Monday, May 16, 2005
Precision and Theft
Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity
Stefan Jonsson reads like a nice guy. When he plays hunt-the-applicability against a full hand of voguish theorists, his point isn't to diagnose Musil away. His point is that The Man Without Qualities anticipates them.
Not in the sense of displacing them, of course. They remain authoritative; Jonsson is the advocate: "You see, Others and gentlemen, he's just like you and me!"
Anyway, no big deal. Jonsson's OK. The notion that Ulrich's Austria-Hungary wasn't just a satiric target, that its fecklessness could be mourned as a lost range of possibility, hadn't occurred to me, so I'm grateful for that, especially while I'm in mourning for Jimmy Carter's America. I read my fair share of awkward over-extended well-meaning prose aimed at an obscure audience, and I produce more than my share, and another three hundred pages of it isn't worth writing home about. It's not even worth writing The Valve about.
Instead I'm writing about stubbornness rewarded. After hacking through the main text, and then through all the endnotes 1 to the chapters, I reached the endnotes to the "Epilogue", and there — I think it was the third?— I reached a note 2 worth the whole effort. Take this quote from Musil's 1926 "Interview mit Alfred Polgar"3 and you'd get most of what I'd gotten from Jonsson's book:
"For this city [Vienna] has been besieged by the Turks and bravely defended by the Poles; in the eighteenth century it was the biggest Italian city; it is proud of its pastries, which stem from Bohemia and Hungary; and throughout the centuries it has proven that it is possible to accomplish beautiful, even profound things, if one has no character."
Giving it away for free seems like ill usage, but fair use.
Cacciari’s “Posthumous People” seems like a fantastic book about Vienna and the Autro-Hungarian empire, but it’s so densely written and assumes so much that I haven’t been able to read it yet. I’d love to read a review.
Austria-Hungary is much more influential in world culture than people realize: Freud, Kafka, Rilke, Trakl, Hoffmansthal, the logical positivists, Popper, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg et al, Hayek et al, and even crap like Richard Strauss. And I always forget someone on these lists. A fatalistic hopelessness about political discourse and action seemed common to almost all of them.
I’ve tried to convince an Irish friend that the present Never-never-land American political scene, where the spokesmen and supporters of the dominant political party persistently say things that can’t possibly be true, but he rudely points out that the late Holy Roman Empire never had nuclear weapons.
Bartok, Polanyi, Goedel, Husserl, Mahler, Erdos, Von Neumann, Svevo, and quite a number of physicists.
And James Joyce too.
Austria-Hungary’s non-national, dynastic character, its military insignificance, and its economic mediocrity all put together tend to cause its cultural and intellectual contributions to be relatively unrecognized.
I’ve tried to convince an Irish friend that the present Never-never-land American political scene, where the spokesmen and supporters of the dominant political party persistently say things that can’t possibly be true, is Austro-Hungarian in essence (i.e., comparable to the Great Idea in Musil) but he rudely pointed out that the late Holy Roman Empire never had nuclear weapons.
And when I think about it, the Austro-Hungarian Great Idea for the jubilee year wasn’t just false—everyone fervently believed in it even though they didn’t know what it was, because there actual was no specific idea.