Monday, January 2, 2012

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.

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