David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: September 2007

Walser on Kleist

A different side of Walser altogether:

What he writes makes him grimace: his creations miscarry. Toward autumn he is taken ill. He is amazed at the gentleness which now comes over him. His sister travels to Thun to bring him home. There are deep furrows in his cheeks. His face has the expression and coloring of a man whose soul has been eaten away. His eyes are more lifeless than the eyebrows over them. His hair hangs clotted in thick pointed hanks over his temples, which are contorted by all the thoughts which he imagines have dragged him into filthy pits and into hells. The verses that resound in his brain seem to him like the croakings of ravens; he would like to eradicate his memory. He would like to shed his life; but first he wants to shatter the shells of life. His fury rages at the pitch of his agony, his scorn at the pitch of his misery. My dear, what is the matter, his sister embraces him. Nothing, nothing. That was the ultimate wrong, that he should have to say what was wrong with him.

“Kleist in Thun”

Robert Walser: The Assistant

This novel was written in 1908. That seems just about right. And that’s odd for Robert Walser, because his other novels, whatever their connection to the German modernist and expressionist tendencies of their time, stand apart from their contemporaries. Walser does not fit into the puzzle in the way that Broch, Zweig, Canetti, Doblin, Roth, and other Germanic writers do. Perhaps this is because he is Swiss, perhaps it is because he has been rather ignored and excluded from construction of the period’s literary history, but I think it’s mostly because his ruminative short stories and his enigmatic, sui generis novel The Robber stand on a path that no one directly followed. Even his comparatively normal Jakob Von Gunten has a withdrawn airiness to it that is closer to Bruno Schulz’s detached aesthetic than to any Germanophone author.

What’s strange about The Assistant is that it is much more easily connected to those German antecedents and successors. This short novel about Joseph Marti’s life as a live-in assistant to the hapless inventor Carl Tobler and his family has clear affinities with the more pedestrian neuroses portrayed in the stories of Hofmannsthal, and the outsized characters (not just Tobler, but Joseph’s alcoholic predecessor Wirsich, and the two Manicheistic Tobler daughters) are a more subdued version of the histrionics of Schnitzler and Wedekind. But what’s most striking is how the tone and scenario anticipate that of early Kafka, particularly that of “The Stoker” and the novel it became part of, The Man Who Disappeared (aka Amerika). Walser is often compared spuriously to Kafka, but in The Assistant, and not in any of his other work that I’ve read, I think there’s some merit to the comparison. Marti, like Karl Rossmann, begins and ends as a bystander, pulled into the circle of affairs without becoming their center. Unlike Kafka’s later work, where the protagonists continually fail in their attempts to be mere quotidian bystanders in life–think of “Report to an Academy” as well as the last two novels–Walser’s protagonists steadfastly remain in the interstitial zone between observation and action. (Joseph’s only real decisive act ends the book.) Yet the concreteness of the situation here–absent in Walser’s subsequent work–is what gives it some of Kafka’s urgency.

Consequently, Walser goes off in a different direction, and Joseph’s mixture of passivity and inchoate loyalty result in very un-Kafka-like conversations like:

“Is your salary being paid?” the visitor inquired.

“No,” the assistant said, “and admittedly this is one of the things with which I am not fully satisfied. Often I have wanted to discuss this with Herr Tobler, but each time I am about to open my mouth to remind my superior of this matter which, as I have had occasion to perceive, is not exactly the most agreeable to him, the courage to speak deserts me, and so each time I tell myself: Put it off! And I’m still alive today, even without a salary.”

And Walser too lets things proceed languorously as Tobler fails and fails in his attempts to market dubious projects (most memorably the Marksman’s Vending Machine, which dispenses bullets). There’s even a disconnected, burlesque scene in which Joseph is picked up for evading army duty and dumped in jail for a night, which seems to have entered from another novel entirely. It distracts somewhat from the novel’s central pivot, which is the character of Tobler himself: desperate and arrogant, controlling and helpless, grandiose and pathetic, he is the very model of the petty capitalist cog that still exists today. Walser’s portrayal of his rationalizations and indignations is masterful, as when he begs his mother for more money for his business:

I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake–already being killed in advance…What would you say if one day soon, one fine morning or afternoon, you were to read in the newspaper that your son had taken his own li–…but no, I am not capable of uttering such a thing in its entirety, for it is to my mother I am speaking. Send me the money at once. This, too, is not a threat, I am merely urging you to do so, urging you desperately. Even in our household budget nothing remains, and both my wife and I have long since had to accustom ourselves to the idea that sooner or later there will be nothing left for our children to eat.

Confronted with such self-propelling desperation, what can Joseph do except be a bystander?

Heidegger on Mood

A human being who–as we say–is in good humour brings a lively atmosphere with them. Do they, in so doing, bring about an emotional experience which is then transmitted to others, in the manner in which infectious germs wander back and forth from one organism to another? We do indeed say that mood is infectious. Or another human being is with us, someone who through their manner of being makes everything depressing and puts a damper on everything: nobody steps out of their shell. What does this tell us? Moods are not side-effects, but are something which in advance determine our being with one another. It seems as though a mood is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which then attunes us through and through.

Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics

Even if you don’t buy the ontology, as I don’t, I think it’s right to say that the idea of pre-cognitive moods and their influence have been played down in notions of public discourse. The area in which they persist is, ironically, psychopathology. People talk about “depressed cognitions,” “manic cognitions,” “ideas of reference,” and so on, as though allowing one’s thoughts to be influenced by one’s prevailing mood sways one from the straight and narrow path of rationality. Of course, this is a total illusion, and the work of Antonio Damasio and other neurologists is confirming what should have been pretty obvious all along: that emotions are indispensable for cognition.

Still, I don’t think that it’s yet time to throw away cognitive-behavioral therapy, as boring as it is. (The old psychologist’s joke about CBT is that no matter what your problem is, the solution first involves making a giant list of things contributing to that problem and ranking them.) The very separation of mood from thought is wrong, so the only feasible model would be one of feedback, where thought influences mood and mood influences thought, and they team up in tandem to provide the inertia that keeps us in our befindlichkeit (i.e., our disposition towards the world).


An example of figure-ground reversal:

Modernist art might even be defined by a loss of audience or loss of trust between audience and artist (as Cavell has famously suggested), making the question of trust, fraud, authenticity, reliability, and philosophical self-consciousness about art itself all wholly new sorts of aesthetic values, and ones that do not seem arbitrarily invented or at all reversible. (In most contexts the name for such attempts at reversibility is kitsch.)

We cannot make any sense of this phenomenon by restricting the account to the history of art or novels or drama or poetry alone, but only by trying to understand what has turned out to be the so unexpectedly poisonous, deracinating, the simultaneously oversocializing and desocializing effects of social and cultural “modernization.” One kind of sensemaking or explanation is seeing one phenomenon in the context of something wider and more comprehensive, so that a phenomenon such as Cavell’s distrust or loss of audience can begin to look like what we would expect in the aesthetic domain, given some fate for normative expectations generally. I have suggested that this larger context has to do with being called on by a historical situation “to be a subject,” lead a life, take up the reins, as it were, and that this is something at which, “modernism” discovers, we can fail (oddly, especially when we try very hard to do it).

Robert Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity

At the same time Clementine and Leo deluded themselves, like everyone whose mind has been formed by the prevailing customs and literature, that their passions, characters, destinies, and actions made them dependent on each other. In truth, of course, more than half of life consists not of actions but of formulas, of opinions we make our own, of on-the-one-hands and on-the-other-hands, and of all the piled-up impersonality of everything one has heard and knows. The fate of this husband and wife depended mostly on a murky, persistent, confused structuring of ideas that were not even their own but belonged to public opinion and shifted with it, without their being able to defend themselves against it. Compared with this dependence their personal dependence on each other represented only a tiny fraction, a wildly overestimated residue. And while they deluded themselves that they had their own private lives, and questioned each other’s character and will, the agonizing difficulty lay in the unreality of the conflict, which they covered with every possible peevishness.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, ch. 51

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