Saturday, September 30, 2023

living in an essay: Musil


This is how Shaw, in the preface to Heartbreak House (1919),  summed up the ruling class in prewar  England:

“In short, power and culture were in separate compartments. The barbarians were not only literally in the saddle, but on the front bench in the House of Commons, with nobody to correct their incredible ignorance of modern thought and political science but upstarts from the counting-house, who had spent their lives furnishing their pockets instead of their minds. Both, however, were practised in dealing with money and with men, as far as acquiring the one and exploiting the other went ; and although this is as undesirable an expertness as that of the medieval robber baron, it qualifies men to keep an estate or a business going in its old routine without necessarily understanding it, just as Bond Street tradesmen and domestic servants keep fashionable society going without any instruction in sociology.”

The war pulled back the curtains. The incredible lack of sense of the ruling class, of the industrialists, generals, journalists, academics and their like was only matched by their incredible smugness. The result of this intellectual catastrophe could be measured in the blood of the swampy battlefields of the Somme. The same story could be told of the other great powers engaged in the war: as for instance in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which underwent the horrors of the Eastern Front to defeats unimaginable at Czernowiz and the Siege of Przemyśl. Robert Musil served on the Italian front, so he was removed from where the meatgrinder of the Eastern Front,  and the newspapers, to Karl Kraus’s horror, tried to paper over the bloodshed with lies – however, the shocks of these events couldn’t be hidden. In Joseph Roth’s Radetzsky March, an officer cries out: “war is here! We’ve long expected it. Yet it surprised us.” Roth’s novel is all about the limbo into which Kakistan [Kaiser und Konig land]  army fell in its endless deployment at the edges of the empire. The officers, addicted to gambling, drink, and brothels in those border garrisons, did not form the kind of staff that would take maximum advantage in battle, or be very economical in spending the lives of their troops.

This is the background to Musil’s essayism – a sort of philosophical extension of the essay to an existentialist creed. In the Man without Qualities, which is set in the year before the outbreak of the war, the hero, Ulrich, considers the lack of any exact knowledge among the ruling class as it is amplified in the particular case of a murderer, Moosbrugger.  The trial of Moosbrugger fascinates Ulrich – just as the faits divers have fascinated intellectuals all down through the 20th and 21st century – for reasons he can’t quite put his finger on. It is as though this crime were symbolic of something deep in the social unconcious – but what? Is it something like what Ivan Karamazov called an “allegory” – an exemplary instance of a social malady. Here the experts called to judge Moosbrugger’s sanity make their diagnoses without either affirming or negating the question, before judges who have no knowledge of sociology or psychology, to decide the fate of a confused case of psychopathology.   The blind lead the blind lead the murderer, and at the end of the train there is the victim.
Chapter 62 – “The earth, and especially Ulrich, honor the utopia of essayism” – begins with Moosbrugger’s trial,  but leads discursively, as the topics in the Man without Qualities tend to, by a mysterious route of associations in the direction of Ulrich’s self-consciousness, and through that to the modern condition. Ulrich, when he was studying mathematics in his younger days, came upon a phrase – which, for intellectual twenty somethings, means more than just putting words together. A phrase is a discovery – as solid as a face. Ulrich’s discovery is of the phrase: to live hypothetically. That is, to take no incident in life as a conclusion, a fixed and final line in a proof, but rather to treat one’s certainties – the ego, the act, the social, the moral, the ontological, etc. – as hypotheses, conditionals waiting for proof. This young thought, Ulrich now thinks, is part of what he calls Essayismus.
There are people, we all know them, who live as though they were in a novel, or a drama. People who exist, somehow, within a certain lighting and soundtrack -to shift media. Ulrich is of the type who lives as though in an essay. “Approximately as an essay in the succession of its parts takes a thing up from many sides without grasping it whole – for a wholly grasped thing loses at once its breadth and melts into a concept – he believed it was the best way to look at and handle the whole world  and his own life.”

This puts more of an existential slant on “essayism”. I’m thinking about essayism as I read Brian Dillon’s book, Essayism, which doesn’t quite get down to the bedrock of Ulrich’s political-erotico-social position. Not that this counts against the book, which doesn’t have Musil’s ambitions – but I think it would be a nice problem to ponder – the essay’s invasion of the novel, and the sense abroad that the novel has lost its predominance – which, to me, simply means its attractiveness as a model for living your life.
I am behind the times, and made the decision, long ago, to live as though in a novel. So there is that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The prophet essayist

There are essayists who, as Virigina Woolf puts it, relate their “I” to the “rheumatism in your left shoulder”; and those who relate it to “the immortality of the soul”.

Myself, I see a textual and genealogical difference between the two groups. The first are discursive, associative, and move outward to a world of doubts and quasi-comic situations. For the latter, it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living god. They are prophetic, apophantic, revelatory, assertive. In the prophetic tradition, Nineveh is always wicked, and will always pay for it in keeping with the wrath of God. We are always in the valley of bones, asking if these bones will live.

The former group are in it, ultimately, for the sport, the play, the sentiment. For every assertion there is a counter-example, and this is not to be met with some tremendous overthrow but with a certain modesty of scope. Universals will be used, but not to talk of the soul – rather, to talk of, say, the best way to roast a pig. We Nineveh-ians would do better to break down our experience see just how wicked we really have been, and whether we might be a bit more merciful than god itself about our sins.

I’m of course making a division of ideal types. I chose Nineveh to represent this wicked world because Jonah, one of the most attractive of the prophets, chose it as the object of his objection. Or rather had it chosen for him by the Lord. In the book of Jonah God, for the first time, seens to break the code of austerity of the prophet – seems in fact to tease him. As we know, teasing a prophet leads to know good – viz the children who mocked Elijah and were eaten by bears. But what of teasing on the highest level.

In the book, the prophet, after the famous big fish incident, rails against Nineveh, calling upon the city to repent to escape the wrath of God. We know how this has gone – from Sodom to Jerusalem. But in a rare exception, the Nineveh-ians do repent. They put on sackcloth and ashes. And because God is merciful and kind, he doesn’t bring down the fire this time.

This, it turns out, doesn’t satisfy the prophet. He accuses the good Lord of being a softy – too good and kind. And he asks God to take his life. He seems to feel ashamed that Nineveh was not destroyed.

“Then, said the Lord, doest thou well to be angry?” Or in the more recent versions, is it right for you to be angry? [wayyihar]. As this is the good Lord, commentators usually view this phrase as a reproach. But the tone of this reproach is, I’d maintain, a teasing one. What the Lord is getting at, like a good psychoanalyst, is the prophet’s little secret: the prophet tends to grow all too fond of his anger. Indignation and outrage are not free from the usual circuits of the libido – they become deeply satisfying automatisms. Any old codger – me for instance – can tell you that.

The essayist-prophet is a type in all Western European literatures. English has Carlyle, Ruskin and Lawrence, to name a few – even Woolf, in her last essay, Three Guineas, tested her own prophetic instrument. I'd put, for good measure, John Berger in this group. The French have Pascal, Peguy, Bloy, and to an extent Sartre. The Germans Marx, Nietzsche, and Karl Kraus. Etc., etc.

And it is always a question with the prophet: if the word repented along the lines they have laid out, could they be satisfied? Which is why, so often, the prophet guards the anger through a nostalgia that speaks of absolute turns in history – we will never get back this innocence. Denunciation banks on the irrevocable.

Of course, Jonah’s anger does not negate Jonah’s prophecy, but it does hint at a different kind of prophetic attitude, one that turns inward, that gets behind the assertion to the doubt, and from the doubt, outward, softens the denunciation.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Commodification on the streets of Paris


“As I went out one morning”to quote a song, I strolled around the Marais until I came upon the Camper shoe store and “laboratory” on Rue Debelleyme, and I started to laugh.

The laugh has to be backfielded. Go back to Paris this Spring. There were constant demonstrations against our squirt of a president, and this was accompanied by much black block versus the cops action. One of the black bloc signatures was to throw bricks through the windows of luxury goods shops and banks. I once saw a Gucci store that not only put the usual plywood over the window, but actually took down the Gucci sign, trying to hide. The result of this anti-capitalist fronde was that for a while, many streets in Paris sported shops with broken store windows.

Now, Paris is the home of the art of the show window. Beginning with the consumer society of the 19th century, this has been one of the constants, something the walker in the city looks out for. Show window design is an almost pure interface between art and commerce – it is the epitome of what Marx called Kommodifitzierung, commodification – the turning of an object or event into a marketing ploy. Interestingly, if you look back on the translation of this word into English, it really didn’t gain ground until the early 80s, when “commodification” began to show up in works of art and literary theory, and hence to newspapers. The NYT has always been my paper of record for the popularization of words and phrases – they crop up there, when they are new and dripping with yolk, captured by quote marks. So it was with “commondification”. The quotes are a way of capturing but not claiming the word. Commodification with quote marks is somehow stronger than commodification without quote marks – it is a sort of meta-commodification.

Anyway, back to my laugh. Some show window artist must have thought about the stoned windows, with the result that the Camper “laboratory”, with its function of selling shoes, is now fronted by a window in which the spiderweb imprint of the fractured window has been painted on the windows. They are fake stoned windows! This is bold, this is ironic, this is commodification and ultra irony! The irony being, in part, that Camper shoes – which I wear, normally – are definitely not luxury goods. They are wanna be luxury goods. If you want luxury sneaks, go to Balanciaga.

Commodification as an aspirational claim is one that passed over my head. But after laughing about the window, I had to admire it. It has long been the proud aim of neoliberal culture to absorb all lefty-ness in the quest to sell more goods, but usually there is some time lag and some pretence. I do not know how long it took, after Che’s death, for Che’s t shirt to arise as an accountrement for the college student, but I imagine it wasn’t an immediate process. But Campers has shown how to do it in real time.


Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...