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What Has to be Said is Unutterable: Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

Nu a Contre-Jour. Pierre Bonnard. 1908. Oil on Canvas

The artist in Josipovici’s short novel tries to explain the difficult of creating art and painting, “It’s that what has to be said is unutterable. Or else: How can we tell what is the right language?  The proper tongue? That which is licit?”  Art demands a certain silence, when creating it and viewing it.  Josipovici captures the essence of this silence in both the art and the artist himself in this deceptively complex narrative which he subtitles, “A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard.”

The painter, his wife and their daughter each have a section of the book in which they describe their life together, a life that is dominated and overpowered by the artist’s desire to paint.  The first section portrays a grown daughter who is bitter and angry at her parents because she feels rejected by them.  There is no place for her, she feels, in their family and the pets received more attention than she did.  Like Bonnard’s “Nu a Contre-Jour” painting, the most important figure in the book is the artist’s model, his wife.  She meets the artist when she is working as a model and for the next 45 years she becomes his only model.  He draws and paints her incessantly, especially in the bath.  Also similar to Bonnard’s paintings, the bath is a common scene in the book as the wife soothes a severe skin rash by bathing four times a day and the artists sketches her during these baths.

But as the wife’s narrative progresses it becomes apparent that she is suffering from a mental illness and the baths become a compulsion that sooth her physically and mentally.  It’s as if she is trapped in her marriage and in her husband’s paintings.  Her entire life has been reduced to being his model and she gets no respite from the art or from his compulsion to create.  In addition, the wife’s description of their life and her confusion call into question the entire interpretation of the story, especially the first part which involves the daughter.  Like any piece of art, our perception changes the more we interact with it.

Silence is used in many forms throughout the book.  Unanswered letters, telegrams, and telephones.  Passing notes instead of talking.  The wife silently pretends to sleep to avoid interacting with guests.  In the terse and succinct writing, questions are answered by repeating the questions.  And, of course, there are long periods of silence needed by the artist to work.  We realize at the very end, when the painter himself finally speaks, just how much silence has permeated their lives.  On the death of his wife the artist writes a one page letter to a friend expressing in raw, stark language how devastating his wife’s death is for him.  He is filled with grief, loneliness and anxiety.  But why did he keep silent about his true feelings for her when she was alive?

This was my first Josipovici book and its strange and unexpected story has intrigued me and made me eager to explore his writings further, especially his non-fiction.

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Some Concluding Thoughts on Musil’s The Man without Qualities

It’s impossible to do any kind of a coherent analysis of Musil’s brilliant, enigmatic, philosophical, unfinished magnum opus.  But I thought I would share some final ideas that kept coming to mind as I read Volume II in the Sophie Wilkins translation.  It can’t be a coincidence that Musil chose Diotima and Agathe, names from Plato’s Symopsium, for his prominent female characters.  Similar to Plato, Musil uses his characters that are sometimes quite serious, and oftentimes ironic or sarcastic to explore the topics of Eros (Love), beauty, goodness and morality.  Musil is interested in the passions that are sparked by physical love, but also the beauty and insight that Eros inspires when felt on a deeper level.  But none of his characters ever achieve a higher or successful or even contented state of Eros.  Diotima and Agathe are both married to taciturn, duty bound and stern men who satisfy them neither physically or intellectually.  When Diotima, who is described as a voluptuous beauty with her hair always in a perfect Grecian knot, begins to spend with a Prussian business magnate named Paul Arnheim, her emotional and intellectual connection with him allows her to see the beauty in other things around her.

But Diotima learns that it’s one thing to discuss a higher level of Eros that excludes a physical relationship and quite another issue in real life to be content in such a situation.  Neither she nor Arnheim can make the first move towards a sexual relationship and both are tormented by it.  At the beginning of Volume II, Diotima’s unhappiness due to her lack of fulfillment in the realm of Eros causes her physical symptoms in the form of cramps and migraines.  So she adjusts her strategy, and her library, in order to become a sexual expert and train her husband to become more of a “successful” husband.  In the end, however,  all of her newly acquired knowledge still doesn’t make up for the lack of an emotional connection with her now very confused and brooding husband.

The only relationship in Musil’s narrative that comes close to being a success is that developed between Ulrich and his sister, Agathe, with whom, before their father’s funeral, he hadn’t interacted since childhood.  They, too, have an instant emotional and intellectual connection and Musil hints at an incestuous affair between brother and sister.  One of these most obvious hints is from Agathe herself who summarizes Aristophanes speech from Plato’s Symposium:

‘You know that myth Plato tells, following some ancient source, that the gods divided the original human beings into halves, male and female?’ She had propped herself up on one elbow and unexpectedly blushed, feeling awkward at having asked Ulrich if he knew so familiar a story; then she resolutely charged ahead: ‘Now those two pathetic halves do all kinds of silly things to come together again.  It’s in all the schoolbooks for older children; unfortunately, they never tell you why it doesn’t work!’

And even this bond between brother and sister isn’t fulfilling enough for Agathe who, after an upsetting letter from her estranged husband, desperately needs a hug from Ulrich but instead gets a lecture on morality.   Even when Musil is dealing with political, religious or moral subjects, he tends to insert an idea or two about Eros.  In the last few pages of Volume II, as the leaders of the Parallel Campaign are still trying to figure out what to do for their Emperor’s 70th Jubilee, as different political factions try to insert their opposing agendas on the planning, Ulrich says,

‘These people aren’t so far wrong, you know, when one of them accuses the other of wanting to love if he only could, and the other retorts that it’s all the same with wanting to hate.  It’s true of all the feelings.  Hatred today has something companionable about it, and on the other hand, in order to feel what would really be love for another human being—I maintain,’ Ulrich said abruptly, ‘that two such people have never yet existed!’

I was thinking of reading the Posthumous Papers translated by Burton Pike sometime in the winter which continues some of Musil’s story.  But, then again, it seems fitting that Musil’s work is unfinished.  All of these characters would have had their lives disturbed and/or destroyed by the impending Great War and they certainly never would have come to any definitive conclusions about love, beauty, morality, or what to do about the Parallel Campaign.

 

 

 

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Topos Uranios: Robert Musil on Truth, Opinion and the Media

One of the threads that runs throughout Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, is the lines that are blurred, especially by those in authority and the media, between truth and opinion.  The protagonist, Ulrich, is hired to be a part of the campaign to celebrate the 70th jubilee of Franz Josef’s reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and suddenly finds himself coming in contact with the Austrian social, political and economic elites.  One such character is not even Austrian, but a Prussian businessman and prolific writer named Arnheim whose celebrity status outweighs the fact that he is not from the mother country yet is helping to plan a nationalist campaign to celebrate Austria.  The media adores this man of industry, a veritable Renaissance man who is able to discuss and be knowledgeable on just about any topic.  When the Austrian media is supposed to be covering the Austrian campaign to celebrate its Austria emperor, it is Arnheim, the Prussian, that most interests them.  Musil’s commentary on the situation is clever, witty and still relevant 100 years later:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In an age when one is just as likely to see or read a news story about world politics as the Kardashians in any major, global news outlet, this paragraph could just as well have been written about the current state of truth/opinion/media.

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A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

I’ve spent the last couple of days immersed in Musil’s enormous, 1,400 plus, two volume, unfinished Magnum Opus and have been completely drawn in and captivated by his writing.  My reading experience reminds me, so far, of War and Peace, which I devoured the winter before last in a matter of three weeks.  Musil constantly switches his narrative back and forth among different characters, buildings layers of interest through his third person point-of-view.  He starts, of course, with his main character, Ulrich—the very man without qualities—and then gives us portraits of those with whom Ulrich has contact, from the maid of a distant cousin, to a convicted murder in the news headlines,  to important members of the Austrian government.  What makes an epic book like this, and War and Peace, a truly great piece of literature is the level of riveting detailed that is maintained throughout the writing.

Another initial impression I have from reading the first few hundred pages of A Man without Qualities is what a brilliant and amazing wit Musil possesses.  I didn’t quite detect it, not at this level anyway, from reading his shorter works.  The chapter titles, for instance, are cleverly  funny: Chapter 28 is “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” and Chapter 39 is “A man without qualities consists of qualities without a man.”

In addition, when Musil is satirizing upper class society, intellectuals and the Austrian bureaucracy he uses bizarre and hilarious metaphors.  “But even at that time, as one got older and on longer acquaintance with the smokehouse of the mind, in which the world cures the bacon of its daily affairs, one learned to adapt oneself to reality, and a person with a trained mind would finally end up limiting himself to his specialty and spend the rest of his life convinced that the whole of life should perhaps be different, but there was no point in thinking about it. This is more of less how people who follow intellectual pursuits maintain their equilibrium.”  Ulrich has had failed careers as a soldier and an academic mathematician and now, while he tries to decide what he should do with the rest of his life,  he accidentally falls into a governmental position.  Ulrich is appointed to the committee that is planning a celebration of the 70th year of Franz Josef’s reign, a committee which has no real goals, no concrete ideas and isn’t quite sure what to call itself.  Musil’s wit reminds me of Dickens whose novel Little Dorrit, in particular,  is mixed with witty and serious commentary on the ludicrous nature of bureaucracy.

But Musil doesn’t go too far with his humor which would make his characters ridiculous and uninteresting.  Ulrich’s existential crisis and his inability to choose a career cause him to do a great deal of thinking and these passages are some of the most philosophical, and profound, of the novel:

Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change.  It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time.  In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whos appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently.  What is even more peculiar is that most people don’t even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune.  Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape.

Some might find a novel with such a philosophical bent tedious, but this type of writing is what draws me to Tolstoy, and Dickens and now to Musil.

My friend and fellow blogger Tony is also reading A Man without Qualities and has an excellent post on the theme of mathematics in Musil that I encourage everyone to also read: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/robert-musil-mathematics-and-infinity/

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A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

Even though this final work of Tolstoy’s, not published until after his death, is rather brief, the narrative techniques are similar to his greatest historical novel, War and Peace. The eponymous hero of the book is Hadji Murat, a well-respected, Muslim tribal leader. During the 1851 Chechen revolt against the Russians, Murat helped lead the locals in the charge against the Russians who claimed that they were bringing modern government and prosperity to an archaic, Muslim state. Tolstoy’s story constantly switches back and forth between characters that range from the lowest peasants in the Chechen villages to Prince Nicholas I. This incessant picking up and dropping off of different narrative threads is what causes me to devour his novels. What will happen to the soldier who is shot while on night watch? Which lover will Prince Nicholas choose? And how will Murat meet his tragic end?

Murat is drawn into an argument with Shamil, the leader of the Chechen revolt, and defects to the Russian side when Shamil captures and threatens Murat’s family. Tolstoy portrays both sides as flawed and Murat is caught between two ruthless, cruel and unpredictable dictators. There may be cultural difference between east and west—in dress, religion, social habits, etc. But one thing they have in common is the brutality of an all-powerful despot. My favorite passage in the book is Tolstoy’s description of Nicholas I, which could also just as easily describe many a world leader in the 21st century:

The flattery, continuous, obvious, completely divorced from reality—of the people around him had distorted his vision of himself to such an extent that he no longer saw his own contradictions, did not attempt to reconcile his actions and words with reality or logic or even basic common sense and was quite convinced that all his directions, however senseless, unfair and contradictory they might be, became unreasonable, fair and consistent with each other simply because he had delivered them.

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