Sunday, December 11, 2011

Isis and Osiris

Someone asked after an English translation of Musil's poem "Isis und Osiris," which I could not find and, instead, tried my hand at one for the occasion. It is an important poem for me, and for Musil. He wrote in his notebooks that it "contains the novel in nucleo".  Isis and Osiris are, of course, the sibling lovers of Egyptian mythology who are cruelly separated when Osiris is cut into pieces by their jealous brother Set. Isis looks all over Egypt for the parts and is able to breathe them back to life. Except for his penis, which was eaten by fishes; she fashions one out of wax and adheres it to her lover/brother. Now Musil, as you will see, has kept some of the original elements and changed some others, but the mystical union of brother and sister, like and unlike, separate but united which plays out between Ulrich and Agathe in the novel is clearly embodied here, as is the fleeting and circular nature of the sexual, erotic, romantic experience. The sun and moon (Isis and Osiris) separate and come together, repeatedly, are wounded and healed, are hungry and satisfied, over and over and over again.  You will also note that the male is the moon and the female the sun here, which corresponds to the gender of the two nouns in German (der Mond, die Sonne). Le voila!

        Isis and Osiris

On the foliage of stars the moon
Boy in silvery rest withdrew
And the hub of the sun's wheel soon
Turned and looked at him anew.

    From the desert the red wind wails.
   And the coasts are  empty of sails.

And the sister quietly loosened
The sleeper's sex and devoured it.
And she gave her soft heart, the red one,
In return, and laid it upon him, upon him.

    And in the dream the wound healed over.
   And his sweet sex she devoured.

See how the sun thundered away
As the sleeper was shocked from sleep,
Stars swayed, like ships,
Shaking trees, if they are chained,
When the great storm begins.
See, there his brothers stormed
After the lovely thief,
And he cast his net out.
And the blue space broke,
The woods broke under her tread,
And the stars ran along in dread,
But the tender birdshouldered one
Could not be caught by anyone, no matter how fast.

Only the boy she called to at night
Finds her, when moon and sun exchange.
Of all the hundred brothers, only this one,
And he eats her heart and she eats his.


  1. Something I've been thinking about (prompted by the last batch of posts) is another section of Nietzsche's The Birth and Death of Tragedy:

    The price of being an artist is to experience that which all non-artists call form, as content, as "the real thing" (die Sache selbst). Then however one belongs to an inverted world; because now the content, our own life included, becomes something formal.

    The dialogical resists (in Art, in our own lives) necessarily "form"--or, rather, seeks to. I wonder aloud if this was part of Musil's resistance to finishing The Man Without Qualities? That is, dialogics is never finished questioning: once some sort of resolution is reached, a new set of questions (or voices) appears. Resolution, completion, indeed any state at all, is temporary. (And even if the unanswerable questions we grapple with remain the same--and how they appear again and again!--is the voice we answer with always changing?)

  2. Ah, Kenneth, thank you for your insights and the fascinating Nietzsche quotation. I agree with your assessment of Musil's resistance to closure as resistance to finality of form, and "final solutions". He consitutionally, philosophically could not finish. I talk about this alot in my book. Deferral through endless proliferation of alternatives, metaphors, possibilities, which figures forth the active role of what Nietzsche calls the "creative subject" in constantly creating our shared reality and maintaining metaphoric transparency (the awareness that all of our descriptions of reality are mind-made and provisional). It is aesthetic existentialism. The next step after the iconoclastic orgy, to build again, see again, re-vision.
    The idea of the content of our own lives as being formal, the inverted world reminds me so much of Proust's reflections on the way that Albertine becomes for Marcel merely a specific example of a pattern, she becomes a formal image of an idea. Is this artistic objectivity some sort of aberration? Are artists freaks of some sort? Is it inhuman to rise above the pain and horror of the specific (what most people see as content) to a formal ecstasy? Is this escapism or is it wisdom? I think Musil comments on this somewhere in his aphorism collection. And Proust says that one should be lenient about judging the private lives of artists.

  3. I like how I misremembered the title. The Birth and Death of Tragedy? What was I thinking of?

  4. Ha! I didn't even notice! What were you feeling, might be the real question. Because, by the way, do you think everything is really going to hell in a handbag? A very expensive and beautiful one, to be sure, but still? Even tragedy is dead, long live tragedy!

  5. Hi! Thank you very much for this! Do you know where can I grab the German version of the poem? Thanks! Guilherme Kujawski

  6. The German version can be found in: Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke I: Prosa und Stücke. Kleine Prosa. Aphorismen. Autobiographisches. Hrsg. v. Adolf Frisé. Frankfurt am Main, 1978. Enjoy!