Monday, 8 June 2009

Robert Musil, some notes on his thinking on culture

The Serious Writer in Our Time, 1934


There are aesthetic and critical concepts for whose future application, after they themselves have been more precisely elaborated, there are great prospects. But that will still require all kinds of work. I would indeed say that not even the essence of truth has yet been sufficiently described; and the essence of beauty will follow only at a respectful distance.

In the sphere of aesthetic values, a child may easily ask more than nine wise men can answer. It is, nevertheless, perhaps worthwhile for the child to ask – but not to decree the answers himself.


But a thematic separation of the spheres of literature and politics can hardly still be effected, and potentially does not even exist; therefore the difference in the way they function must become all the more vivid in everyone's feeling.


I recall the old example of the beautifully painted picture of some horrible object: it is a platitude that the picture is beautiful. But what if the a beautiful face were to contain a reprehensible sentiment? It would be the same, of course. The face contains this sentiment not as a sentiment but as raw material, as a principle that is in no way self-sufficient and that has become unreal. It can happen that a serious writer does suddenly represent with the greatest devotion what he detests as as a private person. One could state flatly that his mind is capable of anything , but it is also capable of detaching everything from its ordinary meaning...

Here I would like to recall that just as there beautiful paintings of ugly objects, there can also be worthless paintings of beautiful objects.

The work of art is an abstraction from life and its ties; the enjoyment and understanding of art assumes an ability and a will to abstract that is not often met with, even in artistically minded people, although it always sets in as soon as the scent “something”. What is represented truthfully can only be built on the basis of this abstraction. All our higher feelings apparently originated from simple and instinctive feelings sometimes coming into conflict with each other and preventing immediate gratification. Art carries this on in similar fashion, preserving people's sense of not yet having come to closure: it keeps their impulse for progress alive.

I would say that whoever cannot look with pleasure at even the nastiest but wittiest caricature of himself has not yet quite understood this.!


“The readiest example of how it [this spirit] can be destroyed is the burning of the Library at Alexandria, and the pulling down of pagan statues is the most perfect expression for how the spirit can be brought into harmony with general progress. The spirit of antiquity, at the high level of its cultivation at the time, was dependent on institutions like libraries and schools; and the individuals who incoprorated it were dependent on the toleration and good will of their contemporaries. A change in the will of the times (summarily speaking) was enough to sweep everything away.”


Wilhelm von Humboldt charaterized significant indviduality as a power of the spirit that springs up without reference to the course of events and begins a new series. He saw nodal points and points of origin in creative people who absorb past things and release them in a new form that can no longer be traced back past their point of origin.

This picture is individualistic, in nature, but it also places this individualism within the totality.

Lecture; Paris, 1935

Culture is not bound to any political form. It is receptive to specific demands or inhibitions from any one of them. There are no cultural axioms that could not be replaced by others, so that on this new basis a different culture would be possible. The decisive factor lies with the whole, as one canno say of a person according to isolated principles or actions whether he is a idiot, or a genius, or a born criminal. I would especially remind you of Nietzsche's observation, in his posthumous fragments, that "the victory of a moral idea, is achieved by the same immoral means as every victory: force, lies, slander and injustice."

Culture presupposes a continuity, and respect even for what one is fighting. Even that is hard to leave out of account.

In that case, it may perhaps also be asserted that culture has always been supranational. The history of the arts and sciences is one long example of this. Even the culture of primitive societies shows this phenomenon. Especially, at its highest levels, culture is dependent on supranational connections, and genius too is distributed in the same way as the occurrence of other rarities.

And if culture were not international, it would certainly be, within a single people, something supratemporal that often jumps over long flat stretches, and connects with things that lie far back in the past. From this we conclude that those who serve culture are forbidden to identify themselves totally with a momentary condition of their national culture.

And culture is not a tradition that can simply be handed passed from hand to hand, as the traditionalists claim, but involves a peculiar process: it is not so much that the creative people take over what comes from the other times and places as that these are rather newly born within them.

We know further that the bearers of of this process are individual people. The community is involved in a most important way, but the individual is at least its independent instrument. This, however, opens up a larger and much more familiar circle of conditions for the rise of a culture, all those who to which the individual power of creation is subjected. I don't want to go into this further, but here many politically misused, outworn, and then rejected concepts recur, purified of historical elements, as indispensable psychological assumptions. Thus, for example, freedom, openness, courage, incorruptibility, responsibility, and criticism, criticism even more against what seduces us that against what repels us. These concepts must even include the love of truth, and I mention this especially because what we call culture is not directly subservient to the criterion of truth; but no great culture can rest on a distorted relationship to truth.

If a political regime does not support such qualities in everyone, they will not appear even in extraordinary talents.

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