Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Novalis on the Blessedness of Being a Blockhead, Night, Day-Bright Mysticism, and Dawn

Read this morning in Novalis's "Miscellaneous Observations" this short passage reminiscent of Musil's "On Stupidity":

Bust of Novalis by Fritz Schaper
"53. The more confused a person is---confused people are called blockheads---the more he can make of himself by diligent study of the self. On the other hand, orderly minds must strive to become true scholars--thorough encyclopedists. At first the confused ones must struggle with massive obstacles--they gain insight slowly. They learn to work laboriously---but then they are lords and masters forever. The orderly person swiftly gains insight---but also loses it swiftly. He soon reaches the second stage--but usually stops there. The last steps are laborious for him, and he can rarely succeed in placing himself in the position of a beginner again once he has attained a certain degree of mastery.
Confusion points to excess of strength and capacity--but deficient equilibrium--precision points to good equilibrium, but meager capacity and strength.
That is why the confused person is so progressive---so perfectible---and why on the other hand the orderly one comes to a halt so early as a Philistine.
To be orderly and precise alone is not to be clear. Through working on himself the confused person arrives at that heavenly transparency---at that self-illumination---which the orderly person so seldom attains.
True genius combined these extremes. It shares swiftness with the last and fullness with the first."

In the last line Novalis celebrates swiftness, which Musil veers away from as a characteristic of genius in his essay, which tends to see over-hastiness of judgment as a prime characteristic of stupidity. Novalis is not, however, speaking of completion or coming to conclusion. And really the two men agree more than this last line might suggest. Quickness of ideas, combinations, proliferation of possibilities, and openness to new illuminations, and the innate ability to maintain "the position of a beginner" may all be mistaken for stupidity or slowness or block-headedness. In the contest of spirit, however (the only one Novalis cared about), a confused fruitfulness wins the race over assured simple solutions and order.

It is an enduring fascination for me to contemplate what strands of like-thinking drew Musil to that wonder-seeking and wonder-speaking mystic Novalis, who was one of his luminaries.  Novalis called Spinoza a god-drunken man, and I recently read in a letter to him from Friedrich Schlegel, that one of his first readers exclaimed that Novalis's own writing was like that of a drunken god. But truly it comes clear and sober too, in sweetness and light, despite his preference for the succor of the Night and even of Death.

Dear Novalis, who left our prosaic and our poetic world far too soon, what unlikely sympathies did you stir up in our cold, objective Vivisecteur? What earthly wisdom--you who were a scientist too---were you master of to win the respect of our restrained ecstatic? Musil was a day-bright mystic, and you were a lover of the Night; but you, in chorus with Spinoza, always traced the lineaments of the divine from the facts of nature herself, although you saw them as nothing more than hieroglyphs of spiritual sense. Musil, too, struggled with the simplicity of empiricism, noting how it reduced itself all too soon to system and construct. Both of you were masters of newness (and here we can bring in Thoreau as a third, and Emerson as fourth), and celebrated the Utopia of the Next Step, Becoming, and Beginnings.

Monsieur le Vivisecteur came alive in the Night too; and Thoreau's Dawn was still touched with the magic of the dark mist, and far enough away from the every day rush of wakeful practicality to still taste of the hush of possibility.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Finished Book

The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities: Possibility as Reality has arrived. It feels rather odd, and very anticlimactic. What did Musil say about how the artist feels about finishing? It is at least somewhat true for the scholar!

         "He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his  love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, leaves him cold; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moments when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable. And so one could also think: What lords it over us loves what it creates; but this love approaches and withdraws from the finished part of creation in a long ebbing flow and a short returning swell. This idea fits the fact that souls and things of the world are like dead people who are sometimes reawakened for seconds....The world as it is [or: the finished world], sin! The possible world, love!" (MwQ, 1224)

 On to the next, then. . . or maybe a revised edition?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Daniel Dennet's "Multiple Drafts model," the Cartesian Theater, and Musil's Narrative

I am reading Daniel C. Dennett's book Consciousness Explained (1991) and just came across a passage explaining what Dennet calls the "Multiple Drafts Model" as an alternative to the persistent (even if unconscious or supposedly overthrown) model of a Cartesian Theater, which presupposes a central consciousness within the brain to which all input is directed and within which all input is processed. Dennett's model is similar to my mapping of Musil's novel as an infinite proliferation of de-centered circle worlds without a center, and it seems fitting that he uses the metaphor of fiction often in his book, and, in this passage, the metaphor of drafting, editing, selecting, narrating, and streams of contents, if not of consciousness. Speaking of the non-linear, de-centralized editorial processes that occur when the brain receives input, he writes:

 "These editorial processes occur over large fractions of a second, during which time various additions, incorporations, emendations, and overwritings of content can occur, in various orders. ..What we actually experience is a product of many processes of interpretation--editorial processes, in effect.  They take in relatively raw and one-sided representations, and yield collated, revised, enhanced representations, and they take place in the streams of activity occurring in various parts of the brain.  This much is recognized by virtually all theories of perception, but now we are poised for the novel feature of the Multiple Drafts model: Feature detections or discriminations only have to be made once. That is, once a particular, 'observation' of some feature has been made, by a specialized, localized portion of the brain, the information content thus fixed does not have to be sent somewhere else to be rediscriminated by some 'master' discriminator. . . These spatially and temporally distributed content-fixations on the brain are precisely locatable in both space and time, but their onsets do not mark the onset of consciousness of their content. It is always an open question whether any particular content thus discriminated will eventually appear as an element in conscious experience [or, in Musil, as a part of the published text!], and it is a confusion, as we shall see, to ask when it becomes consciousness. These distributed content-discriminations yield, over the course of time, something rather like a narrative stream or sequence, which can be thought of as subject to continual editing by many processes distributed around in the brain, and continuing indefinitely into the future. This stream of contents is only rather like a narrative because of its multiplicity[but awfully like a Musil narrative precisely because of this multiplicity!]; at any point in time there are multiple 'drafts' of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in the brain" (113).

Where, then, we might ask, if there is no central node in the pineal gland as proposed by Descartes, where then is the author? Does this mean he really is dead? I would propose that Dennett's model suggests that consciousness is not undermined or negated by its lack of central node, but that it is dispersed, simultaneous, much more complex than we once thought; but that this does not mean that we are unconscious. It would follow then that there is an author inside of each of us, but that this author looks and acts differently than we have imagined for centuries, and that Musil's novel has shown us most clearly how this author/consciousness operates. Dennet continues: "Most important, the Multiple Drafts model avoids the tempting mistake of supposing that there must be a single narrative (the 'final' or 'published' draft, you might say) that is canonical---that is the actual stream of consciousness of the subject, whether or not the experimenter (or even the subject) can gain access to it" (113).  And while the skepticism about whether or not the subject (author) or the experimenter (the reader) can gain access to the internal stream of consciousness (meaning or intent of the author?), it seems to me at least that Dennett's new model of consciousness is a modernist novelist.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Defense of Modernism, Again

Dear Readers,

I have been silent for quite a while, thinking and writing about other things which (gasp!) are not enough related to Musil to discuss here; but I woke up this morning thinking rather angrily again about the accepted idea that modernism "failed," that so-called modernist artists were naive, utopian, simple, and self-centered people who did not have the benefit of a post-modernist deconstructionist education. Basically, the assumptions lead to the conclusion that to believe that art is meaningful or that personal expression is important is hopelessly solipsistic and naive. Unfortunately, when Benjamin proclaimed in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that art would henceforth be replaced by...politics, his prophecy came true to a large extent. And while I think we can understand why Benjamin was tempted to make that devil's bargain in a moment of deep distress under Nazism, which led him to be suspicious of all sorts of  ideals and all sorts of illusions and all sorts of pedestals, we also see him struggling mightily with giving up on everything he held most dear. To give up art for justice and politics turned out to be a bad bargain all around--as I think Adorno conceded with a vengeance-- as we ended up with neither. Instead we got politics, totalitarianism, and anti-art. The human spirit has never recovered and it may very well have been this movement of anti-art and rampant skepticism that we have to blame for our current age of commodification and emptiness, more than some left-over remnants of traditional values. The theory seems to be that everything that still smacks of the old regime is at fault; perhaps it is the other way around; maybe the debunkers and cynics are at least as much responsible for our current crises as those who still cling to "outmoded" ideals and a sense of the sacred. But there are, luckily, still people who are "naive" enough to still believe in "aesthetic redemption,"  i.e., to believe that art, quite divorced from ideology or party platform or particular political message, is one of the fundamental practices that makes us human and--yes--also humane; that art, as the free exploration of ideas and forms and feelings and possibilities, is still a sacred (and, alas, increasingly threatened) thing, and, finally, that art-making is an important, meaningful existentially effective activity. What we say, make, put into the world changes it. My friend Renee asked me the other day why it upset me so much, and the answer is because it is a question of the value of art itself, it is a matter of the life and death of art, and spirit, and humanity.

I had been reminded of this pervasive anti-modernist canard by a mention of yet another book, Stephen Eric Bronner's Modernism at the Barricades, that continues to promulgate these unexamined generalization about this something people call modernism, without, or so it seems, presenting anything better as alternative. Bronner writes, with typical holier-than-thou attitude,  that:

"Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”
They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst."

Typical. The idea that, say, a modernist like Robert Musil, whose deep and thorough analyses of society, history, social structures, psychology, art, physics, mathematics, probability, sociology, was a poor deluded idealist who couldn't understand what was at stake in making art or in society; the idea that, say, someone like Stephen Eric Bronner is oh so much more aware, savvy, informed, and subtle, is rather laughable. Which is not to say that we are not all blinded to some extent by our proximity to our own times, or that Musil or others of his contemporaries could not see certain things that we might see better from afar. But these sorts of critiques  blindly and arrogantly presuppose that now, finally, today,we have the answers. That by revealing the way everything anyone ever believed in--up until now-- has been  a social construction (an idea which, by the way, long predates postmodernism), the current critics are suggesting that they are somehow exempt from such complicity in their own social construction. They propose that everything up until now that anyone thought or believed in was created by external social constructs and systems, but now, suddenly, the contemporary critics have managed to get themselves outside of Schrödinger's box and inside it at  the same time; now, suddenly, we have the vision that Kafka, and Musil, and Woolf and Sartre (those poor deluded fools!) didn't have.

And what does this vision amount to? That art should avoid at all costs any association with "romantic anti-capitalism", i.e, that it should avoid the romantic part, but keep the anti-capitalism part?! That all art should avoid any belief in its ability to move people, to change reality, to be meaningful to life?! That all art that does not explicitly engage in the class struggle is somehow absurd, utopian, bourgeois?! Are we really still trying to please a moralistic bogey like Georg Lukacs?! Seriously?!  Do we really agree that to be mature, sophisticated, and socially-responsible, we must replace art with politics? If that is what maturity is, I do not want to grow up. And I doubt, when you really consider what is at stake, most of you would want to either.

Of course the dualism set up by this debate between politics and autonomous art is itself a construction, as is the idea that one must choose between solipsistic belly-gazing and creative existential participation in world-making. Of course Musil believed that art was a matter of ethical world-making, and that this vitally important world-making could only continue if the artist was left to create outside of ideologies and instrumental goals. As he learned from Nietzsche (who is somehow considered wise enough to use as a foundation for much contemporary theory, but who is then put condescendingly back into a box because he believed in such "silly" things as art, genius, will, ideals), the destruction of social constructions, the realization that many of the foundations upon which society is built are just that--constructions-- does not mean that one should stop constructing,  but that one must continue to construct, more and more beautiful and fantastic structures, more images and forms, always with the energetic willful excitement of creation, always aware that all of the forms can and will and must be broken down and again and built up.

The idea that only the people in power are able to construct ideals and realities is a crippling and actually very elitist construct. Anyone, any artist, any person (all people are, thought Nietzsche, "creative subjects" whether they will be or no), any creative subject can, to borrow from Thoreau, "effect the quality of the day" and overturn perceptions, conceptions, and social forms.  And then some. Art remains powerful. Art still changes reality. Art is still revolutionary.  But it has to believe in itself and not capitulate to Marxist ideology and moralistic posturing or fatalistic cynical theory. Why do we care about this cynical attack on modernism? I repeat, it is a matter of the life or death of art, of a belief in the possibility of shared meaning, of the belief in the possibility of language, form, sound, space, arranged in a certain way by a particular person with a vision, an idea, a hunger, a love, a fear, a desire, to touch, change, move, revolutionize the life of another person and even a whole world. As Rilke learned from looking at the archaic torso of Apollo, You must change your life. Some will say that this is solipsistic or self-centered. But to change one life is to change the world. And art is still one of the most potent means to change lives, perspectives, worlds, realities, despite all cynical theories to the contrary.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ethics and Political Engagement; Thoreau, Musil, and the Great Unwashed

Henry David Thoreau
This morning I am thinking about ethics, and how ethics is different from an immediately self-interested castigation of injustice. "Not in My Back Yard" is an ethos often criticized by those who want to belittle the concerns of protesters; and in a way this criticism is justified--but mostly insofar as it might be used against those whose backyard is, for the moment, spared, and who, thus, do not have the imagination to see that someday it will not be, that someday their lawns, their jobs, their rights, the air they breathe, will be taken from them too. My yard is your yard, or your yard is my yard may be another way of spelling the categorical imperative.

Ethics, then, implies a way of thinking not inspired by NIMBY, and thus those operating from immediate outrage about their own discomfort may be inspired to protest for reasons that are not motivated by strictly ethical considerations. Ethics implies a consciousness of justice beyond self interest, and motivated by a sense of what is right, a sense of what one cannot, as a human being, countenance in one's own name as citizen, person, neighbor.

Having spent the last few days involved in an uncharacteristic flurry of political engagement in little Burlington, Vermont, I am struck by a number of unfortunate realities and questions about what factors do and do not induce people to become politically engaged in our society.  I read "Civil Disobedience" on the steps of City Hall yesterday with a number of brave and beautiful people in honor of and defense of a number of our fellow citizens who were shot at with rubber pellet-bullets on July 29th by Burlington police. These concerned citizens were engaging in a peaceful blockade during the Governor's Conference. They were protesting devastating plans to destroy land  and  eco-systems reaching from Canadian Inuit populations into Vermont, plans in the interest of profit for the few.

 Few of the people who read "Civil Disobedience" yesterday were at the original protest and some of us who joined the protesters later for a march to the police station and back to City Hall were disturbed and put off by the tone and the inarticulate message of the protesters whose fundamental right to protest we had been defending. "The Burlington Police Department is Fucked Up" was not exactly a sign we felt proud to stand behind, nor were we practitioners of the nuances and power of language comfortable chanting slogans whose ill-considered meanings we could not get behind. So we left them to their own devices,  and went off to drink a glass of wine before the City Council meeting that same night, where we hoped to hear more articulate voices of dissent and concern. Indeed, there were more articulate voices, a great many, which was encouraging, but also a good deal more ranting and incoherence; and I am left wondering about why people who might have something meaningful and considered to say so often stay home from such things, while the extremely disenfranchised and wretched of the earth come out in larger more visible numbers.

This morning I am thinking about ethics, and about the role and responsibility of the intellectual, or "Geist" in Musil's sense, in society. Is it possible, as Musil asked during the Paris Conference of  Writers in Defense of Culture, to engage in complex discourse about such questions, or must we devolve to chanting simplistic slogans and a polarized celebration of one brand of right-thinking over another? Must we choose between non-participation and participation in things we can't whole-heartedly stand behind? And finally, why is it that the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth are the first ones to speak out against injustice while the relatively comfortable (like myself) so often sit by and criticize their tactics? Is it really because we are as-yet inured to the pains that they already feel everyday, and because our ethical imagination is so weak that we do not yet see or believe in the imminent dangers of which they warn us? Or is it because we don't want to associate with the great unwashed, the half-mad, the angry and resentful mob? They certainly have good reason to be angry, to feel disenfranchised, to feel that they have no voice, to feel betrayed and unheard. We only wish they had something better to say once they are given a platform upon which to say it. But perhaps it is our fault for not lending our voices to the discussion more often.

Thoreau and Musil present powerful models of independent ethical voices, who neither compromised nor watered down their complicated intellectual analyses and who were able to remain true to themselves while still making significant statements about what they deemed unjust and insupportable. Clearly, Musil suffered for his adamant resistance to the lure of the Soviet Republic (he was booed off the stage at the Paris conference and called a Fascist sympathizer because he predicted that the Soviet brand of thought-control was not so very different from that of  his German and Austrian oppressors), although he tried, in his way, to bear witness and to speak against the horrors of Nazism; and Thoreau was never a member of any club (though he was surrounded in his own home by active abolitionists and himself helped in the escape plans of several fugitive slaves). Thoreau maintained the individual's imperative to be true to himself, as an acorn grows into an oak, while seeing to it that he does not sit on the shoulders of others or steal a plank from a drowning man. They both had the imagination to consider the suffering of others and to understand that in all the great world, we share one back yard.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Great Cathedral of Cologne, Moby Dick, and Montrous Novels

I just read in Moby Dick this sentiment, kindred to Musil's own infinite mood:

"I now leave my cetological system standing unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"

More on Monsieur Teste

My friend Kenneth Harrison sent me a lovely explication of M. Teste which reminded me of why I am of two minds (and bodies!) about the question of disembodied heads. For there is something attractive indeed in the conception of a mind floating and free from the stings and arrows that flesh is heir to, that may transcend the limitations of physical walls, that may, with the help of imagination, travel to distant lands and happier days, and, of course, this is part of what literature and art provide for us---a separate realm untouched by the indignities and prosaic dullness of the everyday. A world of dreaming.

"The great French poet and thinker Paul Valéry invented the character Monsieur Teste. ‘A mystic without God’, Teste was committed to uninterrupted, undistracted thought. His whole life’s work was “to kill the puppet,” the automaton, inside himself. In the famous An Evening With M. Teste (1896), Valéry leaves his hero drifting off to sleep, observing the stages of his own gradual extinction, and murmuring “Let’s think very closely… You can fall asleep on any subject… Sleep can continue any idea…” as his self-awareness fades into suspension points. Valéry himself kept a diary for over fifty years (collected as the Cahiers [Notebooks]). One of his central concerns was to observe the successive phases of his awakening, as in the early hours of the morning he annotated his mind-rise. Naturally, dreams preoccupied him as much as the daily resurrection of the self. He suggested that dreams might be an attempt to make sense of the body’s passage from sleep to wakefulness. Like me, he was unimpressed by Freud’s evidence-impoverished claims about dreams being the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ – that multi-storied jerry-built word-castle which so many otherwise intelligent people have taken for a scientific idea. Nor did Valéry buy the notion that dreams could be prophetic, the mind slipping along loops in time to enable us to see the future of the world or the will of God."

from: http://philosophynow.org/

The idea of a "mind-rise," observed as a passage from dream to wakefulness, is suggestive, and I am also reminded of William Beckford's imperious resentment of the encroachments by vulgar reality upon his rapturous dreaming and imagining. And yet, and yet, the physical world, even in its most humble exempla, may be a conduit to the most heavenly blisses.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Embodied Mind, Aesthetics, Transcendence

I am reading a fascinating book by Mark Johnson called The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics and Human Understanding that argues against mind-body dualism and affirms the essential connection of aesthetics as a general activity of human awareness and intentionality that is not limited to Art, though Art, according to Johnson, is a vital  model of the sort of acute attention toward meaning-making we might follow to make our lives more meaningful. The connections to Musil's explorations of feeling and reason, and his struggles to map out the keys to how to live through aesthetic experience,  his search for a "day-bright mysticism" which did not devolve into wishy-washy anti-intellectualism, and his quest for a meaningful grounding for ethical behavior should be obvious.
In contrast to Monsieur Teste's disembodied mind (discussed below) and the whole tradition of separation of thought and experience, reason and emotion, Johnson spells out what it would mean to embrace what he calls an embodied mind theory, whereby "the apparatus of meaning, conceptualization, and reasoning" are "intrinsically shaped by the body" and its sensory relationship to the environment, to others, and to nature.  Johnson exposes the treacherous consequences of centuries of maligning the body and the feelings with which its "impure" reason is associated. There is, according to Johnson, no such thing as "pure reason, " and the desire to "free oneself from the body" is called a "dangerous idea". The consequences of adopting an embodied mind view include the acceptance that there is no such thing as a disembodied soul, "no transcendent soul or ego," that meaning is grounded in physical, bodily, environmental experience, which is always shifting, that reason is a series of embodied "processes by which our experience is explored, criticized, and transformed in inquiry...[Reason] is tied to structures of our perceptual and motor capacities and ... it is inextricably linked to feeling," that "imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience". "Our ability to make new meaning, to enlarge our concepts, and to arrive at new ways of making sense of things must be explained without reference to miracles, irrational leaps of thought, or blind impulse. We have to explain how our experience can grow and how the new can emerge from the old without merely replicating what has gone before". "New meaning," he concludes suggestively, "arises from and remains connected to preexisting patterns, qualities, and feelings".  Another particularly thorny consequence of embracing  the embodied mind theory would be to acknowledge that there is no such thing as "radical freedom,"i.e., "no transcendental self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice...". This embrace, Johnson notes, calls us to discover a "view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodied mind and yet which doesn't make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility".  This begins to be partly answered by Johnson's seventh consequence, a consequence which challenges many of our most cherished views of imagination, creativity, and transcendental freedom,even though we no longer rely on otherworldly visions of the divine, heavens, or disembodied souls: "Human spirituality is embodied" and not "vertically" transcendent. The dream of vertical transcendence, of escape above and outside of the body,  attempted to "solve the basic human problems that stem from the fact of human finiteness" out of a feeling that "the body must somehow be transcended if there are to be any satisfactory answers to the human condition of limitation, helplessness, and finiteness". The embodied mind theory, in contrast, suggests a glorious embodiment, a spirituality "grounded in our relation to the human and more-than-human world that we inhabit" ...a horizontal transcendence, "namely our ability both to transform experience and to be transformed ourselves by something that transcends us: the whole ongoing, ever-developing natural process of which we are a part".  Amen to that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Monsieur Teste

I have been rereading Valéry's Monsieur Teste (Mr. Head, from old French; Mr. Witness, from Latin testis), and considering the question of mind and matter. Monsieur Teste is, of course, a thought experiment in what it would mean to be all mind, cut off from the world and others, suspicious of sensations, abstract and isolated.  He is excruciatingly, heartlessly, exact, and contemptuous of the relatively vague experiences and expressions of the Other(s). While the whole question of mind's interaction with matter, or self's with the world and its others, is relevant in general for Musil's attempts, most of Monsieur Teste's considerations would probably have been too one-sided to appeal to Musil's more comprehensive vision. At times Teste's "tête" seems fatally pre-formed and tragically limited by its solipsism; elsewhere this mind is more open, expanding into infinite realms of possibility. In these moments he reminds me most of Musil and here we catch the sound of a kindred soul, or of what Teste calls in one lonely doubtful passage "another Self-Same," i.e., a person who might provide "an exact response" to his own mind. In Teste's "log book," for example, we read, under the heading of "The Rich in Spirit" this description:

             "This man had such possessions, such perspectives in himself; he was made of so many years of reading, refutations, meditations, inner combinations, observations; of such ramifications, that his responses were hard to predict; that he did not himself know where he would come out, what aspect would finally strike him, what feeling would prevail in him, what detours and what unexpected simplifications would occur, what desire would be born, what retort, what sudden lights! . . . "

And here especially we glimpse a kindred "other person" for our man of possibilities :

       "And perhaps he had reached that strange state of being unable to regard his own decision or inner response as anything but an expedient, knowing quite well that the development of his attention would be infinite and that the idea of finishing no longer has any meaning in a mind that knows itself well enough. He had come to that point of inner civilization where consciousness no longer allows an opinion to go unaccompanied by its procession of modalities, and finds repose (if this is repose) only in awareness of its own wonders, its own practices, substitutions, and innumerable precisions".

And finally:

         ". . . In his head or behind his closed eyes, curious rotations occurred -- changes, so various, so free, and yet so limited -- lights, like the windows of a house seen at night when someone is walking through it with a lamp, like distant revelries, or a night fair; but which, if you could approach, might change into railway stations and dancing savages -- or frightful misfortunes -- or truths and revelations . . .
              . . . As it were the sanctuary and brothel of possibilities.

             The habit of meditation made this mind live in the midst, and by means, of rare states; in a perpetual supposition of purely ideal experiences; in the continual use of extreme conditions and critical phases of thought . . .

             As if extreme rarefactions, unknown vacuums, hypothetical temperatures, monstrous pressures and charges, had been his natural resources -- as if nothing could be thought in him unless he submitted it, in the act, to the most energetic treatment, searching over the whole domain of existence."

Despite himself, perhaps, Valéry has gotten carried away with a sort of revery that belies Teste's supposed distance from the world. In fact, the windows of the house, mediated through those misleading and imprecise senses, see out as well as in, and language, as modest and daring interpreter, communicates and creates a basis for shared experience. Valéry  writes, answering his question of why Teste is impossible: 
"he is no other than the very demon of possibility... in this strange head, where philosophy has little credit, where language is always on trial, there is scarcely a thought that is not accompanied by the feeling that it is tentative...the short intense life of this brain is spent in supervising the mechanism by which the relations of the known and the unknown are established and organized".

And yet this experiment, worthy and instructive as it is, too must come to an end or alter its controls; it uses itself up; it reaches outside itself for response, for impetus, for antithesis, else it ends in sterility and silence, to which  the very writing of the book attests, a book that dares  to softly speak its wish for a "Self-Same"or an "exact response" in the form of a reader, while simultaneously asking for what might be more fruitful still: a resistance, a strong gust of wind or an irrefutable physical reality.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Burton Pike Wins The Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator's Award

Burton Pike is this year's prize recipient of the prestigious Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator's Award (see <http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/lp/prj/wol/rec/2012/en9339133.htm>) for his translation of Gerhard Meier's novel, Isle of the Dead, which I have discussed below in a number of posts. It is, indeed, a beautiful book, and Burton Pike deserves this award for this book and, moreover, for his brilliant translation of  voluminous sections of the Musil Nachlass (and his invaluable introduction and editing) in the epoch-making 1995 2-volume Knopf edition of The Man without Qualities,  for his translation (with David Luft) of the collection of Musil's  essays under the title Precision and Soul, and for his recent translations of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther and Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In addition to his achievements in the world of translation, Burton Pike is also a formidable and brilliant scholar who introduced Musil to the English-speaking world with the publication of his Robert Musil: An Introduction to his Work, in 1961, and who, since then, has written countless essays on Musil, including most recently,  "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften: Unfinished or Without End?"  in A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Camden House, 2007). He also wrote The Image of the City in Modern Literature (Princeton, 1981) and has continued his work on the city in literature over the last decades.

What many people do not know is that Burton Pike, as professor emeritus of Comparative Literature and Germanic Literature and Languages at the City University Graduate School and University Center, was also an incomparably amazing teacher and mentor for countless students (including yours truly). He introduced us to a world of cultural complexity and depth with grace, clarity, and sophistication, with a sense of humor and humility, and a sense of humanity, that may be endangered species in today's world  of  posturing and competition. Burton Pike  always maintained the highest of standards as a professor, but with a kindness, generosity and an openness to new ideas and fresh perspectives and always with an eye for what really mattered; and he devoted himself tirelessly to engaging in meaningful dialogue with his students about ideas, cultural and philosophical contexts, and about the process and practice of writing, and continues to be a beloved and indispensable mentor to me, and surely to many others, in our continuing attempts to write, research and to  negotiate the world of scholarship and academia.

Congratulations, Burton Pike!  It is about time you received this award! May there be more and more praises and thanks for all you have given the world!  Here, I cast a virtual bouquet of roses at your feet (with ginko leaves interspersed, for ginko is supposed to be good for the brain)!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My new Preface to The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities: Possibility as Reality

 Failure to Reconcile as Modernist Success
Although Musil occasionally fantasized about what he might do after The Man Without Qualities was finished, there is, in effect, no end in sight ― not for the deeply engaged reader who enters into the questioning, the intellectual labyrinth, of Musil’s brain; not for the scholar who may try in vain to “finish” with Musil and go on to something else ― no end to the author’s textual variants, to the possibilities, the arrangements and re-arrangements; and no final solutions to the questions earnestly posed by this critically sophisticated writer. Musil was only halted in the endless task by his sudden death, in mid-sentence, as it were ― while re-visioning one of many versions of a chapter he had begun decades before.
This endlessness has often has been read as a failure to reconcile, or come to closure. Musil’s hopeful advocacy of the  heightened aesthetic and ethical experiences characterized by the exceptional state he called “the Other Condition" has been taken by many to be an escapist attempt to achieve a lasting harmonious union, the possibility of which the paradoxical author would later come to reject. This book argues against this general view of failure, and presents the thesis that Musil’s formal experimentation with narrative non-linearity and metaphor figure forth an existential model which assumes that aesthetic experience, as active,  participatory word- and world-construction was, for Musil, the fundamental metaphysical and ethical activity of mankind[1].  While many have argued that Musil’s utopian projections were bound to fail because they 1) could not last and 2) because they could not be made to correspond with “reality,” this book argues that the formal and theoretical bases for all of Musil’s work call the criteria of both duration and so-called “reality” radically into question.
Unlike most other studies of Musil’s project, which tend to concentrate on the published sections of the novel,[2] this study engages with the novel-project in its total unfinished state, taking into consideration for the first time in a full-length English-language book the thousands of pages of unpublished material he left behind, the Nachlass.  It follows Musil into his perspectival displacements and multiplications, and traces within these formal processes the consistencies of his aesthetic and ethical concerns. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition) of the ten thousand-plus pages of the entire Musil Nachlass has recently made it possible to access this labyrinthine web of correspondences, alternative universes, and their shadows. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe also affords the opportunity to access the individual fragments and passages in a non-linear manner that foregrounds the complex cross-referencing and correspondences of Musil’s process of writing, presenting a new vision of the work. This study takes full advantage of the new resource, closely examining the way in which each of Musil's sentences is haunted by a vibrant palimpsest of choices, perspectives, descriptions and re-descriptions. Such a close reading reveals that Musil’s novel project constituted much more than an attempt at creating a completed, finite work of fiction. The supposedly finished parts (published with Musil’s reluctant approval during his life time), the not-quite finished parts (submitted and prepared for publication, but then withdrawn by Musil for more revisions), as well as the thousands of pages of experiments, drafts and re-visions that never approached publication, represent more than an interesting artifact or evidence of a writer’s method, more even than an astonishing work of art that stands on its own from out of the fragments.[3] As the book “progresses” beyond the printed material, particularly as Ulrich retreats further and further into his mystical experiment with his sister, Agathe, Musil’s search for answers to the question of “the right life” becomes increasingly serious, and the narrator's irony and intense, skeptical analysis is increasingly replaced by an earnest and often rapturous lyricism.  While more tightly wound and plot- and character-driven in the early published parts of the novel, the extensive Nachlass, thousands of pages of sketches, notes, and alternate versions of thought-experiments and thematic questions, may be seen as the real entry into Musil’s thought in its uncompromised richness and possibility. Relieved of the pressure, or even the possibility of publication in the years after his last almost-published proofs were withdrawn from publication, and during his years in exile, Musil was free to experiment in earnest, and to expand his thought-experiment to infinity.
The Nachlass and the published material together project a way of living and being in the world ― a method of life in art.  A level of engagement, aliveness, and commitment to what Walter Pater called a “failure to form habits”; a hyper-, perhaps even partially pathological consciousness of the role and responsibility of what Nietzsche would call “the creative subject” as word- and world-maker.[4] Not that he was not a consummate artist, striving for perfection in the work itself, but that his painstaking process signals the totality of immersion and attention, the way in which the work, with its many drafts and possible alternatives threaten (or promise) to take over life itself. Art, and its sources in the world of ideas and imagination, was always much more real and more meaningful to him than anything else.   
In the spirit of counterintuitiveness, however, this primacy of art over reality does not constitute the casual disengagement from reality often (and often mistakenly) associated with a devotion to the aesthetic ― the exact contrary is the case. When Musil repeats Nietzsche’s revolutionary phrase, that “reality and the world are only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon,” we would do well to remember that for both of them aesthetics and ethics were one. In a world where reality was thought to be more or less created and perceived metaphorically by the mind, for Musil art was part of this process.  The mind's perception and contingent relative arrangements were — had to be — ultimately revolutionary processes of engagement.[5] Musil saw all art as a process of disturbance, whereby the current image of the real is broken down and newly arranged (via abstraction, via metaphoric coincidence). In contrast to mimesis, which presupposes a desire to reinforce or celebrate what is, Musil’s vision of art is as an active and inventive process.
By offering a new reading of the centrality of Musil’s concept and use of metaphor as the fundamental building block of multiple de-centered worlds consciously brought into being by the “creative subject,” I am reading Musil as an exemplary proponent of the Modernist aesthetic, which attempted to grapple through existential agency with the discord and confusion of a loss of communal values, without, however, reducing the terrors of the void to a simulacrum of wholeness or order. In contrast to some interpretations of Musil’s work, this study intends to present the possibility that the rejection of static truth implied in the novel’s form, its lack of an Archimedean fixed point, does not, as might be expected, lead to a dualistic universe, signal meaninglessness, despair, cultural collapse or the irremediable loss of self, values, or individual agency.
By focusing on the Nachlass material and on Musil’s metaphysical questions about reality and his ideas about the central role of the artist in constructing our shared reality, my reading of Musil understands him as a thinker who, in many ways, challenges current attitudes about the role of art and culture as seen from our Post-Modern perspective.  A broader view of Musil’s aesthetic practices and theories might refresh some of the outworn clichés of the contentious attempts to differentiate between Modernism and Post-Modernism;[6] Musil’s work is, in fact, a perfect touchstone for discussions about subjectivity, individualism, political and social engagement, aesthetic redemption,[7] and more specifically, the debate about the alleged violence done to reality by the formation of concepts and the use of language altogether. Regarding this latter problem, Musil was deeply engaged with the reality of language’s inadequacy and the tendency or even necessity of metaphors, concepts and abstractions to leave out whatever does not fit them; but he also maintained that this inaccurate metaphor-making brings “Schönheit und Erregung in die Welt” (MoE 573; beauty and excitement in the world: MwQ, 625). Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to  the Modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for the attempt of Modernist artists to articulate individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (i.e., metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language.[8] What philosophy and science could not describe or explain, might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the conceptualizing inaccuracy of totalizing reasoning or science. On the other hand, the selecting-out process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony.  Musil’s novel plays with the oscillating figure and ground of union and dissolution, moving in and out of focus and conviction. This oscillation a movement away from what already is toward what could and might be and then back again is often overlooked in the enthusiasm to embrace a radical abandonment of formal harmony, unified selfhood, and a faith in some form of a priori reality or shared truth. To emphasize only one side of the spectrum is, however, to misread and fatally simplify Musil’s more nuanced relationship with the currently maligned “conceptualization” of essence. Musil’s Other Condition, for example, is at once a singular exceptional experience of “otherness” and something characterized repeatedly as a return to some form of originary and universal phenomena; it is both an exception from the selfsame and a return to it.
 The novel’s exploration of a protagonist without qualities certainly makes it a perfect stomping ground for territorial debates about Modernist notions of subjectivity, alienation, or “worldlessness”.[9] The multiple discourses (of science, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, Gestalt theory, literature, historiography, anthropology, mysticism, sexuality, art) utilized by Musil make it possible to enter the novel further by multiple accesses, and to digress seemingly endlessly along these various rich fault lines without coming to either final rupture or reconciliation. Musil’s own resistance to taking a stand, as well as his formal and ideological practice of perspectivism, make a variety of readings possible; and the situation is further aggravated by the fact that the novel was left unfinished, with no clear indication of where, or whether it might have ended had its author lived.  While this remains, an unresolvable mystery, a wider view of the greater Gestalt[10] of the work and its creation can provide us with a more comprehensive view of the inherent tensions and oscillations between the novel's conflicting positions and stances.  For despite his famous resistance to fixed positions, Musil did stand firmly on a number of central questions, and he took seriously his role as author in helping to shape social and ethical values.
Musil’s novel, begun in sketches as early as 1910 and still not finished in 1942, at his death in Swiss exile, naturally reflects the concerns of his times and the formal and stylistic experimentations of his contemporary authors and artists.  Yet Musil often maintained[11] that he was more spiritually connected to his predecessors than to his contemporaries. His most important luminaries were Nietzsche, Emerson, and Dostoevsky, but he devoured almost every field of study, finding nourishment and stimulus just as much from works he derided as from those to which he granted his rare approval.  Musil confessed having read no more than ten pages of Proust’s work in his life, presumably afraid of being tainted by either influence by Proust or the rumor of association. The name “Sartre” appears only once in Musil’s notes, but without any further commentary; and though he mentions Joyce once or twice, rather disparagingly, he does not seem to have been aware of Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, I will attempt in this book to situate Musil’s work within the context of some of his contemporary experimental Modernists, in hopes of illuminating both his work and theirs. Proust, above all, is a significant touchstone for Musil’s work. The Man Without Qualities and Remembrance of Things Past share multiple concerns, particularly a theoretical and formal emphasis on the metaphoric, on the tension between universal and particular, and the problem of narrative, time, and deferral. Moreover, French readings of Proust[12] have been of great benefit to my reading of Musil, perhaps because they have tended to be friendlier toward aesthetic concerns than the generally more ethically- and philosophically-minded Germanist tradition. Despite then Ulrich’s tendency toward non-participation[13] and  Musil’s own characteristic resistance to identifying with any group, it would be absurd to insist on uniqueness to such a degree that from this distance we were not able to enumerate some striking similarities between these two novels. While recent books associate him more with the Post-Modern (Patrizia McBride’s Void of Ethics and more extremely Stefan Jonsson’s Subject without Nation) and the “non-Modern”(Michael Freed’s Robert Musil and the Non-Modern),[14] this book assumes that Musil’s project, his emphasis on the agency of the subject (however fragmented), his attempt to come to terms with some form of meaning in an increasingly fragmented world, and his own theory and practice of translating  ineffable realms via experimentations with language and form, place him firmly within the shared trajectory of high literary and artistic Modernism of the late 1890s through the first half of the twentieth century. This association with Modernism tends, in many readings, to be an association with the alleged failure of the Modernist project[15]. Musil has, according to a widespread assumption, failed to reconcile oppositions between aesthetics and ethics, reality and ideal, science and art, universal and particular, concept or metaphor and the specificity of truth; failed to find a lasting, enduring solution to the problems posed by and in the novel; failed to bring the novel itself to closure.
Allen Thiher, whose otherwise nuanced and subtle study of Musil elsewhere suggests an understanding of the value of openness, stands for many others when he writes,
It can be argued that Musil's failure to find a conclusion to his novel demonstrates the difficulty characterizing the modernist project of transforming or, indeed, saving culture through literary discourse. In making this observation, however, we should recall that he mocks the idea of salvation and saving culture as much as any other idea circulating in Vienna before the First World War […]. At some point during the writing of the novel saving culture became a cliché….From this perspective, if the novel's lack of completion illustrates a failure, it is the failure to create a discourse of salvation, a very modernist failure to create a viable myth"[16]
While it may be true that Musil mocks the idea of saving culture within the novel, it is important that we note Ulrich's proviso referring to the idea of the millennium: “I only make fun of it because I love it" (MwQ 817).[17] Further, we must temper any of Musil's satirical comments on the possibility of creating a literary discourse of salvation in the novel by referring to his essays and addresses, particularly his notes for addresses during the reign of totalitarianism, where we see him engaged in an earnest "defense of culture" with the weapons of art. This is not to imply that he meant that political battles could be fought by or with art. On the contrary, he maintained explicitly that the defense of culture meant that such battles could not be fought with pens and brushes; the best one could do was maintain the free, non-affiliated voice of the artist as the last bastion of critical and non-conscripted thought, and encourage those whose job it was to use other kinds of weapons to understand that a large part of their job entailed protecting the autonomy of culture.[18] Thiher's analysis suggests that the defense of culture was to be somehow better and more successfully waged with some other weapons than the tools the Modernists had at hand, and that the "failure" of Musil's novel is indicative of the generally agreed-upon consensus about the failure of Modernism to successfully negotiate the problems of engagement with politics, with collectivism and with social issues. While there are other assessments harsher than Thiher’s, his exemplifies that even in cases when a critic is not explicitly setting out to argue against Modernism or its aesthetic aims, there seems to be a somewhat unexamined assumption about the failure and misguidedness of the project, as if it were a given.
In a fascinating last chapter called: “Staging the Failure of an Aesthetic Utopia in The Man Without Qualities,” Patrizia McBride argues in The Void of Ethics that despite Musil’s earnest experimentation, he had consistently planned over the course of three decades to depict the failure of the Other Condition and other related solutions, that “he remained fundamentally faithful to the plan of staging the collapse of Ulrich’s utopias (130). In her notes, McBride persuasively demonstrates this, quoting Musil himself speaking of failure and negative outcome. McBride explains that the illuminations culled from the Other Condition “remain utterly unintelligible and inconsequential when raised to the level of everyday experience, for they are untranslatable into conventional and conceptual and linguistic structures (141).  She acknowledges that “Meaning exists and can be irrefutably experienced, yet it is not translatable into the categories of ordinary life and therefore remains inapplicable to it.” She then goes on to delineate the two options which present themselves in the face of this conundrum: one is to accept this split between “ordinary and the other condition as irreversible and to develop strategies for making sense of the experience while acknowledging the reality of nonconceptualizable meaning”; the other is to “seek to overcome this split by making the two realms commensurable” (142). The former is obviously supposed to be the mature method, one that a reasonable skeptical modern person would adopt. The latter is Ulrich’s project, which is here presented as somewhat adolescent, immature, and bound to be grown out of over the course of the experiment. It is suggested that Ulrich’s author had always — at least during his time of writing — been more mature than his character and, thus, planned from the start to demonstrate the delusionary nature of the experimental attempt of his “friend” and alter ego. [19]
Even Roger Willemsen’s defense of aesthetics in Das Existenzrecht der Dichtung: zur Rekonstruktion einer systematischen Literaturtheorie im Werk Robert Musils (Literature’s Right to Exist: Toward a Reconstruction of a systematic Literary Theory in Robert Musil’s Work), makes up part of the chorus of voices announcing an “aesthetic of failure and of fragmentariness”.[20]  While Willemsen’s study was published in the 1980s and McBride’s and Thiher’s in 2010, the same assumption prevails over decades, without any question about its basic premises.  Willemsen writes, “The transmutation of life into art and ‘nature morte’ fails, just as the existence of the novel itself points toward failure along biographical lines”. While Willemsen concedes that fragmentariness  was inherently the central modality of Musil’s stylistic principle even before the novel breaks off, this structure is itself an object lesson telling us that art cannot possibly realize “its utopia, the identification of aesthetic and social completion”; instead, he writes, such a project is bound by its very nature to fail. The novel, he concludes, “sketches typologies of failure, which are guaranteed ahead of time” by the necessary ending in war; there is, he glosses further, a shared meaning to be gleaned from the failure of the sibling lovers and the “negative parallel of the collective” in war.[21]  This analysis is similar to, if more subtle than Lowell Bangerter’s assertion in reference to the ending of Musil’s novel.  Bangerter writes:  “only two things can be determined with relative certainty: First, Ulrich’s experiments with both mysticism and love would fail to yield a final satisfying answer, just as attempts to adapt to practical reality had done. Second, his ‘vacation’ year would end with the protagonists and their world being swallowed up by the war”.[22]
Musil studies have consistently argued about Musil’s failure to reconcile the realms of art, utopia, or the ideal to something called “reality,” often without bothering to negotiate a common definition of essential terms or concepts with which to begin the debate. Thus, before we conclude that Musil’s novel presents models which are or are not escapist, utopian, or un-realistic, whether or not its experimental aims were bound to fail, we must come to some agreement about what, in fact, reality is, or at least was to Musil, and about the role of the individual in perceiving and constructing this reality, the possibilities of language to communicate perceptions and constructions, and, thus, the role of the work of art as a prime element in this construction. 
Insofar as people tend to see only what they already know or only what they expect to see, the “selecting out” inherent in the process of thinking means that any reading (of novel, philosophy, world) will be necessarily inadequate and potentially misleading.  Subjectivity, with its inherently individualistic and possibly irrational vision, is thus pitted against a rational categorization which itself leaves much to be desired in terms of adequately describing a world of infinite and particular details and relative perspectives. This question of subjective interpretation and its seeming opposite, objective rationality, is inherently related to the specter of a language crisis haunting most Modernist and Post-modernist discourse, including Musil’s own work.  One might ask how, indeed, we can begin to use language to talk about language, when we have arrived at a place where contemporary theory tells us that all systems of explanation, all conceptualizations and categories are misleading or inadequate at best.  The important difference between inadequate and misleading is, in a sense, one of the central issues when it comes to tendentious readings of Musil and the Modernist project of reinventing and invigorating a worn-out and suspect language system and of negotiating the constructs of reason, science, and morals.  Reason, when it is a reduction of the actual complexity of reality in its moving, changing, infinity of causes and effects, probabilities and roundness, to a simple line of determined logic, is hardly “reasonable”.  Rationality, which reduces multiplicity to abstract formulas and hopeful repetitions is doing very much the same thing as art does, except that art functions by making this process of inaccuracy and selection transparent, thereby making clear the process by which life itself avails itself of such insufficiently descriptive or conceptual frameworks.  The central question here is: what can language do and how close can it get to the so-called “real”?  To what extent is our reality shaped by our constructions and conceptions of language in the first place?  Can concepts, metaphors, categories be meaningful ways to articulate specific and personal experience on some universal level, or are we doomed to choose between a silent solipsism or a hopelessly misrepresentative simulacrum of generality and abstraction?
Different critics reach varying conclusions on these questions. Some, like Stefan Jonnson, argue that Musil rejected all categorization of the subject as an oppression of individual difference,[23] others, like Thomas Harrison and Thomas Sebastian, maintain a more nuanced view of Musil’s oscillation between Ernst Mach’s functionalist view of reality and a belief in some provisional and qualified substance and essence.[24]   While we see Musil oscillating in his notes, diaries, essays, and his novel between a scientist’s assessment of what is repeatable, what can be measured and proven to be reliably real, what we only see because we have been trained to see or believe it (social construction, the persistence of habit, lazy acceptance of the status quo), and what we more actively and creatively conceive of ourselves (fruitful metaphor-making, art, existentialism), the latter mode is where Musil's energy is based and where we find the key to the aesthetic redemption sought by Musil and many of his contemporaries.
The metaphoric transparency inherent in an awareness of the way we construct the world through provisional images enables a fruitful resistance to what Musil calls “dead words,” in contrast to the “living words” that activate ethics, a sense of temporary meaning, and aesthetic experience. For Musil, the Modernist crisis of language and values does not then translate into a canceling out of voices, statements, images, intentions, or author.  Instead, Musil’s Modernist vision, embodied in the form and process of living metaphor, is itself an imperative towards constant proliferation of more and more contingent and shifting realities, all of them potentially meaningful.  Thus Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable, and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relationship[25] between human action, thought, artistic creation and the real, physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks affects and co-creates a shifting reality.   While most theorists see the void of a common denominative system as a nihilistic crisis, Musil, following Nietzsche, embraces the challenge of creating the world anew through conception, imagination, and individual perception as a joyful, imperative challenge.[26] As such, art-making, far from being an insignificant or escapist indulgence, is raised to a central reality-relevant act of ethical engagement.
Aesthetic experimentation, far from being disinterested, is intrinsically related to political and social liberation, to social ethics, as is the experimental novel, perhaps precisely because, as Bakhtin noted, it is inherently anti-canonical. “The novel,” writes Michael Holquist in his introduction to The Dialogic Imagination, “is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system” (xxxi). Allen Thiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil,   puts the case even more directly, when he says that both Musil and Bakhtin “wrote to defend freedom against stultifying dogma and illiberal totalitarianism" (137).  Thiher writes that he knows of “no other thinker… who stressed with such lucidity that ethical thinking and art are interrelated.” Thiher connects this resistance to Musil’s “theory of the destruction of forms,” invoking the Kabbalistic mystical imperative to continually repair  the original vessels of creation which are said to have burst because they could not “contain the light emanating from God's being”. Thiher reminds us that although “the vessels must be continually broken so that the light may be propagated […] there must also be vessels so that it can be contained. The destruction of the forms of perceived thought and perception is a necessary process, which gives access to a new condition beyond received ideas and their rationality”. After the destruction, in other words, there must be new creation, new forms.[27]
In the following chapters I attempt to demonstrate and suggest some new readings of Musil and of Modernism.  In Chapter 1, I present a close reading of Musil’s seemingly contradictory uses of the figure of circularity as a sort of object lesson in his characteristic complexity whereby different concepts (such as qualitylessness, repetition, metaphor) are seen as both positive and negative. Circles are presented by Musil as self-cancelling, as founts of unending originary meaning,  as images of creative self-generativity, and as a metaphor for the expanding non-linearity of the novel-project.  In Chapter 2, I explore Musil’s thinking about what can and cannot be the selfsame (seinesgleichen), and the aesthetic and ethical potential of exceptions to repetition (criminal acts or taboo forms).  This chapter also explores the tension between dead and living words and the way in which metaphor can be both a creative praxis of metaphoric world-construction and a construction or habitual use of ossified concepts. In Chapter 3, I return to the question of essence through an exploration of abstraction, primitivism, and the Modernist interest in the possibility of art and formal arrangement to alter physical reality. This chapter expands on the themes of circling by exploring the concepts of duration, timelessness and extra-temporality, and the image of resurrection. In Chapter 4, I explore the image and concept of the still-life in Musil’s novel as a cipher for aesthetic “disinterestedness” and the problems and pleasures of eternalization of art. This chapter also features a close reading of the variations in the Nachlass of the many versions of “Atemzüge eines Sommertages” (Breaths of a Summer’s Day) as illustrative of Musil’s obsessive use of metaphor as deferral and resistance to end and death.  In the Conclusion, I address the question of Musil’s engagement with politics, and his commitment to the essential importance of the artists’ role as autonomous non-affiliated word- and world-maker. While arguing that conclusions about Musil’s intentions for the end of the novel must remain speculative due to his commitment to the novel as ongoing open experiment and to the “utopia of the next step,” I present, in the Conclusion, my own reflections on the possibility inherent in Musil’s novel-project of endings and of ending altogether.
As Musil wrote in a note found amid an unfinished, unpublished collection of aphorisms: the immortality of works of art is “their indigestibility.” This statement is followed directly by another, a challenge as much to Musil himself as to the critics and readers to come. Musil writes simply: “explicate that!”  In this spirit, hopefully rising to the challenge with a good mixture of holy earnestness and necessary irony, we may, in a cosmos where there is no real beginning, certainly no end, and no static center, jump in from where we are.

[1] See of course Nietzsche’s influential definition of art as “the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life” in Preface to The Birth of Tragedy.
[2] Stefan Jonnson for example, focuses unapologetically on the first part of novel (the parallel campaign and Ulrich’s lack of qualities) and concludes that “The novel thus reveals the ways in which dominant ideologies of patriarchy, nationalism, and racism reduce the human subject to its cultural origin or sexual disposition by imposing on it an allegedly natural, and hence inescapable essence, coded in terms of ethnicity, gender, and class”. Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity ( North Carolina: Duke U P) 2000, 2.  The most recent example of this concentration on the earlier parts of Musil’s novel is Norbert Christian Wolf’s 1000+ page study, Kakanien als Gesellschaftskonstruktion: Robert Musils Sozioanalyse des 20. Jahrhunderts ( Böhlau Verlag) 2012. While it certainly ranges far beyond the material in the first part of the novel and explores Nachlass material in a deep and enlightening way, its core is in the social and political intrigues of books one and two.
[3] See Walter Fanta, “The Genesis of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” in A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester: Camden House), 2010, 254. 
[4] See Musil’s “Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men” where Vinzenz describes himself not as a poet or a user of words, but as a “word-maker”. In Fiction 16.1 (1999).
[5] See  Albrecht Wellmer: The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism. Trans. David Migdley ( Cambridge, MA: MIT P), 1991, 53.
[6] See Wellmer, who suggests that an important difference between Post-Modernism and Modernism is in differing attitudes toward “reconciliation”. Wellmer, Persistence, 43.
[7] See Jacques Ranciére in his Aesthetics and its Discontents for a discussion of the contemporary critique of aesthetics and its causes (20-21) and of Schiller’s idea of “free play” as a more congenial expression for the Post-Modern than the “autonomy”(27). Trans. Steven Corcoran. Malden, MA: Polity, 2011. See also Stephen Kern, The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction, on the overturning of outmoded paradigms and “grand narratives “and Philip M. Weinstein’s Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction, 2005, which stresses uncertainty and unknowing as the hallmarks of Modernism.  And Barbara Neymeyr, esp. p. 83, whose criticism of Modernist aesthetics as escapist and dangerous is typical. Utopia und Experiment: Zur Literaturtheorie, Anthropologie und Kulturkritik in Musils Essays (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter), 2009.
[8] See Marjorie Perloff: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of "philosophy" as if it were "poetry" dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death). "A philosopher," he wrote in 1944, "is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense" (CV 44). And again, "My account will be hard to follow: because it says something new but still has egg-shel  ls from the old view sticking to it" (CV 44). Perhaps it is this curious mix of mysticism and common-sense, of radical thought to which the "egg-shells" of one's old views continue to "stick," that has made Wittgenstein, who had no interest at all in the "poetry" of his own time, paradoxically a kind of patron saint for poets and artists”. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (U of Chicago P), 1996, i.
[9] This was the word used by Lukács in his searing critique of Musil’s novel as an exemplum of decadence and disengagement. See Bernd Hüppauf,  who concludes that both mysticism and, to a great extent, aesthetics are “distanced from reality,”(44-47).  Von socialer Utopie zur Mystik: Robert Musils Der Man ohne Eigenschaften (W. Fink) 1971. For an opposing view, see Thomas Sebastian’s description of Musil’s use of metaphor, 46 and Ranciére on autonomy and the construction of the world through art, “as the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world” (129), Aesthetics and its Discontents. The phrase "unresolved contradictions" (Ranciére also uses the term “dissensus”) is reminiscent of both Musil and Adorno’s “extorted reconciliation”. "Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács' Realism in Our Time”. Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, NY: Columbia U P, 1991.
[10] On the influence of Gestalt psychology on Musil see Marie-Louise Roth, Robert Musil: Ethik und Ästhetik (Münich, List, 1972), 211.
[11] As scholarship has begun to look into this question more deeply, finding more contemporaries whom Musil appreciated, admired, and supported, the myth, created in great part by Musil himself, shows signs of being broken down.
[12] Particularly Gérard Genette’s  Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P) 1980 and Giles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2000.

[13] One of Ulrich’s original names in early incarnations of the novel was “Anders,” i.e, “Other”.
[14] Patrizia McBride, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P) 2006; Stefan Jonnson, Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, 200, Duke U P; Mark M. Freed, Robert Musil and the Non-Modern (Continuum, 2011).
[15] See the introduction to “Siegreiche Niederlagen”: Scheitern: die Signatur der Moderne, where the editors, Martin Lüdke and Delf Schmidt reveal the foundation of the currently widespread canard about Modernism’s lack by equating its supposed failure with the failure of the experiment of communism by quoting Franz Fühman, whom they note was one of the leading lights of the literature of the German Democratic Republic, who laments that he has failed “in literature and in the hope for a society of which we all once dreamed” (7). See also Wellmer (88-9).
[16]  Allen Thiher, Understanding Robert Musil (South Carolina: U of SC P) 2009, 230. See also See Patrizia McBride, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P) 2006, 130-142 and Lüdke, Martin and Delf Schmidt, eds.“Siegreiche Niederlagen”: Scheitern: die Signatur der Moderne (Hamburg: Rowohlt), 1992.
[17] See also Heinz-Peter Preusser's essay on Musil’s use of Ludwig Klages as an example of how isolated readings out of context and assumptions of simplistic ideological allegiances can lead to misreadings of Musil’s more complex use of irony and distance.  “Die Masken des Ludwig Klages: Figurenkonstellation als Kritik und Adaption befremdlicher Ideen in Robert Musils Roman Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”. Musil Forum 31 (Berlin: De Gruyter), 2009-2010, 224-253.
[18]  See Klaus Amann: Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik (Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt), 2009 and also Patrizia McBride’s ““On the Utility of Art for Politics: Musil’s Armed Truce of Ideas” where she makes a case for the viability of Musil’s political-aesthetic stance today without, however, conceding that the Other Condition and the Utopia of Essayism succeeded (372,(379). She further argues that Musil’s essayism was a prescient counter to the danger of totalizing systems of war in Musil’s and our own time (382). 
[19] See also Sir Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (U of Virginia P, 1967), 128. Also see Gene Moore’s comparison of Proust and Musil, Proust and Musil: The Novel as Research Instrument (Austin, Texas: U of Texas) 1978, (ii) and Karl Corino who diagnoses Musil’s inability to finish his novels as a neurosis, which he admits was about as creative a neurosis as possible. 62-71. “Der Dämon der Möglichkeit: Vom Scheitern Robert Musils” in “Siegrieche Niederlage”.
[20] Roger Willemsen, Das Existenzrecht der Dichtung: zur Rekonstruktion einer systematischen Literaturtheorie im Werk Robert Musils (München: Wilhelm Fink), 1984, 248. Translation mine.
[21] Willemsen, Das Existenzrecht, 248-9.
[22] Lowell Bangerter, in “Experimental Utopias: The Man without Qualities”. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. Ed. Harold Bloom (PA:  Chelsea House) 2005, 8.
[23] See Jonnson, Subject, especially, p. 9, 125,134. 
[24] See Thomas Sebastian, The Intersection of Science and Literature in Musil’s The Man without Qualities,
(Rochester, NY: Camden House) 2005. 35-36, and 41-42, and Thomas Harrison, “Robert Musil: The Suspension of the World”. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, ed. Harold Bloom (PA: Chelsea House) 2005, and, for an opposing conclusion, Neymeyr, Utopia, 69.
[25] See Jacques Bouveresse’s “Genauigkeit und Leidenschaft: Das Problem des Essays und des Essayismus im Werk
von Musil”. Trans. Rosemarie Zeller. Musil-Forum 29 (Berlin: De Gruyter) 2007, 49; and Giorgio Agamben The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert ( Stanford UP) 1999, especially pp. 1-5 wherein he connects Nietzsche’s idea of art as the highest metaphysical activity with that of art’s dangerous magical powers, 2-4.  See also  my essay “The Other Musil” in A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester: Camden House), 2010, 337.  Similarly, Marie Louise Roth,Ethik und Ästhetik (Munich: P. List) 1972, 34.
[26] See Gabriel Josipovici,. What Ever Happened to Modernism? (New Haven, CT: Yale U P), 2010, 112-113, and 141. Also see Josipivici’s definition of Modernism, which seems to describe Musil’s attempts as well, as “a tradition of those with no tradition. And it doesn’t seem to me that this is wholly tragic…neither illustration nor abstraction but the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising will emerge”. Josipivici, What Ever Happened, 185.
[27] See Harrison’s discussion of Geist, “Robert Musil:  the Suspension,” 44.