Friday, September 23, 2011

Musil on Hohl

With the help of Walter Fanta, I have found a section in Musil's notebooks where he seems to  dismiss Ludwig Hohl (whose name in German means hollow, or empty) in one short sentence: 
"Swiss aphorist: Now at least I know what an air-head [Hohl-Kopf] is!"

Of course, it remains unclear how much he had read of Hohl upon making this pronouncement. He rejected Proust, after having read (by his own account) no more than 10 pages of his work. While Musil was often generous to young writers (Walser and Kafka, for example), he was notoriously unfriendly to successful contemporaries. Hohl would have fit, rather, in the category of under-appreciated younger author in need of Musil's aid. Perhaps he simply could not resist the pun; or, indeed, for the man who proposes that to have no fixed qualities is at least partially a positive state of openness, having an airy, open, or hollow head might actually be a good thing.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ludwig Hohl: Attractions at the Zoo

Attractions at the Zoo

Praise for the circus acrobats (so long as they are brave) in contrast to the babbling nonentities, those people who risk nothing and achieve nothing, who —with few exceptions— are actors! — Saw the motorcycle driver again who had made such an impression on me in the old days; he rides around a moderately large barrel made of thinly constructed boards, not just in a circle around the upright walls, but also, at last, up and down, concluding with a turn on the sharpest curve hard on the upper rim of the narrow, flimsily built, trembling barrel.  The effect of the astonishingly bold and dangerous ride— upon which, in this case, he was accompanied by a very pretty girl — is just as great this time: Just as when I listen to certain music an intensity momentarily befalls me, I must actively fight against weeping. (For it seems to me: what this man does with his motorbike, another man does with his mind:  the same danger, the same loneliness; in the midst of the incomprehension of the gapers.)
On the whole, at this fair or whatever it is, amid the stalls erected in the zoo, no different than anywhere else in the city: the same lack of attraction, the same people: they love to walk in circles, bound by chains, they love to gaze at the headless lady.

(Also from Varia) (Image: Hannah Höch, "Russian Dancer/My Double" -1928)

A Hohl Passage

At My Writing Desk.  And again — —: the magical silhouettes before me, the first one I see is the wood shed; then it spreads, the sun-lit houses make up the second one; further away, the poplar trees with the blue sky are the third silhouette. And now it is time to separate these silhouettes from each other (there must be sculpture!).  There, far, far back, near the thin poplars, even farther, but underneath, on the earth (there where sight cannot reach), the thing I am working on is happening:  suddenly I discover that I am ceaselessly making beckoning, alluring motions to the wood shed and the other silhouettes: it must be done in this way, in ceaseless travail, so that magic can happen, so that the wood shed that I beckon, and the other silhouettes, become increasingly inessential and disappear more and more in my hand in proportion to how much I succeed in pulling that far off happening through the wood shed and through all the silhouettes, toward me at last.

(From Varia)

On Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980)

I am recently fascinated by obscure Swiss writer Ludwig Hohl, whom George Steiner cryptically called "one of the secret masters of twentieth century prose". And I have begun to work on some small translations in between the other things I am supposed to be doing. Musil and Hohl seem to have just missed converging in time and place (perhaps they could have met in Vienna in the 30's, but Musil had already been 8 years dead when Hohl settled back in Switzerland, first in Biel and then in Geneva in 1950), but, already, by Steiner's description, one can tell that they shared a certain resistance to the normally sanctioned ways of living and being in the world, a resistance to success and a contempt for what Musil (referring to the likes of Thomas Mann) calls the "Grossschriftsteller," or Big, Great, maybe even Big-shot, or professionally self-promoting, writer. Steiner writes (and it could be a description of Musil, monsieur le vivesecteur): "He was a voyeur into the nuances and tremors of sensibility. Hohl experienced physical and psychological phenomena as interminably fragmented. with disenchanted scruple, he fitted these fragments into a language-mosaic of exceptional lucidity" (Grammars of Creation 224). As Steiner continues, we see that Hohl's life was even more distanced from "normal" society than Musil's, and his fragments remained even more fragmentary; but we are reminded of Musil in the provisional, non-linearity of Hohl's working method, in the almost scientific devotion to observation and precision when looking at things not usually examined with such a lucid looking glass, when looking at the realm of the imagination, aesthetic experiences, nuances, and shadow realms. Hohl wrote, Steiner tells us: "from a literal underground, from a cellarage or below street level-cavern in Geneva. There, the teeming notes and aphorisms that constitute his opus (Die Notizen) in an always provisional, mobile array, were hung on clothes lines for inspection and revision" (224).  We are also reminded of Musil by Steiner's description of what can only be called Hohl's primary devotion to the autonomy and sanctity of art and free expression amid the competing interests of the market and the pressure of social movements. Steiner writes: "Only solitude, difficult, humiliating, even corrosive as it is, can safeguard art and thought from corruption. The media, the lust to communicate by socially sanctioned and rewarded means, the manipulation of discourse towards approval and success, are an irreparable waste of spirit" (225).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On Ludwig Klages, Mysticism, and Irony

I just read Heinz-Peter Preusser's brilliant (!) essay in the new Musil-Forum on the influence of the philosopher, mystic, psychologist, poet, Ludwig Klages on The Man Without Qualities (Die Masken des Ludwig Klages: Figurenkonstellation als Kritik und Adaption befremdlicher Ideen in Robert Musils Roman Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften). Preusser reads beyond most other studies by examining the constellation of ironic distance effected by Musil's practice of distributing one person's ideas or characteristics among many different characters in the novel. While, in other words, Klages is known to be the source for the absurd prophet Meingast in the novel, this doesn't simply mean that Musil discredited Klages' philosophy. In fact, Preusser demonstrates that the opposite is true, that, in fact, Musil's concept of "the other condition" is clearly traceable to Klages' book on cosmogonic eros. While this in itself is not a new discovery, Preusser's presentation makes a strong argument for seeing this influence not as a count against Musil's mystical tendencies, but, rather, as an incentive to reevaluate the centrality of the "other condition" and its accompanying realms of the aesthetic, the contemplative, etc., in the novel. Preusser claims that a deeper understanding of Klages' idea of the "pathic" personality as basis for the novel's philosophical tendencies would provide a new and very different reading. While he does not explicitly say what this reading is, it is clear that this reading involves a reevaluation of Musil's relationship to mysticism and of his ultimate ideas about the "other condition" and, as Preusser's last sentence suggest, of the essential role of aesthetics in Musil's philosophical world picture. Indeed, Preusser writes early on in his essay that anyone "who reads the novel carefully"will notice that Ulrich distances himself from the polarization of exact and non-exact  as the novel progresses, and that, contrary to a general assumption that Musil and Ulrich are rational logicians and scientific thinkers, Musil makes clear that there had always been something inside himself (and his hero) that resisted logic and the directed drive toward something worldly, pragmatic, rational.
 Preusser has done the hard and probably none too pleasant work of slogging through Klages' prose to provide us with a complex and nuanced analysis of his idea of the "pathic" condition, a state of mind wherein the Self dissolves and gives itself up to something higher, to the world-all, the image, nature, or something which Klages considers an ur-phenomenon. While we can clearly see the relationship of this lifting of the boundaries of self, this will-lessness or qualitilessness, as similar to Musil's "other condition," the idea that there could be some absolute primary form, an essence, or Ur-image is, I would argue, a fundamentally tricky issue in the novel and, of course, in Modernist philosophy. Preusser passes over it without too much comment, but it certainly bears more analysis. Preusser clarifies that the "pathic"condition is, like "the other condition," fleeting and unrepeatable, but he does not discuss that this fleetingness is in constant tension with the idea of a constant truth or single Ur-phenomenon.
In addition to the "pathic" as model, Preusser discusses the model of Klages' "cosmogonisher eros," an eros which is not directed to possession and not driven by desires. It is an eros traceable in many descriptions within the novel, particularly in the love between the siblings Ulrich and Agathe, which is often described as a longing without end, a non-grasping, ego-less love which culminates in a unio mystica, a "Verschmelzung"or melting of the separated individuations of Ulrich and Agathe, but which cannot possibly last.
Preusser traces the biographical foundations of the Meingast character to Klages' personality (as well as another real figure by the name of Siecynski), but shows that Klages' ideas themselves are not present in Meingast. Klages' ideas appear elsewhere in the novel, distributed through various voices and persons as a sort of camouflage which allows Musil to utilize the ideas while distancing himself from those aspects of them which he found distasteful or disturbing. This distancing includes, as Preusser points out, moments in Musil's notes where he specifically writes that Ulrich rejected Klages' ideas; but rather than take these comments at face value as most readers have done, Preusser more subtly elucidates the pattern of Musil's ambivalence, which continually critiques that which he holds dear. By looking at the whole novel and Musil's earnest handling of Klages' ideas, we see these occasional criticisms dramatically called into question. In similar fashion, in my forthcoming book, I warn against reading isolated passages in Musil's notes and drafts out of context. While there are passages where he declares the "other condition" a failure, or where he considers giving up all that had ever seemed meaningful to him, within the larger context of the novel drafts, these statements read as ambivalence, perspectivism, and temporary testing of positions, if not a camouflage of irony. Of irony, Preusser writes, "it always carries along that which it wanted to throw off". Indeed, as Antonio Porchia writes, "Not believing has a sickness, which is believing a little". In Musil's case, as anyone who reads the novel and its many drafts carefully will see, the proportion may actually be turned on its head, despite our modern prejudice against aesthetics, mysticism, and the irrational, despite Musil's careful camouflage and ironic distance, despite his training as scientist and mathematician. The sheer amount (numerically, objectively measurable) of earnest and sympathetic involvement, in his notes on the many sources which influenced his concept of the "other condition," in the similarly traceable presence of these ideas in the novel itself, along with an objective assessment of Musil's commitment to art, to being a "Dichter" instead of a philosopher, logician, scientist, or mathematician, is evidence enough that he took the realms of mysticism, poetry, the irrational, very seriously,i.e., more than "a little," despite their occasional association with even sloppy thinkers, and murkiness. Preusser's analysis of the masks of Ludwig Klages is a detailed close reading of  Musil's complex process of transmission which may be read as an object lesson in carefully reading Musil. I wish I had the time to translate the whole thing for you!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Attempts to Find Another Human Being

Around 1923 Musil planned to publish a collection of his essays under the title, "Versuche einen anderen Menschen zu finden" (Attempts to Find Another Human Being). In his notebooks he wrote:

"In fact, this could be the title for everything that I have ever written. I can think of no other excuse for spending one's whole life at a writing desk to become a beggar. [...] I can only imagine another duty with great difficulty. I have always been a writer, always pursued writing.
It has come to pass in my life that people have scolded me for it and have called me a sick human being, an intellectual, an unmoral human being, a scientist, in short, everything that I am not, and only with resistance, under the pressure of a few, people have become accustomed to thinking of me as what I believe myself to be, and want to be: a writer."

The Void of Ethics

Patrizia McBride's 2006 study, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity, is a lucid, well-argued, and complex analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of Musil's experimental fictional project which illuminates the importance of forging a new kind of ethics for Musil.  McBride handles Musil's engagement with Kant, with contemporary psychology, and ethical philosophy with mastery, persuasively illustrating her theses with deep textual analysis, cultural breadth, and philosophical precision. The "void" of the title refers to the space opened up in the wake of the death of God and the widening hole through which other touchstones of ethical or even scientific measurement were chipped away at until they eventually crumbled into nothingness. Musil's stance as possibilitarian experimenter requires that he not fill the void with a single static, unending meaning or with superficial values, and ensures that the void remain open. This openness is, of course, the direct opposite of the totalitarian attempt to find final and total solutions which threatened Musil's existence and his possibility to write and publish during the last decade of his life. McBride's use of the concept of void, of course, now all the more traceable in Musil's imagery and methods since her reading, helps to illuminate this fundamental  characteristic of nonclosure in Musil's thought.
And yet, insofar as McBride concentrates her analysis on Musil as philosopher and ethicist, she tends, despite her close readings of passages from his fiction, to neglect Musil the writer and artist, neglects his formal strategies to come to terms with the problems raised in and by the novel, and, thus, undervalues his commitment to the possibility of aesthetic solutions. Musil, contrary to what McBrides' book suggests, did believe in the value of striving toward an ideal, and his life is evidence enough that he continually attempted to creatively fill the empty spaces left by the void of ethics,even if he carefully qualified this belief with an awareness that any ideal becomes a grotesquery of itself the moment it is achieved. Musil's aesthetic and ethical practice requires shifting, and movement, and a resistance to stasis; but that need not equate to meaninglessness or even emptiness. The void of ethics, in other words, is filled by Musil with aesthetics, over and over again, by a shifting, ever-changing commitment to making meaning.  While his aesthetic program shares the requirement of shifting relative perspectivism that McBride has described in exploring Musil's ethics (and, indeed, for Musil aesthetics and ethics were intimately connected), aesthetic experience provides the possibility of temporary wholeness and a sense of meaning, embodied by Musil's concept of the "other condition,"a utopian experiment which McBride ends by calling adolescent and ultimately non-translateable to the realms of normal consciousness. Her final chapter, entitled, "Staging the Failure of an Aesthetic Utopia" is especially problematical for me because, according to my reading of Musil (which is forthcoming), his aesthetic utopia does not fail, nor is it adolescent. It is, rather, a mature, considered assessment of the critical necessity of artistic autonomy.  Further, I would argue,  his work is clearly aligned with the concerns of high Modernism (not the Postmodernism which the void suggests), including the attempt to make bridges between seemingly non-translatable subjective experiences via the aesthetic processes of metaphor, form, style,etc.. Musil, who consistently questions normal reality and normal consciousness, did not choose McBride's pragmatic solution of accepting the incommensurability of exceptional and normal experiences for the fundamental reason that he would rather bend normal reality to the artistic imagination than sacrifice art; would rather bend what already is toward the possibility or what might be.
Despite, however, our slight differences in perspective, I highly recommend McBride's study. Indeed, in a cosmos of infinite perspectives, such differences are welcome. Especially when they are argued and illustrated as brilliantly as in McBride's book. She has given American readers an enormously enlightening and thought-provoking contribution to Musil studies.

Robert Musil and the Nonmodern

 Robert Musil and the Nonmodern by Mark Freed

Although a British scholar has panned Freed's book on the IRMG website in a review written in German, accusing him of shallow scholarship, errors, and generally of the sin of being American, Freed's book is a fascinating attempt to bring Musil's philosophical and aesthetic thought into contact with some concerns of contemporary theory. While, indeed,  Freed's book cannot be considered a thorough reading of Musil's work or thought or of Musil's own milieu or concerns, it does make a brave leap toward incorporating Musil into contemporary theoretical and philosophical discourse where his ideas are, not surprisingly, proven to be relevant and in many ways prescient.
Freed's attempt to situate Musil in a new theoretical space which he calls the "nonmodern" is one answer to the question of whether Musil is to be considered proto-Postmodern or  unapologetically Modernist. Musil, who never liked to belong to any group or ism at all, but who recognized that we must occasionally bring slightly disparate things together to "bring beauty and meaning into the world" (if not merely to provide academics with something to argue about), really best belongs, in my own view, within the "ism" of the Modern.  Freed's book did not manage to change my mind, but it did offer some interesting insights on the question. I must admit that I found myself occasionally very frustrated over the course of reading, particularly whenever Freed seemed to be picking up ideas from former Musil scholarship without, or so it seemed, bothering to do his own deep reading or analysis of the issues. He leaned heavily on Patrizia McBride's 2006 book, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity, which was a fine choice, since McBride's book is, in fact, a deep and complex reading of Musil.  Do not, in other words, pick up Freed's book for a complex fresh analysis of Musil, but rather for a freshly complex use of Musil's thought which illuminates contemporary discourse. Freed should be congratulated, not excoriated, for beginning to build a bridge between the European Germanists and contemporary American theory.
Here is a link to a blurb of Freed's book: <>.

International Robert Musil Society Web Page

This is a link to the web page of the Internationale Robert Musil Gesellschaft in Klagenfurt, Austria:  <>
Very soon the site will be fully translated into English and interested people in the United States will easily be able to become members of the society and also to order their own copy of the Klagenfurt Edition (a searchable DVD of Musil's literary and biographical remains with extensive commentary). It can also be done now, if you cannot wait, by contacting me.