Gass returns to the characteristically depersonalized and depersonalizing quality of Walser’s writing when he notes the ‘detached, desperate “inhumanity” of his work’. The narrator’s depersonalizing self-negation is foregrounded explicitly in ‘The Alphabet’: ‘
I. I skip over, for this is I myself.’ Depersonalizing narratorial strategies are most evident in ‘Tobold (II)’ however, in numerous instances of self-negating narration such as this sentence:
‘Concerning a keg of the finest rye whiskey that, to the delight of the steward and that of a certain additional person – namely, to my very own, grinning, hand-rubbing delight – showed up only to be closely inspected and quite thoroughly investigated and examined by the two abovementioned important or insignificant personages, I shall take care not to waste another word.’
In ‘Tobold (II)’, the ‘certain additional person’ that is the modern self is brushed aside and reduced to the point where his very moods and their attendant whims are directed by an invisible heteronomy. The narrator’s investigation of his workplace is less a focussed product of individual agency, than a dissipated effect of being seduced by that which is more powerful: ‘The castle itself was an imposing edifice, and the many beautiful rooms and chambers I was permitted to glance into as the mood struck me naturally captured my attention and interest with their aristocratic appearance.’ Narration once more becomes a vehicle for expressing the narrator’s self-alienation and loss of personal agency, in the following presentation of vigilant attention directed by the formless authority which it tends:
‘One of the choicest duties I had to perform was caring for the numerous lamps, an occupation that gave me great pleasure, for I developed quite a fondness for it. Each evening at nightfall I brought light, so to speak, into the dubious twilight that reigned on all sides, or if you prefer, into the darkness. As the count was a fancier of beautiful lamps and lampshades, these always had to be tended and treated with the greatest care. On beautiful evenings, as I crept about the rooms, all quiet as a mouse, a delicate mood in the air, the entire castle seemed bewitched. All the rooms were as if enchanted, the park an enchanted park, and with my soft, discreet, cautious lamplight, I seemed like Aladdin leaping one evening with his magic or miraculous lamp up the high, broad palace steps spread with splendid oriental rugs.’
In this passage the radical modesty of the narrator – as he creeps about the rooms, ‘all quiet as a mouse’ – renders him indistinguishable from the narrated environment: the succeeding clause, ‘a delicate mood in the air’, could refer to him just as easily as to the castle. Then this submersion of the narrator’s identity within the described environment blends into a self-alienation in the form of a self-fictionalization: ‘I seemed like Aladdin’. The sense of narratorial self-alienation has already been generated by the recurrently self-qualifying, self-negating prose: ‘I brought light, so to speak, […] or if you prefer […]’. Here we are reminded of Walser’s foregrounding of the depersonalized quality of his writing in ‘The Green Spider’, where the narrator refers to ‘my mouth and its modest tool, my inherited language’, so divorcing a potential description enabled by such language from his human physicality ‘incapable of […] stammering it out’. By self-consciously stressing that this is writing removed from its writer, Walser emphasizes his own radical alienation from the reader. This is the effect of the final lines of ‘A Flaubert Prose Piece’ too, which once more draw attention to Walser’s writerly self-abnegation and the depersonalized quality of his prose. ‘Her report contained nothing that might have surprised him. They glided and passed among the people gliding and passing by, like a dream vision within the vision of a dream.’
I want to draw out the radical implications of Walser’s articulation of modern self-abnegation; of the radical modesty of being, as Gass puts it, ‘Lightly attached to people, to the formalities of society, to any work which lies beneath another’s will like a leg beneath a log’. To take a first example, Walser’s position of self-abnegation enables his writing to develop a powerful critique of self-interest. In her translator’s ‘Preface’ to the collection, Susan Bernofsky quotes Elias Canetti on Walser, in the former’s The Human Province : ‘His deep and instinctive distaste for everything “lofty”, for everything that has rank and privilege, makes him an essential writer of our time, which is choking on power.’ Walser’s fascination with power struggles – his typical focus on human relations in terms of conflict or war – is communicated, for instance, in the following passage in ‘Tobold (II)’. Here the narrator discerns two distinct forms of human conflict, low battles concerning self-interest and ‘noble’ battles concerning natural morality:
‘Intrigues show up in castles, the same as in all other major establishments and institutions. Now the cook wanted to incite me against the steward, now the steward against the cook, but all this factional bickering and class conflict left me cold, for I had no interest in it. Anywhere a noble, splendid, sensible struggle can be found, I’ll be glad, perhaps, to take part in it – why not? – for instance in the struggle of the good versus the wicked, the benevolent versus the malevolent, the open and flexible versus the hardened and insensitive, the quick-witted versus the unenlightened, the diligent and industrious versus those who do nothing yet always stay on top, the struggle of the guileless versus the crafty and sly. This could be a battle I might like to lend a hand in, it can rain blows and punches for all I care, the more the merrier.’
Walser’s critique of modern, institutional self-interest relates to the way in which his writing – as I want to suggest – projects a similar opposition of modern purposive rationality to natural human life, to that proposed within Georg Simmel’s contemporaneous The Philosophy of Money. (Simmel’s text was published in 1907, whilst Walser’s ‘Aschinger’ and ‘The Battle of Sempach’ – to which we will refer soon – date from 1907 and 1908 respectively). In his German Political Philosophy, Chris Thornhill outlines how Simmel’s political and sociological theory involved ‘the first major step on the path towards a reconstruction of vitalist philosophy, especially that of Nietzsche’.
‘Like Nietzsche, […] Simmel saw the capitalist economy as marking the final triumph of the human being as a formally purposive agent, and he also saw the purposive rationality of capitalism as weakening or neutralizing the relation between people and the purposes or objects of their possession, and even between people and their own actions. Under the generalized rationality of capitalism, therefore, the purposes of economically constructed persons assume a heteronomous primacy over human life itself.’
Indeed, as Thornhill summarizes, because the formal purposiveness of modern monetary subjects involves an alienation of those subjects from their own true purposes, it generates – Simmel maintained in The Philosophy of Money – an experience of depersonalization, such as we have seen reflected throughout Walser’s prose pieces:
‘As an agent seeking purposes, he [Simmel] argued, the modern subject alienates itself from the experiential sources of genuine subjectivity, and it constructs itself as a thinly neutralized set of contents and objectives. The monetary alienation of the human subject from its purposes and actions, then, also leads to a weakening or dissipation of the relation between people and other people, and ultimately, to a weakening or dissipation of the person itself – to a lack of “definite substance in the centre of the soul” or to a diffuse experience of depersonalization.’
We can find Walser detailedly projecting an opposition of formal purposiveness to natural human life within the following extraordinary description of war in ‘The Battle of Sempach’.
‘The rushing crowd, apparently full of passion, drew closer. And the knights stood their ground; suddenly they seemed fused together. Iron men held out their lances; you could have gone for a buggy ride across this bridge of lances, the knights were squeezed in so tightly, lance upon lance stuck out so mindlessly, firm and unyielding – just the thing, you might think, for such an impetuous, raging human breast to impale itself on. Here, an idiotic wall of spikes; there, people half-covered with shirts. Here, the art of war, the most prejudiced there is; there, people seized with helpless rage. Just to put an end to this loathsome horror, one man after the other recklessly charged into a lance tip, maddened, insane, flung by fury and rage. Flung to the ground, that is, without even having struck the helmeted, plumed iron scoundrel with his hand weapon, bleeding pitiably from his breast, tumbling head over heels, face down into the dusty excrement left behind by the noble steeds. This was the fate of all these almost naked men, while the lances, already red with blood, seemed to smile in scorn.’
Walser’s tableau foregrounds two aspects of human experience. The ‘people half-covered with shirts’ represent passionate humanity. Their behaviour, their purposes, are self-directed: these are people simply ‘impetuous’ or ‘seized with helpless rage’, who are representatives of uncontrolled nature – ‘maddened, insane, flung by fury and rage’. On the other hand, there are the knights reified into their weapons: ‘an idiotic wall of spikes’, ‘the art of war, the most prejudiced there is’. On this side it is impossible to separate reified humans (‘Iron men’, ‘the helmeted, plumed iron scoundrel’), from humanized lances which ‘seemed to smile in scorn’. These knights emblematize an alienated condition of formal purposiveness. Their behaviour is rigidly purposeful, to the point where they are themselves indistinguishable – ‘squeezed in so tightly, lance upon lance stuck out so mindlessly, firm and unyielding’ – from the object-world of instrumentality and neutralization that they project. Walser obsessively delineates what he intuits to be the structuring conflict underlying modern life, and his forecast of the outcome is not utopian: as he writes in the preceding sentence, ‘Nature is always annihilated in a battle’.
Thornhill shows how Simmel’s opposition of formal purposiveness to natural human life was grounded in Nietzsche’s thinking about law, reason and nature. Nietzsche, Thornhill summarizes, thought that fear of nature stimulates the legislation of ‘rational or moral purposes for humans to pursue, so that they are distracted from their naturalness’. Laws are formed in order to differentiate human life from ‘the cyclical temporal processes of mere nature or from the chaotic temporal events of historical contingency’. ‘Laws and values produced in this manner serve to humanize the world’, Thornhill notes; ‘they allow human beings to live, at least, in an illusion of human justification and moral purpose’. But they also reflect ‘a fearful will to obtain power, a power that can only be secured through the extirpation of whatever is residually natural – including the residues of nature in reason itself’:
‘Whilst possessing the obvious psychological utility that they protect people from knowledge of their own naturalness, however, Nietzsche argued that the laws created by reason form highly coercive and dominatory intellectual structures, which, in seeking to suppress fear, fixate human reason on the acquisition of power.’
For Nietzsche, as Thornhill writes, this is ‘invariably the will to power of weak people’; it is ‘power resentfully desired by those who cannot contentedly tolerate the naturalness and spontaneous futility of life’. Those who cannot accept contingency, and remain trapped in nihilistic horror vacui, ‘produce sense for their lives only through the pursuit of obligatory, yet ultimately illusory laws and purposes’.
We can argue that Walser’s writing articulates the perspective of those whom competitive capitalist society labels ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ – of the radically modest – in order to discern, with Nietzsche and Simmel, the true weakness of those who pursue ‘obligatory, yet ultimately illusory laws and purposes’. In Walser’s ‘Aschinger’, their rushed, non-accepting satisfaction of appetitive processes of mere nature is not enough for the competitive and power-seeking, who must then flee into ‘the commercial air’.
‘The dissatisfied quickly find satisfaction at the beer spring and the warm sausage tower, and the satiated dash out again into the commercial air, generally with a briefcase beneath their arm, a letter in their pocket, an assignment in their brain, firm plans in their skull, and in their open palm a watch that says the time has come.’
Walser suggests that, slotted into their new, artificial time (of money, not of nature), the supposedly ‘firm’ purposes of economically constructed persons do not derive from their own natural brains – or from any ‘definite substance in the centre of the soul’ – but are instead plucked out, as if at random, from the empty, depersonalized skulls within which they float. A critique of the modern differentiation of ‘plans’ from naturalness or contingency may also be said to lie behind Walser’s ironization of the self-with-attainments in ‘Tobold (II)’: ‘Incidentally, it should also be mentioned that the secretary was an excellent pianist. Why shouldn’t we have a fondness for people who bring us pleasure with their skills, gifts, sciences, or knowledge?’ Walser proposes, in ‘Marie’, that the illusory plans and instrumentalized attainments which animate the capitalist city merely sustain a society in which both ‘work’ and ‘sophisticated pleasure’ are paratactically, and barbarically, inseparable from ‘privation’:
‘“Where are you going?” Frau Bandi asked.
“I’m not quite sure yet. Well, to one of the centres of contemporary civilization, culture, work, privation, sophisticated pleasure, modern elegance and education, to one of the big, noisy cities where I’ll learn how to go about winning some respect and repute for myself among my fellow men.”’