Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Novalis on the Blessedness of Being a Blockhead, Night, Day-Bright Mysticism, and Dawn

Read this morning in Novalis's "Miscellaneous Observations" this short passage reminiscent of Musil's "On Stupidity":

Bust of Novalis by Fritz Schaper
"53. The more confused a person is---confused people are called blockheads---the more he can make of himself by diligent study of the self. On the other hand, orderly minds must strive to become true scholars--thorough encyclopedists. At first the confused ones must struggle with massive obstacles--they gain insight slowly. They learn to work laboriously---but then they are lords and masters forever. The orderly person swiftly gains insight---but also loses it swiftly. He soon reaches the second stage--but usually stops there. The last steps are laborious for him, and he can rarely succeed in placing himself in the position of a beginner again once he has attained a certain degree of mastery.
Confusion points to excess of strength and capacity--but deficient equilibrium--precision points to good equilibrium, but meager capacity and strength.
That is why the confused person is so progressive---so perfectible---and why on the other hand the orderly one comes to a halt so early as a Philistine.
To be orderly and precise alone is not to be clear. Through working on himself the confused person arrives at that heavenly transparency---at that self-illumination---which the orderly person so seldom attains.
True genius combined these extremes. It shares swiftness with the last and fullness with the first."

In the last line Novalis celebrates swiftness, which Musil veers away from as a characteristic of genius in his essay, which tends to see over-hastiness of judgment as a prime characteristic of stupidity. Novalis is not, however, speaking of completion or coming to conclusion. And really the two men agree more than this last line might suggest. Quickness of ideas, combinations, proliferation of possibilities, and openness to new illuminations, and the innate ability to maintain "the position of a beginner" may all be mistaken for stupidity or slowness or block-headedness. In the contest of spirit, however (the only one Novalis cared about), a confused fruitfulness wins the race over assured simple solutions and order.

It is an enduring fascination for me to contemplate what strands of like-thinking drew Musil to that wonder-seeking and wonder-speaking mystic Novalis, who was one of his luminaries.  Novalis called Spinoza a god-drunken man, and I recently read in a letter to him from Friedrich Schlegel, that one of his first readers exclaimed that Novalis's own writing was like that of a drunken god. But truly it comes clear and sober too, in sweetness and light, despite his preference for the succor of the Night and even of Death.

Dear Novalis, who left our prosaic and our poetic world far too soon, what unlikely sympathies did you stir up in our cold, objective Vivisecteur? What earthly wisdom--you who were a scientist too---were you master of to win the respect of our restrained ecstatic? Musil was a day-bright mystic, and you were a lover of the Night; but you, in chorus with Spinoza, always traced the lineaments of the divine from the facts of nature herself, although you saw them as nothing more than hieroglyphs of spiritual sense. Musil, too, struggled with the simplicity of empiricism, noting how it reduced itself all too soon to system and construct. Both of you were masters of newness (and here we can bring in Thoreau as a third, and Emerson as fourth), and celebrated the Utopia of the Next Step, Becoming, and Beginnings.

Monsieur le Vivisecteur came alive in the Night too; and Thoreau's Dawn was still touched with the magic of the dark mist, and far enough away from the every day rush of wakeful practicality to still taste of the hush of possibility.

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