Monday, January 30, 2012

"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.

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