Karl Hofer, 'Montagnola' (c. 1930)
Thursday, 6 December 2012
Behind the Mountains, part 3
A second radical implication of Walser’s articulation of modern self-abnegation, relates to the way in which it enables his writing to develop its thinking of freedom. In ‘Tobold (II)’ the narrator celebrates the fact that ‘I was a servant! I served!’:
‘My position, consequently, was a good one, which sufficed to set my person to rights. Isn’t it true our lives first take on beauty when we’ve learned to be unassuming, to forget or set aside our own wishes and desires, and instead devote ourselves with all our liberated, willing hearts to a precept and lifelong service, to satisfy people with our conduct, and meekly and boldly forgo beauty?’
The dialectic of the precept and liberation here is accompanied by a twinning of self-abnegation and self-exaltation (or self-transcending self-elevation), which Walser proposes in the preceding sentence. ‘So exalted I felt, even, I can say, yes, elevated far above my own person, which I scarcely dignified any more with so much as a hasty glance, or rather a hasty thought.’ Self-transcended, the narrator paradoxically no longer looks down on himself as on an alienated object (with ‘a hasty glance’), and can instead give a ‘hasty thought’ to his serving self. Walser’s sense of transcendence as something that gives one back to oneself, was voiced already in the following statements of the narrator’s towards the beginning of ‘Tobold (II)’.
‘Newly emerged from a terrible weariness of life, I attained fresh insights, began to enjoy living. As Peter, I’d had no real worldview, no true notion of life; […]. Living can be so tiresome when you lack an inspiring, elevating thought or point of view or vision to help you come to terms with the disappointments awaiting you in life. No longer did I chase after fame or the like; the sublime no longer drew my gaze. I had learned to love the small and insignificant, and, armed with this kind of love, I found life beautiful, just, and good. I was delighted to renounce all ambition.’
These lines identify self-abnegation, cast in terms of the renunciation of monetary ‘ambition’, with the self-transcending self-elevation enabled by pursuit of a transcendental idea, or ‘an inspiring, elevating thought or point of view or vision’. Walser thereby suggests that truly el(ev)ating happiness, true enjoyment of life, can be attained by holding to an inspiring vision of non-elevation. Elsewhere in ‘Tobold (II)’, the narrator identifies the happy condition of non-elevation itself – of ‘modest being’ – with spectatorship of an inspiring vision of others’ happiness. Genuinely fulfilling personal modesty is here contingent upon (liminal observation of) others’ illusory ‘glory’. Walser ironizes the notion that the elevated might really be freer: for him what matters is holding to the transcendental idea of happiness, to the 'glow' that surrounds the aristocratic diners 'playing their roles'. ‘I always took great pleasure in observing the splendour, the glory; for myself, though, I’d always desired a place in the quiet, modest background from which I could gaze with happy eyes up to and into the bright glow.’ The ‘twilight shadow’ is where the ‘common servant’ finds ‘a great benevolence’ and feels ‘most secure, most faithfully sheltered’, precisely because privileged life is viewed as a mere ‘magical spectacle’, at which the narrator ‘thought it lovely just to look on, entranced’. The idealizing worldview - the ‘whole picture’ – is what he ‘found so beautiful and cherished above all else’. But just this idealization of power is what enables him to find freedom in the refusal of power. ‘So I was always conscious of my merit, station, and joy in life, and took extraordinary delight in the modest being I embodied.’
In a short piece from 1917, ‘The End of the World’, Walser’s twinning of self-abnegatory, radical modesty with the self-transcending self-elevation enabled by pursuit of a transcendental idea, can be seen to expand into what could be called a broader geo-political twinning of apocalypse (or the limit) with utopia (or absolute freedom). In this piece, after ‘imagining the end of the world […] as a sea of bliss in which it could rock forever’, ‘everything looked so prosperous, fine, and free that at once the child was convinced this was the end of the world’. In this context we could also think of the inversion of nature associated by Walser with human conflict in ‘The Battle of Sempach’; when ‘Nature is […] annihilated in a battle’. ‘The sound was like a black, gaping abyss, and the sun now appeared to be shining from a darkened sky, glaring down more dazzling than ever, but as though from a hell, not the heavens.’ Here, unnaturally, the sun becomes brightest when as if apocalyptically detached from its heavens. Excessive brightness – brightness aspiring to the absolute, pushed to its limit – has already been associated with apocalypse on the previous page. ‘The whole earth, no matter how bright it looked, seemed to him to rumble and thunder in anger.’ Walser sees the earth, like the sky, to be darkened by its own aspiration to dazzle. A conception of the end of the world, for Walser, is inseparable from the conception of a transcendental urge towards brightness, freedom, utopia.
Walser’s imbrication of the limit and transcendence seems to me to be echoed by Karl Jaspers’ theorization of the decisive hermeneutic of transcendence available to those in existential crisis. As Thornhill summarizes in his book on Jaspers, for Jaspers ‘Transcendence is accessible only to a decisive hermeneutic, which stands in the absolute limit-situation of human existence, interpreting transcendence through its own crisis.’ Thornhill quotes from the third volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy : ‘“Failing [Scheitern]”, Jaspers argues, “is the encompassing ground of all cipher-being. Seeing the cipher of the reality of being arises from the experience of failing”.’
For Jaspers, Thornhill writes, ‘Being […] is present only negatively, as a series of possible implosions in the order of human consciousness, in which consciousness is referred to its own limits.’ Jaspers’ conception of the decisive hermeneutic of transcendence practiced by those in crisis, rests on the view that, subjectively, such implosions (as Thornhill notes) are ‘decisions’, through which ‘human life decides interpretively to reflect upon its own possibilities (ideas), acts in a manner which accords with these, and thus places itself upon a more unified level of reflection above its habitual practical and cognitive orientations’. The narrator in ‘Tobold (II)’ indeed decides to reflect upon self-abnegation, identifying it as a decision to ‘devote ourselves with all our liberated, willing hearts to a precept and lifelong service, to satisfy people with our conduct, and meekly and boldly forgo beauty’. Continuing his self-hermeneutic, he emphasizes too that to freely and decisively act upon such radical modesty, and ‘forgo heaven’, is to interpret the possibility of transcendence ‘many times more beautiful’:
‘For when I forgo something beautiful: doesn’t a brand-new, never-before-dreamed-of beauty a thousand times more beautiful come flying toward me in reward for my display of goodwill and my kind, strongly felt self-denial? And if, of my own free will, elevated by courage and compassion to nobler sentiments, I should forgo heaven: won’t I then, sooner or later, in reward for my righteous behaviour, fly into a heaven many times more beautiful?’
We can view Walser’s writing as a whole in Masquerade and Other Stories as itself a decisive hermeneutic of transcendence, undertaken by a vulnerable adult. In linguistic terms, the transcendence at which it aims is, surely, the sort of visionary register to which Bernofsky points when – in her translator’s preface – she quotes from Walser’s ‘Meine Bemühungen’ (‘My Efforts’) of 1928-29. There he comments that in his late work he was ‘experimenting in the linguistic field in the hope that there existed in language an unknown vivacity which it is a pleasure to awaken’. This vivacity is in language but also beyond it, as Walser hinted already in his piece ‘Tableau Vivant’ from 1909. ‘Words won’t venture anywhere near the description of this dynamo. He sings, or something around him seems to be trembling with sounds. Behind the mountains, bells are ringing.’ Walser’s staged tableaux and prose masquerades are also aiming at transcendence in terms of an ideal ‘whole picture’, or ‘dream’, the construction of which they often dramatize. I am thinking here in particular of these marvellous lines in ‘The Aunt’:
‘Gradually I came into the mountains and soon reached an isolated village ringed all around by high crags; this was the birthplace of my mother. It seemed strange to me, yet also familiar and familial. The whole world, and I as well, appeared wonderfully old and young; earth and earthly life were suddenly a dream; I felt everything was perfectly comprehensible, yet also utterly inexplicable.’
What better description could there be of the goal of Jaspers’ hermeneutic process working towards (in Thornhill’s words) ‘a more unified level of reflection above its habitual practical and cognitive orientations’? Walser here captures the existential uncertainty – the sense of the ‘utterly inexplicable’ – which, for Jaspers, accompanies any decisive hermeneutic bid for a transcendental cognitive unity at the limit of knowledge. As Thornhill observes in Karl Jaspers, whilst Heidegger argued that language (as Thornhill puts it) ‘defines and constitutes the practically disclosed horizon of the world’, and thus ‘expressly excludes all ideal components from experience’, Jaspers by contrast maintained that language ‘always positions human consciousness in a relation (albeit existentially uncertain) to its primary ideal unity (its transcendence), and it thus permits an ideal/practical disclosure of this unity’. Thornhill, moreover, describes Jaspers' implicit fusion of Hamannian hermeneutics and Kantian epistemology by referring to Jaspers’ view of revelation or transcendence as mere ‘appearance’ – a term which seems to parallel Walser’s ‘whole picture’ or ‘dream’:
‘The hermeneutic of revelation […] has its profound validity in its ability to signal that the ideal limits of cognition do not reflect the absolute limits of being itself. Nonetheless, with Kant, Jaspers also argues that transcendence can only be knowable as a mere appearance of the possible unity of knowledge: true transcendence, thus, is inevitably beyond the limits of human thought.’
Walser’s lines in ‘The Aunt’, therefore, seem to me to exemplify what Jaspers would call an aesthetic cipher. Ciphers, though also decisive ‘moments of experience, embedded and disclosed in human historical life’, are for Jaspers (as Thornhill writes) ‘only the fleeting appearance of guiding ideas – akin to Kant’s transcendental ideas – which give shape to, but do not encompass, the ultimate underlying unity of human life and knowledge’. For Jaspers a truthful hermeneutic of ciphers ‘always also requires a critical-epistemological approach’ – Thornhill emphasizes – which with Kant and against Hamann, posits God as ‘an “idea”, which illuminates the limits of human consciousness, but which is never the realized experience of human transcendence’. (Walser: ‘It seemed strange to me, yet also familiar and familial.’) Thornhill sees that for Jaspers, it is indeed ‘only because the idea of God is not the experience [but the] appearance of transcendence that it is interpretable as transcendence’. As I have argued elsewhere, you could say that mere appearance lends the quality of definition (or decision) to Jaspers’ visionary hermeneutics – in Thornhill’s words, ‘it is the (epistemological) recognition of the limits of human knowledge which makes the (hermeneutical) disclosure of transcendence, in ciphers, so radical and truthful’.