Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Musil Thinking

Robert Musil, sketched by Martha Musil
A new edition of The Monist is dedicated to Musil as philosopher. I will try to get my hands on a copy to provide a small summary of the contents for you. But here, in the meantime, is a link to the table of contents, etc.: The Philosophy of Robert Musil - The Monist‎
and also for your thinking pleasure, a short excerpt from Musil the novelist,  musing in his novel in "A Chapter that May be Skipped by Anyone Not Particularly Impressed by Thinking as an Occupation," on how difficult it is to describe a man thinking, and already letting fall a number of significant hints on his own conceptions about the relationship between philosophy and life and art and philosophy: 

"Unfortunately, nothing is so hard to achieve as a literary representation of a man thinking. When someone asked a great scientist how he managed to come up with so much that was new, he replied: 'Because I never stop thinking about it.' And it is surely safe to say that unexpected insights turn up for no other reason than that they are expected. They are in no small part a success of character, emotional stability, unflagging ambition, and unremitting work. What a bore such constancy must be! Looking at it another way, the solution of an intellectual problem comes about not very differently from a dog with a stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door; he will turn his head left and right until the stick slips through. We do much the same thing, but with the difference that we don’t make indiscriminate attempts but already know from experience approximately how it’s done. And if a clever fellow naturally has far more skill and experience with these twistings and turnings than a dim one, the slipping-through takes the clever fellow just as much by surprise; it is suddenly there, and one perceptibly feels slightly disconcerted because one’s ideas seem to have come of their own accord instead of waiting for their creator. The disconcerted feeling is nowadays called intuition by many people who would formerly, believing that it must be regarded as something suprapersonal, have called it inspiration; but it is only something impersonal, namely the affinity and coherence of the things themselves, meeting inside a head.

     The better the head, the less evident its presence in this process. As long as the process of thinking is in mortion it is a quite wretched state, as if all the brain's convolutions were suffering from colic; and when it is finished it no longer has the form of the thinking process as one experiences it but already that of what has been thought, which is regrettably impersonal, for the thought then faces outward and is dressed for communication with the world. When a man is in the process of thinking, there is no may to catch the moment between the personal and the impersonal, and this is manifestly why thinking is such an embarrassment for writers that they gladly avoid it.

     But the man without qualities was now thinking. One may draw the conclusion from this that it was, at least in part, not a personal affair. But then what is it? World in, world out; aspects of world falling into place inside a head...." (I,115-116, translated by Sophie Wilkens, Knopf, 1995)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Nietzsche (and Musil by association) Rescued from Post-Modernism, Not a Moment too Soon

I just read the attached breath-taking essay by Patrick Keane on the ambiguity of Nietzsche, on his paradoxical search for truth amid perspectivism, on his paradoxical belief in a kind of accurate objective reading despite his radical questioning of absolute Truth. Everything Keane says here could be applied to a re-reading of Musil (my re-reading of Musil, subjective perhaps, but hopefully something more as well). Here it is:
  And this is what I wrote after reading it, re Musil:

I read this entire piece while practically holding my breath, but for the moments when I gasped, repeatedly, a grateful “Yes”. Thank you so much for this brilliant analysis. It is of the utmost importance to trace this “other” Nietzsche back through the thickets of use and abuse. I always like to say that the postmodernists–in good adolescent fashion– were so enthralled by the iconoclastic orgy and their ears were ringing with the excitement of their “victory” that they did not have the ears to hear what Nietzsche proposed to do after the old idols had been smashed: create new ones! uncover new and ever new ones. And yes, as you so brilliantly elucidate, a rejection of some truths or of an absolute Truth itself does not necessarily mean a rejection of the search for, the approach to truths or to what Emerson called Conduct of Life. Nor does the assertion that there are many perspectives mean that all or any perspectives are equal. I try to trace the same complexity in Musil (who learned it from Nietzsche and Emerson and Dostoevsky..and from his years as a scientist) and to rescue him from the many contemporary critics who want to make him a beacon of “anything goes” or of meaninglessness and to claim him as post-modern. In truth (there, that word, “truth,” which brashly privileges MY reading over someone else’s!), Musil, like Nietzsche, was dedicated to finding the right way to live and he imagined that it might be found through a Nietzschean perspectivism: a shifting, constantly alive awareness of the creative subject’s role in shaping ethics and aesthetics. This is quite opposite from an utterly relativistic non-authored mayhem, despite Musil’s knowledge of the pitfalls of absolutes and narrow vision. Another realm often left unexplored, or un-read, by many contemporary readers of Musil and Nietzsche is their continual paradoxical return to some concept of the eternal or repeating or essential. It is, of course, not something a reader looking for radical openness would want to notice or cite. But it is there nonetheless. And, as Moses Maimonides reminds us, in his famous image of the silver filagree apple which upon closer inspection is golden underneath, it is precisely in the area of most distressing contradiction where the most important ideas are to be found. Instead of ignoring such contradictions and sweeping them under the rug we perplexed readers need to look closer and then closer again. Why does Nietzsche love Emerson so much? How is it that transcendentalism (an “ism” so often associated with already given and socially-constructed absolutes) has so much in it that reads rather like existentialism (an ism which supposedly privileges existence over essence)? Maybe it is because the human search for meaning and truths involves a combination (not a dualistic either/or) of observational attempts at objectivity (looking as closely as we can at das Ding an sich while acknowledging our ultimate inability to see it accurately, or admitting that we probably change it as we speak and breath so it is never the same Ding…) AND a creative regenerative refashioning of realities…both essence and existence, both eternal return to some idea of beginning, to some idea of essential, and an eternally various and joyful human agency in making worlds?!