Thursday, January 28, 2021

David Auerbach's Review of Theater Symptoms in The LA Review of Books

"THEATER SYMPTOMS: Plays and Writings on Drama is the mother lode for Robert Musil aficionados, a vital piece of the author’s canon. Containing the major play The Utopians, other dramatic material and fragments, and Musil’s theater criticism, much of it translated into English for the first time, this anthology shows Musil to be a writer of far greater range than is often assumed.

Musil was likely the most sheerly intelligent of modernist writers (which is not to say the most talented). His work entrances with its combination of rigor and passion (“precision and soul,” as he put it), yet it is also marked by significant lacunae. His magnum opus The Man Without Qualities, two sections of which were published in 1930 and 1933, was left unfinished at the author’s death in 1942. How to square that massive achievement with Musil’s equally brilliant, but radically different, earlier works, such as The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), a novella, or Unions (1911), a collection of stories? Above all, how to reconcile Musil’s deep engagement with sociological and political theorizing with his spiritual and aesthetic yearnings? Most of Musil’s contemporaries fell on one side or the other of this dichotomy: Hermann Broch tended toward the sociological, for example, while Thomas Mann embraced the aesthetic. Musil is one of the very few to have attempted to straddle this line, and for that reason alone his work is immensely valuable."


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Publication Day Interview and Special Discount Purchase Rate: Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama

 It's publication day for Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, so here is an interview about translating the book:

Also, Contra Mundum Press is offering a 23% off special until December 17th if you buy both Theater Symptoms and Unions. You can get them both for $40. flat by sending money through Paypal at

Visit Contra Mundum's web site for other delicious books to order!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Translating Ideas Into Images: Alessandro Segalini's Binghamton Design Class Covers Musil's Theater Symptoms

 Alessandro Segalini, the brilliant typographer and cover-designer for Contra Mundum Press, is also a professor at Binghamton College, where his lucky students have the opportunity to delve deeply into the complexities and mysteries involved in translating the ideas, mood, context of a book into a cover design that is not only beautiful, but that somehow conveys to the potential reader something important about the book. In a book such as Musil's Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, the challenges are increased by the manifold material within the book, not to mention Musil's own resistance to being pigeon-holed in any one movement, position, stance. 

First, Alessandro had his students read my preface and introduction to the book, and they all wrote a little bit about what it evoked for them and came up with some questions. Then I had the pleasure of visiting the class (via Zoom, of course) to talk with them about the milieu of Musil's work, the turbulent 20's, and European Modernism as well as the concerns of Musil's work in general and the particular themes and subjects in this book. It was a fascinating conversation for me, raising many intriguing questions about how complex ideas might be distilled, symbolized, represented in a single cover, about the nature of translation itself, from language to language, from verbal to imagistic, and so on. It challenged me to think about how I might distil someone as complex as Musil, and something as multi-faceted as this book into a few words or images. We came up with a few basic ideas: multiplicity, union of opposites, many-faced, lacking a solid place to stand, open-ended....

Yesterday, Alessandro sent the results to me and Rainer Hanshe, the heart and brain of Contra Mundum Press, and we three chose our favorites of the many, many very impressive cover designs. Interestingly, there was a great variety of opinions (Rainer and I chose completely different favorites, which just shows there is not always any accounting of taste). Below you will find the five finalists, along with excerpts from the artists' commentary on their process. 


This cover is by Yanfen Liang, who writes, that after long introspetion: "Finally I found a black figure, a black figure is shaping itself. This picture is called Hombre puzzle and I found it on This is like a Musil experience. Every experience of each person will become a part of the body. At the same time, one hand grasps an eye puzzle, both eyes look straight ahead as if to examine and observe, but at the same time, they are also observing themselves. In order to be more meaningful, I divided the picture into three stages, from blur to clear. This shows how the personal experience has changed and clarified thinking. I think the overall picture shows a bold observer, critic, and thinker."

This cover is by Yingyen Chen, who writes that Musil's passion for both art and criticism was an inspiration for the creation of the cover. "With the inspiration of symbolism," Chen writes, "I came up with the idea to use abstract shapes instead of  an actual image to create the design. The sharpness of straight lines, as the tenderness and elegance of art, intertwine with each other and create counterparts". Musil's passion for "writing and criticizing in such a complicated and unstable period" was a further impetus for the "dualistic and dialectic" choice of colors, shapes, and fonts. 

Brian Wissing designed this one. He writes: "The eyes in this cover were an important message for me from the beginning. It makes a lot of sense to think about relating eyes to his work. I was intending to relate the eyes with how introspective he was into his society in his writing and in his critiques. Whether you want to paint it as a good or bad thing, he was great at looking, observing and judging. The magnifying glass plays with that as well. [...] There is even the lone eye on the back cover, staring you down as you read the synopsis. While I don’t intend to make anybody uncomfortable necessarily, I do intend to hold people attention and hold their gaze". 


This cover is by Marina Stern, who writes: "My intention is for these images to express the deterioration of art and ideologies over time, and also highlight the helplessness which Musil may have experienced within his life (considering the historical context of war and censoring of the arts). The back cover depicting Perseus and the beheading of Medusa develops a metaphor between Musil's ideologies and the overcoming of manipulation, represented by Medusa. The image of a deteriorating face, and the beheading of a symbol of hate, represent Musil’s views on the arts and creativity: allowing ideas to fall into the realm of the generic, and the dissolving of arts into history mean the loss of creativity. Thus, Musil strives for true creativity and fights against the deterioration of the arts". When it came to choice of fonts and colors, Stern writes: "Hierarchy is made clear with the largest text being the title, and in close proximity the author’s name is below. Cochin was used for the front cover title, developing a powerful, strong, and semi-traditional or historical feel. Skia is used for the author’s name and back cover description. This choice is attributed to the font’s similarity to old greek writings, and also due to its readability and legibility in large blocks of text (simple sans serif style). These fonts blend well due to matching angles in certain letter forms. The paper background was another feature I added since its crinkled, imperfect texture adds to the sense of something deteriorating or flawed. Horizontal patterning on the front highlights a breaking point and deterioration of normalcy. While in back, the line highlights the statue’s gaze. The wine color choice melds with the darkness of the paper background while creating visual interest. Lastly, the positioning of the line art, including the face on the cover and face on the back, create an inward-pointing line of sight. Along the spine, the deteriorating statue looks straight ahead and outward at the reader: all lines of sight direct the viewer’s attention".

Evangeline Kontos came up with this design, explaining: "Musil spoke out against the decline of art, and even social relations, and he did so in an unequivocal manner. When thinking of design ideas to represent “Theater Symptoms”, I wanted to depict Musil’s candid personality-- his sarcasm and honesty during the uniformity during the World War. [...] The red line formed into the shape of a capital “M”, for “Musil”. The red line represented “cutting through” normalcy and repetition, as Musil strived for reformation in the art world (and social/ political issues) with a plain-spoken attitude. I drew the black lines on Illustrator and erased a path to fit the red line. I cut the edge of the red line to a sharp point that fittingly “points” to the author's text. I added a light beige background to add dullness, and to complement the monotone/repetitive lines. The red stroke stands out amongst the background, as Musil did. I used the Bely Display font for the title, as I wanted to represent a more classical feel, as Musil lived and wrote during the World War. I paired the font with Futura, a modern sans serif font that is obviously different from that of the title. The two, I believe, pair well together, and the contemporary feel of Futura suits the author. The spine features the same fonts, this time in red, that once again cut through the black lines. In all, I hope that this concept can show through to the reader, or at least compel the viewer to open the book".

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Theater Symptoms Available for Pre-Order Now!

Dear Musil Fanatics,  The book, Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama, is now available for pre-order. This is a fat book, jam-packed with plays, play fragments, reviews, and theoretical writings about the crisis of theater and culture Musil diagnosed between 1921 and 1929, all of which is, alas, quite relevant for our own historical moment. In these strange times, we will probably not have the pleasure of an in-person book launch, but stay tuned for virtual readings, interviews, and such to come closer to the publication date (December 17th). If you order early, you can be sure to receive the book in time for holiday gift giving or, hopefully, with enough time to read it before the Apocalypse comes.

And soon from Indie Bound:

Thank you for supporting small, independent publishers, translators, and other dreamers, who endeavor to bring you some small bit of light, inspiration, catharsis, and terrible beauty in these often discouraging times. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Theater

This almost-completed project I started a few long years ago has grown to almost 500 pages under my tired eyes. I can't even really remember how I got the idea to translate and edit a collection of Musil's plays and writings on theater or why exactly I decided to focus on this particular aspect of Musil's untranslated work rather than another, but it has been an intense and revelatory experience. It has deepened my knowledge of Musil's ideas and writing and also has provided new challenges in the realms of translation and the compiling of editions. Here is a description of the book.

The world seems very different from when I began the translation. We are in the fifth month of a global pandemic and the streets of the world are reeling from the sparks begun by a popular uprising against police brutality against people of color in America. The world may be on the brink of revolutions, counter-revolutions, and any number of possible totalitarian regime changes. Many people are clamoring for a dismantling of not only the vicious and militaristic roots of American racism, but also for the canceling of the artifacts of the European-American cultural tradition, insisting that the great books so many of us have treasured are irretrievably implicated in the current evils.

In some ways, it seems a strange time to give birth to a book of translations by a dead white European male, consisting in great part of a lament on the state of cultural decline in 1920's Germany, Austro-Hungary, and France as diagnosed through "symptoms" visible in its theater. Except that Musil's plays and reviews and diagnostic essays on the state of theater are actually more important now than ever. Reading about the artistic controversies of the inter-war period (the Weimar Republic in Germany), amid the rise of that century's competing totalitarianisms, we experience the atmosphere where Fascism and Stalinism took root; the Great Depression that contributed to the rise of these movements hangs over our heads today as we await with trepidation the economic repercussions of the Covid-19 shut down; it is chilling to realize that many of the actors, directors, and playwrights mentioned in the texts would, over the next two decades, be either exiled, in hiding, murdered in concentration camps or by Soviet purges. Or else they would become collaborators of one or the other deadly regime. The 2020s are haunted by the 1920's and its subsequent horrific decades.
     So what does this have to do with theater, art, "culture"? Aren't those things frivolous? Bourgeois? Something for the "privileged"?

     For Musil, whose intelligence was a sort of seismograph of cultural and social tremors, art had an essential role to play in the shaping of society, a role that he felt had been largely neglected in the wake of spreading commodification, advertising, and the cheapening of what was swiftly becoming no longer culture, but a "culture industry". Art--theater in this case--was not entertainment, not distraction, but a force of existential shattering, a shattering that would open up its audience to new ways of looking at and being in the world, an aesthetic and ethical experience that would change not only one's individual life, but all of society. What is important here (among many things that are important here) is the difference between Musil's vision of art and theater as culturally effective and the vision of a more didactically political theater practitioner like Bertolt Brecht, whose "Epic Theater" did, however, share some of the qualities of Musil's ideal theater. (Musil, for example, anticipated Brecht's concept of the Verfremdungseffekt, by employing radical techniques of disjunction and surprise in his plays, breaking the illusion of the theater frame, and in general, by his belief in art as a transformative social force).

The important difference here is that while both Musil and Brecht worked to destabilize the status quo and expose the absurdities of modern life and the hypocrisies of capitalism and commodification, Brecht did this in service to a new ideology (Marxism); while Musil tore away the veil of assurance without providing a new ideology to replace the old discredited ones; Musil's destabilized world is a fact of life; Brecht's is a stage on the road to a new order. Musil takes away our false security and leaves us with a radical existential uncertainty. And this radical existential uncertainty is the realm of aesthetic experience and of ethics. A realm increasingly misunderstood and increasingly endangered today by ideological convictions of all stripes.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Feeling Bookish Podcast on Musil

I had the pleasure of being interviewed on the wonderful Feeling Bookish Podcast. We talked about Musil, metaphor, Modernism, living the motivated life, language, circularity, timelessness, and much more.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

#Musil2020 Continued amid Islands of Isolation, with Ulrich and Agathe; and also with Clarisse!

While the world reels from the shocks of the pandemic and we are all practicing physical,if not completely social, isolation, I am rereading the rest of Burton Pike's brilliant translation of a large selection of the Nachlass chapters of The Man without Qualities (from the Knopf 1995 edition), wherein the siblings, Ulrich and Agathe, remove themselves from the world in order to more perfectly concentrate on the mystical possibilities inspired in them by their metaphoric incestuous love. First they separate themselves by means of simply not going out, cutting themselves off from the round of parties and Parallel Campaign meetings, and by wandering around their garden protected by the heavily symbolic garden fence, through which they occasionally experiment with loving their neighbor by imagining becoming one with a "scoundrel" who is, as Agathe notes, as strange as death to her. But then, especially as legal troubles in the form of Agathe's husband Hagauer's attempts to get her to come back and also his more frightening inquiries into the irregularities of the will, with which Agathe has tampered, our two "criminals" run a series of islands, called in some passages "the Island of Health".

These removals from the world are physical enactments of Musil's "Other Condition," which arises even amidst everyday life, in the moments of exceptional seeing and experiencing felt by the siblings. Moments when the fragmented character of the world is suddenly resolved into meaning. Moments when one can do no wrong (anything that occurs within the Other Condition, as within love, is beyond good and evil), moments when the usual sense of the arbitrariness of everything is transformed into significance. To set out to lengthen these moments into some form of duration is a dangerous business, bound to disappoint. It is also, in a strange way, the paradox of this unfinished, unfinishable novel, a sort of endless attenuation of the momentary, motivated resistance to habit and quotidian meaninglessness, an attempt to hold the moment (the one thing, remember, that Faust may not request of Mephistopheles without losing the devilish bargain: "Moment, moment, stay a while, you are so beautiful!). To live life like literature; to never do anything that is not motivated by pure will and desire. As Walter Pater so unforgettably writes, "To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life". But who can stand it?

The sea is the great test for the siblings who have now become fully lovers, having worn themselves out with happiness and sexual pleasure. We do not know how long it takes for them to begin to go mad, alone on these islands (without books!) staring only into each other's eyes and into the endless sea. But we do know that the idyll does eventually begin to grow tired, so tired that even a banal art historian who stops awhile at one of the hotels provides some welcome distraction for Agathe, which disgusts Ulrich, who, nevertheless admits to finding the chamber maid attractive. As Ulrich notes, love cannot exist between two people alone. One always needs a third: to admire, to envy, to lure away. Or, two lovers who are united against the world also need the world's proximity to experience their separateness.  In the beautiful passage titled "The Three Sisters," Ulrich and Agathe talk about the world as if it were the third lover in a menâge à trois with them; a lover neither would be jealous of. But Ulrich also asks Agathe if she could imagine sharing a man with another woman. She says she could imagine it being quite beautiful--but only could not imagine the woman.

But in a note at the end of one passage, Musil writes that Clarisse soon joins the siblings who are floundering in the infinity of their own four eyes, suggesting that, perhaps, he had considered experimenting with a sexual, sensual adventure with these three characters. This scene was either not written or has disappeared. But in some of the most brilliant passages of the book, Ulrich is alone with a now fully-mad Clarisse on the Island of Health.

 Here they both lose their connection to normal reality even more than Ulrich and Agathe do, as Ulrich begins to become infected with Clarisse's vision of the world. Yet, this iteration is merely another step in the direction he had been going all along, a matter merely of emphasis. And, as such, is another conscious, even logically-grounded experiment on the nature of what is real; for the whole book has taken on this fundamental question: how do we know what is real, necessary, law, essence, truth and what is merely arbitrary, contingent, custom, habit, prejudice? Musil describes over and over the oscillation between what is (natural law, reality, what must be) and what could be (possibility, new vision, perspectivism, subjectivity), never fully abandoning what is real, but sounding its complex depths. For he was a scientist and a precise explorer amid the vast realms. What he wanted to do was to expand the map of reality, expand our vision of what is real. And the discussions of Clarisse's visions on the Island of Health are a perfect object lesson in this process of new seeing:

"For awhile, Clarisse saw things that one otherwise does not see. Ulrich could explain that splendidly. Perhaps it was insanity. But a forester out walking sees a different world from the one a botanist or a murderer sees. One sees many invisible things. A woman sees the material of a dress, a painter a lake of liquid colors in its stead. I see through the window whether a hat is hard or soft. If I glance into the street I can likewise see whether it is warm or cold outside, whether people are happy, sad, healthy, or ailing; in the same way, the taste of a fruit is sometimes already in the fingertips that touch them. Ulrich remembered: if one looks at something upside down--for instance, behind the lens of a small camera--one notices things one had overlooked. A waving back and forth or shrubs or heads that to the normal eye appear motionless. Or one becomes conscious of a peculiar hopping quality of the way people walk. One is astonished at the persistent restlessness of things. In the same way, there are unperceived double images in the field of vision, for one eye sees something differently from the other; afterimages crystallize from still pictures like the most delicate-colored fogs; the brain suppresses, supplements, forms the supposed reality; the ear does not hear the thousands of sounds of one's own body; skin, joints, muscles, the innermost self, broadcast a contrapuntal composition of innumerable sensations that, mute, blind, and deaf, perform the subterranean dance of the so-called waking state" (1555-1556).

And then, most radically questioning all that is stable and conventional, Ulrich reflects:

"The foundation of human life seemed to him a monstrous fear of some kind, indeed really a fear of the indeterminate. He lay on the white sandy platform of the island between the depths of sea and sky. He lay as in snow. Clarisse was romping an playing like a child behind the thistly dunes. He was not afraid. He saw life from above. The island had flown away with him. He understood his past. Hundreds of human orders have come and gone: from the gods to brooch pins, and from psychology to the record player, every one of them an obscure unit, every one of them mysteriously sinking after a few hundred or a few thousand years and passing into rubble and building site: what else is this but a climbing up out of nothingness, each attempt on a different wall? Like one of those dunes blown by the wind, which for a while forms its own weight and then is blown away again by the wind? What is everything we do other than a nervous fear of being nothing: beginning with our pleasures, which are no pleasures but only a din, a chattering instigated to kill time, because a dark certainty admonishes us that it will in the end annihilate us, all the way to those inventions that outdo each other, the senseless mountains of money that kill the spirit, whether one is suffocated or borne up by them, to the continually changing fashions of the mind, of clothes that change incessantly, to murder, assassination, war, in which a profound mistrust of whatever is stable and created explodes: what is all that but the restlessness of a man shoveling himself down to his knees out of a grave he will never escape, a being that will never entirely climb out of nothingness, who fearfully flings himself into shapes but is, in some secret place that he is hardly aware of himself, vulnerable and nothing?" (1557-58).

This terror in the face of the uncreated and unformed--the world like an infinite ocean, without firm delineations or rules, the modern condition of world, which Nietzsche described as a horizon (the horizon of God, traditional morality) wiped clean by a sponge---that existential terror of openness, which one avoids by flinging oneself into the predetermined forms, constructs, rules--Musil elsewhere describes them as the two dozen cake pans--is only revealed as open to us in special moments. Terrible, sublime, exceptional moments. In such states, the usual fabric of reality is torn; the usual scaffolds are seen to be merely stage props, temporary, ephemeral at best.

The point is not to deny normal reality, but to expand it. What Ulrich elsewhere calls "a tear in the paper" of normal reality, the mind loosened by a change or a vacation-mood, might precipitate the ability to see differently, though one often unfortunately loses the new insights, bit by bit as one reintegrates back into regular, dull life. A crime, too, is a means to such a tear in the paper--be it an artistic crime against formal stylistic rules, a crime against one's contemporary social morals, or a gratuitous act against expectations. A calamity such as the one we are collectively experiencing now can also incite new seeing. One does not wish for disasters, plagues, wars, or personal upheavals like heartbreak or the death of a loved one, but when they come, they do provide powerful opportunities for new seeing and experiencing.  New visions that can also lead to new ways of living and being together in the world.