Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kakanien als Gesellschaftsspiel (Kakania as Parlour/Society Game) )

Klimt's portrait of Viennese Society, 1888, from the Burgtheater
ORF-Austria has just published (2/19/12) a lengthy review of Norbert Christian Wolf's new 1000+ page book,
Kakanien als Gesellschaftsspiel, which focuses on Musil's novel as a political and social analysis of Kakania/Vienna. According to the review, Wolf argues that Musil's depiction of Vienna presents relevant and sophisticated commentary on modern and post-modern Europe (Germany in particular). Wolf, in his interview with ORF, explained that "Musil prescribed to a concept of modernity which concerned itself with fragmentation, with a-simultaneity and with contradiction, and Austro-Hungary provided an attractive model for these things" . Further, Wolf told the interviewer, Gerald Heidegger, that "Musil [...] did not want to write a historical novel, but a novel that would be in a position to come to terms with the spiritual [i.e., cultural and intellectual] problems of its own times" .

While I have not (yet) read the volume, it is refreshing that, for a change, Musil's depiction of Vienna before the First World War is not described here merely as a picture of a moribund world that now is no more, as if all Musil's novel had to offer were a snapshot of what is lost (for a contrast see Hans Ulrich Gumpert's recent discussion of Musil in his Frankfurter Allgemeine Blog {1/21/12 : Digital/Pausen} which suggests that one of the reasons Musil isn't read as much as he should be is that The Man without Qualities  "is inscribed with every sentence into the world of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which, as the first victim of the First World War, disappeared forever in 1918". ) Instead, in Wolf's new reading, we see Musil's Kakania/Vienna as a contribution to a discourse about problems that are still unsolved today, problems of national identity, difference, assimilation, social and national antipathies, tension between power, money, and ideals, between the interests of industry and humanist values, and power struggles between ideologies. According to Wolf's reading,  Musil's Vienna, as a state of multiple ethnicities, as uncomfortable melting pot of multiple traditions and values, is another form of the Eigenschaftslosigkeit (lack of qualities or fixed characteristics) of the novel's title, not to be simplistically reduced down to simple or singularly recognizable features. As Heidegger writes, "This is where Wolf finds his material for analysis, for Musil, as he demonstrates, constantly sets his figures going amid  society's game rules". Further, "by intentional positioning or displacement on the game board of social fault lines, the players are led into new, genuine, modern conflicts and contemporary debates". While this sounds reasonable, and in harmony with Musil's experimental method, the review (though not the book, in all fairness, since I am only reading about a 1000+ page book in a 1-page summary) raises some questions for me, mostly in terms of focus and proportion.
It is not surprising that Wolf seems to be arguing that Musil's novel functions as a "genuine medium of social analysis," as the reviewer writes, and that, further, the novel "enables a sharper focus on social processes than [contemporary]classical scientific disciplines [like sociology or political science] (which were not, at Musil's time, particularly highly developed)". Musil was probably one of the must capable observers of all phenomena (social, political, aesthetic, sensory, psychological) of his time, but as can be expected of me here, I have to remark that his intention was to be a creative writer, not a social (or any other type of) scientist.  Further, these figures or players and the parlour or society game of Wolf's title, are really only present in Musil's unfinished novel in the very beginning of the book, more specifically, as parts only of the first three or four hundred pages of what was to be thousands and thousands of pages of published and unpublished material which notoriously left behind any and all discussion of the society of Kakania, the parallel campaign, the social parties, meetings, plans, and business arrangements. Musil literally lost interest or moved on from mentioning most of what seems to be the focus of this book, which is not, really, any reason not to pay serious attention to these earlier parts. It is just disconcerting when a review seems not to be aware of this and to present this one aspect as if it were a representation of the whole, or even of the most, of the novel's material. While of course anyone may reasonably spend as much time, energy, or pages as he or she wishes on any aspect of Musil's novel, this review at least (if not the book itself) continues a general tendency to emphasize the proportionally smaller (and to me less interesting) aspects of this extremely philosophically and aesthetically complex work of experimental fiction.

In a way, Klimt's early Burgtheater mural depicted above is a perfect image of the sort of Gesellschaftsspiel that Wolf's book seems to describe. And in the same way that Klimt's painting moved far beyond this early work in style and substance and depth, I might argue that Musil's work, his explorations of formal experimentation, his powerful poetological  arrangements of words and sentences, his metaphysical discussions, moved in a comparable direction far beyond realistic social commentary about the lives of the rich and famous or analysis of political intrigue. It is clear, however, even from Heidegger's 1-page review that Wolf's book does not examine the questions of politics or social games from a shallow perspective that ignores aesthetics. Despite what seems to be an emphasis on the socio-political, the review references Wolf's differentiation of Musil's novel from the demands of realism and his contextualizing of the novel within literary Modernism's aims.

All in all, one of the beauties of Musil's work is the infinitely extending possibility of choosing, selecting out almost any aspect and expanding and unfolding it at every point exponentially, as if any one idea were important enough to explore and connect with whole worlds of inquiry, even to write a 1000+ page scholarly work about! Talk about infinity!

 UPDATE: I have since seen the actual book and have it on my desk waiting to be read in full, and the review definitely did minimize the scope and depth of the book's approach. There are, indeed, long and thoughtful chapters on Ulrich and Agathe's experiments, and on Musil's metaphysical and aesthetic concerns. When I get a chance to devote some time to it I will write a more comprehensive review of what looks to be a very important Musil book.

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