Thursday, March 28, 2013

Give me comrades and lovers by the thousand! - cumulative Whitman

This is one entire poem from Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps:

A Farm Picture

Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding.  (p. 46)

It does not seem like much of a poem, or much of anything.  On its own, surrounded by white space, as in this 1902 edition, it is a puzzle.  But in 1865 it was here, in the lower left corner:

“A Sight in Camp in the Day-break Grey and Dim” precedes it.  The “sight” is three corpses, each under an “ample brownish woolen blanket.”  The sun has risen enough to give enough light to see the faces of the dead, one old, one a child, and one

the face of Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Then follows “A Farm Picture,” as if the movie has cut to another scene.  Just as in a film, I quickly, intuitively create a meaningful way to link the scenes together.  The sun links the two poems.  Is the farm scene the home of the dead soldier?  Or is it the observer who turns his thoughts to the “sight” of the “peaceful” countryside?

The next poem is – my hunch was right! – “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” which begins with a series of “Give me”s:

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me fresh corn and wheat – give me serene-moving animals, teaching content;

And on like that, although the important thing is that the sun, field, and animals have been checked off, culminating in:

Give me solitude – give me Nature – give me again, O Nature, your primal sanities!
 – These, demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and rack’d by the war-strife;)

“These” meaning the things the poet is demanding.  He is asking for peace and renewal, a respite from death, “odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers” rather than a line of corpses.

In what is almost a plot twist, though, the poet reveals that “still I adhere to the city,” and in the second part of the poem rethinks and retracts his demands (“Keep you splendid silent sun”) in exchange for the crowds of the city.  As a solace for death, he demands people:

Give me interminable eyes!  give me women!  give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day!  let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

The crowds include soldiers on their way to war.  By the end of the poem, the poet, perhaps like Whitman a volunteer nurse, is ready for “even the sight of the wounded.”

I do not think “A Sight in the Camp” or “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” are especially good poems, either, although they have a lot more heft than the “Farm Picture” fragment.  But they have a lot more meaning read together than separately, and in fact also contain images or phrases from other poems in Drum-Taps, deepening the better I know the book.

This does not always work, reading a poetry book in its original form.  Many of them are better off chopped up and squeezed into the poet’s Selected Poems.  But not necessarily this one.

Tomorrow is a holiday for me.  Thank goodness.  I will be back on Monday with an exciting post about Jonathan Franzen.  Oh yes, you’ll see.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rough, grim, clumsy - Drum-Taps and Walt Whitman versus Henry James

I would sing in my copious song your census returns of
             The States,
The tables of population and products – I would sing of
             Your ships and their cargoes,  (“Year of Meteors”)

But luckily Walt Whitman only threatens to sing songs of the census.  The short Drum-Taps (1865) and shorter Sequel to Drum-Taps contain Whitman’s Civil War poems, the usual mix of bombast and sublimity, nonsense and profundity, “the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

That is a young Henry James reviewing Drum-Taps for The Nation (pp. 629-34 the first volume of the Library of America Essays).  James’s review is most interesting as an example of a horrible mismatch of sensibility:

But we have seen that Mr. Whitman prides himself especially on the substance – the life – of his poetry.  It may be rough, it may be grim, it may be clumsy – such we take to be the author’s argument – but it is sincere, it is sublime, it appeals to the soul of man, it is the voice of a people.  (632)

Rough, grim, democratic – what could be less like James?

I have an advantage over James in that I know – I have read it many times – that Whitman is a great poet, one of the greatest, so I can be careful to adapt myself to received opinion.  Perhaps another advantage is that I am better trained at reading Whitman, so I can tell the difference between the more minor stuff and the book’s one real masterpiece, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d,” a poem that mysteriously incorporates elements of the rest of Drum-Taps and many of the best poems of Leaves of Grass as well.

    Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.


    The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling closer to thee.  (from stanza 16)

“Lilacs” is somehow a quiet poem in a book of loud poems, whatever that might mean.  They are all written at the same volume.  Leslie Fiedler notices the poem’s “disturbing vagueness,… a sense that its occasion is only nominal, that it mourns someone or something only accidentally represented by Lincoln”* which I take as the source of its power.  Whitman is a perplexing case, a poet who is easily led by specifics into kitsch, but is good with the mysteries of the soul and the sea.

I had to track down a facsimile edition, but it was worth reading Drum-Taps as a unit, as a book.  The dubious poems took on some life, and the good poems seemed better.  I want to work through an example tomorrow.  Whitman reworked all of the material in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, but it is worth reading fresh, as if the war has not yet ended, as if Lincoln is still alive.

*  “Walt Whitman: Portrait of the Artist,” No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature, 1960, p. 68.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

But then so many readers are fools - reading in The Small House at Allington

I have written before about Trollope’s meta-fiction, his incessant commentary on his own fiction.  The earlier Barchester books have so much of this kind of thing that I doubted he could keep it up.  If nothing else, he would run out of jokes.  And The Small House at Allington contains far less direct commentary on itself than does, say, Barchester Towers.

Or so it seemed at first.  The omniscient narrator saves his opinions for the characters and their actions, but, in a surprising move, the comments on fictionality have been shifted from the narrator to the characters and action.  This novel is unusually concerned with novels and the activity of reading.

Sometimes reading is a form of characterization, as in this description of an old nobleman, almost a villain of the novel:

He always breakfasted alone, and after breakfast found in a French novel and a cigar what solace those innocent recreations were still able to afford him.  When the novel no longer excited him and when he was saturated with smoke, he would send for his wife. (Ch. 26)

Or reading is a revealing action, as in Chapter 45:

Then, for some quarter of an hour, he did take out his newspaper, and she, when she saw him do so, did take out her novel.

This is a couple embarking on their honeymoon, two people who should not be so interested in reading.

In one case, novels feature in the action, when during a fistfight on a train platform, the combatants “fall back upon Mr. Smith’s book stall” (Ch. 34), with the despicable Crosbie falling on the newspapers and our hero John Eames landing on the yellow shilling-novels.  A footnote in the Penguin Classics edition (p. 685) tells me that Trollope’s own novels would not appear on the W. H. Smith stands until 1866, so Eames does not crush another Trollope novel.

And then once in a while the characters just chatter about fiction.

"I hate books I can't understand," said Bell. "I like a book to be clear as running water, so that the whole meaning may be seen at once."

"The quick seeing of the meaning must depend a little on the reader, must it not?" said Mrs. Dale.

"The reader mustn't be a fool, of course," said Bell.

"But then so many readers are fools," said Lily. "And yet they get something out of their reading. "  (Ch. 44)

Should I feel insulted?  I feel that Trollope has somehow insulted me.  Someone should feel insulted.

A couple of chapters earlier, Bell claims to dislike novels because they are “too sweet” (Ch. 42), which is, Lily says, exactly why she likes them.  Bell singles out The Heart of Midlothian and Vanity Fair as exceptions, novels that are especially “real” – not bad, Bell, not bad.  But Lily protests: "No, Bell, no!...  Real life sometimes is so painful."  So says the character who experiences the most pain in the most painful of the Barchester novels.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Some Small House at Allington notes - my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale

What I do not want to do is spend a week writing about Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (1862-64) which is a Trollope novel like many Trollope novels, except for all of the differences.   I will wander over some of those here.

Early in the book Trollope, introducing his heroine, declares:

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale – for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale…  (Ch. 2)

It turned out that his readers did love Lily Dale even more than they loved earlier Trollope heroines.  I do not think that Trollope is right, though (and I do not think that he thinks he is right – the Trollope narrator often lies), since the two other stories of the novel are also quite good.  But I am not the one to ask about “loving” characters.

Immature nitwit John Eames (a “calf,” Trollope often calls him) would like to marry Lily Dale, but she is swooped up by the man about town Adolphus Crosbie.  He quickly jilts her, though, in favor of the daughter of an earl and a countess.  I think I have taken the plot to about the one-quarter point, which is far enough.  An impatient reader, despairing that the novel will have any plot at all, will have likely chucked it around the one-fifth mark, a healthy 120 pages.

In the remaining 450 pages, I mean after the story gets moving:

a, b) Lily Dale and Adolphus Crosbie, neither of whom appear to be too complex at the beginning, reveal their characters, with Lily showing herself to be tougher and more interesting than she seemed, while Crosbie, who imagines himself a great man, turns out to be altogether smaller than he knew;

c) John Eames changes his character; he develops or grows.  He ends the novel in a hotel restaurant, by  himself, eating a mutton chop, at which moment “he entered on his manhood” (Ch. 59).  Small House can be a pleasingly understated novel.  So I am as happy with John’s story as with Lily’s.

As happy with Crosbie’s, for that matter, since he allows Trollope to tell the story of a bad marriage.  After the incessant proposals and climactic marriages of the earlier Barchester novels, not to mention the six proposals in Orley Farm, it was about time – time to see what happens after the wedding, and time to anatomize a marriage that fails.  I will not say this often, but for this strand of the story it is a shame that the constraints on writing about sex were so strong.

Shelf Love Jenny recently wrote something more like an orderly review of the novel.  She includes an excerpt from one of the book’s funniest settings and scenes.  More or less what she said, is what I should have written, aside from one curiosity that I will save for tomorrow.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Big heads on small people - Schopenhauer on books and reading

This is the post where I let Arthur Schopenhauer insult me.  This is all from the Penguin Essays and Aphorisms.   For example:

The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for yourself and that produced by reading is incredibly great, so that the original difference which made one head decide for thinking and another for reading is continually increased…  The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment.  (89-90)

Although the idea sounds familiar – did not Georg Christoph Lichtenberg condense it to “Much reading is harmful to thinking.”  He did.  Schopenhauer is writing in the classic aphoristic tradition, which in its German form, for whatever reason, is especially concerned with books.

Even among the small number of writers who actually think seriously before they start writing, there are extremely few who think about the subject itself: the rest merely think about books, about what others have said about the subject.  They require, that is to say, the close and powerful stimulation of ideas produced by other people in order to think at all.  (199)

This is getting personal.  Nonsense, I shout in desperate self-defense.  “Only he who takes what he writes directly out of his own head is worth reading” (200), Schopenhauer responds.

He attacks my pseudonym, too.   “[Anonymity] often merely serves to cloak the obscurity, incompetence and insignificance of the reviewer” (202) – my only objection here is that in my case the word “cloak” should be replaced by “declare.”

Almost every book blogger will wince at this aphorism:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.  (210)

And I do not see how we can argue against at least the conclusion of this one:

The art of not reading is a very important one.  It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time…  A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.  (210)

The entire little section on “Books and Writing” is easy to recommend, although it omits my favorite grotesque line:

All genuine thought and art is to a certain extent an attempt to put big heads on small people: so it is no wonder the attempt does not always come off. (126)

By the way, which four novels are the “crown of the genre,” the four greatest novels according to Arthur Schopenhauer?  Guess, guess!  Yes, Don Quixote, that’s one.  Time’s up:  Wilhelm Meister, Tristram Shandy, and La Nouvelle Héloïse (165).  Schopenhauer also says nice things about Jean Paul and Walter Scott.  Good choices.  He believes that the best novels emphasize “inner over outer life…  while in bad novels the outer action is there for its own sake.”  Simple but plausible.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Maupassant's Schopenhauer - this one is more of a head scratcher

This one’ll be a little less – I don’t know – significant than the one about Nabokov.

I was puzzled by the inclusion of Guy de Maupassant in a couple of lists of writers influenced by Schopenhauer.  I can hardly think of a less philosophical writer than Maupassant.  From me, this is no criticism, but closer to a compliment.

Maupassant’s contemporaries were smitten with Schopenhauer.  A bunch of decadents and art-for-art’s-sakers, the combination of pessimism and aestheticism must have been irresistible, and I can see how someone like Stephane Mallarmé could have been deeply affected by Schopenhauer.  But I suspect much of the attraction was a confirmation of existing beliefs, a kind of received Schopenhauer.  “Ah! Schopenhauer alone was right,” writes J.-K. Huysman in A Rebours.  What I am asking is, would Maupassant’s fiction have been any different if he had never heard of Schopenhauer?  That is what I mean by “influence.”

At least one story would have been different, I acknowledge that.  “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse” is one of Maupassant’s “newspaper” stories, presumably one of the 250 he wrote between 1882 and 1887.  It is no more than 1,500 words, and half of those belong to the narrative frame.  Take a look for yourself, in what must be a translation from one of the century-old “complete” Maupassant sets, before I mention the inevitable twist.

Maupassant, the narrator, meets a dying disciple of Schopenhauer, a German, at a resort.  He is spending his last days reading Schopenhauer, “always the same book… all his wasting body seemed to read, all his soul plunged, lost, disappeared, in this book, up to the hour when the cool air made him cough a little.”  He is temporarily escaping his earthly torments with the assistance of  a work of genius, just as Schopenhauer suggests.

The narrator drops in his own comments on Schopenhauer here and there, calling him “[a] disabused pleasure-seeker ,” which coming from Maupassant does not sound like praise, and “the greatest shatterer of dreams who had ever dwelt on earth.”  I have seen these phrases cited, presumably by people who do not understand fiction, as evidence of Maupassant’s devotion to Schopenhauer.

The disciple tells a brief anecdote about Schopenhauer during his life (he argued “as a dog tears with one bite of his teeth the tissues with which he plays” and had “a frightful smile”), and then a longer story about his death.

Although it begins on a solemn note, “[a] feeling of mystery,” with the disciples, sitting by the corpse, feeling that they are “enveloped” by Schopenhauer’s thoughts, the emphasis shifts to the dead man’s strange laughing face, which makes the watchers “feel ill at ease, oppressed, on the point of fainting.”  It seems the story will take an uncanny turn.  “Suddenly a shiver passed through our bones…”

Well.  I will skip the mechanics, the way Maupassant builds up the scare.  What happened is the decomposing Schopenhauer’s false teeth popped out of his head.  That’s the story Schopenhauer’s devoted follower tells about his master.  “I was really frightened that day, monsieur.”

It just seems to me that, looked at from a certain angle (the direct angle), this story looks like a frivolous, disrespectful attack on Schopenhauer, or on his disciples, or, really, on the fashion for Schopenhauer.  The materialist Maupassant dismisses the elaborate idealism of Schopenhauer’s system as the fantasy of fools.  Death is not a return to another state, but simply an end of life, a stinking corpse and mortifying tendons.

For some reason none of the Maupassant collections I read a couple of years ago included this one.  It is admittedly kind of awful.

Since I skipped Monday, I believe I will write a Saturday post.  Perhaps I will spend some time enjoying the writing of Schopenhauer himself.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nabokov's Schopenhauer - the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life

I’m still hung up on the influence of Schopenhauer.  A couple of case studies, one today, one tomorrow, cases that surprised me.

I have read biographies about Vladimir Nabokov, and criticism of his work, and his own criticism, yet I had missed his interest in Arthur Schopenhauer.  One might think that the affinity comes from the high value they both place on art, but no, only in part.  This is Schopenhauer:

To our amazement we suddenly exist, after having for countless millennia not existed; in a short while we will again not exist, also for countless millennia.  That cannot be right, says the heart: and even upon the crudest intelligence there must, when it considers such an idea, dawn a presentiment of the ideality of time.  (Essays and Aphorisms, 51)

And this is how Nabokov begins his memoir Speak, Memory (1951):

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.  Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).  (19 of the Vintage paperback)

Then the passage gets really good  (“in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated”), but I only need that first part.  Samuel Beckett has an earthier variation on the theme in Waiting for Godot.

The correspondences are between the metaphysics of Schopenhauer and Nabokov, in that both are deeply concerned with the realm beyond life.  Schopenhauer sounds a lot like Lucretius to me, arguing that our personalities dissolve back into the Will from which they came, and that if this is seen as nothingness it is only a failure of imagination.  Or so I weakly interpret him.  How about his own words:

All this means, to be sure, that life can be regarded as a dream and death as the awakening from it: but it must be remembered that the personality, the individual, belongs to the dreaming and not to the awakened consciousness, which is why death appears to the individual as annihilation.  In any event, death is not, from this point of view, to be considered a transition to a state completely new and foreign to us, but rather a return to one originally our own from which life has been only a brief absence.  (70)

Schopenhauer’s advice is to “accept the two black voids.”  That phrase is Nabokov’s.  He refuses:

I rebel against this state of affairs.  I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature.  Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.  (SM, 20)

I have come across critics who are uncomfortable with this side of Nabokov, when the elegant aesthete reveals that he believes, or would like to believe, in ghosts, when the brilliant lepidopterist turns out to accept some form of Intelligent Design.  His fiction is full of spirits like the Vane sisters and Hazel Shade, delivering messages from beyond.  Or perhaps the messages are false, the ghosts imaginary, since his characters so often misread or cannot see the elaborate patterns being constructed around them by a force mysterious to them, but not to the attentive reader.  How many of Nabokov’s novels end with a character escaping his suffering or madness by escaping into death or art or whatever that is at the end of Invitation to a Beheading, where Cincinnatus dies and awakens from his dream?  Professor Pnin survives by fleeing his own novel, which is a good trick.

Lest anyone think a) I am making this all up, or b) there is an opportunity to write a more formal study along these lines, I will direct your attention to Leona Toker’s Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Cornell UP, 1989) which is full of Schopenhauer.  She includes (p. 120) a quotation The World as Will and Representation that neatly summarizes much of Nabokov’s work, and for that matter a great deal of fiction: “The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Misfortune in general is the rule - influential Schopenhauer

I am at the end of a 1969 interview of Vladimir Nabokov by BBC-2, as published in Strong Opinions (1973):

Tolstoy said, so they say, that life was a “tartine de merde” which one was obliged to eat slowly.  Do you agree?

VN:  I’ve never heard that story.  The old boy was sometimes rather disgusting, wasn’t he?  My own life is fresh bread with country butter and Alpine honey.  (152 of the Vintage paperback)

Sometime in the 1860s Leo Tolstoy fell under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer.  He was an early adopter, so to speak, along with Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Schopenhauer picked up more major readers in the 1880s and 1890s, like Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust and Thomas Hardy and all of the French Symbolists and decadents.

The Schopenhauer entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a long list of writers influenced by Schopenhauer, some more plausible than others.  Beckett and Bernhard and Machado de Assis, certainly; Poe and Melville – really?  I have doubts about the timing; similarly, the idea that the work of Maupassant was influenced by any philosophy whatsoever seems unlikely.

But what is “influence”?  I suspect that many writers responded strongly not so much to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, to his metaphysics or arguments, but to his stance, to passages like the one that leads Essays and Aphorisms:

If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world: for it is absurd to suppose that the endless affliction of which the world is everywhere full, and which arises out of the need and distress pertaining essentially to life, should be purposeless and purely accidental.  Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule.  (41)

Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his idea that suffering is the norm and happiness or pleasure the exception, is not, in this book at least, argued but rather assumed.  It is not clear to me how his metaphysics requires his pessimism – they seem separable.

Even the “influence” of Schopenhauer’s pessimism is questionable.  I had assumed that Hardy was a clear case of influence, but it turns out this is an issue of contention among Hardy scholars.*  Hardy did not read Schopenhauer until 1886 or later, after he had written numerous novels.  Jude the Obscure is usually identified as the most “influenced” later novel, and Schopenhauer is mentioned in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where a character has “a renunciative philosophy which had cousinship with that of Schopenhauer and Leopardi” (Ch. 15).

Perhaps, then, it was the great poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi** who was the great influence on Hardy.  Leopardi makes Schopenhauer look almost cheery.  Or perhaps a creatively mature Hardy was delighted or surprised, reading Schopenhauer, to discover a kindred spirit, a philosopher who supported Hardy’s existing views.

Now, add the special place that the arts*** play in Schopenhauer’s system as one of the few ways to escape suffering, however briefly, and no wonder so many artists found Schopenhauer so interesting.  He preceded them, and he flattered them.

Curiously, a writer who I am now quite sure was influenced by Schopenhauer, even though he does not appear on any list I have seen and I had had no idea before I read Schopenhauer myself, was Vladimir Nabokov, who was not any kind of pessimist.  But I too am an optimist, and I too read Schopenhauer with pleasure.

*  For all of the details see T. J. Diffey, “Metaphysics and aesthetics: a case study of Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy” in Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts, ed. Dale Jacquettte, Cambridge UP, 1996.

**  This summer, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, a massive collection (2,500+ pages) of his notebooks, will for the first time be available in its entirety in English.  Readalong!  Am I right?  Who’s with me?

***  Especially music.  The relationship between Schopenhauer and a long line of composers beginning with Wagner seems more complex and perhaps deeper than that of Schopenhauer and most writers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The study of the inexplicable - beginning a stroll through Schopenhauer

A wise book blogger, returning from a tiring vacation, would plan to write on a topic that is comfortable and relaxing.  If only I were wise.  I plan to ramble a bit, despite my ignorance and lack of understanding, on the subject of Arthur Schopenhauer.

I have known for a while that, however reluctant I am to spend much time with philosophy, I would have to do something about Schopenhauer.  At some point in the late 19th century he becomes too strong of a presence to ignore – a presence in art, I mean, especially in music and literature.  Although the first edition of The World as Will and Representation dates from 1818, Schopenhauer’s ideas were almost completely unknown until the 1850s, when he started to attract attention and disciples.  His writing spread rapidly among English, French, and Russian writers as well as German.

My Austrian project broke my resistance.  Austrian and German writers and composers were suffused with Schopenhauer.  Now that I have read a bit of him, I see him everywhere, although I am not sure if his presence is always so meaningful.

I believe I read Schopenhauer in the easiest way possible, in R. J. Hollingdale’s Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics, 1970), a translation, abridgement, and rearrangement of the 1851 Parerga and Paralipomena.  I will proceed as if Essays and Aphorisms is a text by Schopenhauer, but it is in fact a collaboration between Schopenhauer and Hollingdale, and for all I know only a travesty of the original, but it is eminently readable and well written (clear, memorable, vigorous, even funny).  Hollingdale’s long introduction shares Schopenhauer’s virtues, e.g. “Schopenhauer thought that he alone had understood Kant correctly, and he dismissed Kant’s other successors, especially  Hegel, as charlatans” (20), which gets to the point nicely.

Also helpful is that Schopenhauer relies on only a single jargon word, “will,” although he then makes it do an enormous amount of work.

Thing in itself signifies that which exists independently of our perception, that which actually is.  To Democritus it was matter; fundamentally this is what it still was to Locke; to Kant it was = x; to me it is will. (55)

Roughly (oh so roughly) speaking, “will” is something like the natural forces of the universe, including the forces that drive us without our volition, instinct, say, or the unconscious.  The part of our selves under our control is engaged in a continual struggle with the “will” of the world, a fight to even perceive it well.

What a relief it was to read this in Christopher Janaway’s short study Schopenhauer (Oxford, 1994):

As an exercise in metaphysics, Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will as the thing in itself is so obviously flawed that some people have doubted whether he really means it – perhaps will is just a concept which explains a wide range of phenomena, and is not supposed to extend to the unknowable thing itself?  (33)

Ah ha, I am not the only one who could not see how Schopenhauer was solving his or Kant’s metaphysical difficulties (“The study of this inexplicable devolves upon metaphysics,” 117) so much as his own rhetorical problems, allowing him to quickly move on to more interesting questions, which is just what I will try to do tomorrow.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously - Thomas Bernhard's Viennese cultural history

Next week I am on vacation.  The advertising robots have become aggressive lately, so I will turn up the juice on the comment bug zapper while I am gone.  Sorry about that.  Temporary.

Let’s go back to where I started three weeks ago.

Bruckner is just as slovenly a composer as Stifter is a slovenly writer, both of them share that Upper Austrian slovenliness.  Both of them make so-called devout art which in fact is a public danger, Reger said. (36)

Who could that be but Thomas Bernhard, in this case a character in Old Masters (1985).  What did poor Bruckner do to anyone?  But Bernhard is not really attacking Stifter and Bruckner (or not only attacking them):

I certainly do not come from a musical family, he said, on the contrary my people were all unmusical and altogether completely hostile to the arts…  We had many beautiful, expensive paintings hanging on our walls, he said, but they never looked at them once in all those decades, we had many thousands of books on our shelves but they never read a single one of those books in all those decades, we had a Bösendorfer grand piano standing there but for decades no one had played it.  If the lid of the piano had been welded shut they would not have noticed it for decades, he said.  (51)

The age of the characters puts his childhood back in the 1910s or so.  His parents are children of the decorative “roast chicken” era in Vienna.  Those books and paintings might seem to undermine the completeness of his parents hostility, but the character agrees with Broch that it is all for show.  Thus Bruckner and Stifter, creators of that era, are necessary targets in whatever war the character is waging, not that he restricts himself to that period (“basically Beethoven is an utterly repulsive phenomenon, everything about Beethoven is more or less comical, a comical helplessness is what we continually hear when we are listening to Beethoven: the rancour, the titanic, the marching-tune dull-wittedness even in his chamber music,” 61) or to artists (“Vienna is quite superficially famous  for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories,” 81; this theme is pursued for several pages).

All of this is more or less declaimed in front of a Tintoretto painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a painting and room you can see for yourself if it is not closed on the day you visit, grumble grumble.

For this character, and for the comparably vitriolic narrator of Woodcutters (1984), art is the only source of ethical values, the only ground worth fighting on.  I had wondered about the attacks on Viennese institutions like the Burgtheater, but I had been mistakenly guided by the French or American model where the argument for art is so often anti-bourgeois, anti-philistine.  Bernhard’s characters live in a world that has embraced art, is engorged on it.  The Viennese artist’s struggle is from within the center of the culture, not on the fringe.  Bernhard is aligned with Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch in his simultaneous attack on and defense of art.

Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said.  But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we should despair. (37)

I keep quoting Old Masters, but the stuff in Woodcutters is just as good.

Both Woodcutters and Old Masters turn out to be, hidden behind all of their acid, love stories – love for people, a woman, I mean.  Old Masters is almost sentimental, as sweet as Adalbert Stifter.

All our writers nowadays, without exception, speak and write enthusiastically about Stifter and follow him as if he were the literary god of the present age.  Either these people are stupid and lack all appreciation of art, or else they do not understand anything about literature, or else, which unfortunately I am bound to believe, they never read Stifter, he said.  (37)

Now I have read Stifter.  Judge accordingly.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing about not writing - Hofmannthal's "Lord Chandos Letter" and Murnane's Barley Patch

To a certain kind of child, the Viennese ethos of Bildung must have felt so oppressive.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at first appeared to be the perfect child of Viennese aestheticism, immediately recognized as the city’s greatest poet when he was seventeen.  A central theme of his work, though, was a critique of aestheticism, an inventory of its costs, many of which were presumably felt personally, although Hofmannsthal always wrote with so much distance that there is no way to tell.

In his 1902 story “The Letter” (or “The Lord Chandos Letter”), a writer explains his lack of literary production after a promising start.  It is a description of an aesthetic and linguistic crisis.  His plans to write a kind of “Key to All Mythologies” omnibook leads him into some sort of heightened aesthetic state (“In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society…,” 132) which ends in an inevitable crash, but one that takes a strange form.   Words begin to separate from their meaning.  Any concept capable of verbal statement (“This affair has turned out well for this or that purpose”) seems false (“indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be”, 134).  The problem is with the words, not the concepts:

For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.  Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back – whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.  (135)

The narrator’s solution is to engage with the world, with the thing itself, and avoid words; his composition of the formal, elegant letter that is the text of the story might appear to be a contradiction,  but that is merely a form, almost a reflex, while his true language is “a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day may have to justify myself before an unknown judge” (141).

What part of this Hofmannsthal experienced himself is a mystery, but by the time he wrote “The Letter” he had abandoned poetry and to some degree fiction (he wrote but did not publish), and instead turned his attention to theater, opera, and essays, from private to public forms.  An enduring, eminently public,  achievement was co-founding the Salzburg Festival.

The “Lord Chandos” quotations are from Selected Prose, Bollingen, 1952, tr. Tania & James Stern.

Hermann Broch suffered a related crisis.  The Death of Virgil (1945) is the novel in which he abandons novels.  I should read it.

The Australian writer of prose fiction Gerald Murnane recently published a long prose fiction, Barley Patch (2010), which begins with the question “Must I write?” and is in effect a fictional novelist’s fictional justification of his abandonment of fiction.  Murnane’s narrator is the one who dislikes the word “novel” and keeps repeating the phrase “prose fiction,” along with many other phrases.  Some readers would find this intensely irritating:

Sometimes, when I was trying to report in one or another passage in my fiction the connection between one or another fictional personage and one or another fictional landscape, I would suppose that one or another of my readers might later have overlooked the passage that I was trying to write in the same way that I had overlooked the foreground and the middle-ground and even the background of the painting mentioned not long before in this piece of fiction and might have seemed to see behind my fiction, as it were, a semblance of the Midlands of Tasmania or of the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand (94).

Murnane’s, or the narrator’s, purpose is fundamentally Proustian, an attempt to pin down specific combinations of childhood memories through the medium of fiction, a search for some kind of impossible truth, but without the Proustian language and imagery that only leads to blurry failure.  If all the author can imagine is that a character lives in “a building of two or more stories,” then that is how the building will be described.  The inadequacies of memory and imagination battle the inadequacies of language.  And the narrator, like Lord Chandos, insists that this is the end, really, no more writing, once he finally explains, in writing, why he gave up writing.

Barley Patch also makes interesting use of Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gypsy” (1853).  I would like to read someone else’s essay about that.  Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hermann Broch's Vienna - decay leads to the museum

If I think of a culture as a person and then overlay a seasonal metaphor, both of which are misleading ideas, the period from 1860 to 1890 begins to look like Vienna’s Indian summer.  Stifter’s novel again provides a strangely prophetic model (“My collections are getting more complete, the building projects are increasingly receiving their finishing touches”).  The Indian summer is followed by winter, and death.

As attractive as the values of the period can seem to me, I have to ask the same questions I asked about Stifter.  Are we sure that the connection between aesthetics and ethics is so strong?  Is collecting as meaningful an activity as Stifter argues?  Are there risks in an aesthetic focused so strongly on the past?  And fundamentally, are the answers to questions like these the same for individuals and for society?

Aestheticism easily becomes decadent, empty, sterile.  Collecting is almost necessarily neurotic and, like art appreciation more generally, can become, or always is, a device for signaling social status – how good a catch is the guest at my artistic dinner, how visible is my box at the theater.

So were the aestheticized Viennese more like Green Henry, reading and re-reading their second-hand collected Goethe until it is torn from their hands, or more like Törless’s family, who store Goethe “in the bookcase with the green glass panes” that “was never opened except to display its contents to a visitor”?

Hermann Broch, in his critical study Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time (1974)*, argues for the latter, vociferously:  “Was this really nothing but the roast chicken era, a period of pure hedonism and sheer decoration of life?” (59).  Vienna and its “gelatin democracy” (78) was the purest example of the European “value vacuum.”  It “was really far less a city of art than a city of decoration par excellence” where “[p]oetry was an affair of gold-edged books on the parlor table” (60).

Broch, born in 1886, is describing the generation of his parents.  I have written admiringly about the artistic institutions they created, the art museum and the opera.  Exactly the problem, says Broch:

In fulfillment of its duty to tradition, Vienna confused culture with “museumness” [Museumshaftigkeit] and became a museum to itself (unfortunately not in its architecture, where it was guilty of the most outrageous devastations).  Because Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert had miraculously converged on this spot, had been treated badly and nevertheless composed, Vienna set itself up as a musical institution…  The “museumish” was reserved for Vienna, indeed as a sign of its ruin, the sign of Austrian ruin.  For in despondency decay leads to vegetating, but in wealth it leads to the museum.  (61)

The tone of this passage should look familiar to readers of later Austrian literature.  I feel bad about omitting any of it.  Unfortunately, or maybe not, the entire book is not made of this kind of rhetoric.

Broch’s indictment, written from the far side of the horrors of World War II, is ethical.  The Viennese did not achieve the kind of ethical and aesthetic balance Stifter described, but rather used false aesthetic values to “mask” an ethical crisis.  The inevitable aesthetic result was not art but kitsch, and “as the metropolis of kitsch, Vienna also became the metropolis of the value vacuum of the epoch” (81).  And kitsch leads to, well, to Nazis (“the dance of apocalyptic ruin,” 175).  Art can also be the source of ethics, though; true art, of course, not kitsch.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other artists, Broch and his generation. are thus engaged in a kind of struggle to fill the ethical vacuum created by their parents.  They mostly lose.

Broch has an outstanding definition of kitsch, by the way - “music in which cowbells ring is kitsch” (16, from “Artistic Style as the Style of the Epoch,” 1919).

*  Written 1947-50 and published in pieces.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Golden Age without artists - generations of artists in hothouse Vienna

When we talk an artistic Golden Age, we are typically identifying an unusual cluster of great artists.   Periclean Athens, Elizabethan London, Goethe’s Weimar – look at all of these geniuses living and working together, look at this burst of creativity.

The period I am looking at in Vienna was different.  In a culture newly obsessed with creativity and genius, the geniuses themselves were absent.  Herman Broch identifies the period as 1870 to 1890 in part, I think, to make sure the great writers are gone:  Adalbert Stifter died in 1868, and the playwrights Johann Nestroy in 1862 and Franz Grillparzer in 1872.  The latter two are especially important as they had become the core of the Burgtheater repertory, along with Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare, and this was a theater-centered culture.

Johann Strauss and Die Fledermaus (1874) have come to define the period  - “the totally idiotic counterfeit of comic opera,” grumps Hermann Broch (Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, 64).  Anton Bruckner is the other lasting composer of the time.  The novelist Ferdinand von Saar sounds interesting (he was an early critic of Vienna’s turn to aestheticism), but I am obviously reaching a bit.

The period was actually full of geniuses, but they were children.  Here are the years of birth of every major Austrian writer, artist, or composer I could think of (up to a point):

Sigmund Freud
Robert Musil
Peter Altenberg
Stefan Zweig
Gustav Mahler
Anton Webern
Hugo Wolf
Alban Berg
Arthur Schnitzler
Oskar Kokoschka
Gustav Klimt
Hermann Broch
Richard Strauss
Georg Trakl
Arnold Schoenberg
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Egon Schiele
Karl Kraus
Joseph Roth
Rainer Maria Rilke

These men (the ones born into the 1870s, at least) were all raised in the hothouse, breathing the air of aestheticism, their traditional education blended with continual encounters with theater, art, and music of the highest quality, approached with an attitude not just of respect but reverence, interspersed with a series of erudite artistic dinners – “Increasingly, from the age of Grillparzer to the age of Hofmannsthal, poets, professors, and performing artists were valued guests, in fact, prize catches of hosts and hostesses (Schorske, 297)” – all concentrated on

the development of those abilities through which the leisure hours of the burgher class were being transformed to “noble enjoyment,” to the enjoyment of art in winter, nature in summer – or, more precisely, in the “resort months” [Sommerfrischenzeit].  Clearly the burghers of the epoch, with their solid industriousness, were in no way a “leisure class” as the feudal nobility unequivocally was; nevertheless they behaved as if they imagined they were… (Broch, 88)

And as if their children would be.  Although “leisure class” is not the right term, given the artistic productivity of so many of these artists.  The story would be the same if I added scientists, musicians, and actors.

I had always understood the story of Austrian decay as being a political decline, the gradual hollowing out of the Habsburg Empire.  But I now see that the artists beginning their careers in the 1890s or 1900s were reacting to a more recent phenomenon.  A writer like Musil, born in 1880, grew up during but also after the Golden Age.  The decline began not at the Battle of Austerlitz but in his parents’ generation.  Musil is a witness of the collapse.  To a writer like Joseph Roth, ten years old* when a world war erupts, it is all just history and the memories of others.

To me, perversely, there is no collapse, since the really interesting art and music and writing turns out to be a response to the period that cultivated it.  But I did not live in it; I can just enjoy it.  Herman Broch grew up in it, and his ideas are a little different than mine.  Tomorrow for that.

* Ahem. See comments below.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Viennese middle class chooses art and fun - not as an ornament of life or as a badge of status, but as the air they breathed

The little Austrian aesthetic Golden Age that was magically called into being by Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer is described in some detail by Carl E. Schorske in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980), particularly in Chapter VI “The Transformation of the Garden” (originally published in 1967), where Schorske actually begins with fifteen pages on Stifter’s novel.  The actual causes of Golden Age are political, social, and economic, the usual stuff – the 1848 revolution and counter-revolution, the perpetual rise of the middle class, changes in the nature and influence of the Austrian imperial court.

But it must have been strange, or satisfying, for a Viennese burgher, circa 1875 or 1885, to re-read Stifter’s idealistic account of moral and aesthetic development.  My son will be Heinrich, he could think to himself.  The parallels between Stifter’s character and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an aesthetic Tiger Woods, trained from childhood to be a great artist, are especially striking.  As Schorske describes the time:

Beginning roughly in the 1860’s, two generations of well-to-do children were reared in the museums, theaters, and concert halls of the new Ringstrasse.  They acquired aesthetic culture not, as their fathers did, as an ornament of life or as a badge of status, but as the air they breathed. (298)

The Vienna State Opera (opening 1869), the Burgtheater (an 18th century institution, but in a new building in 1888), and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (1891) are still central to Viennese culture.

I have been going back and forth about the uniqueness of the period compared to earlier Golden Ages, or to contemporary cities all Europe and America that were also building museums and opera houses.  Heian Japan, for example, or Medici Florence, or the Ferrara of the Estes, depicted in Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) – these were all court-centered, aristocratic.  So perhaps what Schorske calls “the aristocratization of the middle classes” (296) is a real difference, with what were once court institutions like the Burgtheater not exactly democratizing but at least opening up to the bourgeois or burgher or managerial class, which really was expanding at a new pace.

That expansion was happening everywhere, though, and only in Vienna did aestheticism swallow the middle class.   As Schorske describes it:  “Aestheticism, which elsewhere in Europe took the form of a protest against bourgeois civilization, became in Austria an expression of that civilization, an affirmation of an attitude toward life in which neither ethical nor social ideals played a predominant part” (299).  In France, Flaubert and Baudelaire and their descendants set themselves against the smug, philistine bourgeois.  In England, aestheticism was intimately tangled with social reform.  I am thinking of Ruskin and Morris and the pre-Raphaelites, all of whom were direct influences on Viennese art nouveau, but with all of the politics stripped out.

The anti-bourgeois protests come later in Austria, and take on a different character. It was a challenge to make an oppositional case for advanced art against an opponent who devoutly believed in advanced art.  Flaubert and Baudelaire would have found this frustrating.

I wonder how the spread of Arthur Schopenhauer’s ideas contributed to the Viennese ethos.  Ignored for decades, Schopenhauer began to attract followers in the 1850s and his writings rapidly diffused across Europe.  The important concept here is that he argued that aesthetic appreciation, however brief, was one of the few ways people can mitigate their ordinary state of suffering and misery.  Schopenhauer argued that the more effective, more lasting path is one of asceticism and renunciation.  But that is difficult and no fun, while dancing to Johann Strauss is easy and fun.

Good choice, Viennese middle class!

But tomorrow, I begin the case against.

Friday, March 1, 2013

We are living in happiness and with a sense of constancy as if in an Indian Summer - Stifter, cultural prophet

I packed my crates, put all my tools and notes that had to do with my work into their cases and trunks, dismissed almost all my people, put the addresses on the crates, arranged for them to be shipped, and then went to the Lauter Valley.  (302)

Not exactly the most sparkling Stifter sentence, and Indian Summer contains numerous variants of it.  The narrator and Stifter insist that I understand the process of Heinrich’s growth, his Bildung.  Here he is winding up his summer research in the mountains.  Heinrich obviously spends a great deal of money on his research, just as his father and patron spend a great deal of money on their collections and restoration projects.  Heinrich himself, in his twenties, commissions a number of works of art – a marble fountain, inlaid zithers, jewelry.

Whatever example Stifter is presenting is based, even in these trivial details, on great wealth.  Money and time are devoted to art and science.  One generation had to create the foundation and can now enjoy it – this is the host, the Baron speaking:

“Thus, we are living in happiness and with a sense of constancy as if in an Indian Summer without the preceding summer.  My collections are getting more complete, the building projects are increasingly receiving their finishing touches, I have drawn people to me, I have learned more here than I have in my whole life, my hobbies are taking their course, and I am also a bit useful for something.”  (445)

The next generation, carefully cultivated, carefully developed to experience growth without hardship, what does it do?  Simply maintain the achievement of their parents?  Or do they continue to expand their knowledge and tasks into realms Stifter does not want to specify?  Heinrich never does really find a vocation.  Or is preservation his vocation?

Stifter is writing in an Idealist tradition, but in the carefully cultivated garden of Indian Summer he often sounds like he has taken the next step into Utopian fantasy.  At the very least, it sounds like a rarefied retreat from the cares of the world available to an enlightened few, although I should not use that word since the Enlightenment is clearly seen as an enemy of art, although given that modern science, of which Stifter approves, is so clearly the product of the Enlightenment – well, I do not understand the host’s or Stifter’s argument here.  He always sounds more like a Deist than a Catholic, and wears clothes that – no, I will figure this out the next time I read the novel.  The host is clear that he believes he is protecting what is valuable from the current violent and “[c]oarse times” which “had lost the concept of beauty” (357) but that “a new era will dawn, the like of which the world has never seen” (301).

The strange thing is that Stifter was only off on the timing.  The new era dawned in Vienna circa 1860, with the demolition of the medieval city walls and the construction of the new Ringstrasse.  It lasted until about 1890.  The citizens rapidly developed a culture that emphasized Bildung above all else, that devoted itself to science and art, with bourgeois parents who deliberately raised their children to be not just doctors and scientists but  poets and painters and book bloggers.

Stifter was not a Utopian.  He was a prophet. Much of what has attracted and perplexed me about Austrian art and literature comes directly out of this period, and thus, strangely, out of Stifter’s novel.

I want to spend next week figuring out what happened and what it means.  To me, this sounds wonderful.  The Indian Summer, though brief, is my favorite part of the year.  Herman Broch grew up in it, and has a different opinion.  Boy does he ever.  That’ll be a highlight of next week.