Friday, 19 October 2012

Behind the Mountains

The world of the prose pieces of Robert Walser’s assembled in the collection Masquerade and Other Stories is one of those who hold to ‘modest being’, as Walser phrases it in ‘Tobold (II)’. It may be easy, at first sight and when one is aware of Walser’s own history of depressive illness, to confuse such modesty – perhaps particularly when expressed in terms of an abdication of agency or occupation – with mental incapacity. In his ‘Introduction’ to the collection, William H. Gass describes Walser’s eventual institutional mode of existence, when he deliberately abandoned his lifelong, modernist vocation of obscurity.

‘His mind pleads incompetence. Asylums are asylums. There he can guiltlessly surrender his fate and pass his days at the behest of others. He will no longer need to write in such a way that its public obscurity is assured. He will no longer need to write. The daily walk will suffice.’

Yet, in the course of his description of the narrator’s unemployment in ‘Marie’, Walser places depression – or the radical form of modesty which is a personal refusal of occupation – in dialectical relation to an impulse towards freedom. Even as he is ‘confined, restrained, imprisoned’ by, or reified within, his obsessive negative thought patterns, Walser’s narrator ‘should have liked to wander far off, out into the bright, wide, open, healthy world’. However self-ironizing, repetitious and concentric Walser’s depressive’s prose may be here, this conjunction shines out: ‘I was free, then suddenly wasn’t at all free.’

‘Sometimes I did in fact reproach myself most sternly about my idleness, but without being too terribly worried about it. Employment was always on my mind; I resolved to get to work, but for all that was still a long way from working, and instead kept running around jobless, without anything at all in the way of occupation. Melancholia and pensiveness held me strangely captive; all day long I was unable to free myself from any number of thoughts, found myself bound by my ideas. I was, so to speak, both prisoner and prison, felt confined, restrained, imprisoned. I was free, then suddenly wasn’t at all free. […] I should have liked to wander far off, out into the bright, wide, open, healthy world, but then again didn’t have the least desire, the slightest urge to do so, though I was by no means really too indolent.’       

Precisely the unfreedom of the narrator in ‘Marie’, the way in which he is crippled by his depression, conditions his particular form of freedom, which consists of an impulse towards freedom or a desire to be free: the ‘certain ardent searching and longing’ upon which Walser expands on the following page. Walser’s hyper-irony notes that this longing too is a mode of unfreedom, though one that we ‘should not even strive’ to escape. Indeed, as (in) a sort of beneficient infinite recursion, it is itself ‘desirable’, and more so than any utopian end-point:

‘Around this time I went for a walk across the mountain with an honest, straightforward man. I vividly recall a good and most agreeable conversation we had along the way, in the course of which the person in question, my walking companion, pursued a train of thought according to which we humans, as long as we live, are generally incapable of freeing ourselves from a certain ardent searching and longing, and should not even strive to; that our longing for happiness seems far more beautiful, always far more sensitive, more significant and all in all probably far more desirable than happiness itself, which perhaps need not even exist, since the fervent, gratifying pursuit of happiness and an everlasting, deep desire for it perhaps not only suit perfectly our needs, but satisfy them far better, far more profoundly; that being happy is by no means to be taken casually, unquestioningly as the meaning of the world, the goal and purpose of life, and so on.’

The physical activity of exploring nature – the mountain walk – is an appropriate stimulant of these cogitations on this ‘ardent searching and longing’: in later pieces Walser explicitly conceives of longing in organic, natural terms. ‘The One of Fairy Tales’ has the phrase ‘The mountain fire of longing’. A 1927-28 ‘Prose Piece’ ends with this sentence:

‘Waves and branches have snakelike shapes, and there come moments when we know we are no more and no less than waves and snowflakes, or than that which surely feels, now and then, from its so wonderfully charming confinement, the pull of longing: the leaf.’
Whilst this prose piece highlights the passivity of a plant’s experience of longing, other pieces of Walser’s, such as ‘Fritz’, do emphasize human active longing and its attendant agencies. Fritz would dazzle his potential employer with his general positivity, his resolve and ‘willingness to lay it on as thick as possible’, in order to satisfy his ‘profound longing for rewarding and long-term employment’. Yet his ironical attitude towards all this is reinforced by the page’s typography.

‘She remarked that only ardent

who had a mind to go all the way could be taken into consideration, whereupon I replied I was resolved to be every bit as ardent and to go ever bit as far as I thought would please her; she’d be astonished. I was beyond all doubt an optimist.’

The narrator of ‘Tobold (II)’ again foregrounds longing, ardency and resolution: ‘Some day what I have long wished to do should and must be achieved.’ With this emphasis on will and courage, Walser here could be said to promulgate a radical decision theory:

‘That an act requires courage is, in my opinion, enough to make it worthwhile, that is, healthy and honest. Whether or not the enterprise has a chance of succeeding strikes me, as I said before, as irrelevant. What really counts, what has weight and significance, is showing courage and firmness, not failing to undertake some day the thing you’ve proposed.’

Yet because decisive undertaking is more about pure will than carried-through, practical action or the achievement of an objective goal, and because Walser’s narrators tend to verbalize or theorize undertaking rather than actually undertake anything, it is easy to describe Walser’s creations as passive, depersonalized selves, as does Gass.

‘Walser’s narrators (and we can presume, in this case, Walser himself) have become will-less wanderers, impotent observers of life, passive perceivers of action and passion. Only on the page, will the Will risk the expression and exercise of its considerable means.’ 


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Martian Time-Slip, part 2

In Martian Time-Slip Dick clearly upholds individual freedom, whether it be in terms of the schizophrenic ‘turn inward to meaning’ or Zitte’s bid for economic freedom. Yet the novel’s representation of mental illness also emphasizes the negative aspect of subjective inwardness. Dr Glaub draws attention to how ‘“in child autism, as with Manfred, there is no language at all, at least no spoken language. Possibly totally personal private thoughts…but no words.”’ Dick stresses how autistic noncommunication cages the subject within privatized existence – a sort of privatization which chills Jack Bohlen despite his experience of an empathy with the autistic boy, when he is ‘caught in a symbiosis with this unfortunate, mute creature who did nothing but rake over and inspect his own private world, again and again’. Earlier in the text, when he is exploring the ‘Public School’, Bohlen is troubled by the way in which autism ‘was in the last analysis an apathy toward public endeavour; it was a private existence carried on as if the individual person were the creator of all value, rather than merely the repository of inherited values’. Bohlen thinks that it is important that ‘The child learned that certain things in the culture around him were worth preserving at any cost’, and that ‘His values were fused with some objective human enterprise’. Dick bemoans the divorce of the radically noncommunicative from a communal objectivity, which he thinks of in terms of a taught tradition of values and culture. This divorce also represents the entrance to what Doreen Anderton, in conversation with Bohlen, calls ‘“the Tomb World”’.

‘Jack thought, And people talk about mental illness as an escape! He shuddered. It was no escape; it was a narrowing, a contracting of life into, at last, a mouldering, dank tomb, a place where nothing came or went; a place of total death.’

Dick thus associates psychotic noncommunication with a condition of total reification, or a freezing within an absence of experience; an absence of change. ‘It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again.’ Yet despite lamenting the breakdown of the subject’s relation to objectivity in this way, Dick also offers a critique of objectivity in the form of the ‘composite psyche’ represented by the Public School. In this context he once more upholds the individual’s freedom, accusing an unfree society of imposing a diagnosis of mental illness on any child who displays signs of personal singularity:

Paul Klee. Early Sorrow. 1938
‘It was a battle, Jack realized, between the composite psyche of the school and the individual psyches of the children, and the former held all the key cards. A child who did not properly respond was assumed to be autistic – that is, oriented according to a subjective factor that took precedence over his sense of objective reality.’

Hence whilst Dick bemoans the alienation of the radically noncommunicative from intersubjective objectivity, or ‘the reality of interpersonal living, of life in a given culture with given values’, he critiques their educational institution – the Public School – which represents the ‘link’ to the ‘inherited culture’, and which is there ‘not to inform or educate, but to mold, and along severely limited lines’. ‘It bent its pupils to it [the culture]; perpetuation of the culture was the goal, and any special quirks in the children which might lead them in another direction had to be ironed out.’ Bohlen views ‘the fixed, rigid, compulsive-neurotic Public School’ as being, on one level, ‘an invention arising from necessity’ – insofar as its very neurosis offers the children a bulwark against their own psychosis, or ‘a reference point by which one could gratefully steer one’s course back to mankind and shared reality’. The reified, ‘compulsive-obsessive’ environment which the Public School represents – ‘a world in which nothing new came about, in which there were no surprises’ – at least enables ‘a deliberate stopping, a freezing somewhere along the path’ of psychosis. But Bohlen is also preoccupied by the way in which the Public School environment represents the conversion of ‘inherited culture’ into a form of reified intersubjectivity.

‘[…] Jack Bohlen, for the life of him, could not accept the Public School with its teaching machines as the sole arbiter of what was and what wasn’t of value. For the values of a society were in ceaseless flux, and the Public School was an attempt to stabilize those values, to jell them at a fixed point – to embalm them.’

It seems to be apparent, therefore, that what the novel’s treatment of the interface between mental illness and impaired communication is focussed on, above all else, is reification. Dick laments reified intersubjectivity just as he laments reified subjectivity. In Martian Time-Slip an important definition of psychosis returns to the vocabulary of jelling or coagulation, to describe the self reified beyond empathy and communication:

‘A coagulated self, fixed and immense, which effaces everything else and occupies the entire field. Then the most minute change is examined with the greatest attention. That is Manfred’s state now; has been, from the beginning. The ultimate stage of the schizophrenic process.’

It is as if the reified self expands until, become pure 'attention', it wipes itself out. Jameson’s ‘Philip K. Dick, in Memoriam’ concludes with a discussion of Dick’s prophetic treatment of the ‘end to individualism’ which increasingly characterizes society now. In response to the ‘death of the subject’, Jameson sees Dick’s writing as staging a ‘fitful and disturbing reappearance’ of ‘the collective’ – when the collective reappears precisely in the context of our reified intersubjectivity, or ‘the logic of stereotypes, reproductions and depersonalization in which the individual is held in our own time, “like a bird caught in cobwebs” (Ubik)’. Jameson reads Dick’s fiction as colliding a marginal collective made up of the vulnerable and the posthumous, with the radically alienating world of digitalized, virtualized intersubjectivity imposed on us by technology and mass media: within this scenario, Dick can attach some sort of redemptive value to the reification experienced by the autistic or ‘half-life’ community.

‘It is a literature in which the collective makes a fitful and disturbing reappearance, most often in a paralyzed community of the dead or the stricken, their brains wired together in a nightmarish attempt to find out why their familiar small-town worlds are lacking in depth or solidity, only to discover that they are “in reality” all immobilized together in some cryogenic half-life.’

As Jameson would go on to stress, in his ‘History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick’, in Martian Time-Slip Dick upholds the marginal, immobilized collective as the only social formation capable of future mobility. At the end of the novel, Dick presents Manfred Steiner as having been rescued, eventually, by Jack Bohlen’s attempt to communicate with him. In the novel’s climactic scene back-from-the-future Steiner may now be, as Jameson puts it, an ‘android-type prosthetic being’, but this is also Steiner’s (in Jameson’s phrase) ‘final apotheosis’, and a moment in which he can thank Bohlen for his humanity. ‘It lapsed into silence and then it resumed, more loudly, now. “You tried to communicate with me, many years ago. I appreciate that.”’ Though physically quite literally semi-reified, by now Steiner has found a way of releasing himself from the sort of contemporary reified intersubjectivity emblematized by the AM-WEB building, precisely – so Dick suggests – as a result of a developing capacity for communication and relationality. Bohlen asks Steiner, ‘“Did you escape AM-WEB?”’ ‘“Yesss,” it hissed, with a gleeful tremor. “I am with my friends.” It pointed to the Bleekmen who surrounded it.’ Relating to the Bleekmen, as Bohlen had surmised earlier, can enable Steiner to break through reification, by learning how to adjust – to change – precisely through learning how to be true to his own singularity:

‘Perhaps, for the first time in his life, the boy was in a situation to which he might make an adjustment; he might, with the wild Bleekmen, discern a style of living which was genuinely his and not a pallid, tormented reflection of the lives of those around him, beings who were innately different from him and whom he could never resemble, no matter how hard he tried.’  
Franziska Moebius. Kinder im Weg. Leipzig 2006.
transit trauma and arrested development