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.


  1. It struck me, in reading your assessment of Musil's treatment of 'woman' as stupid victim, that perhaps he (and men, persons, in his position) are maligning women, because she has failed him as proverbial statue of an unlikely hero. Because, perhaps, man, in his myth-making, has subjected (wo)man to the ugliest parts of himself, his tyranny and oppression, hoping secretly that she (who represents, in her capacity to give birth, the (hu)man capacity for transcendence) will rise up against this (hu)man ugliness. Perhaps Musil, a man in good company, vents his anger against woman, angry that she disappoints his hope that the sublime and sensitive (adjectives that could serve as possible definitions of art) could triumph, through cunning, over the brute force of man (metaphor, perhaps, for callous institutions - of economy, politics, religion - that spend their lives stifling spirit).

  2. Perhaps Musil's complicity, demonstrated in his use of the word, is a testament to the size of his despair, manifest in it's inarticulateness.

    And perhaps this is the great modern problem. That, having no vocabulary (system, culture, religion) in which to pray for our ideals and practice our faith, we treat experiences of love (the one last venu in which we feel we're subjects of the divine, God) as tests. Having no practice or precedent, we (as majority) are unable to accept and rise to live's successes. And, at the same time, are violently wounded (made angry) by it's failures, the final affirmation of the death of God.

    Is love not the final frontier in man's fight for divinity? The tragedy of the majority that we are too bewildered to celebrate our triumph, too desperate to accept our failure?

  3. You are articulating somethings that I hope I am not just hoping I felt rumbling under the surface of my inarticulateness. The connection you are making between the frustration of inarticulateness, in particular, and that of general modern or human despair, is something I was thinking about after I posted the comments above. Because, of course, we all feel that stupefied frenzy, that panic sometimes, the desire to escape from something we don't yet understand. And indeed, maybe Ronell is right in suggesting that Reason is inextricably tainted by masculine power play and, by association, in league against other modes of communication (grunts, screams, confusion, poetry). And Musil, as artist, as defender of the other realm of experience and expression (not excluding Reason, but also valuing feeling), was particulary sensitive to the silencing of what couldn't easily be explained or calculated. Another pair that haunts Musil's essay (besides stupid and cruel, stupid and indecent, stupid and premature, stupid and genius, is feeling and reason, the two realms Musil was intent on joining. In another writer, one might assume that the maligned woman artist was meant to represent art as opposed to the rationality of science. But with Musil such a polarity could only be meant ironically. And he starts off the essay complaining about his culture's resistance to art, calling this a certain kind of art-stupidity. It is, he says, a "barely describable resistance". And yet he tries to describe it. As such, we see that Musil did not necessarily equate a struggle to come to words with a negative sort of stupidity. And anyone can understand that in the midst of the logic of power anyone might start to stammer or bang his or her head against a closed window. But that would be different from banging someone else's head against a window. Inarticulateness, again, striving to make itself understood to even itself. Thank you for stammering so lovingly with me....

  4. I stumbled on this page while researching Musil's "On Stupidity" essay. I think you are exactly right: Ronell misses the irony completely (with regard to women, but even more with regard to his comments about anti-semitism in "Ruminations"). That somehow she contrasts Heidegger favorably with Musil seems laughable, to me--even in bad taste.

    Which is not to say that Musil was not a prisoner to *some* received ideas about women--but next to the portrait of Agathe I think that his account still measures rather favorably next to other male writers of the period. But I do not think Ronell addresses these received ideas in any serious way. Rather, the most serious response I have found is in Ingeborg Bachmann, and the progression of her work from The Thirtieth Year to Todesarten, which I interpret as a sustained and evolving engagement with the limits of culturally-encapsulated rationality.

    I have touched on this very briefly here.

    Very glad to have found your blog. I look forward to reading your book on Musil when I'm able to obtain a copy.

  5. Thank you David. Your post on Pike's essay is fascinating and I was almost too excited by it to read it carefully (I will read it again slowly). (I sent it to Burton Pike, by the way). You seem to be in the same school of thought on the language crisis question as we are, articulating a more idealistic distinction between language as crime/conscious betrayal of experience/corrupt social construct and language as an attempt (bound, alas, to never completely succeed) to approximate experience. As to the women question, I think your comment on Bachmann as continuation is very apt. Especially when we consider how aware she was of the dangers posed to the weak by revealing their intelligence to the brutal and strong "fathers". I have an essay on the question of On Stupidity and the woman artist coming out with studia austrica in June. Certainly Musil was a man of his times in many ways as regards visions of women, but he remains one of the most aware male writers when it comes to the female psyche, probably due to his deep research into his wife Martha's mind, heart, body, life. Some people (Walter Fanta for example) go so far as to call Martha Robert's co-author! I hope you let me know what you think of my book.

  6. I'm terribly sorry, I did not see that you had responded until now. Thank you for the kind words, and I very much look forward to your forthcoming essay.

    I agree that Musil was sympathetische to the female psyche, certainly more so than most of his male contemporaries--only Uwe Johnson possibly comes to mind, who is rather later. I find Clarisse and Diotima to be convincing portrayals, though what I know of Clarisse's analogue, Alice Donath, sounds quite tragic (a few notes on real-life analogues). Tangentially, I also find Musil's criticism of Spengler to be somewhat similar to that by Laura Riding in her brilliant essay "Jocasta," though I'm not sure if either read the other's work.

    I would love to know more about Martha Musil--I know she was formidable and brilliant, and the entries in the Diaries regarding her are fascinating (particularly the passage that was found stitched into Martha's coat!) But she remains elusive for me. If you have references on Martha, I would appreciate any information you could send my way: is my email address.

    I have not been able to obtain your book; if there is any way the publisher would be willing to send a review copy, I would love to write on it.