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.


  1. From the Sonnets to Orpheus: First Series,
    translated by A. Poulin

    "Only in the sphere of praise may Lamentation
    water-spirit of the weeping spring
    who watches closely over our cascading
    so it will be clear even on the rock

    that supports the gates and altars.
    See around her quiet shoulders dawns
    the hovering feeling she's the youngest one
    among the spirit's mood-sisters.

    Jubilation knows and Longing grants -
    only Lament still learns; with girlish hands
    she counts the ancient evil through the nights.

    But suddenly, unpracticed and askant,
    she lift's one of our voice's constellations
    into the sky unclouded by her breath.

  2. Please disregard the typos. Also, I neglected to attribute the poem the Rilke.

  3. Wunderbar! I am sure the typos are a sign of sublimity.