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.

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