Tag Archives: Robert Musil

Failing to Honor the Best of the Achaeans: Musil on Writing and Intellect

In The Man without Qualities, Musil satirizes not only journalists (as I highlighted in my previous post), but writers and intellectuals of all types. He says about the “Great Author,” for instance:

The most indispensable condition for being a Great Author is always that one has to write books or plays that will do equally well for high and low. To effect the desired good, one must be an effective writer to begin with; this is the basic principle of every Great Author’s life. It is a strange and wonderful principle too, a fine antidote to the temptations of solitude, Goethe’s very own principle of effective action: if you will just get things done in a good world, everything else will fall into place. For once a writer has made his effect, his life undergoes a remarkable sea change. His publisher stops saying that a businessman who goes into publishing is a sort of tragic idealist because he could do so much better for himself by dealing in textiles or unspoiled paper.

Furthermore, he sarcastically observes:

Meaning no offence, but dogs prefer a busy street corner to a lonely cliff for their calls of nature, so why should human beings who feel the higher urge to leave their names behind choose a cliff that is obviously unfrequented? Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.

And as far as the critic is concerned Musil has this to say:

The critics discover him [the Great Author] as a worthy subject for their labors, because critics are often not really bad people at heart but former poets who, because times are bad, have to pin their hearts to something that will inspire them to speak out; they are war poets or love poets, depending on the nature of the inward gleanings for which they must find a market, so their preference for the work of the Great Author rather than just any author is quite understandable.

Even librarians are not exempt from being the targets of his wit. The librarian that appears in the novel has this to say about his profession: “The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and tables of contents, ‘Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.'”

I spent several hours last night reading Musil’s Diaries, 1899-1941, in the hopes that they would shed some light on his feelings about his craft and his fellow writers and I was not disappointed. Musil’s entries throughout these years are filled with comments about his process and how serious and meticulous he was with his writing. It is important to him that his characters be drawn from real life and his own experiences and he spends countless hours composing sketches of his characters. In an entry from 1911 he writes, “In Torless, the unifying momentum comes from the desire to narrate a particular story that has been thought out in advance. That is the backbone around which all other things—my interpretation and conception of the story—are grouped.”

There are many remarks and comments about authors he admires—Nietzsche, Emerson, and, not surprisingly, Tolstoy. In my first post about Musil I felt that The Man without Qualities was similar in style of narrative to War and Peace. Musil says about reading Anna Karenina:

The way that Tolstoy removes the cozy “family magazine” quality from those fortunate average people—KatJa, Lewin, Oblonsy—is almost a trick, but it’s overwhelming nonetheless. He does so by not glossing over slightly ridiculous, or evil, minor impulses—for example, when Oblonsky is moved to tears when he comes from Karenin and feels glad about the good turn that he is trying to perform, but, at the same time, is glad about a joke that he is working on: what is the difference between me, acting as a peacemaker, and a commander in the field, or something of the kind. In all cases he sees his people as a mixture of good and evil or the ridiculous.

Musil also doesn’t hesitate to record notes about authors for whom he had no professional respect. Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann are among those he despises. He says about Thomas Mann: “Thomas Mann and similar authors write for the people who are there; I write for people who aren’t there!” This brings to mind Musil’s satire about the Great Author, the critic and the publisher who pander to what’s popular among the mob for the sake of glory or cash.

Philip Payne, the translator of Musil’s Diaries, points out that a leading Germanist at the time conducted a survey of noteworthy, contemporary authors and Musil himself was not among those named. For an intellectual man who studied not only literature and the humanities, but science and the social sciences this was a great snub. It also helps us to understand, a least a little bit, his sarcasm for contemporary writers. Put in Homeric terms, they failed to honor the Best of the Achaeans. I don’t blame him for being upset.

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How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

In the introduction to Shaun Whitehead’s translation of The Confusions of Young Törless, J.M. Coetzee writes about Musil, “The education of the senses through a refining of erotic life seemed to him to hold the most immediate promise of lifting society to a higher ethical plane. He deplored the rigid sexual roles that bourgeois mores laid down for women and men. ‘Whole countries of the soul have been lost and submerged as a consequence,’ he wrote.”

When, as an adolescent, Törless is dropped off at one of Austria’s most prestigious boarding schools, he feels alone, untethered and confused. No longer under the constant guidance and moral direction of his parents, he must find own way—emotionally, morally and physically—among other boys struggling with the same issues. Törless’s loneliness and solitude weigh heavily on him throughout the narrative. At times his isolation seems to crush him. Musil oftentimes weaves natural images into his description of Törless’s emotional isolation:

Then a pleasant memory came to him. The house in the country where they had spent the previous summer. Nights in the silent park. A velvet-dark firmament quivering with starts. His mother’s voice from the depths of the garden, where she was walking with Papa on the faintly shimmering gravel paths. Songs that she sang quietly to herself. But again…a cold shiver ran through him…there was that painful comparison. What might the two of them have been feeling? Love? No, the idea was now occurring to him for the first time. Love was something quite different. Not something for grown-ups and adults; let alone for his parents. Sitting by the open window at night and feeling abandoned, feeling different from the grown-ups, feeling misunderstood by every laugh and every mocking look, being unable to explain to anyone what one meant, and longing for for someone who might understand…that is love! But you have to be young and lonely for that.

Törless’s mother and his conflicted emotions about her are also prominent in the book which is not surprising since, as Coetzee points out, Musil himself wrote about his own maternal confusions in his diaries. Torless begins to explore his own ideas of morality by exploring his sexuality. He visits a local prostitute, which is a common pastime of many of the boys at the school. He tries to explore mathematics and the philosophy of Kant in order to cast off his feelings of loneliness.

But his life takes a sinister and confusing turn at the school when he witnesses two of his classmates mentally, physically and sexually tormenting a boy that they catch stealing money. Basini has several debts which he can’t pay–his mother is a widower on a fixed income—and resorts to stealing from the other boys. Even among the upper classes there is a pecking order based on wealth.

The passages in the book that describe the boys tormenting and torturing Basini are difficult to read. Musil’s casual comment that such things are common among all male boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th century was sad and horrifying. But in the end Torless rejects the mores of these bourgeois boys and makes the decision to leave the school. But, as his mother comes to the school to take him away, the book ends on an interesting note, reminding us of Törless’s continuing struggle with sex, morality and emotions: “And he breathed in the faintly perfumed fragrance rising from his mother’s waist.”

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Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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