Thursday, January 2, 2014

Nietzsche (and Musil by association) Rescued from Post-Modernism, Not a Moment too Soon

I just read the attached breath-taking essay by Patrick Keane on the ambiguity of Nietzsche, on his paradoxical search for truth amid perspectivism, on his paradoxical belief in a kind of accurate objective reading despite his radical questioning of absolute Truth. Everything Keane says here could be applied to a re-reading of Musil (my re-reading of Musil, subjective perhaps, but hopefully something more as well). Here it is:
  And this is what I wrote after reading it, re Musil:

I read this entire piece while practically holding my breath, but for the moments when I gasped, repeatedly, a grateful “Yes”. Thank you so much for this brilliant analysis. It is of the utmost importance to trace this “other” Nietzsche back through the thickets of use and abuse. I always like to say that the postmodernists–in good adolescent fashion– were so enthralled by the iconoclastic orgy and their ears were ringing with the excitement of their “victory” that they did not have the ears to hear what Nietzsche proposed to do after the old idols had been smashed: create new ones! uncover new and ever new ones. And yes, as you so brilliantly elucidate, a rejection of some truths or of an absolute Truth itself does not necessarily mean a rejection of the search for, the approach to truths or to what Emerson called Conduct of Life. Nor does the assertion that there are many perspectives mean that all or any perspectives are equal. I try to trace the same complexity in Musil (who learned it from Nietzsche and Emerson and Dostoevsky..and from his years as a scientist) and to rescue him from the many contemporary critics who want to make him a beacon of “anything goes” or of meaninglessness and to claim him as post-modern. In truth (there, that word, “truth,” which brashly privileges MY reading over someone else’s!), Musil, like Nietzsche, was dedicated to finding the right way to live and he imagined that it might be found through a Nietzschean perspectivism: a shifting, constantly alive awareness of the creative subject’s role in shaping ethics and aesthetics. This is quite opposite from an utterly relativistic non-authored mayhem, despite Musil’s knowledge of the pitfalls of absolutes and narrow vision. Another realm often left unexplored, or un-read, by many contemporary readers of Musil and Nietzsche is their continual paradoxical return to some concept of the eternal or repeating or essential. It is, of course, not something a reader looking for radical openness would want to notice or cite. But it is there nonetheless. And, as Moses Maimonides reminds us, in his famous image of the silver filagree apple which upon closer inspection is golden underneath, it is precisely in the area of most distressing contradiction where the most important ideas are to be found. Instead of ignoring such contradictions and sweeping them under the rug we perplexed readers need to look closer and then closer again. Why does Nietzsche love Emerson so much? How is it that transcendentalism (an “ism” so often associated with already given and socially-constructed absolutes) has so much in it that reads rather like existentialism (an ism which supposedly privileges existence over essence)? Maybe it is because the human search for meaning and truths involves a combination (not a dualistic either/or) of observational attempts at objectivity (looking as closely as we can at das Ding an sich while acknowledging our ultimate inability to see it accurately, or admitting that we probably change it as we speak and breath so it is never the same Ding…) AND a creative regenerative refashioning of realities…both essence and existence, both eternal return to some idea of beginning, to some idea of essential, and an eternally various and joyful human agency in making worlds?!


  1. Cool. The Emerson-Nietzsche influence. And transcendentalism/existentialism. I know of no other blog, other than musil attempts, which looks into these sort of connections between U.S. Renaissance writing/thought such as Emerson's, and German philosophy or modernist writing originally in German such as Musil's. Musil Attempts is an inspiration for my own (faltering, snail's pace) attempts on my own blog to make similar connections. Thank you!

  2. Robert, I just read with great pleasure your post about Thoreau and natural language. You seem to come to me at just the right moment as I had just been taking some notes about Wittgenstein's thought, in relation to Musil's, and exploring particularly their similar preoccupation with analogy and simile, which perhaps not surprisingly has similarities to Thoreau's as you describe it! Jaspers just came up for me as I was trying to find links from Musil to Wittgenstein, since a correspondent of Musil's, Karl Baedeker, has consulted with Jaspers about his own explorations of essayistic writing/thinking as a process of philosophizing, and this Baedeker also had contacts with the Vienna Circle, and Musil had connections to them, especially Moritz Schlick. Anyway, there is this shared trajectory of an attempt to gauge the closeness of language to reality and to remove the trappings of scientific abstraction from real life and real expression. I should have written this all on your blog, but could not figure out how to leave a comment there! I am definitely excited to have discovered another thinker who is tracing the trans-continental connections. What I am thinking about these days (and I see that there are a few of us on the same page here) is a revisioning of European Modernism from the perspective of what I am calling earnestness, or a sort of utopian existentialism, as opposed to the usual narrative about decadence and nihililsm. This is significant, because a new look at this period could provide more affirmative models for our current vision of alternative vision to the old self-cancelling anti-art, anti-culture rag. That the Modernists and the Transcendentalists were born of the same fount of Romanticism needs more attention. Let's talk more soon!

  3. This is, again, fascinating. From my perspective, I relate particularly to the emphasis on Romanticism (as a genealogical start-point), and also to the notion of earnestness (Iain Sinclair describing J. H. Prynne as 'the conscience of England'). Perhaps Carlyle (someone related to the Transcendentalists, I believe) also relates to such earnestness as morally inflected. I don't really know. These are really rather new areas for me (other than Prynne), and I am really just launching into this research. To be honest (all my earnestness!), I have been thinking now that I need to immerse myself in my reading , rather than continuing to produce my worthy single-text analyses on my blog. They have exhausted me. But perhaps I will surface again some time.
    (Oh, & it is typically counter-intuitive, but it seems that the way readers are to make comments on my blog is by clicking on the 'No Comments' label at the end of a post. Not very welcoming, and this probably explains the dearth of comments on the whole!)

  4. There is an endless amount for me to learn and read. And while I have been trying to write, I find myself hesitating amid towers of books all around me which I simply must read before saying another word. But this, too, is an illusion, because we still may have something to say even if we have not read every possible discussion or analogous exploration of something, right? It is a paradox. I would like to write more than I read, but find I read much much more than I write. Maybe at some point this proportion will turn on its head, but for now I am overwhelmed with necessary books to read. Meet you in the library. -Genese