Literature: Thomas Mann: Zauberberg and Faustus

Various thoughts on the worldviews, music, and endings of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), inspired by studying for my German Comps. Rather longer and more academic than most posts here. The quotations are from the estimable John Woods translations, with occasional edits of my own.

Zauberberg

Thomas Mann is the most unflinching of writers. His works, read from the perspective of early 20th-century Europe, are ideological, painful, inescapably overt. They are remarkable because Mann wrote at a time when it was so easy not to be these things–his was the age of surrealism, absurdism, symbol and neo-Romanticism, and many of his contemporaries were falling away from reality. In contrast, his didacticism is refreshing. He poses questions and he answers them.

Works like Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, in particular, belong to this vein. They are what my professor calls “test-tube novels”–all the fixations, terrors, questions, and beauties of a new century thrown together, the results brought under Mann’s lazer-sharp analysis. His characters critique and harangue, propose and debunk.

Der Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, implicitly and explicitly, are works that ask questions about art. What do we do with our artistic past? How do we move forward? Can we create a 20th century work of art–what should it look like? Can we find a solution to the artistic problems of the past century? The novels, I argue, offer two very different sets of answers to these questions.

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But first, Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner–the representative artist, in Mann’s mind, of Europe’s artistic past. He located in Wagner’s operas everything that was disturbingly problematic about German Romanticism–the death-drunkenness, the beauty in perversion, the baroque-colossal aesthetics, the sympathy with the abyss. Wagner was the questionable wizard of the past century, whose vast inner landscapes were in essence sick and impure. The apotheosis of these tendencies, of course, was Tristan und Isolde–the most beautiful opera in the world, the love story that in the end did not have to do with the love of the beloved, but rather with the love of death. Wagner’s art is a superlative, Eduard Hanslick wrote. And there can be nothing beyond a superlative.

Philosophically and stylistically, then, Wagner’s was an art without a future. After so much perfection and so much Liebestod, what was left over for the artists of the 20th century?

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This is the question that Mann takes up in Der Zauberberg–what is left over? The novel was published in 1924, almost two decades before the horrors of World War II. Here, the answer Mann suggests is inherently humanistic, forward-looking, even cautiously optimistic.

 Philosophically, he separates his hero from Wagner’s Todesrausch in the Schnee (Snow) chapter of the work,  when Hans Castorp finds himself alone in a storm in the Alps. He dreams, and in his dream Mann constructs a vision of a world that has renounced all sympathy with death, all of Wagner’s love of abyss and annihilation. Der Mensch soll um der Güte und Liebe willen dem Tod keine Herrschaft einräumen über seine Gedanken. For the sake of goodness and love shall mankind grant death no dominion over his thoughts–there, in the single italicized sentence of the entire work, Mann presents the renunciation and defeat of all of Wagner’s philosophy.

In Der Zauberberg, too, Mann offers us a (possible) stylistic paradigm of the new art, a model for the aesthetics of the 20th century: Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, the Lied for piano and voice that so fascinates Hans later in the story. The piece has everything that Wagner’s operas lack–classicism, humanism, beauty in smallness, self-restraint, hope. The text of the song, while it deals with the possibility of self-destruction, does not end with death and Liebestod, but rather with the thoughtful return to life of the speaker. In Der Zauberberg, Mann’s description of the Lied matches almost exactly his description of the ideal artwork of the 20th century, as sketched out in a brief essay from 1911. A new classicism must come, he wrote–to the artistic future of Germany belonged a clear-headed and upwards-looking art, whose spirituality would be cool and healthy instead of drunken and bombastic.

Profound but logical, deeply-felt but never excessive, Schubert’s Lindenbaum in Der Zauberberg is thus more hopefully modern than anything by Wagner. Unlike Tristan und Isolde, the Lied transcends Romanticism to look towards a constructive future.

Of course–of course, Thomas Mann–this beautiful image is destroyed in the final pages of the novel, or at least called deeply into question. For all the forward-looking hope and resolution of Der Lindenbaum and all the heroism of the conclusions in the Schnee chapter, Hans’ own story does not end so neatly. He leaves the mountain, and, in the chaos of 1914, disappears from sight on a dark and bloody battlefield. Mann does not reveal whether he lives or dies.

On the final pages of the novel, however, Mann again leaves room for optimism. His response to Wagner and the 19th century this time is less tidy, more cautious—bloody historical circumstances are not as forgiving as idealistic philosophizing or Schubertian artistry. But even so, Mann opens the possibility of transcendence. He closes his 900-page novel with a question, itself inherently forward looking in that it demands an answer from the future: “And out of this world-festival of death, out of this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around–will love someday rise up out of this, too?” Mann addresses both love and death in this final sentence, but unlike Wagner he no longer takes it for granted that they belong together. He leaves us not with Hans’ Liebestod—but with the possibility, however gritty, of love’s ultimate resurrection from death.

And in one final touch of hope, Hans sings as he disappears from sight. The music that struggles to rise above the final pages of the book is not Isolde’s Liebestod, not some epic, backward-looking paean to death and transfiguration, but Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum. It is a piece shot through with death, to be sure, but so is life. What is most important, for Hans and Thomas Mann and Germany itself, is that Schubert does not end with that final surrender.

In the end, what towers above even the most ambiguous passages of the book, as Mann wrote, was “the idea of the human being, the conception of a future humanity that has passed through and survived the profoundest knowledge of disease and death.”*  Redemptively humanistic, Mann points to the vital necessity of a spiritual and artistic future where life and love rise above the fascination of death.

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So that is Der Zauberberg. What about Doktor Faustus? The book was composed some twenty years after Der Zauberberg, as Mann watched the self-immolation of his country from exile in America. The story is wrenching–composer Adrian Leverkühn sells his soul to the devil (in the form of intentionally contracted syphilis) for twenty-five years of possessed brilliancy, creates, and loses everything in one torturous final scene. All of this is set down by Serenus Zeitblom, Adrian’s childhood friend–an old man, a teacher of Latin, a humanist, full of sorrow and pity and unspeakable horror at the collapse of Germany that parallels that of his friend.

Doktor Faustus still asks the same questions as Der Zauberberg–how do we grapple with our artistic past, how do we look forward towards the future? The answers Mann gives, however, are very different. If Zauberberg is at least cautiously open to optimism, Faustus is inescapably pessimistic. Serenus’ world is one where all art, and Romantic art above all, is its own parody and a lie. The only response to Europe’s artistic heritage seems to be Adrian’s brand of mocking laughter, and the only valid form of expression is satire of a satire of a satire. Descriptors like “pure,” “classical,” and “genuine” are simply outdated.

The idea of a constructive future to follow the 19th century is hardly developed, or even mentioned. There’s one very short conversation towards the end of the novel: as Serenus reports, “The hope was voiced that the youthful 20th century might develop a more elevated and intellectually cheerful frame of mind. The conversation broke apart and exhausted itself in a disjointed discussion of the question of whether there were any signs of that or not.” That is all. There is no hopeful looking-forward, no lofty for the sake of goodness and love. The familiar “20th century as solution” topic fades before it has begun, to the sound of Adrian’s mocking laughter.

And this laughter, this sardonic mockery that permeates the composer’s life and work? This is new response to the artistic past, to Wagner et alia. Irony opposes Romanticism, not pure and lovely “new classicism.” The new creative genius is born of scorn and disease and forever bound to them.

Jose Clemente OrozcoJose Clemente Orozco, Dartmouth College, from The Epic of American Civilization

Mann’s treatment of humanism is here also very different from Zauberberg. If Goethe’s Faust is post-Christian, Mann’s is post-humanity. Adrian’s universe is barbarously, scientifically vast, and mankind and his values, puny and transient, are just “a drop in the bucket.” In one of the most excruciating chapters of the work (XXVII), even Serenus, the Classicist and lover of belles lettres, is forced to conclude that his “humanistic Homo Dei, this crown of life, along with his spiritual duty, was therefore presumably the product of marsh-gas fecundity on some neighboring star…the flower of evil.” “That mostly blossoms into evil,” Adrian adds. After all, what place can humanism, with its affirmation of the moral and artistic worth of mankind, have in a world where everything exists to be mocked? Where art lies? Where Europe is falling into an abyss of painful self-annihilation? A philosophy where Man and his creations are genuinely worthy of respect and study is a thing of the past, consigned to same rubbish heap as the quaint geocentric theories of the Dark Ages.

Again, compare the above to Der Zauberberg. In a sense, the book is about humanism. Hans’ Bildung (Education) is essentially humanistic, whatever else it may be. There is something redemptively transfigurative about it, in the end. In Zauberberg‘s world, human creation and ideas may be perilous or lead to death, but they are always more than fodder for parody.

Finally–what about the endings of Faustus and Zauberberg? Interestingly enough, Faustus also closes with questions, with a figure vanishing from sight. In the final paragraph, Serenus gives us personified Germany herself, who “plummets from despair to despair…in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror.” He asks, “When will [Germany] reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of this final hopelessness, will a miracle that goes beyond faith bear the light of hope?”.

But what sort of questions are these? Do they look towards the future for an answer, or only backwards, on the war that has brought horror and debasement? Are they asked by a man entirely despairing of a hopeful answer? A sort of prayer forms the final sentence of the book: “A lonely man folds his hands and says, ‘May God have mercy on your poor soul, my friend, my fatherland” (534). But the speaker is almost broken by disgust and grief, the friend already consecrated to Satan. What else is left?

apokalypseAlbrecht Dürer, from the Apokalypse

So it all begs the question: is the query at the end of Zauberberg different? Is it somehow more forward-looking, less despairing? The answer is ambiguous, no doubt. But look at the differing backdrops to these final paragraphs, and examine what has come before the questions. In Faustus, there has been no preceding humanistic Bildung, no talk of dying for the future with the word of love on one’s lips–no talk of a future at all, except to express disgust over the travesty of it all. There has been no coming-of-age, but rather its reversal, a descent to madness. Adrian’s forced return to childhood on the final pages is truly worse than death, this rending of soul from body.

And the music in the last chapter of Dr. Faustus is no melancholy but ultimately life-affirming Schubert Lied, no representative of 20th-century classicism. Instead there is Adrian’s own Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, a gargantuan wail in 12-tone serialism for choir and orchestra, a monstrous work that permits “no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration.” “It ought not be” is its great leitmotif, felt in every measure and cadence. Adrian’s definitive statement on the work comes some thirty pages from the end of the novel, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in modern literature:

“I have discovered that it ought not be.
“What ought not be, Adrian?”
“The good and the noble,” he replied, “what people call human, even though it is good and noble. What people have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and what people filled to overflowing have announced with jubilation–it ought not be. It will be taken back. I shall take it back.”
“I don’t quite understand, my dear fellow. What do you want to take back?”
“The Ninth Symphony,’ he replied. And then came nothing more, even though I waited.

Of course Adrian means Beethoven’s Ninth, that forward-looking exposition of  joy and humanism, representative of a world purposefully negated in Faustus. As Serenus concludes, “There were years when we children of the dungeon dreamt of a song of joy–Fidelio, the Ninth Symphony–with which to celebrate Germany’s liberation, its liberation of itself. But now only this work can be of any use, and it will be sung from our soul: the lamentation of the son of hell, the most awful lament of man and God ever intoned on this earth, which begins with its central character, but steadily expanding, encompasses, as it were, the cosmos.”

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So that is Doktor Faustus. Where does it leave Thomas Mann? At the end of his life, did he believe in art, his own or anyone else’s? Was Adrian’s world, fought against in Zauberberg, at last fully his own? I certainly have no definitive answer to these sorts of questions. Perhaps a clue, though, can be found in his last book, Felix Krull, only partially complete at his death in 1955. It is a return to high comedy, and a focus on mankind’s ability–if not for high nobility and wisdom, then at least for reason, craft, survival.

And of course, there is the very fact that Mann kept writing. Doktor Faustus was not his last book. That in itself–the creative act–is, I think, the most hopeful, inherently humanistic and forward-looking act of which mankind is capable. “It ought not be,” it seems, was Adrian’s motto and not Mann’s own.

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*From “The Making of the Magic Mountain”–Mann’s own writings on his magnum opus, a must read.

Literature: Franz Kafka II: Dialogue, Humanism, God

I’m still trying to sort out Franz Kafka. He was the topic of this semester’s independent literature study–my second-to-last in the on-going project with the enigmatic German Professor, which began three semesters ago with Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. It’s the best thing I’ve done as a student here, this intensely personal investigation of tortuous novels that has expanded to include music, philosophy, aesthetics, and myth.

Franz Kafka is such a different figure than Mann or Musil. His obsessions are different, as are his questions and his solutions. His world is entirely opposed to Thomas Mann’s, all secular humanism and sparkling irony and the brilliant residue of 3,000 years of art–opposed, too, to Musil’s intensely private universe, where the glance shared between two people occupies a dozen pages of metaphor-laden prose. If Mann addresses the relationship between man and his intellectual heritage, and Musil the relationship between man and himself, then Kafka addresses the relationship between man and God. His spirituality is real and aching and, and Camus writes, the questions he poses are those of a soul in quest of its grace. What do we do when we are confronted with the Other-worldly? Is God cruel and absurd, or full of goodness? Can human wisdom and strength win a way to the Divine? Certainly, one can read Kafka as a critique of modern bureaucracy, the industrialization of mankind, etc. etc.–but to me it is the religious nature of his works that transcends.

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Leaving philosophy aside, what about the writing itself? To me, perhaps the most pressingly disturbing aspect of Kafka’s prose was its lack of a Bezugsrahmen–a frame of reference or allusion, an overt dialogue between the author and the art and thought of the past three millennia. Kafka’s world exists apparently in a vacuum, in a universe of isolation that is as cultural and intellectual as it is personal. His characters don’t hang pictures from Dürer or Caspar David Friedrich on their walls; they don’t read books by Schopenhauer or Plato. There are no direct references in the novels (Schloss, Prozess) to Shakespeare or to Nietzsche or Antiquity–as readers, we are hardly aware that such things exist. If there is a dialogue between Kafka’s figures and their intellectual forebears, it is hidden.

This utter lack of reference to a greater intellectual tradition is especially unsettling to me, because I revel in The Dialogue, locate great spiritual and intellectual meaning in my ability to connect to three thousand years of thought. To have these connections ripped out from under my feet is intensely disorienting. How different, again, from Thomas Mann! His books are dialogues in essence–long, heady, sometimes tortuous conversations between the ideas and worldviews and artworks of human civilization. And as a result, none of his figures are ever truly isolated. Certainly, they are sometimes despairing, desperate, lonely. In spite of it all, though, they always partake of and above all believe in an intellectual and artistic tradition that is greater than any individual–a tradition that offers, I think, a sort of transcendence, a consolation.

In Kafka there is no such consolation. There is none of Coriolanus’ there is a world elsewhere, no sense that Kafka’s figures can find redemption by situating their own struggles within a philosophical or aesthetic framework that has existed for millennia and will carry on after they are gone. Joseph stands before the court in The Trial and never thinks, “Ah, so it was with Socrates in Athens. I understand now; this is what I am to do.” K. fights unceasingly to gain entrance in the castle, but he does so without the great dictum of Goethe’s Faust: Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen. Whoever strives with all his might–that man can we redeem. He remains isolated, intellectually as well as physically.

But in the end, isn’t this lack of a Bezugsrahmen infinitely fitting to Kafka’s universe? The lack of a Dialogue, the emptiness, the intellectual silence all serve to emphasize aloneness of the characters. Their hermetic solitude is perhaps the tragedy of the novels.

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Kafka’s world is also disturbingly free of humanism. Humanism tells us that men and women can move forward on their own strength, can become wiser and better and more farsighted in ways that accomplish things, in ways that lead to creation or beauty or salvation. Kafka takes these ideas and turns them upside down.

He does this above all in Before the Law, the page-long parable at the end of The Trial. In the story, a nameless man seeks in vain to gain access to the Law (grace, God, heaven?). There are a series of gates in his way, and a door-warden who rebuffs all of his attempts to enter even the first. The man sometimes sees a gleam of light through the passageway beyond the door, but dies at the end of the story without ever having set foot inside.

The story, I believe, is fundamentally a-humanistic. The seeker doesn’t become stronger through all his questioning, striving, learning, believing–but rather the opposite.

Kafka becomes anti-Goethe. Whoever strives with all his might–that man dies of exhaustion.

In this light, perhaps the most tragic sentence in the novels is the door-warden’s final statement to the man, in his last moments of life: “Der Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt. Ich gehe jetzt und schließe ihn.” The entrance was only meant for you. I am going now and closing it. That is our torture, our tragedy–that we are wise enough to know such an entrance exists, and wise enough to seek it with all our strength–but too limited, physically and spiritually, to ever gain entrance on our own strength. Humanity finds itself in an impossible position.

In this way, I think, Kafka’s is a world that the ancient Greeks would have recognized–where human beings are fundamentally weak, where their limitations are at the forefront of human existence. The divine realm exists, sends messengers, is tangible and present–but is ultimately careless and inscrutable.

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There is one more thing about Kafka’s characters, however, at the end of it all: wherever they are, in whatever circumstances, despite all confusion and weakness–they are always going to a window and opening it, and looking out. I like to imagine that this throwing-open of windows, repeated again and again throughout the novels, is itself a sort of human victory. It doesn’t matter that the world beyond the windows is often dark and snow-filled. It’s the action that counts.

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If I had finished this post five days ago, I would have ended it there. Kafka’s books are superb because they are so unbearably, unflinchingly bleak. Reading him is fascinating and compelling and cathartic in the same way reading Greek tragedy is, because we are presented with a world in which there is no out. A few open windows, a gleam of light through a impenetrable gate–what’s that, really? The works end with human limitation writ large.

Now, however, I’m entrenched in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and it’s throwing all of Kafka into a very new light.

Per Kierkegaard, Kafka is drawing our attention not to human weakness, but to mankind’s incredible, defiant potential for perseverance, for real and tangible hope. His characters are the greatest of heroes because they are heroes of faith. They have looked into the absurd and comprehended the paradox and have chosen to believe.

But that’s all still half-formed, still confused in my own mind. There will be more to come later. In the end, Kafka is the sort of author who shifts over time–and that, I think, is why we read him.

Requiescat in Pace, Patrice Chéreau

rhs_265660.JPG_image_scaler_0x600The famous final scene of Götterdammerung, Bayreuth 1976

French director Patrice Chéreau died yesterday from lung cancer, at age sixty-eight. I knew him mostly for his groundbreaking productions of Wagner’s operas, which, in my opinion, have come closer to bringing the composer’s universe onto the stage than any others I have seen. It’s hard to think of a single contemporary director today who has done as much, with such consistency, over a career spanning so many decades.

Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth Ring, in particular, shatters every preconceived notion about what it means to perform Wagner. In a time and place given over to conservatism and literalism, Chéreau dared to interpret Wagner symbolically rather than literally, dared to remove him from the world of Medieval myth and place him in our own, and, above all, dared to demand that his performers be equal parts actor and singer. His work is gritty, moving, often beautiful, always shattering. Requiescat in pace, Sir.

The ever-eloquent Alex Ross has more.

Winterstürme, Die Walküre

Final scene, Götterdämmerung

Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde

 

Being: Summer 2013

pizzaoven1

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.

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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.

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Photography, as always, from Anna.

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.

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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.

Being: Fall Semester

It is the brightest of Septembers, all frigid mornings and sun-through-windows and hot tea.

The German Literature course is reading Kleist, who writes like a post-post-modernist out of a permanently fractured universe. In 1811 he shot a woman, and then himself, barely 34. Suicide. “Should we read his works, then?” asks the German Professor on the loveliest of afternoons. “Nein,” says Herr Catholicism, who is currently shredding papers and glaring across the classroom. “Wir können nichts von ihm lernen–we can’t learn anything from him.” The German Professor, immaculately dressed and eternally, intensely enigmatic, comes around to stare from the front of the desk. He takes off his glasses and leans all the way over the first row of students. “But does art always have to teach us something?” Such fervor. You think that this professor, who loves Nabokov and the craziest melismas of Baroque opera, would probably answer no. You suspect he believes in Beauty the way his colleagues believe in God.

~~~~~~

You truck up to the German department and down to Classics, exasperate both and yourself as well. Why can’t I write on that? Who says? And what happened to humanism? All future plans are up in the air.

Philosophy. The professor looks like Aristotle. Socrates is our contemporary, he says–to care for your soul is the most radical thought in Western civilization. You like the Pre-Socratics, too, who thought themselves out of time.

Music. There are dozens of old scores to be memorized– plainchant, Gregorian chant, trouvere, organum, motet. These earliest of Western melodies are utterly strange, haunting, shockingly modern. You think the idea of organum is exceptionally fascinating, this concept of voices in polyphony over a sustained drone. The melodies only had to be consonant with the bass line, not with each other, so the music is sometimes as chromatic and dissonant as modern atonalism. But it didn’t sound that way in 1,200! Then, organum was the most reverent of sounds, written for the Church and the glory of God.

You listen until you are entirely saturated with it all, with pure voices that bring out the echo of ancient cathedrals even through cheap computer speakers.

~~~~~~

The philosophy chap who looked like Poe all last semester has undergone a remarkable transformation (less mustache, more hair) and now bears a striking resemblance to the young Goethe in, say, 1773–bright manic eyes,  cravat, waistcoat. You think the change is an exceeding improvement, because the 20-something Goethe pretty much rocked. Ironically, the 2012 version is writing his thesis on 19th-century Germany and the East, and you try to persuade him to include Wagner’s Parsifal.

It’s suit-jacket weather. Goethe, and everybody else, is wearing them, tweed, patched at the elbows, wool, fitted. You are certainly not at all adverse to the fashion, but wear yours with pearls.

On the night before classes started, someone made a gigantic bonfire and read Eliot’s Four Quartets, shouting, standing too close to the flames. Shadow on light.