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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

the weather of modernism

Kathryn Schultz, in her clever essay on weather and literaturemisses, I think, an opportunity. Her notion is a good one – that a change occurs in the uses of weather between the Victorians and the modernists.  But she confines this insight to the narrow range of Anglo writers. To my mind, the difference in uses – the difference, that is, in what one might calll the cognitive temperament, the mood around what one knows – is exemplified by the opening of Bleak House (to which Schultz makes reference) and the opening of Man Without Qualities (to which she doesn’t). If ever there was a book that was in dialogue with the conventions of the Victorian novel, it is Musil’s book.  Famously, Dickens begins Bleak House with a prose poem about the London fog:
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”
The booming foghorn like repetition of fog, provides the real punctuation here for sentences that themselves become foggy, that tend to end either before the verb and object arrive, or to creep along embracing descriptively bits of geography. The sentences extend so much that they seem to go down the reader’s throat, much as the fog gets into the breathing of Londoners – and as the passage relies heavily on sentences as units of breath, the effect is enhanced, feeds back into itself.  
Here, by contrast, is the way Musil begins Man without Qualities:
“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination  to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising  and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”
Like Dickens, Musil starts out on a note of humor, bringing together the forces of weather – which have been mathematized – and the city. However, the contrasts here are different.As Schultz points out:
“Yet the weather in “Bleak House” is unmistakably symbolic: the mud is that of a hopelessly sullied culture, the fog that of an opaque and unnavigable legal system. As in earlier, religious stories, meteorology here is morality, and the prevailing conditions leave everything hidden, murky, and stained.”
Musil’s dialectical point will be, eventually, that mathematization is not a value neutral application of science to the world – but on the contrary, is full of moral quandries. For instance, how are we to live with it? Just as the Viennese circle failed, ultimately, to create a language of self evidence in which truth would be a grammatical function fully encompassed in the language’s semantics, Ulrich, the hero of the man without qualities, will fail to not have qualities – that is, to live precisely. In Musil’s binary, precision cannot do without soul. And yet, it creates a world that seems to have chased away all the spirits – even if, in a final moment, it must return to the subject that created it.
These are both moments in the larger event of capitalism, I would say. Or, more accurately, in the development of an industrial system of production under capitalism.  


Roger Gathman said...

Second thoughts on the essay: somehow, I always seem to find something to bitch at in schulz's essays, but that is only because she writes about topics I'm interested in. Here, I suppose the larger problem is the idea that the greater predictability of weather paralleled a decline in the profile of weather in literature. I think it is more probably the case that weather was caught up in the way literature and in general the arts faced up to the increasing power of the scientific picture of the world. Weather, in detective novels, because part of the whole clue system. In the great modernist novels, like Magic Mountain, the temperature of the bodies in the clinic tracks the temperature of the weather outside - indeed, Mann is always very conscious of the weather around and in his characters in the novel. In tough guy literature, or film noir, the weather takes on a moral value, as in Dickens, with the difference that the weather has been, as it were, commoditized. like the land. For instance, the beginning of Chandler's Red wind: "There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. " The human transformation of the landscape of Southern California is edged with catastrophe - fires, mudslides, desert winds, earthquakes - in contrast to perfect days and manicured lawns. There is also, of course, the effect of weather in movies. Tarkovsky is pretty much the artist of rain. It would be neat if the greater predicability of weather really disempowered it as a feature in art, but I don't think this happened.

Sarah said...

If I'd guessed before I read this I would have said it was going to be about the change in the importance of the weather in modern literature with the coming of central heating and air conditioning. In the developed world, at least, these days we are so much more indoor creatures who scurry into the heat or cold for a few brief minutes of our day and otherwise can, if we wish, view weather with indifference. Only the homeless and the poor now feel the effects of weather as much more than an occasional joy or inconvenience. (Of course this may soon change, with the increasing effects of hurricanes, typhoons, flooding, drought...)

Of course I may be entirely wrong about this. My reading is not nearly so wide as yours. It may also be related to my personal tendency to be oblivious to my surroundings. It's something I have to consciously fight every day when I'm writing, forcing myself to look up weather almanacs for times and places, average temperatures and carefully noting how things feel and look when outdoors on such days.