Saturday, March 17, 2012

Subject and World in Conversation, Despite Sprachkrise: Burton Pike's "Literature as Experience"

Egon Schiele's "The Bridge"
I read today Burton Pike's wonderful essay, "Literature as Experience" in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, edited by Harold Bloom, 2005. Pike clearly and powerfully argues that Musil and his modernist contemporaries were exorcised by the problem of finding a bridge between subject and world, but that they did not see this problem to be as insurmountable as many contemporary theorists do. Pike asks, along with the novelists of modernity: 

“How can a bridge  (a utopian, hence idealistic bridge) be built from this isolated subjective mind to the social, moral, and ethical concerns of society at large? Does not [the Modernist ] approach to perception and experience, so radically centered on the subjective mind, commit a writer to a mode of fiction centered on solipsistic characters? (Virginia Woolf’s an D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, Rilke’s novel Malte Laurids Brigge, and Joyce’s two major novels also raise the question)” (87-8). And his answer is:  “There would seem to have been in the early phenomenologists and in Musil an underlying idealism that has since been lost, a belief that in spite of the increasing solipsism and dehumanizing specialization of modern life there is some sphere or level—one hardly knows what to call it—in or on which all the conflicting and apparently unrelated fragments, self and world, feeling and intellect, science and society, skepticism and belief, could somehow be melded into a coherent, ethical whole..” (88).   

While Pike writes here that one hardly knows what to call the sphere or level upon which this coherent whole might be sought, I submit that the sphere might be called art, with the qualification that the desideratum might, in that case, better be characterized as a realm of dialogue between self and world or self and other, rather than a total merging or melding or unity. This would be a form of ethics, somewhat coherent, if not whole in the sense of fixed or without contradictions. Earlier in the essay Pike notes that the modernists' idea of language was not characterized by the same skepticism plaguing today's structuralist or post-structuralist language critiques:

"My general argument is that writers of the early modernist generation, and certainly Musil, were not blocked by language’s presumed inability to represent experience, but on the contrary were struggling to develop a new kind of literary language that would adequately represent experience as a cognitive process as it was then coming to be understood. ..[Musil] was a writer of fiction who was attempting to forge with the greatest possible precision a language of images that would portray the inexact process by which a character proceeds through life within the envelope of his individual perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and experiences.  In The Man without Qualities, Musil pushed this further, attempting to reconcile this process of individual perception with the utopian goal of a world in which social institutions would be morally and ethically revitalized. The work of art was to point the way to this revitalization” (77).  

I certainly learned this idea from Burton Pike when I was lucky enough to study with him, and it has influenced all my subsequent thinking about the possible worldly "uses"of modernist experimentations.  While there is a general view of the Sprachkrise as a nihilistic choice between silence and hypocritical clichéd use of old worn-out forms, Pike's argument is that the modernist experiment was characterized by an attempt to reinvigorate these old forms. And this constitutes a less cynical view of art's potential to invigorate the forms of society. Pike continues:

“This argument implicitly rejects the idea that what literature conveys is graspable only through an  analytic procedure that reduces it to rational or rationalized elements of language such as narrative and discourse.  A writer, even an analytic writer like Musil, might be interested in pursuing other goals” (77-8).  “It might also be said of modernist literature generally that it resists the attempts of theory to reduce literary expression to the problem of language alone. This kind of literature uses language to project images that incorporate action in an envelope of sensory experience rather than using it descriptively or discursively. The senses, emotions, affects, moods, and subliminal effects involved in perception and experience are considered essential. It is too reductive , as some critics would have it, to consider literary language as merely a doomed attempt at some kind of rational discourse that eludes both writer and reader, a fruitless butting of one’s head against the walls of the ‘prison-house of language’”(78).

And now we must come back to the subject, the individual person who is so often, nowadays, considered either a complete and outdated social construct (see Stefan Jonsson's Subject without Nation, which I will discuss later when I am less exhausted) or a dangerous and persistent cipher for contemporary self-directed solipsism. Pike writes: 

"Phenomenology conceived experience as the experience of an individual person, but underlying the phenomenological enterprise was the intention of bringing about moral and ethical reform on the level of the larger community, and the belief that this could be done through an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world. Our time, however—as Musil himself trenchantly observed many times in his essays and in The Man without Qualities—has moved instead to a collectivist mode of thinking in which political, ideological, ethnic, tribal thought and behavior rather than the individual’s subjectivity have become the framework for social thought..In collectivist fashion the contemporary human sciences..approach the individual only as a statistical manifestation of generalized and abstracted characteristics. (Thus the disease is more important than the patient, who represents for the medical profession only a manifestation of it, a 'case’)” (88).

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