Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: black magic

Rebecca West on Sentimentality

But the sentimental artist is becoming nothing, he has ears, he has eyes, he is being intelligent, he is playing a game, he is moving certain objects according to certain rules in front of spectators. Those objects one may take as the isolated units of his material which he has passed through his imagination by an unfortunately discontinuous process. He sees that one of these objects occupies a certain position on the ground, and knows that he will score a point if he can remove it to another position; he therefore sends another of these objects rolling along to displace it. Shock…one hears that ugly sound.

Rebecca West, “That Strange Necessity”

Impossible for me not to think immediately of my beloved Musil essay Black Magic:

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationships would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts.

As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist. Consequently, his work causes intellectual short-circuiting. He appeals to Man, God, the Spirit, Goodness, Chaos; and out of such big words he squeezes his sophisticated sentences. He could not possibly do so, were he to imagine the totality of their meaning, or at least grasp their utter unimaginability. But long before his time, these words had already taken on connotations meaningful and meaningless, in books and newspapers; our Expressionist has often seen them wedged together, and the words need only be loaded with the least little bit of significance for him to perceive sparks flying between them. This, however, is only a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.

Robert Musil

I like West’s mechanistic cause-and-effect imagery, though; it invokes the sheer cheapness of the devices employed and the effects achieved. That the slightest variation in the manipulation of these objects (and concomitant alteration in surface effect) is applauded as an innovation: this indicates the creative impoverishment of the whole culture surrounding an artistic scene, as fake innovation is taken for real innovation and real innovation is taken for flawed aberration. (Such was the case with techno sub-genres in the 1990s; the best stuff was at the fringes and mostly ignored as people leapt to anoint new scene-leaders.) This has been a noticeable downside to genre-beholden literature like mysteries and science-fiction, where the task was explicitly to conceive of new variations within a preconceived structure (does anyone remember that Columbo episode where the killer himself is murdered?), but we can be assured the same goes for literary fiction as well. There’s just more effort being made to disguise the circuitous variations as stunning advances in form and content. Good thing we have short memories….

Musil on Writing and Ideas

13 August 1910. Before I went to sleep, one or two other things occurred to me about my way of working (in the novellas). What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum–here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation. In art, this process of selection is missing. Its place is taken by the selection of the images, the style, the mood of the whole.

I was annoyed because it is often the case with me that the rhetorical precedes the reflective. I am forced to continue the inventive process after the style of images that are already there and this is often not possible without some amputation of the core of what one would like to say. I am only able at first to develop the thought-material for a piece of work to a point that is relatively close by, then it dissolves in my hands. Then the moment arrives when the work in hand is receiving the final polish, the style has reached maturity, etc. It is only now that, both gripped and constrained by what is now in a finished state, I am able to “think” on further.

There are two opposing forces that one has to set in balance–the dissipating, formless one from the realm of the idea and the restrictive, somewhat empty and formal one relating to the rhetorical invention.

Tying this together to achieve the greatest degree of intellectual compression, this final stepping beyond the work in accordance with the needs of the intellectual who abjures everything that is mere words, this intellectual activity comes only after these two stages. Here the effect of the understanding is astringent, but here it is directed toward the unity of form and content that is already present whereas, whenever it is merely a question of thinking out the content, it dissipates. (Even in cases where one already has the basic idea around which everything is to be grouped, as long as the capacity for creating images is missing it will not work; if one restricts oneself in the extensive mode one goes to far in the intensive mode and one becomes amorphous.)

Diaries, p. 117

Note, contra Kant, ideas are formless content, rhetoric and language are form. I.e., if categories could be expressed we’re already expressing more than categories. This seems to be a German hermeneutic motif, the unspeakable but absolute idea beneath the text; Gadamer uses it too. Or to put it another way:

Jede Philosophie, die unsere Möglichkeiten des Zugangs zur Wirklichkeit von der Sprache abhängig macht – nicht nur vom Sprachbesitz überhaupt, sondern vom dem einer bestimmten, faktisch gewordenen Sprache, diese also als das Gesamtsystem aller Differenzierungen und Sichtweisen in der Erfahrung definiert, macht das Unsagbare auch im Sinne des noch nicht Gesagten heimatlos. Zugleich macht sie den Verdacht auf einen unüberwindbaren Relativismus der Alltagssprachen, der Nationalsprachen oder auch der wissenschaftlichen Sprachen unausweichlich. Nichts ist uns gegeben, was uns nicht durch Sprache vorgegeben wäre. Ist das befriedigend? Oder müssen wir nicht auch davon sprechen, daß die Sprache der Erweiterung unserer Erfahrung als der Einengung des Unsagbaren nachzukommen hat? Davon sprechen, daß sie umgebildet werden muß in bezug auf Leistungen, die im Sprachbestand noch nicht faktisch vorgegeben waren?

Blumenberg, Theory of an Unconceptuality, posth. 2008

(Thanks Antonia. And congratulations.)

Robert Musil: Black Magic

I’ve quoted from it before, but it’s always worthy.

Life is living: you cannot describe it to someone who does not know it. It is friendship and enmity, enthusiasm and disenchantment, peristalsis and ideology. Thinking has, among other functions, to establish an intellectual order in life. As well as to destroy that order. Every concept combines many disparate phenomena in life, and just as frequently, a single phenomenon will give rise to many new concepts. It is common knowledge that our poets have stopped wanting to think ever since they think they heard the philosophers say that thought is no longer supposed to be a matter of thinking, but rather of living.

Life is to blame for everything.

Black Magic (tr. Peter Wortsman)

Gregor von Rezzori: The Snows of Yesteryear

[The German is Blumen im Schnee, which sounds better to me.]

Cassandra’s superstitious awe of the reality of letters, and her ultimate and voluntary rejection of their decipherment, originated in a much more archaic insight. The serried rows of books on the shelves of my father’s library were truly demonic for her. That certain things had been recorded between the covers of these books which could be grasped mentally and transformed into speech and knowledge by initiates in the shamanic craft of coding and decoding those runic symbols–this could be understood only as a supernatural phenomenon. It irritated her to see that we had lost the sense of its terrifying uncanniness and that reading was an everyday custom, publicly performed, nay, that it could even become a vice, as exemplified by my sister. With the instinctive certainty of the creature being, she felt that such casual handling of the irrational was bound in turn to generate irrationality.

She realized that for those who had acquired it, the ability to read conferred power over those to whom the written or printed word remained a sealed mystery. But she also knew that this was a power pertaining to black magic–that it turns against its own practitioners and transforms them into slaves of the abstract. She saw in it a truly devilish power, since its manipulators, who also were its most immediate victims, were not even aware of its nefarious effects.

A little bit of anti-Calibanism from Rezzori’s well-wrought memoir, written in the late 80s, which portrays a family in the early part of the 20th century but reads as closely contemporary, as though he brought them with him into the end of last century to make them easily comprehensible to the younger generations. There’s a nice hesitancy to Rezzori’s irony that I enjoyed.

Sentiment and Kitsch

Writers are seldom recognized as empiricists, idealists, skeptics, or stoics, though they ought–I mean, now, in terms of the principles of their constructions, for Sartre is everywhere recognized as an existentialist leaning left, but few have noticed that the construction of his novels is utterly bourgeois. No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.

William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationship would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts. As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist.

Robert Musil, “Black Magic”

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