Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

Picked up a nice little volume today, put out by Archipelago Books, as an impulse-buy gift for my girlfriend- Posthumous Papers of a Living Author by Robert Musil. It was originally published in 1936 and was, in fact, the last thing he published before his sudden death in 42. I read part I of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities years back and admired it greatly so I thought this tidy little selection of essays and reflections would be a no-brainer. And I was correct. Have not read it all yet but the pieces I read on the train did not disappoint. The pieces include subjects like, “Flypaper” (which looks at a fly’s struggle to break free of the trap), “Can horses laugh?” (which answers the title’s question), “Rabbit Catastrophe” (about a baby hare being hunted and killed by a woman’s lap-dog), etc. One of the pieces I wanted to share with you all straight away it was so good. I’ve transcribed it, in full, below.

Art Anniversary

By Robert Musil

If, as is the case from time to time, you happen to reencounter a play or a novel which twenty years ago grabbed hold of your soul, along with the souls of many others, you experience something which has actually never been explained, since apparently everyone takes it for granted: the sparkle is gone, the importance has disappeared, dust and moths fly off at your touch. But why this aging must take place, and what exactly is altered in the process, this no one knows. The comedy of all art anniversaries consists of the old admirers making solemn, uneasy faces, as if their collar-button had slipped down behind their shirt front.

It is not the same as reencountering a flame of your youth who has not grown any prettier over the years. For in the latter case you no longer even comprehend what once made you stutter, although at least it has something to do with the touching transitory nature of all earthly pursuits and the notoriously fickle nature of love. But a work of literature that you reencounter is like an old sweetheart who for twenty years has been embalmed in alcohol: not a hair is different, and not a fleck of her rosy epidermis has changed. A shiver rolls down your spine! Now you are supposed to be once-again who you were: one semblance demands another. It is a stretching torture, in the course of which the soles have remained in place but the rest of the body has been twisted a thousand times around the revolving world!

Reliving a former art experience is also different from meeting the other ghosts of old arousals and infatuations: enemies, friends, wild nights, passions endured and surmounted. All this and the conditions that surround it sink into oblivion as soon as the fling is over: It has fulfilled some purpose and was absorbed by the fulfillment; it was a denial in one’s life or a stage in the development of your personality. But bygone art served nothing; its former effect has disappeared unnoticed, lost itself along the way; it is a stage for no one. For do you really feel yourself to be standing on a higher plateau when looking down upon a once-admired work? You stand no higher, just elsewhere! Indeed, to tell the truth, even if, while standing before an old painting, you realize with a comfortable, hardly suppressed yawn that you no longer need be enthusiastic about it, you are still far from being enthused by the fact that there are new paintings to be admired. You simply feel yourself to have slipped from one timely compulsion to another, which by no means excludes the fact that you went about it perfectly voluntarily and actively; voluntary and involuntary behavior are not after all direct opposites, they also blend in equal parts, so that ultimately, you involuntarily overindulge in voluntary behavior, or voluntarily the involuntary, as is often the case in life.

Still, in this elsewhere you will find a remarkable dose of transcendence. It is, we realize if appearances do not deceive, related to fashion. Fashion, after all, is not only marked by the one characteristic, namely that you find it ridiculous in retrospect, but also by the other, that as long as a fashion lasts, you can hardly imagine taking seriously the opinions of a man who is not dressed from head to toe just as ridiculously as you yourself are. I would not know what in our admiration of antiquity could shield a budding philosopher from suicide, if not the fact that Plato and Aristotle wore no pants; pants have contributed far more than you might think to the intellectual development of Europe, for without them, Europeans would most likely never have gotten over their classical-humanistic inferiority complex vis-a-vis the antique. Thus we hold our time’s most profound feeling - that we would not barter with anyone who wasn’t dressed in contemporary clothing. And even of art we only feel for that same reason a sense of progress with each new year; although it may simply be a coincidence that art exhibits, like the latest fashion, appear in the spring and fall. This sense of progress is not pleasant. It reminds you, in the most extreme way, of a dream in which you are seated on a horse and cannot get off, because the horse never stands still. You would gladly take pleasure in progress, if only it took a pause. If only we could stop for a moment on our high horse, look back, and say to the past: Look where I am now! But already the uncanny process continues, and after experiencing it several times, you begin to feel queasy in the stomach with those four strange legs trotting beneath you, constantly carrying you forward.

But what conclusions may we draw from the fact that it is just as ridiculously unpleasant to look at old fashions (so long as they have not yet become costumes), as it is ridiculously unpleasant to look at old pictures, or the outmoded facades of old-style houses, and to read yesterday’s books? Clearly, there is no other conclusion except that we become unpleasant to ourselves the moment we gain some distance from what we were. This stretch of self-loathing begins several years before now and ends approximately with our grandparents, that is, the time to which we begin to be indifferent. It is only then that what was is no longer outdated, but begins to be old; it is our past, and no longer that which passed away from us. But what we ourselves did and were lies almost completely in the realm of self-loathing. It would indeed be intolerable to be reminded of everything that we once considered most important, and the great majority of people would remain surprisingly little moved if, at an advanced age, you were to show them again, in the form of a movie, their grandest gestures and once most stirring scenes.

How are we to make sense of this? Apparently inherent to the nature of temporal matters is a certain degree of exaggeration, a “superplus” and superabundance. Even a slap in the face requires more rage than you can be accountable for. This enthusiasm of “now” burns up, and as soon as it has become superfluous, it is extinguished by forgetting, a very productive and fertile activity by means of which we only really first become - and are ever and anew reconstituted as - that easygoing, pleasant, and consequent person for whose sake we excuse everything on earth.

Art rocks the boat in this regard. Nothing emanates from it that could endure without enthusiasm. It is, as it were, nothing but enthusiasm without bones and ashes, pure enthusiasm that burns for no reason and nonetheless is stuck in a frame or in between the covers of a book, as though nothing had happened. It never becomes our past, but always remains that which has passed from us. It is understandable then that we should look back at it every ten or twenty-five years with an uneasy eye!

Only great art, that indeed which alone, strictly speaking, merits being called art, constitutes an exception. But the latter has never really fit that well in the society of the living.


Hope you enjoyed.

06.27. filed under: !. books. 4