Musil on Rilke & Rilke on Rodin


More Austrian literature. Robert Musil is well known for his fiction and Rainer Maria Rilke his poetry, so I thought I would have a look at something a little out of the ordinary for each of these writers, a public address by Musil and a prose essay by Rilke.

After Rainer Maria Rilke’s death on 29 December 1926, there was a debate as to whether there should be a memorial service in his honour. Among those involved in the debate, Robert Musil was for and Bertolt Brecht was against the proposal. On 16 January 1927, the ceremony took place at the Renaissance Theatre in Berlin, where Musil spoke. His ‘Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin’ appears in the book ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft).

Musil’s address covers a raft of material, the affect of a Rilke poem, lyric affect, motifs, metaphors, similes and tropes to name just a few, and it is worth reading the whole address to understand Musil’s passion for Rilke’s work. However I am only going to look at a few highlights here.

There are some wonderful explanations of Rilke’s place in “German” literature laced with social commentary;

This period [the transition from the Classical to the present] was the cradle of the German belief that form could ennoble content, that elevated diction was superior to plain, that to glue the plaster ornament of verse onto a shallow thought was something special. I think I may say that the formlessness of our own time is the natural reaction to this, although of course in abandoning beauty of form our age has also abandoned, in part, beauty of content. Here I cannot permit myself to go into detail, but I think almost all of you know the feeling of aversion that this poetry, with few exceptions, leaves in the young reader who is forced to admire in it the cultural history of his people.

Rilke raising the German poem to perfection;

When I spoke of the perfection to which Rilke has raised the German poem, what I had in mind was at first only an external characteristic. I can describe it to you if I may remind you of the extremely distinctive impression one has on first reading Rilke’s works. Not only hardly a poem, but hardly a line or a word sinks below the level of the others, and one has the same experience through the entire sequence of his books. There arises from this an almost painful tension, like a daring presumption, which in addition is achieved not with any large orchestral display but as if it were quite natural, accompanied only by the simple sound of the verse’s flute.
Neither before not after him has this high and sustained tension of impression, this jewellike stillness within a movement that never pauses, been attained. Neither the older German poem not George not Borchardt possess this free burning of the fire, without flickering or darkness. The German lyric genius carves a furrow like a stroke of lightning, but piles up the soil around it carefully or carelessly; it ignites like lightning, but only scratches surfaces like lightning; it leads up the mountain, but only in order to lead up the mountain one must first always be down below. Compared with this, Rilke’s poem has an expansive openness: its condition endures like an elevated pause.

The address opens with a lament on fame and the lack of public recognition of Rilke’s death;

When the news of the death of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Germany, and on the following days, when one consulted the newspapers to see how this message was being received by German literary history – for, let us not deceive ourselves, today the process of fame is decided at this low level since, as far as literature is concerned, there is hardly any intellectual level above it – one found what I would characterize as an honorable second-class public funeral.

The address continues;

When I perceived how trifling the loss of Rilke was valued in the public reckoning – it hardly counted as much as a movie premiere – I confess that my first thought was to answer the question why we have come together today by saying : Because we wish to honor the greatest lyric poet the Germans have seen since the Middle Ages.
It would be permissible to say something like this, but at the same time it is not permissible.

Sculptor Auguste Rodin was fortunate enough to have as his secretary Rainer Maria Rilke. Two essays written in 1902 and 1907, were translated by Daniel Slager and released in 2004 by Archipelago Books, with the book also featuring an extensive introduction by William Gass (‘The Tunnel’, ‘Omensetter’s Luck’ and ‘Reading Rilke’) and stunning photographs of Rodin’s sculptures taken by Michael Eastman.

Rilke’s opening to the first essay (1902) also mentions ”fame”, as Musil was later to do at Rilke’s memorial.

Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps even more solitary. For in the end fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name.
There are many of these around Rodin, and clarifying them would be a long, arduous, and ultimately unnecessary task. They surround the name, but not the work, which far exceed the resonance of the name, and which has become nameless, as a great plain is nameless, or a sea, which may bear a name in maps, in books, and among people, but which is in reality just vastness, movement, and depth.

The two essays by Rilke are beautiful to read, not a word “sinks below the level of the others”, a captivating and moving read, capturing the art of sculpture, the individuality of rocks, using an imagined biography of Rodin Rilke is able to sculpt a vision of a genius through his words on the page. I could quote any paragraph to demonstrate Rilke’s masterful approach. Here’s one about Rodin’s reading habits;

From Dante he came to Baudelaire. This was no tribunal of judgement, no poet ascending on the hand of a shadow to heaven. Here, rather, was a simple human being, a mere mortal who suffered like everyone, lifting his voice high above the divine, as if to save us all from destruction. And there were sections of these lyrics that stood out from the rest, passages that seemed to be formed more than written, words and groups of words that were molded in the hot hands of the poet, lines like reliefs to the touch, and sonnets like columns with twisted capitals, bearing the weight of troubled thoughts. He felt dimly that the abrupt ruptures of this art ran up against the beginnings of another art, and that it longed for this other art. He came to think of Baudelaire as a predecessor, an artist who refused to be led astray by faces but sought bodies instead, in which life was greater, more gruesome and more restless.

A thoroughly beautiful book that is worth adding to any collection and one that I will be revisiting, Rilke masterfully creating a vision of the genius sculptor, and a short twenty-five years later Musil was to deliver a heartfelt address at the memorial to such a writer.

More Musil is coming here, I know I promised something on his two novellas which appeared as ‘Unions’, I’ve just read another captivating essay by Musil where his brain is arguing with him about the structure, subject and form of ‘Unions’, so possibly that will come next on my Musil posting spree.


More Musil, mathematics and machines

PrecisionSoulLet’s continue looking at Robert Musil and his references to mathematics.

‘The Mathematical Man’ is an essay from 1913 (first published as ‘Der mathematische Mensch’ in ‘Der lose Vogel’, no 10-12, April-June 1913);

We may say that we live almost entirely from the results of mathematics, although these themselves, have become a matter of indifference to mathematics. Thanks to mathematics we bake our bread, build our houses, and drive our vehicles. With the exception of a few handmade pieces of furniture, of clothing, shoes, and children, everything comes to us through the intervention of mathematical calculations. All the life that whirls about us, runs, and stops is not only dependent on mathematics for its comprehensibility, but has effectively come into being through it and depends on it for its existence, defined in such and such a way. For the pioneers of mathematics formulated usable notions of certain principles that yielded conclusions, methods of calculation, and results, and these were applied by the physicists to obtain new results; and finally came the technicians, who often took only the results and added new calculations to them, and thus the machines arose. And suddenly, after everything had been brought into the most beautiful kind of existence, the mathematicians – the ones who brood entirely within themselves – cam upon something wrong in the fundamentals of the whole thing that absolutely could not be put right. They actually looked all the way to the bottom and found that the whole building was standing in mid-air. But the machines worked! We must assume from this that our existence is a pale ghost; we live it, but actually only on the basis of an error without which it would not have arisen. Today there is no other possibility of having such fantastic, visionary feelings as mathematicians do.

The essay appears in the collection ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft) and covers a lot more territory including generals on battlefields, the passion of mathematicians, economics and even the plight of German literature.  

The rise of the mechanical age and the decline of religious beliefs also features in Musil’s work, the connection between machines and mathematics highlighted in a number of texts.

Let’s look at ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ (my edition the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Mike Mitchell), Musil’s first novel, published in 1906, a novel which explores a young boy’s coming of age in a boarding school. The opening paragraphs highlight a move from innocence (and home) into the harsh reality of the present and a world polluted and corrupted by machinery.

A little station on the line going to Russia.
Four parallel iron rails on the yellow gravel of the wide embankment running endlessly straight in both directions, with the dark line burnt into the ground by the exhaust steam like a dirty shadow alongside each one.
Behind the low, oil-painted station building, a wide, rutted road led up to the loading bay, its edges indistinguishable in the trampled earth everywhere around; they could only be made out from the two rows of sad acacias whose withered leaves, choked with dust and soot, lined it on either side.
Whether it was these sad colours, whether it was the pale, watery light of the afternoon sun wearied by the haze, there was something apathetic, lifeless, mechanical about objects and people, as if they had been taken from the scene in a puppet theatre. From time to time, at the same intervals, the stationmaster would come out of his office, look with the same turn of his head up the long stretch of track at the little signal-box that still refused to announce the approach of the express, which had been subject to a long delay at the border; with the same movement of his arm he would then take out his pocket-watch, shake his head, and disappear again, in the same way that figures come and go when the hour strikes in old clock towers. (page 5)

As we can see in this vivid opening, we have the desecration of machines (trains) on the beauty of nature (acacias), a dark line is burned into the grass, trampled earth and dirty shadows. This is a gloomy picture indeed. This is then peppered with the mechanical behavior of the stationmaster, (lifeless, apathetic, mechanical), who repeats his looking for the train and checking of his watch (a machine) at regular intervals, he is compared to a figure in an old clock tower (a machine)!!

From these four paragraphs we can picture the foreboding of the mechanical world, a world where a young Törless is to venture, a place where he will come-of-age, psychologically develop and struggle with his emotions and sexuality.

A wonderful novel that predated the outbreak of the First World War and the rise of fascism, looking at it through the lens of a mechanical (mathematical) structure the riches are too great to share.

Given the popularity of my previous Musil post (the most popular post I have shared in the last two years!!) I will share more thoughts on his writing over the coming weeks, possibly a longer piece on his least accessible works, maybe not…

Robert Musil, mathematics and infinity


There is really no need to belabor the point, since it is obvious to most of us these days that mathematics has taken possession, like a demon, of very aspect of our lives. Most of us may not believe in the story of a Devil to whom one can sell one’s soul, but those who must know something about the soul (considering that as clergymen, historians, and artists they draw a good income from it) all testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics and that mathematics is the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines. ‘The Man Without Qualities’ p 36 – Picador edition (tr. Sophie Wilkins)

Mathematics is a recurring theme in Robert Musil’s oeuvre, and as I have made my way through his catalogue, leading up to his unfinished “masterpiece” ‘The Man Without Qualities’, I have been intrigued by the frequent references to mathematics. As readers of ‘The Man Without Qualities would know, the central character, Ulrich, is a mathematician;

It has already been mentioned that he was a mathematician, and noting more need be said of that for the moment; in every profession followed not for money but for love there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to lead to a void.  P16 (Picador edition) (tr. Sophie Wilkins)

However, I am not going to investigate the references to mathematics in his unfinished novel, but will look at his first book ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ (tr. Mike Mitchell), and his short stories published as ‘Unions’ and ‘Three Women’ (tr. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser). The collection of very short observations ‘Posthumous Papers of a Living Author’ (tr. Peter Wortsman) I will use for some other cross reference purposes in a later post.

In ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’, first published in 1906, the protagonist Törless is attending a strict boarding school;

An idea had suddenly occurred to Törless during the maths class.
During the last few days he had followed the lessons in school with especial interest, for he thought to himself:’ If this really is meant to be a preparation for life, as they say, then there must be at least a hint of what I’m looking for.’
It was maths in particular he was thinking of, after the thoughts he’d had about infinity. p81 (Oxford World’s Classics Edition)

This section of the novel then goes on to explore “imaginary numbers”;

‘Yes. It’s not that difficult. You just have to remember that you’re calculating with the square root of minus one.’
‘But that’s just the problem. It doesn’t exist. Every number, whether positive or negative, results in a positive number when it’s squared. That means there can’t be a real number that’s the square root of a negative one.’ P 81

‘…After all, how different is it from irrational numbers? A never-ending division, a fraction the value of which never works out to a final decimal place however long you go on calculating it. And parallel lines meeting in infinity, what do you imagine by that? Pp 81-82

A novel that explores Törless’ coming of age and his exploration of rational thought, the complexity of a world of mathematics, imaginary numbers, irrational numbers, infinity, adds the layer of the unexplorable, a “void” into Törless’ journey for the ultimate truth.

Earlier in the novel, Törless is stretched out on his back in the park, “in vague dreams gazing through the crowns of two trees” at the sky;

And suddenly he noticed – he felt as if it were the first time it had happened – how high the sky actually was.
He felt a kind of sense of alarm. Right above him an unutterable deep little blue hole was shining between the clouds.
It seemed to him as if you ought to be able to climb up into it on a long, long ladder. But the farther he went into it, pulling himself up with his eyes, the more the shining blue background receded. And yet it seemed as if you ought to be able to reach it and hold it fast with your gaze. The desire to do so grew intense to the point of torment.
It was as if his vision, strained to the upmost, were shooting looks like arrows between the clouds, and as if, however far away it set its aim, they always fell a little short.
Now T
örless thought about this, making an effort to remain as calm and rational as possible. ‘Of course there’s no end,’ he told himself, ‘things go on and on, father and farther, to infinity.’ Keeping his eyes fixed on the sky, he repeated that to himself, as if trying to test out the power of an incantation. But to no avail; the words said nothing or, rather, they said something quite different, as if they were referring to the same object, but to a different, alien side of it that didn’t concern him at all.
‘Infinity!’ T
örless knew the word from maths lessons. It had never meant anything special to him. It kept on cropping up, someone or other had invented it at some time in the past, and since then it has become possible to perform calculations using it that were as reliable as those using anything fixed. It was just what it counted as in the calculation; Törless had never looked for anything beyond that. Pp67-68

The concepts of infinity, parallel lines that will eventually meet, an epiphany for an unfinished masterpiece!?!

Five Women

‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ was followed by ‘Unions’ in 1911, a collection of two stories, ‘The Perfecting of a Love’ and ‘The Temptation of Quiet Veronica’. My edition appears as part of a collection titled ‘Five Woman’ released by Verba Mundi books, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, which also features the thee novellas that made up Musil’s ‘Three Women’ published in 1924. Between ‘Unions’ and ‘Three Women’ he had written, and had published two plays.

The two works in ‘Unions” are a mystical exploration of emotion to the exclusion of narrative, reviewed at the time as “half-lit, veiled, insubstantially transparent… the mollusk-like fabric of all that is living”, and a recent review at Kirkus reviews says; “Musil’s rather extraordinary, claustrophobic concentration on states of mind and feeling– the attempt to stabilize the most impalpable sensations, intuitions, thoughts, apprehensions.”, these are difficult stories to explore. However, the stories also contain the concept of parallel lines meeting in the infinite;

For although the ordered picture of the world continually crumbled away under her gaze, and although what she felt for things was only the avid love that a mother feels for a child she lacks the strength to guide, still, at times now her languor would begin to vibrate like a string, like a note sounding at once deep within the ear and somewhere in the world, rising in a great vault, kindling a light . . . a light and people whose gestures were a long-drawn yearning, lines extending far, far away and meeting far, far away in the infinite. ‘The Temptation of Quiet Veronica’ p199

‘Three Women’ published in 1914 saw the introduction of more stable narrative plot lines and the stories explore “the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence” (‘The New Criterion’ February 1996) .The opening paragraph of one of the stories in ’Three Women’, ‘Tonka’ also references infinity;

At a hedge. A bird was singing. And then the sun was somewhere down behind the bushes. The bird stopped singing. It was evening, and the peasant girls were coming across the fields, singing. What little things! Is it petty if such little things cling to a person? Like burrs? That was Tonka. Infinity sometimes flows in drips and drops. P69


Musil’s collection of very short reflections and observations of minutiae ‘Posthumous Papers of a Living Author’ was published in 1936 and contains less mathematical references than these earlier works, however I will explore these short pieces in another blog post about Musil’s work sometime in the future. Possibly something on the art of writing.

I have not referenced Robert Musil’s 1913 essay ‘The Mathematical Man’, which appears in translation in the collection ‘Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft), however I will visit that essay in reference to the perceived decline of humanity and the rise of machines, another recurring theme in Musil’s works.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the introduction, by Johnathan Lethem, from ‘The Man Without Qualities’;

Musil’s novel is the literary equivalent of what the ecological critic Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”, whose precise boundaries in space and time are impossible to measure, the question with a hyperobject is how to place ourselves in relation to it. Pviii

The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz (translated by Adrian Nathan West)

If there was a scene characteristic of my humble poetics, it would be a foggy atmosphere where a solitary man waked down a lonely road and smoke always got him thinking.

I evoked that characteristic for sequence evident in so many of my stories.
                                   Enrique Vila-Matas ‘The Illogic of Kassel’
A thematic staple in many a literature, the fog, and Marianne Fritz uses the same image in her only translated work, “The Weight of Things”;
Ever since stepping into Ward 66, Wilhelm’s brain cells seemed veiled in a thick waft of fog, so that he could make out his thoughts only vaguely, and he had to proceed slowly and carefully, feeling them out, to be able to tell one from another at all. He resolved to restrict his thoughts to a level appropriate to the circumstances, to concentrate his energies, like a chauffeur driving in the fog who has to focus his attention on the oncoming cars: on seeing them for what they are, on not drifting too near them, on recognizing trees in the roadside shadows, concrete dividers in the spectral darkness, on knowing the median isn’t just a harmless fringe, to grasping, above all, that what surrounds him is real space, not some sort of vacuum, as the fog would prefer him to think – to the extent that a fog prefers anything – and to understanding that this material world is more resilient than he, so that failing to respect it, approaching it with arrogant recklessness, incautious stubbornness, or dogmatic inflexibility, would be extremely dangerous.
Very much like Wilhelm, you need to approach this book slowly and carefully, feel it out, see it for what it is, be aware of the median…it’s not just a harmless fringe.
Marianne Fritz’s first novel, the winner of the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, has recently been translated and released as part of the “Dorothy Project”, a publishing project mainly by women that publishes two books simultaneously, two books that “draw upon different aesthetic traditions”, because their “interest in literature lies in its possibilities, its endless stylistic and formal variety.” And from the opening pages you know that this is gem discovered.
The opening seven pages condenses the period 1945- January 1963 and includes pregnancy, marriage, the post-war decline of humanity, and the Madonna. We have three main characters, Wilhelmine, Wilhelm (who are married) and Berta and we cut back and forth across the eighteen-year period;
In view of Wilhelmine’s inclination to demand fulfilment of every last verbal concession she’d wrung out of him, usually without warning, he might have done better to vow henceforth never to make his vows so hastily, and to leave himself more ways out.
Without a background in German the nuances in the character’s names, and the places names are somewhat lost, however the “Note on the Translation” at the start gave me a clue as to some of the secondary meanings, for example, Berta’s maiden name means fist (‘Faust’ which is also, of course, Goethe’s famous play), Wilhelm’s surname means scream or cry etc. And there are numerical references throughout too, a recurring “unlucky” 13, ward 66, Anniversaries and more, I am sure there are many hidden references to all of these numbers.
The title, “The Weight of Things” is the daily grind of being alive;
“When she’s asleep, you know, she’s not caught up in the world, so concerned with the surface of things. The stamping and molding hands of life, the rolling, pressing, and flattening fingers – the weight of things, life as such, it can’t hurt her so long as she’s asleep. It’s that simple, Sleep startles everything away. Everything and everyone.”
Our novel starts out as a simple domestic story and once the fog descends it loops around on time, with satire, post-World War Two recovery, complex character internalisation, and includes a startling revelation. As I do my best to avoid spoilers in my reviews you won’t know what the revelation is unless you read this work yourself, however it does mean I have to be brief with my comments on this book as the “spoiler” is key to a number of the time threads that run throughout this book.
The afterword by translator Adrian Nathan West, reveals the following about the complex world of Marianne Fritz and her work, this being the only work we will possibly see in English;
Indeed, her entire oeuvre works toward a vindication of the livers of the poor, mean and especially women, who were expelled from the dignified arenas of Austrian society in the first half of the twentieth century and crushed like roaches under the millstone of history.
There are many articles available about Marianne Fritz’s other works, the untranslatable “Whose Language You Don’t Understand”, a 3,392-page story set in 1914, not only the beginning of World War One but also a “period in which the traditional agrarian economy gave way to industrialisation, when those who had previously worked the land became a despised and neglected appendage to the modern capitalist state.” This was followed by a 7,000 page ten volume work reproduced directly from Fritz’s typescript, a work so complex the spacing, drawings, angles of the text making it impossible to typeset.
A wonderfully bleak, dark, foggy tale, set during a further period of human decline after the second world-war, with Biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ and the Madonna, this can be read as a straight forward tale, it can also be mulled over, steered through carefully, and is a work that demands a re-read from the moment you finish it. A worthy contender to make the Best Translated Book Award lists for 2016 and another wonderful addition to the world of Women in Translation.

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