Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Feminist Existentialism? The Actor of herself!

Lotte Lenya
Musil sounds almost like Simone de Beauvoir in his essay "Woman, Yesterday and Tomorrow" (1929):

"Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealize, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image, The panting adulation of older men even seems funny to her, and therein lies a great purification of the atmosphere. She no longer wants to be an ideal at all but to create ideals, to contribute to their formation just as men do,even if, at the moment, with no particular success...This sense of reality on the part of a category of human being who for centuries was condemned to play the ideal of another is today perhaps the most important aspect of this question. I am not on the side of those who complain about the matter-of-factness of young women. The human body cannot in the long run experience itself only as the receiver of sense stimuli; it always turns to becoming the portrayer, the actor of itself in all the relationships it enters. Thus, its natural drive always combines with a specific system of ideas and feelings, and through the centuries this ideologizing is like a fountain that rises and falls. Today it is close to its deepest point, almost swallowed up; but it will doubtless rise again in a new combination. Countless and different possibilities are available, and the future really conceals them only like a veil, and not like a city wall fortified with prejudices"(Precision and Soul, 213).

Is this really a man who would belittle the woman artist?

Monday, November 21, 2011

On (not over) Avital Ronell on Musil's "Über die Dummheit" (On/Over the [feminine] Stupidity)

Emmy Hennings of the Cabaret Voltaire, a "woman artist"!
Reading again Avital Ronell's reaction to Musil's essay "Über die Dummheit"  (On [Over] [the] Stupidity)along with the essay in question (See Ronell: Stupidity, 2002). Ronell registers nausea mixed with a sort of fascination for what she describes as Musil's escape into misogyny in the middle of what started as a brave attack on the Fatherland.  He doesn't seem to her quite ideologically clean. There is something too polite about him, something too tainted with Enlightenment values of rationality and civilization.I understand her discomfort. Not that I need my Musil to be as impeccably ideologically correct as Ronell seems to...but there is, indeed, something strange going on here. Something does not smell right. Why does he keep referring to this stupid woman, as if woman herself were the personification of this feminine noun (Die Dummheit) which the intellectual is above (Über)? Musil, to be more specific, presents woman (and even a woman artist) as an example--makes an example of her--rather suddenly and, it is true, rather oddly. Is his sudden abuse of woman a barely disguised attempt to evade the brutal bully he evokes in this 1937 address, but cannot attack directly? Is he really sinking to that low reaction of the cowardly weakling who wants to at least be more powerful than someone else (woman in this case), as bullies do when they are confronted with forces they cannot reckon with?
Perhaps; but if so, his own argument throughout the address would be all too easily called in to attack him back. For how is this "we men" (whom Musil whispers to before admitting his ambivalent response to the talkative woman artist) different from the other "we" that he evokes in the essay? A we that cowardly garners power and strength by association with some nation, party, art movement, or sect?  A collective we whose assumptions and sense of premature certainty of judgment could only be called "stupid"by the individualist and self-described slow-witted man, Musil? This peaceful woman artist appears also as a disconcertingly poetic voice, one who answers in more than single words when one plays free- association games with her, answers that "bring the poet close to the idiot"or reveal "the poet in the idiot"?  She is, in fact, the only representative of art in the address, and as Musil maligns her, one might ask whose voice he really speaks in. And doesn't Musil say earlier in the address that the physically weaker person who is clever knows how to hide that cleverness from the stronger brutes? So as not to irritate them, so as not to let on that one is in fact capable of criticizing the superior powers? If this does not describe the role of woman, even today, I don't know what else it describes, except for that of the intellectual under the iron heel of a totalitarian government. Is woman, then, presented by Musil as a weaker stupider victim to excite the natural bloodlust of the bully in all of us (especially "we men"? )? Or as a very subtle (perhaps too subtle) object lesson in how this sort of thing works? I do not want to engage in special pleading for Musil, to announce that he is ideologically clean; nor do I want to argue that the woman in this essay is really the hero. Not entirely anyway. Perhaps she talks too much, is vain, hasty; perhaps she lacks just the right amount of reason mixed with her feeling. Perhaps Musil is on the defensive. Of course he is on the defensive.
Yet, as premature closure is something that both Ronell and Musil agree on as being a prime characteristic of stupidity ( i.e., coming too quickly to conclusion, thinking that one has complete mastery over something or someone, believing one has understood all of it), we do right to register our discomfort (nausea even), but  to continue to explore what is incompletely in the air here.  Indeed, it is a very strange essay, filled with a more than usual amount of ambivalence and an even less than usual amount of closure for Musil.  He rarely connects the different strands of ideas, rarely shows us directly how one section contradicts the other, how the different types of stupidity are hopelessly mixed up on the hierarchy of good, bad, dangerous, higher, lower, peaceful, violent, brutal, passive, victimized stupidity. The address asks a good deal of the reader (or listener). It seems, often, to not make sense. Is it in code? Could he have spoken directly at that time if he wanted to? About an address he presented in 1934 in Vienna he noted that its success consisted in the fact that he had dared to give it all, that he had dared, at all, to speak.
And let us just note that Musil takes a good deal of time showing that those who use the word "stupid" are themselves usually rather stupid themselves, that, in fact, usually, or often, when one is reduced to a state where invective is the only choice, a state too stupid for words, a state where one is at a loss, has lost one's head, where there are simply no words to describe how put out, irritated, annoyed, confused one is, one is, in fact, stupefied, stupid. A state of panic wherein one uses all the words one can think of, hoping to come upon the right one just as a fly beats its head against a closed window hoping to find an opening.The content of the imprecise term stupid (or vulgar or kitsch or...) is less important, says Musil, than the act of abuse inherent in its use (domestically, politically, critically). It is an act of brutality, in itself stupid.  So, Musil may be utterly unaware of his own complicity here, in gathering together a group of male artists to collectively titter over the stupidity of a woman artist; or perhaps he is demonstrating the way in which stupidity (the supposedly higher kind, the intellectual stupidity, in fact) is contagious, a "dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself (Precision and Soul, 284);  he may just be being even more clever than is at first obvious. At least I hope so.