The Expressionist Chair

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA…After a lengthy and animated discussion in my German Film seminar about the chair in Das Kabinet des Doktor Caligari. I personally would take the expressionist version any day.

Expressionism, n: a term used to describe works of art and literature in which the representation of reality is distorted to communicate an inner vision. The expressionist transforms nature rather than imitates it.

Highly recommended if you like creepy, campy silent films from 1920s Germany. Also, the aesthetics of the whole thing were rather Kafka. Behold the original:

chair

Being: Summer 2013

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It is a strange and contradictory summer.

Part of the time, you are entirely, freeingly unacademic. You bang down dirt roads in a rusted-out truck with no muffler and no inspection sticker, dust towering behind you. The windows are permanently rolled down, country radio permanently turned up. You help throw 300 haybales off a wagon and stack them in the barn, you set up sheep fencing, you learn how to drive the John Deere. Your father is building an outdoor oven in the garden behind the house, and you spend the last hour before dark with your little brother, balancing on top of the dome to apply the final layer of stucco. You both feel like giants, silhouetted against such a wide evening sky.

You work–six days a week as the vegetarian cook at a local farm and riding school. Up at 5:30 every morning, heat from three ovens on your face, to run a tight ship and bleach things and kill flies only when your Buddhist boss isn’t looking. You order quinoa in bulk and learn an astonishing number of ways to cook tofu. You play opera at all hours of the day, turned up as high as it will go, and make a few Cecilia Bartoli fans. You listen to talk radio, and try desperately to understand something of politics. And to your delight, you find a tiny community of intellectuals at this small Vermont farm. There is Jenn, the self-professed Feminazi, and Peter, the yogi, undergraduate degree from 70s Berkeley. You stand in the kitchen at six in the morning, pancakes burning behind you, and talk about psychoanalysis and gender roles and comparative religion with all of your might. It is a great gathering-in of perspectives, a time to ask a thousand questions you can’t ask anywhere else.

And you write. You live half in the future, on the other side of the grad school and Fulbright applications you agonize over.  You want to be in Germany, you want to get out of mid-western American academia, you want to already have your PhD and be the teacher of some students at some college, somewhere. You draw up a sort of intellectual creed for your future self, wildly romantic. Pursue REAL scholarship, the most rigorous there is, not watered down or “friendly.” Never take the easy way out. Only the exhaustive is truly interesting. Engage DIRECTLY with real ideas, texts, thinkers, the most meaningful that exist–no hiding behind secondary literature, behind works that are technically interesting but say nothing about the human soul. Focus on the connections, the dialogue, between whole genres, epochs, minds. Look the hardest ideas in the face, actively pursue Truth. The ultimate goal of scholarship must be teaching, otherwise it becomes something monstrous. Shrink from specialization. Be charitable. Be humble, but not self-effacing. Turn outwards. Elegance, humanism, joy, admiration ALWAYS.

~~~~~~

You start to realize how much of an idealist you are–the world is always marvelous and beautiful, even when it is horrifying. Most people are genuine and wish you well, and you wish them well in return with all your heart. Scholarship and academia and philosophy are toweringly meaningful, lovely realms. You will revel in everything, even if you are rather solitary and overworked and sometimes terrified.

The windows are flying open again, and behind it all are the lyrics of a song from a pretty exceptional band, which you listen to almost as often as the Cecilia Bartoli.

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak.

Let me learn from where I have been–

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn

Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.

___________

Photography, as always, from Anna.

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

~~~~~~~

*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

Being: Fulbright

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The below is a reasonably polished draft of my personal statement for the Fulbright Scholarship Program, specifically their English Teaching Assistantship–an opportunity almost impossible to attain, but too gleaming to pass up. It would place me in a German school for a year, teaching English to high school students, with a full stipend and time for outside research and study. And doors opened to me for further study in the United States or abroad. I can’t not try. The photograph is taken from my front porch.

In his Glasperlenspiel, Hermann Hesse defines vocation as a Call and an Admonition. It is a Call, he writes, because to experience one’s vocation is first to experience a summons from without, whether in the form of an idea, event, or another human being. This meeting of self and the world, he continues, brings with it an Admonition–the one called now has a charge to make good on it, to reach out to others as he or she was once reached out to. Vocation is both a gift and a commandment, and as such has the power to shape a career and a life.

My vocation is to teach. I define the word in its broadest sense: to share knowledge, to bring into dialogue and create conversation, to give others something that will shake them up and force them to see the world in a slightly different way. To engage in the pursuit of knowledge with the goal of giving it all back one day.

I’ve always had the passion, I think, though things were once more complicated. Homeschooled on a mountain farm in Vermont, I had few opportunities in highschool to engage in the sort of intensive academic dialogue I was looking for. I grew up surrounded by a supportive family and exhilaratingly lovely physical space, but my intellect was a closed loop–impatient, grasping, restless. Though I listened and talked and read, my desire to teach had nowhere to go.

Still, I tried. I hosted a series of “Symposiums” for siblings and family members, where I delivered pretentiously-titled lectures on joy in Nietzsche and early psychoanalysis. I read books my parents would not have approved of, and then blew my cover because I had to talk about them. I found online forums where I could write page-long posts about stage production in German opera. Outside of school, I led tours and taught fiber arts classes on our farm to hundreds of children and adults from around the world. But it wasn’t enough—by my senior year I was making myself crazy with excess intellectual energy, on the edge of serious depression and academically horribly lonely.

After all of that, stepping onto my college campus was like stepping into the sun. This was Hesse’s Call—suddenly there were hands reaching out, pulling me alongside, giving me a place to stand and more opportunities than I could take advantage of. The intellectual dialogue that had existed for me only in the ideal world became suddenly vital, something I could take hold of as a career and a future.

It was at college, then, that I fell fully in love with teaching. Today, as a rising senior I have my own third-grade Latin classroom at a local Preparatory School, spend my evenings working in the Writing Center, hash out adjective endings and coach oral exams as a German tutor. I take students to the opera and talk about politics and music, sit on undergraduate conference panels on Greek tragedy or 20th century Germany. A professor told me last semester, “Don’t go into teaching unless you have a fire in your belly.” I do, I said, and this is where I want to be.

And what about the future? I hope to continue my studies and someday teach at the college level. Wherever I end up, however, education will always be for me as much a career as a life philosophy. Firstly, because I have always found that teaching, along with being an artist, is of all the professions the most hopeful: it begins with the understanding that there is something in mankind worth passing on, and those worth passing it on to. That, to me, is the root of all humanism, of all true creation and scholarship. And secondly, because the worldview behind education leaves so much room for awe, curiosity, and humility. There is something both incredibly humbling and beautiful about working with the human mind, about seeking to unlock its potential for admiration and understanding.

Above all, though, I want to teach because of the second part of Hermann Hesse’s definition–the Admonition, the commandment. For me, it’s not enough just to be grateful to those professors who sought me out when I was very much alone. I want to offer something in return for their investment. And so I would be honored for the chance to reach out to other young people, to talk to them, to let them speak when they are trying to say something. In the end, teaching does not just or even primarily have to do with imparting knowledge–it is also about giving others the tools they need and the opportunity to articulate a voice.

This, I think, is what it means to make the pursuit of knowledge unrelentingly, magnificently personal.

Art: Dada and Bread & Puppet

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I went down to Chelsea last night to see a traveling performance of the Bread and Puppet Theater in the old town hall. The setting was classic Vermont–tiny town surrounded by green hills, dusty wood-floored room with paneled ceiling and folding chairs in front of the stage. A space and a part of the state I love.

I had heard of Bread and Puppet, but had never seen one of their performances. Founded by a German baker in New York and now located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the group has spent the past half-century baking bread, writing manifestos, and presenting provocative, surrealist, and occasionally anarchic spectacles in New England and around the world. They are Cheap Art and Political Theater, they say–art is for everyone, art is food, art wakes up sleepers!

The show I saw  was based on a series of Renaissance paintings and entitled, quite lengthily, Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross: A series of tableaux vivants depicting the legend of the true cross as seen in Piero’s murals in Arezzo, mounted on a stage which resembles the Death of Adam lunette, with the Contemporary Crucifixion of an Oppositionist by Bread & Puppet Butchers and Bureaucrats.

Indeed. The four performers mixed larger-than-life puppetry, instruments, and sung and spoken word–sometimes shocking, sometimes beautiful, always with an underlying layer of absurd humor. The portrayal of the Christian religion was sometimes satirical (was God perpetrator, victim, or spectator?), sometimes deeply respectful and almost reverent (the tableau of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba with a recitation of the Song of Songs, for instance). In keeping with the group’s motto, Biblical archetype met Newsweek drama in the last scene, where contemporary “oppositionists” were symbolically crucified–the last being, rather predictably, Edward Snowden. 

If you are in Vermont and get a chance to see them, do. The gritty, vital feel of the evening and the political/artistic philosophy of the company were, to me, quite reminiscent of various avant garde movements of the early 20th century, and particularly of Dadaism. Tristan Tzara’s brilliant and insane Unpretentious Proclamation, for instance, somehow fits right in. I include it below, as it too loud to be ignored.

How different this type of artistic expression is–Dada and Bread and Puppet–than the order and rigor of a Renaissance painting, the self-conscious profundity of a Mann or Dostoevsky novel. How much more playful, unstructured, irreverent–yet still provocative, shaking us up and making us reconsider, trying to get at what it means to be human and live in the world and create.

Art is crazy. Above the rules of the Beautiful and its inspection, indeed.

Tristan Tzara

Being: Writing Center

still-life-writing-tableStill Life Writing Table, William Michael Harnett

This was supposed to be finished and posted a month ago, while I was still at college, which is of course where this is set. Finals Week and Goethe Institut exams put an end to that. Here ’tis.

~~~~~~

You work at the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a Smith paper. Such a line of argument is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Daniel manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, however, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy. One night before Finals’ Week, you all read the Ghost scene aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. What was he talking about?

~~~~~~

For the past month, the senior Honors students have been writing their theses. They have taken up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Karl, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

Travis has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Daniel takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Rachel, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

Literature: B.H. Fairchild

durer-self_portrait-1500Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500

The second poem I heard read here at school was B.H. Fairchild’s Rave On. Someone declaimed it, almost shouting, in a house full of pictures of saints and students who thought that this poet was the closest thing to a hero we had. Rave On was everything we wanted to be, and Beauty too, perhaps more than the first.

There is a  B.H. Fairchild night here every semester, somewhere between Eliot and Shakespeare in the line-up of authors. His poems are hard-hitting, occasionally obscene, constructing a bridge between high art and the brutally quotidian. Machine-shop innuendos and carwrecks and dying midwest towns in the same universe as Dürer and Virgil and Bach. They always draw a crowd–students  leaning on the window-ledges and couch backs, thumbed paperback copies of The Art of the Lathe and Usher on the floor. And this semester, B.H. Fairchild was visiting the campus in April. B.H. Fairchild, the man, in person! We were elated.

He was as paradoxical as his poems, narcissistic in the way of very intelligent people who know they have led extraordinary lives. He gave a lecture and a reading in cowboy boots and a suit jacket, worker’s hands and lined face. His father was a machinist who didn’t read. He was enthralled by words and a professor of English at a prestigious university. He spoke about wanting to save his students and not being able to, about how poetic language was akin to the coming into Being-in-the-world, the thing itself, the going-on. All that he wished for his poetry, he said, was that it be a small thing done well.

At the off-campus house where he had been idolized for years, he rambled about all the shitty things he and the guys did in highschool, how the rest of them started a band and went to California and made it big (hot chicks and convertables) while he slogged away at his PhD in English. He doesn’t reccommend doing that, by the way–the college part, that is, not the California debauch. Not right away. Not if you are 18 and male and live through poems like Rave On.

He signed the wall of the off-campus house before he left, like the other visiting poets before him but twice as large. We were exuberant.

~~~~~

At the luncheon I told him that I had been to Nürnberg and had seen Dürer’s self portrait and had such a love of it and of his poem about the work, Blood Rain. Dürer as Christ, the artist as divinity–what a crazy, bold statement, a century before Hamlet and opera and the burgeoning of the human self as a worthy subject of art. He said that he thought Dürer must have been the smug, self-satisfied type, to paint something like that. I didn’t agree, and didn’t think his poem did, either.

 

Blood Rain

Like rust on iron, red algae invading rain.

And again, the plague. Nuremberg in ruin.

At home alone, the artist prays for grace

while, gates flung open, the neighbor’s geese

roam the yard in droves, and their wild honks

and the ravings of a servant girl bring Dürer

to the window. She stands there, her wet hair

clumped in black strands, and her arms fall limp

in a great sob, her head lolling, while the damp

shift she wears blotters the rain in red streaks–

like a wound slowly spreading, Dürer sees, to make

a sign: in the bleeding fabric of her dress

as if etched in copper hangs Christ upon His Cross

between two ghosts. Cruel miracles, God’s grace

drawn in God’s blood on the body of a girl who sighs

at him, swoons, and collapses in the mud.

~~~~~

Outside, gutters turning scarlet, the dead

hauled from house to wagon, cries of women

battering the window panes. Inside, the burin

drops from Dürer’s hand as the girl wakes

and rises from the bench below his portrait,

done in Munich the year of the apocalypse, but

never to be sold, never to leave the artist’s house.

She touches once more God’s message on her dress,

then turns and stares at the painting’s face

so solemn, so god-like in its limpid gaze,

that she backs away to study the long brown locks

spread evenly about His shoulders, the beatific

right hand held more gently than the blessing

of a priest, and the inscription in a tongue

she does not understand. This is Christ!

No, it’s me, he says, touching hand to chest,

~~~~~

the rough right hand, the human chest, the heart’s dream

of art’s divinity as death rolls down the street.

 

B. H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, 2003

 

Kunst: Rainer Maria Rilke

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Kleine Motten taumeln schauernd quer aus dem Buchs;

sie sterben heute Abend und werden nie wissen,

daß es nicht Frühling war.

Small moths tumble shivering out of the boxwood;

they will die this evening and never know

that it wasn’t spring.

~~~~~

Ich bins, Nachtigall, ich, den du singst,

hier, mir im Herzen, wird diese Stimme Gewalt

nicht länger vermeidlich.

It is I, Nightingale, whom you sing,

here, in my heart, this song becomes a force

no longer avoidable.

Rilke_Signature

____________________

Photography from the ever-talented sister, again. Yes, that is where I live. Vermont is amazing.

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.

~~~~~

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.

Being: Spring Semester

snowstorm3It is the coldest of Februarys, all frozen mud and raw mid-western sleet. Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind–no matter which way you walk, it blows in your face.

This semester is full of Robert Musil, and you love him. You try to talk in German about the part of human existence that lies outside of words. You fail.

Latin. You start admiring secondary literature for the first time in your life, thanks to the young Classics professor who gives you as much literary theory and crazy feminist interpretations of Ovid as you could wish for. She is new to the department, and the adulation of the female Latin and Greek students is only slightly veiled. An article by Foucault on the death of the author derails the seminar and her office hours for half a week.

 
What if the author didn’t matter? You are still debating this point days later, with the vanload of bright-eyed 19-year-old Classicists on the way to teach Latin to third graders.

And Eros, from Plato’s Symposium, in Greek, with Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig added in for good measure. Everything is thrown open. There is more here than you ever thought. Eros as possession and procreation. Eros as philosophy and the philosopher together. Eros as the mediator transcendent, halfway between foolishness and wisdom, poverty and wealth, appearance and reality. Eros as a way of being–give and take, presence and absence, the tension and release at the root of all scholarship and of all being-in-love-with. It is the idea of the semester.

~~~~~

Elsewhere. Being a good Nietzschean and nagged by the fear that you just might turn into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you resolve to learn to dance. You find out that you are more horrible at it than you thought. This is a great disappointment not only to yourself, but also to whatever poor sap ends up partnering with you in Social Dance 101.

Young Goethe from last semester has grown out his sideburns and entirely ruined his looks.  You decide that he amply compensated, though, by simultaneously darning his own jacket and reciting Auden last Friday.

The other weekly readers of poetry and singers of songs have fixated on medieval chant. Crucem Sanctam Subiit–there are a dozen verses, and everyone must learn them all so you can sing them thirty-five voices strong, pounding on the floor, the faces of the young men transfigured in some sort of spiritual ecstasy. They all want to be monks someday.

_______________________

Photograph from my sister, ever-talented.