Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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)

A Longer Sentence

April 7, 2012

News item:

    One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.) (NYT, 02/18/2008)

Following is Proust’s longest sentence. I have outlined in the form I used elsewhere: a level in indentation should be able to be read straight down, ignoring the indents. The indents, though, are the life of the sentence. I have never read a more lacerating, brutally honest statement. Yes, it could have been broken into sentences, but at the expense of its escalating intensity.

  • Their honour precarious,
    • their liberty provisional,
    • lasting only until the discovery of their crime;
  • their position unstable,
    • like that of the poet one day fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London,
    • and the next driven from every lodging,
    • unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head,
    • turning the mill like Samson and saying like him:
      • “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!” excluded even,
        • except on the days of general misfortune when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews round Dreyfus,
      • from the sympathy—at times from the society—of their fellows,
        • in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are,
        • portrayed in a mirror which,
          • ceasing to flatter them,
          • accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves,
          • and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love
            • (and to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love)
          • springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable disease;
  • like the Jews again
    • (save some who will associate only with those of their race and have always on their lips the ritual words and the accepted pleasantries),
    • shunning one another,
    • seeking out those who are most directly their opposite,
      • who do not want their company,
    • forgiving their rebuffs,
    • enraptured by their condescensions;
  • but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism to which they are subjected,
    • the opprobrium into which they have fallen,
      • having finally been invested,
    • by a persecution similar to that of Israel,
      • with the physical and moral characteristics of a race,
      • sometimes beautiful,
      • often hideous,
      • finding
        • (in spite of all the mockery with which one who,
          • more closely integrated with,
          • better assimilated to the opposing race,
          • is in appearance relatively less inverted,
        • heaps upon one who has remained more so)
        • a relief in frequenting the society of their kind,
          • and even some support in their existence,
        • so much so that,
          • while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults),
        • they readily unmask those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it,
          • with a view less to injuring them,
            • though they have no scruple about that,
          • than to excusing themselves,
          • and seeking out
            • (as a doctor seeks out cases of appendicitis)
          • cases of inversion in history,
          • taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves,
            • as the Jews claim that Jesus was one of them,
          • without reflecting that there were no abnormal people when homosexuality was the norm,
          • no anti-Christians before Christ,
          • that the opprobrium alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning,
            • to every example,
            • to every punishment,
          • by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men
            • (even though it may be accompanied by high moral qualities)
          • than certain other vices which exclude those qualities,
            • such as theft,
            • cruelty,
            • breach of faith,
          • vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men;
  • forming a freemasonry far more extensive,
  • more effective and less suspected than that of the Lodges,
    • for it rests upon an identity of tastes,
      • needs,
      • habits,
      • dangers,
      • apprenticeship,
      • knowledge,
      • traffic,
      • vocabulary,
    • and one in which even members who do not wish to know one another recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional,
      • involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his kind to the beggar in the person of the nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting,
      • to the father in the person of his daughter’s suitor,
      • to the man who has sought healing,
      • absolution or legal defence in the doctor,
      • the priest or the barrister to whom he has had recourse;
  • all of them obliged to protect their own secret but sharing with the others a secret which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true,
    • for in this life of anachronistic fiction the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon,
    • the prince,
      • with a certain insolent aplomb born of his aristocratic breeding which the timorous bourgeois lacks,
      • on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the ruffian;
    • a reprobate section of the human collectivity,
      • but an important one,
    • suspected where it does not exist,
    • flaunting itself,
      • insolent and immune,
    • where its existence is never guessed;
  • numbering its adherents everywhere,
    • among the people,
    • in the army,
    • in the church,
    • in prison,
    • on the throne;
  • living,
    • in short,
    • at least to a great extent,
  • in an affectionate and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race,
    • provoking them,
    • playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it—
      • a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others,
      • a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal when these lion-tamers are devoured;
  • obliged until then to make a secret of their lives,
  • to avert their eyes from the direction in which they would wish to stray,
  • to fasten them on what they would naturally turn away from,
  • to change the gender of many of the adjectives in their vocabulary,
    • a social constraint that is slight in comparison with the inward constraint imposed upon them by their vice,
    • or what is improperly so called,
      • not so much in relation to others as to themselves,
      • and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.


Proust, Marcel (2012-02-06). The Modern Library In Search of Lost Time, Complete and Unabridged: 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI (Kindle Locations 29111-29148). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The Reactionary

September 4, 2010

We know that Count Leinsdorf is a reactionary. He blames the rootlessness of modern times on “that fateful year 1948 that drove a wedge between the middle class and the aristocracy, to the loss of both sides.” (I,202) Ulrich, too, rejects the incoherence of modern times, making him something of an ally of Leinsdorf.

But I’ll grant you something quite different,” Ulrich went on after some thought. “The experts never finish anything. Not only are they not finished today, but they are incapable of conceiving an end to their activities. Even incapable, perhaps, of wishing for one. Can you imagine that man will still have a soul, for instance, once he has learned to understand it and control it biologically and psychologically? Yet this is precisely the condition we are aiming for! That’s the trouble. Knowledge is a mode of conduct, a passion. At bottom, an impermissible mode of conduct: like dipsomania, sex mania, homicidal mania, the compulsion to know forms its own character that is off-balance. It is simply not so that the researcher pursues the truth; it pursues him. He suffers it. What is true is true, and a fact is real, without concerning itself about him: he’s the one who has a passion for it, a dipsomania for the factual, which marks his character, and he doesn’t give a damn whether his findings will lead to something human, perfect, or anything at all. Such a man is full of contradictions and misery, and yet he is a monster of energy!”

“And–?” Walter asked.

“What do you mean, ‘And–?”

“Surely you’re not suggesting that we can leave it at that?”

“I would leave it at that,” Ulrich said calmly. “Our conception of our environment, and also of ourselves, changes every day. We live in a time of passage. It may go on like this until the end of the planet if we don’t learn to tackle our deepest problems better than we have so far. Even so, when one is placed in the dark, one should not begin to sing out of fear, like a child. And it is mere singing in the dark to act as though we knew how we are supposed to conduct ourselves down here; you can shout your head off, it’s still nothing but terror. All I know for sure is: we’re galloping! We’re still a long way from our goals, they’re not getting any closer, we can’t even see them, we’re likely to go on taking wrong turns, and we’ll have to change horses; but one day–the day after tomorrow, or two thousand years from now–the horizon will begin to flow and come roaring toward us!” (I,231-232)

Walter feels a sense of triumph over Ulrich and his abandonment of knowledge.

“Do you realize what you are talking about?” he shouted. “Muddling through! You’re simply an Austrian, and you’re expounding the Austrian national philosophy of muddling through!”

“That may not be as bad as you think,” Ulrich replied. “A passionate longing for keenness and precision, or beauty, may very well bring one to prefer muddling through to all those exertions in the modern spirit. I congratulate you on having discovered Austria’s world mission.” (I,233)


The Drive to Be Right

September 4, 2010

Musil has touched on the will to life. He now speaks on another fundamental urge, the will to be right.

Leo came to know on how many points people can have difference of opinion. The drive to be right, a need almost synonymous with human dignity, began to celebrate excesses in the Fischel household. For millenia this drive has produced thousands of admirable philosophies, works of art, books, deeds, and partisan alliances, and when this admirable, but also fanatical and monstrous, innate human drive has to make do with ten minutes on practical philosophy or a debate on the basic principles of the household, it cannot fail to burst, like a drop of molten lead, into innumerable sharp splinters that inflict the most painful wounds. It burst over the question of whether a maid was to given notice or not, and whether toothpicks belonged on the table or not; but whatever made it burst, it had the capacity to reconstitute itself immediately into two infinitely detailed opposing views of the world. (I,220)