sheep, seen differently

Sheep, seen differently.
by Robert Musil
translated from the German by Kameron Cole

Concerning the history of the sheep: Today humans find the sheep dumb. But God loved it. He repeatedly compared humans to sheep. Is it possible for God to be completely wrong?

Concerning the psychology of the sheep: the visage of higher consciousness is not dissimilar to that of stupidity.

In the heaths of Rome: They had the long faces and dainty skulls of martyrs. Their black socks and hoods, against their white fleece were reminiscent of grim reapers and religious fanatics.

Their lips, when they searched the short, sparse grass, quivered nervously and dusted the earth with the tone of a vibrating metal string. If they joined their voices in chorus, it would sound like the plaintive prayer of the prelates in cathedral. If however they sang in multitudes, they would form men’s, women’s and children’s choirs. In soft undulations, their voices rose and sank – like a caravan in the dark, it was, that the light struck every other second, and then you could see the voices of the children standing on an ever-returning hill, while the men traversed the valley. A thousand times faster rolled the night and the day through their voices, and drove the earth towards its end. Sometimes a single voice would hurl itself upward, or plunge from on high, into the trepidation of damnation. In the white ringlets of their hair they would recapitulate the clouds in the heavens. These are age-old Catholic animals, religious escorts of humankind.

Once more, in the South: Amongst them, the human is twice as large as otherwise and looms like a church spire against the sky. Under our feet the earth was brown, and the grass scratched in with graygreen strokes. The sun gleamed heavily on the sea, as on a mirror of lead. Boats were at their fish-catching, as in the time of St. Peter. The headlands swung our vision to heaven like a gang-plank, and were flung, wheat-yellow and barley-white, as in the time of the lost Odysseus, into the sea*.

Everywhere: Sheep are timid and stupid when around Man: they have come to know the blows and stone throws of arrogance. But when he stands still, peacefully, and stares into the distance, they forget him. Then, they put their heads together and form, ten or fifteen of them, an aura, with the large, weighted middle-point comprised of their heads, and the multicolored radiating beams their backs. Their skullcaps press fast against one another. So they stand. And the wheel which they form, does not stir, for hours. They seem not to feel anything, save the wind, the sun, and between their foreheads, the stroke of the second hand of eternity, which pulses in their blood, and is shared, from one head to the next, like the tapping of prisoners on prison walls.

* Odyssey BkIV:1-58 (


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