Friday, December 30, 2011

the Other Condition & Roland Barthes' "lover's discourse"

Barthes writes of speaking amorously as expending, "without end in sight, without a crisis; it is to practice a relation without orgasm.  There may exist a literary form of this coitus reservatus: what we call marivaudage". Agathe and Ulrich's "holy conversation" functions in this way as a suspension of consummation, as an endless approaching and digressing, deferring possession and the slackening of desire that follows. Indeed, there is precious little consummation in Musil's novel; most characters refrain rather than indulge. Musil's Other Condition, based on, among other concepts, Ludwig Klages' cosmogonic eros, is characterized by a desire that does not want to possess. And, of course, this resistance to possession is related to Musil's infamous resistance to closure, resistance to the little and to the great death(s). Musil makes clear that Ulrich and Agathe's hesitancy in the face of consummation has nothing whatsoever to do with morality. It is, instead, an aesthetic consideration; a lingering in longing. Although they do eventually "get it over with," the narrator remarks that compared to what had come before the consummation was nothing to speak of. In fact, it does not get spoken (or written) about at all anywhere in Musil's notes, save perhaps in a very metaphorical way. The endless pages, drafts, revisions, correspondences, variations, metaphors for metaphors for metaphors, are the real pleasure of the text--- the final possession is besides the point.  In another passage in his A Lover's Discourse, Barthes looks at the distinction between two kinds of embraces, one which involves a "will to possess" and another which he calls incestuous (reminding of Ulrich and Agathe again). The embrace that does not will to possess is experienced as outside of time, like the mystical state, and beyond good and evil: "In this companionable incest, everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled". As Barthes writes, these two sorts of embraces (Musil might call them appetitive and non-appetitive) enjoy an oscillation back and forth, as the incestuous infantile embrace (the moment of non-linear, poly-logic presence) is periodically interrupted by "the logic of desire" (narrative, progressive, linear). Barthes writes in another passage about the impossibility of narrating one's own love, suggesting a natural incompatibility between narration and the amorous experience. The amorous moment is non-narratable, extratemporal, silent, undisclosed. Not out of any prudery or secrecy, but simply because, as Barthes writes, "amorous seduction  (a pure hypnotic moment) takes place before discourse and behind the proscenium of consciousness: the amorous 'event' is of hieratic order: it is my own local legend, my little sacred history that I declaim to myself, and this declamation of a fait accompli (frozen, embalmed, removed from any praxis) is the lover's discourse".  And, one might add, the poet's discourse as well. For what is a poet but a lover? Even if (especially if) his or her beloved is the world and not a particular man or woman.  A lover enamored of words. How do I love thee, the poet asks ad infinitum, let me count the ways with an infinity of words. An overflow. An exuberance. An embarrassing and unseemly marivaudage of words.

Monday, December 19, 2011

MLA Convention Panel in Seattle

If you are going to be anywhere near Seattle,  on  Sunday January 8th from 10:15-11:30 am, please come join me at the MLA . I am giving a paper at a panel called Heroic Idiocy and the Search for a Modernist Ethics. It will be at the Sheraton. These are the talks in the panel.

1. "Henry James and the Value of Stupidity," Matthew Sussman, Harvard Univ.
2. "On Stupidity and the Aesthetic of the Nonlinear Ethic in Robert Musil," Genese E. Grill, Community Coll. of Vermont
3. "The Few, the Proud, the Deluded: Borges's Foolish Heroes," Todd Garth, United States Naval Academy.

The real (secret) name of my talk is "Seeing Like an Imbecile". 


In Defense of Culture, Genius, and the Rebirth of the Author

Goethe, the Genius
I want to intervene here a moment before I seem to get carried away in one direction, away from language, away from conscious artistry, away from the author, away from some sense of "essence".  If only to be true to the complexity of Musil's person.  I have been going on here for a few weeks about un-doing, and de-construction, and the importance of leaving a space of silence or at least inarticulate mumbling and fumbling, of seeing new, and making new. But there is something else to consider. Not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. A good deal of my book examines the tension between an acknowledgment of some sort of common essence or a priori repeating patterns and the imperative to see and make new.  We return, again and again, to certain archetypes, forms, maybe even natural laws. And then we separate ourselves from them a little like a child experimenting with being independent from its mother. Thoreau radically abandons the wisdom of elders in the first part of Walden, but in his chapter on Reading he has returned to the necessity of the classics. While at first he says he has never learned a jot of important wisdom from one of his elders, in Reading he exclaims about how a man will scramble to gather some fallen silver coins but he doesn't bother to reap the golden ones waiting on the shelf, the classic authors of Greece and Rome. The Modernist authors returned to the core of primitivism, looking for a shared "significant form,"  a universal language in abstraction. While this can be seen as a rejection of the logos of civilization and its heritage, it is not necessarily a rejection of all that has come before. On the contrary. Therein lies the secret connection between transcendentalism and existentialism. The answer to why, as Emerson says in his Self Reliance, when one is true to one's self one enacts truths that are true for all men (and women).
   Further, while we talk of un-doing, and destabilizing, and of many voices, I think it is important to remember the value of the individual voice. Musil, certainly, was fiercely opposed to the blotting out of individual voice by the coming reign of collectivism. The much vaunted death of the author is not just a death of hierarchy or authority, but arguably death to choice, responsibility, voice. (It is also another way of saying: birth to the critic, for when the genius author is slain the critic puts himself or herself above the artist or at least drags the artist down to the level of the mob).  Musil's work is adamantly authored. And while his form of ordering is wildly non-linear, it is not without form. The form of his creation is utterly in harmony with the so-called content of his "message". My perspective on this is in no way opposed to a very traditional "new criticism" approach to looking at art. It is connected for me with Blake's confluence of form and content in the individual genius's expression. And there, I've used the word, without any irony intended: Genius. Musil was not intent on knocking the genius off his (or her) pedestal. He just thought he was unjustly under-appreciated and that those easier to understand, more pleasing authors, those "Grossschriftsteller" (or big shot writers) needed to be taken down.
I always go back to Carlo Ginzburg's introduction to The Cheese and the Worms, where he exposes the tendency of some post-modernist critics to be more interested in the oppression of voice than in trying to give voice back to the oppressed.  Ginsburg writes, referring to Foucault's exposure in his History of Madness of the  "exclusions, prohibitions, and limits through which our culture came in to being historically," that "what interest Foucault are the act and criteria of exclusion, the excluded a little less so". Ginzburg goes on to write that Foucault's method in his next books was probably influenced by Derrida's "facile and nihilistic objections to the Histoire. Derrida contended that it is not possible to speak of madness  in a language historically grounded in western reason and hence in the process that has led to the repression of madness itself. Basically he maintained that the Archimidean point from which Foucault embarked on his research neither can nor does exist. At this point Foucault's ambitous project of an archeologie du silence becomes transformed into silence pure and simple---perhaps accompanied by mute contemplation of an aesthetic kind".   Ginzburg, as embodied by his own attempt to map the "cosmos of a sixteenth century miller" (the sub-title of his book), prefers to let the subject speak as much as possible, even in the suspect language of the "oppressor".
Musil was well aware that there was no more Archimidean point, but that did not mean for him that there was to be no more meaning or no more possibility of communicating or no more genius. In place of the stability of objective reality (which had already been smashed hundreds of years earlier by Kant), the creative ethical subject must constantly call new worlds into being, always hearkening back to our shared cultural and poetic language of images and ideas, always communing with the things people have cared about from the beginning of time, in awe at the cave paintings sketched on torch-lit walls 30,000 years ago, in human-communion with the fears and wishes of medieval superstitions, in admiration of the noble questions raised by Antigone and in recognition at the base jealousies and brutalities of warring and violating gods. We were not born yesterday, although we are always being born again. And though our language may be a bit stiff, and certainly encrusted with centuries of crustaceous assumptions and cliche's, it is also a treasure horde of wonder (even if it has been plundered, stolen, appropriated; it has also been studied, translated, loved, quoted, respected). Especially in this era wherein language is shrinking, and wherein so-called educated people know shockingly less about the history, artifacts, literature and beliefs of the past than in previous centuries, wherein the average American reads one book a year (the Bible, the da Vinci Code?), we would do well to remember that culture is not our enemy; arguably collectivist conformity is a greater danger than individual expression; any thoughtful articulation of the experience of being human is a gift. Golden coins, as Thoreau remarks. To discard gold because it is old, or "another's brass," is nothing but wasteful, criminal even. As Musil wrote, "All bullies and braggarts begin with the assumption that we had too much culture, that, in other words, we were already in a state of excess culture and its decline, while in reality we had too little culture". The critic is dead! Long live the genius!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Return to the Isle of the Dead

Gerhard Meier’s Isle of the Dead connects the consciousness of death’s presence with the imperative to new seeing. The fragmented memory pictures that careen in a radical non-linearity throughout this little book attempt, as one of the characters says, “to grasp again and again the threads that bind one with what has passed away…and yet is present, not to be got rid of” (10). And in the last gleaming moment of the book, Bauer, who wants to write a novel, says, “Picasso is said to have once remarked to Malraux that you had to tear people out of their sleep, shake up the way they identify things, from the ground up. Had to create unacceptable pictures, make them fume. One must force them to see that they live in a crazy world. A world without security, a world that is not the way they thought it was”. “I want,” he continues, “to do it Picasso’s way” (102).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Return to the Question of Musil's "Woman Artist," the "Primitive" and the "Idiot"

Adolf Wöllfli, 1920, from the Prinzhorn Collection of the art of the insane
Since writing the post a few weeks ago on Avital Ronell's response to Musil's "Über die Dummheit," I have done some deeper exegesis and am now quite clear that Musil is not, contrary to what Ronell declares, simply joining the "we" of men to attack the stupid woman or stupid woman artist. In fact, after reading his extensive notes for the address it is clear that he associated himself with the woman he presents, and with at least some aspects of the stupidity he discusses. It may seem even more damning to note that the Künstlerin (woman artist) who responds in multiple associations when she plays the association-word game (instead of one simple word) is originally an "imbecile" in Musil's notes, until we read Musil's admission:  "Der Idiot, der wie ich antwortet" (the idiot who answers like I do). In his notes, he remarks that the answers of the idiot who speaks like him have a great plasticity, a corporality..."they do not answer conceptually, but tell a story, dramatic or epic...[they] narrate superfluities, narrate contexts and supplementaries and these are connected to the theme through an underground sea". This underground sea is related to the underground, many branched street (discussed below) in Musil's sketch "What is a street". Musil's writing process is itself an extreme version of this multiplicity of answering, this proliferation of associations and underground tunnels. The dumb, he continues, "are not always poets, nor are poets always dumb; but there is a relationship about which there remains much to say". He further asks the question of what the difference might be between the poet (Dichter) and the lady (Dame), who both talk about themselves alot, who lack seemliness and measure, who are both often improper (unanständig), who are sometimes too emotional about things. What is the difference? "Gar keiner!"(none at all).  Referring back to Dostoevsky's prince Myshkin, we see him behaving extremely "improperly" in the dramatic scene where he flails his arms around in excitement and breaks the expensive vase! He simply does not know how to be seemly, or cool or calm. He is (horrors!) impassioned, inspired; he actually cares about something; he talks too much (and too much about himself), he doesn't know how to "control" himself. He is an idiot, he is feminine, or he is a poet.
The political nature of Musil's  address is much clearer in the preliminary notes, revealing again that Musil felt himself as artist directly endangered and maligned by the invectives of the totalitarian regimes in power, and compares himself thus with the woman who, he also notes more directly in his preparatory drafts, deftly uses "Bauernschlauheit" (peasant cleverness) to hide her intelligence from those in power ("a realistic observer  will see in this a weapon which encircles her").  In one instance he notes that another term for stupidity at the time of his writing was "undeutsch" (un-German), and speaks of what the Nazi party would call "übermoderne Musik" (excessively modern music) and the danger that one who speaks of or questions the valuations of stupidity exposes himself to. He could be accused of having a "destructive attitude during the contemporary historical development/of the ether swoon....yes, it is not impossible that there would be hotheads who would accuse him of a lack of a patriotic or völkish attitude". Musil finishes ironically: "Of that lack he knows himself to be exonerated. And I hope that no one would fear that this will become a polit[ical] exposition. I am only speaking about stupidity". Later in the notes he makes another cryptic comment about the regimes in power, noting that many are blinded today like Tobias once was (who in the apocryphal Book of Tobit was blinded by a bird defecating into his eyes), when an eagle fell into his eyes from the propeller area....Bird," Musil corrects himself, "and it wasn't even an eagle!" referring, of course, to the German eagle.  This is followed by a comment about the German "herd instinct" which had already existed before it found its current political form, and a slight bit later by a discussion of sadism, "because our time has developed a social sadism" related directly to "humanism's lack of resistance". The word stupid, he notes, was often used to refer to poetry in more intellectually happy and liberal times; but now it has been replaced in part by "political and national invective" and an unconscionably excessive brutality and passionate intensity.
In this context, the imbeciles, the women artists, the idiot poets who, Musil notes, speak like "painterly primitives" when responding to associative prompts, are stand-ins for Modernist artists, maligned by the Nazis as "entartet" (degenerate), but who themselves (Musil included) happily admit of some affinity with the art of the insane, of children, and, famously, of "primitive" cultures, precisely because this work provided access to the "spherical" realms of the subconscious and sub-logical.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Isis and Osiris

Someone asked after an English translation of Musil's poem "Isis und Osiris," which I could not find and, instead, tried my hand at one for the occasion. It is an important poem for me, and for Musil. He wrote in his notebooks that it "contains the novel in nucleo".  Isis and Osiris are, of course, the sibling lovers of Egyptian mythology who are cruelly separated when Osiris is cut into pieces by their jealous brother Set. Isis looks all over Egypt for the parts and is able to breathe them back to life. Except for his penis, which was eaten by fishes; she fashions one out of wax and adheres it to her lover/brother. Now Musil, as you will see, has kept some of the original elements and changed some others, but the mystical union of brother and sister, like and unlike, separate but united which plays out between Ulrich and Agathe in the novel is clearly embodied here, as is the fleeting and circular nature of the sexual, erotic, romantic experience. The sun and moon (Isis and Osiris) separate and come together, repeatedly, are wounded and healed, are hungry and satisfied, over and over and over again.  You will also note that the male is the moon and the female the sun here, which corresponds to the gender of the two nouns in German (der Mond, die Sonne). Le voila!

        Isis and Osiris

On the foliage of stars the moon
Boy in silvery rest withdrew
And the hub of the sun's wheel soon
Turned and looked at him anew.

    From the desert the red wind wails.
   And the coasts are  empty of sails.

And the sister quietly loosened
The sleeper's sex and devoured it.
And she gave her soft heart, the red one,
In return, and laid it upon him, upon him.

    And in the dream the wound healed over.
   And his sweet sex she devoured.

See how the sun thundered away
As the sleeper was shocked from sleep,
Stars swayed, like ships,
Shaking trees, if they are chained,
When the great storm begins.
See, there his brothers stormed
After the lovely thief,
And he cast his net out.
And the blue space broke,
The woods broke under her tread,
And the stars ran along in dread,
But the tender birdshouldered one
Could not be caught by anyone, no matter how fast.

Only the boy she called to at night
Finds her, when moon and sun exchange.
Of all the hundred brothers, only this one,
And he eats her heart and she eats his.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Patrizia McBride on Musil and Bakhtin

And then I discovered that a book I had already read (and commented on below) discusses the connection of Musil and Bakhtin. McBride's The Void of Ethics compares Musil's novel style with Bakhtinian heteroglossia, but maintains that Musil's essays are written from a monological authorial standpoint, leaving for relatively little ambiguity. I would have to disagree with this latter assessment however, especially when looking at an essay like "Über die Dumheit" (an address, really, but I think it still counts as a sort of essay), which displays quite a bit of ambiguity and presents multiple voices and perspectives. In any case, as to the Bakhtinian flavor of Musil's novel form, McBride writes: "Mikhail Bakhtin's analysis of  the novel's discursive universe provides a fruitful frame for examining the modes of reflection enacted in the essays and the novel. Of particular relevance are his notions of polyphony and heteroglossia, which denote the proliferation of voices and idioms that distinguish the novel for the Russian critic....[while the essays present a primarily monolithic authorial voice] the novel....stages a cacophony of rivaling perspectives, entrusted not only to different characters but also to an extremely elusive narrative voice that often imperceptibly blends into the interior monologue of a character. As a result, the ideas that are unambiguously argued in the essays become caught in the refraction of competing discourses and perspectives when touched upon in the novel" (131). 

Allen Thiher on Bakhtin, Musil, and the destruction of the Vessels of Creation

A quick search revealed my ignorance of work on Bakhtin and Musil (not that I was surprised). I found a 2009 book,Understanding Robert Musil, by Allen Thiher (U of CA P).

Bakhtin, Dialogics and Polyphony/Polylogics

After writing the last post I realized that what I was really talking about was the difference between monologics and dialogics, or perhaps even that between dialogics and poly-logics or polyphony. So I went back to my Bakhtin and discovered his idea about a tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces of language (those that pull apart and those that unify). I am not sure if anyone has applied Bakthinian heteroglossia and dialogical imagination to the study of Musil, but I think it would be a very fruitful essai. Bakthin, in his essay "Discourse on the Novel," writes that:

"Stratification and heteroglossia widen and deepen as language is alive and developing. Alongside centripetal forces, the centrifugal forces of language carry on their uninterrupted work; alongside verbal-ideological centralization and unification, the uninterrupted processes of decentralization and disunification go forward...Every utterance participates in the 'unitary language'[ in its centripetal forces and tendencies] and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia [the centrifugal stratifying forces] (272 The Dialogic Imagination).

Dialogics implies a creation of meaning between two people who are aware that their words are only partially capable of expressing the multiple meanings and associations teeming about them and that the other may or may not be able or willing to hear or understand any new, unexpected, or centrifugal utterance. Polyphony or poly-logics would imply an even wider chorus of voices, and a beautiful and eery osicllation between harmony and dissonance, overtones and undertones, richness and layerings, as well as a deepening of presence as opposed to a uni-directional focus on catyclysm, crisis, or completing cresendo. A logic moves directly toward end. Period. A dialogic ideally maintains the energy between two forces or persons, through tension and inter-stimulus. A poly-logic would be infinitely interesting and is, in fact, the closest approximation of what we do as human thinkers, whenever we liberate ourselves from the status quo of the already-structured and attained answer.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Discursivity, Curves, Luce Irigaray, and a Living Logos

William Blake, The Temptation and Fall of Eve
This morning I was on my way to discuss with some intellectual lady friends whether or not logic is a male construct we might better dispense with. I told this to two of my male friends on my way out the door. "What," exclaimed one of them, "you had better not try using logic to debunk it!" I tried to explain the much-discussed difficulty of using a male-made language to talk about modes of being potentially external to it, when the other friend picked up a knife in the dish rack and said, "We men call this a knife. What do you women call it?" 
The word logic, of course,  comes from the word logos, therefore language itself is supposed to be inextricable related to logic. "Well," I said, "We call it a stabber...," thinking more about what a noun does than what it is, or how a thing should really be described by its actions, as a verb...or......But really, my answer arrived on the walk, a sort of roundabout route, an esprit déscalier which is only natural, considering. As I walked to the cafe where we were to meet, I started thinking about all the other things we call the "knife." It is a stabber, yes, and a spreader. A pricker and a slicer, a threat and a promise, a tool and a cold metal is many things, much more than a knife. And then I thought about Luce Irigaray's "This Sex Which is not One," and the difference she elucidates between the male focus on the one phallus and the fact that women's erogenous zones are everywhere. What did this imply about logic? I thought about the idea of multiplying instead of reducing, of infinite proliferation, and, of course, I thought of Musil's sketch "What is a Street" wherein he mocks the 2x2=4 people whom, were you to ask them, "What is a street?"  would be annoyed by the stupidity of the question and answer: "a street? why a street is a street. period." The other kind of person, the seer, Musil calls him (or her) knows very well that a street can be many other things as well, that it is not just a daybright conduit for people to move in one direction on in the normalcy of easy answers, but that it just as well can be something dark, mysterious, many branched, maze-like, with dead ends and underground passages, a means to become lost or to really find one's self. And then I started thinking about the essay form itself, as I walked, more or less in a straight line, about  Musil's "essayism," and I kept muttering the word "discursive" to myself.  What is discursive? Does it have to do with curves, like cursive writing? Does it suggest something inherently non-linear and perhaps a- or rather pre-logical? A somewhat submerged mode of being that we wander in while groping after subtle and elusive correspondences before they are sharp enough to come to the surface and make it in the cold hard world of logic?  It turns out that, indeed, discursive comes from dis- (apart) and currerre (to run), and is thought to mean "to run about". While this may impart an image of a chicken with its head cut off, I would prefer to see it as a meandering (as Renee put it when I asked her at the cafe), or as a mapping of a multiple amaze-ment of ideas and connections (as Alex described her excitement with a new definition of logical thinking we were approaching in our circular discourse). We concluded (for the moment) that we are not against logic at all, but resistant to a very limited form of specious logic which insists that everything can be explained with a simple monological cause and effect example. While it may be true, in other words, that A seems to lead to B, this does not mean that there are not a million other things happening at the same time all around this straight line...a round, curvacious universe of occurrences, sensations, valuations, emotions, ideas, memories, associations. 
 Logical abstraction necessarily cancels out most of these phenomena in order to temporarily see patterns and, as Musil writes (about this human process of metaphor-making, whereby we always leave something out in order to make two things seem alike), in order to "bring beauty and meaning into the world," if only for a moment. So, while any equation or simple definition is almost inherently false by virtue of its incompleteness, not to mention the Heissenbergian Uncertainty Principle, it may be beautiful or useful or partially correct. Ironically, to adhere rigidly to simple logical equations is very illogical when one takes into account the extreme complexity of the universe! And here I am debunking logic with logic!
It is certainly a good deal easier and more efficient to declare how A seems to lead to B in a simple limited explanation than to describe the multitudinous aliveness of the world and how our every thought, act, and refusal to act alters it in ever millisecond. No wonder we sometimes seem dumb-founded, or stymied by the language of simple statements and the stronghold of the "obvious" (why, a street is a street; a knife is a knife, a kiss is a kiss, etc.). While we work to articulate this complexity, this world that is not one, we would do well to wonder at the strange topsy-turvydom which declares the stuttering, stammering seers of new worlds, the pioneering founders of new languages and customs, stupid, when compared to those who think they already know or who rest comfortably upon the laurels of an already constructed system of prejudices and assumptions. For, insofar as one can only see or understand something that one already conceives of or has a word for, it is quite a heroic and daunting task to hearken to a presentiment of an "other" way of seeing and to try, amid all the haziness of the vision and in opposition to the clarity and dominance of the status quo,  to articulate what it looks like, what it might bring us, how it might be integrated into what we already have. If only the world as it is would not feel so threatened by the world as it could be. If only the limited form of logic would welcome the more curvacious discourse of a richer form of logic instead of shutting it out!
For, as my friend Dharman once wrote, the logos is not merely a function of "a Greek, intellectualist prejudice. In the beginning of John's Gospel ('In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,'etc.), the Word being discussed is not just an idea. It is the burning bush that is not consumed. It is Yahweh, who really refuses to take a name (which would freeze what is above all Dynamism itself)".
Musil, in a note on his sibling experimenters Ulrich and Agathe, writes: "Speech possessed for them a high level of reality. Things became real in words first [only in words]....Agathe still believed in the original magical power (enlivening power) of the Word--the world was said to have been created from the Word, but it continues to be created by it...logos: discussion: he who possesses the Word possesses the thing".
 Note: the world  continues to be created by the Word, so we should choose our words with love. We will keep logos, for now at least, with the proviso that it be a living logos, not a brutally divisive and limiting knife.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Klagenfurt Edition / Klagenfurter Ausgabe (inside Musil's Brain)

One of the earliest manuscripts of the collection, Musil's diary entry on the new name he coined for himself, "monsieur le vivesecteur," 1899
For some time I have been working with the Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition) of Musil's works and voluminous literary and biographical remains. It is a searchable, hyper-text collection in DVD form of upwards of 50,000 paper pages of versions, drafts, notes, letters, diary entries, and supplementary documents relevant to Musil's attempts. The Musil papers are supplemented by expert critical-historical commentary, indexes, and glossaries edited by Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann, and Karl Corino, three of the most knowledgeable Musil experts in the world. I don't imagine that anyone knows the details about the contents of a Musil document or the chronology of a Musil event or text better than these three men; what he read when, where he was when and with whom, which version of which passage was written first, which abbreviation refers to what or whom, who was who in the world of Austria and Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. While I am not usually one to recommend digital formats for reading, this particular project seems rather more in harmony with the author's intentions than many others, precisely because of the non-linear nature of Musil's writing and revision process. One can move effortlessly between different versions of passages (perhaps written in different decades), between facsimile photographs of the original manuscripts, replete with cross-outs, alternate words, attempts, variations, and what seem to be infinite cross-references of terms, words, concepts, authors' names, places, metaphors, ciphers, which all lead to even more connections, explorations, possibilities, correspondences. Oh, I got carried away. I meant to say, between versions in reading texts, in facsimiles, in transcriptions (which include notations about changes and markings), and commentaries, indexes, and glossaries. It really is as close as one can get to sojourning in the non-linearity of someone's brain. And what a brain, at that! One can search for and follow ideas and words through decades of associations, and watch the evolution and development of concepts and themes central to Musil's project. His "utopia of the next step," whereby no idea, event, or concept should be evaluated until seen in the context of whatever it itself creates, is an apt metaphor for this collection of ideas, just as long as one does not see the steps as leading up to a definitive destination or conclusion. In fact, one of the most interesting things about seeing the manuscripts in this way is that, despite editors' natural attempts in the past to arrange the material in a linear order, the ideas do not really develop in any mono-direction, but circle rather, out and back, out and back, so that Musil is still asking the same questions, with surprising freshness and openness, in manuscripts from the late 30's as he was asking in the early teens. Another significant aspect of this edition is that it allows one to see Musil's radical perspectivism at work, i.e, his faithfulness to examining and trying out even the most disturbing or dangerous perspectives or positions. We see him in the freedom of his laboratory experimenting with different stances and attitudes, teasing them out to their farthest connotations, comparing them to seemingly opposing stances. Like that straight line which Nicolas of Cusa speaks of in his On Learned Ignorance, we find these originally uni-directional strands curving around to create circles (the straight line becomes a circle in time), and surprising meetings, meridians, metaphors, coincidences of opposites are found. Unfortunately (but inevitably due to the gargantuan nature of the project) this edition only exists in German; but we are working on a much more modest version in English. To learn more you can look at the website, in German, or contact me to order one (they cost $199. & $6. for mailing from Austria to the USA.). What a great holiday present for your favorite Germanist!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What does it mean to find another human being?

Edvard Munch, 1896
Perhaps here and now is a good place to admit that I don't fully understand what it means to "attempt to find another human being." Does it mean to find one other human being, in conjunction, relationship with one's self? Someone to whom one can relate, thereby implying the inherent overwhelming difficulty of this task and the endless alienation of human existence?  Or does another human being mean an übermensch of sorts? A different kind of human being, beyond even the lonely self? A new type of person, a new and different way of being human? Another possible understanding of the phrase might be an attempt to find a human being who is truly other, one whom one cannot possibly merge with or be a mirror of. These recent discussions (below) of strangers, exiles, idiots, and artists have made me wonder. I think, of course, also, of another Musil attempt, from the novel, the "attempt to love a scoundrel" with all its connotations for the question of loving one's neighbor as one's self, and of the terrible but thrilling frisson of embracing that extreme other, one's feared or hated self, brother, enemy, beloved. For what is more frightening, after all? Finding one's self subsumed into otherness or the alternative of infinite separation?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Georg Simmel's "The Stranger"

Hilary Philips has pointed out to me the similarities between my last post and some ideas in Georg Simmel's 1908 essay "The Stranger," which I had not read before. Simmel writes of a stranger who does not come and leave, but rather one who comes and stays. He continues:

"He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it,which do not and cannot stem from the group itself..."
Further, "The stranger, like the poor and like sundry "inner enemies," is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it". 

Speaking of  the nature of trade, which involves contact with the outside from a fixed point inside a society, Simmel notes that, "the classical example is the history of European Jews. The stranger is by nature no 'owner of soil'--soil not only in the physical, but also in the figurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in a point in space, at least in an ideal point of the social environment. Although in more intimate relations, he may develop all kinds ofcharm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an owner of soil."

But, it is just this strangeness which determines his power in the society, the stranger's "objectivity" and freedom:  “Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivity of the stranger. He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." But objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement...Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given. The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains many dangerous possibilities. In uprisings of all sorts, the party attacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, that provocation has come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators. Insofar as this is true, it is an exaggeration of the specific roleof the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent.”

From Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Extraterritoriality, Negative Capability, and Utopia

From the 1516 version of Sir Thomas More's Utopia
The intellectual and the Jew, Musil notes, are both extraterritorial, stateless beings. The intellectual, at least, is, at best,  not merely international, one presumes, but actually a-national, outside of nation, state, territory, stance. Unaffiliated. But does that mean objective or disinterested? I would think not. One can observe in a very interested way the goings on of a world one is not exactly part of when one is, ultimately, both dependent upon that world and hoping that it might in fact change, evolve, dissolve into a less-entrenched version of itself. The intellectual or artist, leaving for the moment the Jew aside (who serves Musil here as noble model of extraterritoriality and autonomy, yet who also was often at the time of Musil's musing the intellectual of the pair as well), observes, creates, and critiques the world from the margin, in hopes that her utterances will have some effect on it; but she does not react in the same way as the other inhabitants to whatever occurs, to the seemingly good or seemingly bad turn of events; happenings, people, works are not judged by the same criteria as the others use, for her intentions are not to maintain the unexamined status quo at all costs, nor indeed, to necessarily violently overturn or destroy it out of a sense of excluded resentment (for her outsider status is not a punishment, but a choice, or, if not a choice, at least a holy necessity); but rather, her intention is to question it, open it up to fresh air and new light, to see it from different angles and in new contexts. This openness requires a resistance to settled sureties, Keats's (Shakespeare's) "negative capability" which does not grasp after certainties, but is most comfortable in undoing and revolving possibilities. The artist is only alive in that non-place; utopia.
But how does one come to be extraterritorial? Or, rather, why is not everyone so?  Emerson said: man wishes to be settled...but only insofar as he is unsettled is there any hope for him. But how is it possible for most people not to ask the first questions which lead to this fruitful unsettling? To ask the most basic questions of what appears everywhere to be a given: what is reality? what is the chief end of man (as Thoreau puts it)? what is most needful?  Questions which do not have answers. Their resistance to simple answers makes them, indeed, a foreign language,  phrases from the mother tongue of  the land of Extraterritoriality.

Stupidity, Being Towards Death, Art (on Dostoevsky's Idiot)

, Totentanz, Karl Ritter, 1921.While looking for images of Death I discovered that not only is stupidity often a woman, but death (which is not a feminine noun in German) often is too. In this image (Totentanz by Karl Ritter, 1922) she may merely be death's lure, if not herself the one condemned to die. Well, woman, at least, is effective, rousing to life, to frustration, to anger, challenging passive man to sin, to madness, leading him to distraction, destruction, eventually to death.

Stupidity, Musil writes in notes for his essay, is a Proteus, is a Verwandlungskuenstlerin, a transformation artist (a feminine transformation artist, perhaps only because the noun Dummheit is feminine in German, perhaps for more insidious reasons). It becomes clear, as one reads through the notes, that, like everything else as seen by Musil, the value and nature of stupidity depends upon one's perspective. What is stupid in some contexts is intelligent in others. What once was stupid now is known to be the height of cleverness. What some people call dumb is holy, wise, original, poetic. Musil notes, however, that in most cases our general society equates intelligence with Sachlichkeit (objectivity) and Vernunft (Reason), and Tuechtigkeit (capability), all qualities which are, he explains, stupid when untempered by other forms of perception, knowledge, and judgment. To be too objective is, he notes, a sign of a certain limited personality; which is not intended, of course, to undermine the importance of intellect. If stupidity is a Verwandlungskuenstlerin or, elsewhere in the notes and finished essay, simply a Kuenstlerin, then art itself necessarily avails itself of the protean nature of seeing, creating, envisioning, forming, precisely by temporarily escaping from the stronghold of pure objectivity and the reign of what is, into the open unknown of what could be. As Musil writes elsewhere: die staendige Verwandelbarkeit des Gegebenen (the constant changeability of the given) is the fundamental basis of creativity and metastable ethics. So it pays to be a bit  stupid, i.e., uncertain, grasping and fumbling, to see things new, with innocent and fresh eyes. Even, indeed, if the all-too rational and measured world may mock us for it.
I am rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot, with these questions in mind. In an early scene, the beautiful but eccentric society sisters Aglaia, Alexandra, and Adelaida interrogate Prince Myshkin about his experiences in Switzerland, where he has been ill,where he has been "almost an idiot". Alexandra confesses that she has trouble finding subjects for her paintings, and Myshkin suggests that one needs only to learn to see things and the subjects will reveal themselves. He had just been talking about his "fits" and how they would break the logical sequence of his brain; but that everything would  suddenly appear "strange". The prince, Dostoevsky writes, "had learned to see things abroad"...which Myshkin then humbly doubts. Perhaps, he says, he didn't really learn to see things. And yet, he admits, he was happy. We might compare this to the dissolution of a logical narrative or rational structure, interrupted by a vision of timeless beauty, for later, in another description of the moments before his fits, Myshkin remarks that he experienced such ecstasy as to finally understand the saying that "there would be no more time" and that he would gladly give his whole life (a narrative of connected events) for one of these moments. When the prince says, basically, well, I don't know, perhaps I haven't learned to see things, but I have been happy, Aglaia interrupts: "Happy? You know how to be happy?...Then how can you say that you didn't learn to see things?" Because, of course, even this young girl knows that most people are not in fact happy at all. Which really is rather stupid!
Seeing (by which new, fresh seeing is implied) is inextricably related to happiness, to a happiness unmeasurable by the normal standards of society. And, mark well, it is not even a happiness like romantic love (one of the only exceptions in society to the rule of Reason): "I haven't been in love, answered Myshkin, I...have been happy in a different way".
Myshkin's ecstatic trances, based on Dostoevsky's own epileptic experiences as well as his near-death escape from the firing squad, are very similar to Musil's Other Condition, a state of heightened wholeness, significance, feeling, conviction, fleeting and selfless. Less well-known than Dostoevsky's shocking reprieve before the firing squad is Musil's near death experience as a soldier in the First World War. Musil writes, in "Ein Soldat Erzaehlt" (A soldier narrates), in time-suspending detail, about his mystical experience under fire on the battlefield, about how he underwent a " baptism by fire" and how he "suddenly believed" like a virgin. The motif of a false alarm recurs in Musil (in the mock shooting in the farce Vinzenz) and in Dostoevsky's Idiot (in Ippolit's misfired suicide) (In both cases, the person "shot" thinks he or she is really about to die) as well as in Myshkin's narration of a man condemned to death and released at the last moment. What does this near death experience have to do with happiness, or stupidity? How might contact with death make one stupid or happy? Well, it would depend, wouldn't it, on what the world around one looked like, on the context and relative value given in the society to momentary experience, to significance, to beauty.
 An experience of mortality invests a human with a heightened ethical propensity for "being toward death" implying a motivation to live every moment as if it were the last. When Myshkin describes the man reprieved from the guillotine, he notes that the condemned man had thought that, were he not to die, "he would live each moment as an eternity and not waste one". But, he has to admit, when pressed, that after he was saved from death, "he didn't live life like that at all; he wasted many moments". And yet, sounding almost like Musil in his ambivalent utopianism, Myshkin continues about the possibility of a reform of this sort: " For some reason it is impossible...and yet somehow I can't believe it". In any case, whether it is impossible or not to live every moment as an eternity and not waste one, to do so would certainly be deemed idiotic in a society which avoids the reality of death at all costs. But why, since death in fact is the most objective (sachlich) thing there is! Indeed, there is not one of us who is not condemned to death. To ignore this seems, really, the greatest of delusions and fictions! Which may be why Myshkin, in another scene, insists that he himself, the great dreamer and idiot, the unworldly saint and innocent, is actually a materialist. Or why Musil said that the great man of the future will be both a mathematician and a mystic? Or maybe this is why art, created by that great transformation artist, stupidity herself, is always reminding us of death, if only by its quickening to life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Feminist Existentialism? The Actor of herself!

Lotte Lenya
Musil sounds almost like Simone de Beauvoir in his essay "Woman, Yesterday and Tomorrow" (1929):

"Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealize, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image, The panting adulation of older men even seems funny to her, and therein lies a great purification of the atmosphere. She no longer wants to be an ideal at all but to create ideals, to contribute to their formation just as men do,even if, at the moment, with no particular success...This sense of reality on the part of a category of human being who for centuries was condemned to play the ideal of another is today perhaps the most important aspect of this question. I am not on the side of those who complain about the matter-of-factness of young women. The human body cannot in the long run experience itself only as the receiver of sense stimuli; it always turns to becoming the portrayer, the actor of itself in all the relationships it enters. Thus, its natural drive always combines with a specific system of ideas and feelings, and through the centuries this ideologizing is like a fountain that rises and falls. Today it is close to its deepest point, almost swallowed up; but it will doubtless rise again in a new combination. Countless and different possibilities are available, and the future really conceals them only like a veil, and not like a city wall fortified with prejudices"(Precision and Soul, 213).

Is this really a man who would belittle the woman artist?

Monday, November 21, 2011

On (not over) Avital Ronell on Musil's "Über die Dummheit" (On/Over the [feminine] Stupidity)

Emmy Hennings of the Cabaret Voltaire, a "woman artist"!
Reading again Avital Ronell's reaction to Musil's essay "Über die Dummheit"  (On [Over] [the] Stupidity)along with the essay in question (See Ronell: Stupidity, 2002). Ronell registers nausea mixed with a sort of fascination for what she describes as Musil's escape into misogyny in the middle of what started as a brave attack on the Fatherland.  He doesn't seem to her quite ideologically clean. There is something too polite about him, something too tainted with Enlightenment values of rationality and civilization.I understand her discomfort. Not that I need my Musil to be as impeccably ideologically correct as Ronell seems to...but there is, indeed, something strange going on here. Something does not smell right. Why does he keep referring to this stupid woman, as if woman herself were the personification of this feminine noun (Die Dummheit) which the intellectual is above (Über)? Musil, to be more specific, presents woman (and even a woman artist) as an example--makes an example of her--rather suddenly and, it is true, rather oddly. Is his sudden abuse of woman a barely disguised attempt to evade the brutal bully he evokes in this 1937 address, but cannot attack directly? Is he really sinking to that low reaction of the cowardly weakling who wants to at least be more powerful than someone else (woman in this case), as bullies do when they are confronted with forces they cannot reckon with?
Perhaps; but if so, his own argument throughout the address would be all too easily called in to attack him back. For how is this "we men" (whom Musil whispers to before admitting his ambivalent response to the talkative woman artist) different from the other "we" that he evokes in the essay? A we that cowardly garners power and strength by association with some nation, party, art movement, or sect?  A collective we whose assumptions and sense of premature certainty of judgment could only be called "stupid"by the individualist and self-described slow-witted man, Musil? This peaceful woman artist appears also as a disconcertingly poetic voice, one who answers in more than single words when one plays free- association games with her, answers that "bring the poet close to the idiot"or reveal "the poet in the idiot"?  She is, in fact, the only representative of art in the address, and as Musil maligns her, one might ask whose voice he really speaks in. And doesn't Musil say earlier in the address that the physically weaker person who is clever knows how to hide that cleverness from the stronger brutes? So as not to irritate them, so as not to let on that one is in fact capable of criticizing the superior powers? If this does not describe the role of woman, even today, I don't know what else it describes, except for that of the intellectual under the iron heel of a totalitarian government. Is woman, then, presented by Musil as a weaker stupider victim to excite the natural bloodlust of the bully in all of us (especially "we men"? )? Or as a very subtle (perhaps too subtle) object lesson in how this sort of thing works? I do not want to engage in special pleading for Musil, to announce that he is ideologically clean; nor do I want to argue that the woman in this essay is really the hero. Not entirely anyway. Perhaps she talks too much, is vain, hasty; perhaps she lacks just the right amount of reason mixed with her feeling. Perhaps Musil is on the defensive. Of course he is on the defensive.
Yet, as premature closure is something that both Ronell and Musil agree on as being a prime characteristic of stupidity ( i.e., coming too quickly to conclusion, thinking that one has complete mastery over something or someone, believing one has understood all of it), we do right to register our discomfort (nausea even), but  to continue to explore what is incompletely in the air here.  Indeed, it is a very strange essay, filled with a more than usual amount of ambivalence and an even less than usual amount of closure for Musil.  He rarely connects the different strands of ideas, rarely shows us directly how one section contradicts the other, how the different types of stupidity are hopelessly mixed up on the hierarchy of good, bad, dangerous, higher, lower, peaceful, violent, brutal, passive, victimized stupidity. The address asks a good deal of the reader (or listener). It seems, often, to not make sense. Is it in code? Could he have spoken directly at that time if he wanted to? About an address he presented in 1934 in Vienna he noted that its success consisted in the fact that he had dared to give it all, that he had dared, at all, to speak.
And let us just note that Musil takes a good deal of time showing that those who use the word "stupid" are themselves usually rather stupid themselves, that, in fact, usually, or often, when one is reduced to a state where invective is the only choice, a state too stupid for words, a state where one is at a loss, has lost one's head, where there are simply no words to describe how put out, irritated, annoyed, confused one is, one is, in fact, stupefied, stupid. A state of panic wherein one uses all the words one can think of, hoping to come upon the right one just as a fly beats its head against a closed window hoping to find an opening.The content of the imprecise term stupid (or vulgar or kitsch or...) is less important, says Musil, than the act of abuse inherent in its use (domestically, politically, critically). It is an act of brutality, in itself stupid.  So, Musil may be utterly unaware of his own complicity here, in gathering together a group of male artists to collectively titter over the stupidity of a woman artist; or perhaps he is demonstrating the way in which stupidity (the supposedly higher kind, the intellectual stupidity, in fact) is contagious, a "dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself (Precision and Soul, 284);  he may just be being even more clever than is at first obvious. At least I hope so.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Burton Pike's new translation of Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead

I am reading Burton Pike's new breathtaking translation of Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead. Meier was a Swiss writer who lived from 1917-2008, who, after spending 6 months in a tuberculosis sanatorium, began to devote his life to writing, leaving his job at a lamp factory. Meier's  is a newly discovered voice for the English reader; and Pike's translation is an epoch-making occasion. Pike writes in the introduction, by way of context: " Isle of the Dead is a subtle novel about a meticulously detailed world. What distinguishes it from other modern novels, from the works of Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard for instance, is that it is written from the heart; it does not convey an alienation from life but a sense of wonder,expressed with wit and humor, and beneath the wonder, regret" (vi). This is a particularly suggestive comment to me.  Pike does not mention Musil (with whose prose and moods he, of course, as the primary translator and the editor of The Man without Qualities, is quite intimate), but it would be illuminating to consider where on the scale of alienated-wonderfilled Musil hovers. Despite copious counts of cynicism and alienation in Musil's work, there is, for those with ears to hear, a rapturous ecstasis present in The Man without Qualities qnd Musil's other works, and a resistance to abandoning altogether the oft-maligned search for meaning and significance. Meir, who died at the age of 91, also makes me wonder what would have happened had Musil lived another 30 years or so. Pike mentions the influence of Proust on Meier, and the epigraph to Isle of the Dead is from Flaubert. There is, thus, a conscious aestheticism in Meier which is more submerged in Musil, yet present as well. It seems, so far, to be an elegy to correspondences, memory, time, and the way in which the brain collects, arranges, and connects all of the impressions and events of life--through the medium of poetry, or through movement, or perhaps through stillness, as the main speaker, Bauer, muses.  I have not finished Isle of the Dead yet, but wanted to announce the book's publication here and give a few tastes of Meier's prose in Pike's version:

" 'So the blowfly flies onto the porch, Bindschaedler, against a window. Begins to wriggle. A spider comes, a little one, from the upper window frame. Spider and fly have at each other, violently, briefly.  The spider withdraws, not before having wrapped up the fly. The blowfly wriggles as well as it can. Light mixes in, the clouds, the leaves. The blowfly gets more and more tangled up. Works free! Drops a few centimeters. Remains dangling. The spider is there. Wraps up the blowfly. Disappears back above. Leaves dance on the ground, in the air, vibrate on twigs. On the hillside cherry trees gleam. Farther down, pear trees. Here and there the hillside is greening. The blowfly wriggles and wrig--...The spider retreats. Comes closer to the blowfly from below, from behind. Bites! The blowfly twitches. The twitching ebbs. The spider withdraws. The fly is dangling dead in the room.--Cones of light fall now on this, now on that part of the staffage. Three, four, five pear trees sparkle, phosphorize. Then some plum trees. A cherry tree. Clouds come up over the Jura mountains, parallel to them, on the westwind'"(15).

" ' And everything, Bindschaedler, everything turns and turns. Now one thing is up, the other is down. And you fish in this confusion for a little point, just a single life, in order to extract it together with other little points, other lives, the way one pulls out fish, trout for example, on a hook; of course with the result that their lives ebb away in death throes.' Bauer blew his nose.
      ' I like to walk through this part of town. --Do you see all those things over there? Discarded parts from building the railroad, presumably. And through them the sky, at times bare, overcast, putting on its stars: firefly-lights above the field full of parts. I like walking through it. And if I were a photographer, Bindschaedler, these iron bones would be sold commercially so people could decorate their walls with them,' Bauer said, at the same time passing the back of his left hand across the fence of palings dividing the field of parts from the street, dividing it from the row of trees too, which consists (as mentioned) of maples with ball-shaped tops that reminded one of the head of a woodpecker tapping the trunk of a cherry tree, hopping in reverse from top to bottom.
     [...] " 'This field of parts, Bindschaedler, has become for me the Field full of Bones hanging on the west wall of the soul (opposite the Three Women with Winter Asters),' Bauer said smiling, this time letting his wedding ring glide across the latticework, which made a noise as if a woodpecker were tapping directly on one's brain case.
     I said to Bauer that perhaps the soul resembled that little house on the Ulica Dabrowiecka in Warsaw that contains a collection of some seven thousand artworks, which Ludwig Zimmerer, the owner, declared a paradisical cage. The constant stream of new pictures compels a constantly new, technically sophisticated space-saving presentation, so that from behind and below something can still be conjured up" (26-7).

Die Toteninsel [Isle of the Dead] by Arnold Boecklin, 1880

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Musil at Work

   Image from the Klagenfurter Ausgabe of a page of  Musil's many many drafts.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Still Lives

An Excerpt from Part IV of my Slowly Forthcoming Book:

Musil began writing the different versions of the chapter “Breaths of a Summer’s Day,” as early as 1937 or even 1934; and, in an almost perfect circling, he was still working on the chapter on April 15th, 1942, the day he died. In these chapter drafts, which feature what appears to be a profusion of more metaphors per paragraph unmatched in any other section of the novel, Ulrich and Agathe continue their “holy conversations”. These conversations are part of an epic deferral of physical consummation in their gated garden, which comes to represent an island excepted from normal time and space, a sort of shimmering framed still life. All still lives, Ulrich explains, in one of the many “Umschreibungen” (circuitous re-writings) which he essays in order to both approach and avoid their significance, paintthe world of the sixth day of creation, when God and the world were still by themselves, with no people!” (MwQ 1325).  This is practically the image of their garden, cut off from society, its requirements, its morals, its temporal and spatial laws. And yet there are two people in the picture, in their garden. These two people, although separated from the world by their garden fence, by the special mission which they have assigned themselves, and their exceptional state of shimmering stillness, are both alive — circling, fountaining — moving within an enclosed area. And Musil’s novel, despite its resistance to action, is still a sort of a narrative existing in a sort of time, or many different sorts of time (progressive, essential, subjective, objectively measurable, non- linear) ― a novel made up of seemingly infinite small enclosed areas of infinitude ― and decidedly not a painting of a bowl of fruit. The two people walk around within the confines of their garden, in circumnavigations, like Rilke’s caged “Panther,” who “moves in the smallest possible circle,” and whose stride “Is like a dance of force around the center/ Of a great numbed will”.
Although the will is numbed, or deferred, it may still, at any moment, break out of its cage into violence and action; no wonder the need for bars. Ulrich and Agathe’s cage is self-created (or created by their author) out of more than the garden fence; it is made of their infinitely expanding and contracting discourse, by the almost obsessive accumulation of metaphors and likenesses, by words themselves, words which play games with time and its “flowing ribbon, the rolling staircase with its uncanny incidental association with death” ( MwQ 1190), a discourse which repeatedly, always, once again, once again, once again recharged “the conversation once more like a flywheel [..] giving it more energy” (MwQ 1325 ). If the appetitive way of life leads to war, action, grasping, destruction, and the inevitable dulling of passion, infinite (or almost infinite) deferral via a thousand-and-one-night’s strategy of words is a natural strategy. The association with Adam and Eve before the Fall ― before the Act ― is also unavoidable. To take a bite of the apple (even if fictional, painted, safe, deferred) in the bowl on the table would thus have the most extreme consequences. Appetite, muses Ulrich, is always a bit ridiculous ― and how much more so, he continues, when it is appetite for a painted lobster. Yet, as often is the case with Ulrich, his irony hardly masks the serious stakes and the terror involved in setting the wheel of time spinning, of starting the roll of the inevitably downhill-bound roll of life. Were the fruit not painted, but real, it would, like Shakespeare’s medlar pear, be “rotten before it was ripe” — for “Bleiben,” as Rilke reminds us again, “ist Nirgends” (“There is no stopping place”), except perhaps in the work of art.
Deferral of action here is a reflection on considerations about the relationship between forms of art (painting, still life, novel writing) and the relationship between art in general ― as eternalization ― and life, with its active, grasping, devouring movement. Faust’s re-writing/re-translation of the beginning of Genesis may serve as a far off chorus. Goethe’s protagonist reads aloud from the book: In the beginning was the Word. Then he tries another translation: In the beginning was Meaning. And then he comes to the mystic third: In the beginning was the Act! And his alchemical incantations transform thought into word into deed, indifference into passion, possibility into tragedy or possible redemption. Faust’s 18th century metaphysical struggle begins with the transformation of a word and the work of the ultimate Author, thereby circling back to the Ur-moment, never quite coming to absolute resolution, remaining still engagingly inconclusive. The tension between the triad of word, meaning, and act is never quite resolved, not even in Musil’s Modernist text which consciously grapples with the quicksilver conflict. Faust, rather like Ulrich, is a jaded man crying out against a world gone hollow, a world that has lost its significance and value, a world of books and learning, yes, but also a world of flesh and love and the supposed rewards of social success. Goethe’s play, like Musil’s novel, is an existential essay, which asks serious questions about time, meaning, and the relationship between art and life, questions about word-magic, desire, and indifference ― questions with which Musil would still be grappling over a century later. The unresolved and unresolvable struggle, the Faustian striving itself, in its insistence upon maintaining a fruitful space between knowledge and mystery, self and other, art and life, time and death, still and moving, may actually constitute the energetic frisson of all great works of art. And this frisson is created and maintained by Musil’s experiments with the endless possibilities and necessities of metaphor-making.