Friday, September 16, 2011

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.

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