Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Philip Payne's Review of Klaus Amann's book: Robert Musil: Literature and Politics

As some of you know, I have been working on translating Klaus Amann's book, Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik into English. Philip Payne, the distinguished British Musil scholar and translator (among other things, he translated the Basic Books edition of the Musil Diaries (edited by Mark Mirsky), and recently was the chief editor of Camden House's Companion to the Works of Robert Musil), has been helping me by doing the laborious and thankless work of editing my translation. In the process, in order to gather his thoughts about Amann's astounding book, he found himself writing the following informal review of the book. Perhaps English readers will enjoy it as a sort of preview of the book and analysis of the forthcoming translation. Here, then, is Philip Payne's informal (i.e., unedited and lacking some citations) commentary on Klaus Amann's book.         

Klaus Amann, Robert Musil, Literatur und Politik, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2007

Which German-speaking author is best qualifed as a literary guide to the borderlands between culture and politics in the early twentieth century? Thomas Mann perhaps with his striking, if strikingly odd, defence – in Bekenntnisse eines Unpolitischen (Confessions of an unpolitical man) -- of a separate path for German ‘Kultur’, which he contrasted with ‘effete’ French civilisation (and his public transition to social democracy after World War I)? Bert Brecht, as a  Marxist attacking capitalism, nationalism and militarism? Hermann Hesse, standing up as a pacifist on the outbreak of World War I in the face of the ovewhelming majority who enthused about the war? Or Robert Musil who wrote in 1935: ‘Ich habe mich zeitlebens der Politik ferngehalten, weil ich kein Talent für sie spüre’ (271) (All my life I have kept clear of politics because I don’t feel I have any gift for it).
                So here we have it, from the horse’s mouth – Musil an unpolitical author. Well yes, but.... Given wars, revolutions and upheavals, how could he, a critical and sensitive writer and intellectual, have lived through the first part of the twentieth century and not take issue with what was going on in German and Austrian politics? In Robert Musil, Literatur und Politik, Klaus Amann forces us, even in the face of Musil’s self-critical remark, to reconsider Musil’s relationship to politics. Amann has selected several texts by Musil that bear directly or indirectly on politics. Some have only appeared in print or electronic text since Musil’s death. They are taken from the period from the Machtergreifung in 1933 to around 1937, the time when Musil was contemplating leaving Austria for exile in Switzerland. These include: ‘Bedenken eines Langsamen’ (Concerns of a slow man), reflections on Germany and National Socialism in 1933; ‘Der Dichter in dieser Zeit’ (1934) (The creative writer in these times), a lecture that Musil gave as Vice-President of an Austrian off-shoot of an association of creative authors that had been banned in Germany and in which Musil analysed the cultural mood in Germany and Austria at a time when writers were under pressure to declare their political allegiance;[1] a speech to the Paris ‘Kongress zur Verteidigung der Kultur’ (Paris Congress in Defence of Culture), a conference organised by Soviet Communists in 1935 designed to focus European-wide intellectual opposition to National Socialism. (Here Musil was booed because he expressed the view that all political movements -- those of the left as much as those of the right -- should respect the independence of artists and writers and not attempt to subordinate or even align their creativity to any political campaign.) I would have liked Amann to include a successful lecture that Musil gave in Vienna in 1937 entitled ‘Über die Dummheit’ (On stupidity). It is not overtly political and the irony is so refined that the formulations in the lecture are sometimes obscure for readers today, but their significance and their bearing on National Socialism were clear to the contemporary audience.
                I had always felt that Musil had heart and head in just about the right places where politics were concerned – he was liberal in outlook, a humanist with a strong sense of the need to defend the individual (note: 273) against the pressures of any collective, aware of his responsibilities to his fellow humans, and throughout his life a student of moral issues. This last concern did not make it any easier to keep his marriage vows (but any lapses might be seen as a point of similarity with many professional politicians). His sympathies did not overlap with the programme of a single political party and strayed beyond classical divisions of right and left. He leaned temporarily in the aftermath of World War I towards the ‘National Bolshevists’. In a draft essay ‘Politisches Bekenntnis eines jungen Mannes’ (Political confession of a young man’)[2] he called himself a ‘konservativer Anarchist’ (conservative anarchist). He wanted society to go beyond the market and replace or reform the institutions of the old society using insights from the new scientific disciplines. These hopes were integral to the thinking behind Musil’s major novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities).[3] Despite his instinctive radicalism he intended his novel to contribute to the processes that, over time, lead to cultural progress.[4]
                Given Musil’s drive to finish his novel over the last two decades of his life, it was easy for me, and I suspect for many others, to overlook the importance of politics for Musil. Here Amann’s book helps readers to a more balanced judgment. The slightly longer section of the book is Amann’s authoritative and enlightening introduction. Most of Amann’s commentary is concerned with the 1930s but he starts with a short section on Musil’s response to mobilisation for World War I. Musil like so many others was caught up in a mass frenzy of enthusiasm for war. This is perhaps less surprising than it appears because Musil, like millions of others, considered that war promised transformation: the selfish individual would discover selflessness and self-sacrifice; greed, status-seeking, hierarchies, hypocrisy, deceit would no longer dominate society. Musil hoped that this new world would be a host to what he called ‘der andere Zustand’ (the ‘other’ condition). However, Musil struggled for much of the latter part of his life to express what he understood by this. He wanted his readers, his fellow-Europeans, to set aside ‘Sorge’, the ever-present, nagging anxieties that affect normal people in their normal waking reality. ‘Sorge’ had come about through rationality with its essential and efficient but also divisive and neurosis-inducing ‘naming of parts’. Beyond this, only a step beyond but difficult to access, lay another world entirely: harmonious, mystical, whole -- ‘der andere Zustand’.
                In Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Musil presents civilisation as being impelled by warring forces in dynamic opposition – Gewalt (violence) and Liebe (love). ‘Der andere Zustand’ is part of the latter whereas the world that Musil experienced at first hand all around him favoured Gewalt. At the end of World War I Germany and Austria-Hungary collapsed and the pre-war hopes for renewal came to nothing in what Musil termed a ‘babylonisches Narrenhaus’ (GW, 1088) (Babylonian madhouse) of ideologies.  Musil’s post-World-War-I literary and intellectual activities – work on plays, reviews, essays, and his main novel – were directed towards finding a way for society to move towards the utopia (and he knew that it was no more, no less than a utopia) of ‘der andere Zustand’. Society resisted the attempts by intellectuals to influence its development – a coherent collective effort, a ‘geistige Organisationspolitik’ (GW, 1058)  (policy of intellectual/spiritual organisatio) might, however, overcome the inertia.
We move forward with Amann from the aftermath of World War I to the early thirties, to the rise of National Socialism and the Machtergreifung (the seizure of power by this movement). In Germany and, inevitably both through proximity and shared culture in Austria, no-one could escape politics any longer even if, like Musil, they had managed to do so before.
                Before I continue, a few words on Amann as a guide to Musil and politics. His qualifications as Austrian professor of literary history are complemented by his directorship of the Robert Musil Institute for Literary Research in Musil’s birthplace, Klagenfurt. With Walter Fanta, Amann has recently published the new electronic edition of Musil’s collected works. (Reference) He is an expert in whom the reader of this work soon feels he can place confidence for the clarity of his prose and his sound judgments. Amann gives an account of the complexities of political culture in Austria throughout the nineteen-thirties: the dissonances between the local, the regional, the national, the clash of the clerical with the secular, the bloody fighting between the forces of conservatism and social democracy, interest groups jockeying for status, the tensions of ethnicity, the struggle for and against union with Germany, all predicated on the traumas of World War I and the transition at the end of this war from the pomp of empire to the claustrophobia of a small republic.
                Thus Amann’s commentary prepares the reader for the Musil extracts in the latter part of this book some of which have only just been published in the electronic edition of Musil’s works.[5] From 1933 on, Musil made notes on Nazism which he was experiencing at first hand in Berlin as he worked on Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Some readers may be disturbed by occasional diary entries in which Musil comments quite coolly on National Socialist activities including book-burning. Here he adopts the attitude he felt appropriate for a creative author since detachment from the contemporary world was essential. While National Socialist pseudo-ideology characterised Musil as an Aryan, he distanced himself from racism; ‘Ich glaube nicht an den Unterschied des deutschen Menschen vom Neger ‘ (1364), he wrote.  Musil’s wife, Martha, was Jewish. The impartial observer that we meet in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften and in some diary entries was balanced by the husband concerned for the wife he loved.[6] In Musil’s ‘Bedenken eines Langsamen’ (‘Concerns of a slow man’) he writes of the uprooting of the rule of law, of the loss of the division of powers and of concern for the rights of man, and the replacement of equality of all human beings with persecution on grounds of race. He was struck by the way that Germans had almost casually surrendered these values. Why did this happen, he asked? His answer: Germans had lost their sense of the worth of these values – and reason, arguments, were nothing when stripped of ‘Affekte’, the emotional charge without which they were just words.[7] With the collapse of the Weimar Republic they had lost their power to engage the majority. Intellectual activity requires feeling to be effective or, as Musil expressed this ‘Geist besteht aus Verstand, Gefühl und ihrer gegenseitigen Durchdringung’. (‘Geist [spirit / intellect] consists of understanding, feeling and the way each finds its way into the other’.[8] Whereas the values of democracy had been drained of the energy of commitment, the National Socialists had channelled the power of the unconscious to their own ends. Musil expressed this as follows: ‘Wenn die Affekte zensurlos sind, wie im Traum, so schaffen sie radikale Bilder’ (If the emotions are uncensored as they are in dreams they produce radical images).[9] The National Socialists, Musil noted, had been successful through campaigns whose violent imagery released powerful emotions. (These images had precipitated the young along the path of National Socialism; pursued to its end, this would to the Holocaust.) Writing before the War, Musil had wondered whether such ‘Affekte’ (feelings) could be mobilised in the interests of culture and ‘Geist’.[10]
                 ‘Der Dichter in dieser Zeit’ (The creative Writer in these times) was Musil’s lecture to mark the twentieth anniversary of the SDSOe in 1934 – this was an association for authors that had originally been founded in Germany in 1910 but had later been dissolved by the authorities in the Third Reich in 1933. Its Austrian off-shoot had survived. Amann shows us how this lecture had caught the mood of Austrian authors of the time, expressing their sense that culture was above the realm of politics. Writers, artists and creative individuals should point ways in which society might evolve; creative writers should neither serve the interests of parties in power nor take directions from officials. While Germany was changing so quickly, Austria seemed to Musil almost like a Noah’s Ark of German culture (see p.249). The folly of authors submitting to the dictatorship of politicians was shown in the events following a speech by Musil to the Writers’ Congress in Paris in 1935. The Soviet Union had created an anti-fascist bloc of Communists, Socialists, and some liberals. Those behind the scenes at the Congress insisted on uncritical support for this so-called ‘Volksfront’ (popular front). In his speech, Musil argued that representatives of culture should not defer to politicians. ‘Kultur ist an keine politische Partei gebunden’ (p.273)  He was booed for tarring Communism with the brush he had used for National Socialism. Musil’s notes in preparation for the speech indicate that he was aware that he would face an audience hostile to his views. Another delegate, Bodo Uhse, publically criticised Musil for being a bourgeois decadent. Amann notes that Uhse had been a National Socialist before joining the Communist Party – perhaps this was where he learned not to allow the truth to spoil a politically expedient point. Brecht wrote a sceptical letter to the artist George Grosz about the Congress: ‘wir haben soeben die Kultur gerettet. Es hat 4 Tage in Anspruch genommen und wir haben beschlossen, lieber alles zu opfern, als die Kultur untergehen zu lassen’ (We have just rescued culture. It took 4 days and we have resolved to sacrifice everything rather than allow culture to perish).[11]
Subsequent developments seem attuned to Brecht’s irony. Johannes R. Becher was involved in the organisation of the 1935 Congress. During World War II he was arrested and imprisoned in Russia, then after the War released and rehabilitated in the German Democratic Republic; there in his will he stipulated that no streets be named after him or statues erected, but that, instead, his works be promoted; after his death, inevitably, statues were erected, streets were named and Becher’s works shared the fate of the German Democratic Republic and passed into virtual oblivion. Like Becher, a number of other German delegates at the Congress were later imprisoned and some executed in Stalin’s Russia. In retrospect, Becher and others might have been more sympathetic to Musil’s views on the links between culture and politics. Amann quotes Brecht again, giving poetic form to the dangers are faced by authors in totalitarian states:

Dem, der gewürgt wird
Bleibt das Wort im Halse stecken.
Stille breitet sich aus und von weitem
Erscheint sie als Billigung.

(Someone being throttled
Cannot utter a single word.
Silence spreads and, from a distance,
It looks just like approval.)

But Musil, as Amann shows conclusively, was not one of the servants of the word who were throttled into complete silence. Musil avoided the mud-slinging, the dishonesties, the compromises, the short-term manoeuvring that is expected in the field of politics, but also made a significant contribution to the wider political debate in his times despite the personal dangers that were involved for his work, for himself and for his wife. 


[1] The SDSOe.
[2] (GW, 1009-1015, p.1011),
[3] Reference
[4] (reference).
[5] Reference
[6] (On the contribution of Jews to German intellectual life – B. eines L., see p.170; Musil also realised in 1933 how antisemitism was a vital component of National Socialist ideology.  – B. eines L., p.175.)
[7] (Add note on Affekte? See B.eines L., p.174)
[8] (Letter in 1931 to Adolf Frisé, B. 494).
[9] Diaries: (T 724)
[10] (Quote p.174 re Zweiteilung.)
[11] (Brecht, Briefe, July, 1935, p.510)

1 comment:

  1. "Someone being throttled
    Cannot utter a single word.
    Silence spreads and, from a distance,
    It looks just like approval."

    What a timeless, broadly relevant statement.
    Thank you for the translation.