Friday, December 2, 2011

Stupidity, Being Towards Death, Art (on Dostoevsky's Idiot)

, Totentanz, Karl Ritter, 1921.While looking for images of Death I discovered that not only is stupidity often a woman, but death (which is not a feminine noun in German) often is too. In this image (Totentanz by Karl Ritter, 1922) she may merely be death's lure, if not herself the one condemned to die. Well, woman, at least, is effective, rousing to life, to frustration, to anger, challenging passive man to sin, to madness, leading him to distraction, destruction, eventually to death.

Stupidity, Musil writes in notes for his essay, is a Proteus, is a Verwandlungskuenstlerin, a transformation artist (a feminine transformation artist, perhaps only because the noun Dummheit is feminine in German, perhaps for more insidious reasons). It becomes clear, as one reads through the notes, that, like everything else as seen by Musil, the value and nature of stupidity depends upon one's perspective. What is stupid in some contexts is intelligent in others. What once was stupid now is known to be the height of cleverness. What some people call dumb is holy, wise, original, poetic. Musil notes, however, that in most cases our general society equates intelligence with Sachlichkeit (objectivity) and Vernunft (Reason), and Tuechtigkeit (capability), all qualities which are, he explains, stupid when untempered by other forms of perception, knowledge, and judgment. To be too objective is, he notes, a sign of a certain limited personality; which is not intended, of course, to undermine the importance of intellect. If stupidity is a Verwandlungskuenstlerin or, elsewhere in the notes and finished essay, simply a Kuenstlerin, then art itself necessarily avails itself of the protean nature of seeing, creating, envisioning, forming, precisely by temporarily escaping from the stronghold of pure objectivity and the reign of what is, into the open unknown of what could be. As Musil writes elsewhere: die staendige Verwandelbarkeit des Gegebenen (the constant changeability of the given) is the fundamental basis of creativity and metastable ethics. So it pays to be a bit  stupid, i.e., uncertain, grasping and fumbling, to see things new, with innocent and fresh eyes. Even, indeed, if the all-too rational and measured world may mock us for it.
I am rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot, with these questions in mind. In an early scene, the beautiful but eccentric society sisters Aglaia, Alexandra, and Adelaida interrogate Prince Myshkin about his experiences in Switzerland, where he has been ill,where he has been "almost an idiot". Alexandra confesses that she has trouble finding subjects for her paintings, and Myshkin suggests that one needs only to learn to see things and the subjects will reveal themselves. He had just been talking about his "fits" and how they would break the logical sequence of his brain; but that everything would  suddenly appear "strange". The prince, Dostoevsky writes, "had learned to see things abroad"...which Myshkin then humbly doubts. Perhaps, he says, he didn't really learn to see things. And yet, he admits, he was happy. We might compare this to the dissolution of a logical narrative or rational structure, interrupted by a vision of timeless beauty, for later, in another description of the moments before his fits, Myshkin remarks that he experienced such ecstasy as to finally understand the saying that "there would be no more time" and that he would gladly give his whole life (a narrative of connected events) for one of these moments. When the prince says, basically, well, I don't know, perhaps I haven't learned to see things, but I have been happy, Aglaia interrupts: "Happy? You know how to be happy?...Then how can you say that you didn't learn to see things?" Because, of course, even this young girl knows that most people are not in fact happy at all. Which really is rather stupid!
Seeing (by which new, fresh seeing is implied) is inextricably related to happiness, to a happiness unmeasurable by the normal standards of society. And, mark well, it is not even a happiness like romantic love (one of the only exceptions in society to the rule of Reason): "I haven't been in love, answered Myshkin, I...have been happy in a different way".
Myshkin's ecstatic trances, based on Dostoevsky's own epileptic experiences as well as his near-death escape from the firing squad, are very similar to Musil's Other Condition, a state of heightened wholeness, significance, feeling, conviction, fleeting and selfless. Less well-known than Dostoevsky's shocking reprieve before the firing squad is Musil's near death experience as a soldier in the First World War. Musil writes, in "Ein Soldat Erzaehlt" (A soldier narrates), in time-suspending detail, about his mystical experience under fire on the battlefield, about how he underwent a " baptism by fire" and how he "suddenly believed" like a virgin. The motif of a false alarm recurs in Musil (in the mock shooting in the farce Vinzenz) and in Dostoevsky's Idiot (in Ippolit's misfired suicide) (In both cases, the person "shot" thinks he or she is really about to die) as well as in Myshkin's narration of a man condemned to death and released at the last moment. What does this near death experience have to do with happiness, or stupidity? How might contact with death make one stupid or happy? Well, it would depend, wouldn't it, on what the world around one looked like, on the context and relative value given in the society to momentary experience, to significance, to beauty.
 An experience of mortality invests a human with a heightened ethical propensity for "being toward death" implying a motivation to live every moment as if it were the last. When Myshkin describes the man reprieved from the guillotine, he notes that the condemned man had thought that, were he not to die, "he would live each moment as an eternity and not waste one". But, he has to admit, when pressed, that after he was saved from death, "he didn't live life like that at all; he wasted many moments". And yet, sounding almost like Musil in his ambivalent utopianism, Myshkin continues about the possibility of a reform of this sort: " For some reason it is impossible...and yet somehow I can't believe it". In any case, whether it is impossible or not to live every moment as an eternity and not waste one, to do so would certainly be deemed idiotic in a society which avoids the reality of death at all costs. But why, since death in fact is the most objective (sachlich) thing there is! Indeed, there is not one of us who is not condemned to death. To ignore this seems, really, the greatest of delusions and fictions! Which may be why Myshkin, in another scene, insists that he himself, the great dreamer and idiot, the unworldly saint and innocent, is actually a materialist. Or why Musil said that the great man of the future will be both a mathematician and a mystic? Or maybe this is why art, created by that great transformation artist, stupidity herself, is always reminding us of death, if only by its quickening to life.

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