; but if the term is not taken in too narrow a sense, we could also speak of panics of rage, of greed, and even of tenderness; or indeed wherever a condition of excitation cannot give satisfaction in such vivid, blind, or senseless fashion. A man as intelligent as he was courageous noted long ago that there is a panic of courage, which is only distinguished from the panic of fear by its reversal of polarity.
Psychologically, what takes place when panic breaks out is regarded as a suspension of the intelligence, indeed of the entire higher intellectual faculty, in place of which a more primitive spiritual mechanism emerges; but it might well be added that with the paralyzing and ligature of reason in such cases, what happens is not so much a descent to acting instinctively as rather a descent leading straight through this area to a deeper instinct of ultimate necessity and an ultimate emergency form of action. This kind of action takes the form of total confusion: it has no plan, and is apparently bereft of reason and every other saving instinct; but its unconscious plans to replace quality of action with quantity, and its not inconsiderable cunning rests on the probability that among a hundred blind attempts that are washouts there is one that will hit the target. A person who has lost his head, an insect that bumps against the closed half of a window until by accident it “plunges” through the open half to freedom: in their confusion they are doing nothing but what military strategy does with calculated deliberation when it “saturates” a target with a volley or with sweeping fire, or indeed when it uses shrapnel or a grenade.
Robert Musil, “On Stupidity,” 1937
I searched long and hard for a relevant passage from The Man Without Qualities, since he says so much there and the translation is better, but I had to go to 1937 and a speech to find him addressing the basest instincts of humanity, because even the vilest character in The Man Without Qualities (excluding the murderer Moosbrugger, who is not a character anyway) looks pretty good in absolute terms, and by the later portions, it is threatening to float off into a world that is still far too rational and considered to be applicable.
I can’t blame him. “On Stupidity” is as close to a scream as I’ve read of him, disguised unconvincingly in increasing abstraction and stilted detachment. More selfishly, it drives him nuts that it is increasingly cutting him off from what he once thought was important and valued:
But today it is even more important to place the concept of what is significant ahead of the upstanding mind; I will mention this concept only in the most utopian way.
The significant unites the truth we are able to perceive in it with qualities of the feelings that give us confidence for something new: for an insight, but also a resolve, for fresh perseverance, for whatever has both intellectual and emotional content and “presumes” a certain kind of conduct in ourselves or in others; this is the way it could be put; and what is most important in connection with stupidity is that the significant is accessible to criticism’s understanding aspect as well as to its feeling aspect. The significant is also the opposite of both stupidity and brutality, and the general disproportion in which, today, emotions crush reason instead of inspiring it also merges with the notion of the significant. Enough about this, indeed perhaps already more than one might be able to answer for!