Archive for November, 2010

Musil’s Muse?

November 2, 2010

The French symbolist poet Paul Valéry is often mentioned with Musil. Both sought a “precision” in literature that they admired in the sciences. Reading Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle, I was struck by the resemblance between the life of Valéry and Musil’s character Ulrich. After a period as a poet in Mallarme’s circle and a traumatic love affair, Valéry took time off from writing to investigate his own self (and his alter ego M. Teste), a timeout that consumed twenty years of is life. A bit longer than Ulrich’s one year vacation, but similar in intent. This is Wilson on that period:

During the twenty years that follow, Valéry works in the Ministry of War and in the Havas news agency, and produces no more verse. The “study of oneself for its own sake, the comprehension of that attention itself and the desire to trace clearly for oneself the nature of one’s own existence” is the only thing which interest him now. During these years he writes his “Introduction  to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and invents his mythological character, M. Teste. Both Leonardo da Vinci and M. Teste (Mr. Head, a companion creation to Rabelais’s Messer Gaster, Mr. Belly) are, for Valéry, symbols of the pure intellect, of the human consciousness turned in upon itself. The mind of Leonardo in itself is something immeasurably greater than any of it manifestations in particular fields of activity–painting, writing, engineering or strategy. Action cramps and impoverishes the mind. For by itself the mind is able to deal with an infinite number of possibilities–it is not constrained by the limitations of a field. The mind by itself is omnipotent. And consequently the method, the theory, of doing anything is more interesting than the thing done. For the method may be applied so much more widely–may be universally applied. When a principle, in fact, “has been recognized and grasped, it is quite useless to waste one’s time applying it.”

And M. Teste, unlike Leonardo, does disdain to apply his method to anything. His whole existence is given up to the examination of his own intellectual processes. He is a symbol of the human consciousness isolated from “all the opinions and intellectual habits which spring from the common life and our external relations with other men,” and disembarassed of “all the sentiments and ideas which are engendered or excited in man by his misfortunes and his fears, his terrors and his hopes; and not freely by his sheer observations upon the world and upon himself.” M. Teste is, in fact, as his creator admits, frankly a monster. And though he exerts upon us a certain fascination, we resent him–he gives us the creeps. We sympathise with Mme. Teste, who is made uneasy by M. Teste’s preoccupation, by his way of entering a room as if he did not see it, by his addressing her as “Being” or “Thing.” Yet though she fears him, though she does not understand him, she has never ceased to adore him–she does not envy other women who have married ordinary men. And he, when he awakes from his meditations, sometimes seizes upon her brusquely, as if with relief, appetite and surprise. M. Teste and Mme. Teste are, after all, indispensable to each other. (67-69)

 Valéry emerges from this dream of M. Teste to write is greatest poetry. One wonders if Ulrich ever awakens.