Friday, January 17, 2020


The problem of how ideas do or do not influence reality, history, our lives becomes more explicitly central in these chapters, especially in the trio of chapters 82-85. The question of ideas is, of course, related to where ideas come from and whether they are, to begin with, a reasonable response to what is real or mere random constructs that, in their self-contradictory nature, cancel each other out.

The conceit of the suggestions proffered by the people to the Parallel Campaign is an object lesson in the complexity of human values and ideas. That so many people want so many opposing things, with some people seeing something as the solution, while others see the solution in the elimination of that thing, may seem to suggest that truth is utterly impossible to arrive at or that nothing at all is real or true. But such a conclusion is too easy. And unethical, according to Musil's imperatives.

Nietzsche's early posthumous essay, "On Truth & Lying in a Supramoral Sense" floats behind these chapters--although it is improbable that M had read it since it was unpublished--. Still, Musil would have gotten some of the ideas from N's other writings and probably also came to its conclusions by himself. The idea is that Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, that we construct edifices out of these images, which eventually become ossified into habits and cliches, dead ideas.

This is not to say, in a nihilistic sense, that there is no relationship at all between what is and what we call it, but that there is a problem when we forget that we ourselves are the creators of value, our varying perspectives naming and categorizing things according to our own (at best, changing and alive and new) needs, uses, tastes, desires. While some contemporary readings see this choosing and naming as a treacherous and deceitful social construction of meaning, which only serves those in power, for N (and for Musil) this naming and renaming is the work of what N calls "the creative subject," i.e., any aware and conscious human being in contact with the world, not just artists and philosophers, but any person with the capacity and energy --and ethical honesty--to see anew and name anew, create new metaphors, new ways of describing the world, breaking open, again and again, any ossified constructs that are calling for enlivening. Not for the sake of destroying values, but for the creative generative sake of creating ever new ones--values that are intensely connected to our own real lives, to the physical, natural, affirmative embrace of what is (N's amor of fate, an embrace of the REAL). Thus, language is not a flight from the REAL and TRUE, but an every expanding creative attempt to braid the world with the living word, as metaphor, image (remembering that most metaphors are images of the material world, thus they are bridges between abstraction and concrete things, between ideas and action).

Thus, when Clarisse suggests a Nietzsche Year as crowning idea for the Parallel Campaign, Ulrich at first objects that "you cannot turn great ideas into reality," he is really struggling with the question of how one actually could or how one does, in fact, always do that to some extent, or maybe--in some utopian sense--could do that, despite the seeming muddling, self-contradictory "armed truce of ideas," which always keeps any one idea from coming to prominence as a sort of safety measure.

In discussing the Nietzsche Year, Ulrich asks Clarisse (twice) WHAT DID NIETZSCHE WANT? A question I think he partially answers when he returns later to answer the question she posed him (why don't you act), an answer that is practically a paraphrase of the On Truth and Lying essay!

When Clarisse suggests that Walter should kill Ulrich (or that she should kill him), Ulrich at first concedes that it is fine to THINK anything, as if thinking were different than doing. But Clarisse (always taking everything to extremes...that is her role) insists that "if you can think something, you should be able to do it too". She accuses Ulrich of being as passive as Walter. (the women in the book, Clarisse and Agathe primarily, are the active principles, the ones who take risks, while the men think too much. Clarisse bases her action principle on Nietzsche's idea that one needs to be able to act without knowing what will come next....which is connected to Musil's utopia of the next step, whereby one never can judge anything except by what it engenders). After which, Ulrich develops his idea of the 2 kinds of passivity, one of which is an active passivity...., which is later explained by the utopian principle of motivated action, whereby one should not do anything without intensity or passion....and in between should do nothing. But here Clarisse notes something that Agathe will pick up later, i.e., the danger of not doing...For in some cases, not doing can be as fateful as doing. Letting things happen, not choosing, not taking a stand. This also relates to the oft-mentioned problem of why people get concerned about some events and issues, while ignoring other just as egregious problems. Our crimes of neglect.

Ulrich had been about to answer Clarisse's question about why he did not act with the word "God". And he continues in his mind, saying, "God does not really mean the world literally; it is a metaphor, an analogy". And, invoking N.'s Creative Subject, he continues: "We are not supposed to take Him at His word, it is more we ourselves who must come up with the answer for the riddle He sets us".

When he returns to Walter and Clarisse's house to answer the question, his explanation suggests that creative metaphors do in fact influence action, insofar as we justify and inspire what we do based on our perceptions of life, which is why it is so very important that our ideas are not routine or just accepted on faith--or on bad faith (Sartre's idea of mauvais fois is everywhere in Musil, when people justify what they are doing by lying to themselves about their real purposes)--. While mostly history proceeds as a result of unexamined ideas, accidents, trifling causes, this is because people do not take responsibility for our roles as creative subjects, from our indifference to ideas. Reality, thus, becomes a reflection of a lack of new ideas, of conformity and ethical aesthetic laziness. Also a sort of personal myopia, whereby we only judge things based on how they affect our own lives, rather than philosophically, abstractly.

Thus Ulrich suggests a utopian mode of action whereby we concentrate on "the opening up of some new experience of life" instead of just "the pattern of what we already know". We should, he says, using the metaphor of making wine, concentrate "the spiritual juices" by reevaluating all values:
"so that those who seek to acquire a mind of their own must first of all realize that they have none as yet. An entirely open mind, poetically creative and morally experimental"--in other words, like a man without qualities.

Which brings Ulrich to the idea of existing like literature, which includes all art and even religious philosophy (really the whole realm Musil elsewhere calls essayistic). Walter accuses Ulrich of valuing "an experience only to the degree that it generates spiritual energy," which is a good paraphrase of N's "Bizet makes me fruitful...." and the whole complex of whatever makes me fruitful is good.

Ulrich then rhapsodizes on the dynamic of what Walter sees as a negation by art of life, but which Ulrich sees as a refutation that includes love, that is, a refutation and affirmation at once. This paradox can be explained by referring back to N's idea of smashing some idols in order to create new ones; while art refutes the status quo of ossified reality and its conventions, it is in order to create new metaphors and new ways of seeing the world that we love, in order to re-enliven our relationship with the beauty of the world which has been dulled and dimmed by conventional perspectives, some of which are even anti-life in themselves. Thus, Ulrich says:

"Extract the meaning out of all literature, and what you will get is a denial, however incomplete [of] all the accepted rules, principles, and prescriptions underpinning the very society that loves these works of art! In the end, a poem, with its mystery, cuts through to the point where the meaning of the world is tied to thousands of words in constant use, severs all these strings, and turns into a balloon floating off into space. If this is what we call beauty, as we usually do, then beauty is an indescribably more ruthless and cruel upheaval than any political revolution ever was".

Thus we see that ideas--in the form of art, in the form of beauty (which, he says, "works by intensification and contrast")--do, in fact, radically alter reality.

Something to think about: how does this relate to the Emersonian paradox of self reliance--and that of the Kantian categorical imperative--whereby acting according to what is true for you is actually the same thing as acting in the interest of the all? How is the individual act connected to the universal? New ideas are related to old ideas because humans have made them out of the same raw materials of reality, seen and perceived from different perspectives. Important: perspectives are not random constructs, but, rather, different aspects of the Real.

Monday, January 13, 2020

#MUSIL2020 Days 9-12


"Ideals have curious properties, and one of them is that they turn into their opposite when one tries to live up to them". Diotima here speaks for Musil. Compare also the Napoleonic dictum, "principles are fine--they don't commit you to anything,"qtd in The Ruin of Kash. Relationship between abstract ideas, reified ideals and action taken seriously & ridiculed. Ulrich, like Diotima, like the reader is struggling with & against "eternal verities," a reevaluation of all values.

I find the Parallel Campaign business a bit boring, probably because, compared to the rest it is so one-dimensional as satire, but when looked at from this dimension (as idea seeking action) it gains importance as analogy of more serious quests.
A sort of clown show or comic parallel of the drama, a la Shakespeare.

Leinsdorf and Diotima are forced by the farce of the Campaign to face complex philosophical problems. Their simple idealism is dissolved into melancholy confusion.

A little thinking is a dangerous thing. Reminds me of Mann' s Buddenbrooks where the successful man reads Schopenhauer & has an existential crisis(short lived). "Now, while His Grace had an extraordinart knack for keeping apart two ideas that might contradict each other so that they never came together in his consciousness, he shld have firmly rejected this particular idea[that one cannot go back in history], wh was inimical to all his principles." & "Diotima thought, can mankind even have roast chicken without violence?"

In response to Kirkdale Bookshop's question about Chapters 61 and 62: Are these Musil's thoughts, Ulrich's, Moosbrugger's, None of theirs?

Page 265, utopia of precision sounds alot like Musil's own "Utopia of the motivated life". Yet he wld qualify that one probably can't live always in this heightened state.
P.266: "...a human being full of the paradoxical interplay if exactitude and indefiniteness". Compare to Musil's "precision and soul," elsewhere championed ( & later by Ulrich as Parallel Campaign idea) as fundamental union of opposites, like his "mathematics and mysticism". These unions if opposites are correctives to cognitive dissonance of rigid moral "eternal verities". More soul in matters of science and more science in matters of soul! This is all Musil philosophy here.
All of which makes me wonder how readers of M can call him a cynic.

Utopia of Essayism also description of Musil's ideas, with Ulrich as representative. This is, intellectually, allegorically, a very autobiographical novel.

"He seeks to understand himself differently, as someone inclined and open to everything that may enrich him inwardly, even if it should be morally or intellectually taboo....And when he thinks he has found the right idea, he perceives that a drop of indescribable incandescence has fallen into the world, with a glow that makes the whole earth look different". World filled with meaning; world drained with meaning. Consider also Nietzsche's dictum: whatever makes me fruitful is good.

Essayism conects to N's Perspectivism too.
And later utopia of the next step, where actions are judged by what they engender.

"..all moral events take place in a field of energy whose constellation charges them with meaning.They contain good and evil the way an atom contains the possibilities of certain chemical combinations. They are what they will become...". Thus Clarisse's suggestion on p.233 that if Ulrich were to set Moosbrugger free, he would be transformed, takes on new weight. She will continue to think in this extreme form of Ulrich' s idea. Almost, in her case, magical thinking.

WHY THE PARALLEL CAMPAIGN is Less interesting to me than the rest:

Trying to understand why I take umbrage at the way most of the Musil that gets quoted in newspapers is from the Parallel Campaign sections. As if the only point of Musil were his ironic critique of the old Empire.

1st reason why it bugs me:
these sections often lack the complexity of other parts, i.e., they ridicule without sympathy, are 1-dimensional. The target is almost too easy.
2nd reason: those who revel in them take them out of context. Yes, Musil was generally left-leaning, especially in his younger years, but he was also an enthusiastic soldier in WWI (part of a mass intoxication he wonders at later), and an upholder of many old values. Also, he would have criticized a democratic bureaucracy with as much scathing wit.

3rd reason: we also see Ulrich admiring some of the forms of the old aristocracy, even as he ridicules them. Ulrich makes fun of everything, all values and all beliefs, but he does so, as he later admits, partly because he loves them.

4th Reason: it is extremely un-Musilian to take any simple critique of something as if it were a one-sided defense of the simple other side. His thinking is distinctly mult-valent, and the only value that holds steady is that something is good or bad inasmuch as it supports the life of the mind, creativity, and free thinking. Which is why, when invited to speak at the Paris conference in defense of culture, he scandalized the communist organizers by suggesting that the Soviet regime might be just as dangerous for culture as the Nazis.

Finally, people who only get their Musil from these snippets quoted in the newspaper, think of him merely as a witty social critic, and thus have no idea what a profound trove of literary, poetic, philosophical riches are within these pages.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

#MUSIL2020 Continued, Days 5-8

Book Twitter Notes on The Man without Qualities Continued:

S.Wilkins's "Psuedoreality Prevails," translated by E.Wilkins/Kaiser more accurately as "The Like of the Same Now Happens" (Germ. "Seinesgleichen Geschieht" (The Selfsame Happens?), points us towards the contrast between what repeats and what deviates.

In my reading, the novel plays constantly with sameness and differences (with metaphor and analogy), an object lesson in the way life operates amid the same dynamics as art itself.

Aesthetic experience (and the art object or novel) operates thus under same structural principle as life itself (thus informing us in how to best live). Harmonies and discord, accords and discords. Universals and individuations.

Mystical experience of Affair with the Major's Wife (based on Musil's own life) exemplifies M's "other condition". Later described in novel as "tear in the page" of normal reality. Normalcy as deadening habituation interrupted by heightened moments of exceptional experience wherein normal rules and morals do not apply. Related to Woolf's Moments of Being, Sartre's exceptional moments in Nausea, Proust of course, and Nietzsche's anything that occurs in love occurs beyond good and evil.

These moments are temporary and out of time. They cannot and must not last, for lasting would mean ossification (the first people to be thrown out of any utopia are the utopians, who always see new ways of living and cannot rest in closed finished systems)

Chapter 34: Ulrich's suspicion of "those prefabricated compartments & forms of life, semblances of reality, the molds set by earlier generations, the ready-made language not only of the tongue but also of sensations and feelings". Then his vision of the stone church, like an old beautiful matron, followed by "all the resistance of primal instinct against this world petrified into millions of tons of stone, against this frozen moonscape of feeling...".

"It may be a convenience and a comfort for most people to find the world ready-made, apart from a few minor personal details, and there is no disputing that whatever endures is not only conservative but also the foundation of all advances and revolutions; but it must be said that this casts a feeling of deep, shadowy unease on those who live according to their own lights".

Sentence map: It may be [proposition], and there is no disputing [concession], but [complexification/objection], but [again, new twist].

The Other Condition: "He had penetrated the heart of the world; from it to his far-off love was no farther than the nearest tree. In-feeling linked living beings without space, as in a dream two beings can pass through each other without mingling,and altered all their relations. Other than this, however, his state of mind had nothing in common with dreaming. It was clear, and brimful of clear thoughts; however, nothing in him was moved by cause, purpose, or physical desire, but everything went rippling out in circle after ever-renewing circle, as when an infinite jet falls on a basin's surface".

Note the clarity of mind and lack of appetite/desire. Later Ulrich will muse on the 2 sides of life: appetitive and non-appetitive, noting that the appetitive is cause of all destruction, BUT ALSO of ALL CREATION. Non-desiring mystical state is only part of Musil's necessary formula for motivated life. Not a celebration of passive non-attachment, but of oscillation between enlightening contrast.

Referred to later as a circle of meaning or significance, this "ever-renewed circle" (like a fountain in Rilke's poem!), is the recurring, repeated essence of life, interrupted by the willful existential choice-making of the creative subject.

Friday, January 3, 2020

#Musil2020: Book Twitter Reads The Man without Qualities


What would Musil have thought of Twitter? A vast network driven by algorithmic connections and allusions, necessarily swift in its aphoristic pronouncements, trivialized by "trends" and "influencers," advertisements, and shallow, superficial alliances? Another encyclopedic, infinite, non-linear realm in which what is important gets lost? Or?

In any case, so-called "Book Twitter," an extremely sophisticated and charming corner of this otherwise often unwieldly and unfriendly interwebverse, in response to the cheerleading of a reader whose handle is Paper Pills (@reemk10), initiated a group reading of The Man without Qualities. It began on January 1st, and participants are reading approximately 23 pages a day, intending to finish the approximately 1700 pages of the Knopf edition (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike) by March, at which point yours truly will be interviewed on the Feeling Bookish podcast. Comments, discussions, and quotations can be found under the hashtag #Musil2020. 

At first I did not know if I would participate. Did I really want to stop all my other reading to re-read this enormous book that I imagined I already knew so well? But once I picked it up, I found it so utterly engaging and brilliant, and found it so easy to read a mere 23 pages per day, that I am happy to take part in this joyous collaborative venture!

Having to keep one's comments to small bits is challenging, but maybe in a good way. Here are some of my comments, by day, with twitter-sized bits combined for easier reading: 

DAY 1: 
1st 25 pages #Musil2020: Different discourse vocabularies for looking at world (science, anthropology, literature, technology, etc.), undermine accepted simplistic view. Note patterns, systems and deviations from patterns, i.e., accident as something that has broken rank. Ulrich's absurd attempt to clock/measure forces & counterforces. Uncertainty/ different possible versions (they might have been Tuzzi & Arnheim, but...). Possibility sense as subjunctive case, but always linked to reality. Most of all, on the sentence and paragraph structure, the constant complexification. Something is described, then qualified, then twisted again, into further complexification. Nothing is simple; everything is ambiguous . Despite ambivalence, the forces, desires, tensions, dynamics are exciting and fascinating. Ulrich is struggling, and we struggle with him, to find the possibilities inherent in the new realities of modern world.

Note also: Ulrich' s vision of Leona compared to Swann' s of Odette in Proust: beauty amplified by fitting a face into an already pictured pattern or archetype. The ever present tension between pattern and deviation from pattern!

Choices, existentialisism, exemplified in Ulrich's problem of decorating his house...modern world without god, fixed center, shared morals leaves one paralyzed...or open...remember: being without qualities can be positive too...can mean openness, non attachment to preconceptions or dogma...possibly based on Meister Eckhart' s phrase. ..denoting singleness, non attachment...

DAY 2:
Returning to yesterday' s premonitions on recurring patterns\deviations (#Musil2020 ): "Ultimately a thing exists only by virtue of its boundaries, wh means by a more or less hostile act against its surroundings: without the Pope there wld be no Luther, and without Pagans no Pope, so there is no getting away from the fact that man's deepest social instinct is his antisocial instinct". And: "Mankind produces Bibles and guns, tuberculosis and tuberculin. It is Democratic, with kings and nobles; builds churches and, against the churches, universities; turns cloisters into barracks, but assigns field chaplains to the barracks. It naturally arms hoodlums with lead-filled rubber truncheons to beat a fellow man within an inch of his life, and then provides featherbeds for the lonely, mistreated body....". Lest one read this as resigned nihilism, note that Ulrich "hated this mixture of resignation and infatuation in regard to life...." and felt that one must "find the cause of this, the secret mechanism behind it! How incomparably more important that wld be than merely being a good person in accordance with obsolescent moral principles...". A premonition of the protagonist's motivation.

DAY 3: Musil called himself "Monsieur le vivisecteur," but he was also constantly seeing likenesses, commonalities, sometimes between things, persons, ideas we like to keep separate, scandalizing our pretensions to moral difference, by suggesting that "if mankind could dream as a whole, that dream would be Moosbrugger," the misogynist murderer. As we read on, we will see that all sorts of characters, presented as foolish or otherwise reprehensible (anti-semites, absurd mystical demagogues, industrialists, bad poets) will say things that could have come from the mouth of our hyper-intelligent anti-hero Ulrich. This lack of fixed qualities does not signal a state of nihilist relativity of values, but a radical openness in search of comprehensive principles upon which to base an ethical-aesthetic life.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"Agathe: Or the Forgotten Sister": A Sort of Review

 The publication of a translation, hawked as a new volume of The Man without Qualities in English, but which turns out to be, rather, a small selection from almost exclusively already-translated material, raises interesting questions about the uses and abuses of re-translation and of the publishing industry. Every translator who re-translates something which has already been translated (as I myself just dared to do with Unions), must endeavor to justify his or her task, and justify its purchase to any would-be book buyer, and this interest on the part of translator and publisher may, in some cases, lead to special pleading and special misleading.
     Agathe: or the Forgotten Sister, published by The New York Review of Books and translated by Joel Agee, while guilty of both kinds of pleading and misleading, nevertheless may offer something valuable to the small world of Musil translations in English. Agee's introduction to the volume is both sensitive and erudite, revealing a deep and vast reading and understanding of Musil. The focus on the Agathe material, furthermore, is a great relief (to me at least) from the frequent critical discussions of the novel, which tend to focus primarily on the earlier ironic socio-critical chapters involving the so-called "parallel campaign". This frequent myopic focus on the earlier chapters, seen recently in reviews of Menasse's novel The Capital, leaves much to be desired. While they are brilliant in their own right and quite useful nowadays for summing up global and national political problems, a focus on only these earlier chapters threatens to reduce the vast, philosophical, experimental, mystical novel to a witty social satire. Agee, like myself, was drawn to Musil's exploration of "the other condition," a mystical state of aesthetic-ethical timelessness; and the so-called "Agathe chapters" he has chosen to translate are rife with material related to this concept. Thus, I welcome any new translation that might draw the critical attention more deeply into what to me are some of the more interesting parts of the book. And what more seductive allure than Agathe, one of the most attractive fictional women of all time, comparable only to Rosalind of Shakespeare's "As You Like It"? Both women are witty, androgynous, daring, and passionate. Agathe has the added charms of being criminal, elegantly modern, existentially despairing, and Ulrich's sister. She is thus taboo; thus all the more attractive. 
      The material, then, included in this volume, is extremely engaging. Some of the most fascinating writing ever. Nothing to complain about there.
     The translation itself, though certainly not better than that of either Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike's (whose 1995 Knopf edition is my gold standard of reference), seems mostly good. One can always find moments to quibble at (and I have found some odd and unjustified constructions or renderings on Agee's part), but I have also found some felicitous new turns of phrase or word choices, to be sure. On the whole, I feel (and "feel" is the operative word, since it is very difficult at this micro-level of small variations to establish what it is that makes one version better than the other) that Sophie Wilkins' and Pike's renderings are more elegant, crisper; they seem to capture Musil's tempo and particular lucidity of mind more. Or maybe I am just used to them. 
     Agee writes in his introduction that he read aloud passages of his translation to his wife; which is interesting, since Burton Pike has said that he struggled with his part of the translation until he discovered that Musil read aloud passages in progress to his wife, Martha. Pike then took to reading the German and English aloud, focusing on the all-important tempo of Musil's prose. Thus both translators used that similar method. Agee also eloquently expressed a translation theory, which I myself wrote of in my introduction to the collection of my translation of Musil's small prose, Thought Flights. Agee writes that "Musil hardly ever employs a common turn of is a temptation for a translator to navigate strangeness in the original with something more familiar. In my view, this temptation must be resisted". In my words: "The writing and thought are devoid of cliches, and a translator must ever labor to resist choosing conventional phrases for original words and their syntheses...". The challenge in this methodology, of course, is in choosing words and phrases that, while unconventional, are not also clunky or "off" in ways that are not commensurate with Musil's carefully-tuned melody. There are times when Agee does not succeed; but translation is, as we know, almost impossible. And all of us are merely approximating. 
     The only real problem with this translation is whether or not it was needed, that it takes the material out of context, and that it has been presented as something a bit different than it is. Agee himself does not even suggest that there was anything wanting in the previous two translations (Wilkins-Kaiser or Wilkins-Pike), even very properly and nobly acknowledging that these former translations gave him an advantage in his own work, and explicitly noting in the text places where he adopted the solutions of the previous translators because he deemed, in those cases, that they could not be improved. Either he was being politic, or he did not find any problems in the previous translations that warranted the new work in question. Nor has he explicated a new or alternate perspective on how the text might be better rendered into English. Why then a new translation?
     While it is not fully explained in the introductions of either the translator or editor, I was reminded by Walter Fanta, who presides over the Musil archive and Musil scholarship from Klagenfurt, that the project was conceived by a millionaire philanthropist, Nicholas Berwin, in collaboration with artist, Paul Ryan, who had created a rather lovely, eclectic artist's book that was exhibited at the Musil Museum. I had been contacted, years ago, through Fanta, possibly to be a translator or advisor for the texts of this very book! But I splashed cold water on the project, and was rightfully passed over for someone more enthusiastic. What happened to the artist's book and Paul Ryan? 
    Although Agee may not be, Berwin, a retired investment banker, who by his own admission, was unsure of his German, was very critical of the Wilkins-Pike translations, deeming them unnecessarily difficult and off-putting. Berwin also suggested that someone like Eckhart Tolle (the popular spiritualist guru) would be the right sort of person to write something about the mystical aspects of the novel. This judgment can be taken together with his advocacy of  the need for a complete new translation of the novel! Agee thanks Berwin's charitable trust in his acknowledgments for a "generous grant". There I went again, letting my principles get in the way of maybe getting paid for my work! I have a constitutional suspicion of excerpts; I must admit, as I did to Berwn at the time, that I am a sort of purist. The kind of person who doesn't mind brother-sister incest as a theme in a novel, but who cannot condone people writing sequels or finishing deceased authors' works, or of presenting an excerpt as if it were a novel, more or less complete in itself. 
     I also (full disclosure) learned everything I know about Musil and about translation from Burton Pike. I cannot imagine his translation being surpassed by any new one, and did not appreciate Berwin's intention to turn Musil's extremely challenging, experimental novel into an easy-to-read best seller. I am not suggesting at all that Agee's translation travesties the novel, its style, or its content in this way. But the publication as an excerpt out of context does, I believe, effectively deflate the dynamic aesthetic effect of the whole (in so far as an unfinished novel can be conceived of as whole). Musil's build up, through cynicism, cold irony, alienation, humor, and wit, lays the ground work that allows for the shock and dramatic contrast between the earlier parts of the book and the so-called Agathe sequence. Ulrich's hyper intelligence, his mathematical-logical mind, are the necessary foundation for allowing the mystical mood that pervades the later passages. Ulrich's relationships with other people in the novel, his philosophical musings about reality, action, perception, and possibility, the historical pre-WWI setting, all are necessary context for what will come next.  That being said, again, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the material, per se, or with Agee's  translation. The problem is in presentation, marketing, and in everything that is left out. The backstory of Berwin's big plans for a retranslated, populist Musil tells us something about the premises of the publication; something the introduction leaves out. And also lends a special coloring to the special pleadings and misleadings mentioned above and explicated in what follows.
     Edwin Frank, editor of the NYRB Classics, may have been misled himself (by Berwin?), but his suggestion, in the tantalizing last line of his introduction, that this volume fulfills George Steiner's vision of a publication of Musil's posthumous draft chapters is odd, to say the least.  The bulk of this book is, in fact, made up of material from Part III of the novel, published in 1933 during Musil's lifetime. Not the Posthumous Papers at all. This book's chapters 23 to 30 are selections from the so-called "Druckfahnen" (galley-proof) chapters, withdrawn from publication by Musil, but included in both English translations of the novel, and the last five selections alone are revisions Musil was working on up to his death. Yes, these twelve chapters are, strictly, part of the Posthumous Papers, but only a very small selection of them. By contrast, Pike's translation of the "Posthumous Papers" includes over 600 pages of this material; the 1978 German version includes over a thousand pages; and there is more, included in the Klagenfurt Edition (previously an on-line database and soon to be online).  
    This thin volume that is supposed to fulfill Steiner's vision of a separate edition of the Posthumous Papers, includes only about 100 pages. Furthermore, the two supposedly new translations included in this volume are actually only different versions of chapters chosen by Pike. In rereading the correspondence between Berwin, Fanta, and the artist, Paul Ryan,  I see now that there was some discussion about these "new," differing versions, which Berwin had insisted were far better than the ones that Burton Pike, the brilliant, erudite, and extremely nuanced international Musil scholar and translator, who had introduced the English speaking world to Robert Musil, had chosen to include. Why, I cannot fathom; nor did Berwin or Agee explain in what way they were better. In any case, while those Musil fanatics who do not know German can be thankful for two short new translations out of the many variants in the Posthumous Papers, none of this looks very much like a fulfillment of Steiner's vision of a volume that would reveal the genius of Musil's great later writing. If we were to look around for a volume that best fit that description, it would be Pike's translation.
      It remains to be said in this regard, that not only do the selections included in this "Agathe" volume exclude hundreds of pages of delicious, brilliant non-Agathe writing, but they also exclude hundreds of pages of fabulous, incomparable, significant material that is strictly related to Agathe, including the all-important scenes that are available in Pike's version, describing Ulrich and Agathe's journey (for those interested in whether or not the siblings do or do not cross the line into incest: they do in these chapters), and some of my other favorites, "Attempts to Love a Scoundrel," "Special Mission of a Garden Fence," "The Three Sisters," alternate versions of the supreme "Breaths of a Summer's Day," and many others. While even the 1000 + pages in the 1978 German version and the 600+ pages of Pike's Knopf version exclude much fascinating material, and while each edition has made differing (and controversial in the case of the German edition) editorial decisions about the arrangement of the material, when it comes to the Posthumous Papers, this "new" volume, alas, offers relatively slim pickings.
     To be honest, none of this  put me in a mood very favorably disposed to give the translation a very fair reading. Mr. Agee, a fine translator and deep reader of Musil, is not to blame for this, nor, perhaps, is Edwin Frank of the NYRB, who may not have known about the real lay of the land in this complicated publication history; but I am troubled by this book. It seems to represent precisely the sort of use and abuse of culture, a trend toward sensationalist popularization, that Musil himself fought violently against. If he had wanted to be what he ridiculed as a "Grossschriftsteller" ("big-shot writer"), he could have foregone all the hardships of decades of arduous work and swiftly thrown together some potboilers. He emphatically resisted a sort of writing life he deplored as anathema to his idea of art's role as cultural, ethical-aesthetic impetus. Musil should be much more popular than he is with English-reading audiences.  But if making this happen means leveling him down rather than raising the discourse level, I doubt he would be well pleased. If, on the other hand, this volume were to lead more people to read the beautifully, crystal-clear, brilliant and fascinating larger 2-volume Knopf edition, to read the plucked out chapters in their dynamic context within the whole unfinished masterpiece; if this volume were to lead readers to discover the other astonishing women in The Man without Qualities: Clarisse, Diotima, Bonadea, Rachel, Gerta; if this volume brought more people to a discovery of the rich, complex, experimentally daring, aesthetically astonishing, thought-provoking, challenging work of Robert Musil, it might be excused for tampering with a masterpiece.
    After the publication of Part II of The Man without Qualities, Musil wrote,"A success of this novel would contradict the picture of the times that the novel, itself, presents. The absence of success would, perhaps, call the author's powers of persuasion into question, but at the same time, attest to the novel's conception. What should I hope for? Naturally, I wish for the response that you anticipate. But I don't believe in it. Later, perhaps much later".
     The question thus remains: does this new publication suggest that Musil's time has finally come? Or does it suggest the opposite, that we are just as far away (or even further) from such a time as ever? 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Conversations with Burton Pike

Tomi Ungerer, Moon Man
On Friday I had the pleasure of visiting my Doktorvater, Burton Pike, in his little New York City apartment, in a tall tower-like building surrounded on all sides with the new New York of boutiques and bars and young, eager, rich people zipping about their perennial busy business. Earlier, I had stopped in at McNally-Jackson on Prince Street, to see what the hipsters were reading. The New York Times had just printed an article in the style section about the bookstore owner, Sarah McNally, and how she spent her Sundays. Apparently, she is reading Musil's "super old book, The Man without Qualities," and the Times printed a quote from the novel about rushing about--the modern condition. At the bookshop, I bought Burton a copy of Carl Seelig's wonderful book, Walks with Walser (trans. by Anne Posten), which documents Seelig's visits to Walser in the mental hospital, and the hikes they took together, stopping at little Swiss inns and restaurants for exquisite little feasts, well lubricated with lovely cold wines and refreshing spirits, peppered with Walser's bon mots and reminiscences. A lost world, but one still accessible in words, paradoxically available in a shop that is the very epitome in some ways of the new world that seems to cancel out the old one. Walser told Seelig things, things that no author today would dare to say.

Burton was telling me things too, and I should have been taking notes as he reminisced about his life, including stories about his long-time friend, Tomi Ungerer (who had been cancelled back in the 60's, for the unpardonable sin of being both a children's book illustrator/writer and someone who drew erotic or pornographic drawings). Burton had Ungerer's books and pictures in piles along two sides of the living room, about to be sent to an archive at an American university. They had met in Switzerland, when Burton was on a Fulbright, I think. And Burton was enchanted with Ungerer's wild spirit. There was much drinking and, I gather, wandering about late at night along ancient streets. Over the years, he would watch Tomi draw, images seemingly appearing out of nowhere...a line of ink becoming a building, a person, a situation, and he would ask Tomi how he created what he did, but Tomi was unable to tell him. The creation, an enormously prolific generation of images, seemed a miracle. Astonishing.

He told me of his time teaching American literature in Germany, including putting on a Gertrude Stein play with the students. He had a little office and the students would come knock on the door. Like all the other professors, he would say, "Herein" (come in), and they would come and sit down, but say nothing. Eventually, he asked one of them why they came, if they had nothing to ask. This student told him that all the other (German) professors would also say "herein," but that once they came in, the professors would send them away, telling them that they had no time. Apparently, they just wanted to experience the novel sensation of being welcomed by a professor.

He mused about how we end up being what we are and doing what we do, saying that with him the big life choices seemed to come mostly by chance. In high school, the music teacher had called to him in the hall way, "You're tall; do you like music? Do you want to play the double bass?" And he did like music, so he did. This led to some of the most joyous experiences of his life, including playing in a jazz trio and singing in the midst of a choir of voices in Switzerland, singing the Saint Matthew's Passion, a wonderful experience he likened to being a thread in a carpet.

And why, and how did he come to be fluent in German and French. Another mystery. But perhaps related to his love of music, his innate sensitivity to rhythms and cadences, melodies and tones, something that has meant a great deal for his translation work. When translating the Nachlass to The Man without Qualities, he has said that he was stuck until he discovered that Musil read his drafts aloud to Martha. Then he began to read the words aloud, discovering the key to how to translate them. It was all about the sound. Perhaps this is also why he always remembered what a German professor had told him about Thomas Mann, when Burton admitted to be working on him: "Er hat," the professor declared, "kein Melos" (He has no melody). Musil certainly does.

We talked about Musil's sentences and decided that they had a particular remarkable pattern. While Kafka's sentences begin saying one thing and often end up contradicting what their beginning states, Musil's sentence begin with something familiar and then proceed onto something deeper. They complexify along the way. And in so doing, they teach us how to think. We even attempted a sort of musical version: la la la da la da/da la da la da da/ PLUMP. An approximation of how he sort of leads one along lightly and calmly, and then sort of drops a small bomb towards the end, to wake us up.

We talked of contemporary fiction, which he found mostly shallow and uninteresting compared to the depths and infinite unfathomableness of Musil and Proust. He also spoke quite a bit about Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as a remarkable example of how a work has its own life and parameters.Once a work has come into a certain form, it sort of crystallizes there and the poor artist cannot alter it any further. The only choice at that point is to start another work. The great books are great, he suggested, largely because of their perfectly idiosyncratic forms--forms related intrinsically to their authors' idiosyncratic natures. The strangeness of the beginning of In Search of Lost Time, the impossible unending form of Musil's Man without Qualities, the oddity of Kafka's Castle. And it should go without saying, that we are not talking about some sort of forced attempt to be new or avant garde, but rather of a true impression taken of the very particular personal individual strangeness of the authors, a faithful impression, unadulterated by some preconceived idea of what a novel should or should not be.

We praised Iris Murdoch and Natalia Ginzburg and Clarice Lispector, all writers who emphatically saw and wrote in their own idiom. We talked about how Steiner, whose After Babel Burton had encouraged me to read in graduate school, asserted that all language use is a form of translation. A translation of one person's idiolect into something others could approximately understand.

I mentioned that there had been a twitter "thread" asking translators what they love most about translation, and, for his answer, he quoted the e.e. cummings poem, ending in:

there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

And I suppose that sentiment, an American version of the old Baudelairean, "anywhere, anywhere, out of this world," uttered in a room high up above the madding crowd of contemporary New York, as if inside an eternal timeless-spaceless mind, explains a great deal about our love of literature.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Crystalizations of Musil's Unions in the garden of Unnameable Books

It was a wild weekend for me, traveling down from rural Vermont to my old stomping grounds in the New York City area for my father's 80th birthday party on the Upper West Side and for the book launch at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. On the train down, the two events mingled in my mind as I attempted to prepare something to say for both occasions. In typical Musilian fashion, they seemed gradually to be very related.  Thinking about my father, who seems to eternally refresh and renew himself, who is exceptionally vibrant and open to newness, and about Musil's resistance to closure, his insistence on the "motivated life," and his constant work to reinvigorate language by new seeing, new arrangements, new combinations of words into fresh metaphor, and his "Utopia of the next step," whereby no act may be judged except by what next act it engenders, it all seemed to be about the same thing.
    I ended up writing a speech for my father's party about the universal struggle to become one's self, to find one's voice, to untie one's hands from whatever social and familial conditionings constrain us. It was a beautiful party, but very drunken and went late, including the after-party dancing party and after-dance party present opening, and the drive back to my mother's house in Hastings, where my nephew and I were staying the night. By the next day, waking up in my childhood room (eternal recurrence! The selfsame -seinesgleichen- recurs!), I was foggy-headed, exhausted...well, hung over. And I feared I could not find any of the words or associations necessary to speak clearly or to illuminate even a small sense of what I wanted to impart about Musil that evening at the reading. I wanted it to be meaningful for the Musil-scholars and for the people who were just there to see me, some who were artists and writers, others not, but I could hardly retrieve the most common words in my stupor.
   My sister's lovely new boyfriend drove us all down (mom, my sister, my nephew) through harrowing traffic, and they left me to "clear my head". After drinking a gigantic juice with lots of ginger and mint and a double espresso, I betook myself to the lovely bookshop and its lovely garden and sat, slumped over in a chair, trying to remember something. As I was looking through the first pages of the first story, I suddenly thought I understood something I had not understood before. Crystalization! I said, aloud, and scribbled it down. Not that I had not noticed it before. In fact, we had taken out a footnote about how Musil had probably gotten the image and idea of crystallization from Stendhal's On Love, but in the nature of things, when one is tired and the synapses are loose, one can sometimes slip into a sort of mystical state (an Other Condition, in Musil's parlance), wherein things considered in more sober moods come to suddenly seem earthshaking. I realized that the whole first story, and probably the second too, was an illustration of the oscillations between crystalizations of significance, meaning, forms (with their sharply focused facets) and the dissolution of these temporary arrangements, followed by the planes shifting then into new arrangements or shimmering significance, belief, beauty. Then I "realized" that both the stories in the collection featured second-by-second descriptions of the process by which one may enter the Other Condition, something that I think is not provided anywhere else in Musil. He describes what it is like to be there, and certainly provides many moments of lucid seeing that can only have been culled in such states, but only in these stories  does he explicitly show how one might arrive there.
    Quite graphically, in "The Completion of Love," we see the crystal facets of the husband and wife in their enclosed living room, protected by the green blinds (like closed, and then semi-opened eyelids, a precursor of the garden which surrounds Ulrich and Agathe in the great novel), and then we experience, through Claudine's train journey away from her husband, the dislodgement and then the dissolution of the fixed forms of her married life....and then, later, the new city where she is visiting her daughter, becomes a new enclosed crystal, snowed-in, surrounded by a perimeter that cannot be bridged.  Astonishing.
    The people in "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" are also separated from the world, enclosed within their house and garden.  Within this microcosm, certain things seem possible that would seem absurd or certainly socially unacceptable, though the opinions of the world do sometimes seep in, and prevail, and prevent actions. Only by getting away from this odd microcosm does Johannes manage to see that he must not kill himself. Though Veronica remains, her world is dramatically changed by Johannes's leaving. She is able to focus even more intensely on her self, her memories, her sensuality, and this focus initiates another Other Condition within a general everyday other sort of condition (since Veronica always lives in an other sort of condition from normalcy). But she breaks out of her normal otherness, to experience a new state of being. And I "realized," while choosing the passages from this story to read for the book launch, and then thinking about them later, that Veronica is an ecstatic. A visionary. While one may mistake her for a sick, confused victim of her childhood experience, this experience is part of what gives her the ability to see the way she sees. And this seeing is an ecstatic, joyous, extra-sensory kind of seeing. She is like one of those medieval visionaries who sees and describes her visions from out of some sickness, some self-starvation, some weakness. The weakness, as is suggested about Johannes a few times, is actually a strength. Her illness, her madness, is a portal to higher seeing. While I realized that her name came from Saint Veronica, whose cloth held the impression of Jesus's face after she wiped away his sweat, I had not really grasped until now, why Musil related her to that Veronica. And then, in an even more confused state, while falling asleep the night after the reading, I wondered if maybe Musil intended for one to imagine that the cloth held an impression, not of Jesus's face, not, then of Johannes's or Musil's own, but of Veronica herself. The female saint alone without her male priestly guardians and spiritual guides, undresses amid a circle of candles. The impression of her body remains in the folds of her cast-off garments.
    When Johannes's letter, from outside the house-garden-fortress, arrives (banging on the house like an intruder), the interior Other Condition of aloneness with God or herself, is destroyed, and day by day its illuminations fade away. In one of the last moments of the story, Veronica makes ephemeral contact with a person passing outside the door of the house. Through the crack under the door, the light from the candle she holds in her hand shines on the stranger's body, like fingers touching him; the air from the outside slips up her shift, under which she is naked. Inside and outside tentatively come in contact. She avoids Demeter, the bestial brother, on the stairs, but though the story is over, life is not.
   What new Other Condition, what new Crystalization will be formed out of the facets of reality? Anything is possible, if we take Walter Pater's advice and refuse to "form habits" and strive, as much as possible, "to burn always, with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy".