Robert Musil: The Failure of Words

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Robert Musil is taking over the world. Or the semester, anyway. There is such a peculiar thrill in the first engagement with a great artist, the headiness of a burgeoning love-affair with a thinker you know will follow you for the rest of your life. I will be studying Musil until school lets out, reading almost all of the shorter prose and hopefully a good chunk of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). It is the perfect follow-up to Thomas Mann last semester.

Who is Musil? Another one of those towering creators of Mann’s generation, exhaustive and exhausting, fighting for a heroism of weakness and making art in a country on the edge of decay. He spent his life in Austria and Germany and died in Switzerland in 1942, ever eluded by the fame and security that Mann won so easily. He was Mann’s opposite in more than just physical circumstances–his is a world of the subjective and impressionistic, blurred outlines and shifting boundaries to Mann’s lazer-sharp precision. Though no traditionalism, Musil’s religiosity is real and aching, to Mann’s ironically God-less, classical universe. There is a fragility about Musil that is lacking in Mann, an ambiguity that makes him peculiarly unsuited for normal literary criticism. And extraordinarily, mind-blowingly difficult to read.

~~~~~

We began with Törless (English: The Confusions of Young Törless), Musil’s first work and the only one he was ever really well-known for during his life. What was it about? There are a hundred themes I could write on—sadomasochism and Eastern religion, Bildung and the duality of the soul. Those are all on the surface, there for the taking.

What, then? For me, the most pressing question Törless raised was something less direct, inherent in the very structure and method of Musil’s writing–what can language do, and what happens when it fails? Törless was, in a sense, a book about the process of writing itself, about the power or powerlessness of the author, about the attempt to bring anything to words. What sort of an ability did language have, in the end? Are words in essence strong or weak? How much of human experience can they really contain?

And again, most hauntingly, what when words simply fail? When that which the artist seeks to portray is unreachable with language? When the part of human life he wants to get at lies completely beyond the realm of words?

All of those questions were there already behind the motto that opened Törless, a quote from Maeterlinck—when we speak something out, we devalue it curiously. Something vital is lost in the process of verbal transmission. When we dive into the depths (of the sea, the self), the drops of water we bring to the surface on our fingertips are pale and lacking. Later, Törless himself expressed the problem most clearly, and made the connection to language:

He remembered that he had once stood with his father before some landscape or other, and suddenly cried, oh it is beautiful–and was embarrassed, when that pleased his father. Because he could have just as easily have said, it is horribly sad. It was a failure of words that tortured him, a half-conscious knowledge that the words were only chance elusions of that which was felt.

Aside: the sometimes-inseparability of beauty and horrible sadness–don’t we all know this? The first and penultimate time I heard Wagner’s Parsifal I was depressed for days. Continue:

And now he had the desire to search unrestingly for a bridge, a correlation, a simile and a compromise—between himself and that which stood wordless before his soul.

It seems to me that Musil’s work is the perpetual search to span that gap, to find the bridge. To plunge into the depths (of the sea, the self), and make words express what lies there. Musil’s medium is that of language, but his subject matter something else entirely–that which is felt and not reasoned, psychological, intimated, having to do with a thousand unspoken nuances of soul and mind. His artistic territory is that of the wordless.

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If Törless sets up the problem, the question of wording the wordless, then the two short stories of Vereinigungen (Unions) are Musil’s attempt to find a solution. There the tension, here a potential resolution–just what would a bridge between language and the unspeakable look like, at the practical level of literary creation? How to work around, even transcend, this failure of words in the composition of an actual text?  How to make the wordless into prose? What details of style and syntax to draw on?

Because it was even more clear that the realm of Vereinigungen lay outside of language. The physical happenings of each story could be recounted in a sentence–the actual plot took place within the soul itself, in some half-conscious realm of memory and association that the characters themselves were barely aware of. Feelings happened, not events.  The subtlest of psychological shifts was epoch-making–and out of all this the narrator crafted the language and syntax to tell a story. How did he do it?

First there were the similes. Both stories were saturated with them, these comparisons of a few words or several sentences introduced by like or as when, sometimes a dozen or more to a page.  Often they were beautiful, sometimes funny, nearly always puzzling.

In all that happened, she had a feeling like a guest who enters a strange house only once and gives himself over, thoughtlessly and a little bored, to everything that confronted him there.

The crowd shoved her slowly here and there like a great, heavy swell of dishwater.

And she began to long for the abused and exploited lives of strange men, as after the pale, weak vigil during a sickness when the sounds wander from one room to the next and listen nowhere and, freed from the soul’s own weight, somewhere carry on a hovering life.

Her thoughts wandered slowly in the snow outside, without looking back, ever farther and farther, as when someone is too tired to turn around and walks and walks.

It is out of this dense net of images that Musil builds his text. His characters and narrator are unable say how it all is in and of itself, because the it lies outside of language–so they must say it is like something else, something we can read off a page. We can relate to Musil’s similes–they give us something to go on, something we can internalize, verbalize, discuss. A bridge over the wordless.

And then the sentence structure, Musil’s choice of vocabulary–the prose style is dominated by subjunctive case verbs, by the word maybe (vielleicht) and the word feeling (Gefühl). What she says was only maybe so, or not, because it had to do with feeling. He could perhaps see the world that way. The words are themselves pointedly ambiguous, Musil’s imprecision allowing language to come closer to containing what was behind it.

~~~~~

But how much of Törless’ failure of words does Musil overcome, in the end? In the second story, the struggle to bring to words is even more pressing. The conversations between Veronika and Johannes are more full of silence than of language. When Veronika does speak, her words are again pale, misunderstood, poor representations of the area of the self she seeks to bring to the surface and express.

Veronika gasped after words….and silence arose again.

“I’m going out now, indeed, and perhaps I will die.” But he knew there too, that wasn’t what he meant.

And Johannes didn’t know how to say it–there were too many possibilities in his head.

They hardly spoke to another any more.

Wordless, unspeakable, inexpressible, hesitating, silence–this is Musil’s vocabulary. In the end, one has the feeling that the words he gives his characters are still only poor stand-ins for what is really behind them, masks in front of the true face of being. In German the expression “to put into words” translates to “in Worte kleiden”—to clothe in words. As if words are only something put on, some outer garment that is not and cannot be a true part of the body and soul.

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What is the effect of all this? This wording of the wordless, this headstrong determination clothe with language things usually left outside of it? Where does it leave the reader? who can, after all, only read words?

Es ist komisch….komisch, Emily, oder? says the enigmatic German Professor. He thinks Musil is too intimate, too close for comfort. The books are somehow deeply unnerving, Musil’s constant trying to make language fit disturbing, almost irritating. But shouldn’t great art be irritating sometimes? Yes, of course it should.

And then I say, going rather far out on a limb–is Robert Musil fundamentally unsuited to the literary medium? Is his project out of place in a language-based form of expression? His artistic territory—feeling, intimation, soul—is usually left unspoken—or left to music. Would he not have made a better composer? Listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, or the fourth movement of his 5th. There, perfectly, effortlessly, is everything Musil wanted to get at, with those silences in Vereinigungen, with the interchangeable beauty and sadness in Törless. The most intimate of psychological states made vivid,  without the restriction of words or language–wasn’t that the realm of music, not literature?

It’s a funny and disturbing thought, that a great author is unsuited to his artform. But so it goes. There are no conclusions–this is only the very beginning of the dialogue. Give me a decade to think about it. What is the power of words? In the end, I’m not sure that even Musil had an answer.


As an aside, I am fascinated by the similarities between Musil and Mahler. They were both Austrian, in Vienna at almost the same time. They both were intimately familiar with the drive towards the immense, the desire to encompass everything in a work of art. Mahler said, “The symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything within it.” Whence this desire for the exhaustive, the all-encompassing? What was it about the Austrian fin de siècle artistic consciousness?

Translations are my own, from the beautiful Rowolt 1968 edition in the first picture above (only $6! and shipping from America!).

Listen to Mahler.

That is all.

2 thoughts on “Robert Musil: The Failure of Words

  1. The first quote, about something being both beautiful and sad – reminds me of Tolkien: “[joy] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is *evangelium*, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (On Fairy-Stories).
    You should totally get into Tolkien. You could make some genius blog posts about him. I’ll lend you my books…;)

  2. Listen to Mahler – that is all! Poppy

    >________________________________ > From:thoughtenchanted >To:crgoodling@yahoo.com >Sent: Monday, February 18, 2013 4:22 PM >Subject: [New post] Robert Musil: The Failure of Words > > > WordPress.com >Thoughtenchanted posted: ” Robert Musil is taking over the world. Or the semester, anyway. There is such a peculiar thrill in the first engagement with a great artist, the headiness of a burgeoning love-affair with a thinker you know will follow you for the rest of your life. I w” >

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