Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Schoolboy Gavrilo Princip, who shot Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, 100 Years ago Today, and the Danger of the Writer

 Here is a passage from Musil's notebooks:

Preface to a Contemporary Aesthetics[1]

[End of 1935 or beginning of 1936]

Princip, the student who, in 1914, with his pistol shots so enraged the venerable Great Powers that they attacked each other, was secretly a Serbian poet, and this was something from which the Great Powers have not recovered to this day; and the man who saw to it, through his spirited, but stubborn and somewhat one-sided attributes, that this War had no end, namely Georges Clémenceau, obviously had a poet living inside him — a poet who didn’t get enough air, who had become rather poisonous and who influenced the politics of his master in the direction of his own prejudices.  I also know of a fairly good light novel written by Mussolini before he came to power one that might be read in any familyand this successful statesman, despite his real fame, is now having a play that he wrote produced.  Is it a surprise that he is every inch an artist, as many of his admirers assert!   The German revolution, further, yielded, soon after its victory, the remarkable phenomenon of the publication of dramas and novels written by many of its leaders and deputy leaders that had not been heard of before — providing an insight that no revolution up to this time has offered.  In a word, one must remind those irredeemably blind people who despise literature that even Nero set Rome on fire once, and this not just because he was mentally ill, as is maintained, but above all because he was a writer.  Their respect for writing will increase if they notice that not only amateur writers, writing dilettantes, but also writers who for one reason or another never fully managed to devote themselves to writing, have set the world on fire.

Compared to them, the real or fully developed writers are not dangerous in any way and, aside from spiritual theft, bourgeois bankruptcy, and offences against public decency, have never done anything serious at all.  The source of restlessness in the kind of people who destroy worlds is transformed in these writers to a quietly burning and nourishing hearth-flame and they make a well-ordered export business out of the adventures of their fantasy.  So if one wants to prevent revolutions, one must encourage the writing of literature; and Germany’s erstwhile revolutionary party, the Social Democrat Party, had actually put that into practice, by placing good novels in all their libraries, while having their librarians warn the workers against reading them, because these writings were nothing but opiates intended to put the revolutionary proletariat to sleep.  It was admittedly a surprising success, for the party of these strictly controlled revolutionaries has been hounded out of Germany, in the most passionate fashion, by a party whose members enjoy the reading of novels to an inordinate degree even if they aren’t the best novels by a party, indeed, whose members even write novels themselves.

It is probably dangerous for revolutionaries to read good books or to admire beautiful pictures.  Science, too, is dangerous for them; they prefer popular science, and attend lectures in educational clubs which provide them with a prospect of solving the world’s mysteries.  The well-known assertion that the arts and sciences flourish in peaceful times can obviously be turned on its head, and is then still capable of demonstrating a relationship between cause and effect; for it is the blossoming of the arts and sciences which makes the times peaceful, insofar as it divests them of something whose loss puts the driving forces of history to sleep.  Nietzsche has already made clear this reciprocal relationship in his comment: “no one can spend more than he has: that is true of an individual, it is true of a people.  If one spends oneself for power, for power politics, for economics, world trade, and military interests — if one spends in this direction the quantum of understanding, seriousness, will, and self-overcoming which one contains, then it will not be available for the other direction.  Culture and the state — one should not deceive one’s-self about this — are antagonists: ‘Kultur-Staat’ [culture-state] is merely a modern idea.   The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.  All great ages of culture are ages of political decline: what is great culturally was always unpolitical, even anti-political.”[2] Remarkably, Nietzsche forgot to include fantasy in the list of shared provisions on which both politics and culture feed, although fantasy is precisely what an adventurer, a creative writer, a politician, an historian, a philosopher and a soldier must have in common and which they must, at mutual expense on the part of these many sides, give one-sided shape to; one could even say that they all must also have a certain level of intelligence in common.  But what does their fantasy amount to if it doesn’t attain to this level?  Are they then devoid of fantasy?  Is their fantasy stupid?  Or do they have a criminal fantasy?  Do they have the fantasy of bad men or that of bad novels? 

Nietzsche, in making his assertion, had decline caused by over-refinement dancing before his eyes and this assertion expresses a basic rule about the division of spiritual energies, which, by the way, tends to be most attractive in its most extreme cases; this is so because in a perfect state there would be no place for the strenuous music of Beethoven, and because conversely politics would have to disappear under perfect cultural conditions.  If one returns, however, to what can actually be experienced, the above observation says nothing more than that a people cannot be simultaneously political and spiritually creative, thus happily arranging for the non-creative people to enjoy the greatest degree of spiritual freedom of action, since it says nothing at all that would contradict the possibility that a people could be, at one and the same time, spiritual and lacking in political creativity.  So we are going to investigate how culture and politics get in each other’s way:  this is how, today, we might begin the preface to an aesthetics.

[1] The following translated by myself. —Trans.
[2] From Twilight of the Idols, sect.  4: What the Germans Lack” -Trans.