Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: modernism (page 1 of 7)

Am I a Redundant Human Being?

The Austrian writer and painter Mela Hartwig wrote Am I a Redundant Human Being circa 1931. It was not published until 2001 in German, and in English in 2010.

Our narrator, Luise, suffers from two afflictions of personality: first, a near-total lack of inspiration in how to live her life; and second, a painful awareness that leads her to self-immolating criticism. Neither of those alone would make for such a sad story, but Luise is also socially offputting, and she inspires little in others beyond bemusement and irritation. I think that one of the reasons this book hasn’t received much notice is that the novel will alienate someone not in sympathy with Luise’s peculiar afflictions. Hartwig does not make it easy to have sympathy for her; she doesn’t want to make it easy. That’s the point of the novel.

A Mela Hartwig painting from 1964.

A Mela Hartwig painting from 1964.

The opening is explanation enough:

I’m a secretary. I have nearly twelve years of experience. My shorthand is first rate and I’m an excellent typist. I don’t mention it to brag. I just want to show that I amount to something. I’m ambitious.

I repeat: I’m ambitious. I’m hopelessly ambitious. Even though I certainly have reason to be humble. Reason enough to use modesty to avoid making the deficit between my talent and my ambition too obvious.

Luise is hard on herself, but not morally. Her wish is not to be a good person. She is not measuring herself against an ethical ideal or a societal model of what a woman should be (she confidently asserts that she is not unattractive, just nondescript), but against an aggressive inner conception she has for herself, whose origin is unclear. She wants to be something. It’s a very vague idea, and that’s her problem: she finds herself unable to fill it in, to flesh it out. She wants to be more passionate, more absorbed, more adventurous, but she has no preference for how these traits should express themselves.

Hartwig’s real achievement in this book is to keep the language at once abstract yet piercingly clear. It’s done quietly enough that it’s only by comparison with other mediocre novels of this sort that Am I a Redundant Human Being? appears superior. Hartwig is very sharp in expressing half-formed emotions and generalized frustrations in vivid language. (And credit to translator Kerri A. Pierce for rendering it well in English.) Hartwig sets up small loops of thought like these:

I didn’t use my ambition to demand more of myself than I was capable of giving–I simply used it to expect more of myself than I was capable of giving. (48)

My lack of diligence is even more inexplicable since I actually had a good example in my colleague that it would have been worth emulating. Of course, I had the desire to perform at her level, to become as capable as she was, to learn the art of standing out, of making myself indispensable–but at the same time, I was convinced that it was futile for me to want anything. (49)

Such thoughts are difficult to phrase so well.

So Luise looks to others for models, even while half-realizing that she is being stupid in doing so. She is “pathetically attracted” to her supremely confident schoolmate Johanna, then later experiences the rush of being in a political rally, melting into “The Mob,” and feeling passionate about something, only to lose all interest when she is once more alone.

She falls in with a couple men. There is Emil, whose love she pathologically doubts (for who could love her?) until he leaves her. But she is detached about the end of the relationship:

It hurt me to have lost him, but it hurt me even more to have lost his love…Dismayed, I realized that what I missed most about Emil K. was seeing myself through his eyes. Therefore, I reached an appalling conclusion: I could trust my pride, but not my heart. (61)

There’s Anton, whose love she doesn’t doubt, but whose love signifies his worthlessness:

However, I couldn’t overlook the fact that he was impressed by what I wanted to be, and couldn’t see me for what I really was. He respected me for my struggling to make something of myself without realizing that this struggle was futile. As they say, the proof was in the pudding: I came to see that my low opinion of him was perfectly justified. (67)

The ruthless logic of Luise’s self-criticism provides something of a shield for her against the world. After being seduced by a lying lothario, she feels tremendously betrayed, but also strangely liberated, for now she doubts others as well: “turning my doubt outward made it far easier to bear.” She doesn’t act like a victim should act–this makes her offputting.

This is not to say that Luise’s self-assessment is justified. That’s really beside the point. Several reviews complained that there was no seeming reason for her level of self-loathing, as though the lack of a clear cause makes her unconvincing. The point is that for every Johanna, there is a Luise, and we should understand that regardless of causes. Citing causes would excuse Luise as well as us from responsibility, and neither Hartwig nor Luise want that. The reader doesn’t get to be on the side of the angels while reading this novel.

The latter half of the book concerns her relationships with lovers Elizabeth and Egon. She first idolizes Elizabeth, who is described in terms eerily similar to that evoked by the description of Borderline Personality Disorder:

She was whoever she wanted to be at a given moment: the heroine of the novel she was reading, the protagonist of the tragedy or comedy she was rehearsing. Simply being herself wasn’t enough for her…Her will was strong. But it seems to me that she primarily used her will to deceive herself, to enable herself to believe wholeheartedly in the woman she was pretending to be, to feel completely at home in whatever character she’d just slipped into. (81)

Luise looks up to Elizabeth but because she wants to mimic Elizabeth and not enable her, Elizabeth doesn’t take to her too strongly. Luise has nothing to offer the borderline. No folie a deux results: Luise sees Elizabeth too clearly, envying her while exposing her. But after Elizabeth commits suicide as a result of her lover Egon leaving her, Luise sees her real chance, to take Elizabeth’s place. She pursues Egon.

It obviously doesn’t work out. While Egon is contemptuous and indifferent, unwilling to deign even to take advantage of Luise, Luise herself can’t commit fully to playing the role of Elizabeth. She makes a good go of it, but she can’t convince herself, nor can she convince Egon.

The book is not quite a tragedy. There’s something to Luise’s self-awareness that, if not liberating, possesses survival value. Luise does figure out what she’s doing, and she reconfigures her life so that she does not end up a passionate suicide like her erstwhile idol Elizabeth. It is an unsatisfying, limited life, especially relative to her insistent ambition. Perhaps part of her would actually prefer to be a passionate suicide, but there is also a stubborn pride to Luise’s attitude, an arrogance that makes her certain that she has seen the world aright. Perhaps if she had questioned that certainty….

The character of Luise reminds me most of Melanie in Maren Ade’s amazing film Forest for the Trees. Melanie absolutely fails to fit into her a new village as a schoolteacher, socializing with such clumsiness that her neediness is far too apparent. The lack of sympathy given her is at once understandable yet devastating. Eva Löbau gives a performance that apparently irritated a lot of reviewers, but which I found both astonishingly focused and painful. (The movies of Lodge Kerrigan have this quality as well.)

foresttrees1

 

I imagine that Luise too projected this air, at once desperate yet harshly insistent.

There’s little in the book that pins it to its era. The austere narrative doesn’t seem representative of typical German-language writers at the time, male or female, though I’m just not familiar with enough of the latter to be certain. Hartwig was Jewish, but that also does not make itself explicitly felt in the novel. Hartwig has very little in common with her contemporary Anna Seghers and pretty much nothing in common with Margarete Böhme. If anything, her style is more reminiscent of postwar writers who adopted more stripped-down tactics, such as Max Frisch and Adelheid Duvanel.

But this only underscores the immense absence of women’s voices throughout the history of literature, and how difficult it is to assess to what extent Hartwig portrays a female voice versus an unheard voice, for the two categories overlap but do not coincide. Certainly the early modern lineage of German woman writers like Elsbeth von Oye, Rachel Akerman, Margarethe von Kuntsch, Sophie von La Roche, Karoline von Günderrode, and Bettina von Arnim charts out a very different path than the corresponding pathways in English. I’m unsure of where on the line Hartwig falls, but if I had to guess, it’s rather far off the middle. All the better.

Two other reviews that capture the distinctive nature of the novel and of Luise herself are those of Daniela Hurezanu and Matthew Jakubowski.

The World as Metaphor in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

Robert Musil published two large volumes of his unfinished The Man Without Qualities in his lifetime. Pseudoreality Prevails (as well as a short introduction) was published in 1930, and Into the Millennium (The Criminals) was published in 1933. He died in 1942 with nothing further published. Musil expected to live until 80 in order to finish the book, but died at age 59: the work was nowhere near completion, and since the book was a process without a foreordained end, Musil did not leave any clear plan for the book’s ending.

grill

Genese Grill‘s new study, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: Possibility as Reality, provides an invaluable structure–the best I’ve encountered–for assessing the later sections and unfinished draft material of The Man Without QualitiesGrill wrote a superb chapter in the Camden House Companion to the Works of Robert Musil on The ‘Other’ Musil: Robert Musil and Mysticism, on which this book builds.

Anyone reading The Man Without Qualities is confronted with a perplexing shift as Into the Millennium progresses. After the surgical examination of European pre-war ideologies and populations in Pseudoreality Prevails, the autopsy gradually fades after Ulrich’s sister Agathe shows up in Into the Millennium. The socio-political commentary continues, but it is broader, more comical, more inane–best represented by the increasing dominance of the crackpot Meingast (based on Ludwig Klages, a Weininger-esque self-hating Jew with anti-semitic theories). Without such formidable intellectual content to critique, Ulrich (and Musil) seek a more mystical solution to the fragmenting and dissolution of modernity.

Ulrich pursues a mysterious “Other Condition” with his sister Agathe, some kind of intellectual-erotic union (consummated in the draft material) that puts the everyday world into suspension, at least briefly. It is left open whether this Other Condition is achieved or is even achievable, and its exact nature remains elusive. It’s easier to define it as what it is not: everyday reality, the political situation, bad expressionism, superficiality, irrationality, etc. This diagram from Musil’s notebooks does not narrow the field:

Musil's Diagram of the "Other Condition"

Musil’s Diagram of the “Other Condition”

Musil’s simultaneous training in science and the humanities drove him to accept nothing less than exactitude in even the most spiritual dimensions, hence his twin ideals of “precision and soul.” He was suspicious of both the scientific technician and the bad expressionist that reaches too easily for transcendence. He demeaned Heideggerian pseudo-Romantic attempts to proclaim spiritual superiority as Schleudermystik (“cut-rate mysticism,” more literally “centrifugal mysticism”), “whose constant preoccupation with God is at bottom exceedingly immoral” (III.46).

Grill’s major achievement is in bringing together the disparate, unpublished material of Musil’s last years into a structure that clarifies, at least somewhat, Musil’s ambitions. Because Musil dealt in abstractions and stretched them by taking little for granted, the intent still remains very open to interpretation. My disagreements below are not based on what I think Musil intended, because I don’t have a clear idea of that. Instead, they’re attempts to contextualize the material in a different way. The passages below are almost wholly those used in her book, and I’m grateful to her for highlighting them.

In essence, Grill argues that the Other Condition was a primary force behind both the book and the writing of the book, a suspension of assumptions and embrace of contingency that opened up realms of possibility not available in daily life. Grill spends a fair bit of time drawing a striking comparison between Musil’s ambition and Proust’s. Musil’s focus on introspection and subjectivity was as great as Proust’s, even though the socio-political material makes this less obvious. (Two other close peers are James Joyce and Alfred Döblin.)

But Grill also points out the strong contrast between them: while Proust left a closed structure behind to serve as a working memory palace for understanding life through art, Musil’s attitude and the state of the Other Condition mandated that no such closure occur. (Hence Musil’s one-time plan to have the novel break off in the middle of a sentence.) Hence the novel’s fragmentation into possibility and ambivalence need not be seen as a failure on any level. Such a closure would have been a betrayal of the very principles behind the novel.

Grill’s argument proceeds roughly as follows through the four chapters:

  1. Musil’s emphasis on circle-patterns in the later sections model the book’s rejection of linear everyday reality, embrace of contradiction and self-refutation, and a suspension of one’s attitudes to allow for a Nietzschean liberation from thoughtless conventions.
  2. Transgression and “crime” constitute a means of veering out of repetitive patterns of life, thought, and metaphor. Agathe and Ulrich’s union is an attempt to escape those patterns, and is representative of the Other Condition, an attempt to find a supra-moral ethics.
  3. Life is structured by our words and metaphors. They become ossified and stifling, and Musil saw the role of his writing as offering as much freedom from the confining strictures of our shared metaphorical life as possible.
  4. The idea of the “still life” is paradoxical and central, offering on the one hand a deceased frozen moment, on the other a suspension from the regular flow of life that opens up all nonextant possibilities and a aesthetically disinterested revivification of metaphor.

The intersection of metaphor and life is a theme that I have been rather preoccupied with, but I had not given much thought to Musil’s treatment of it until reading Grill’s book.

I would argue that when Grill says that “Abstraction, insofar as it is connected to universal forms, is always closer to timelessness and further from utility than representation, which is drawn from and comments upon particularities of place and moment” (32), she has muddled the issue a bit. Abstraction remains present to a far greater degree in particularities than we realize. It is obscured by the sheer reinforcement of the metaphorical structures that come to seem purely representative. Seemingly “abstract” thinking can be more liberating than the desiccated imagery of poetry precisely because it is not more abstract, but only more free:

In our poems there is too much rigid reason; the words are burned-out notions, the syntax holds out sticks and ropes as if for the blind, the meaning never gets off the ground everyone has trampled; the awakened soul cannot walk in such iron garments. (1564)

Leaving the precise, measurable, and definable sensory data out of account; all the other concepts on which we base our lives are no more than congealed metaphors [erstarren gelassene Gleichnisse]. (626)

Here Musil unites an attack on the surface beauty of most poetry with his brilliant, earlier critique of empiricism, suggesting that they both come out of an adherence to an underlying conceptual structure that is taken for granted (selbstverständlich):

The relationship between youth and empiricism seemed to him profoundly natural, and youth’s inclination to want to experience everything itself, and to expect the most surprising discoveries, moved him to see this as the philosophy appropriate to youth. But from the assertion that awaiting the rising of the sun in the east every day merely has the security of a habit, it is only a step to asserting that all human knowledge is felt only subjectively and at a particular time, or is indeed the presumption of a class or race, all of which has gradually become evident in European intellectual history. Apparently one should also add that approximately since the days of our great-grandfather’s, a new kind of individuality has made its appearance: this is the type of the empirical man or empiricist, of the person of experience who has become such a familiar open question, the person who knows how to make from a hundred of his own experiences a thousand new ones, which, however, always remain within the same circle of experience, and who has by this means created the gigantic, profitable-in-appearance monotony of the technical age. Empiricism as a philosophy might be taken as the philosophical children’s disease of this type of person. (1351)

In particulars lie generalities. As Grill puts it, “Newly experienced sensations are often all too quickly congealed into an all-too-limited circle of established beliefs” (Grill 84). This applies equally to the empiricist philosopher and the expressionist poet. Musil and Proust may speak of typologies explicitly, but they openly question them, while poets of specificity sneak the archetypes in under the guise of “representing” particulars.

Consequently, I think Grill is absolutely correct when she argues that Musil’s circular structures “suggest that all experience is metaphorical,” and that this is crucial to understanding Musil’s project. She has convinced me that Musil was as keen an observer of the contingent metaphorical structure of life as Ernst Cassirer or Hans Blumenberg.

Musil, however, also possessed a lyricism to attempt to bring out his themes in a literary fashion. For example, this passage from the “Valerie” section:

Ulrich had stumbled into the heart of the world. From there it was as far to his beloved as to the blade of grass beside his feet or to the distant tree on the sky-bare heights across the valley. Strange thought: space, the nibbling in little bites, distance distanced, replaces the warm husk and leaves behind a cadaver; but here in the heart they were no longer themselves, everything was connected with him the way the foot is no farther from the heart than the breast is. Ulrich also no longer felt that the landscape in which he was lying was outside him; nor was it within; that had dissolved or permeated everything. The sudden idea that something might happen to him while he was lying there—a wild animal, a robber, some brute—was almost impossible of accomplishment, as far away as being frightened by one’s own thoughts. / Later: Nature itself is hostile. The observer need only go into the water. / And the beloved, the person for whose sake he was experiencing all this, was no closer than some unknown traveler would have been. Sometimes his thoughts strained like eyes to imagine what they might do now, but then he gave it up again, for when he tried to approach her this way it was as if through alien territory that he imagined her in her surroundings, while he was linked to her in subterranean fashion in a quite different way. (1443)

Life is nur ein Gleichnis, except that the nur is inaccurate: Gleichnis is all we have and is far more malleable than it appears day to day. The Other Condition suspends the seeming necessity and allows for greater play (in the sense of Kant’s Third Critique) with the nominal components of existence.

Yet because the construction of the world-as-metaphor is a communal one, this is not something that can be accomplished alone. Hence the need for the union that Ulrich seeks with Agathe. I think that Grill understates the necessity for intersubjectivity in the Other Condition as conceived by Musil, the need for it to exist between people in a fundamentally communal way. I think that that is the problem that Musil is addressing in this passage, where Ulrich, writing in his diary, seems to be losing track of himself:

But I also fear that there’s a vicious circle lurking in everything that I think I have understood up to now. For I don’t want—if I now go back to my original motif—to leave the state of “significance,” and if I try to tell myself what significance is, all I come back to again and again is the state I’m in, which is that I don’t want to leave a specific state! So I don’t believe I’m looking at the truth, but what I experience is certainly not simply subjective, either; it reaches out for the truth with a thousand arms.

The Romantic posture died because the sole Romantic dreamer had nothing binding him or her to “our” world, nor even a way to pick himself or herself out once other minds were absent. For Musil, it seems, one other person might be enough. Agathe provides the needed reference point.

What of, then, the admissions of failure, such as this heartbreaking passage?

The experiment they had undertaken to shape their relationship had failed irrevocably. Vast regions of emotions and fancies that had endowed many things with a perennial splendor of unknown origin, like an opalizing sky, were now desolate. Ulrich’s mind had dried out like soil beneath which the layers that conduct the moisture that nourishes all green things had disappeared. If what he had been forced to wish for was folly—and the exhaustion with which he thought of it admitted of no doubts about that!—then what had been best in his life had always been folly: the shimmer of thinking, the breath of presumption, those tender messengers of a better home that flutter among the things of the world. Nothing remained but to become reasonable; he had to do violence to his nature and apparently submit it to a school that was not only hard but also by definition boring. He did not want to think himself born to be an idler, but would now be one if he did not soon begin to make order out of the consequences of this failure. But when he checked them over, his whole being rebelled against them, and when his being rebelled against them, he longed for Agathe; that happened without exuberance, but still as one yearns for a fellow sufferer when he is the only one with whom one can be intimate.

Grill argues, I think convincingly, that this does not make permanent the failure nor exclude a greater success. If the exploration of possibility does not encompass the imagining and inhabiting of the possibility of total and utter failure, and the accompanying despair, then the project will become complacent and rigid.

This does make for a somewhat politically and socially restricted attitude, however, and Grill explicitly states her belief that Musil’s position was one of a guardian of possibility and liberality, not as an activist or polemicist. I think this is generally true, though with slight restrictions. I do believe that Musil held fast to the worth of his method, and that while he was open to revision and modification of that method, he did not doubt the fundamental correctness of the application of reason and aesthetic disinterest to every aspect of life. That is to say, the Other Condition was to be malleable to the point of imagining total failure, but not to the point of utter self-annihilation.

And the method is more pragmatic than it is Romantic, depending on an alternating (or circular) pattern of engaging and disengaging, accepting and questioning. In a key section, Grill discusses Musil’s depiction of the two types of metaphors, “Nebel” (mist) and “Erstarren” (petrifact), and concludes:

Neither stone nor mist, therefore, is alone the true element, but rather, they work together to satisfy our shifting human instincts and desires for oscillation–oscillation between freedom and necessity, or perhaps freedom and an artificially imposed set of limitations. (Grill 69)

This is because even in the freedom of constructing new misty metaphors, the process is necessarily selective, as Grill stresses. A metaphor’s value lies not only in its highlighting connections between disparate concepts, but in leaving the possibility open for difference. It is this balance that makes a metaphor irreducible (and here the connection with Blumenberg’s metaphorology is strongest).

Now, as he realized that this failure to achieve integration had lately been apparent to him in what he called the strained relationship between.literature and reality, metaphor and truth, it flashed on Ulrich how much more all this signified than any random insight that turned up in one of those meandering conversations he had recently engaged in with the most inappropriate people. These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. But even what there is in life of common likes and dislikes, accord and rejection, admiration, subordination, leadership, imitation, and their opposites, the many ways man relates to himself and to nature, which are not yet and perhaps never will be purely objective, cannot be understood in other than metaphoric or figurative terms, No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth may have been an inescapable part of our intellectual evolution, but it has had the same·effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and the rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boiled to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses, and if a digression is permissible at this point, it can only be this, that one consequence of this impression that vaguely hovers over everything is what our era should frankly call its reverence for all that is common. For when we lie nowadays it is not so much out of weakness as out of a conviction that a man cannot prevail in life unless he is able to lie. We resort to violence because, after much long and futile talk, the simplicity of violence is an immense relief. People band together in organizations because obedience to orders enables them to do things they have long been incapable of doing out of personal conviction, and the hostility between organizations allows them to engage in the unending reciprocity of blood feuds, while love would all too soon put everyone to sleep. This has much less to do with the question of whether men are good or evil than with the fact that they have lost their sense of high and low. Another paradoxical result of this disorientation is the vulgar profusion of intellectual jewelry with which our mistrust of the intellect decks itself out. The coupling of a “philosophy” with activities that can absorb only a very small part of it, such as politics; the general obsession with turning every viewpoint into a standpoint and regarding every standpoint as a viewpoint; the need. of every kind of fanatic to keep reiterating the one idea that has ever come his way, like an image multiplied to infinity in a hall of mirrors: all these wide- spread phenomena, far from signifying a movement toward humanism, as they wish to do, in fact represent its failure, All in all, it seems that what needs to be excised from human relations is the soul that finds itself misplaced in them. The moment Ulrich realized this he felt that his life, if it had any meaning at all, demonstrated the presence of the two fundamental spheres of human existence in their separateness and in their way of working against each other. Clearly, people like himself were already being born, but they were isolated, and in his isolation he was incapable of bringing together again what had fallen apart. He had no illusions about the value of his philosophical experimentation; even if he observed the strictest logical consistency in linking thought to thought, the effect was still one of piling one ladder upon another, so that the topmost rungs teetered far above the level of natural life. He contemplated this with revulsion. (647)

This passage, Grill points out, provides a key piece of anticipatory groundwork for what Ulrich and Agathe will embark upon many hundreds of pages later. The greater emphasis on concrete political reality obscures the greater significance that Musil is juggling these concepts metaphorically in increasing degree, and that the motion toward the Other Condition is already proceeding. For illuminating the join between the earlier and latter sections of The Man Without Qualities in a way that gives real shape to the whole, Grill’s book is tremendous.

Middlemarch and Mary Garth

People often forget Mary Garth in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She is the third heroine of the book, not as idealistic as Dorothea and not as shallow as Rosamond, but wittier and probably smarter than both. She is the character for whom I have the greatest affection, and I wish Eliot had spent more time with her in the novel. Much of the critical work on Middlemarch barely mentions her.

Mary Garth and Fred Vincy: a reasonably happy ending.

Passages like the following jumped out at me the first time I read Middlemarch, signaling a character far more conscious of society and her place in it than any of the other characters:

Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honesty, truth-telling fairness, was Mary’s reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humor enough in her to laugh at herself.

Whatever deficiencies of sense she might have, Eliot is nonetheless painting her, at age 22, as uncommonly acute. Perhaps Eliot downplayed Mary’s role because her knowingness would have destabilized the development of the book’s plot. Mary Garth would surely see Casaubon’s folly long before Dorothea does, so she can’t be allowed to spill the beans.

Mary’s situation is not as auspicious as Dorothea’s or Rosamond’s, yet her keen mind provides her with a salve. She hides her utterly justified irritability and contempt and still realizes she must be yet more careful.

If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street tomorrow, if you are there on the watch: she will not be among those daughters of Zion who are haughty, and walk with stretched-out necks and wanton eyes, mincing as they go: let all those pass, and fix your eyes on some small plump brownish person of firm but quiet carriage, who looks about her, but does not suppose that anybody is looking at her. If she has a broad face and square brow, well-marked eyebrows and curly dark hair, a certain expression of amusement in her glance which her mouth keeps the secret of, and for the rest features entirely insignificant — take that ordinary but not disagreeable person for a portrait of Mary Garth. If you made her smile, she would show you perfect little teeth; if you made her angry, she would not raise her voice, but would probably say one of the bitterest things you have ever tasted the flavor of; if you did her a kindness, she would never forget it.

That vigilance and circumspection makes her far less active than Dorothea, and so far less prone to folly. Eliot gives her fewer opportunities to display her strength of character, and yet when it emerges, hers is the strongest in the novel. She is definitively characterized in Mr. Featherstone’s death scene:

Mary Garth refuses Mr. Featherstone.

That night after twelve o’clock Mary Garth relieved the watch in Mr. Featherstone’s room, and sat there alone through the small hours. She often chose this task, in which she found some pleasure, notwithstanding the old man’s testiness whenever he demanded her attentions. There were intervals in which she could sit perfectly still, enjoying the outer stillness and the subdued light. The red fire with its gently audible movement seemed like a solemn existence calmly independent of the petty passions, the imbecile desires, the straining after worthless uncertainties, which were daily moving her contempt. Mary was fond of her own thoughts, and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap; for, having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay, a generous resolution not to act the mean or treacherous part. Mary might have become cynical if she had not had parents whom she honored, and a well of affectionate gratitude within her, which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.

She sat to-night revolving, as she was wont, the scenes of the day, her lips often curling with amusement at the oddities to which her fancy added fresh drollery: people were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their fool’s caps unawares, thinking their own lies opaque while everybody else’s were transparent, making themselves exceptions to everything, as if when all the world looked yellow under a lamp they alone were rosy. Yet there were some illusions under Mary’s eyes which were not quite comic to her. She was secretly convinced, though she had no other grounds than her close observation of old Featherstone’s nature, that in spite of his fondness for having the Vincys about him, they were as likely to be disappointed as any of the relations whom he kept at a distance. She had a good deal of disdain for Mrs. Vincy’s evident alarm lest she and Fred should be alone together, but it did not hinder her from thinking anxiously of the way in which Fred would be affected, if it should turn out that his uncle had left him as poor as ever. She could make a butt of Fred when he was present, but she did not enjoy his follies when he was absent.

Yet she liked her thoughts: a vigorous young mind not overbalanced by passion, finds a good in making acquaintance with life, and watches its own powers with interest. Mary had plenty of merriment within.

Her thought was not veined by any solemnity or pathos about the old man on the bed: such sentiments are easier to affect than to feel about an aged creature whose life is not visibly anything but a remnant of vices. She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone. he was not proud of her, and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth; and Mary was not one of them. She had never returned him a harsh word, and had waited on him faithfully: that was her utmost.

Middlemarch, Book I, Chapter 33

Realize that Mary does not behave well out of compassion or even duty, but rather out of stoic pragmatism and a more general attitude of virtue to the world: she resolves not to make it any worse a place than it already is. She takes on the burden of attending to others’ feelings even when they can’t be bothered to attend to hers, or anyone else’s. And it does not make her any less exacting toward herself or to others.

When Mary refuses to burn one of Featherstone’s two wills, even after he tries to bribe her, it is an act of self-preservation as much as moral fortitude, two aspects she keeps strongly in alignment:

He now lowered his tone with an air of deeper cunning. ” I’ve made two wills, and I’m going to burn one. Now you do as I tell you. This is the key of my iron chest, in the closet there. You push well at the side of the brass plate at the top, till it goes like a bolt: then you can put the key in the front lock and turn it. See and do that; and take out the topmost paper — Last Will and Testament — big printed.”

“No, sir,” said Mary, in a firm voice, ” I cannot do that.”

“Not do it? I tell you, you must,” said the old man, his voice beginning to shake under the shock of this resistance.

“I cannot touch your iron chest or your will. I must refuse to do anything that might lay me open to suspicion.”

“I tell you, I’m in my right mind. Shan’t I do as I like at the last? I made two wills on purpose. Take the key, I say.”

“No, sir, I will not,” said Mary, more resolutely still. Her repulsion was getting stronger.

“I tell you, there’s no time to lose.”

“I cannot help that, sir. I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine. I will not touch your iron chest or your will.” She moved to a little distance from the bedside.

But Mary herself began to be more agitated by the remembrance of what she had gone through, than she had been by the reality — questioning those acts of hers which had come imperatively and excluded all question in the critical moment.

And this is even though she has clearly made the right decision–anything else would easily doom her. The plot requires that Mary’s refusal cause trouble for Fred by wrecking his inheritance, but this is a contrivance wholly external to Mary’s character.

Yet Mary’s dramatic moment is over as soon as it has begun. Such characters do not produce high drama. They contain the drama in their heads. Their day only came with modernism, not in the 19th century. I’m thinking not only of Eliot-lover Virginia Woolf, but also of Henry Green and Rebecca West.

Mary’s perspicacity gets confused for blandness or conformity. In “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” Nina Auerbach dismisses her as a “wholesome” woman who “fears change” and lacks “reforming ambitions,” terminally conservative and complacent.

This is simply false, and not only because Mary’s cutting wit and desentimentalized realism put her far from the realm of pejorative wholesomeness. Through no fault of her own, Mary has it far harder than Dorothea or Rosamond, and she adapts to her situation better than either of them would. Mary knows the score, and she is by far the sharpest mind, too smart to ever get involved with someone for the wrong reasons, and careful enough to know how many wrong reasons there can be.

Mary refuses to give the reader the comfort that intelligence, wisdom, and virtue are enough for a woman to transcend female circumstances of the time–the pleasing and unlikely fantasy of innate superiority triumphing over oppression. Mary’s choices secure stability for her, but do not gain her a freedom which did not then exist. Patricia Meyer Spacks summarizes her character much more accurately:

Mary, at a lower economic level than Dorothea, must labor for her sustenance. Dependent on the will of others, she anticipates pursuing an occupation she hates until her father’s prosperity rescues her. Not beautiful, socially distinguished, or wealthy, she has power over the hearts of two men, but no social power whatever. Her commitment to Fred contains an element of sacrifice. She clearheadedly undertakes the task of making him into a man, thus confirming the possibilities of her womanhood. Longing for no wider sphere of action, she glorifies the sphere she inhabits by her willingness to work without making excuses for herself or for others. If she wanted more, she could not have it: hers is the heroism–real enough–of carefully controlled aspiration.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (1976)

And this is why Mary gets the reasonably happy ending that she does. But because she knows such things at the beginning of the novel and not just at the end, her character lacks an arc, unless that arc is her waiting around for others to wise up. We do not get her life story, so her lack of longing may be the product of empirical experience and insight as much as innate temperament. J. Hillis Miller gets it right here:

The narrators of Eliot’s novels, however, deconstruct masculine authority, even though they employ it. A feminine narrative authority that has no transcendent base replaces it. This authority takes responsibility for its own creative power. An expression of that feminine insight is Mary Garth’s somewhat detached, thoroughly demystified, ironic wisdom. Mary is perhaps of all the characters in Middlemarch closest to Marian Evans herself.

J. Hillis Miller, “A Conclusion in Which Almost Nothing is Concluded”

As Mary is “knowing” long before any of the other characters, the case for her being closest to Eliot herself is strong.

I won’t speculate on why Mary is so frequently ignored or dismissed while far more attention is paid to Celia, who has no greater prominence in the novel. The question deserves more investigation than I can give it. But I do want to add some other evidence to the record from two of the critics above, Patricia Meyer Spacks and Nina Auerbach.

In 1977, Nina Auerbach (no relation, incidentally) reviewed Spacks’ study The Female Imagination, quoted above:

Her authors are unified by their “problems,” a word which becomes less a specific set of circumstances than a lugubrious incantation. Her course at Wellesley is entitled “Woman Writers and Woman’s Problems,” and it analyzes strategies for “dealing with the problem of femininity” (p. 15)–revealing with combined despair and triumph the inadequacies of all of them.

Spacks extrapolates this world view, which she herself calls “dismal,” from surprising sources. Examining the dreams of freedom of the great nineteenth-century woman novelists, she reveals that the quaky underside of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Kate Chopin is in truth a “dream of dependency” (p. 77): the apparent aspiring exception is forced to collapse into the distasteful rule. Even Doris Lessing’s Anna Wulf finishes with no more than a glorification of defeat. There is something punitive in Spacks’s reduction of her authors’ and their heroines’ gains, however minute they may be, as there is in her reading of Isadora Duncan’s autobiography and Anais Nin’s diaries: their narcissism is stressed at the expense of the achievements it fueled; while conversely, Beatrice Webb is looked at askance for the impersonality of her professionalism. The structure of Spacks’s book creates anew the double bind she perceives as a woman’s life.

Spacks has been accused of distorting her material to make it sound as negative as possible and of deliberately evading social circumstances in a manner that reinforces male stereotypes of female debility; indeed, her conclusion asserts that books by women “do not destroy or even seriously challenge the old, man-created myths about women, but they shift the point of view” (p. 315).

So does The Female Imagination itself. Using literature to confront and create a “dismal” psychic paradigm with which few women can deny acquaintance, the book is consistently unlikable but always indelible: it has the claustrophobic inexorability of a naturalistic novel.  Making no prescriptions and disbelieving in change, Spacks creates a gallery of women whose mirror is their fetish and their fate.

Nina Auerbach, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Dec., 1977)

“Consistently unlikable but always indelible”–words that some would apply (unfairly of course) to the cutting and unromantic Mary Garth herself–those who haven’t forgotten about her, at any rate.

Ten years later in the same journal, Spacks reviewed Auerbach’s Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts: 

In Nina Auerbach’s literary universe, Jane Austen writes novels populated by monsters. George Eliot constructs a personal life filled with her own theatrical performances and characterizes her novelistic heroines by their degree of skill as actresses. Little Women, in Auerbach’s rendering, depicts life and marriage as “inevitable snuffings-out to which the strong submit.”

One can understand why Auerbach overstates her case. She wants to defamiliarize works perhaps too comfortably canonized and to establish lines of lineage too often ignored. She places The Mill on the Floss in a line including Gothic novels and the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, sets Alice in Wonderland in relation to the Victorian preoccupation with “fallen women,” demands that her readers think of Austen and Wollstonecraft together. She takes a fresh look at cliches. Did Austen and Eliot and Bronte really think of their literary works as children substituting for those they unfortunately never bore biologically? Should feminist critics concentrate on literature written by women? Arguing in support of her negative answers to such questions, Auerbach provokes discussion and suggests profitable lines that it might follow. She insists that we should not take our literary history for granted, reminds us that literary like other kinds of history is constructed, and boldly proclaims the stability of her own constructions. Admiring that boldness, and the energy with which this critic supports her positions, I yet find her intellectual structures shaky because insufficiently grounded in coherent theory, adequate social and intellectual history, or attentive reading of a text….

The last two essays in this collection (the only ones not previously published) show Auerbach at her best. Without the straining for authority that mars earlier pieces, the study of Eliot demonstrates by quotation from the novelist’s contemporaries and her letters the degree to which she acted self-defined parts and projected a carefully conceived public personality. Precisely chosen citations help the reader understand Eliot’s “performance” in the context of a belief–held by others as well as the novelist–that “sincerity” and “theatricality” need not be at odds. Then Auerbach demonstrates that even Eliot’s “good” characters–Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, for example, or Dorothea in Middlemarch–can be interpreted as expert actresses. Such “anti-heroines” as Rosamond Vincy or Gwendolen Harleth, she argues, “do not stand for the morally repellent deceit of acting, but simply for acting that is bad.”

This new way of thinking about Eliot illuminates perplexities of the novels and suggests further critical possibilities; it appears to emerge from the consciousness of a confident and informed critic. Even here, though, careless reading and overstatement weaken the argument. In her introduction to the collection, Auerbach claims for herself a scholarship of “trespass,” a word given positive weight by feminist usage. Going beyond preestablished bounds creates the excitement of criticism; when Auerbach writes most forcefully, she generates just such excitement. But trespass means, the OED tells us, “A transgression; a breach of law or duty; an offence, sin, wrong; a fault.” The critic, surely, must be careful about what laws he or she chooses to transgress. We may applaud writers who violate stultifying and largely unexamined inherited assumptions without wishing them to break the laws of responsible reading and precise assertion.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jun., 1987)

This may appear to be just a bit of academic crossfire, but the difference in tenor between their two voices uncannily echoes their opposed reactions to Mary Garth. Auerbach criticizes Mary Garth for her pessimism and lack of liberation, just as she does The Female Imagination. And am I mistaken to detect a fair bit of Mary Garth’s own sardonic circumspection and restrained irony in Spacks’ review?

 

Gregor von Rezzori: An Ermine in Czernopol

An Ermine in Czernopol

Excellent Max Beckmann cover

I’m coming to believe that Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) was one of the greatest postwar German-language writers. His work has a sensitivity and more significantly an intelligence stronger than so many of his contemporaries. His socio-intellectual analysis, in particular, stands respectively close to that of his avowed hero Robert Musil, even though Rezzori implicitly acknowledges that he can’t match him. (Rezzori even wrote a long unfinished two-part novel, The Death of My Brother Abel/Cain, just as Musil did. I have yet to read it)

He outdoes many other notables: Heinrich Boll, Wolfgang Koeppen, Peter Weiss, Arno Schmidt, W.G. Sebald, Stefan Heym, Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, Heimito von Doderer. And I think his work approaches what I consider the upper echelon of postwar Germanic letters: Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, Thomas Bernhard, Adelheid Duvanel, Alexander Kluge. And going back a bit, he leaves Stefan Zweig in the dust and outdoes Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers.

I’m listing all these names not to show off but because Rezzori still seems like an odd figure to place in their company. Why? Because from all I’ve read, he was quite the bon vivant and well-adjusted man who wrote popular trashy books like The Idiot’s Guide to German Society and even more bizarrely, hosted a tv show called Jolly Joker, which seems to have been an Austrian version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

That all apparently damaged his standing with critics a bit, and even I find it difficult to reconcile with the sheer sensitivity in the writing I’ve read. His memoir The Snows of Yesteryear (inferior to its German title Blumen im Schnee) and his non-memoir Memoirs of an Anti-Semite are both remarkable works, suffused with a great deal of sympathy and very carefully observed. This wonderful passage from Snows, about his childhood maid, captures his talent:

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.

Gregor von Rezzori, The Snows of Yesteryear

So now comes An Ermine in Czernopol (1966) in a new translation from New York Review Books, an apparently autobiographical novel set in the 1920s in a fictionalized version of Czernowitz, a cosmopolitan city which belonged to Austria-Hungary until 1918, then to Romania until 1940, when it was captured by the Soviets. Today it is part of the Ukraine and is known as Chernivtsi (it has had other names). The name “Czernopol” may be an attempt to capture the city’s essential statelessness.

All this background is somewhat necessary because although the back describes the novel as the story of the anachronistic military officer Tildy, his story only makes up one of many in the novel, which is intentionally fragmented and prodigal. The construction may be the most remarkable aspect. The individual pieces are inconsistent, some characters making a stronger impression than others, but the overall flow is quite unusual and striking. While assembling a portrait of the city in the 1920s, when a pluralistic culture is thriving but dark forces quietly swell in the shadows, the organizing principle is the sense of growing up from child through the teenage years, as seen by a set of siblings.

For much of the novel the siblings are undifferentiated: the narrator is the collective “we.” Only in the latter half does the eldest, Tanya, come into her own and separate from them, and “I” begins to assert himself as well. Tanya will die at 20, we are told, just as Rezzori’s own sister did; he tells of her death in Snows and how much he has missed her for the past 50 years. That sense of breakup, and the sense of youths diverging in tandem with the fracture of the city, is the true center of the novel, and it is deeply affecting.

In keeping with the strange, disorganized time-flow of childhood, other characters make abrupt entrances and exits and recurrences. Tildy, the haplessly chivalric and obstreperous officer who is far too eager to challenge people to duels, disappears for the bulk of the middle of the novel. Mostly we hear of the tutors and prefects and schoolmasters who provide the siblings with what sounds like a damn fine liberal education. We also begin to hear of the casual anti-semitism of the siblings’ parents and extended family, and their aunt’s association with a group of proto-fascists who rail against the sarcastic, urbane liberal press (who are friends and fans of Karl Kraus) and of course the Jewish presence in the liberal press and in the city in general. The proto-fascists come off as uncivilized, sinister buffoons rather than violent menaces, but it’s fairly clear where the line leads, even as it’s also clear why none of the characters are able to anticipate how deadly it will become. For all its idiocies and disasters, urban civilization seems so robust and tolerant, doesn’t it?

The children come to gain this perspective from those around them: The Great War happened; it was the folly of the educated, civilized world; as civilized people we have learned from it; such gruesome folly can never happen again. The novel begins just as the Great War is ending:

We were particularly taken by the young noncommissioned officers: slight, gangly figures so completely bloodless they might have sprung from the soil of the trenches and crater-fields instead of a mother. But because we had been assured that they wrote the most beautiful poems, or at least carried the same with them in little volumes—because they fought to purify the soul more than merely to win the war—and hence their rather certain death was not only a casualty of enemy fire but a sanctified sacrifice on the altar of the highest human values, we felt obliged to somehow square this spirit with the horror. (92)

And this sort of romanticism is something that indeed disappears from the rest of the novel. (Tildy remains its sole exponent.) That is not the future threat.

As to that future threat: there are a fair number of Jewish characters, from the sensitive student Blanche Schlesinger to the Brill family, and the children spend a good deal of time attending Madame Fiokla Aritonovich’s Institute until their quietly anti-semitic parents pull them out. The children know of the anti-semitism but they never quite comprehend what exactly it is or exactly where these mostly assimilated Jews fit into the picture of society. Even among adults, the sense is that anti-semitism isn’t something that was ignored so much as not understood, not even by the anti-semites themselves. This is arguably more depressing, since the implication is that even if we were to look for the dangerous signs of hatred and intolerance, even the intelligent among us would be too stupid to recognize them.

Long after we had left Czernopol, whenever we thought about the Jews in those surroundings, what always came to mind, from all the myriad faces and figures, was the otherness of that gaze.  The Jews were many eyes. We told ourselves that for them we were probably also many eyes. Because nothing gives a more painful demonstration of how far apart we humans truly are than eyes peering out at us from the mask of a different race.

Their gaze hits us like that of a prisoner looking through the bars of his cell. We consider ourselves free, and view others as free as long as we can see through their faces, because they have been shaped in the same way that our face, which we cannot see, has been shaped. But where a different world has left its imprint to obstruct our vision, we recognize just how much we are trapped behind our own masks.

In fact, we never truly love the other, but merely the different world he represents. (310)

Rezzori would later refine this message to a sharper point in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, where the main character remains a stand-in for Rezzori himself and is not spared condemnation.

Rezzori reaches for Musil-esque levels of societal observation with a higher success rate than most. Speaking of the archaic character of Tildy and his hellbent intention on molding his destiny, Rezzori writes:

Destinies have become as rare as people with character, and they are becoming harder and harder to find, the more we insist on replacing the concept of character with that of personality. (33)

Which is a fairly pithy summary of the psychological  modernist shift. And indeed many of the more intellectual characters are both more multifaceted and more amorphous. Some still make a strong impression. Tutor Herr Alexianu, who raves about the ideas of his cynical, cod-Nietzschean friend Herr Nastase, is hysterical:

“He talks about all this in front of women without the slightest embarrassment. And they love him. They all love him. But as far as he himself is concerned, he refrains from any kind of reciprocity in love. And he does this consciously and intentionally. He calls it his form of monastic asceticism. It is part of his purity, his chastity, not to love. He despites the idea of si vis amari, ama. He says, and correctly, that it is the expression of a half-intellectual, an amateur poet courting the favor of the masses.” (67)

But such humor fades away later on in the novel, when the petty fascism of Herr Adamowski replaces the decadent self-indulgence of Alexianu and the severe skepticism of Herr Tarangolian. Tildy stands somewhat apart from him because he has a story and his story is reasonably self-contained, but his time has passed too, and in fact passed before the novel even began. His miserable fate signals only that old-fashioned Burkean values will not step in where urban liberalism has failed.

Still, all these characters are chiefly part of a background, overshadowed by a very deliberate attempt to portray the process of maturation in a modernist technique that draws heavily on Musil and Proust. (In an interview with Andre Aciman, he cites those two as well as Broch and Joyce as his primary models.) It is an attempt to project their method onto the postwar years, to prove that critical, sensitive, patient portrayals of psychology and civilization still have something to offer despite the increasing noise of industrial and popular culture. I think Rezzori makes his case rather well, but admittedly I’m already in his corner.

Nonetheless, assessing the novel as fundamentally realistic will make it seem like a failure. It was never meant to be; it is fundamentally an internal novel, but the internals are those of children and so are only obtained through retrospection and the jumbling imposition of clumsy, post-hoc systems of narration on them. And depicting this compellingly is a very significant achievement.

Rezzori’s work has touches of affectionate sentiment, but it is primarily bleak. Rezzori declared his utter pessimism and despair with humanity in interviews. How to square this with the host of Jolly Joker and the seemingly comfortable life he lived out, even the comfort with which he gave such interviews? It is one thing to be a Franzen or a McEwan and fail completely to live up to the pretense one has taken on of diagnosing the problems of our time: any complacency then seems perfectly in keeping with the pose. But Rezzori’s sensitivity to pain seems too much like something that would cause him genuine angst. Perhaps it did and he could only show it in the most refractory way. Perhaps it just didn’t.

And what to make of this passage in his author bio—present in every back cover bio I have seen—full of sinister import but not (as far as I can find) something whose details have been publicized:

During World War II, he lived in Berlin, where he worked as a radio broadcaster and published his first novel.

In Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, Rezzori describes his fictionalized self as “the hideous fop who, under the hail of bombs on Berlin in 1943, leads an idler’s life, cynically watching a world in flames, millions of people dying.” No mention of the radio broadcasting though, as though he purposefully left mention of it in his biography in order to raise suspicion. I call out the detail here not because I have any conclusive assessment of it, but because I think this unease is at the very center of his work.

Lyonel Feininger at the Whitney

The exhibit is a great one, even if it’s a bit small and shortchanges his late work and drawings (which I think have another exhibit devoted to them somewhere or other). I do love Feininger’s work, and he’s probably the artist where I felt the biggest gap between looking at reproductions of his work and seeing the paintings close up. Especially with his post-Bauhaus work in the 1920s, the use of color gets tricky to figure because the lines are so straight and sharp while the color is so diffuse.

I now think of Church of the Minorites II as his absolute masterpiece, but I never would have prior to seeing it up close.

Church of the Minorites II (1926)

The sheer lack of definition of the green lamp on the right, for example, is nowhere near as noticeable. Likewise with the general use of light and shading. This painting is representative of the style probably most closely associated with him, the austere post-Bauhaus view of architecture mixed with sensuous colors. At least of the paintings on exhibit, it stands out as being concertedly richer and massive.

But Feininger’s development does not move in a straight line. There are certainly general shifts, but even within a period he seems to echo back to different styles that he had earlier used. You can’t really say that his work got smoother or more bloodless over the years, because rough and jagged bits reemerge sporadically, even as he made heavier use of much smoother textures. Four years after the above painting he did this:

St. Mary's Church with the Arrow (1930)

The arrow seems to have been borrowed from Paul Klee.

Euphoric Victory has a Kandinsky-ish feel to it, but feels more dramatic to me than any Kandinsky.

Euphoric Victory (1918)

 

He did, however, mostly move away from drawing people, who generally get reduced to clothing with triangle heads, except for his carved toys, which include chickens and owls with hats among the figures.

Houses and Figures (Birds with Hats)

His angular shading of buildings also translates remarkably well into three dimensions, though you can’t really tell from this picture.

In those early years, his people often had obtuse angles and unsteady curves and the small head/big body combo weirdly anticipates Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’-era work.

In a Village Near Paris (1909)

His comics, which influenced Chris Ware among others, have a more lurching, blocky feeling to them. This panel reminds me of The Triplets of Belleville:

The Kin-der-Kids (1906)

The limits of newspaper printing required higher-contrast lines; his penwork was finer:

The Disparagers (1911)

Yet the frail linework here would return much later in his career in the 1940s. The bolder and generally straighter lines of the 20s were replaced by the suggestion of texture by single lines more than by color. The show doesn’t have much from the late period; I wish they had had some things like the gorgeous Mystic River.

Mystic River (1951)

Feininger wrote a few fugues and that and his “toolbox” approach to painting (he returned to certain buildings and sites repeatedly over long periods, cycling through various aspects of his style, notably with twelve paintings of the Gelmeroda church done over a decade) seem to have suggested a functionalist, engineer’s approach to painting.

It also makes his career much more non-linear than many would have it, those who praise the early stuff and dismiss the later work. (Critics seem to like artists who have more distinct periods.) Don’t be fooled; see the exhibit.

More Feininger available at Mid-centuriaArt Tattler, and on the comics, at Mad Ink Beard.

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