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.

No comments:

Post a Comment