Monday, September 19, 2011

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).

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