Archive for September, 2012

Art Anniversary

September 21, 2012
It is comforting to be surrounded by a personal library, containing as it does a history of your intellectual passions. The problem is those books when opened now probably won’t recreate your original passions. Musil wonders why.
If, as is the case from time to time, you happen to reencounter a play or a novel which twenty years ago grabbed hold of your soul, along with the souls of many others, you experience something which has actually never been explained, since apparently everyone takes it for granted: the sparkle is gone, the importance has disappeared, dust and moths fly off at your touch. But why this aging must take place and what exactly is altered in the process, this no one knows. The comedy of all art anniversaries consists of the old admirers making solemn, uneasy faces, as if their collar-button had slipped down behind their shirt front.
It is not the same as reencountering a flame of your youth who has not grown any prettier over the years. For in the latter case you no longer even comprehend what once made you stutter, although at least it has something to do with the touching transitory nature of all earthly pursuits and the notoriously fickle nature of love. But a work of literature that you reencounter is like an old sweetheart who for twenty years has been embalmed in alcohol: not a hair is different, and not a fleck of her rosy epidermis has changed. A shiver rolls down your spine! Now you are supposed to be once again who you were: one semblance demands another. It is a stretching torture, in the course of which the soles have remained in place, but the rest of the body has been twisted  a thousand times around the revolving world!…
…It is, we realize, if appearances do not deceive, related to fashion. Fashion, after all, is not only marked by the one characteristic, namely that you find it ridiculous in retrospect, but also by the other, that as long as a fashion lasts, you can hardly imagine taking seriously the opinions of a man who is not dressed from head to toe just as ridiculously as you yourself are. I would not know what in our admiration of antiquity could shield a budding philosopher from suicide, if not the fact that Plato and Aristotle wore no pants; pants have contributed far more than you might think to the intellectual development of Europe, for without them, Europeans would most likely never have gotten over their classical-humanistic inferiority complex vis-à-vis the antique…
But what conclusions may we draw from the fact that it is just as ridiculously unpleasant t look at old fashions (so long as they have not yet become costumes), as it is ridiculously unpleasant to look at old pictures, or the outmoded façades of old-style houses, and to read yesterday’s books? Clearly, there is no other conclusion except that we become unpleasant to ourselves the moment we gain some distance from what we were. This stretch of self-loathing begins several years before now and ends approximately with our grandparents, that is, the time to which we begin to be indifferent. It is only then that what was is no longer outdated, but begins to be old; it is our past, and no longer that which passed away from us. But what we ourselves did and were lies almost completely in the realm of self-loathing….
How are we to make sense of this? Apparently inherent to the nature of temporal matters is a certain degree of exaggeration, a “superplus” and superabundance. Even a slap in the face requires more rage than you can be accountable for. This enthusiasm of“now” burns up, and as soon as it has become superfluous, it is extinguished by forgetting…
Only great art, that indeed which alone, strictly speaking, merits being called art, constitutes an exception. But the latter has never really fit that well in the society of the living.  (Art Anniversay, 82-86)

That Great Blue Window with the Cloud Curtains

September 6, 2012

Our excursions to museums have a lot in common with vacations to places distinctive for their history or natural beauty. But to share these experiences we need the proper words, which are most easily acquired by reading the placards by paintings and evenwith helpful picture postcards. Musil sympathizes with our discomfort when we are left to see with our own eyes.

You really do have to understand these people correctly! They are very happy indeed to be on a vacation trip and to see so many beautiful things that others cannot see; but it causes them pain and embarrassment actually to have to look at these things.If a tower is taller than other towers, a precipice deeper than the common precipice or a famous painting particularly large or small, that is all right, for the difference can be ascertained and talked about; it is for this reason that they tend to seek outa famous palace that is particularly spacious or particularly old, and among landscapes they prefer the wild ones….If, however, something is not high, deep, large, small, or strikingly painted, in short, if something is not a phenomenon worth talking about,but merely beautiful, they choke—as though on a big smooth bite that will neither go up nor down, a morsel too soft to suffocate on, and too tough to let a word pass. Thus emerge those Oohs! and Ahs!, painful syllables of suffocation…

Experienced art commentators naturally have their own special techniques about which we might well have something to say; but this would be going too far. And, moreover, even the uncorrupted average man, despite the disagreeable effects of his constriction,feels a genuine satisfaction when standing face to face, as it were, with something acknowledged by experts as beautiful. This satisfaction has its own curious nuances. It contains for instance some of the same pride you feel when you can say that you passedthe bank building at the very same hour when the famous bank robber X must have made his escape; other people feel enraptured just to set foot in the city in which Goethe spent eight days, or to know the cousin by marriage of the lady who first swam the EnglishChannel; there are indeed people who find it particularly wonderful just to live in such a momentous era….What they feel, were they able to put it into words, is as if, behind that great blue window with the cloud curtains, someone had been standing a longtime watching them…

And you may not want to believe it, but it is usually for this very reason alone that we ourselves travel to those places depicted in the postcards we buy, a tendency which does not in and of itself make sense, since it would after all be much easierto simply order the cards by mail. And this is the reason why such postcards have to over-bearingly and over-realistically beautiful; if ever they were to start looking natural, then mankind would have lost something. “So this is what it looks like here,”we say to ourselves and study the card mistrustfully; then we write below: “You can’t imagine how lovely it is…!” It is the same manner of speaking by which one man confides in another: “You can’t imagine how much she loves me…” (95-98)

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

September 4, 2012

Musil compiled some of his short, mostly newspaper, writings in 1935 in “Posthumous Papers of a Living Author.” The edginess of many of them may in part be due to his resentment over his lack of recognition, but they are nonetheless delightful in an outsiders kind of way. This quote is taken from a NYT book review and is a full chapter. I will excerpt passages in future posts.


If over the course of the years you are compelled to pass through painting exhibitions, then surely one day you are bound to invent the term paintspreader. He is to the painter what the penpusher is to the poet. The term gives order to a hodgepodge of disparate phenomena. Since the beginning of our reckoning of time penpushers have lived off adaptations of the Ten Commandments and a few fables handed down to them by antiquity; the assumption that paintspreading is likewise based on a few fundamental principles is not therefore altogether out of the question.

Ten such principles would not be too few. For if you apply ten artistic principles effectively, that is, combined in alternating order, the result, mistakes in calculation notwithstanding, is three million, six-hundred twenty-eight thousand, and eight hundred different combinations. Each of these combinations would be different from the others, and all of them nonetheless still the same. The connoisseur could spend his life counting: one-two-three-four-five . . ., two-one-three-four-five . . ., three-two-one-four-five . . . and so on. Naturally the connoisseur would be indignant and would perceive this as a threat to his accomplished abilities.

It also seems that after several hundred thousand paintspreaders the whole business would become ridiculous, and they would then switch artistic ”directions.” You can see what an artistic direction is, the moment you set foot in an exhibition hall. You would be more hard-pressed to recognize it, if you had to pass before a single solitary painting; but spread over many walls, artistic schools, directions, and periods are as easily distinguishable, one from another, as wallpaper patterns. On the other hand, the theoretical underpinnings of these various schools, directions, and periods usually remain unclear. This is by no means meant as a slight upon the paintspreaders; they produce honest work, are well versed in their craft and are personally, for the most part, distinctive fellows. But the production statistics level out all differences.

We do however have to acknowledge one disadvantage that works against them: the fact that their paintings hang openly on the wall. Books have the advantage of being bound, and often uncut. They therefore stay famous longer; they maintain their freshness, and fame, after all, begins at that point at which you have heard of something but are not familiar with it. The paintspreaders, on the other hand, have the advantage of being more regularly sought out and ”written up” than are the penpushers. If it weren’t for the art market, how difficult it would be to decide which work you prefer! Christ, in his day, drove the dealers out of the Temple: I, however, am convinced that if you possess the true faith, you must also be able to sell it; then you could also adorn yourself with it, and then there would be a great deal more faith in the world than there is now!

Another advantage enjoyed by painting is that there is a method to it. Anyone can write. Perhaps everyone can paint too, but this fact is less well known. Techniques and styles were invented to envelop painting in a shroud of mystery. Not everyone can paint like someone else; to do that, you have to first learn how. Those elementary school children so rightfully admired nowadays for their painting talents would flunk out in any art academy; but the academic painter must likewise take great pains to unlearn his acquired technique in order to drop his conventions and draw like a child. It is, all in all, a historic error to believe that the master makes the school; the students make it!

If we examine the matter more closely, however, it is not true either that anyone can write; quite the contrary, nobody can – everyone can merely take dictation and copy. It is impossible that a poem of Goethe’s could come into being today; and even if by some miracle, Goethe were to write it himself, it would still be an anachronistic and in many ways dubious new poem, even though a splendid masterpiece of old! Is there any other explanation for this mystery than that this poem would not seem as though it had been copied from any contemporary poem, except perhaps for those poems that were themselves copied from it? Contemporaneity always means copying. Our ancestors wrote prose in long, beautiful sentences, convoluted like curls; although we still learn to do it that way in school, we write in short sentences that cut more quickly to the heart of the matter; and no one in the world can free his thinking from the manner in which his time wears the cloak of language. Thus no man can know to what extent he actually means what he writes and in writing, it is far less that people twist words than it is that words twist people.

Is it possible then too that not everyone can paint after all? Clearly, the painter cannot, not in the sense that the paintspreader associates with the word. The painter and the poet are above all, in the eyes of their contemporaries, those who cannot do what the paintspreaders and the penpushers can do. This is why so many penpushers consider themselves poets and so many paintspreaders painters. The difference usually only becomes apparent once it’s too late. For by that time, a new generation of pushers and spreaders have come of age who already know what the painter and poet have only just learned.

This also explains why the painter and the poet always appear to belong to the past or the future; they are forever being awaited or declared extinct. If, however, on occasion one actually happens to pass for the real thing, it isn’t always necessarily the right one. (Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, 69-72)