Friday, December 28, 2012

Authors as anthropomorphic animals, plus more Musil

And now back to crime fiction, The Left Bank Gang. Well, it's a comic book. And it brings Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce together in Paris—as anthropomorphic animals who plan a bank heist. And the four, joined by Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald in supporting roles, are cartoonists rather than writers. That allows dialogue like:
"Did you see the piece by Stein in `This Quarter'?"
"Naw, I can't stand her comics."

 "They are unreadable."

"I kind of like them."

"They're shit."

The book, by the one-named Norwegian cartoonist Jason, is like Woody Allen's "A Twenties Memory," only flatter, more matter of fact, and just is a funny in its poking fun at our fascination with the Lost Generation.

But you didn't think you were through with Robert Musil, did you? Here are a few more gems from The Man Without Qualities:

"Now, as it happened, Ulrich was not accustomed to regard the State as anything but a hotel in which one was entitled to civility and service, and he objected to the tone in which he had been addressed."
 *
 “Such a composer cannot be either a conspirator or a politician. If he were, his genius for light music would be unthinkable. And nothing irrational happens in the history of the world.”
 *
"Understanding reality is exclusively a matter for the historico-political thinker. For him the present time follows the battle of Mohács or of Lietzen as the entrée follows the soup."
 *
"It was perhaps not only Count Leinsdorf’s feelings that were given wings by a certain vague metaphorical quality that lessened the sense of reality. For there is an elevating and magnifying power in vagueness."
*
 “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”
And, most contemporary-seeming in 2012 from this book written between 1930 and 1942:
“`Tell me, what do you understand by ‘true patriotism’, ‘true progress’ and ‘true Austria’?”

"Startled out of his mood and yet still in the spirit of it, Ulrich answered in the style in which he had always carried on conversation with Fischel: `The P.I.C.'

“`The P.I.C.?' Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring." 
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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35 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

I think it is odd that a Norwegian cartoonist is fascinated with Paris and the "lost generation."

How on earth do you stumble upon what I perceive as being such obscure books? Perhaps my "confinement" in academia keeps me in different orbits.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One needs to hang around with the right people. There's overlap between the worlds of crime fiction readers, and I heard about Jason from a friend who reads both. It was then a matter of knowing what to browse at my local comics store.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I had to read that description over a couple of times to make sure I had a handle on it. The comic sounds brilliant and odd. I think I'd like it, and I'm not even sure why.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I tried to make my description as straightforward as the comic. My own apprehension was that the book would be all hipster post-irony. But it's not that, or at least not all that. It's oddness never quite gets too self-conscious or over the top.

December 28, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Excerpt: "Now, as it happened, Ulrich was not accustomed to regard the State as anything but a hotel in which one was entitled to civility and service, and he objected to the tone in which he had been addressed."

Though I am reading this out of context, I am struck by how Ulrich would have been more comfortable perhaps in 2013 America, a full-service "hotel" in which entitlements outweigh responsibilities (unless you count meek subordination to centralized power a responsibility).

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I suspect Musil was poking fun more at upper-middle-class notions of civility than anything else. I'm not sure the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of World War I had much in the way of what a polemically oriented Republican in America today would call entitlement programs.

But yes, much of "The Man Without Qualities" is amazingly fresh and pertinent today, eighty years and more after the novel's composition and a hundred years after the time of its setting.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

You say, "a polemically oriented Republican in America today."

Do I detect criticism in your comment?

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, but criticism of tendentious language rather than of the belief that government social spending needs to be cut. In the realm of pensions, for one, that's an argument worth making. But use the common expression "entitlement programs," and one might as well start saying "government schools" and "pro-life." One has ceased arguing and begun flinging slogans.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

When I see words like "tendentious language" and "slogans," I suspect I am being further corrected.

In which case, I think I hear my cue for an overdue but timely exit (i.e., I seem to have stumbled into the wrong play).

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, not at all. In fact, I am the world's worst debater on politics and policy because what stirs me up are not the politics and policies themselves but rather the dismal state of discourse about them. And, while my politics probably tend toward what is called liberal in the U.S., I am deeply suspicious of the motives behind "lifestyle" laws--banning smoking, and so on. Just don't call me a critic of the nany state, because that's a slogan.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

And so I regret having politicized the Musil excerpt. That, I suppose, is my tendency as a cultural critic (in literature) wherein I seek to contextualize past writings within current cultural issues.

Frankly, I know not enough about Musil to have made any intelligent comment. I know a little, and--as the expression correctly states--a little knowledge is a dangerous (useless) thing.

Now, apropos of nothing else, I think I will return to another reading of Hammett's _Red Harvest_.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Which reminds of an article by some professor I stumbled upon recently online. His article dicussed Chandler and then "the inferior Dashiell Hammett."

Now, I distrust almost any judgment that bold, especially when I disagree with it. But the article went on to call Hammett a Stalinist, which may be the most idiotic statement I've read in my life. The professor, you see, was a man of the old, loony, in-fighting left, and he made Hammett a target. If you ever find that article, feel free to describe its author as a loony leftist. You'll get no quarrel from.

Your politicizing Musil indicates, as I suggested before, how freshly he speaks to readers today. This may be the best novel I have ever read, and I ordered its second volume today. In a previous comment, I called "The Man Without Qualities" a novel of ideas that pokes fun at the idea of ideas.

My next Hammett will be a rereading of "The Glass Key," after my recent viewing of the 1935 movie version (not the better-known one, with Allan Ladd and Veronca Lake). The movie retained just enough of Hammett to remind my how astonishing the novel is.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Much has been made of Hammett and his political positions.

Here is one example:

http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=799

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The most pertinent bit of that article:

"The novels certainly do not provide a clue."

Followed by:

"But Hammett’s novels are more modernistic, and even post-modernistic than Marxist. They merely portray the extent of the disease without providing a cure."

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

My recollections from previous reading of _Red Harvest_ might be at odds with those statements.

But, with this rereading, I will be more alert since this discussion is fresh in my mind.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Does that make the partying parasites of "The Thin Man" an indictment of the decadent coupon-clipping classes? (Remember, Nick Charles has retired from detecting to make a living running Nora's father's industrial concerns.)

Ned Beaumont or Sam Spade indications of Hammett's politics? I suspect there are more pertinent and fruitful ways of reading Hammett.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Reading for entertainment is the best strategy. I would also include reading to learn how to write damn good sentences.

But as I may have mentioned several weeks ago, when I was graduate school, I was cautioned that my forced immersion into literary theory would likely "ruin" me as a reader who seeks simple pleasures. That prediction was partially correct, but since I have become nearly senile (forgetting most of what I learned about theory), it is easier for me now to simply kick back and enjoy the ride.

December 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You were so much older then, as Bob Dylan said of himself. You're younger than that now. Of course, he was in his early twenties then, so what the hell did he know?

December 29, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

As "Entitlements" is a term used by the US federal government to describe the various programs that fall under this heading at www.recovery.gov, why is R.T.'s use of the term "entitlement programs" "tendentious language"?

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes, I stand corrected, in part. I did not know that was an official term. It's a god-awful unfortunate term, but I withdraw my objection to R.T.'s use.

But the term's history is still worth investigating. I could be wrong, but I think the term predated the Recovery Act. Wikipedia notes that "entitlement" can have a pejorative connotation. So the nabobs who concocted the term made an unfortunate choice, leaving an out for people with tendentious intentions to argue, innocently, that they were merely using the government's own language.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Relying upon Wikipedia for authoritative information is a slippery slope. It is "off limits" for anyone in my classes, but that is nearly impossible to enforce since Wikipedia has become so popular as a shortcut for my lazy students.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I know that, and I have written as much here. But in this case, I think WIkipedia is right. After all, my sense of entitlement as pejorative lay behind my accusation that you language was tendentious.

I've speculated that Wikipedia might be a useful pointer to real sources, since the occasional article will include authoritative citations of the traditional kinds. I've also thought that if I were a professor, I'd demand that students provide citations for everything.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

ten·den·tious
/tenˈdenSHəs/
Adjective
Expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, esp. a controversial one: "a tendentious reading of history".

I did not think I was promoting a cause. I thought I was making an objective statement. You disagree. You suggest something other than objectivity.

As for students providing source citations, that certainly remains the requirement. You may be surprised--or you may not--that many students plagiarize without attribution, taking content from the most readily available online sources.

By the way, I would think a copy editor would be particularly wary of Wikipedia. Yes, there is valid content within the site, but students--you see--have not yet to discriminate between the accurate and not-so-accurate on the Internet.

Perhaps, though, I have said too much, too regularly, to frequently. So, to avoid becoming tendentious, and I think offensive, I think I should become instead reticent.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I did not know at the time that "entitlement" was an official designation. So that absolves you--a conservative bailed out of my ire by a government program!

Still, that pejorative sense places it, for me, somewhere between "pro-life" and "invest in" (rather than "spend") in the lexicon of tendentious politics.

Oh, I'd never use Wikipedia as a source in my own writing or accept it as a source in a reporter's. I have found and tried to correct several errors in WIkipedia, to no avail. But I do find it useful to back up something I already know, as in this case. Or, say, I could not remember which of the the movie versions of The Glass Key starred George Raft and which started Allan Ladd. Wikipedia is probably reasonably safe for something like that--as long as I used the information informally.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

There are several threads in this "conversation" that suggest to me a provocative question (or perhaps it is a comment):

Have you noticed that conservatives are often expected to be tolerant of liberal ideas, but liberals seem to be not so intolerant of conservative ideas. I wonder if that is an accurate statement. If it, I wonder what that is the case.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Postscript: I offered the foregoing question/comment also in consideration of my experiences in academia. If a professor does "conservative-speak" in a classroom, that is often a career-killer, but if a professor does "liberal-speak" in the classroom, tenure and collegiality are the rewards. Go figure!

I also noticed elsewhere someone's complain about Tolkien's conservative (i.e., religious) attitudes; that observer's POV has apparently damaged his reading of Tolkien's works. Perhaps this is similar to what we were saying about readers of Hammett.

Hey, I'm just thinking out loud.

December 30, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Perhaps, though, I have said too much, too regularly, to frequently. So, to avoid becoming tendentious, and I think offensive, I think I should become instead reticent.

R.T., I, too, have come to the same conclusion. I never know when an observation such as yours, that entitlements now outweigh responsibilities, (I would argue that entitlements have expanded while responsibilities have shrunk) which can be discussed objectively and supported by information readily available at .gov Web sites will be interpreted and dismissed as tendentious. Is it because conservatives (please, don't call me a Republican; I'm not) think that growing entitlements without expanding the responsibilities related to them might eventually become untenable and unsustainable (to throw in a popular "now" word) while a liberal does not see expansion/contraction of the two as a possible future problem? Or that conservatives (as is their wont, natch) are polemically driven while liberals (natch) are not?

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Alas, Elizabeth, I may now and then promise (or threaten) reticence, but sometimes (often) the catalysts against reticence overwhelm my good sense. Perhaps silence is itself an error.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you noticed that conservatives are often expected to be tolerant of liberal ideas

Yes. I've also noticed that American conservatism does not choose for itself the best public faces. Even Charles Krauthammer, whom I have cited approvingly (as when he noted the absurdity of tying health insurance to the workplace), grows increasingly doctrinaire and dyspeptic around election time if it appears the Democrats will win.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I didn't know anything about Tolkein's politics, but I don't think such knowledge would have made me any less bored with "The Hobbit" when I read it during a previous wave of Tolkien-mania. I'd be a lot more interested in his Beowulf scholarship.

The Hammett reader whom I cited at the outset of this discussion apparently was turned off by Hammett's politics not because Hammett was a Communist but because he was the wrong kind of Communist.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I should add to the above --and I've told Elisabeth this and I think she even agreed--that when I hear, say, that governments need to cut spending on public-sector pensions, I'm sympathetic to the idea, but I don't trust the messenger's motives.

I should add, for the benefit my my conservative friends, that Diotima's salon in "The Man Without Qualities" reminded me a but of the Renaissance Weekends made famous by the Clintons--er, that is, for the benefit of my conservative friends if Bill Clinton was a liberal.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I think all this back-and-forth regarding politicized language had its roots in my attempt in an off-handed way to draw a comparison between the Musil excerpt and the contemporary American society as "hotel," and you found part of my comment or diction to be "tendentious."

It is funny how a word can become such a catalyst. It is less funny that Musil has become lost in the avalanche of subsequent words.

All of this, I think, speaks more to the contemporary state of affairs in which people (you and I) can sometimes erect barriers in which all language is politicized. I remember a time in America when words like "liberal" or "conservative" were hardly ever used, but they have now become as defining and polarizing as words like "Catholic" or "Protestant" or "Jewish" were in communities. Perhaps that is an imperfect comparison, but I hope that somewhere between the lines you understand what I am attempting to say.

And perhaps I have rambled on quite long enough. That is something I have been saying more frequently lately. Perhaps it is true. I am beginning to feel like the uninvited guest at the neighborhood social club party; everyone speaks a slightly different language, and they are suspicious of my accent. As a western Pennsylvanian from a mill-town, I have plenty of experience with that scenario. I will let you unpack the metaphor within that allusion.

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., sixty-two chapters into "The Man Without Qualities" as I am, I suspect that Musil would be amused that a discussion of his novel wanders far afield. The novel does a fair amount of wandering itself.

As for what we made of "entitlement," a barrier can serve as a catalyst, can it not?

When you say you've gone on long enough, that's a sign that the discussion is getting interesting. I, too, thought recently about how new the liberal-conservative split is in American political discourse. Paul Kirk may have been the first to crystallize the idea of "conservative," and that was only in the 1950s/

December 30, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, no harm, no foul. Right?

On another note, I had been torn away from Dickens for a while, and I have just returned (again) to hear once again about "the ghost walk" at the Chesney Wold. Goodness, those Victorians liked their beyond-this-world episodes.

Now it is back to Esther's narration.

Well, nothing political there.

(Not unless you count the anti-robot prompt: USAASMA

December 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you'll have noticed that I, too, have been torn away not just from Dickens but from just about every other reading by The Man Without Qualities. In fact, I had logged on now to post another line from the book that characterized the State, this also from Ullrich:

"(T)he State is collective man at his stupidest and m0ost malign."

On the one hand, Ullrich is arguably heartless in this chapter (he is trying to rebuff a former lover's entreaties to let her take part in a great patriotic undertaking). On the other, out of context, at least, that statement might be likelier to appeal to classical conservatives than to classical liberals.

But, not to sound too much like some of the good bourgeois intellectuals in Musil's books, the notions of "liberal" and "conservative" in America deserve study. Whether such study will lead to understanding, who knows?

December 30, 2012  

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