David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2011

Paul Oskar Kristeller: Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance

This series of lectures, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (1964), contextualizes Renaissance humanism as well as any account I’ve read.

For those like me whose philosophical education jumped from Aristotle to Descartes (with very brief stops at Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas), the philosophy of Italian Renaissance humanism is very hard to pin down. Paul Oskar Kristeller was one of its greatest scholars (Eugenio Garin is the other one I’m familiar with), and the erudition on display here is fairly intimidating. So I offer a short summary and an outline of what I took to be the most remarkable points.

Existing outside the clerical Church structures of scholasticism, the humanists began with an emphasis on Latin literature and scholarship, but also returned to the Greek origins of many Roman and Christian ideas.

The eight writers covered are very heterogeneous. Even where they agree, there’s a looseness to their thinking that creates significant variations. Partly this is because rigorous logical philosophical thinking recedes in favor of a more rhetorical, literary approach. Eloquence and persuasion were central values.

Yet that shift away logic was emancipatory; the rigorous logic left the scholastics more trapped within medieval theological conceptions. (Though according to Hans Blumenberg, cracks were already showing up in scholastic thought, though in more subtle form.) Or perhaps it was simply a result of their not being of the Church.

It did not oppose religion or theology on its own ground; rather, it created a large body of secular learning, literature, and thought that coexisted with theology and religion.

These Renaissance philosophers represent a transitional stage from medievalism to modernity, and one in which religion still inflected studies outside the Church. Unlike Catholic scholasticism, with its rigorously focused logic deriving strictly from God and first principles, Kristeller indicates that humanism, however tentatively, made steps toward secularism through a greater separation from religion.

In the absence of empirical science and religious freedom, humanism did not find any real, final autonomy, which had to wait until Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and others had firmly declared for a secular science. But that isn’t to say that they weren’t thinkers who hold great interest. They brought a greater secular aspect to philosophy than the mostly Aristotelian Scholastics. (The more adventurous thought of Islamic and Jewish scholars, above all Averroes, clearly had a strong influence, but Kristeller only touches on this briefly for reasons of space.)

For Kristeller these thinkers represent first, the liveliness of the continuous transformation of philosophical ideas in a somewhat progressive development, and second, the urge toward freedom of thought and expression, which Kristeller appears to prize above all else.

So here is a summary of the eight covered and their general place, at least in Kristeller’s account.

  • Petrarch (1304-1374)
    • Latin writings were as significant as his Italian poems through the Renaissance.
    • Pre-humanist, but the central precursor.
    • Preferred Plato to Aristotle, against medieval tradition, but esteemed and promoted both of them in the original Greek.
    • Lover of solitude, and melancholic. Uses acidia not to mean sloth, but “suffering mixed with pleasure”: melancholy.
    • “Petrarch contributes to secularizing not only the content of learning, but also the personal attitude of the scholar and writer; unlike his succssors, however, he hesitates, since he is held back by religious scruples.”
  • Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457)
    • Sets tone for humanists in focusing on moral and human problems and the place of humanity in the universe.
    • Gives up on question of free will vs. divine predestination, suggesting humility and avoiding curiosity about unanswerable questions.
    • In general, subordinates philosophy to faith.
    • “On Pleasure” is a dialogue pitting a Stoic against an Epicurean and a Christian. The Epicurean easily wins by claiming that virtue needs to be useful, not just for its own sake, and the Christian then triumphs by saying that virtue is useful for the sake of future happiness.
    • Unusually oriented around the physical and bodily, stressing haeven’s corporeal pleasures as greater than anything on earth (though the intellectual pleasures are greater still).
    • A “vulgarized Epicureanism,” a “Christian Epicureanism.”
    • Borrows from and praises Quintillian heavily: “a typical humanist tendency to subordinate logic to rhetoric” (contra scholasticism). Combining simplified logic with rhetoric and grammar.
  • Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
    • Founder of the Florentine Renaissance Platonist school, and a dedicated Platonist, though an even more dedicated Christian.
    • Believes Platonism and Christianity are in harmony with one another as the ultimate philosophy and religion, respectively.
    • First to give a detailed cosmological account to attempt to place humanity in it, revising the neo-Platonic account of Plotinus to place the human soul at the center/mean of everything.
    • Knowledge of God is the ultimate goal of human life and is attainable in this life by a few fortunate souls.
    • No real ethics. “His whole moral doctrine…may be said to be a reduction of all specific rules to a praise of the contemplative life.”
    • Ultimate concern is with the necessity of immortality for humanity’s purpose–the “contemplative ascent toward God”–to be fulfilled (in the next world).
    • Love is the basic principle of action. Love between humans is mere preparation for love of God.
    • Gives a nascent account of natural religion, believing it innate to humanity.
  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
    • Prodigious and aggressively syncretist: attempted to show that every philosophy was in harmony with one another, and fundamentally in harmony with the ultimate truth of Christianity.
    • Believed “all known philosophical and theological schools and thinkers contained certain true and valid insights that were compatible with each other and hence deserved to be restated and defended.”
    • Though a Florentine Platonist, his major goal was to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, and then reconcile that with whatever else he could find.
    • Less antagonistic toward scholastic thought and attempts to absorb its insights.
    • Studied Jewish and Islamic thought extensively, particularly Cabala, whose numerical “interpretation” methods he utilized.
    • Elevates humanity to a unique, esteemed place in the cosmos, outside the hierarchy of angelic, celestial, and elementary.
    • Attacked astrology stridently, but still accepted magic; any naturalism he evinces is not in fact scientific.
  • Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
    • Seemingly Kristeller’s favorite, and not without reason. He tries hard to separate theology and philosophy while retaining their coexistence. A more radical empiricist than any preceding thinker.
    • Representative of a naturalistic, non-theological “secular Aristotelianism” (“Paduan Averroeism”, though its members were not all studying Aristotle via Islamic Aristotelian Averroes). [contra Ficino]
    • Stylistically far closer to scholastic prolixity rather than humanist elegance.
    • Treatise on Immortality endorses the idea that intellect is not separable from the body, though the soul is immortal “in some respects.”
    • Emphasis on practical reason: Rejects Aristotle’s (and others’) endorsement of contemplation. “The end of human life [is] moral virtue because this end is attainable by all human beings without exception.”
    • Virtue should be sought without expectation to a reward. Concludes that “those who assert that the soul is mortal seem to preserve the notion of virtue much better than those who assert that it is immortal.”
    • “Virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment”: morality is not dependent on religion. [contra Valla]
    • Immortality of the soul cannot be known and must be taken on faith alone.
    • Attempted “to draw a clear line of distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, and to establish the autonomy of reason and philosophy within their own domain, unassailable by the demands of faith, or of any claim not based on reason.”
    • Kristeller editorializes: “Our life and our person are not made of reason alone, and the more we are aware of this fact, the better it is. But reason is the only tool we have for bringing a ray of light and order into the great, dark chaos from which we were born, into which we shall return, and by which we are surrounded on all sides.”
  • Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588)
    • The first of the primarily naturalist philosophers, distinct from both the Platonists and Aristotelians, more secular and modern. Bacon called him “The first of the moderns.”
    • Attempts to give an account of nature independent of an established tradition and authority. Their lack of success is in failing to find a method and not recognizing the importance of mathematics.
    • Argues against Aristotle on several points: asserts that time is not dependent on motion, and that empty space is possible. A move toward Newton.
    • Kristeller suspects he originated the use of “spatium” in place of “locus” is an indicator of this move toward what Newton would codify, and for treating space and time as complementary fundamental concepts.
    • Naturalistic account of humans: spirit is ruled by principle of self-preservation. Pleasure and pain are primary, but virtue serves self-preservation rather than pleasure.
  • Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597)
    • Like Telesio, neither Aristotelian nor Platonist. Likewise, presents a naturalistic, systematic picture of the universe.
    • Literary, classical, and mathematical. Influenced by Platonism and humanism more than Aristotelianism, partly owing to his semi-Platonic mathematical orientation.
    • His Poetics is hostile to Aristotle (whom Kristeller says is the basis for the “Chicago school of criticism” even today), yet did much helpful scholarship on Aristotle.
    • Nova de universis philosophia is his cosmology. Includes a bizarre analysis of physical and metaphysical properties of light: “light occupies an intermediary place between divine, incorporeal things and corporeal objects.” “Light is said to be infinite, and may be considered incorporeal in its source, while it is both incorporeal and corporeal when considered in its state of irradiation, and thus mediates between God and the corporeal world.” (See Hans Blumenberg again for light as an “absolute metaphor.”)
    • Mathematics and especially geometry is prior to physics. Space itself is “both a body and incorporeal.”
    • Abandons heavenly spheres, which even Copernicus had retained. Stars move freely in the aether, anticipating Tycho Brahe.
    • Very transitional: still pre-scientific, but mostly free of occultism.
  • Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
    • By far the most radical and heretical, and was burnt at the stake as a result. “A martyr, not so much of modern science, but rather of his convictions and of philosophical liberty.”
    • First major philosopher to adopt Copernican system, first to dispose of celestial-earthly dichotomy and hierarchical view of nature. Strongly attacks Aristotle.
    • Opposes vulgar love to “heroic love.” “Heroic love has a divine object, and leads the soul in a gradual ascent from the sense world through intelligible objects toward God. The union with God, which is the ultimate and infinite goal of our will and intellect, cannot be attained during the present life. Hence heroic love is for the philosopher a continuous torment. But it derives an inherent nobility and dignity from its ultimate goal, which will be reached after death.”
    • Reverses Aristotle’s conception of substance: God is a substance, and His effects are accidents. Anticipates Spinoza this way, but “no tangible evidence” Spinoza knew of Bruno.
    • A universal and ubiquitous “world soul” as “the constituent formal principle of the world, just as matter is its constituent material principle.”
    • Form and matter are perpetual “and mutually determine each other, whereas the bodies composed of form and matter are perishable, and must be regarded not as substances but as accidents.”
    • “In God, form and matter, actuality and potentiality, coincide.”
    • Ergo, universe is “one and infinite.”
    • Despite this pantheistic, immanentistic strain, Kristeller doubts Bruno sought to be an extreme pantheist or naturalist, retaining some non-pantheistic aspects of his predecessors.
    • Cosmology is parallel to metaphysics, depicting finite worlds contained within an infinite universe. (Copernicus had not declared the infinity of the universe. This is Bruno’s invention via Lucretius.)
    • Stresses Spinozan parallels: “Aside from many other differences, it was quite natural for Spinoza to replace Bruno’s two basic principles, form (or soul) and matter, which have a Neoplatonic, and if you wish an Aristotelian, origin, with the attributes of thought and extension, which are derived from teh system of Descartes.”

Obviously Bruno is quite far from Petrarch, and Kristeller’s portrayal of the philosophical momentum is quite effective. Even in contemporaneous thinkers, there are great differences between logic and rhetoric, nature and theology, rationalism and empiricism, scholasticism and rhetoric.

It is yet another example of the danger in reductively classifying the thought of any given period, as people are wont to do with rationalism, empiricism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, modernism, and so on and on, sometimes to praise them, sometimes to pillory them.

In words that anticipate many poststructuralist and cultural studies thinkers, he writes:

I find that much lip service is being padi to the humanities in academic circles, but that they are notably absent from our public discussion, which, when it rises above purely practical matters, seems to leave us with nothing but the bleak alternative between science and religion. I am also dismayed when I hear and read that our heritage, aside from our political institutions, consists solely of the scientific method and the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as if we owed nothing to Greek philosophy, or to other aspects of ancient, medieval, or early modern civilization, or as if the “Judaeo-Christian tradition” itself, a very complex and diversified tradition, did not derive many of its elements from Greek philosophy, as most thoughtful and informed students of religion and theology are quite ready to admit.

And of course this extends to Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, and many other traditions and subtraditions which go mostly ignored but which have all contributed their share.

Kinbote Triumphant in Hell: The Riddle of Nabokov’s Ada

1. The Riddle

I loathe Van Veen.

Vladimir Nabokov

Ada, or Ardor (1969) (full text available here) is Nabokov’s very long novel about brother-sister incest in an alternate reality. Most people don’t consider it one of his best.

The book declares itself as the memoirs of Van Veen, spoiled and successful aristocrat, describing his upbringing on the family estate of Ardis, his long-running love affair with his sister Ada, his other sister Lucette’s unrequited love for him, and the family’s other affairs and intrigues on the planet Antiterra, a variant of our Earth. After many delayed reunions, they finally reunite for good in their 50s and live out nearly another half-century together in incestuous bliss.

The riddle of Ada is explaining these two facts:

  1. The novel is off-putting and unlikable, as are its main characters Van and Ada Veen.
  2. Nabokov must have been aware of Fact #1.

At the time, John Updike wondered in his negative review whether Nabokov was aware of just how unpleasant the self-satisfied Van Veen was, and how he lacked any of the sinister charm of Humbert Humbert or the insane desperation of Charles Kinbote (or whomever). The quote at the top should answer that question, but even that quote is unnecessary: Nabokov was a narrow writer in many ways, but he was not stupid as to how his characters would appear to people.

So, the question: why has Nabokov put us in the company of two characters, Van and Ada, who are both unappealing and uninvolving, and why for so long? Why has he made the trappings so uninviting? Even the opening paragraphs are clearly designed to turn away a reader:

“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (“Dolly”) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called “Russian” Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with “Russian” Canady, otherwise “French” Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

Compared to the opening of Lolita, Pnin, or really any other Nabokov novel, this is not only repellent, but boring.

Brian Boyd has stressed the moral character of the novel and focused on the character of Ada’s sister, Lucette. Lucette falls in love with Van, but Van and Ada treat her like garbage, and she eventually commits suicide. And certainly I see no reason not to condemn Van and Ada both for their treatment of Lucette, over which both express some tepid regret. But this answer is far from sufficient.

First, Lucette’s story just doesn’t take up that much of the book, certainly not enough to make her the heart of the book. Second, as Nicole at Bibliographing has observed, Lucette is a bit too much of a lamb to the slaughter to bring out one’s sympathy, and a brat as well. Van and Ada are terrible, but Lucette’s infantile and cringeworthy behavior doesn’t exactly set her in stark relief. Poor Charlotte Haze is far more touching than the vaguely sketched Lucette. Boyd also fails to explain the fundamentally uninvolving character of the book, which I think cannot be denied. What then?

2. Don Juan and Don Quixote

I want to attempt a structural explanation because working at the level of characters and plot cannot produce a satisfactory explanation for the alienating effect of the book.

As Nabokov tells us very early on in Chapter 3 of Part 1, Ada is Russian for hell, or more precisely “of hell” (ада, genitive of ад). Antiterra is also called Demonia, Van’s father is nicknamed Demon, and infernal references abound. It’s a peculiar hell though, since it’s devoid of the major catastrophe of Nabokov’s life, the Russian Revolution, and despite some tormented drama, Van has it pretty good, eventually ending up with Ada in blissful love for quite a number of years. The memoirs mostly do not cover this, however, though they do mention the eventual and seemingly hard-to-fathom success of his book The Texture of Time, a rather uninvolving philosophical treatise which is forms the penultimate section of the book.

Here is one key to the nature of this hell:

When, in the middle of the twentieth century, Van started to reconstruct his deepest past, he soon noticed that such details of his infancy as really mattered (for the special purpose the reconstruction pursued) could be best treated, could not seldom be only treated, when reappearing at various later stages of his boyhood and youth, as sudden juxtapositions that revived the part while vivifying the whole. This is why his first love has precedence here over his first bad hurt or bad dream. (31)

What is the special purpose, and what really matters? Van, in constructing his memoir, is picking out pleasing experiences which “really matter,” rather than the painful ones. He means the whole to be love, not hurt or dream. That should be enough to tell us that Van is an unreliable narrator. The book is all hurt and dream, none of it love. The special purpose is some sort of delusion, some kind of avoidance of reality.

Consider the key scene in Part 3, just before Lucette commits suicide, when Van refuses Lucette’s advances after he happens to see a film that conflates Don Juan and Don Quixote (the character is Don Juan, but he and Leporello are riding past windmills). Ada plays a part in the movie that was not in the original book, a character named Dolores (also Lolita’s real name). She embraces Don Juan and causes him to climax, and this turns out to be the revenge of the Stone Cuckold, the statue that drags Don Juan down to Hell. Ada is of Hell.

After seeing Ada, Van flees from Lucette, masturbates twice, then brushes her off when she calls him on the phone:

In a series of sixty-year-old actions which now I can grind into extinction only by working on a succession of words until the rhythm is right, I, Van, retired to my bathroom, shut the door (it swung open at once, but then closed of its own accord) and using a temporary expedient less far-fetched than that hit upon by Father Sergius (who chops off the wrong member in Count Tolstoy’s famous anecdote), vigorously got rid of the prurient pressure as he had done the last time seventeen years ago. And how sad, how significant that the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm, while the unlockable door swung open again with the movement of a deaf man cupping his ear, was not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush.

No doubt he was morally right in using the first pretext at hand to keep her away from his bed; but he also knew, as a gentleman and an artist, that the lump of words he brought up was trite and cruel, and it was only because she could not accept him as being either, that she believed him:

Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?” asked Lucette.

Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),” answered Van.

A small pause followed; then she hung up. (490)

Then Lucette drowns herself.

For all the fuss about memory, Van’s real purpose is clear here: to forget, to “grind into extinction.” Ignoring Lucette for the image of Ada was the most consequential avoidance of reality for projected fantasy, but even in chronicling the event, here he is doing it again, projecting himself into the third person after a very brief detour back into the first (a rare event in the book). Lucette is a victim, mostly forgotten by Van, reduced to stale caricature as an infantile masochist. Ada is the seemingly innocuous agent of punishment, and an inserted character who is just a pretense for solitary masturbation. Van is both Don Juan and Don Quixote.

3. Hell

I’m won’t attempt to figure out precisely what is real and what is not in the book because I don’t think I stand much of a chance, but I will make some broad guesses. I am inclined to be extremely skeptical of the mostly unchronicled decades of happiness with Ada, as well as of the success of Van’s book. The happier the events, the more dubious I am. The tragic events–Lucette’s death being the central one–most likely hold greater reality. Ada’s intrusions throughout, but especially at the end of the book, seem more likely to be a voice within Van, not an actual person. I think it highly unlikely that Van and Ada are ever happily reunited. Nabokov did not intend to redeem Van Veen through suffering, but particularly in the later novels, Nabokov’s rotten characters do tend to be spared any real happiness. I strongly suspect that to be the case here.

The idyllic, hermetic, and very long Part 1 is a pastiche or a parody of the 19th century Russian novel. Inverting Tolstoy’s maxim turns it into a joke. Hence from the beginning Van is protecting himself and not being straight, and the offputting nature of the whole text is a reflection of Van’s solipsism. He is building a sealed coffin for himself that he intends no one to penetrate. He will avoid unpleasantness as much as possible, even at the cost of making himself unpleasant.

With each subsequent section things get more miserable, the length gets shorter, and different strategies of avoidance are invoked. The late years of happiness with Ada are more likely years of self-torture, any success in love or life a delusion on Van’s part. By Part 4, he has abandoned plot in favor of mere allusions to wish-fulfillment and philosophical self-indulgence. At his supposed happiest he is least able to describe anything that happened to him.

To the best of my knowledge, all of Nabokov’s alternate worlds are revealed to be explicit fantasies within the text: the unnamed country in Invitation to a Beheading, Zembla in Pale Fire, Badonia in “Terra Incognita,” and Padukgrad in Bend Sinister. It is unlikely that Antiterra is any different, even more unlikely that it is some kind of afterlife. It is the fantasy world of someone. Van has mysterious access to our world Terra, which he writes a novel about. It is unsuccessful; Antiterra doesn’t want to hear about the real world. There is probably some greater significance to that failed novel, but I have not figured that out.

Instead, his dreary, solipsistic treatise The Texture of Time (which forms Part 4) becomes a bestseller, unlikely enough in any world. It is a reality-denying book in which ideas take precedence over people. Nabokov loathed this appraoch, dismissing ideas as worthless to writing. And so they are; they only distract Van Veen for a while before the voice of Ada interrupts him at the very end of the section to drag him back down to his own private hell.

One idea of The Texture of Time is significant though, which is Van’s insistence that the Future is nothing more than a part of the Present.

What we do at best (at worst we perform trivial tricks) when postulating the future, is to expand enormously the specious present causing it to permeate any amount of time with all manner of information, anticipation and precognition. At best, the “future” is the idea of a hypothetical present based on our experience of succession, on our faith in logic and habit. Actually, of course, our hopes can no more bring it into existence than our regrets change the Past. (560)

This isn’t a serious idea, of course. It is the bitterness of a man who has no future, for whom no possibility of hope remains, and who has been forced by desperation into attempting (and failing) to reimagine the past as something less horrible than it was. Van’s attempt is more successful than Charles Kinbote’s in Pale Fire, as Kinbote had to contend with the opposing force of Shade’s poem and his inability to dispose of the vexing torments in any sort of convincing way. Van succeeds rather well to a point, but this only exacerbates and prolongs his ultimate failure. He is Kinbote triumphant, but in hell.

4. The End

The true end of Ada is not clear. If, as I suspect, Van Veen dies at the end of Part 4, just as he is (supposedly) reunited with Ada, then the remainder of his life after 1922 (please see this Ada timeline) may be entirely fantasy, a projection from the present into the (false) future. Part 5, which announces itself as the “true introduction” to Ada, may have been written by Van before the rest of the book, not after it.

This is significant because by the order of Van’s writing, it would mean that Part 5, having been written first, would be the most delusional of all. Certainly the ebullient rapture of Part 5 marks a reversal from the growing sadness that went before and a jarring break from both Part 3 and Part 4.

In Nabokov’s stories that concern alternate worlds, the revelation of the fantasy tends to take place at the very end of the tale, often only on the last page. (This is arguably true even of the non-linear Pale Fire. What does the last page bring us here? An aggressively fatuous description of Ada itself in trite, sarcastic prose.

The protagonist, a scion of one of our most illustrious and opulent families, is Dr. Van Veen, son of Baron “Demon” Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure. The end of an extraordinary epoch coincides with Van’s no less extraordinary boyhood. Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the “Ardis” part of the book. On the fabulous country estate of his art-collecting uncle, Daniel Veen, an ardent childhood romance develops in a series of fascinating scenes between Van and pretty Ada, a truly unusual gamine, daughter of Marina, Daniel’s stage-struck wife. That the relationship is not simply dangerous cousinage, but possesses an aspect prohibited by law, is hinted in the very first pages.

In spite of the many intricacies of plot and psychology, the story proceeds at a spanking pace. Before we can pause to take breath and quietly survey the new surroundings into which the writer’s magic carpet has, as it were, spilled us, another attractive girl, Lucette Veen, Marina’s younger daughter, has also been swept off her feet by Van, the irresistible rake. Her tragic destiny constitutes one of the highlights of this delightful book.

The rest of Van’s story turns frankly and colorfully upon his long love-affair with Ada. It is interrupted by her marriage to an Arizonian cattle-breeder whose fabulous ancestor discovered our country. After her husband’s death our lovers are reunited. They spend their old age traveling together and dwelling in the various villas, one lovelier than another, that Van has erected all over the Western Hemisphere.

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.

The distasteful, dust cover copy about Lucette’s death is a pained joke. The whole thing is painted not only as fictional, but as cliched and generic. It is as delusional as the idea of The Texture of Time becoming a bestseller. And I believe this is what we are meant to take from it: this is Van’s fantasy, not “ninety-seven percent true, and three percent likely” as he protests at the beginning of Part 5, but something only vaguely resembling cruel reality. This is the pulling back of the curtain.

Only the final paragraph, which leaves behind the fatuousness for a series of remembered images, rings true: these are presumably bits of Van’s real memory that have attached themselves to his fantasies.

5. Who Is In the Coffin?

One recurrent theme in Nabokov’s novels–indeed, a typical principle of their construction–is of a protagonist/narrator who struggles to sustain a badly-desired fantasy, be it love, power, patriotism, or just having a decent life. The struggle to assert this fantasy in the face of the world’s rejection or malice constitutes the narrative, and the inevitable failure of the fantasy comes at the end of the book. In most cases the fantasy gives way to reality reasonably easily, as people like Humbert Humbert and Pnin are not literally delusional. But in the case of Cincinnatus C, Kinbote, and others, the fantasy bears more on the book’s contents than the reality.

Ada is Nabokov’s most extreme treatment of this theme, not the least because we don’t see anything pushing back against Van Veen. All opposing forces tend to dissolve away sooner or later. The marshaling of fantasy to defy reality becomes a structuring principle of the book even to the point of alienating readers from it, lest they crack open Van’s coffin and discover his secrets. Where there is little reality, there is little sympathy to be had, hence the uninvolving nature of so many of the characters, not least Van himself. While Van puts up a good front to a point, ultimately he knows he’s not fooling anyone with his “happy family chronicle.” What starts off in Part 5 as the joyous introduction ends with solipsistic torment in a self-fashioned hell. And what better analogy for a solipsistic world than incest?

The exact nature of Van’s real-life sins remains ambiguous to me. Lucette’s death is almost certainly one of them, but there remains a greater question which I can only guess at: who is Van Veen? Just as it appears Charles Kinbote was himself a fantasy identity of the seemingly ancillary character V. Botkin in Pale Fire, I’m not at all certain that Van Veen, if he even exists in the “real world” of Ada, is the author of Ada as it appears to us.

Who if not Van? Perhaps Andrey Vinelander, Ada’s husband for for almost 30 years. He is an Arizonan rancher, and a cuckolded rube. Van and Lucette hold him in total contempt, yet Ada stays with Andrey through years of sickness. Though she means to leave him for Van, she refuses to do so until he is well. Yet he never recovers, and only with his death in 1922, mentioned at the end of Part 3 and Part 4, are Van and Ada finally reunited, just as Van finishes The Texture of Time–and perhaps when Van dies. This all seems very suspicious to me, enough to suggest some deep link between Van and Andrey. If Van is Don Juan and Don Quixote, is he also the Stone Cuckold himself?

1922 was also the year the Soviet Union was established. I do not think that is a coincidence either.

I’m sure there are plenty of clues I have not found that will either support or disprove aspects of my interpretation here. But I am done with Ada for now. Even under this interpretation, I’m not sure if the book justifies itself. But this is the best account I can manage.


R.P. Blackmur on James Joyce

They say the best criticism articulates what you sensed but couldn’t conceptualize, and I think Blackmur hits a very major nail on the head here, identifying the ever-growing problem of literature for the last 200 years or so and showing Joyce as one of the few to have come up with a truly satisfactory (but immensely difficult) answer:

Precisely because Joyce could not assent to the official version of his Dublin-classical-Christianity, he was all the more condemned to the damnation of imposed orders. Imposed order–forced order–always mutilates what is ordered and tends to aridify it. Not the observation of Stephen or of Bloom (or Molly) is imposed order, but the conceptions of those characters under the observation and the aesthetic frames in which the book chooses to see them: e.g., the parodies of English prose style in the hospital scene, the theory of hallucination in the bawdy house, or the dialectic in the homecoming scene.

Perhaps all art is imposed order, but it ought to be the order called for by the substance in terms of the governing concepts of those imaginations which are not aesthetic. These Joyce’s experience of his society did not provide; his only providence was the gratuitous one of the whole undistributed flux of sensation and possibility; and into this, every order he chose to use poured willy-nilly. Neither parody of old orders nor that substitute for order, research-naturalism, could restrain the flow of the parade into the mob.

Perhaps that is why he distrusted–or at any rate never for long used–either of the “great” modes of traditional prose literature, the full narrative or the full drama. Joyce had none of that conviction which is the inward sense of outward mastery; and those who feel the lack of that sort of conviction tend to truncate their merely outward skills: truncate, mutilate, and mock. In such a predicament it is almost the normal solution to choose, instead of full statement in narrative or drama, some dessicated dialectic and try to make it pass for fresh because it was chosen. Such trials are self-laceration, as the monastic impulse, denied access to its own insight in the body’s life, becomes ascetic fury.

So it happens in some artists; as in ordinary people similarly deprived you get hair-splitting in extremis despite the major issue of love or security, where the categories of relation are argued as if they were reality itself.

R.P. Blackmur, “The Jew in Search of a Son” (1947)

What Blackmur seems to see as pathology rather appears to be the norm. The sort of trust that Joyce could not possess–trust in a given order–comes off today as antiquated at best, disingenuous and reactionary at worst. The parallel of structural with cultural order is well-drawn. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to have been gifted with a strange, compelling inner order (I’m thinking of Kafka here), what’s one to do?

Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor (1986) is a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-). Jip and Zab are preteen twins who speak a weird, unfamiliar slang and meet up with a talking rock that turns out to be a foreign lifeform from Mars, which they dub Xorandor. They communicate with it using a programming language somewhat akin to BASIC, and they discover it can consume radiation particles. This then spins into a tale of spies, nuclear disarmament, and a disorganized offspring of Xorandor who gets scrambled, decides it is Lady Macbeth, and demands that it and its brethren be given endless radiation or it will create a critical mass and destroy a good part of England. Jip and Zab work with Xorandor to stop its mad offspring, speaking to it in that same programming language, and they also discover more about Xorandor’s real provenance and nature.

My criticisms of the book ultimately fall away in the face of its mere existence. Boy is it a strange one. Thomas M. Disch reviewed it when it first came out, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, clearly on the grounds of its distended language. But Brooke-Rose’s use of code snippets (in a BASIC-like language of her own design) as well as a certain lack of fluency with the concepts of computer science makes it both less and more than those other two books.

It is more in that neither Burgess nor Hoban attempted to graft a formal symbolic language onto English, preferring instead to deform English into a new, imagined human language. It is less in that the graft does not take: Brooke-Rose cannot create the hybrid she attempts, because she treats the symbolic language as human language when it is is not. To explain the nature of this failure is to understand the multilayered nature of metaphor and analogy in natural language.

Before critiquing, though, let me praise Brooke-Rose’s achievement. She engaged with the syntax and semantics of what I gather to be a genuinely foreign domain, and she managed to utilize them logically and cogently in a novel, at a level that I’ve only seen in Vernor Vinge (who, besides having background in the relevant domains, is a far more conventional and unimaginative writer). She did this well into her career, and she did this in the mid-80s, well before any such concepts had penetrated into the mainstream. Compared to the contemporaneous Tron, Xorandor is an algorithms textbook.

I caught a few slip-ups where she uses terminology in an invalid way or attempts to draw an analogy based on a misunderstanding of a particular formal concept, but really only a handful, which is really rather stunning for someone coming to the material for the first time. So my aesthetic criticism is balanced by my immense admiration for Brooke-Rose’s adventurousness, curiosity, and diligence.

The only hint of previous background I’ve found is in Frank Kermode’s piece on Brooke-Rose, where he says she served at Bletchley Park in World War II, alongside the likes of Alan Turing. Yet there is little here that has to do with the theoretical aspects of computer science. Brooke-Rose is interested in computer languages as language, not as a practical tool. Yet the problem lies in the inseparability of these two aspects.

Consider this representative piece of code from the book:


The vast majority of the code, in fact, ends up being DEC and REM statements, which allow Brooke-Rose to use English primarily in the code. These statements are made to seem more computer-like by mutilating English syntax, but they are no closer to actual computer language than English. She has taken the syntax of computer language and some of its semantics, but overlaid it with slightly altered natural language semantics. Within a REM or a DEC statement, anything goes.

Brooke-Rose makes steps toward accommodating formal language semantics within the DEC and REM statements, such as pointing out the problems of indefinite antecedents, but they are small and tentative, and these issues, which would be at the heart of an effort to deal with the difference between logical and natural language, fall by the wayside in favor of moves that belong purely in the realm of natural language.

The problem is that Brooke-Rose has not lived the language she is appropriating. This is as great a problem with a programming language as it is with a human language, although the nature of the problem is different. By utilizing programming language to serve the purposes of a human language, she neglects the very nature of the language, and so the result is akin to what would happen if one were to write poetry in an unknown foreign language with only a translating dictionary as a guide. It is the confusion of the (partial) definition of a word with the knowledge of its many uses and place in the language. Programming language is simpler than natural language, but by ignoring the greater part of the purposes the language can serve, Brooke-Rose’s code is enfeebled.

The problem manifests itself in Jip and Zab’s slang as well. Here is a brief bit of dialog:

Zab, do we have to reconstruct every conv?

That’s what storytellers do Jip, or else they invent them. But we can’t, this is real.

Floating-point real or fixed-point real?


This rings false because this is not a joke programmers would make. (There are many others like it in the book.) The mere dual definition of “real” as both meaning “actual” as well as “a number belonging to a continuum” does not make it suitable grounds for a pun. Even puns, which exist on the surface level of language, require some conceptual apparatus to link their two meanings. By making the linkages purely on the lexical level, Brooke-Rose betrays a lack of conceptual knowledge of the language she is adopting.

To recast this exchange with German instead of computer language:

I have committed a mortal sin.

Are you sure it wasn’t merely a mortal bedeutung?


Punning on Frege’s Sinn/Bedeutung distinction in this context serves no purpose. We can have some fun this way (I originally tried to do it with kind, kinder, and art), but it does not lend any greater meaning to the matter at hand or illuminate the connections between English and German. If anything, it trivializes them.

I have criticized science and engineering people for adopting too literal and too concrete metaphorical models of emotion and humanity. Rod Humble’s The Marriage was a model example, in my opinion. But this is a critique in the other direction, of the fact that Brooke-Rose has adopted the syntax and semantics of a domain without understanding their practical usage. That practical layer, which I hesitate to call sub-linguistic because it is still linguistic, is one that writers too often ignore. Beneath the shuffling of imagery and semantic ambiguity often lies a linguo-conceptual level as arid and stale as a formulaic plot.

The grammatical, rhetorical, lexical material of computer science have been employed without much of their actual content. Very little of the code apparatus serves much purpose except to give shape to the narrative that would otherwise be done with the usual natural language devices. Because Brooke-Rose chose a computer language rather than a natural language, the gap between the two languages is huge and starkly reveals what more subtle shifts do not. It is not always so clear what gets left out when interweaving two languages.

An analogical strategy of linguistic substitution is one of the core skills of any writer. Xorandor very clearly shows what such strategies easily miss or take for granted: the underlying, mutable conceptual matter, made to seem irrelevant by the manipulation of surface-level syntax and semantics, but in fact distinctively present. This matter is not plot, though it can take the form of plot; it is the subcutaneous ideological and structural stuff of writing and life that language captures inexactly, imprecisely and in multifold ways, but which is nonetheless there. It is present in the technical uses of computer language that Brooke-Rose did not make use of. This matter lies not in syntax or semantics, but in pragmatics and superstructure. And that is what is precisely missing, almost totally, in Brooke-Rose’s use of computer code. The deficiency of the book is astonishingly illuminating.

In this sense, Brooke-Rose is firmly ensconced in her time, in the post-structuralist milieu in which language slippages occur purely at the surface level of syntax and atomic signification. This anti-conceptualist dogma of deconstruction has been tremendously detrimental to the creative spirits of many writers, who too often forsake all thoughts of a deeper conceptual structure underpinning languages in favor of an emaciated, localized play on the simplest of word associations, as prescribed by the primitive associative models of Derrida and Lacan and the rigid structuralist networks of Barthes. Puns often come to dictate analogies rather than analogies dictating metaphors.

Brett Bourbon mischaracterized this deeper conceptual realm as the realm of nonsense, talking about deformations of language. But these deformations of language, exemplified by those of Finnegans Wake, are not excursions into nonsense, but attempts to pull and reshape our conceptual language in unfamiliar directions.

Most literature, of course, settles for much less than this. It is not necessarily a writer’s responsibility to operate on this linguo-conceptual (linguo-pragmatic?) level, but I believe the mark of truly substantial literature (as opposed to merely great writing) is indeed a work’s ability to wreak havoc to existing linguo-conceptual structures.

The challenge in addressing these structures and grasping them even partly is immense, and falling back on simplifications is tempting and sometimes sufficient to create a decent work of art. But only decent. The human tendency to reduce and simplify into models is unavoidable, but complacency with them, an unwilingness to accept their provisionality, is an unforgivable offense against our rational and creative powers. Every writer of “experimental” prose should reflect on this book and wonder if their amalgamation of novel lexical and semantic overlaps is only serving to reiterate unoriginal macrostructures.

Yet Brooke-Rose is smart enough to recognize this, and her essay collection Stories, Theories and Things (1991) shows her to be a keen and precise critic who draws on structuralist, deconstructionist, and speech act theory without becoming obfuscatory and usually not too straitjacketed. The essays on gender and writing, in particular, are some of the best I’ve read on the subject in ages.

And here she speaks, I think, exactly to the problem I describe above, the narrowness of the conceptual apparatus so often at work in writing:

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

What she also implies, which is something worth spelling out, is that the most egregious exponents of this anti-conceptual anti-knowledge tendency have not been novelists, but literary theorists, who too often not only sought little knowledge beyond their narrowly-focused reading, but then built even more constraining systems around those impoverished areas!

I will not analyze her criticism in detail here; I am only interested in how it serves to illuminate further the noble failure of Xorandor, as well as the less noble failures of countless other books. If Xorandor does not free itself from its theoretical shackles, its immersion into foreign territory remains a notable effort to escape the orbit around the endless deferral of signification.

That is to say: when we are captivated by the shiny surface of language, when pyrotechnics and puns and prestidigitation of words comes to substitute for attention to the far deeper realms of the conceptual and practical use of even the most ordinary language, then we have come to treat language as a solipsistic activity that turns us inward and away from the world. And so such linguistic activity becomes a way of avoiding life.

If we are content to refine and nourish only the epidermis of language, we let the innards rot.

Burton Pike on Robert Musil: To Analyze and Order Experience Without Reducing It

Robert Musil is difficult to write about. He outsmarts most of his commentators. Burton Pike’s “Robert Musil: Literature as Experience” is one of the better essays I’ve read on him, trying to link Musil’s hard-to-pin-down process in The Man Without Qualities to Husserlian phenomenology, and also with Susanne Langer’s theories of art that draw heavily on Ernst Cassirer’s theories of symbolic forms.

Musil attended the University of Berlin from 1903-1905, while Stumpf, Dilthey, and Simmel were teaching there, and he read and remarked on Husserl. I haven’t seen that much criticism exploring these connections (I haven’t looked too deeply), but they certainly merit it.

Pike’s essay focuses on Musil’s attempt to bridge the gap between lived experience and language through the host of characters and emotions and ideologies he meticulously dissects in The Man Without Qualities. My response is to ask whether the problem is made more difficult by thinking of it as a gap.

Can Musil’s project be better served, and saved, by reformulating it in a more language-centric way? Rather than bemoaning a myopic focus on language, should those following the spirit of Musil appropriate its study?

Robert Musil: Literature as Experience

Burton Pike, Studies  in  Twentieth-Century  Literature 18,  no.  2  (Summer  1994)

My general argument is that writers of the early modernist generation, and certainly Musil, were not blocked by language’s presumed inability to represent experience, but on the contrary were struggling to develop a new kind of literary language that would adequately represent experience as a cognitive process as it was then coming to be understood.

It might also be said of modernist literature generally that it resists the attempts of theory to reduce literary expression to the problem of language alone. This kind of literature uses language to project images that incorporate action in an envelope of sensory experience rather than using it descriptively or discursively. The senses, emotions, affects, moods, and subliminal effects involved in perception and experience are considered essential. It is too reductive, as some critics would have it, to consider literary language as merely a doomed attempt at some kind of rational discourse that eludes both writer and reader, a fruitless butting one’s head against the walls of the “prison-house of language.”

I would extend this to say that it is a trap to separate language and experience as though they are separate or as though one is a subset of the other. They are inextricable, each possessed of certain aspects that the other cannot make fully manifest (it is important that this be bidirectional and that we recognize that language has capacities beyond one person’s experience).

The simultaneous disdain of both experience (via attacks on “Cartesianism,” “subjectivity,” and the like) and language (by blocking it off from thought, experience, and the world) demarcates a desiccated zone for linguistic exploration that turns solipsistic all too easily. Derrida may well be the sine qua non of this approach, but one can argue that people from Quine to Brett Bourbon also fall prey to this temptation. It is ubiquitous.

The anchoring of modernist literature in perceptual and sensory images possibly illustrates what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote in the Philosophical Investigations that “a picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (Wittgenstein 48, ¶115). Suzanne Langer expressed something similar when she said that the artist’s way of knowing feelings and emotions “is not expressible in ordinary discourse [because] … the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language” (Langer 91).

On the other hand, Langer presupposes that literal language is an unproblematic concept. Husserl’s epoche (ἐποχή for you Greek readers)his method of bracketing off mental experience from our presuppositions–assumed an ability to get at pure experience that seems a bit optimistic. But the apparent failure of that project does not result in a conception of two worlds–one of feeling and emotion, one of language–that are incommensurable.

Rather, the perceptual and sensorial accompany both domains, but in heterogenous ways. The challenge which faces any serious writer is in getting language and conceptual experience partly to line up, through a monumental force of will and organization.

In fact, this task is really easy if you line them up in the conventional, contemporary ways which we receive from our birth on. But then you have written something of no importance whatsoever.

The burden of language as Musil understands it is not to mystify, but to analyze and order experience without reducing it. He makes his characters, within their immediate fictional situations, attempt to relate to each other and the world through their changing perceptual and sensory envelopes in terms of the experiences he tries out on them. What we can know, according to Husserl, is not the actual physical world but only our experience of it. Unlike Husserl, Musil is quite rigorous in making this process experimental and in developing a literary language that can express it with great precision. He puts all his major characters in this same experimental stance.

This is a tough enterprise for a writer, for not only is representing the complexity of experience thus understood a boundless task, but it rejects as impossibly artificial (not “true to life”) the traditional literary notions of plot, dramatic action, and characterization that normally provide a guiding structure for readers as well as writers. The results are contradictory and paradoxical: self and world, as Musil treats them, dissolve into a flow of endless “possibilities,” of the kind so lovingly developed in The Man without Qualities. The only way to temporarily arrest this flow, Musil postulates, is for an individual to attain an attenuated, tentative, ineffable, and quite transitory mystical state that he calls the “other condition,” an ecstatic state of heightened awareness similar to that advocated by Walter Pater.

This is a very modernist move, and I think it is a valuable and not-common-enough move to link it to Husserl. (Thomas Harrison talks a fair bit about this in his book Essayism.) Pike is a bit off-base on Husserl but the description of Musil’s method as being one of exploring the objects of thought does link Musil to Husserl, and their methodologies are not so different, though Musil is far more empirical.

This postulation of an ideal state of awareness and reception is most vulnerable if we think of it as an emancipatory suspension of all conditions on our thinking and our self. That’s a pretty high bar. If considered more modestly as either

  1. a suspension of some core prejudices and predispositions, or
  2. a framework-destroying entertaining of contradictory, coextant, and willfully foreign concepts;

–then there is still the possibility for something genuinely innovative to arise. Musil’s method can survive the attack better than Husserl’s original conception of the epoche. I tend to believe that any genuine epoche would require cessation of thought altogether, making it not terribly useful for present purposes.

The problem with regarding thoughts and sensations as a stream or flow with intermittent stases is, to quote William James, “introspectively, to see the transitive parts for what they really are. If they are but flights to conclusions, stopping them to look at them before a conclusion is reached is really annihilating them…. Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see now difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tract is…. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself…. The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like … trying to turn up the light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks” (quoted in Holton 124).

Musil, who was quite familiar with James’s work, understood this dilemma very well: throughout his diaries, essays, and interviews he worries endlessly about the technical problems this posed for him as a writer. Rejecting narrative in the traditional sense, he relies on a narrator external to the action to frame and control the experimental process as it unfolds. But since each scene is limited to representing the envelope of perceptions, sensations, actions, and experiences of the characters who are perceiving, sensing, acting, and experiencing within it, each scene tends to become a hermetic unit and mise-en-abyme. No extended dramatic narrative (for which characters must be defined as consistent types or counters) is possible. Musil’s “non-narrative narrative” consists of a sequence of quasi-independent micro-narratives, each of which could be extended at will in any direction or interspersed with other micro-narratives. Like Husserl, Musil believed in building up and analyzing all the data that hypothetically constitute experience. He did not, like Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch, for example, begin with an a priori set of values or literary notions.

This might explain why Musil had trouble finishing anything, notably The Man without Qualities and his essays: the experimental path he set up, “the path of the smallest steps” as he called it, that would ultimately reconcile the potential of probability with the reality of what actually happens, can never end. This is a negative consequence of his dedication to a hypothetical approach that gives primacy to “a scale of degrees of probability,” and that defines certainty as only the closest approach to the greatest achievable degree of probability—a kind of Zeno’s arrow of probability suspended in its flight toward certainty.

It’s worth noting that a significant change does take place between the two published mammoth parts of The Man Without Qualities. The appeal to the mystical experience only really kicks in with the arrival of Agathe, when it seems clear that Musil is trying to get beyond the critical approach that dominated Pseudoreality Prevails and move tentatively toward a more constructive approach in Into the Millennium (The Criminals). The critical approach remains and it does not sit easily with the constructive project, something for which Musil has suffered criticism. I think it is here that the unfinished nature of the book makes it hardest to judge the role of the constituent approaches.

The conflicts and paradoxes inherent in this approach to fiction are set out at the very beginning of The Man without Qualities. A scientist and mathematician, Ulrich is unable to fix any actual or potential moment in the flow of experience as definitive, or to fashion a language that could mediate the flow of experience in any reliable fashion, such as empirical science demands. In his very first appearance in the novel, Ulrich is standing behind a window in his house with a stopwatch in his hand, trying without success to freeze the flow of traffic and pedestrians on the street outside in a statistical measurement.

Representation, and the language that is its vehicle, can only be valid in Musil’s view if rendered with the utmost precision. The Man without Qualities contains a veritable catalog of the ways people talk, write, and interact in their lives, and these ways are considered unsatisfactory and insufficient. Each social class, profession, and individual in the novel is given his/her/its/their own hermetic vocabularies and grammars. Musil included mystic, philosophical, and scientific language, as well as the everyday conversational idiolects of each of the characters in the novel. (Each character speaks in his or her own style, idiom, vocabulary, and syntax, crossing but rarely intersecting with the others.) Musil even includes body language, as well as the inner, unrealized language of the inarticulate and the insane! The problem, as he saw it, lay in somehow fashioning a language that would overcome these obstacles and permit objective communication of the whole complex flow of experience from person to person and within society as a whole, and thus make true communication possible.

This is awfully close to Habermas’ fabled Ideal Speech Situation, though I’m not sure if Pike means to invoke it here. I do not think that “objective communication” is necessarily the goal. I believe Musil would have backed the distinction between the natural sciences and human sciences that Dilthey drew, and thus would have asked different things of the science he was constructing for The Man Without Qualities than he would have asked of physics.

I’d have to look carefully at Musil’s language to figure out what he thought. He criticizes contemporary literature for Gegenstandslosigkeit, a lack of objectivism, an embrace of abstractions that make it solipsistic and inward-turning, no longer attuned to present-day reality. But to include this in literature is not to embrace objectivity per se but to extend the warrant of literature to contain all these unsatisfactory means in the hopes of realizing satisfactory communication. The critical project is a necessary part of the constructive project.

There would seem to have been in the early phenomenologists and in Musil an underlying idealism that has since been lost, a belief that in spite of the increasing solipsism and dehumanizing specialization of modern life there is some sphere or some level—one hardly knows what to call it—in or on which all the conflicting and apparently unrelated fragments, self and world, feeling and intellect, science and society, skepticism and belief, could somehow be melded into a coherent, ethical whole. This might explain why the phenomenological basis is no longer fashionable in literary criticism and theory, and why language-based criticism, with its entrenched skepticism about idealist assumptions, has become dominant—it suits the temper of our time, which is disillusioned about any form of larger unity in the world. In the tradition of idealistic philosophy, phenomenology conceived experience as the experience of an individual person, but underlying the phenomenological enterprise was the intention of bringing about moral and ethical reform on the level of the larger community, and the belief that this could be done through an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world. Our time, however—as Musil himself trenchantly observed many times in his essays and in The Man without Qualities—has moved instead to a collectivist mode of thinking in which political, ideological, ethnic, and tribal thought and behavior rather than the individual’s subjectivity have become the framework for social thought, and in which literary characters, no longer the anchoring centers of the world they had been since Romanticism, have become in extreme cases cartoon characters. In collectivist fashion the contemporary human sciences, psychology, medicine, and sociology approach the individual only as a statistical manifestation of generalized and abstracted characteristics. (Thus the disease is more important than the patient, who represents for the medical profession only a manifestation of it, a “case.”)

Pike’s point is that the recent dominant trends of art and literature have echoed and reinforced the instrumentalization and taxonomizing of human experience rather than challenging it. This seems hard to deny, although bad literature has always done this to some extent.

But Pike paints the picture as rather dire by phrasing it in a somewhat transcendental way: by saying that we must construct a unity and understanding that seems ever more difficult to reach as the world gets bigger, faster, and more complicated. If Musil couldn’t build this unity, what chance do we have?

What Pike calls “an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world” seems unlikely when phrased that way. Better to think of it as latent possibilities in language and action (in which subjectivity participates), beaten-down and ignored by the dominant forces of the world, to which we can attune ourselves through open-mindedness and study.

I think this is what Musil was after in the first place, hence why he needed to spend such great time dissecting unsatisfactory languages. Not an awakened subjectivity, but an expanded world. All our experience is already in our language, if language can only be wrangled into sufficiently compelling conceptual forms. Faced with the richness of language’s conceptual possibilities, many writers and scholars have sought to reduce and contain it. Destroying this reduction of language would be enough to avoid the reduction and ignorance of experience.

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