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.’