pseudopodium
. . . Musil

. . .

Shtick as Muse:

"Satir, narr technique: Can usually be expressed in the formula: 'Pretend to be stupid.'"
-- Robert Musil, Diaries
Who's pretending? With few exceptions (movie stars, rock musicians...), any action or expression will be stupider than the theoretical limits of the intelligence responsible for taking or making it.
"Americans project irony onto the world.... The subject has lost the battle. He knows that he lacks either the individuality or the reason to defend himself against his opponent.... The subject no longer speaks; he is spoken, cursed by an uncontrollable and parodying tic."
-- Delphine Perret, "Irony," Poetics Journal
(Don't mind me; I spent all weekend writing JavaScript....)

. . .

Although the pacing's a bit stodgy, 1936's Mayerling wins on performances, especially from the youthful-but-still-middle-aged Charles Boyer as Prince Rudolf: dissipated, undisciplined, and 100% tragically noble. I would say that Boyer was over-the-top great, but one of the reasons Boyer was always middle-aged was that he was never over-the-top. Under pressure, he just got more impacted.

Besides instigating this woman's marriage, Mayerling's other great achievement was getting me interested in the history of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. 'Cause, I've read Robert Musil and listened to Arnold Schoenberg till the cows came home, but not even the cows ever had the decency to tell me about Only Heir to Empire Dead in Double Love Suicide!, and, brother, that's what I call news.

Well, allowing some elbow room for glamor and the use of French actors, it turns out the movie actually does present the semi-official version of the story pretty accurately. Alas! for romance, it also turns out that not that many people ever believed that version of the story -- what's more likely to hit a Hapsburg: romance or assassination? -- and now it's been thoroughly disproved.

Even after learning that love means nothing, the "what happened next?" factor was still strong, especially since the next thing I found that happened next was the assassination of Prince Rudolf's mother, the Empress, less than a decade after the murder of her son. And by then we're getting close to the Great War.... Would I have to, like, go buy a book or something to work all this out?

No fear of that, because the Atlantic's already bought a book (coincidentally also from 1936) and put it up on the Web: Rebecca West's big dummy's guide to the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I remember when its posting was announced as a public service during one of the more recent genocides, but of course it took an old movie to attract my attention....

West works a well-established mainstream genre -- travel notes alternating with history lessons -- but you can't beat the combination of Balkans history and fascist-era travel for human (i.e., morbid) interest, and in its smoothly mainstream way the series builds to near hysteria by the time it reaches Sarajevo in Part 4:
'So when the poor mayor began to read his address of welcome the Archduke shouted out in a thin alto, "That's all a lot of rot. I come here to pay you a visit, and you throw bombs at me. It's an outrage." Then the Archduchess spoke to him softly, and he calmed down, and said, "Oh, well, you can go on." But at the end of the speech there was another scene, because the Archduke had not got his speech, and for a moment the secretary who had it could not be found. Then when it was brought to him he was like a madman because the manuscript was all spattered with the aide-de-camp's blood.'


At that moment the young man smashed his fist down on the table and cried into Constantine's face, 'Judas Iscariot! Judas Iscariot!'

'No,' said poor Constantine to his back, 'I am not Judas Iscariot. I have indeed never been quite sure which of the disciples I do resemble, but it is a very sweet little one, the most mignon of them all.'

Marie Vetsera
I'm a little worried about West's preoccupation with obesity, though. Would you agree with her that "Marie Vetsera was a very fat and plain little girl"? Ess, ess, Rebecca!

. . .

"Thus an agreement may require constant reassurance and work at maintaining relationships to prevent breakdown. This, however, depends on the imperfectness of the conflict resolution obtained. It requires characters not to be quite sure of the common, conflict-free model to which they've converged. If they were sure of it, and it exhibited complete resolution, they'd have no need to bother about each others' feelings." (via Alamut)
At the end of June, 1989, my lover of over eight years left me without warning and without explanation. She came home a little late and was gone two hours later. Two friends told me independently that they'd always secretly thought our relationship was too content to be healthy.

She married a lawyer from her office. I collapsed like a tower of pickup sticks.

And I wasn't the only thing to fall apart.

Who was that pre-Socratic who called the universal binding material "love," as opposed to "the weak attraction force" or "Elmer's"? That guy, yeah. Well, cold turkey withdrawal of the local binding material reduced everything to its constituent elements, and those aren't an appealing sight. Favorite books became ugly over-packed stacks of graphemes. Food was kuk. I couldn't crawl into a bottle 'cause the major constituent elements of even nice wine turns out to smell like poison. The idea that anyone would make noises on purpose seemed absurd. And I reverted to a pre-Griffith state as far as movies went: I could sometimes manage the illusion of movement, but connecting individual shots into a narrative was beyond me. I remember sitting through Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and having no idea why people around me were laughing. (Oddly, I still have that reaction to Seinfeld....) I was a bug pinned to a perfectly blank index card.

Like with other recurrent infections, the best way to get a pleasure back is to weaken your immune system with a new strain: Robert Musil's cold-blooded analyses of emotional extremities revived reading; I also encountered some Language Poetry for the first time and said, "Hey, this makes sense!" I was nursed, weaned, and set back to film school with a little pat on my fanny by repeated viewings of Cat People.

And so forth. Not so much getting over it as planting around it.

After a few years, even the nightmares dropped off. The last one I remember was from 1993 or so: I dreamt I got a phone call from my ex. She was crying, and I had to work to find out what she was trying to say. Finally she told me that she was really really sorry, but she had to sue me.

"Sue me?! What for?!"

"Somewhere between five and fifteen thousand dollars; it depends on your assets."

. . .

Those who do not know history are doomed to make other people repeat it till everyone gets really bored and only wants to talk about beer commercials

From a Usenet discussion of Jodie Foster's upcoming Leni Reifenstahl biopic:

"I am not defending Nazi's here but, the Hitler of 1933 is a far different figure from the Hitler who invaded Poland and began persecuting the Jews."
From Robert Musil's journals, 1933:
"March 33. Three days ago the Reichstag went up in flames. Yesterday the emergency regulations to eliminate the Communist party and the Social Democrat Party appeared. The new men don't wear kid gloves. In the circles with which I have some contact there was, at first, a general feeling of indignation, an instinctive response to this blow in the face for truth, freedom, etc. It is the reaction of the liberal education in which people have grown up. Yesterday, after Goering set out the measures in a radio broadcast, with a calm, friendly, masculine voice, Frau Witte is already starting to waver! 'If it is true what the Communist Party was up to, then things are really in a dreadful state!' The hypothetical part of this statement is shrinking. The feeling is growing that the new arrangements will not be so bad after all and that, overall, there will be a liberation from many of the things that were felt, at an unconscious level, to be oppressive. An impression of decided rejection comes only from the serving girls, even though they keep silent.

"Freedom of the press, of expression of any kind, freedom of conscience, personal dignity, freedom of spirit etc., all the liberal fundamental rights have now been set aside without one single person feeling utterly outraged, indeed by and large without people being strongly affected at all. It is seen as a spell of bad weather. The average individual does not yet feel under attack. One might feel most profoundly disappointed over this but it is more correct to draw the conclusion that all the things that have been abolished here are no longer of great concern to people. This was indeed so. Did a person make use of his freedom of conscience for example? He had no opportunity whatever to do so! Nor did he trouble himself over this freedom... The newspaper did this for him and everything that the newspaper did he accepted with a degree of unease, even though it was seemingly indispensable to him. Seen in this way the discipline of the 'fascio' is indeed a creation that goes unerringly to the core of man's instincts.

"On the 1 March (in other words immediately at the beginning) in the offices of the Central Organization of German Citizens of Jewish Belief a house search was carried out by the police and the Sturm Abteilung.... Theater manager Barnay is abducted in a car by 5 men in uniform and beaten up....

"There are hundreds of examples of such happenings.... The general feeling is: it isn't as serious as it sounds -- a process of 'making-things-less-serious'.... 'Life goes on' -- even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up, etc. This is not frivolity, but is rather to be compared to the helplessness of the herd that is slowly pressed forward while those at the very front go to their deaths.

"Definition: the modern person is a coward but likes to be forced to perform heroic feats."

. . .

(part of our Sexual Degradation Special)

Like many another author setting out on a masterpiece, John Collier must have begun His Monkey Wife with the worst of intentions: to plan a romance novel whose virtuous heroine is a chimpanzee betrays a less than honorable attitude toward romance novels and virtuous heroines. In Collier's typical folderols of feckless poets and rich bullies, the female human plays the luscious main dish or the Acme beartrap but never the protagonist. And his novel, like his short stories, foregrounds a comically exaggerated ideology of misogynous sexism and Anglophilic colonolialism.

But rather than a Triumph of Arch, it's Collier's only really moving work. One of the wonders of narrative is that a story, when well-written enough (and His Monkey Wife is very well written), can be so much wiser than the storyteller. Once immersed in the point of view of long-suffering Emily, we're unlikely to be able to hold her chimpdom clearly in sight except as the primal cause of her suffering.

What results is not so much a travesty of romance as one of its purest examples, complicated but essentially unbesmirched by the deadpan perversity of the humor. Our focus shifts between the extremes of expressed sincerity and implied sarcasm until the two views dissolve into a wavering, headache-inducing, but very impressive illusion of depth. By the time sex is dragged in by a prehensile foot, we are, like Mr. Fatigay, more than ready to succumb.

I think Emily Watson for the movie role, don't you?

Tarzan and his mate
Bestiality has never seemed particularly profound in Real Life, but, since Robert Musil's quiet Veronika was first tempted by her Saint Bernard, it's been a sure-fire booster of moral complexity in Fiction.

Sex can work heavy-duty alchemical action on even the shallowest of animal fables, as proved by the only good thing ever written by hack libertarian and Welsh-supremecist Dafydd ab Hugh, "The Coon Rolled Down and Ruptured His Larinks, A Squeezed Novel by Mr. Skunk."

Again we find the ambition-performance ratio unexpectedly reversed. In ab Hugh's story, zero-sum economics applies to intelligence: as one part of society gains IQ, another part accordingly dumbs down, which is why democracy can't work. If he'd illustrated his postulate with, say, American ethnic groups, he might have had some difficulty selling his story to a genre magazine. And so he uses the slightly less controversial hierarchy of species.

Which is how he ended up with something more sellable and richer and stranger than he could possibly have imagined. No matter how fleabit and fanatic, cute fuzzy hungry animals can't help but gain our sympathy; a taboo against "love in the streets" can't help but predispose us to cheer on an affaire de coeur between underboy and underdog, no matter how disgusting.

So, even though the story (mercifully) doesn't work as propaganda for ab Hugh's political position, his viciousness does manage to keep this Incredible Journey from falling into Disneyesque propaganda of another sort. Thus muddling doth make heroes of us all.

. . .

When I find myself in times of trouble, David Auerbach comes to me, speaking words of wisdom:

.... I think the myth of far eastern Zen-like acceptance of tragedy doesn't go much further than the generally tragedy-free nobility and samurai stories. I'd say that aestheticized horror requires an aesthetic, and when you don't have the luxury for one, we all tend to fall back on more impulsive/survival resources. As a corrolary, if the aesthetic layer here is/used to be primarily linguistic, I think you can figure on a panic when things get so bad that the protective layer of language is stripped away.

The eastern/western argument is supposedly (misquoting Raymond Smullyan here): East: "You will not know peace until you shed yourself of anxieties." West: "But you don't understand, anxieties have survival value!" How inner peace can be balanced with admitted repression (the sort of thing that leads people to run rampant with back-hoes in nightclubs) is something I don't understand. If Confucianism and ancestral reverence were not hand-picked to keep the plebes in their place (as Russian Orthodoxy was), they at least have done a pretty good job of it.

And speaking of the inner peace of the nobles, one of my friends pointed me to "Give All," by the usually reasonable antidisestablishmentarianist James Wood. The key paragraph is the one beginning "But soon Atlas's narrative curdles" halfway through. It's not just that Wood hews to a ludicrously outdated view of writer-as-seer, but that he claims for the elite cadre of writers a moral privilege usually reserved for people like Jesus and Mohammed. He winds up making Bellow sound like Jack Chick; his tools of horror are deployed for self-flagellation as well as moral instruction, but he's still got the answers. Which is why everyone's making such a fuss over Don DeLillo's latest tract. I can't speak as much for poetry, other than to say that the hermeticism of its more academic branches aligns them with survivalists and private militias. Suddenly the fate of Yukio Mishima makes perfect sense: bad writer, lots of repression, failed military coup.

Still, I think Musil hits it on the head: "X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist. He appeals to Man, God, the Spirit, Goodness, Chaos; and out of such big words he squeezes his sophisticated sentences. He could not possibly do so, were he to imagine the totality of their meaning, or at least grasp their utter unimaginability... he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms." (Again the language-as-protective-barrier theme.)

. . .

Michael Lind explains (link via metameat), in clearer prose than I'm ever likely to produce, what's wrong with talk about "the West," and comes to a depressing conclusion:

"The collapse of liberal denominations promises an increasing polarisation between consistent secularists and devout believers."
Empty chatter about "the Christian West" or "the capitalist West" fogs perception, as universalizing abstractions tend to do: when we need to know the weather, we're told that clouds look like bunnies (or at least real clouds do). But what makes this particular parochialism dangerous rather than merely annoying is its easy slide into racism and aggression.

The reader a-thirst for closer analysis of Rise-and-Fall Clash-of-Culture rhetoricians might enjoy Robert Musil's 1921 essay, "Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West":

For there is a favorable prejudice -- I want to use the word spiritual, let us say then in spiritual circles, but I mean in literary circles -- toward offenses against mathematics, logic, and precision. Among crimes against the spirit, these are happily counted among the honorable political ones; the prosecutor actually finds himself in the role of the accused. Let us be generous, then: Spengler is speaking approximately; he works with analogies, and these are always right in some sense or other. If an author is bent on referring to concepts by the wrong names or even confusing them with each other, one can eventually get used to it. But some key symbol, some kind of ultimately unequivocal connection between thought and word, must be sustained. Even this is lacking. The examples I have adduced, without having to look very hard, are only a selection among many; they are not errors of detail, but a way of thinking.

There are lemon-yellow butterflies, and there are lemon-yellow Chinese. In a certain sense, then, one can say that the butterfly is the winged, middle-European, dwarf Chinese. Butterflies and Chinese are both familiar as images of sexual desire. Here the thought is formulated for the first time of the previously unrecognized commonality between the great ages of lepidopteral fauna and Chinese culture. That butterflies have wings and the Chinese do not is only a superficial phenomenon. If ever a zoologist had understood anything about the ultimate and deepest ideas of technology, it would not have been left to me to be the first to disclose the significance of the fact that butterflies did not invent gunpowder precisely because the Chinese had done so already. The suicidal predilection of certain kinds of nocturnal moths for bright light is a relic of this morphological connection to Sinology, a connection hard to explain in terms of everyday reason.

It really makes no difference what it is that is to be proved by such means.

. . .

Aline's People "I think it’s guaranteed that for the rest of my life that she’ll never ask me about myself or my work."
An Experiment in Error

When prying at the purported origins of art in neurosis, it's good to remember that we've implicitly defined this here "art" of ours more by its publication than by its mere production. Setting dynastic brats aside (hopefully to be crushed by speeding trucks or eaten by bears), perhaps one reason so many twentieth century artists come from unsupportive families is that they're less worried about familial reactions to their art, either because their family is uninterested in anything they do or because their family is unlikely to venture near its published context or because who cares what those losers think? (And similar for low-to-no-status day jobs with uninterested employers.)

We can easily test this hypothesis. A pink portrait of bestiality is safe from Ma & Pa Philistine on the local café's walls; a "My Sister Was Raped & All I Got Was This Crummy Poem" can be comfortably tucked into a little-teensy magazine, or a hilariously flip sexual boast into a fanzine interview -- but as soon as your boss or cousin grows unaccountably tired of watching the Game Show Channel and decides to try your name in a search engine, the jig is jug-jugged tereu.

Thus, assuming that the web stays the course, we might predict:

  1. Even more extreme levels of dysfunctionality among those who dare to publish under their own names, unless those names are index-swampers like "Jack Smith"
  2. Much second-thought yanking of web-relocated material (I myself have been asked to remove a hiliariously flip sexual boast or two)
  3. As in past centuries of self-publishing, greater reliance on anonymity or pseudonymity
All of which is fine. I just hope to Jesus H. Fish on a Bicycle that our world-wide wash won't continue to be polluted by identity thieves like "Charles Dodgson" (proprieter of the unfortunately worthwhile Through the Looking Glass) or, more unforgivable because harder to disenGoogle, "Robert Musil" (of another weblog). Didn't their mamas teach those boys that it's polite to append a ", Jr." to such tributes?

Obviously not, so jot a winner beside predicted result no. 1!

. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

1.
Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

2.
"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

3.
I remember them all with such happiness.
4.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
5.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
6.
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

1.
And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
2.
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
3.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
4.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

1.
That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
2.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
3.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
4.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

1.
"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

2.
He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
3.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

Blogging W. N. P. Barbellion

My confessions are shameless. I confess, but do not repent. The fact is, my confessions are prompted, not by ethical motives, but intellectual. The confessions are to me the interesting records of a self-investigator.

. . .

What I like is Joyce's candour and verisimilitude. I have tried that, but it's no good. The publishers rejected two splendid entries about prostitutes and other stuff. That is why I think, in truth, 100,000 copies will not be sold. My diary is too unpleasant for popularity. It is my passion for taking folk by the nose and giving them a wigging, my fierce contempt for every kind of complacency. Stephen Daedalus. Butler started the fashion with Edward Pontifex. Then there is Wells' George Ponderevo. Pontifex is a good name.

. . .

Of course the novelists are behind the naturalists in the recording of minutiæ: Edmund Selous and Julian Huxley and others have set down the life of some species of bird in exhaustive detail every flip of the tail, every peck preceding the grand drama of courtship and mating.

- W. N. P. Barbellion, A Last Diary

In March 1919, The Journal of a Disappointed Man by "W. N. P. Barbellion" was published. As promised, the absurdly pseudonymed author seemed disappointed and male; also brilliant, autodidactic, obsessive, explicit, self-lacerating, and dead.

The blend of naturalist and Naturalism naturally appealed to H. G. Wells. The blend of conventional tragedy and titillating dirt appealed to a larger audience. And "Barbellion"'s disappointment struck an introductory chord with those more fortunate members of his generation who'd survive to call themselves "Lost".

The book was therefore a success.

It was also a puzzle. The presumable source material wasn't presented raw; it had clearly been labored over. But the result was far from flattering, and hardly as sensitive to family feelings as one would expect from an executor.

Some doubted its veracity (as I've doubted Plain Layne and Belle de Jour). Speculation centered on Wells as the author. Again, unlikely. Although the book's power was cumulative and structural, that thudding, cyclic, organic, and anticlimactic structure matched no existing model of the novel.

Later in 1919, the controversy was somewhat settled when a second "Barbellion" book appeared: Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, an awkward assemblage of odds and ends with a forward by the author's brother. Some pretense of disguise was maintained the forward was signed only "H. R. C." but the scientific papers reprinted there were little harder to trace than a domain registration would be these days.

The next year a slim sequel to the Journal appeared, a Last Diary in which the protagonist, undead without comment, quickly went on to die again. No further resurrection was forthcoming.

* * *

Maybe you've guessed where this is heading?

Barbellion's books anticipate (and epitomize) a kind of contemporary writing not my kind, certainly, but a kind I like. Pepys wrote only for himself (if that), Pooter and Dedalus and Pontifex had the benefit of being fictional, Kafka and Powell and Musil were principally known for other work, Anaïs Nin comes closer, I suppose, but sprawls....

If Barbellion is the first English writer to consider short chronologically arranged excruciating self-revelations his lifework, serialization seems an appropriate approach. I plan to post regular entries to the hideously named Barbellionblog. (Dating can only be approximate in some cases.) As each book comes fully online, I'll repackage it in its original form at the Repress. For now, I leave you with the first page of the first volume:

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the
race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the
strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet
riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour
to men of skill; but time and chance
happeneth to them all. For man
also knoweth not his time; as the
fishes that are taken in an evil
net, and as the birds that are
caught in the snare; so are
the sons of men snared in
an evil time, when it
falleth suddenly
upon them.’

. . .

The Perfecting of a Love

(Written for The Valve)

Not many people share my interest in the contingency of canons and the fluidity of genres, but nearly everyone enjoys seeing bad reviews of (now) acknowledged "masterpieces". Either you get the warm satisfaction of mocking the (now) powerless for their stupidity, or you get the warm satisfaction of shared iconoclasm.

I'm not knocking the simple pleasures of the snide especially when the reviewers survive to eat and regurgitate their words, like those movie critics who slammed Psycho, within a decade had it on their Tip-Top 100 lists, and continued slamming newer misanthropic thrillers using the exact same series of tuts. (Reading the below, can you truly picture Anthony West's strictures on "good writing" having let, say, the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses pass?)

But the unprescient review is a multi-purpose tool. For example, it could remind bookbloggers and other suckers at journalistic teats that solid food's to be found elsewhere. With the light of (now) conventional opinion tucked under a critic's chin and nose, our characteristic blemishes stand out like our bluffing deployment of "in fact" and "the fact is", or our tendency to indict originality as a failed attempt at imitation: we grab at the first resemblance we can imagine, 'cause that's our job, and then find fault with the likeness.

And anachronistic harshness sometimes recovers some of the strangeness of the work itself, its indigestible singularity. On the scraped surface, recrystalization; through hostile eyes, a renewal of love.

Robert Musil's work reached respectability by the usual route. Rare blips of publicity during his lifetime; a small but insistent cult bringing him back into print, and then into circulation; a slow siege of the establishment and a slow capitulation, fading into decades of scattered sniping and griping.... The bumper crop of bad reviews comes mid-summer, after the cultists toss their earliest missiles, when sneers are broadened at the expense of those misguided enthusiasts, "we regret to say however" and so forth, sending the insurrection underground again till the harvest....

The most startling American response to the first translations of Musil may have been Newsweek's, June 8, 1953, where, under the heading "Confident Novelist", a confident reviewer told readers:

Actually, Musil was an almost intolerably bad writer. But he had scientific training and, as a result, became a sort of jet-powered literary no-good....

But the meatiest was Anthony West's in The New Yorker, July 25, 1953, subtitled "Out of Nowhere", where "nowhere" presumably meant the Austro-Hungarian empire. Break open the barbeque sauce:

... There is not the slightest reason for comparing it to the work of either Joyce or Proust. It belongs, in fact, to an earlier literary epoch, and it is the work of an imitator and not an innovator. "The Man Without Qualities" is modeled, not far short of plagiarism, on a group of Anatole France's novels, of which "The Wicker-Work Woman" and "The Amethyst Ring" are perhaps best known. They describe the adverntures of a M. Bergeret on the fringes of the Dreyfus case and of the secular political maneuvers of the various candidates seeking appointment to the vacant bishopric of Tourcoing.... [Other unconvincing similarities are listed.]

It was bold of Musil to attempt to tell such a large story, but in literature mere good intentions are worth nothing. The fact is that Musil was not much of a writer. The non-functioning simile, in which things that have no similarities are compared, is a sure sign of bad writing, and Musil goes as far with it as it is possible to go: [Several damning examples are given. Many more could be.]

His arrogance enabled him to botch even the almost foolproof technique he borrowed from France; he continually elbows his characters off the page, and nearly every chapter of his novel reveals a diagonal drift away from fiction into philosophic essay writing. [...] Even allowing for the translators, who are capable of devising "seated, lolling cows in the field, gazing towards the dawn," it must be said that the great Musil revival will not do, that there is no spark of of vitality in his work to keep it from its well-deserved obscurity.

And from a long way off as children say of their poor meatball that it was lost when somebody sneezed, or of science: That's so gay I see and know the image of my love.

Responses

philosophical ESSAY WRITING?! oh NO!!!!

It's all right, it was all a bad dream, go back to sleep....

And from a long way off this reader sees and knows the image of my feet:

Well then there now

. . .

Precision and Theft

(Written for The Valve)

Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity
by Stefan Jonsson

Stefan Jonsson reads like a nice guy. When he plays hunt-the-applicability against a full hand of voguish theorists, his point isn't to diagnose Musil away. His point is that The Man Without Qualities anticipates them.

Not in the sense of displacing them, of course. They remain authoritative; Jonsson is the advocate: "You see, Others and gentlemen, he's just like you and me!"

Anyway, no big deal. Jonsson's OK. The notion that Ulrich's Austria-Hungary wasn't just a satiric target, that its fecklessness could be mourned as a lost range of possibility, hadn't occurred to me, so I'm grateful for that, especially while I'm in mourning for Jimmy Carter's America. I read my fair share of awkward over-extended well-meaning prose aimed at an obscure audience, and I produce more than my share, and another three hundred pages of it isn't worth writing home about. It's not even worth writing The Valve about.

Instead I'm writing about stubbornness rewarded. After hacking through the main text, and then through all the endnotes 1 to the chapters, I reached the endnotes to the "Epilogue", and there I think it was the third?— I reached a note 2 worth the whole effort. Take this quote from Musil's 1926 "Interview mit Alfred Polgar"3 and you'd get most of what I'd gotten from Jonsson's book:

"For this city [Vienna] has been besieged by the Turks and bravely defended by the Poles; in the eighteenth century it was the biggest Italian city; it is proud of its pastries, which stem from Bohemia and Hungary; and throughout the centuries it has proven that it is possible to accomplish beautiful, even profound things, if one has no character."

Giving it away for free seems like ill usage, but fair use.

1 Isn't that a nice way to do footnotes in HTML? See, it avoids these ugly interlinear gaps:

image

Then again, it might be a better idea to link or use bracketed digits instead....

2 Even those hooligans at Crooked Timber like footnotes. Footnotes seem to get less editorial supervision, for one thing that's where Donna Haraway used to keep all her exclamation points. They're a terrific place to gesture towards alternative essays, the ones you wish you'd started writing once you start getting bored and frustrated with the one you're writing instead. Come to think of it, I encountered one of those in my recent Musil catch-up a grim assessment of the state of Young Törless's morals with a more affirmative deconstructive reading sending runners between the conclusion and the notes. A Crooked Timber comment mentions the alternative history you can derive from Gibbon's footnotes; me, I'm crazy for the accretions of Walter Scott and others on the Memoirs of the Count de Grammont. It's like meeting a party of gossips after talking to a gossip. (It might have been with Grammont that I fell into the habit of saving up footnotes as a special treat, to cleanse the palate after finishing the chapter, or to be gorged on at the end.) Online, we see something similar happening in the comment threads of the Pepys blog. The weblog comment thread is usually compared to a discussion board, but it includes aspects of footnotes, marginal jottings, peer reviews, and Calls for Papers or Theme Issues.

3 "Some who wrote operas and symphonies live on only in a footnote."

Responses

Maryam Bazargani asserts:

in all but sweats with class bias

. . .

Santa, Baby?

[The hallmark of an essay is] that its inner substance is as hardly translatable into conceptual thinking as a poem into prose language.... Its thoughts are intricately bound to a terrain made of feeling, will, personal experiences and such connections among complexes of ideas, which recieve and refract light only in the mental atmosphere of a unique inner situation. They do not lay claim to universality... they are snapshots of situations that can only be grasped through snapshots. They respond to a suppler, though no less strict logic.
- Robert Musil, from "a review of essay collections from 1913",
tantalizingly quoted in The Void of Ethics by Patrizia C. McBride,
not included here or here

And maybe your bilingual elves could also find time for Musil's untranslated bedroom farce, "Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer"?

Responses

Forget that imperialist stooge Santa. Polygots Paul Kerschen and jessie ferguson graciously took time from frantic end-of-semesters to draft a translation themselves. I and my fellow simpletongues thank them for their generosity.

. . .

Three Wheels

Reading Robert Musil elates me; reading A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil depressed me. Musil's work embodies (engenders, swaddles) "the other condition" in temporal and social limits. His characters' disillusionments don't disprove or deny their intuition: it's left its ambiguously eternal spot of space-time. Musil's summarizers live once too far removed from Musil's unions. You either walk with the point or beside it.

Responses

Run don't walk: There's a metaMusil joke in there somewhere.

. . .

We Have Always Already Never Been Modern

Robert Musil and the NonModern
by Mark M. Freed, Continuum, 2011

I picked this up because I felt peevish over somebody-wrong-on-the-Internet calling Musil's work "an attempt at an answer to aesthetic questions," and I thought Freed might at least give Musil credit for more ambition than that.

As it turned out, Freed instead credits Musil with ambition to pass an oral exam on Heidegger, Habermas, Lyotard, and Latour. By his dozenth intervention, I was picturing Percival Dunwoody, Idiot Time-Traveler:

I've come from the future to warn you: turn off the stove!

Responses

nescientity is the mother of intervention
Forget it, Jake: it's Continuum.
Musil was actually studying to pass an exam on Mach, Nietzsche, and Simmel...which yielded better results, it would seem. Thank god.

. . .

How Musil Can Change Your Life!

Mixed feelings are more productive in fiction than in conversation. Even writers with definite or self-definitive prejudices will induce muddle in pursuit of a story. (And then, reversing the process, their biographers become disillusioned by the bigoted troll.) Those whose second thoughts resecond, rethird, refourth and so on to Reichian volume and density may be lured into the hunt merely by the blessed prospect of something captured.

You'd better bag the game, though. Otherwise all you've achieved is another unsatisfying conversation.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.