Thursday, June 27, 2019

Crystalizations of Musil's Unions in the garden of Unnameable Books

It was a wild weekend for me, traveling down from rural Vermont to my old stomping grounds in the New York City area for my father's 80th birthday party on the Upper West Side and for the book launch at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. On the train down, the two events mingled in my mind as I attempted to prepare something to say for both occasions. In typical Musilian fashion, they seemed gradually to be very related.  Thinking about my father, who seems to eternally refresh and renew himself, who is exceptionally vibrant and open to newness, and about Musil's resistance to closure, his insistence on the "motivated life," and his constant work to reinvigorate language by new seeing, new arrangements, new combinations of words into fresh metaphor, and his "Utopia of the next step," whereby no act may be judged except by what next act it engenders, it all seemed to be about the same thing.
    I ended up writing a speech for my father's party about the universal struggle to become one's self, to find one's voice, to untie one's hands from whatever social and familial conditionings constrain us. It was a beautiful party, but very drunken and went late, including the after-party dancing party and after-dance party present opening, and the drive back to my mother's house in Hastings, where my nephew and I were staying the night. By the next day, waking up in my childhood room (eternal recurrence! The selfsame -seinesgleichen- recurs!), I was foggy-headed, exhausted...well, hung over. And I feared I could not find any of the words or associations necessary to speak clearly or to illuminate even a small sense of what I wanted to impart about Musil that evening at the reading. I wanted it to be meaningful for the Musil-scholars and for the people who were just there to see me, some who were artists and writers, others not, but I could hardly retrieve the most common words in my stupor.
   My sister's lovely new boyfriend drove us all down (mom, my sister, my nephew) through harrowing traffic, and they left me to "clear my head". After drinking a gigantic juice with lots of ginger and mint and a double espresso, I betook myself to the lovely bookshop and its lovely garden and sat, slumped over in a chair, trying to remember something. As I was looking through the first pages of the first story, I suddenly thought I understood something I had not understood before. Crystalization! I said, aloud, and scribbled it down. Not that I had not noticed it before. In fact, we had taken out a footnote about how Musil had probably gotten the image and idea of crystallization from Stendhal's On Love, but in the nature of things, when one is tired and the synapses are loose, one can sometimes slip into a sort of mystical state (an Other Condition, in Musil's parlance), wherein things considered in more sober moods come to suddenly seem earthshaking. I realized that the whole first story, and probably the second too, was an illustration of the oscillations between crystalizations of significance, meaning, forms (with their sharply focused facets) and the dissolution of these temporary arrangements, followed by the planes shifting then into new arrangements or shimmering significance, belief, beauty. Then I "realized" that both the stories in the collection featured second-by-second descriptions of the process by which one may enter the Other Condition, something that I think is not provided anywhere else in Musil. He describes what it is like to be there, and certainly provides many moments of lucid seeing that can only have been culled in such states, but only in these stories  does he explicitly show how one might arrive there.
    Quite graphically, in "The Completion of Love," we see the crystal facets of the husband and wife in their enclosed living room, protected by the green blinds (like closed, and then semi-opened eyelids, a precursor of the garden which surrounds Ulrich and Agathe in the great novel), and then we experience, through Claudine's train journey away from her husband, the dislodgement and then the dissolution of the fixed forms of her married life....and then, later, the new city where she is visiting her daughter, becomes a new enclosed crystal, snowed-in, surrounded by a perimeter that cannot be bridged.  Astonishing.
    The people in "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" are also separated from the world, enclosed within their house and garden.  Within this microcosm, certain things seem possible that would seem absurd or certainly socially unacceptable, though the opinions of the world do sometimes seep in, and prevail, and prevent actions. Only by getting away from this odd microcosm does Johannes manage to see that he must not kill himself. Though Veronica remains, her world is dramatically changed by Johannes's leaving. She is able to focus even more intensely on her self, her memories, her sensuality, and this focus initiates another Other Condition within a general everyday other sort of condition (since Veronica always lives in an other sort of condition from normalcy). But she breaks out of her normal otherness, to experience a new state of being. And I "realized," while choosing the passages from this story to read for the book launch, and then thinking about them later, that Veronica is an ecstatic. A visionary. While one may mistake her for a sick, confused victim of her childhood experience, this experience is part of what gives her the ability to see the way she sees. And this seeing is an ecstatic, joyous, extra-sensory kind of seeing. She is like one of those medieval visionaries who sees and describes her visions from out of some sickness, some self-starvation, some weakness. The weakness, as is suggested about Johannes a few times, is actually a strength. Her illness, her madness, is a portal to higher seeing. While I realized that her name came from Saint Veronica, whose cloth held the impression of Jesus's face after she wiped away his sweat, I had not really grasped until now, why Musil related her to that Veronica. And then, in an even more confused state, while falling asleep the night after the reading, I wondered if maybe Musil intended for one to imagine that the cloth held an impression, not of Jesus's face, not, then of Johannes's or Musil's own, but of Veronica herself. The female saint alone without her male priestly guardians and spiritual guides, undresses amid a circle of candles. The impression of her body remains in the folds of her cast-off garments.
    When Johannes's letter, from outside the house-garden-fortress, arrives (banging on the house like an intruder), the interior Other Condition of aloneness with God or herself, is destroyed, and day by day its illuminations fade away. In one of the last moments of the story, Veronica makes ephemeral contact with a person passing outside the door of the house. Through the crack under the door, the light from the candle she holds in her hand shines on the stranger's body, like fingers touching him; the air from the outside slips up her shift, under which she is naked. Inside and outside tentatively come in contact. She avoids Demeter, the bestial brother, on the stairs, but though the story is over, life is not.
   What new Other Condition, what new Crystalization will be formed out of the facets of reality? Anything is possible, if we take Walter Pater's advice and refuse to "form habits" and strive, as much as possible, "to burn always, with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy".

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Architecture of Possibility, an Essay on Lapsus Lima/The Nightjar


I encountered a fascinating Portuguese woman (on Twitter), who invited me to write this little essay for her alluring online journal. Read the whole thing (and enjoy the rest of the journal) here:

http://www.lapsuslima.com/musils-possibility/

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Launch and Reading: Save the Date


A reading and book launch, hosted by Contra Mundum Press, of my new translation of Robert Musil's Unions: Two Stories, on Sunday evening, June 23rd at 7 p.m. at Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Avenue (at St. Marks) in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, hopefully in their garden. 
And please spread the word to any other people who might be interested! 
More details to follow. 
And here is information about the book: