Sunday, January 30, 2011

Musil on His Notebooks

Some time ago, I bought Robert Musil, Diaries. Robert Musil: 1899-1941. Selected and with a Preface by Philip Payne. edited and with an Introduction by Mark Mirsky (New York: Basic Books, 1998).[1] The first word in the title is particularly inept. Musil did not keep diaries, he kept notebooks. He himself called them "Hefte," i.e. "cahiers" or "composition books." He usually kept several at the same time. His entries are dated, but not consistently so. They are, for the most part, summaries of books, extracted passages, lecture notes, drafts of essays, preliminary sketches of fiction, and reflections on various matters.

Thus you find in Nr. 34, dated from February 17, 1930 to early summer 1938, on p. 432 a thought on Heidegger: "Long before the dictators, our times brought forth spiritual veneration of dictators. Stefan George, for instance. Then Kraus and Freud, Adler and Jung as well. Add to these Klages and Heidegger. What is probably common to these is a need for domination and leadership, for the essence of the savior. Do leaders also have character traits in common as well? Fixed values, for instance, that nonetheless permit different lines of thinking? ..."

Musil tried to make the vast material accessible to himself by assigning to entries a sequence of numerals and letters. Apparently, there are 100,000 of them. This system of reference is, however, very opaque to outsiders. In any case, his approach is not too dissimilar from the way in which other authors and thinkers tried to master the results of their note-taking and thinking. Whether Musil's system was more effective than that of others may be doubted. But apparently he had an aversion to the card index. Not all of his notebooks are extant. About forty of them disappeared.

Here some reflections by him on his notebooks:

P. 84: (1905) "Today I am beginning a diary; I do not usually keep one but I feel a distinct need to do so now. After four years of diffusion it will give me occasion to find that line of spiritual development again that I consider to be properly mine, ... I shall seldom make notes on personal matters and then only when I believe that it will at some time be of spiritual interest to be of reminded of the matter in question."

All thoughts on the "Science of Man" ... Nothing from ... academic philosophy. But drafts ... Here and there a poem ... halftones and shades of meaning. Absolute expressions. ... how one says it. Search for my own style. Up till now I have tried to say the unsayable with words that reached out directly. This betrays one-sided intelligence. The will to forge expression into an instrument shall stand at the entrance to this book. 2. Iv. 05 Brünn."

P. 11: "I once wrote to Valerie that it was sufficient if one felt each day that a single thought had grown out of oneself to maturity—clear and yet [after Mallarmé] surrounded by the sensuous mysteries of arts. In these entries there isn't yet a single line that reaches that standard."

P. 462: "127) (End of September 1939 in Geneva.) Yesterday, while looking for something I leafed through many notebooks, and this ended in deep depression. Sometimes a good idea, hardly ever any progress. Admittedly this is partly because whole notebooks are concerned with some special situation, with Unions for example. I have never taken anything beyond the opening stages (though I have finished the books that have the scars to show for it). It would have been so easy to arrange the reflections in proper order, these would have made treatises or books that would, together, have amounted to a modest life's work. But I did not want to do that, nor do I feel capable even today of doing this. That is how Note 126 emerged. Yesterday I had the impression of a person who is of no value and who was not destined to achieve anything of importance."

"128) ... It occurs to me, that, if there is any chance of redemption, then it should come not by using these notebooks as a source for what I write, because I shall never be able to bring these thoughts to any conclusion, nor even to a state where they are of significance; I must rather write on the subject of these notebooks, judging myself and their contents, depicting sins and obstacles. That would unite the biographical with the factual, these two plans that for long have competed with each other.
Title: The Forty Notebooks
Attitude: that of a man who doesn't agree even with himself."

1. I read the German Notebooks a long time ago. See Robert Musil, Tagebücher, Aphorismen, Essays und Reden, ed. A. Frisé (Hamburg: Rohwolt: 1955). The translators get their "Diaries" from the "Tagebücher" in this edition. For Musil on aphorisms and notes, see vol. 2, p. 291: "Die Notizen... und die Aphorismen zeigen die gleichen Schwierigkeiten der Ausarbeitung. Über beiden waltet kein Wille, Entschluss, Affekt, der zur Wahl nötigt. Ein Gedanke schließt sich an den andern, und das geht nach vielen Richtungen."

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