Monday, January 30, 2012

Political Correctness is not Ethics

Mark Mirsky (who is having trouble posting comments) wrote to me in an email responding to my last post: "This question merits further discussion. It immediately summons the question, what would Musil have thought of "political correctness" the latest form of collective dictatorship and mass thinking, and what would he have thought of gender studies that are based on political correctness and so often humorless and jargon ridden. Musil is particularly relevant because in his uncanny way, he was able to assume the identity of his female characters, and in a sense, his wife, without losing his own, as a form of male adventure."

Indeed, Musil's defense of the intellectual was a defense against political correctness and any form of rules for "right thinking". It is, however, ironic, that Mark uses the phrase "male adventure," since this morning I was discussing with a friend the Jeanette Winterson review of a new biography of Henry Miller (NYT  Sunday book review <>) and her ideas about the damaging effects of his model of male "sexual adventurer" as romantic model for decades of young and not so young men. Miller's content does not make his sentences any less brilliant, but it is not irrelevant to whether or not his novels are going to be to my taste as a woman. Maybe he didn't care, and, indeed, his foremost goal was in pleasing himself (as much as possible with as many nameless even faceless women as possible). So be it. It strikes me that Modernism involved a sort of ethical imperative which was different than our currently ossifying and silencing political correction policing. The Modern novel wanted the reader to examine himself and herself, unmoor assumptions, engage in the uncertainty of existential despair even. It did not, I might even argue, intend to encourage a generation of unaware and self-romanticizing n'ere do wells who utilize what Sartre would call "bad faith" to justify their self-interest and immediate gratification (not naming any names here, but...).

While Musil was not a proponent of political correctness and certainly enjoyed erotic fantasies of all kinds, many surely verging on what some would find offensive or repressive, he was a fierce proponent of ethics and of the inherent connection between ethics and aesthetics, which is certainly different than censorship by self or society. Ethics for Musil was based on an openness of mind, an absence of a formal external  morality or world court of justice; but that certainly does not mean that he thought that anything goes. I have been wondering myself these days about the inherent opposition between ethics and eros. The only answer I have so far is the bridge of the aesthetic.

In further exegesis of my last post, I was also wondering about the irony of using women as proponents of individualism vs. collectivism, since individualism is so often seen as a male-dominant privilege or, at worst, as a problem because of  the " anxiety of influence." Women, on the other hand, are supposed to like to work together (or perhaps only have to like working together because there is power in numbers or because we haven't got a room of our own or because the babies are crying). Yet, we can see that any external attempt to squash expression (be it of an individual or a group) is an affront to the fundamental value of creativity and personal voice and vision. It might even be besides the point whether or not the vision is collective or individual,  except that it seems that the individual is more often silenced for the supposed good of the whole (state, group, cause, utilitarian purpose, efficiency), and the lowest common denominator is all we have time or space for, to the disservice of all, as Musil would say. 

"The Womanly Art of Self Defense," Collectivism, and the Rape of Culture

David's Rape of the Sabine Women
Continuing my exploration of Musil's parallel between the woman and the artist as threatened beings, I rediscovered this passage from notes for Musil's controversial speech in Paris at the Writers Congress for Defense of Culture in 1935. I am indebted, again, to Klaus Amann's book Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik for the elucidation of the cultural context for Musil's  addresses.  It is interesting that this speech and the earlier "On Stupidity" address make use of the same comparison of woman and artist (see blogs below on Stupidity and the Woman Artist, etc.) and that both, nevertheless, have been used to attack Musil's political orthodoxy. "On Stupidity" was, as discussed below, criticized by Avital Ronell long after the fact as smelling of privilege and misogyny; the Paris address drew immediate jeers and accusations that Musil was a Fascist sympathizer because he was unwilling to go along with the enthusiasm for the new Soviet experiment and because he dared to ask whether the defense of culture might entail the protection of art and artists from the claims and demands of ideologies and political programs. Musil, as usual, was thinking in a non-dualistic fashion and answering a yes or no question with a third proposition, one which dismantled in its new vision the received ideas about what is possible. He wanted to ask fundamental questions about the role of a free-thinking and critically non-affiliated voice in society and politics; but few people were ready to hear him out. While the social discourse see-sawed between Fascist collectivism or Stalinist collectivism, Musil had the foresight to question what the two supposedly diametrically opposed sides had in common (his question was answered soon after by Stalin's purges),i.e, the inherent totalizing (terrorizing) problems of collectivism itself. It is interesting that Musil continually turns to the figurative and literal position of women when exploring the role of the artist, since this role is, all too often, left out of the dualist discussion of yes and no; the woman and the artist are the threatened third (or infinitely alternative) answer to the much too simplistically posed question. Musil writes:

               The  history of our time is developing in the direction of an intensified collectivism, I need not  
               say how highly differentiated the forms of this collectivism are, and how differently its value 
               for the future is apparently to be judged. Politicians are accustomed to regard a glorious
              culture  as the natural spoils of their politics, as in earlier times women fell to the victors. I
              on the other hand, think the glory very much depends, from the cultural side, on the noble art of
              female self-defense... (Precision and Soul 265)

As Amann notes, "Musil, by speaking of culture in the context of the necessary 'art of female self-defense,' gives rise necessarily to the contemporary relationship between politics and culture which he has been describing as one of violation and rape, and this, moreover, as referring equally to both Communism and National Socialism" ( 115). And, once again, I propose that it is no accident that the threatened writer or artist is imagined in the role of the woman (or woman artist) who has to hide her intelligence so that the brutes in power do not take offense and hit harder.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bravery, Stupidity, Resistance

Sophie Scholl, the German resistance fighter
Klaus Amann, in his book on Musil's experiences and thoughts on the tension between politics and literature, quotes from a moving letter from 1933 in which Musil ruminates over his mixed feelings about withdrawing his participation in a journal intended to publish writings of  writers who were either literally or figuratively exiled from the orthodoxy and Gleichschaltung of the German fascist regime. He initially agreed to participate in the journal (called Die Sammlung), hoping to be able to give a sign of his non-alignment. But when more established writers, such as Thomas Mann (whose own son was publishing the journal!), withdrew their support in the wake of an enforced government boycott on the works of those who participated, Musil, who was just about to publish part of his novel, decided, probably under pressure from his publisher, Rowohlt, to pull out. The publishers, Musil writes,

demand, that [ the given author] make their lives easier and do not bring upon themselves a condition whereby his books are thrown out of all stores and his future ones are banned [...]. One accepts a new Germany as a given and tries to conduct business as usual within it [...]
If I don’t however go into general matters, and restrict myself to what is most personal, what led to the final decision was that I did not have the courage to lay myself open to unforeseeable uncertainties for a cause that had no representative worth from the moment when it was abandoned by its most important people.  In fact, it would have been a comical turn of events if I had, of my own free will, gone into the desert at a time when some of its main inhabitants were already on their way back.  The literary opposition is [...] badly organized and thereby disheartened and demoralized from the start, it has no chance of exerting any influence, it offers no possibilities for making a living (aside from the editors, or, if one can write briskly, voluminously, and cheaply as a journalist), it is led by doubtful people, and the voice of reason urges that one should not let one’s self be killed for such a battle.  Just the same, bravery speaks with a different voice; it knows no such considerations, and the brave man fights back when he is attacked.  Very often he is then helped by luck. For days I have been feeling miserable in the midst of this conflict. (B 586-9)
Here, again, we see a vivid tension between the voice of reason and the imperative of bravery (or stupidity) touched upon in Musil's essay "Über die Dummheit". The paradox is, indeed, enough to make a person quite nauseous. Amann suggests in his book that this feeling of cowardice in the face of what Musil elsewhere calls the challenge and  duty to speak or to bear witness, was a major cause of his notorious writer's block and his suicidal thoughts. While it may be foolhardy to act or speak in the face of an impossibly more powerful authority, to not do so is tantamount to personal, spiritual death. I include here a section from my recent paper on Stupidity: 
What is seen as stupid, Musil explains, depends on the context. As the fool-hardy but righteous Antigone said to her more reasonable sister Ismene, “One world sanctions my wisdom, another thine”. What is stupid may be heroic, but, as Musil notes, society generally favors seemliness and successful enterprises over rashness and excess. Antigone, after all, is killed at the end, and she gave up her life for a mere ideal, a spiritual matter. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter who with her brother distributed fliers condemning the National Socialist regime at their university, was “stupid” enough to cast the fliers down into the entrance way of the university after she and her brother had succeeded in avoiding detection.  But was it not deemed stupid enough by most people for her to have dared to distribute the fliers, to have dared to resist in the first place? The unnecessary gesture, in any case, her arm casting the fliers like living birds onto the heads of her terrified and silenced co-patriots, this beautiful, irrational, unexplainable gesture of freedom, cost them their heads. But she had already lost hers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Anne Carson's " Life of Spinoza"

Yi-Ping Ong kindly sent me this from "The Free Library," the rumored Anne Carson Poem. Surprising and stunning.

Life of Spinoza.

Day 1

How we have waited! we frontline fighters get more than our share of food and clothing.

Time to repay.

Water looks cloudy.

Rumours sweep our vessel.

Will we steam boldly south out of the Channel?

Day 2


Gentle breeze gladdens our 73,000 silverblack tons.


They are counting on me! We line up on deck.

To think this giant ship will never return.

Fingers gripping compass go white.

Day 3

Waiting under blackout 3,000 men's breathing grows still.

Drift with night currents.

Single B-29 passes overhead.

Blind shot one middlesized bomb no damage.

Patience patience.

Night rations are delicious.

Day 4

Sobbing from hammock of Communications Officer Yakatani who just came off duty translating American codes.

How are you? We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties.

Letter from mother tore him open.

Let's both pray for peace.

She lives in California her other 2 sons serve in US. Army.

Day 5

In my quarters I set up record of radar training.

Then sit with closed eyes.

Spring warmth not far off.

Climb into hammock.

Before sailing I searched ship's library.

Life of Spinoza.

No prospect of finishing it before attack.

Style is like honey.

After joining navy every night same nightmare.

 Prowling bookstores I scan with bloodshot eyes

spines of books I will never read.

Day 6

Afternoon report that American task force is withdrawing.

Has our hour finally come?

In our breasts flame burns.

A break between drills someone calls out Cherry blossoms'.

Third station has binoculars turned toward coastline.

Must be early flowering variety.

Pushing to be next in line we grasp binoculars.

Day 7


As we raise glasses of ceremonial farewell

Ensign Omai loses grip glass falls to deck shattering.

Most unlucky.

Our scornful glances pour in on him.

Day 7

Mid morning 3 B-29s pass directly overhead.

Must have verified that refueling is over.


Difficult to write letter to be read after one's death.

Please dispose of all my things stay well and survive.

I hurry to mailbox.

Thus are severed all bonds.

Meanwhile Ensign Omai presses pen into man's hand.

Don't you have a mother even a single word will do.

In wardroom we gather to receive ceremonial gifts of Emperor cigarettes chocolate tiny bottles of whiskey.

Stuff them into pockets of uniform.

1600 hours.


Arrow is loosed!

Day 8

Last ornament of Japan's Imperial Navy.

Chrysanthemum on Emperor's lapel.

Tomorrow is day of battle.

Fluorescent dots attached to caps of all night officers on bridge move as points in dream bringing smiles to our lips.

Day 8

1220 hours air search radar picks up 3 blips.


Each ship increases to 25 knots as one they turn 100 degrees exact.

Our ship quiet already becomes quieter.

Radar tracks blips.

I spot them with naked eye more than a hundred planes flow out of gap in clouds.


Legs want to dance I grit teeth but break into grin.

Amidst noise I distinguish sound of skull striking bulkhead.

Amidst gunpowder smell of blood.


Day 8

Torpedo tracks white on water as a needle drawn.

A dozen press toward us silently.

We shift course to run parallel.

Over voice tube captains voice terrible.

We dodge.


Open engines dodge again.


Day 8


Sliding down upright ladder I run towards compartment.

Split clean in two as a bamboo tube.

Instruments scattered in all directions.

Amid debris I notice red barrel of flesh smashed onto control panel.

Size of torso no arms legs head.

To charred flesh are stuck bits of khaki cloth hot to touch.

Four other chunks nearby.

Smell of fat in air.

Beings only a moment ago.

For a moment I am lost in marvelling.

Day 8

When torpedo strikes water pours into flood control sectors.

As pressure builds up bulkheads burst flooding spreads.

American planes swooping like swallows.

Bombs rain down on turrets.

Torpedo hits one two on port side.

Ship is listing my whole body feels uneasy.

If list progesses to five degress it will impede artillery.

Moreover sense of equilibrium is critical to morale.


Order given to let in 3,000 tons of water.


Staff officers on bridge stand speechless.

Heaven is not on our side?

Damage control officer decides no alternative.

Flood engine and boiler rooms--posts of our "black gang."

Confined in a hell of noise and sweat conversing by hand signals only they made our ship go.

In an instant 3,000 tons of water blast them to drops.

Needle on clinometer falls back as if broken.

Day 8

Flushed faces of American pilots straight at bridge guns blazing.

Eyes wide open or twisted shut mouths in ecstasy.

Coming in again and again precisely calmly ideally.

We are utterly naked.

Admiral sits motionless.

I break loose and go to upper radar compartment.

Here sailors are piled together shuddering.

Shrapnel bursts through bulkhead no one moves.

Let's go! I cry.

A few look up.

Such behaviour occurs among men with no specific tasks during battle.

Day 8

Giant body once brimming with power floats like waterlogged woodchip.

Shard of human flesh snagged on arm of rangefinder.

Man-sized where did it fly from?

How much time has elapsed since battle began an instant?

Bubble of delight rises in my breast.

Aftertaste of hard work.

Not even slightly tired.

Chocolate stuffed into pockets already half gone.

Delicious I cannot say how delicious.

Day 8

Stern is aflame.

Step by step we guess what enemy will do.

We think He'll hit rudder and he hits it.


Chief of Staff says Beautifully done--after all actual combat is best training!

Laughter on bridge first time since battle began.


List 35 degrees.

Day 8

Geysers rise port and starboard amidships.

Captain did you see that?

Needle of clinometer leaps.

I brace elbow on deck feeling joy.

Ideal angle for propping oneself.

Gulping deep breaths I eat chocolate.

What is tasting this sweet taste?

Death whispers in me You you on the bridge I pity you.

Around me people exchange empty glances.

Around me quiet.

Needle of clinometer is slipping its way toward tranquility.

Day 8


Admiral stands.

Gazes out over water a moment.

Cease operation.

Chief of Staff crawls forward props himself on compass and salutes.

Admiral returns salute.

Smiles I think.

Departs down ladder to private quarters.

Nor do we hear report of his pistol.

List 80 degrees.

Day 8

Crawling out porthole I look back.

Poor bridge.

Bodies lashed together Navigation Officer and Assistant Navigation Officer shrug away hands urging them to escape.

Eyes wide open they watch water rise.

Meanwhile on top of bridge Captain binds himself to binnacle.

Shouts Bonzai! three times.

Turns to four sailors standing by him.

Slaps each on shoulder and pushes them into water.

As he goes over last sailor presses four biscuits into Captain's hand.

Captain grins. Captain is finishing second biscuit when engulfed.

Day 8

Ship this size sinks all you see is pure white boiling locking in every direction.

Water shoots and breaks a million panes.

Bodies just dots. Dots fly.

Swoop under. Pop back up.

Hang upside down like funhouse gelatin.

Glassblue stripes. White eddies.

As I draw breath to delight in beauty

whirlpool grabs my foot.

Tossed up thrown down beaten torn flung twisted upended I think

O world flitting by how alluring!

Day 8

List virtually 90 degrees.

Ship underwater.

Full magazine of shells for main batteries

topples and slides

knocking fuses on bulkhead--!--

belly up emitting a work of flame visible to Kagoshima.

Armour turrets guns all equipments go flying off.

From deep in whirlpool I glimpse

circling planes caught in fire

just as my body is thrust back and spun--second explosion

hurls it up

straight into redhot roaring rain.

Next world!


Evans, David C., ed. and trans. The Japanese Navy in World War II: In the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers, 2d ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 78:2. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1952.

Yoshida, Mitsura. Requiem for Battleship Yamato. Translated by Richard H. Minear. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.
COPYRIGHT 2009 University of Chicago

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reality, Imagination, Love, and Language: Spinoza and Anne Carson

A page from a Dutch manual on Lens-making
Now, the question of what is real or merely perceived, especially insofar as it pertains to the nature of the emotions (even more especially, perhaps, insofar as the emotion is love), and the role played by language in the description or construction of this ambivalent reality,may be asked with any number of guiding minds, in dialog with any number of voices. I have already brought the classical scholar and poet, Anne Carson, into my discussion of metaphor in Musil, exploring his practice of almost infinite deferral via the endless possibilities of analogical descriptions and the way in which this infinite discourse is a sort of suspension before consummation. And I will excerpt this here, below. But now I am going to attempt an even riskier legerdemain and also bring Spinoza into the discussion. This is risky because I am certain that I barely even understand him, but understand him enough to understand that he warned against trying to comprehend things as wholes which can only be understood partially or inadequately. Still, this warning in itself is reminiscent of Musil, and my description of metaphoric transparency, i.e., an awareness of the necessarily imprecise nature of creating concepts out of language. Spinoza, a lens grinder by profession,  seems to define error as the belief that one has, through mere sense perception, understood something completely which can, by its nature (or rather by the nature of the human intellect and emotions) only be comprehended partially, and thus incorrectly.  As a craftsman of vision he was well-suited to look skeptically on the perspectival nature of human understanding. He notes that the human mind, which cannot contain all the myriad details of reality, is wont to categorize and see all dog-like creatures under the name dog ( Musil comments on this problem as well, that we call a beagle and a greyhound by the same name, when reason knows they are different), or even more damagingly, that we catalog abstract ideas under universal concepts like being, something, nothing, thereby reducing them to reifications. The mind, Spinoza remarks, likes to divide (but obviously also likes to combine, albeit irresponsibly!),  we see quantity abstractly and it appears finite and divisible, composed of parts,"but if we look at it as it is in the intellect and conceive it insofar as it is a [one] substance, then it will be found to be infinite, without like, indivisible" (Ethics, 14). Somehow, this fundamental function of the intellect, to divide, discriminate, name, delineate (here we see how dividing leads to irresponsible combining, since our ability to recombine what we have cut up is insufficiently broad) is an error, according to Spinoza, since in reality, everything is one.  Musil, of course, as self-proclaimed Monsieur le vivisecteur, was naturally dividing and separating everything into parts, but as metaphorist he was always bringing everything back together. Even though for him, such verbal union was an error, albeit one that brings beauty and meaning into the world. But perhaps this isn't really a contradiction if we back up and widen the view to a cosmic dimension. Because language for both thinkers was a necessary but imprecise means to ordering the world, always with the proviso that one be aware of this as a pragmatic but inaccurate and inadequate process. And Musil would agree with Spinoza that no two substances are like; for the fact that all things are one to Spinoza, as far as I understand it, does not mean that all things are same. Thus wisdom would be an awareness of a certain incapacity to understand certain things and to reserve judgment on them, or, as Carson writes, of love, the practice of "keeping the difference [between real and actual] visible" (Eros, 69). This need to keep the difference visible, the awareness of edge, of the space between one thing and the other, between a word and its meanings, between the lover and beloved, between an ideal and reality is the crux of Carson's book on the Greek idea of eros, and she even goes so far as to argue that the Greek alphabet itself, as an innovative language that was aware of its consonants (as edges, stops and starts) coincided significantly with the poetic idea of eros present in the first written poetry as an entity requiring an edge. This seems to suggest that intellect is a force of division which rendered love as longing, space, separateness and that answered the question what does the lover want from love with the answer, "to know both [actual and imagined], keeping the difference visible," and to become somehow a new and better person through this reaching across an impossibly unbridgeable space between self and other, desire and attainment, time and timelessness.  In Spinoza (and in Musil) one cannot know individual things adequately because of time and space, because each thing is infinitely moved and altered by other things; there is a sort of prefiguring of relativity here and, perhaps, of Musil's concept of the utopia of the next step whereby any individual action or thing can not be assessed without taking into consideration what comes into being as a result of it, ad infinitum. In any case, human perception necessarily confuses and mistakes what is through the obstruction of its own narrow vision (bound by time, space, nature, subjectivity, confusion). Spinoza gives the example of the word "man" which, he notes, could be defined as, alternately, homo erectus, laughing animal, biped without feathers, reasoning animal, depending upon what affects the definer most about man (68, Ethics). The lover, too, according to Carson, is hopelessly misled about the love object, projecting his or her own desire to become a new person, or even a god, onto whomever happens to be in the right place at the right time. But, she remarks, throwing cold water on the burning lover, one cannot become a god and one cannot become one with another. Not entirely, in any case; but this doesn't mean one should not try. (Well, Spinoza might counterargue that every thing or body is by necessity what and who it is, and should not try to be something or somebody else, yet this would not, I imagine, preclude being one's best or highest necessary self.) Carson notes that the analysand in Freudian theory could learn a good lesson about love by the way he or she transfers desire and longing onto the analyst as a natural process of transference (or one might look at Shakespeare's tale of the fairy queen who falls in love with an ass). This is reminiscent of Spinoza's skepticism about the relationship between the intellect and the emotions when it comes to desire, for the mind, according to him, is not the activator of desires. The body, without intercession of the mind, wants, hungers, desires; the mind may,at best, restrain and temper these urges. All of this may seem very sober and may seem to lead to a cynical idea about love or human emotions, but neither Carson nor Spinoza are sober. Spinoza, according to Novalis, was a God-drunken man; and Carson is a poet of love and longing, despite this exegesis or vivesection of eros. She does not cut it up in order to dispose of it, but rather to revel in its infinite nature. There is a sense of infinite holographic movement, an endless dance of lovers and poets chasing after ideas, descriptions, ideals, words, edges and mergers and trembling on the edge of the highest branch, risking all for an impossibly beautiful space between two words.  Likewise, Musil's awareness of the space between reality and ideality, everyday life and utopia, language and things, a sister and his brother is not a space of nihilism, not a void, but rather a suggestion of infinite proliferation and infinite reaching. Carson's description of love becomes a description of language, and of poetry, and a celebration of the endless and unfulfillable human desire to know. Her description of Sappho's wonderful poem fragment about the apple that is so sweet and just out of reach delights in the way the language of the poem mimics the "reaching action of desire" which is "attempted again and again in different ways in different lines...(28).  "The reach of desire, " she concludes, "is defined in action: beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time)" (29). And Spinoza is an ecstatic of infinity. The fact of the mind's inability to understand individual things and its tendency to fall into error through the necessarily false action of imagination is not a contradiction of wonder: The necessity, according to Spinoza, of the "eternal nature of God" as non-contingent and without concern for human gain or purpose is a cause for delight, and "must be conceived without relation of time, but under a constant species of eternity" (Ethics, 72).  Now here is a small excerpt from my book's discussion of Carson's book Eros the Bittersweet and Musil's erotics of experimental metaphor:

What Carson calls the “fundamental erotic dilemma i.e., to “sustain the present indicative of pleasure” without killing it or deforming it," is very much the same problem posed by Ulrich and Agathe when they ask, “But however does one hold a feeling fast?.” And for both it is a question of the nature of metaphor and its resistance to the direct statement of the indicative and its presumption of duration. Damage is done by lovers in the name of desiring, just as damage is done by writing and reading in the name of communication, or by a too-literal metaphor-making. Writing and the attempt of the lover to stop the love and the beloved from changing, like any metaphor-making that is not conscious of its provisional, transitory nature, “violate reality by the same kind of misapprehension".

Carson writes, “We love such suspended time for the sake of its difference from ordinary time and real life,” or real thinking. “In any act of thinking,” she continues,
the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to another but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space...this ‘erotic ruse’ in novels and poems now appears to constitute the very structure of human thinking. When the mind reaches out to know, the space of desire opens and a necessary fiction transpires.
(Carson 171)

All knowing, as Nicholas of Cusa would concur, is metaphor-making; all knowing happens in the space between one thing and another, a space that is incommensurable, ultimately unbridgeable; it must remain open: “We think by projecting sameness upon difference, by drawing things together in a relation or idea while at the same time maintaining the distinctions between them" (171).
Socrates was, according to Carson, a “lover of these divisions and collections”. Musil, likewise, was simultaneously Monsieur le Vivisecteur and combiner, collector, metaphorist par excellence. Socrates’ wisdom was, as Carson points out, to be found precisely in the space between what he knew and did not know, i.e., the unbridgeable space of metaphor which is created, not only in art, but every time we think or see; but only if we succeed in maintaining the distinctions.

P.S. None of which, in retrospect, answers the question of the reality of love. But if, indeed, love is not real, or if it is destroyed in the moment of its consummation, we can counter that it is actually impossible to ever really know or fully possess the other and we have, to console ourselves, the beautiful human folly of reaching after a sweet unreachable apple, the ripe apple of knowledge, for ever and ever, or, rather, outside of time and space. The whole paradox may be a quickening toward a kind of living love, parallel to the living logos discussed below, one that does not try to keep the other from growing or changing (even if that growth means the lover may leave one), a kind of living love that, like the lines in Sappho's poem, or the versions of Musil's novel drafts, or the infinity of Spinoza's description of the world, constantly re-creates itself, re-describing boundaries and edges, merging and melting, marking edges and outgrowing the circumferences (as Emerson suggests in his "Circles") and inscribing newer and vaster ones, ad infinitum.
P.P.S. Carson seems to have written a poem or play called "The Life of Spinoza". If anyone knows where it is to be found, it might or might not help us to connect, irresponsible as connections of this sort may be.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"What Was the Modernist Novel": Aesthetic Redemption and Unknowing: Stephen Kern, Jesse E. Matz, & Philip M. Weinstein

Egon Schiele, a Modernist human, existing beautifully in unknowing
 Reappraisal. Some fresh, some slightly less so.  Stephen Kern, the first speaker on this panel has just written a book called The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction which argues that the Modernist novel was a subversion and reworking of the master narrative largely through the medium of formal innovations. His table of contents features Musil numerous times and he even got a brief mention in the talk, as an example of the modernist shift from concrete character to an existential insubstantiality which, in the case of our man without qualities mirrors the insubstantiality of the Austro-Hungarian empire surrounding him. Kern noted that while Post-Modernism, as defined by Lyotard, is characterized by an incredulity toward the meta-narrative, Modernism was a subversion and reworking of the master narratives of imperial, nationalistic, and militaristic master narratives, replacing them with a celebration of Art and creativity.

Jesse E. Matz,, who also generally seems to believe that Modernism was characterized by this belief in Art, is  rethinking a book he wrote a while back to introduce Modernism to students and is now asking himself whether or not the aesthetic optimism he vaunted in that book might not be being exported, despite post-modern skepticism about such aesthetic redemption,  into our current ideas about new Modernisms. I am not entirely sure what his point here is, other than a slight ambivalence about his former championing of the Modernist idea that Art could provide meaning, and a sort of exposure of the way others who have been associated with critiquing this aesthetic redemption are in fact celebrating it in their valuations of less canonical works. Can it be that the idea of aesthetic redemption, that "art yields more truth than other forms of inquiry," is taboo today and he feels uncomfortable affirming it? Still, I was glad to hear him speak of the problem. He began with Lionel Trilling warning that the teaching of Modernism would be a classic process of subversion and containment (co-option), but later in the talk he said that nowadays subversion does happen in the classroom. This made me think of how, sometimes, when a student announces she is leaving school as a result of having taken my class, or, as happened this semester in my class on "work," one student declared that while at the start of class she didn't mind going to her meaningless demeaning job, now she does, I have succeeded in a way. Perhaps his strongest point was to suggest that the form of textual intervention (formal innovations of Modernism) has become more important to us today than the hostility toward civilization inherent in the content of the Modernist novel, because the content is no longer shocking to us.

Philip M. Weinstein, the most interesting speaker on the panel, has written a book about Unknowing in the Modernist novel (Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, 2005), arguing that the central motivation of Modernism was its shift from the Enlightenment conception that the human subject could capably and successfully negotiate time, space, and others. This enlightenment optimism,figured in the realist novel protagonist, is, he explained, the story of a  self guided by Descarte to believe he may know himself, by Newton, who provides a secular, humanist map that the questing subject requires, by Locke, who provides the story of empirical trial by error whereby the individual sovereign subject comes to know self and world and attains mastery. These guardian angels of the Realist protagonist are tempered in their tendency toward selfish acquisitiveness by the contributions of Kant, who teaches the categorical imperative, which makes others ends rather than means, and encourages self-discipline. The Modernist novel, by contrast, consists in a radical unknowing and unsettling of the human subject/protagonist. The subject becomes smaller and shares a canvas with others whom he cannot control. Kierkegaard is the guiding spirit here, commenting upon the fate of Abraham who, like all humans, does not know ahead of time that his son will be spared, and thus, dwells in fear and trembling. Not knowing what will happen, lacking a belief in a friendly universe, the Modernist novel provides a "dislocation of outcome" in its telling.  Weinstein discussed the difference between reading and re-reading, commenting on the experience of unknowing in the first reading as a fruitful form of existing in unknowing. In the question period I tried to suggest Musil as an extreme example of this unknowing, since he himself didn't even know how the book would "end". Someone asked how the aesthetic optimism presented in Matz's talk could be related to the critique of knowing presented in Weinstein's talk, but no one really had an answer. Stephen Kern's talk could also be addressed by this question, insofar as the Modernist novel is seen as a realm where social security is dissolved through formal dissolution while creativity and Art are celebrated as somehow redemptive. Later, while sitting at the hotel bar wishing someone would talk to me, I came up with some possible answers. I even saw the guy who posed the question, but he wouldn't make eye contact, so I wrote it down in my journal. Here is my idea: the so-called aesthetic optimism of Modernism was not about painting the picture of a happy world of mastery and knowing, not about returning to an enlightenment vision of an ordered and rational world that could be easily negotiated by the heroic subject. The aesthetic redemption of Modernism does not make it "all good," but, rather, provides us with aesthetic experiences and formal interventions to help us grapple with the fear and trembling of being human. These interventions aim at awakening the reader to an awareness of the awesome abyss and activating us to live in uncertainty and unknowing (fear and trembling) without trying to absurdly build artificial constructs of order and a friendly universe. Nietzsche's amor fati (love of fate, in all its cruelty, absurdity, and horror) is an important moment. Of course Spinoza (whom I have been reading with pleasure and astonishment) suggested centuries ago that the universe didn't care a fig about us, and Shakespeare certainly disorders mono-logics while yet maintaining the comforting Renaissance vision of a beautifully ordered cosmos (chain of being).  Generally, it is true, Modernism reflects a great rift from security to unknowing and somehow its ideology of aesthetic redemption is related to this unknowing. I am grateful to this panel for providing a juxtaposition of these two themes. But it should not surprise us that unknowing powered by a breakdown of enlightenment values should be related to a championing of Art; for Art is the language which revels in unknowing. Art is a realm where one can comfortably not know and where grasping after certainties (Shakespeare's resistance to this grasping...Keats' negative capability again) is a very foolish (in the bad sense) means to understanding.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ethics, Narrative, and Poetry (Mainly on Yi-Ping Ong's paper,"Running against the Boundaries of Language: Lectures on Ethics by Kafka and Wittgenstein")

Musil was not at the panel on Narrative in/and Wittgenstein. If he had been he probably would have been annoyed at a paper about whether narrative was a something or a nothing, which basically just went over the rather simplistic definitions of narrative in order to demonstrate that there really is no science of narratology, or, maybe, that definitions of narrative are hopelessly limited. But he might have been interested in Wittgenstein's idea that no word or sentence can be understood apart from its temporal or contextual association or "stage setting"; in other words, everything is narrative to some extent, and this narrative is constantly shifting depending upon relations, contexts, associations. It was difficult to sit through the descriptions of what a narrative is or is not thought to be, especially if one has Musil's novel in mind, a novel that includes a chapter wherein we watch a man thinking, or chapters of essayistic exploration wherein nothing happens. But perhaps it is revealing to look at the common definitions of narrative in order to see just how radical Musil's novelistic experiment is. Some theorists, apparently, claim that a narrative, to be a narrative, must have an event; for others, an event is not enough, for them, there needs to be a conflict or complication to make a narrative. I think here of the semi-ironic motto that recurs in the Man without Qualities: Es muss etwas geschehen (something must happen) and of Musil's confession of the difficulty he faced bringing his character to action and the way in which this difficulty was the same as his difficulty with narrating. This difficulty is, of course, as much philosophical and ethical as it is aesthetic. But more to that some other time. A narrative, according to many narratologists (this word reminds me of a person one goes to see to have tonsils out), may be constituted by an event caused by an agent, something responded to by a feeling or reaction from a person (thus if a tree falls for no reason in the woods and no one hears it, it is not a narrative), or by the creation of an "emotional cadence," an "arousal and resolution of affect," and a movement toward catharsis which is a sort of completing emotional cadence.  The question was raised by an audience member who excused himself by saying he was on Eastern time as to whether or not we might ask not: is x a narrative or not, but rather is x a good/bad narrative. He wanted to argue that the example given by the speaker of a person ironing for 500 pages would be an example of a bad narrative, but the speaker insisted that such a narrative could, in fact, be a good narrative, despite the lack of conflict, resolution, emotional cadence, et cetera. Which left us with precisely...nothing.
One talk on the panel, on Wittgenstein, Kafka, and Ethics, by Yi-Ping Ong, delivered with humor, charm, and clarity, was very interesting to me, especially in terms of what it suggested about the relationship between language, aesthetics and ethics. The speaker compared Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics" with Kafka's short story, "Report to an Academy" (where an Ape who has learned to speak addresses a crowd of curious humans on his evolution to "civilization")/ Ong stressed Wittgenstein's resistance to speak about the nature of ethics  as a science, and suggested that poetic language, in its ambiguities and narrative elusiveness is more fitting to approach an understanding of what it means to be (become) human.  Ethics, which Wittgenstein asserted could be no science, was chosen as the topic of his one hour lecture in lieu of a lecture on logic, which, he told his listeners, could not be explained to them in such a short time. The idea that ethics could, in contrast, be dealt with in the space of an hour, is thought to be meant ironically by Wittgenstein, if not as a hostile joke directed at his audience (whom, he assumes, would prefer to hear a popular synopsis of a complex scientific concept which would, he insultingly tells them, allow them to think they understand something which a one-hour synopsis could in no way impart).  And this misconception of the audience is an ethical problem, in fact, one which the very form and chosen subject of the talk addresses. Thinking one understands something with ease, without time, rumination, complexity is, we will remember, one of Musil's prime definitions of true stupidity.  The awareness of the difficulty of trying to speak about something like ethics amounts to, according to Wittgenstein, a "running against the bars of our own cages" (the cages of our dependence on language, I suppose), but to try to do so is "a document of a tendency of the human mind". Ong connected Wittgenstein's comment with Primo Levi's comment on his book on Auschwitz, which Levi called a "documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind," arguing that a document, in both these senses was a way to induce ethical participation rather than to make evident or provide fact. A document  as lesson, instruction, in the form of a story or narrative. In a letter to a friend following his "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein wrote about why he spoke in the first person at its end, saying that "here nothing can be established. I can only appear here as a single person".

Ong then moved to Kafka's story where we see an Ape addressing his public in a similar tone to Wittgenstein, telling them that what they want to hear he cannot deliver to them (that which must be spoken is unspeakable); warning them that their expectations will probably be disappointed by his speech. The audience expects to be entertained by a freak show, but instead, the Ape deftly reverses the game by indirectly describing the violence, imprisonment and despair that are necessary stages of becoming a human being. He describes their (our) own lives and the beastliness inherent therein. His ability to speak, he tells them, only began when in captivity; consciousness, in other words, begins only in the cage. Language is a form of running up against the bars of our cages. Our cages, not the cages or their  cages, but our cages, which suggests a basic complicity in cagedness, the complicity of the cage of language. Since there is no audience present in the story, since whatever audience there is, is, in effect, off-stage, the reader is asked to reflect, respond, to see himself in the mirror of the caged ape. This is an aesthetic experience which, ideally, induces ethical participation.

It is clear that this sort of recognition could not have occurred as powerfully if it had not been created through a form of narrative or some other non-scientific, non-logical discourse. One of the questioners stressed that Wittgenstein had repeatedly maintained that ethics in particular could not be spoken of, and she asked Ong what it was that the Ape in Kafka's story was not able to say. Ong answered that the Ape can/cannot speak in the first person, and that, indeed, ethics can only be in so far as it is avowed or acknowledged, hence a nod to the participation inherent in the idea of documentation discussed above.  Does this mean that the audience has a responsibility to somehow participate in the reading experience? I would add to this that the pathic relation of reader and text is central to Modernist poetics. The reader is meant to read deeply and to be changed, pained, destroyed, burned by the words, written in blood. The book, as Kafka noted, is to be an ice-pick to the frozen soul (or something like that). A poetic text can do this in a way that a merely didactive or logical text cannot. Another questioner noted that Wittgenstein did, in fact, speak about ethics, in his Philosophical Investigations, which is, she said, a sort of narrative counterpart to the more philosophical Tractatus. This makes me think of Kierkegaard and his multi-voiced, multi-genred attempts to communicate ethical ideas. Ethics can be spoken of, this suggests, but only through stories, through relationships, through poetry. Or, perhaps, through the pairing of logic and poetry. For, as someone else mentioned, Wittgenstein himself asked whether what he was doing might not better be considered poetry than philosophy.  I need not say how all of this bears on Musil, who wanted, above all, to be a Dichter (creative writer).

Burton Pike teased me in a recent email, asking if Musil was really "hiding under every rock". And, I admit, I have a problem. But this perspectival problem makes sense, especially in a Musilian context, since he stressed over and over that we mainly see what we already have a conception of in our minds. How can I begin to see something else when these ruts have been driven so deeply into my brain? "There is hope,"Kafka wrote, "but not for us". This is probably why I took the whole day off yesterday from the conference, ended up going dancing to Balkan music and missed the 8:30 am panel on Kafka and the Holocaust. "If that's all there is," as Peggy Lee sang, "then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze, and have a ball. It that's all....there is...". Another form of ethics...and aesthetics.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dispatches from the MLA: Roger Bellin, Branka Arsic,Eduardo Lujan Cadava, & Clemens Spahr on Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Benjamin, Adorno, & Blanchot, but not, alas, Musil

I saw Musil at the panel on The American Transcendentalists as Continental Philosophers. He was sitting in the back, impeccably dressed as usual, with his head hidden behind the conference program, cursing about not being able to smoke inside and muttering, in between most every line, "no one thinks of me, no one thinks of me. Doesn't everyone know how important Emerson is for MY work?" Well, I was thinking of you, Robert, though there was not enough time in the comment section to let everyone know how much your work has to say about all the most interesting questions that were raised. You would have had a lot to say about Emerson and Thoreau and their relationship to the ideas of Adorno and Benjamin, if not about the anti-authoritarian pedagogical methods of Bronson Alcott and their relationship to French social critique of the 1960's (which I found very interesting, but maybe would have been a bit too modern even for you).  In the introduction to the panel, Roger Bellin, who presided over and organized it, spoke of the shared resistance to linear argument in the transcendentalists and the continental philosophers, and a tendency toward essay, fragment, aphorism, a practice of experiment, experience, enlivening. This intriguing connection between form and content went, unfortunately, largely undeveloped in the panel (there were 4 speakers who each had only about 15 minutes, so what could they do but suggest, incite, excite...which they did).

The first talk was called "Magical Life: Thoreau and Benjamin on Mourning," by Branka Arsic. She spoke of Thoreau's idea of nature as regenerative, beginning, rising, and his belief that nature does not recognize death because what dies lives again in nature. While humans are not able to truly mourn because we are separated from experience by abstraction (I think this is why, but I may have missed something), Nature is able to truly grieve; but while she grieves she recreates. Thus, death is beautiful. It dismantles ornament, she said, which I think was a quote from a letter from Thoreau to Emerson.  Benjamin then, in a 1916 essay, speaks of a similar idea, one culled from the 18th century German mystic, Georg Hamann, that, namely, only nature grieves. Why? Because, according to Benjamin, detonation and identification separate man from Nature and an understanding of Death. Worldly words (as opposed to divine words) identify rather than generate the things that exist (things existed before detonative naming, thus naming is not the force that generates). After the Fall, the divine force of language was reduced to connotations which are necessarily, in so far as they are taken to be real, accusatory and oppressive. The use of a word without awareness of its merely connotative truth-value is always the "execution of a punishment" against....reality? The mourning of nature, on the other hand, is always an "undifferentiated impotent use of language".  Because she is mute, Nature mourns. Her sadness makes her mute. This mourning is, paradoxically, the pulse of life,  figured by both Benjamin and Thoreau as the rustling of leaves. It is outside of/before human words.
The next talk that Musil would have liked to be included in was one by Clemens Spahr called "Negative Dialectics: The Transcendentalists, Adorno, and Utopian Philosophy".  Spahr's talk helped me understand Arsic's a bit better by filling in some context. He explained that Adorno's negative dialectics intended to hold the difference between concept and particularization in suspension, which, he argued, was similar to the aims of Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, et al.  Since an object is never fully explained by its context or categorization, to conceptualize non-identical entities was thought by Adorno to oppress them violently by creating a "fetishization" of a concept into a universal truth. But Adorno, Spahr sublty noted, was not entirely against system, but rather aimed, with his "cognitive utopia" at a cognitive framework that is aware of its own limitations. Spahr used Margaret Fuller's description of viewing Niagara Falls in her "Summer on the Lake" as an example of how transcendentalists were aware of the problem of conceptualization. Fuller was not able to see the Falls because her pre-conception (formed by viewing images)  of them had usurped her ability to see them (had he more time, perhaps Spahr would have brought in Benjamin's Work of Art essay). Then he discusses Thoreau's description of Walden Pond and the story of how he found that despite the villagers'  myth, it was in fact not unfathomable. Still, Thoreau is happy that they think it is, because, indeed, it is unfathomable by its own terms, i.e., in spiritual value. Spahr juxtaposes Thoreau's un-fathoming of Walden Pond with his critique of Flint's Pond, which was super-imposed with the name of its "owner," who knew only how to carry God to market (by selling its ice) and had no feeling for the real value of the place. The act of naming, again, implies domination of a thing, a desecration, in Adorno's sense, by assigning it an exchange value.

I couldn't really get all that Arsic and Spahr were saying because Musil kept muttering and coughing and rustling papers (not leaves). Of the many things he said, I made out the following: "Why does no one mention my in-depth discussion of the difference between specific and unspecific emotions? The one is fleeting and mortal, the other regenerative and eternal.  This should be brought to bear on the appetitive and the non-appetitive ways of experiencing and acting. The appetitive is the life force, in a way, it burns itself up; the non-appetitive is non-particular, is eternal, like nature; it regenerates and recurs.  And what about my ideas about the living and the dead word? The dead word, a concept, is always the same, is denotive, connotive, a conceptualization; while the living word is always new, different, alive, divine.  While this Benjamin fellow has a point about language after the Fall being detonative, he might have thought about the poetic use of language (living words) as a way to return to the original divine force of words (In the beginning was the Word...). " (Surely Benjamin does discuss this elsewhere, but Musil probably does not know of it.) "Apropos, the force of the connotative, see my passage on Ulrich in the garden, where he calls the gardener to him to restore a sense of order by providing the correct name or designation to the ultimately indescribably flowers."

While Spahr was talking about the way in which language makes non-identical things identical, Musil started gesticulating wildly (well, he twitched a bit, which for him was wild) and whispering: "has no one taken notice of my theory of metaphor, which explains that metaphor as a confluence of like and unlike is always an error and a crime against truth?" This was, indeed, a negative dialectics before Adorno, a complex awareness of the limitations of language which still attempted to use language.For, indeed, Musil celebrates this metaphoric crime as a process that "brings meaning and beauty into the world".  I did notice, Robert, and I wrote about it at length in my book, coining the phrase "metaphoric transparency" to describe the awareness of this process of construction. I make the connection to Nietzsche's essay "On Truth and Lying in a Supra-Moral Sense," which you may or may not have read. Nietzsche, as you may know, explains that every time we say that something is like something else, i.e., every time we make a concept, or put something in a category, we are lying; but that this is precisely what we do as "human subjects". To be aware of this metaphor-making, and to consciously hold the difference between concept and particularization in suspension, is an act of transcendental-existential regenerativeness (negative utopian cognitive dialectic).

In another talk of the panel, "Emerson, Blanchot, and the Wildness of Friendship," by Eduardo Lujan Cadava, Musil's attempt to find another human being and its metaphor for metaphor was echoing as well. Friendship, according to Blanchot and Emerson, requires strangeness, a "likeness and unlikeness," said Cadava (Musil muttered, "Agathe und Ulrich!"). The distance between a friend and a friend, wrote Emerson, should remind us of our relationship with all humanity, and the ultimate incommensurability that exists between two others. This like and unlikeness was, wrote Emerson, "a paradox of nature". And then Cadava, for a moment, did seem to refer to the question of form promised by Bellin's introduction, when he spoke of Emerson's essay "Friendship" as, in itself, an example of friendship. The time of the essay, he suggested, is the time of eternity, a literary history of voices of dead authors and thinkers, who still live in its lines.  While he did not say this, one might wonder if the essay form itself has a particularly fitting call to timelessness in its fragmentary essai, attempt at provisional momentary apperception. He quoted Emerson, "We will meet as though we meet not and part as though we part not," suggesting timelessness and an aliveness akin to the freshness of Musil's living words. The tension between like and unlike is infinite, unbridgeable, and Cadava, speaking with his "friends" Emerson, Blanchot, and even the unspoken, neglected Musil,  reminds us that in every meeting each one is altered by the other. Self and other deconstitute each other in the moment of relation. The friend is "untameable," "inappropriable," and infinitely strange, thus the "wildness" of Cadava's title. Just as long as he or she does not fall into the deadly trap of the unconscious concept or fathomable known. Just as long as he does not, like that Flint (skin-flint?) who bought the pond,  try to carry his God to market. Humans, insofar as we are alive, shouldn't be able to do that, but, sadly many try to fit themselves into categories and, especially at the MLA convention, wear badges telling people what their rank or value is,  too many of us are "on the market," as they say in the elevators, while all-too-often missing the transcendental call to life. literature, love (at least I can console myself with this transcendental idea so long as my goods are not wanted! Thoreau too, I remind myself, wove a basket that no one wanted to buy at first).

Musil waited until the room cleared, astonished (but used to the feeling) that no one (not even that woman with the brochures for the Klagenfurt Edition of his works sticking out of her bag!) mentioned him at all, and then he went out to smoke.  Perhaps he will show up later at the Wittgenstein and/in Narrative Panel? If he sticks around until Sunday, when most people will have gone home, he will finally get some attention at the panel on Heroic Idiocy in the Modernist Novel.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Post that Doesn't Refer to Musil at all Directly (for Alex and Renee)

Irigaray says we must work to not make the other the same, to not reduce the other (implicitly also, the new, the unknown) to something we already know, possess, see, to not merely welcome the other into our world without venturing forth to discover how it might look in the other’s  world,  mind,  mind-made world. A daring proposition, to leave one’s own mind-made world to try, at least, to visit another (without hoping to become fully fluent in its languages, customs, Lebensanschauungen, but maybe to challenge our own perspectives and to see ourselves in new ways, a selfish end goal, perhaps, in any case, but one that would inspire growth rather than stagnancy).  We can also welcome the other into our worlds in a way that is not assimilation, but this would mean being open to the possibility that the other’s presence will change our world. Heisenberg’s Uncertainly principle would suggest that it is impossible to not do this, i.e., that every entry into another’s world changes it, alters it. Yet people are, I am afraid, more impervious to such shocks than scientifically observed phenomena. I can see a person’s apartment, with the gradual intrusion of signs of the lover’s presence. First it is a sock, then a picture, then some books, then there is room made in the closet. Who knows, perhaps he or she will begin to have a say in arrangements, colors, the purchase of new furniture. I have often heard people say that in order to start a new life together, a couple in question must start in a new home together, rather than have one of the pair move in to the already-decorated home of the other. Some people even go so far as to say that they should move to a new town, or a new country, so that one of the pair does not have the upper hand in establishing or creating their “new world together.” But who goes so far as to actually begin together a new mind-made world, a revaluation of unified values (if this were even favorable, let alone possible), or a new language? Well, lovers do this, but mostly unconsciously, with one or the other probably welcoming or not welcoming the other to influence the already-prevailing mores or furniture. 
But Irigaray maintains, it seems, that no matter how welcoming in a truly open way we are, the other “does not have and never will have a site there,” i.e., in our mind-made world (“mind-made world,” comes from Susan Langer, not Irigaray, by the way).  The space is necessary, “healthy,” prophylactic, and unbridgeable. The space in between the two beings, the unknown and that which cannot be articulated or maybe even understood is what Irigaray calls transcendence. It is presence, newness, not bound by what came before or by previous definition. In Irigaray, transcendence meets existentialism.  For the awareness that there is something beyond the physically measurable spurs on to wakefulness, responsibility, metastable ethics…to respond without preconceived ideas to whatever new unknown thing approaches us, not prepared ahead of time, not clichéd, not pre-decided. The two people must remain separate, but somehow must respect each other’s separateness? “The other does not have and never will have a site there.” Never.  The dream of total union smashes under these words, if they are true. You cannot move into your lover’s mind-made world and expect to have a closet there for your favorite dresses. Barthes talks about sites as well. But he wants both lovers to relinquish their sites. For both to un-define themselves, to merge in unio mystica, coincidence of opposites. Nowhere, i.e., utopia, atopic: “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos. I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire...Being Atopic, the other makes language indecisive: one cannot speak of the other, about the other; every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, awkward: the other is unqualifiable (this would be the true meaning of atopos)”.  Both Barthes and Irigaray see a failure of pre-configured language to describe whatever it is that exists in the space or no-space between lovers. But while Irigaray wants, almost insistently, morally, to keep that space clear and usullied by the lovers’ attempts to merge, Barthes dreams of a love that is no place at all, or , rather, everywhere. He wants, he writes, “everything” and dreams that a merger in this no-place, utopia, atopia would be the birthplace of a new language. While Irigaray insists that the one cannot ever inhabit the site of the other, Barthes wants both lovers to give up on the idea of private property! Or, rather, he imagines a sort of wandering, cruising, constant within and without movement. He writes of the irrepressible dream of total union, the dream that “each of us be without sites: that we be able to magically substitute for each other: that the kingdom of ‘one for the other’come (‘in going together, each will think for the other’), as if we were the vocables of a new, strange language, in which it would be quite licit to use one word for another. This union would be without limits”. There is no defensiveness in this dream, no staking out of territories, no insistence on self-hood; and it certainly is more seductive than Irigaray’s abstract morality.
But he has left out the monster who eats up the other, the He who is so large that there is no room for the other to speak, feel, utter, be in any way not in accordance to the rule of the stronger. Is the stronger in love he who loves less? Or she or he (feminized by this loving, according to Barthes) who loves more? I always said, she who loves most wins; but that is wishful thinking, or a form of special pleading, for she who loves more may have the victory of being able to love, of passion, of feeling intensely, but it is a pyrrhic victory, surely, lonely and cold, and the result of answering to an either/or proposition: either I play your way or don’t play at all; either I sacrifice myself or have no love at all. Do we have to renounce relating to have relation? And is all discourse on love, a Irigaray suggests,  someone else’s discourse, not to be trusted, outmoded, suspicious? Does existence really always precede essence. Not always. Irigaray is understandably on the defensive, against the myth of the fulfilling other, against the dream of an other who will make us whole. Against the myth of complete understanding. What then is this love of her title? The Way to Love? I haven’t finished the book yet, so maybe there will be an answer in the end!?  Ultimately, however, she seems nihilistic in her transcendental silence and in her belief in the impossibility of loving the other, of even being informed, influenced by what others in the past have felt, said, done? Are we all then so mutterseelenallein? Or is there some connection? Shared experience? Myths, literature, stories…Barthes is enmeshed in stories and utterances of others, is not afraid of influence.  No anxiety of influence, for he is a lover, i.e., feminized. Yet still a man. 
For the woman, who has been drowned by the voice of the master, covers her ears, is tired of hearing only His story, wants some space to develop and speak hers. Barthes would have the lover relinquish gain, profit, calculations. Irigaray suggests that the woman, who has so long done this, needs to defend herself by thinking of her own interests. A dangerous and ironic proposition.  In order to create relating, the woman who is tired of always being in His world (He for whom everything is a reflection of Himself, solipsistic He)…But are we not all, to some extent, able only to see the world through our selves? This mind-made world?. But she, more than He, is tired of always assimilating herself to His reality. Defensively  the woman starts calculating profit and loss, capitalist system (Barthes says that the lover—who is feminized—does not do this, the lover expends, spends, extravagantly): who gave more and who sacrificed more…all in the interest of relating in a way that avoids this sort of thinking. Is it to be a temporary stage, a leveling of the playing field, so to speak? Or are we to forever be calculating in this way? 
The idea that relating to the other, that listening, and attempting to know the other might expand, rather than contract the man’s world, that he might gain something immeasurable at the cost of his absolute power and monologuing voice is a materialistic argument, even if what he would gain is spiritual, for spirit, i.e., love, is not something one can count.  Any opening to love involves the risk or loss…to let the other in, the chaotic, dangerous, distracting other. One only begins to do this if there is a consciousness of something lacking. In self, in the world.  One has to acknowledge a lack, a problem. Is there a problem with how things are now, in one’s life, in the world? If so, one has much to gain, and less to lose. If all is well, why take such a chance? If one has all one needs, why risk disturbance? The man thinks all is well,  that there is no problem, even in a relationship where the woman repeatedly tells him and shows him that she is not happy, even in a world where there are unavoidable signs of extreme distress. He is fine, thus all is well, no problem.  He doesn’t have a problem with the relationship, so there is no problem. Classic Narcissism. The problem is the woman, to him. She is always making a fuss. Always trying to make him see something that would only spoil his fun, always crying, always overflowing. For are not most men haters of women?  How can men be happy if women are not? Is that a special trait they have developed evolutionarily? To deny our palpable distress by calling it hysterical? So we attempt to make our demands known, assert our perspective, even if we have to do it Lysistrata style, by denying them the one thing that will make them notice us or value us (sex). To clear the slate, cleanse the palate, make the man aware that he can see nothing but himself, and that he might actually gain something (there, profit/loss again) by letting the woman in? This is reminiscent of environmental battles, of the need to convince the practical populace that their property taxes will be raised by developing a condominium in the woods, since they can’t understand any other reason to obstruct such a development. One speaks in their language, language of money, of gain and loss, to convince them to preserve something incalculable, something immeasurably important. Is this not a ruse?! And yet our natural instinct, our method of not keeping track, of giving and giving and giving,  overflowing without keeping count seems only to have raised spoiled and entitled narcissists. What now? How to not lose love in the attempt to have love be real. Carol Gilligan points out this paradox in her Birth of Pleasure, the way that women consistently relinquish what they know to be real relating in order to not lose their relationships with men who want things their way, on their time, at their level of passion, exploration, intensity, those men who want to be in relationships that are not relationships, who want what they want when they want it and not any other time. Who want us to be there for them when they are in a crisis or feeling low but who suddenly feel put upon if asked to respond to our feelings.
      All morning I have been struggling between the dream of total union( Barthes' insistence in the last pages, of the truth of the delusion of love, in the truth of what he calls the lure) and the reality (?) of misinterpretation, of the impossibility of merger, or knowing, possessing the lover. I have two phrases atop my page: 1. Keeping the space between the lover and the other. 2. Dream of the total union. In the passage on "I-love-you,” he says also that this phrase is "socially irresponsible" because it "suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples". We can be very clear-headed and "healthy" and reasonable and say that this "I-love-you" means nothing, is a lie, is a feint, is a very fleeting feeling, is many things to many people at many times...we can say that language fails us, that it is a language we didn't make and that it is hopelessly entrenched in received ideas; we can tell ourselves that the dream of total union is nothing but a heaven that distracts us from real relating, from our work, from seeing the other in his or her non-mythic separateness, from seeing the other as anything outside of our fantasy...we can say this with Irigaray, in an attempt to stake out our separate territory and affirm our separateness in the face of total immersion and self-sacrifice, et cetera, but there is something powerful in Barthes' oscillation between an exposure of very reasonable doubt, clarity, self-knowledge and a belief in love in all its madness, because of its madness. This "I-love-you," as an action, "affirms itself as a force—against other forces..the thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.)...". So where are we now? We want clarity, honesty, responsibility; but we also want to take risks, abandon careful calculation of profit and gain, sacrifice and other petty book-keeping. We want to be seen, known, understood, heard. But we want mystery, passion, desire, longing. We know at least, what we don't want: ambivalent people who do not want to participate in the messy dangerous experiment of being human. We don't want people who do not dare to expose themselves to pain, to shocks, to surprise, to unknowing and the possibility of being known. We do not want half-hearted, luke-warm people, who only want to play by their own self-protecting rules. I guess this could be said in a positive way: we want to bravely discover together. We want to tangle and untangle. We have a will to love, a will to grow, a will to be challenged and to challenge. We want. And we will risk losing everything to possess what is, of course, only an icicle melting in our hands.
    Irigaray, like de Beauvoir, would do away with the myth, the essence of woman..and replace it with..with a moral reasonableness? A fairness? Disguised as freedom. Is not fairness a tool of the weak, used to artificially level the game? Do we need this? Can one long to be possessed while simultaneously being aware of one’s ultimate freedom? What would we give up for real relating? This question is raised by both Barthes and Irigaray. Would we give up myth, fantasy, delusion, romanticization, belief in the moment of ecstasy, the belief in merger and oneness, a belief even in love? Would we give up the ecstasy of longing, of once-in-a-world throwing it all away for one true/delusional moment of passion, jealousy, and madness, would we have to give up passion for a “healthy” relationship wherein the one saw the other as he or she really is? Do we really want to know and be known, at the risk of losing crystallizing fantasy?
One answer to this is that there is no fixed “who I really am” or “who you really are”.  The masks we choose also reveal our many faces; our longings, our fantasies, our projections are part of us, and part of a shared mythic heritage, which does not mean we cannot make up new myths, and create new masks in the process of exposing, revealing, searching. We must be open to new information, experiences, that don’t fit in with the already grooved ruts in our brains, we must work to be able to see and hear things, sounds, words, images, ideas that we have not heard before.  Existence precedes essence. We must welcome specific newnesses, like  a new person, a new type of loving, a new form of art, a new sense,  that don’t fit into expectations, to abstracted categories. But we still want to value these categories, archetypes, simplified correspondences of shared experience and shared descriptions or reality. Essence precedes existence.  These traces of past lovers and thinkers are the sputtering sparks of humanity’s shared attempts. And, as my friend Dharman Rice always used to say, the mistakes of history have been the cause of some of the most meaningful ideas.  So, as he also always says, sin bravely! By which I believe he means, dare to make mistakes, do it bravely, with passion, with wakefulness.

Tenderness, Metonymy, Union, Hermaproditism, & Barthes Again

Hermaphroditus Asleep, Date and Artist Unknown
I have a bit of a problem. I see Robert Musil everywhere. In everything I read, in everything interesting someone says, in experiences I have or hear about. But sometimes he really is there, lurking behind the scenes. I just finished Barthes' A Lover's Discourse, where I had sensed Musil between the lines. And, indeed, Barthes refers to him in a few of the last entries (Tenderness and Union). And his reference to Musil is suggestive because Barthes senses the essential metaphoric nature of Musil's aesthetic and mystical discussion of love, the same nature which led him to respond to a man who was disturbed by the incest in his novel, that a man who likes incest is really just a man who likes metaphors. And Barthes' reference to Musil here also touches upon the connections between time/timelessness and action/inaction, infinity and non-closure which are central to Musil's aesthetic-ethical cosmos. The time out of time of the incestuous and infantile embrace discussed in my former post is returned to again, in Barthes' passage on Tenderness. And this time, the extra-temporal moment is associated with metaphor, metonymy and insatiability.  Of course, Musil's sister and brother, same and not same, separated and not united would appeal to Barthes in his search for union and otherness, in his circling around the frisson of difference and the desire for merger as enacted by the powers and weaknesses of language, discourse, affect, reason. That he has managed to subtly touch upon Musil's preoccupation with metaphor, time, and action/inaction with just a few casual asides is remarkable. Barthes' reading of Musil is astonishingly clear-seeing and sensitive. And he does it mainly be proximity, by placing a few of Musil's ideas near to other ideas, to the other voices in his texts, particularly Proust's voice (who is a mostly unturned key to Musil's work). In reference to his passage on Tenderness, Barthes provides us with this bit of Musil at the bottom of the page: "Her brother's body pressed so tenderly, so sweetly against her, that she felt she was resting within him even as he in her; nothing in her stirred now, even her splendid desire". Here we see the lack of will to possession discussed below, taken up again by Barthes in a later passage entitled voiloir-saiser (will to possession) wherein he elucidates a concept he abbreviates as N.W. P. (non-will-to-possess). And Barthes writes, in response to the Musil passage, stressing the relevance of metaphor: "Sexual pleasure is not metonymic: once taken, it is cut off: it was the Feast, always terminated and instituted only by a temporary, supervised lifting of the prohibition. Tenderness, on the contrary, is nothing but an infinite, insatiable metonymy: the gesture, the episode of tenderness (the delicious harmony of an evening) can only be interrupted with a laceration: everything seems called into question once again: return of rhythm--vritti --disappearance of nirvana."  According to Barthes' note vritti is a word which in a Buddhist context refers to a series of waves, a cyclical process which, in contrast to the suspension of nirvana, is painful. The gesture of tenderness, he writes  a bit later, is a "kind of miraculous crystallization of presence".  Perhaps Barthes is able to understand Musil better than many others because he needs to believe in the utopia of love even though, as he remarks in his passage on Union, an attempt to draw the hermaphroditic androgynous creature described in the Symposium fails miserably ( "or at least all I could achieve is a monstrous, grotesque, improbable body"): "Dream of total union: everyone says this dream is impossible, and yet it persists. I do not abandon it". Musil does not abandon the dream of total union or other utopian dreams either. He merely notes that the crystallization of vision they entail is fleeting (and infinite) and metaphoric. Since, however, the so-called real world is created by metaphors and, at best, imagined out of the insights of such extra-temporal moments, these utopian visions, like the anti-social excesses of the lover, may be more true or real than anything else. As to truth, Barthes concludes: "What the world takes for 'objective,' I regard as factitious, and what the world regards as madness, illusion, error, I take for truth...". As to reality, Ulrich, Musil's protagonist and twin, would, if given the chance, abolish it in a moment.