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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: romanticism

Novalis: Monologue

The excellent piece on Novalis in this week’s TLS quoted a bit of his brilliant Monolog, and it’s short enough I figured I’d just post the whole thing here:

Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs really; true conversation is just a game with words. It is amazing, the absurd error people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a marvellous and fruitful mystery – for if someone merely speaks for the sake of speaking, he utters the most splendid, original truths. But if he wants to talk about something definite, the whims of language make him say the most ridiculous false stuff. Hence the hatred that so many serious people have for language. They notice its waywardness, but they do not notice that the babbling they scorn is the infinitely serious side of language. If it were only possible to make people understand that it is the same with language as it is with mathematical formulae – they constitute a world in itself – their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror to the strange play of relationships among things. Only their freedom makes them members of nature, only in their free movements does the world-soul express itself and make of them a delicate measure and a ground-plan of things. And so it is with language – the man who has a fine feeling for its tempo, its fingering, its musical spirit, who can hear with his inward ear the fine effects of its inner nature and raises his voice or hand accordingly, he shall surely be a prophet; on the other hand the man who knows how to write truths like this, but lacks a feeling and an ear for language, will find language making a game of him, and will become a mockery to men, as Cassandra was to the Trojans. And though I believe that with these words I have delineated the nature and office of poetry as clearly as I can, all the same I know that no one can understand it, and what I have said is quite foolish because I wanted to say it, and that is no way for poetry to come about. But what if I were compelled to speak? What if this urge to speak were the mark of the inspiration of language, the working of language within me? And my will only wanted to do what I had to do? Could this in the end, without my knowing or believing, be poetry? Could it make a mystery comprehensible to language? If so, would I be a writer by vocation, for after all, a writer is only someone inspired by language?

Novalis, “Monologue” (1798), tr. Joyce Crick

This, together with Kleist’s “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking”, make the deconstructionists seem rather late to their own game.

The artistic complement to Novalis here is Paul Klee, whose drawings inspired by The Novices of Sais capture some of what Novalis is saying. This one is called “Demony”:

Chateau d’Argol by Julien Gracq

Gracq’s somewhat decadent, very symbolist French novel from 1938 reads like a cross between Borges and Cocteau.

In telling the story of a trio of youths, two men and one women, who live out an erotic and violent fever dream in a remote house in the middle of a large wood, Gracq remains so abstract, so image-oriented and philosophical, avoiding all discourse direct and indirect, that Chateau d’Argol sometimes comes off as the schema for a much larger Romantic work of feeling and insanity. It is short and relentless.

Its unique strengths and weaknesses are best shown by this quote:

As though borne along by the web of an exalting music, his limbs seemed the prisoners of the fatal laws of a number–although a primary one in every respect–and his step majestic beyond all measure and at every moment plainly oriented, seemed to Albert the materialization, shorn for the first time of all kinds of grotesquely aesthetic veils, of what Kant has caused, mysteriously enough, purposiveness without purpose.

The old translation, by Louise Varese, reads like it was translated extremely closely from the French, as French sentence structure seems evident everywhere. This produces a jarring awkwardness that dampens the spell Gracq is trying to cast, but the consistency of the weird style does eventually create a certain otherworldliness of its own.

Gracq was friends with surrealist Andre Breton but I’m not aware if he knew Cocteau. Will has more on Gracq.

The Deflation of Romanticism in Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel

Kuprin wrote this novel based on his own experiences in the army in the 1890s, about a sensitive man not cut out for the mechanistic and emotionally brutal army life. It is not a masterpiece and Kuprin himself said he wasn’t happy with the ending, but it has some wonderful moments. The main character, Romashov, is a captain granted command by dint of his higher upbringing, but he is a complete misfit. He is given to very Walter Mitty-ish fantasies about love, glory, and even death, and he alternates between seeing himself as the sole benevolent force in the other soldiers’ lives and looking down on them as robots who can’t feel anywhere nearly as deeply as he does.

So while Romashov is likable at points and recognizably more human than most of the characters, Kuprin insistently deflates him. His fantasies are unrealistic failures, and they remove him from being able to do actual good for himself or for others. Kuprin is harder on him than Thurber was on Walter Mitty. And Romashov is not an especially good man: he already has had one mistress, the wife of another officer. She now disgusts him, and she threatens him in order to keep him coming round. Meanwhile, he is infatuated with another officer’s wife, Alexandra, who of course proves herself to be even more craven than his old mistress. Romashov is oblivious to this, of course. (The women are not portrayed with any great insight or sympathy, but for the circumstances of the story, they suffice as dei ex machina.)

The novel alternates Romashov’s endless mental circles with extremely dreary portraits of army life, which render the book a bit more plainspoken than the incisive social satire of Kuprin’s more talented contemporary Sologub. But Kuprin writes with great charm, and Romashov is painfully believable. Kuprin’s most brilliant move is to hold off on mentioning any duel whatsoever for most of the novel, knowing that the situation he paints leaves no grounds for any possible duel to be reasonable, noble, or satisfying. Having only the title as a foreshadowing gives a creaky, wincing suspense that makes passages like this even more nerve-wracking:

He was struck by the blindingly clear realization of his individuality.

“I–it’s here inside,” he thought. “All the rest is a mere construction, it’s not I. This room, the street, the trees, the colonel, Lieutenant Andrusevich, the army, the flag, the soldiers–all that is not I.” Romashov looked down at his hands with surprise, raising them close to his eyes as though he were seeing them for the first time. “Is this I? And is the one who is thinking I? And the one who wants to go out? And now I am walking up and down, and now I have stopped. … Strange, does everybody have this kind of I? Maybe not. If I stand in front of one hundred soldiers and shout ‘Eyes right!’, none undred men, all of whom have their own I and who see in me something outside of it, will all, nevertheless, turn their heads to the right at the same time. But I, I cannot tell them apart….

Yes, but if I die there’ll be no more country, invaders, honor. They only live as long as I do. But think of it the other way around–if country, discipline, the honor of the uniform disappear my I could still remain. Therefore I is more important than all these notions about duty, honor, love? And so, if my I, no, not only my I, but the millions of I’s which make up the army, the whole population of the world, suddenly decided ‘no more,’ wars would become unthinkable.

Kuprin maintains a deadpan stance chronicling Romashov’s excursions into this sort of thought, whether he’s abstractly philosophizing like this or imagining a hero’s funeral for himself after he commits suicide and everyone blames themselves for not treating him better. Romashov embraces lesser and greater forms of romanticism as the novel goes on, turning to Love, God, Brotherhood, and other ideals in quick succession, in search of any meaning for himself. It is very convincing. I imagine Kuprin himself had many of these thoughts in his youth, perhaps to a lesser extent, but at the time of writing, he had the right distance from them to portray them artistically, honestly, and ironically. It’s touching, but it’s also pathetic.

Romashov is a young man; it’s hard to hate him, hard even to pity him. But his delusions, in tandem with the awful realities of army life, prove to be utterly toxic.

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