Archive for the ‘Critical Studies’ Category


November 24, 2011

The black servant boy Soliman, I am surprised to learn, was modeled after the real thing…


May 20, 2011

Before beginning Vol. 2, I wanted to review the first volume and get a feeling of what to expect next. I found a good resource in an academic article by Patrizia McBride.

On the cultural setting:

Musil’s reflection on aesthetics, ethics, and politics developed as a response to the historical upheaval surrounding the catastrophe of World War I. Like many of his contemporaries Musil viewed the war as a catalyst for the deep-seated crisis triggered by the demise of traditional coordinates for spiritual orientation. In particular reference systems rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the secularized humanist reflection that culminated in the Enlightenment appeared increasingly inadequate for making sense of a world caught in the transformations produced by unprecedented advances in technology and the natural sciences. If already in the 1870s Nietzsche described the modern condition as characterized by the loss of a finite horizon of meaning capable of encircling the totality of human experience,” the destruction of the war further exacerbated the modern perception of disorientation and “transzendentale Obdachlosigkeit,” to use Lukacs’s famous formula [transcendental homelessness: JE].

On the nature of modern reality:

Echoing Nietzsche’s critique of modernity in the second of his UnzeitgemaBe Betrachtungen Musil lends voice to the widespread perception of modern reality as a tangle of disjointed facts which are endlessly refracted through the perspective of specialized discourses and seem to lack a unitary principle of organization. Neither the relics of the liberal faith in progress nor the chimeras of nationalism, antiSemitism, or Catholicism are adequate for addressing this situation. What makes them unfit, Musil suggests, is the anachronistic longing for Archimedean standpoints and comprehensive perspectives that informs these essentially anti-modern movements. In this regard the disorientation and confusion that plague the common man are not to be explained in terms of a facile cultural pessimism that portrays the present as an age of decline, but must rather be traced to the increased complexity of modern societies. As Musil moreover argues, in a world of highly specialized life spheres the individual is confronted with questions that far exceed his ability to make an informed decision.

On the rational and feeling powers:

Musil understands that questioning the purpose and orientation of individual and collective experience demands taking a fresh look at the issue of ethics and ethical experience. The background for his investigation is provided by contemporary debates on the relation of the rational and the non-rational, intellect and feeling, consciousness and the unconscious, singular and iterable experiences: disputes which cut across fields of inquiry as diverse as the nascent disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis, and the most innovative lines of philosophical inquiry, from Mach’s analysis of perceptions, to Dilthey’s Lebensphilosophie and Husserl’s phenomenology, to the neoKantianism of Rickert, Windelband, and Ernst Cassirer. What unites these diverse endeavors is the desire to acknowledge the specificity of non-scientific realms of experience, most notably the ethical, and thereby subtract them from the grip of a dogmatic positivism, without, however, relinquishing the demand for a reliable and accountable method of inquiry.

Following a rigorously empirical investigation commensurate with his training in the natural sciences and experimental psychology, Musil came to view ethical experience as inscribed in one of two primary spheres of existence which he described with the neologisms “ratioides and nichtratioides Gebiet” (GW8,1026-28). The ratioid, the realm proper to science and knowledge, encompasses those facts that are iterable, measurable, verifiable and which lend themselves to systematization, to elaborating laws and principles. If the focus on regularities and verifiable phenomena in the ratioid makes it possible to camouflage the ultimate lack of a firm foundation for cognition and allows for the illusion of stable coordinates in a domain dominated by “Regel[n] mit Ausnahmen,” this illusion becomes impossible in the realm of the non-ratioid, “das Gebiet der Werte and Bewertungen, das der ethischen and asthetischen Beziehungen, das Gebiet der Idee” (GW 8, 1028). The utterly particular, non-iterable facts of this realm do not allow for abstraction and systematization, but draw their meaning exclusively from the situation in which they are uniquely embedded.

On the (dis)unity of knowledge:

Gone is the idea of a center, of an immutable system of values. As meaning can never be extricated from the context in which it is embedded, so moral judgments can never be uncoupled from the situation in which they are uttered. Recognizing the advantages of the essayistic mode, young Ulrich attempts to turn it into an ethos and a principle of action.

Ulrich’s utopia of essayism, defined as the willingness to accommodate diverging perspectives and discourses without ever attempting to reduce them to a common set of coordinates, epitomizes the openended, incessant movement of aesthetic imagination in the novel. Conceived as a medium for exploring the complex of ethical questions that lacks a center in modernity, aesthetic imagination lends itself to investigating the multiplicity of perspectives which characterizes the modern world. Literature is reconfigured within this frame as a realm for thought experiments, more specifically, for exploring the ethical and political ramifications of alternative modes of experience. This is not to say that the essayistic mode presents competing perspectives as equivalent or interchangeable. As innumerable examples in the novel indicate, essayistic imagination does not refrain from depicting some options as more or less desirable than others. What it never omits, however, is the acknowledgment that any value judgment concerning these perspectives can never be supported by a superior perspective, be it a universal language of reason or the nonrational gift of intuition claimed by the poet.

The impasse of Volume 1:

Because essayism does not allow for systematization and generalization, it fails to make any of the reflections or situations it engages universally true or compelling. Hence it does not lend itself to distilling non-contingent truths or certainties and remains unable to provide concrete directives for moral judgments or political actions. In order to gain such a perspective one is compelled to give up the condition of the literary and step into a different realm. It follows that the program of an essayistic life finds neither grounding nor support in the movement of essayistic reflection. And this is precisely the problem Ulrich is compelled to address in the first book of the novel which in essence narrates how he progressively gains insight into the crisis this illusory choice has triggered.

As a self-referential reflection on the potentialities and the limits of aesthetic imagination the novel presents essayism as a medium that can make sense of experience in its contingency and situatedness without postulating the fiction of a center. Because of its respect for the singularity and situatedness of experience, however, essayism produces the paradox of the artwork as a unique model, a model that cannot be generalized and hence does not lend itself to articulating guidelines for conduct. At the conclusion of the novel’s first book the question of how to live one’s life in modernity seems to have led to an impasse, for neither the outlived quest for comprehensive horizons and privileged perspectives epitomized by the “Parallelaktion” nor the open-ended, inconclusive movement of essayism-the movement that carries aesthetic imagination-can offer a viable model for engendering meaningful action.

A new direction:

The novel does not stop at this impasse. Its second book goes on to narrate Ulrich’s quest for an “andere[n] Zustand” beyond the grasp of language and conceptual thought which promises the realization of a fully moral life and surfaces in Ulrich’s erotically charged relationship with his sister Agathe.

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.

Creature from Another Species

October 24, 2010

Paul Cezanne: The Bathers Resting

Gabriel Josipovici, in his book Whatever Happened to Modernism, devotes a lot of attention to Cézanne as a modernist, an artist who realizes that he cannot supply ready-made meaning, a completed narrative.

The agony of Cézanne, the doubt he constantly feels about the value and even the point of what he is doing, stems from this, that he does not start with a given image, ready-made, but seeks instead to recreate each time the sense we have of the world coming to life as we look at and live in it. As Merleau-Ponty says:

We live in the minds of man-made objects, among tools, in houses, streets, cities, and most of the time we see them only through the human actions which put them to use. We become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily and unshakably. Cézanne’s painting suspends these habits of thought and reveals the base of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself. This is why Cézanne’s people are strange, as if viewed by a creature of another species. (96)

Musil is a modernist in just this way. We cannot help at times seeing his characters as members of a different species.

The General’s eyes began to itch, and to roll around gloomily, goggling at the translucent air around him. But Arnheim was not waiting to be asked for particulars; words flowed from his lips, from that pale pink slit between his clipped mustache and little pointed beard. (I,620)

At long last her fit began to wear off and her body quieted down. Her eyes brimming with tears, she sat up in the bed, her little breasts drooping slackly from a body not yet under the mind’s full control. Ulrich took a deep breath, again overcome with repugnance at the inhuman, merely physical aspects of the experience. (I,680)

Now for a few necessary words about a smile, specifically a man’s smile, and about a beard, created for the male act of smiling into one’s beard… (I,325)

With great and varied skills we create a delusion that enables us to coexist serenely with the most monstrous things, simply because we recognize these frozen grimaces of the universe as a table or a chair, a shout or an outstretched arm, a speed or a roast chicken. (I,574)

At night her head, heavy with unappeased cravings, sat on her shoulders like a coconut with its mat of monkeylike hair growing freakishly inside the shell, and she came close to bursting with helpless rage, like a drinker deprived of his bottle. (I,629)

Arnheim looked impassive where he sat, his lips slightly parted, like a bud opening. Diotima, a silent tower of radiant flesh, gazed at him across the moat between them. (I,650)

Critical Interlude: Alexander Honold

September 14, 2010

What a curious beginning to a novel.

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and setting of the sun , the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913. (I,1)

Alexander Honold, in his Bloom essay “Endings and Beginnings: Musil’s Invention of Austrian History,” help us pry open this passage.

The first chapter mainly designates what M. Bakhtin called a chronotopos, it indicates that the following action starts in Vienna, capital of Austria-Hungary, in August 1913. Reading this in 1930 or later, it was almost impossible not to be reminded of what happened one year later. Now the crucial point in Musil’s beginning is that he manages to say two things that are absolutely contradictory at the same time. He says: Look at our pretty town dozing in its peaceful summertime, there is no reason at all to be suspicious or scared. Not even the clouds are showing any inclination to move eastward toward that Russian high-pressure area, so to speak. But only a few moments later an accident happens that disturbs this sunny opening. Just as the accident that ends this beginning results from an unpredictable urban traffic system, the end of the novel would have been marked by the collective accident of war. (120)

 The weather account creates a tension between Austria and Russia that, like weather in general, is not very well defined but with the potential for destruction (note our fascination with the Weather Channel.) Before looking more closely at the automobile accident, consider this passage with its continuation of weather imagery layered with the warlike feeling of moving armies, barbed wire and splintering sounds.

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their steady rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. (I,3)

A truck hits a pedestrian and a lady and gentleman observe the accident scene.

The lady and her companion had also come close enough to see something of the victim over the heads and bowed backs. Then they stepped back and stood there, hesitating. The lady had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, which she credited to compassion, although she mainly felt irresolute and helpless. After a while the gentleman said: “The brakes on these heavy trucks take too long to come to a full stop.” This datum gave the lady some relief, and she thanked him with an appreciative glance. She did not really understand, or care to understand, the technology involved, as long as  his explanation helped put this ghastly incident into perspective by reducing it to a technicality of no direct personal concern to her….”According to American statistics,” the gentleman said, “one hundred ninety thohousand people are killed there every year by cars and four hundred fifty thousand are injured.” (I,5)

How many people are killed in auto accidents in the US? In 1913?

Not even American statistics can be as enormous as Musil’s imagination was. Lots of critics have not been able to find any convincing explanation for these totally mistaken and exaggerated numbers. I have to admit, I did not even try to find some American statistics which could reach an amount like that. But I received some statistics from Manfried Rauchensteiner, the director of the Museum of Military History in Vienna. In the first  year of war, the Austro-Hungarian troops had had very high losses: exactly 490,000 wounded and 190,000 killed, counting from a beautiful day in August 1914–a crucial point that does not appear at the ending of Musil’s novel, but that lies buried under its beginning. (121)

Critical Interlude: Burton Pike

September 12, 2010

These remarks on Musil are from Burton Pike, the editorial consultant of the English language version I am reading. They appear in his article “Robert Musil: Literature and Experience” in the Bloom Critical Interpretations on Musil.

Musil’s Mission:

He was impelled by the desire to create through imaginative writing, by experimental means, a new morality that would reflect the new world brought about by the discoveries of the physical and human sciences, a morality that would replace the tattered set of outmoded ethics whose hollowness Nietzsche and the industrial, scientific, and technological revolutions of the nineteenth century had so pitilessly exposed. He unremittingly worked toward the goal of achieving in his writing a new synthesis of spiritual and moral values with the utmost scientific precision. (75)

 The philosophical setting:

In this century philosophy and literary criticism and theory have followed two general orientations. One gives priority to language as mediating our knowledge of the world, the other subordinates language to sensory and perceptual experience, which language serves to mediate. The first view holds that language precedes experience “logically, ontologically, and genetically, and modifies and distorts experience.” The second give priority to “the logical and ontological primacy of experience over language” (Koestenbaum xii). These orientations are by no means mutually exclusive, but serve to indicate a primary emphasis on one or the other aspect. The orientation following language describes a general line from Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Mauthner, Saussure, and Heidegger through structuralism, post structuralism, and deconstruction; the second, originating in the philosophy of Husserl, reaches generally through phenomenology to existentialism and to the group of phenomenologist critics Sarah Lawall has called “the critics of consciousness.” (76)

 Musil’s synthesis:

Musil offers the interesting case of a writer trained as a scientist for whom literature operates primarily on the basis of empirical perception and sensory experiences and for whom language serves as the vehicle to represent experience. This argument implicitly rejects the idea that what literature conveys is graspable only through an analytic procedure that reduces it to rational or rationalized elements of language such as narrative and discourse. A writer, even an analytic writer like Musil, might be interested in pursuing other goals: in his case, as Philip Payne notes, this includes the winning back of the ground of the subject. This ground “has been lost,” Payne says, “in the field of ideas, to the march of a militant objectivity which is both superficial and insensitive; it has been lost in the field of morals with the sense that principles are written on tablets of stone rather than in the human heart; it has been lost in the field of science with the disappearance of the observer from the scope of what he observes” (Payne 210-11)

Science had come to reject positivism and its claims to absolute truth in favor of a system of testable hypotheses, which could only offer probabilities of truth. Experiments, if successful, can increase the probability of truth or, if unsuccessful, give absolute truth of the failure of a hypothesis. Musil sets himself the literary task of having his characters act out and respond to experiments.

He makes his characters, within their immediate fictional situations, attempt to relate to each other and the world through their changing perceptual and sensory envelopes in terms of the experiences he tries out on them. What we can know, according to Husserl, is not the actual physical world but only our experience of it. Unlike Husserl, Musil is quite rigorous in making this process experimental and in developing a literary language that can express it with great precision. He puts all his major characters in this same experimental stance.

This is a rough enterprise for a writer, for not only is representing the complexity of experience thus understood a boundless task, but it rejects as impossibly artificial (not “true to life”) the traditional literary notions of plot, dramatic action, and characterization that normally provide a guiding structure for readers as well as writers. The results are contradictory and paradoxical: self and world, as Musil treats them, dissolve into a flow of endless “possibilities,” of the kind so lovingly developed in The Man Without Qualities. (82)

 The trick is to view the progress of the experiment without killing it. As William James said of examining transitory feelings:

If they are but flights to conclusions, stopping them to look at them before a conclusion is reached is really annihilating them…Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tract is…Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself… The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like…trying to turn up the light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” (quoted in Holton 124)

 Musil attempts to solve this problem with precision, the building up of a large number of precise observations of his characters, in all their unique qualities.

The Man Without Qualities includes a veritable catalog of the ways people talk, write, and interact in their lives, and these ways are considered unsatisfactory and insufficient. Each social class, profession, and individual in the novel is given his/her/its/their own hermetic vocabularies and grammars. Musil included mystic, philosophical, and scientific language, as well as the everyday conversational idiolects of each of the characters in the novel. …Musil even includes body language, as well as the inner, unrealized language of the inarticulate and the insane! The problem, as he saw it, lay in somehow fashioning a language that would  overcome these obstacles and permit objective communication of the whole complex flow of experience from person to person and within society as a whole, and thus make true communication possible. (84) 

Here, then, Musil is experimenting with how language can be made to convey the flow of experience in a way that is inaccessible to the conventional languages of literature and science. By his ingenious use of language, he draws the reader into re-feeling what the characters are feeling. This ability to evoke with great precision in the reader the complex web of feelings associated with the situation and thoughts of the character is perhaps Musil’s greatest achievement as a writer. (86)

Musil found reason enough to despair of himself and the world around him, of which he was a strenuous, acute, and untiring critic; but he still believed, as did  many of his modernist contemporaries, that there was a way forward, if only it could be found, and that a bridge had to be built from the individual person equipped with a new and heightened awareness to a new society in which ethics would assume a central place. This was the matrix of his experimental struggle to forge a language that would truly represent and communicate experience. (88)