Five Short Chapters on Standstill
Uschi’s Bagatelles

Yeast plait Public domain

In music a bagatelle describes a short, light piece of music. “Uschi’s bagatelles” are brief episodes of text dedicated to the notion of standstill. Five reports on the condition of an organ of intelligence at low frequency range. Right at the start of the first chapter Uschi divides up a yeast plait. And like a baker braiding the dough for the yeast plait, our author weaves his musings on the topic of standstill into the following text.

Leonhard Emmerling

“The Heavens Stand Still and Time Goes On” is the title of an essay by Hans Blumenberg and the fifth chapter of his three-volume magnum opus The Genesis of the Copernican World. Whereas the practiced reader of Blumenberg might well be able to nimbly follow the author on his tour de force through the concept of time, readers less familiar with Blumenberg would probably petrify at the sight of the first paragraph. They might (albeit with mesmerized attention) follow its epistemic contortions of effects, which represent only the final step of the consequence of their premises (p. 433), yet they are more likely to marvel at, than truly understand them. Riveted to one’s study chair, one cannot but nod in affirmation, as if the following sentence had been coined to address yours truly: “The onlooker conceives of himself as at rest (…). The world acts for him.” (p. 440) Maybe not the world, but certainly the author. One follows his meandering, serpentine movements as one does those made by other ethereal spirits, torn back and forth between adulation and tedium, ossified in mental limbo between acknowledgment of one’s own ineptitude, the desire to understand, and the exponentially mounting longing for whatever can be empirically grasped that won’t instantly dissipate into the ephemeral vapor of scholarly poetry. While the progression of one’s own ability to comprehend radically slows down as one remains hunched over the book, help for the gradually overclouding spirit of cognition arrives with the reminder that there is no such thing as progress in thought, simply the motion of persistently orbiting around one and the same question on one and the same spot. Even if we fail to elucidate from whom this soothing suggestion stems (Husserl? Heidegger? Huelsenbeck?) the moment of paralysis instantly gives way to a warm sense of relaxation. You straighten your back, stretch your mind, clarify your bleary gaze, and Uschi’s voice, revolving around the inside of your skullcap as she slices the challah, whispers, “You don’t always have to keep on going.” Which is the same as saying that what Little Hans won’t learn, Hans won’t necessarily need, and that the correspondence between arrest and advancement, between progression and standstill, is described differently, but no less plausibly than in Hans B.’s essay: the heavens are standing still while, as time proceeds, the spirit sedates itself into oblivion. Or else, quite the opposite, the heavens rotate like a wheel spinning ad infinitum, while we, exhausted from this permanent wash cycle, take the shortest cut to the exit and, only squinting into the light, peer out from the increasing darkness of what once was called calcification and direct our gaze at the heavenly and earthly machinery. Planets orbit around suns, suns around each other, comets precipitate, meteors come hurtling down, swarms of asteroids herald inconceivable ages and distances, but down here someone is searching for a superstar, and we know: it’s not us. Looking through B.’s telescope we see book shelves. The eyelid lifts a last time and casts a twilit gaze at the centrifugal world behind the prison bars of the mind. Then this image too is extinguished and Rainer slams shut the notebook. If only Hans had learnt something decent!

In Arcadia, too, there’s a noon hour. And, as Schliemann, illustrious son of our country, never tired of repeating, this is the hour of Pan, whether in Greece’s Mycenae or Portugal’s Tróia. The sun shines down from the apex of a white, glassy sky as if fixed in time. In the torrid midday heat reason disconnects. And the madness of a manic urge overcomes satyrs and human beings who then pounce on anything that hasn’t found refuge in the trees by the count of five. Some ungodly wailing from up in the mountain slopes can be heard down in the valley, but Uschi has a good idea. She dips her slender feet at the end of her legs into the cool water of a stream as it twinkles its cheerful way down from the mountain into the valley, and quietly hums “Here we go round the prickly pear / Here we go round the prickly pear / At five o’clock in the morning.” At five, the grass is still moist from the night dew, and neither sunstroke nor sexual desire have taken effect on the mind. Clenching a twig between his teeth, his gaze dreamily directed at the stream’s surging torrent, my friend Steve Reich conceives his plan for a revolutionary form of new music. As all that is ever unchanging proceeds, the sparkling sound of violins in “Violin. Phase” reflects the gleaming, glittering tarriance of the incessant flow on the eternally same spot. Does the immobile progression of this music not subsume the aporia of standstill and continuation, of the stability of the transitory, of the fixedness of all that flows, into a paradoxical form as compellingly as the philopatric, reliably smooth curvature of the mirroring water as it spills over the moss green rock? Ach!, see how the rapids and the violin phases condense into cataracts of the precipitating temporal-spatial locatedness of all that eternally passes; how in their whirling, swirling repetitiveness they resemble aporetic states of being-there and being-past, akin to the meaninglessly eddying flights of ideas of the maniac, the vacant hermeneutic gyrations of the all-encompassing spirit that is experiencing its Kairos moment in the hour of Pan. In the midday heat the satyr gets heatstroke, while down in the moist valley Chronos goes about his business.

It cannot be emphasized enough that standstill is by no means to be confused with immobility. A house is not standing still, it is an immeuble. Whoever is standing still has moved; but that which is immobile has always been immobile and will always be so, regardless of time’s progression. The true concept of immobility can only be apprehended when one imagines whence all the ills of a rotating planet derive: from the disruption of immobility, from the revocation of the state of grace afforded by utter apathy. What a tranquil existence in eternal immobility this might have been had the gods not sacrificed Purusha, the primal cosmic being from the Rig Veda (10.90,1–16), who was everything that ever was, and was everything that will ever be, to himself? He was the sacrifice that they offered him as their sacrifice: and in this Möbius strip of self-devouring meaning arose the sun and the moon from his mind and his eye. And the four varna — called the four castes in the West — were created from his mouth (Brahmins/priests); from his arms (Kshatriyas/warriors); from his hips (Vaishyas/tradesmen); and from his feet (Shudras/servants). Since then we have been swarming through time and doing our very utmost — as if our lives depended on it — to uphold the wretchedly failing class struggle. As an investor rushing at full gallop towards the next round of funding of some cool start-up that promises such extraordinary rates of growth, when your ermine coat snags on the Ferrari door which the chauffeur parked fucking badly in the drive of the villa (who on earth said that: Scheler? Schulze? Schneider?), you just wish you could flip the whole mess back to zero. So while I am frenziedly looking for the reset button in the Ferrari cockpit Uschi tells me from the passenger seat where she’s sitting that her yoga teacher had pointed out that it’s not about breathing better or with greater awareness, more mindfully. Instead, what it’s really about is not breathing at all any more. By which one is trying to achieve nothing less than victory over time, standstill as a permanent state. I pause. “Deep thinking,” I think. I breathe in for a last time. One thing that still reaches my ears while Uschi is busy calling emergency services (“He’s gone completely blue in the face!”) is a voice from the speakers of my three hundred thousand Euro 5.1 Dolby Surround 300-watt mega booster subwoofer sound system announcing that during Covid real estate prices in New York had risen by 40%. Standstill pays.

As he was crossing the Indus, Alexander the Great famously thought he had arrived in Upper Egypt. At some point he must have realized that someone had duped him, so he turned around. He died in Babylon after, alternatively, he had been poisoned by the herbaceous plant veratrum album, succumbed to the booze, or sipped the waters of the Styx. When he posed Diogenes of Sinope the momentous question whether there was anything the philosopher wished him to do (to which, as legend goes, Diogenes replied that he should get out of the sun), he would have had the chance of not ending up as an imperial corpse marinated in honey, but rather as a philosopher who, in regard to the cosmos, might have gained insight into the relative pointlessness of all human activity. The fact that “Epiphanes,” one of the epithets he was known by, briefly considered this option is evidenced by the anecdote that he replied to the idler in the barrel that were he not already Alexander, he would gladly have been Diogenes. That then came to nothing since, as we all know, Alexander didn’t let up roving around Asia and subjugating the peoples he encountered. Whatever spurred his superhuman urge to keep moving, he might possibly have earned some insight into the contingency of his actions if he had occasionally recalled the teachings of his old mentor, namely that all that is moved is predicated by an entity that is unmoved. By failing to posit the entity of the unmoved, as the most eminent Aristotle argued, all thinking concerning the progression of time and change, as well as the relation of standstill to movement, would be subject to infinite regress. What in this regard will surely stun the assiduous readers of Ahnert’s Astronomical Yearbook with the full whack of sudden realization is the striking coincidence of the idea of the unmoved mover with the theory of the Big Bang. Since, as all stock Big Bang theories tell us, it was entirely due to the Big Bang that time actually — how should we put it? — came “into existence.” But if everything that is moved is attributable to the unmoved, if all time can be traced back to what was not time, or is, or should have been or will have been, then everything I — speaking as Alexander or Diogenes, as Uschi or Wolfgang — do, or don’t do, is in terms of its quality undecided, since it can equally be understood as the effect of that which my movement in time is not: namely, the consequence of the opposite of whatever time is, hence the opposite of movement, of action, of doing, the consequence of something ungraspable before and beyond, after and above time. Accordingly, as Uschi says while leafing through her favorite edition of the Tales of Einstein, all movement issues from standstill. Adding that, when she was young there were still loafers. Well, guys like Rainer. Back then, vegging out was considered subversive, whereas nowadays anyone who owns a notebook will be avidly building his start-up so he can contribute to change while sipping his latte macchiato. After all, change is de rigueur, from dawn to dusk, which is obvious to all our motivated employees who pump their hearts out on their Peloton bikes in their Alé R-EV1Kit Gear of the Day. Change is in our DNA says the guy on Instagram, and standstill the banker’s demise. Down in the fusty workout basement people are honing their own perfection as they speed on the spot up to the summit, towards the finish, the target, the telos of change: even more change. Standstill is the opposite of abreaction. If Alexander had joined Diogenes in his barrel Thebes would still be standing.

Anyone who has ever — now stuck for hours already in a traffic gridlock and confronted with the embarrassing situation that around Leverkusen even Uschi with her 360 hp fireball as low-lying as a bright red flounder with a horse dancing on its bonnet was not advancing any faster than some hunchbacked cover version of the Cinquecento — anyone who, caught in such an unfortunate predicament, has ever concerned themselves with the problem of the perfectibility of the course of the world in general and human existence in particular will inevitably come to the conclusion that the paradox of creation represents a problem hangover far too depressing for one to be able to evade its impact simply by stepping hard on the gas pedal. The anguishing question for us, as we adjust our Ray-Ban shades we prize so much since Joe Biden became president — and it took ages before it won out over Bono’s Revo, especially because, more than anyone else, Bono (with his hair permanently mussed from the winds of history that with flowing mane he valiantly defies on stage before attending again to his offshore investments) represents the implacable and indomitably steadfast will for change — he who in a sense has become the personified axis of good beleaguered by the raging malevolence of the world as he unwaveringly pursues his goal: to infinity and beyond… (who on earth said that? Buber? Badiou? Buzz Lightyear?). Anyway, so we are wearing Ray-Bans in honor of a man who aims to put right what another man with weirdly orange skin wrecked, and, in view of the conversion of the motorway into a permanent parking lot — just to get back to the issue at hand — we cannot shirk from the question of what, if everything had been set out perfectly from the very outset, one would still need time for? If everything was arranged properly and impeccably and consummately and absolutely and one hundred percent thought through down to the very last detail and immaculately, everything could and would have to be standstill, from the beginning to the very end, an infinite perpetuity of the same. Then progression can only be quantitative progression, a traversal of time, but not qualitative progression, modification or even improvement of a certain state of affairs. An assumption of this kind naturally offers no explanation for how people with weirdly orange-tinted skin succeed in wresting entire nations into their downfall. Which is why we must address the assumption that the very inception of all history was orchestrated not so much by an intrinsically, and essentially, and in all its actions and intentions perfect creator, but rather by a demiurge, a tinkerer, a hobby mechanic, who always only flew on sight — like we’ve been doing since Covid began — and pieced together a thoroughly flimsy, rickety world which in a dire manner resembles the traffic infrastructure near Cologne. No sooner has some eight-lane extension been completed than a bridge close by simply collapses. The sole conclusion you can draw from all change is that things were never in an ideal state; all progression of a qualitative nature can only lead one to deduce that something went fundamentally wrong at the outset; every notion of progress just confirms the assumption that from the very beginning something was deeply amiss with Project World. A prerequisite element of the logic of perfectibility is the assumption that the whole thing was a mistake. Progression indicates an underlying miserability; only standstill would be perfect. But that’s not something anyone cares to hear about just now. I duck down beneath the next best problem hangover in the guise of a crumbling autobahn bridge, take a deep breath when signs announce the end of the roadworks. Along with us, the Cinquecento judders a few yards closer to liberation, then Uschi steps on the gas and in the side mirror the pink motorized blob shrinks into a paradigm dot of balefully misguided automobile esthetics, the paragon of mediocre demiurgical art, the apotheosis of sense-, and aim-, and purposeless would-be engineering. “Nothing beats a Ferrari,” Uschi says.