David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: robert walser

German Phrase of the Day: eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

the non-sicklied-o’er pressure of an authenticity-laden kiss (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

Robert Walser uses this phrase in his wonderful short story “A Kind of Cleopatra,” available in his collection of Microscripts.

According to Bernofsky, Walser’s use of “angekränkelt” stems from Schlegel’s translation of Hamlet, where it is used at the end of the famous soliloquy.

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

Der angebornen Farbe der Entschließung
Wird des Gedankens Blässe angekränkelt;

Here used in the negative and applied to “pressure [druck]” for a seemingly positive descriptor. How very odd.

Robert Walser by Billy Childish

Robert Walser Dead in the Snow. B. Childish 2008

Robert Walser: The Assistant

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 Even his comparatively normal Jakob Von Gunten has a withdrawn airiness to it that is closer to Bruno Schulz’s detached aesthetic than to any Germanophone author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or Lay Myself Down By Sorrow’s Side

With all my books 2500 miles away, I’m left without the ability to write substantively about Rameau’s Nephew (weird!) and Robert Walser’s The Robber (which, incidentally, has given me the toughest time of finishing it of any short book since Notes from Underground). So I figured I’d loosen the reins a little and wander through the detritus in my head that I usually leave well-covered.

Genealogy of Metaphysics: what was it that caused the shift from the master dichotomy of real/unreal to the slave dichotomy of real/fake? The loss of authority/authenticity in young American authors (see Eggers, Foer) indicates a preoccupation with returning to an imagined time where every utterance was a statement of the real, as opposed to the supposed fakeness that surrounds us that everyone is fed up with. The term “irony,” which once signified a sophisticated sort of social satire that required a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate, has become to devalued to the point where it simply signifies insincerity, the positive referent not being a specific target but simply the mores of society. The “return to sincerity” movement folks are no better since they are acting the part of ignoring what they know to be ever-present: this inauthenticity. In the goal of people to return to a pre-Enlightenment, tradition-directed (to use David Riesmann’s term) society in which one’s words emerge organically from one’s position in society, they forget that this is not especially possible in the greater culture, which in turn speaks of their own disingenuousness. To continue with Riesmann’s terms, it is not legitimate to be fomenting a rebellion in ingenuousness when you are using borrowed terms; you remain other-directed. In Heidegger’s phrasing, they are as unthrown into the world as anyone, but this is the constituent state of post-Enlightenment modernity. Real/fake denotes a qualitative judgment once removed from the matters at hand, a tertiary quality once removed from color and twice removed from shape and form. Real/unreal merely judges ontology, which is to say, treats the former as a gestalt. In the slave irony mentality, the rise of Menippean satire stems from the lack of an authentic culture to critique. When people are divided between faux-authentic personae and a nascent state of mind, satire directed at the personae loses its teeth, as the personae have an impenetrable defense, namely that they are personae. Less-directed Menippean satire pursues the idea behind the real/fake culture itself by repeatedly invalidating it, making the effort more transcendent, but also leaving itself open to the charges that such satire is pointless. It is not pointless so much as it is easily made obsolescent, as it is internalized and melded into that which it satirized. It is built upon faster than any other genre.

A little too much Kenneth Smith there, I think. Another route. There has been too much talk of the fragmentation and delinearization of personality. In the presence of a more global culture than ever before, placing more universal restrictions on the outlines of acceptable thought, why should we look at ourselves as fragmented, or “shattered” as one wag decided to put it? Only because there is a prejudice that a self constructed from bits and pieces of media dreams should somehow hold less integrity than one of the shared prejudices of a close-knit community. So we go “bowling alone”? The idea of the integrity of a mind (or of minds) being corrupted by distant, unresponsive influences is as illusional as the idea that these shared universals will eventually create a group mind on the order of the techno-utopians’ fabled singularity. Without wanting to fall into a trap of evolutionary psychology, the cognitive schema of the mind is probably far more static than people seem to imagine. Which makes those social schemas, of authenticity for example, all the more important, since they are firmly dynamic.

A little memory about times past. When I was 17 or 18, I heard existentialism called an adolescent philosophy. I thought, “How can something so fundamental, something that strips things down to bare reality, be termed adolescent?” But could I have expected myself to answer back when told “Existence prececes essence,” “Existence and essence of what?”, not being able to identify such words as properties rather than implied particulars? Freud’s achievement was in the clear artifice of his schema, rather than in the deceptively fundamentalist appearance of so much recently fashionable social thought. I was suckered like many others. Fiction writers and poets are always the most susceptible to amenable schemas. They are their lingua franca.

All right, that’s enough. I would never publish this if it were for posterity, but the idea of a Coming Attractions is more appealing if you don’t have to live with it in plain sight for the rest of your life.

Quick Hits

I greatly enjoy all of the blogs linked below; here are some particular entries that have held on to my mind:

pas-au-del&#xe0 thinks about Mimetic Rivalry in the context of the literary weblog universe. The inchoate nature of the audience for many of the less established blogs seems to be mirrored by the sometimes tentative form and intent of the writers themselves, things I am happy to see brought out in writing and dialogue.

The Reading Experience excavates the subtext of Arts and Letters Daily and turns up a plum of neo-conservatism. I stopped reading the site a while back because I too got tired of seeing links to Dinesh D’Souza, Keith Windschuttle, and Camille Paglia. Given the choice between educating people as to the motives of such sites and simply ignoring them, I’ve chosen the second option, but I’m glad Mr. Green can mount such a cogent attack. But I’m glad there’s enough space on the web that good writers and critics don’t have to define themselves in opposition to Dutton, but can create their own autonomous spaces.

Golden Rule Jones quotes the angst of Robert Walser, the man so driven to write that he scribbled on backs of envelopes, on any paper at hand. And yet Walser’s work is so much more dense and evocative than that of, for instance, Daniil Kharms.

Spurious, who has been on a wonderful roll lately, finds some sanguinity in Kafka. I’d add that the “contented death” he mentions is reflected in Kafka’s proposed ending to The Castle, where after K. dies, word comes down from the Castle that K. will be allowed to live in the village in which he has spent the entire book. Only after his death is he accepted into the community by the authority.

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