Archive for March, 2010

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, online

March 24, 2010

A virtual tour is no substitute for a pilgrimage, but it can still be pretty neat.  It is now possible to take a virtual tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  One can pan and zoom from various vantage points within the church, even craning up to see the ceiling.  At this time of the year it might be especially worthwhile to spend some time contemplating this special church.  Here is the site.

(Hat-tip: National Catholic Register)

Tesimond: The Gunpowder Plot

March 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas Owen, Jesuit lay-brother and maker of “priest-holes” in Elizabethan England, who was captured in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot and died under torture in the Tower of London in March 1606.  He was canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.  To mark the day, I thought I would post a few thoughts about a book written by one of the priests whose life was saved by one of Nicholas’ hiding places.

The Gunpowder Plot (c.1630)
Oswald Tesimond, S.J. (Folio Society, 1973; trans: F. Edwards)
257 p.  First reading.

Fr. Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway was a Jesuit priest living and working in England during the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I and the early years of James I.  He was a friend of Fr. John Gerard, whose autobiography I read a few years ago and praised highly.  Both priests served the Catholics of England at a time when such was considered treasonous, and capture meant death.  The circles in which they moved overlapped with the circle of conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot.  In the aftermath of the Plot, when several priests were arrested and executed (including the Jesuit superior Fr. Henry Garnet), Fr. Tesimond managed to escape to France by posing as a pig farmer, and he died in 1636 in Naples.

The activities of the Jesuits had been a thorn in the side of the English monarchs since Edmund Campion began his priestly ministry in 1580.  Elizabeth sought a religious accomodation that mediated between the Catholic faith and the radical innovations of the Puritans, and those on both sides who resisted this accomodation were considered troublesome.  Severe punitive measures were put in place to discourage Catholics: failure to attend Anglican services incurred large fines; aiding or harbouring a priest could (and did) result in seizure of property, imprisonment, or death.  It was a capital crime for a priest to set foot in the country.  Nonetheless, courageous men did take up the challenge.  They used aliases, wore disguises, and occasionally were forced to flee or hide from pursuers, but with the assistance of wealthy Catholic families they often succeeded in establishing successful ministries.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of about a dozen young Catholics planned to blow up the Parliament with the king and his officials inside, was a disaster for the already perilously situated Catholics of England.  The authorities used the opportunity to ascribe the treasonous intent not just to the condemned conspirators, but to all Catholics, and especially to the Jesuits.  Accordingly, those Jesuits who survived the aftermath, including Fr. Tesimond and Fr. Gerard, wrote accounts defending their actions and teachings, and denying foreknowledge of the Plot.

Fr. Tesimond’s account introduces us to the difficult situation of Catholics in the years preceeding the Plot.  He describes the hopes which attended the accession of James I, and how they were disappointed.  He knew most of the conspirators in the Plot, and he tells us something of their character, as well as relating how the Plot developed.  He takes pains to stress that the priests did not encourage the Plot, and in fact actively counselled patience and respect for authority in order to forestall any such desperate remedy.  We learn that, quite understandably, there was disagreement among the Catholics about how best to improve their lot.  After the Plot was discovered, several priests were formally implicated and condemned, and Tesimond passionately defends their innocence — convincingly, in my judgement.

The book covers much the same ground as Fr. Gerard’s Autobiography of an Elizabethan, though of course from a somewhat different point of view.  Of the two, I would recommend Fr. Gerard’s, for his life is more dramatic and his writing is livelier in style.  Tesimond’s book, however, might be easier to find, and either would serve as a good introduction to this fascinating period of history.

Handel, and more, at the British Library

March 17, 2010

A few years ago, when I was in London for the first time, I passed a few idyllic hours looking through a manuscript exhibit at the British Library.  I went expecting to see a few medieval manuscripts and some English marginalia — perhaps Queen Victoria’s grocery lists, or something of comparable interest.  Consequently I was woefully unprepared for the feast that was laid before me: ancient Bibles, medieval maps, literary relics (Jane Austen’s writing table, for instance, and James Joyce’s notebooks), autograph scores by composers like Handel, Bach, and Beethoven, the papal Bull forbidding Henry VIII’s divorce, the travel journals of Captain Cook, and many other amazing documents.  Those hours were among the most enjoyable of my entire English sojourn.

Today I have discovered that the British Library has put some of these documents online.  They are in high resolution, and instead of simply looking at a single open page, one can digitally flip through them.  Only a dozen or so books are currently available, but they are more than enough to keep one occupied.  Here is the full list.

A recent addition is the autograph score of Handel’s Messiah, perfect for the Lenten season.

(You might need to install some software in order to view the books, depending on how your computer is configured.  The BL’s site will coax you in the right direction.)

Browning: The Ring and the Book

March 15, 2010

The Ring and the Book (1869)
Robert Browning (Everyman’s Library, 1962)
550 p. First reading.

The Ring and the Book is a “shabby little shocker”: it tells the story of a seventeenth century Italian nobleman who marries a young girl, and when, some years later, she runs off with a priest in apparent romantic liaison, he murders her and her parents.  Browning — or his narrator, at any rate — tells how he discovered, in a book stall in Florence’s Piazza San Lorenzo, an account of the nobleman’s trial, and of how he thought it would be a fitting story by means of which to explore the full range and complexity of human relationships.  In the chapter of his book on Browning devoted to this poem, Chesterton remarks that in this he was emblematic of his age: whereas Homer’s epics deal with great battles and gods, and Virgil’s epic deals with the founding of the world’s greatest empire, and Dante’s epic deals with heaven and hell, Browning’s epic deals with a long-forgotten domestic quarrel and shameful murder.  This is an epic of the small gesture and the ordinary individual, sprouted from the same seed that gave us the novel.

The poem is divided into a series of long dramatic monologues, each spoken by one of the principal characters in the story: the nobleman (Guido Franceschini), his young wife (Pompilia), the priest (Giuseppe Caponsacchi).  We also hear from the lawyers prosecuting and defending the case, and from the divided people of Rome.  In the end the decision about Guido’s punishment for the murder is referred to Pope Innocent XII, who condemns him and his accomplices to death.

The principal interest, however, is not in the facts of the case, but in how each person involved perceived and understood them.  We are told the story over and over again, from different perspectives, and in each case the story is coloured by the interests and self-justification of the speaker. (This is the same technique which gives My Last Duchess its enduring interest; the real story emerges from between the lines.)  Today we could imagine this technique being used as a postmodern device to undermine the idea of objective truth, or even as an occasion to “celebrate diversity”, but Browning’s poem does not have this effect.  Young Pompilia speaks so simply and disarmingly, and her husband Guido so viciously and pompously, that there is little doubt about where the truth lies. Instead, it provides Browning with the means to explore, in detail, the inner motivations, passion-skewed perceptions, and self-deceptions of his characters.

Browning considered The Ring and the Book to be among his finest achievements, and it is certainly impressive.  Some sections, such as those narrated by the trial lawyers, I found rather tedious.  Both are self-important buffoons, and they have a certain comic value, but someone should have reminded Browning that brevity is the soul of wit.  The innocence and naivety of Pompilia is well-conveyed, as is the forthright intelligence and gallantry of the priest Caponsacchi.  Pope Innocent is portrayed as a wise and honourable old man concerned above all with justice.  At the end of the poem Browning returns to Guido Franceschini, now just hours from death and employing every means to evade repentance: anger, blasphemy, slander, cruelty, self-excuse, pride, flattery.  It is a masterful psychological portrait of a defiant soul resisting grace. Only when the guards arrive to take him to his execution does he beg for mercy.  We are told that he devoutly confessed and was reconciled on the scaffold, precisely the effects which the Pope had hoped the death sentence would have:

For the main criminal I have no hope
Except in such a suddenness of fate.
I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth
Anywhere, sky or sea or world at all:
But the night’s black was burst through by a blaze –
Thunder struck blow on blow, earth groaned and bore,
Through her whole length of mountain visible:
There lay the city thick and plain with spires,
And, like a ghost disshrouded, white the sea.
So may the truth be flashed out by one blow,
And Guido see, one instant, and be saved.
(Bk.X, 2116-27)

The dramatic monologue format has Browning animating his various characters from within, and we learn about them from what they say, but we also learn, I think, about Browning himself, and in some respects this is the poem’s chief attraction. Here is a man who knows the Western tradition backward and forward — its philosophy, its religion, its art and poetry — and he loves it.  He can speak of it without any anger or ironic detachment.  It is refreshing.

Some refreshment is in order, because at 21116 lines The Ring and the Book is genuinely epic in scale — about 50% longer than the whole of The Divine Comedy.  Gird up thy loins, dear reader.

[Death, the common destiny]
I see you all reel to the rock, you waves—
Some forthright, some describe a sinuous track,
Some crested, brilliantly with heads above,
Some in a strangled swirl sunk who knows how,
But all bound whither the main-current sets,
Rockward, an end in foam for all of you!
What if I am o’ertaken, pushed to the front
By all you crowding smoother souls behind,
And reach, a minute sooner than was meant,
The boundary, whereon I break to mist?
Go to! the smoothest safest of you all,
Most perfect and compact wave in my train,
Spite of the blue tranquillity above,
Spite of the breadth before of lapsing peace
Where broods the halcyon and the fish leaps free,
Will presently begin to feel the prick
At lazy heart, the push at torpid brain,
Will rock vertiginously in turn, and reel,
And, emulative, rush to death like me:
Later or sooner by a minute then,
So much for the untimeliness of death,—
(XI, 2346-66)

Great moments in opera: Das Rheingold

March 12, 2010

This week I have been listening to Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s colossal tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.  I hope to follow up by listening to the rest of the cycle over the next month or so.

This will be just the second time that I have listened to the Ring cycle in its entirety.  On the previous traversal I listened to Solti’s famous recordings.  This time, however, I am going to try Karajan’s set.  I have also borrowed DVDs of each of the four operas: I had hoped to get all four in the Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine, but I was unable to lay hands on his Das Rheingold. Consequently I have that one in the Bayreuth production from the 1970s, conducted by Pierre Boulez.  I am not sure that I will have time to actually watch the DVDs, but we’ll see.

I did have time to watch Das Rheingold — it is much the shortest of the bunch — and although I found Bayreuth’s nightmarish steam-punk production quite awful, and the singing unremarkable, nonetheless seeing the opera staged, with subtitles, has improved my understanding of the story.  I have also been quite heartened at how my comprehension of the music has improved since the first time that I heard it.  Wagner deploys a vast tapestry of leitmotifs throughout the Ring, of course, and several of the most important ones are first sounded in Das Rheingold: the motive of Nature, of Valhalla, of the Rhine Gold, of the Ring, of the Giants, and of Renunciation, to name a few of those that I picked up fairly consistently.  Other motives, such as those of Erda and Freia, I still cannot identify very clearly.

To try to summarize the plot of Der Ring is asking for trouble, but perhaps I can succeed in potting Das Rheingold. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals the Rhine gold and fashions from it a Ring, the virtues of which grant its wearer the power of world domination, on one condition: he must first renounce love.  Alberich does so.  Meanwhile there is trouble amongst the gods: Wotan needs the Ring to pay off two giants who have just completed building Valhalla.  He steals it from Alberich, but not before Alberich places a curse on it: the Ring will bring destruction to whoever possesses it.  Sure enough, the giants don’t have the Ring for more than a few minutes before one kills the other and retires to a remote place where, assuming the shape of a dragon, he guards the Ring jealously.  Now bereft of the Ring, but in possession of a brand new house, Wotan and the other gods cross the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.  The end.

The music of Das Rheingold is at times amazingly beautiful, but not most of the time.  Most of the time it is dark-toned, crabbed, and gruff.  This is a good match for the clattering, dank underworld where the Nibelung live, though it seems less appropriate for the dwelling place of the gods.  There are no set “arias” in this opera, and the moments of beauty, mostly in the orchestra, come and go far too quickly for my tastes.

My favourite music in Das Rheingold is undoubtedly the orchestral prelude.  It is an amazing piece of work.  The whole thing begins with a single chord, out of which Wagner slowly draws several of his most important leitmotifs: for Nature, the Gold, and the Ring, for instance.  The motive of Nature dominates the prelude; it is an undulating figure that seems to shimmer ever more beautifully and richly.  Here is a fine performance with Georg Solti at the helm.  The prelude ends at about 4:10; it is followed in this clip by the Rhine maidens’ song.

The other segment of the opera that I want to showcase is the scene in which Alberich curses the Ring which Wotan has just stolen from him.  It is an ugly but powerful monologue.  Unfortunately I cannot find a performance on YouTube, so I am forced to choose something else.  Here is the final scene, in which the gods enter Valhalla.  This clip is from the Bayreuth production DVD that I watched.  A giant lies dead on the stage, having just been killed in a fight over the Ring.  At the beginning, the motive of Valhalla is heard repeatedly in the orchestra.  At roughly the 5:00 mark, we hear the Rhine maidens, from whom the Rhine gold was originally stolen, recalling their lovely song from the opening of the opera.  Then the gods make their way across the bridge and into Valhalla.  The beauty here is largely in the orchestra, especially as things draw to a close.

I am not going to dwell at this time on the “interpretation” of the Ring, though I will think out loud about it as the cycle progresses.

Next time: Die Walküre.

Charcoal chicken soup base

March 10, 2010

The sidebar of this blog promises an occasional “failed recipe”, and today I am making good on the promise.  Last night I set out to turn the ravaged carcass of a roasted chicken into a delicious chicken stock soup base.  My recipe goes like this:

  • Put the leftover chicken bones, fat, and gristle into a reasonably large pot.  (If you’ve already thrown the chicken bones into the garbage, fish them out again.  They’ll be fine.)
  • Add to the pot an assortment of seasonings: peppercorns, sliced onions, a few cloves of garlic, and some chopped celery, for instance.
  • Add 6 or 8 cups of water, depending on how much stock you’d like to make.
  • Turn the heat to maximum, and leave the pot on the stove for an hour or more.
  • When the kitchen fills with smoke, remove the pot from the heat.  Allow a few minutes for it to cool.  While waiting, you might open some windows and use a towel to waft the fumes away from the smoke alarm.

You should be left with a thoroughly charred chicken carcass embedded in a thick black layer of now unidentifiable food matter.  Use a chisel to dislodge the chicken, and throw it out.

Good work.

Using this recipe means that you have a nasty cleaning job ahead of you, since the black paste, although it can be slowly scraped out, leaves a residue that resists even the most vigorous scrubbing.  To clean it, use a mixture of vinegar and baking soda: pour them into the pot and leave them for eight or ten hours.  Then scrub.  It should clean up nicely.

Gilbert: The Second World War

March 9, 2010

The Second World War
A Complete History
Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt, 1989)
864 p.  First reading.

What I have learned of the Second World War in my life has been picked up through casual references, novels, films, and newspaper articles, and this haphazard instruction has resulted, not surprisingly, in an incomplete picture, with significant gaps, and ambiguities in the chronology.  It thought it high time that I read a solid history of the war in order to tidy up my understanding.  I have actually selected about a half dozen WWII books as a reading project, and this is the first.

I could not have picked a better book as a starting point.  Gilbert, the great biographer of Churchill, begins with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and proceeds week by week, and often day by day, through the entire course of the conflict.  He strives for a comprehensive overview, covering military strategy, civilian life, resistance fighting, intelligence networks, and the whole geographical sweep of the war on land, in air, and at sea.

The scale of the death and destruction in this war almost defies imagination.  Everyone knows that the Germans killed six million Jews, but we sometimes forget that an additional three million Polish civilians and at least seven million Russian civilians were killed, and that the total death toll of the conflict, military and civilian, was in excess of fifty million lives.  The Allies, with about a million lives lost between the United States, Britain, and the Commonwealth, got off comparatively easily.  On each page of this book the death toll mounts into the thousands, tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands.  It is difficult reading.  It is evident, too, that Gilbert has a humane purpose in writing, for in addition to narrating the “big” events of the war he frequently narrows the scope to focus on individuals, often civilians, who suffered terribly at the hands of their foes, or at the hands of their own governments.  And indeed it is important to remember these people.

A few scattered thoughts on various topics:

  • intelligence.  Throughout the war the British and Americans had the intelligence advantage, and this had a significant impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.  Early in the conflict the British began to read the German Enigma messages, and they later added other sources, both German and Japanese, to their portfolio.  They made good use of this high-level intelligence.  They also devised clever counter-intelligence diversions to disguise their intended plans, especially in advance of the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, that duped the Germans.  I would love to read a good book about Bletchley Park, where the code-breakers were working; if you know of one, please leave a comment.
  • resistance.  One sometimes hears French valour dismissed on account of the Gallic readiness to wave the white flag.  It is true that the French military collapsed quickly when the Germans advanced, but we do well to remember that a French resistance did arise, and there were civilians who risked their lives to carry out espionage and sabotage operations against the Germans.  Moreover, this was true not only in France but throughout the area occupied by Germany, and in the course of time these guerrilla tactics caused significant difficulties for the Germans.
  • assassinating Hitler.  I have sometimes wondered why Hitler was not assassinated.  It seems that many lives could have been saved if the man most responsible for the conflict had been killed.  I was surprised to learn, therefore, that there were numerous attempts made to kill him.  In 1939 a bomb planted near a podium at which he was speaking went off several minutes after he had left. (Imagine what might have happened if he had been removed at that early stage in the war.)  Again in 1942 a bomb was placed on his private airplane, but it had a faulty detonator.  And in 1944 a bomb did detonate in his bunker, but by chance he escaped injury.  Those responsible were killed.  I believe that there were other assassination attempts as well.
  • German anti-Semitism.  Underneath much of the Nazi evil was a frankly bizarre racial ideology which put the Aryans at the top and the Jews, evidently, at the bottom.  Where did this ideology come from?  I know that some have tried to pin it on “Christian” anti-Semitism, but that falls far short of being an adequate explanation.  Hitler seems to have believed that he had a duty to eliminate, not just the Jews, but anyone who was “unfit”: the sick, the mentally unstable, the old. (Germany had an active war-time euthanasia program.)  I would like to know in particular the extent to which the stated justification for the doctrine of Aryan supremacy was “scientific”.
  • brutality.  The brutality of the Germans, and especially of the SS, is infamous.  It seem to me that in addition to being wicked this was also counter-productive.  They put huge resources into rounding up, transporting, and killing people behind the lines, resources that might have been used on the front.  The vicious character of these actions also turned many people against Hitler and the German leadership.  As the tide of war turned and Germany began to lose ground, the slaughter of civilians never let up.  It was almost as though Hitler was waging two wars, and he was determined to win one even if he must lose the other. Japan also treated civilians and prisoners-of-war brutally, often capturing them only to kill them directly.  They apparently had a deep-seated contempt for anyone who would not fight to the death.  Instances of brutality against prisoners-of-war did occur among the Allies, but they were comparatively rare and were usually punished.
  • aerial bombing of civilians.  In the British Commonwealth we tend to remember the German bombing of London (and other cities) as one of the principal outrages perpetrated directly upon civilians.  But we must also remember that the Allies bombed German cities too, and not only in order to disrupt industrial activity.  The number of German civilians killed by Allied bombs far surpassed the number killed during the Blitz: on one occasion, a firestorm created by incendiary bombs killed 40000 inhabitants of Hamburg in a single night.  These were shameful episodes in the Allied war effort.
  • Hitler’s strategic mistakes.  It seems to me that two principal strategic errors contributed to the downfall of the German war effort.  The first was that Hitler underestimated the strength of his Russian adversary (I imagine it is tempting to underestimate your foe when he belongs to an inferior race), and consequently began his campaign in Russia too late in the year.  The error was small — German troops approached to within 20 miles of Moscow before the onset of winter halted them — but it was enough.  Second, Hitler declared war on the United States in 1941 after Pearl Harbor.  At first the Americans had declared war only on Japan, and had intended to leave the European war to Europeans.  When Hitler made his declaration, Churchill reportedly sighed with relief, for he knew then that Germany would ultimately lose.
  • public knowledge of the Holocaust.  Who knew what, and when, about the systematic, large-scale killing of Jews?  The German leadership spoke in euphemisms about those who were being transported to concentration camps and gas chambers: they were being “deported” or “resettled”, or they had been selected for “special treatment”, and so on.  Even the Allied leadership, who were reading the top-secret German communication channels, seem to have been unaware of what was really happening.  Only in 1943 and 1944, when a few people managed to escape from Auschwitz, did news begin to leak out in the underground press, and even then it must have been subject to some doubt by those who heard it.  The first aerial photographs of Auschwitz were not gathered by the Allies until mid-1944, when the invasion of Normandy was underway, and even then they were collected accidentally and were not remarked upon.  As the Allies closed in on Berlin, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of their gas chambers and camps.  This secrecy is obviously very important to consider when we try to assess the moral responsibility of those who might have done something to hinder the killing.

Ring resources

March 8, 2010

Those who have been following my “Great moments in opera” posts recently will know that I have been working my way through Wagner’s operas, and might have guessed where I was heading: the Ring cycle.  Yes, it’s true.  Over the next month or so, I hope to listen to the entire cycle again.  I have only heard it once before, and that was now over five years ago, so the time seems ripe to revisit it.

The Ring is so big and convoluted, and so musically complex, that I am fortifying myself with a number of canes and crutches to help me through.  So far I have assembled the following:

I know that huge barrels of ink have been spilled over these operas, and it is a fool’s errand to try to read too much of it.  If anyone knows, however, of a particularly good book on the topic, I ‘d be interested to hear about it in the comments.  Thanks.

Great moments in opera: Der Fliegende Holländer

March 4, 2010

Over the past month or so I have been working my way through most of Wagner’s pre-Ring operas.  I am intending to tackle the Ring itself soon, but before I do I thought I would back-up, to 1843, and hear the first of his operas that has entered the standard repertoire: Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).  This opera is a much more traditional work than were his later ones: it has tuneful melodies that could pass for arias, rousing choruses, and the leitmotif technique, while present, does not dominate the music.

The story is about a mysterious Dutchman doomed to sail the seas to all eternity unless he can find a woman who will love him until death.   There are few eligible women on the high seas, so every seven years he is permitted a space of shore leave in order to try his luck with the local ladies.  As the opera begins his ship approaches a Norwegian coastal village where there lives a young woman of romantic temperament, Senta, who knows the Dutchman’s legend and who believes that she could be the one to rescue him.   There is, however, another young man, Eric, who loves Senta.  When the Dutchman learns this, he returns to his ship in despair and sails away.  Senta, unwilling to lose his love, throws herself from a cliff and into the sea.  As the curtain falls, the two lovers, Senta and the Dutchman, are seen ascending into heaven.  All of this takes about 2-1/2 hours in performance.

In Act II Senta sings a dramatic song, colloquially called “Senta’s Ballad”, in which she recounts for the other women of the village the legend of the Dutchman. Here it is, sung by Lisbeth Balslev in a Bayreuth production, and with English subtitles.

My other favourite section of this opera is the Act II duet between Senta and the Dutchman, Wirst du des Vaters Wahl nicht schelten, in which Senta declares her love and her desire to save the Dutchman from his curse.  Here it is in a 1983 Paris production, with Jose Van Dam singing the Dutchman and Dunja Vejzovic singing Senta. The subtitles are in French, but the English translation can be found here (scroll down).  The person who enters near the end of this clip is Senta’s father.

The recording to which I listened this week was this one, with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting a good group of singers.  Not having heard the opera before it is hard for me to know how it compares to other recordings, but I enjoyed it.  I tried but failed to borrow a DVD of the opera, so I was not able to view a staging.

Musil: The Man without Qualities

March 2, 2010

This was written in 2006, before this web log existed.  During the past week I have been thinking again about this book, and I thought that perhaps this Book Note, flawed though it is, might benefit from a little fresh air.

The Man Without Qualities (1921-1942)
Robert Musil (Vintage, 1995)
2 vols; 1806 p.  First reading.

On short lists of the great works of twentieth-century literature, certain titles recur: Joyce’s Ulysses in English literature, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in French. On more than one occasion, I had heard Robert Musil’s enormous The Man Without Qualities named as the German counterpart to those monumental works, though, curiously, I knew nothing else about it, and had never heard of anyone reading it. If it was in the race for literary greatness, it seemed to be the dark horse. Then, some time later, I stumbled across a statement of Thomas Mann to the effect that Musil’s magnum opus was “without doubt the greatest writing, ranking with the finest our epoch has to offer”. Given my admiration for Mann’s own writing, I resolved at that point to read it.

Set in Austria in 1913-14, just prior to the First World War, the novel follows the activities of the oddly named Parallel Campaign, a loose committee of diplomats, civil servants, intellectuals, and artists charged with organizing a celebration to honour the seventieth Jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef. Musil’s decision to set the events of the novel on the cusp of the Great War, yet to make only the most indirect allusions to the approaching conflict which was to so thoroughly undo all their preparations, casts a shadow of absurdity over the entire proceedings.

At the center of the story is Ulrich, the eponymous ‘man without qualities’, a soldier turned engineer turned mathematician who serves as a focal point for the novel. Yet to speak of a focus is potentially to obscure the novel’s shape, for, like much other modernist fiction, the novel’s structure is experimental, in the precise sense of having very little structure at all. The matter of the Parallel Campaign sets the stage, but beyond that the novel has no real narrative thread, consisting instead of a long series of conversations, meetings, and events, which never accumulate momentum in any one direction. This open architecture, with which an impatient reader may occasionally express exasperation, was intentional, and can I think be understood as contributing to the overall “argument” of the novel.

One respect in which The Man Without Qualities surely merits a place among the great works of literature is the sheer virtuosic brilliance of the prose. Musil’s style is precise without being concise; his sentences are long and elaborate, but they are clear and lucid.  In this respect he reminds me of Thomas Mann himself.  This does not mean, however, that the novel is easy going for the reader — quite the contrary. The novel’s subject matter is relentlessly academic and replete with psychological subtleties.

The book has a moral center. It is a kind of extended meditation on modernity, which Musil considers to be a culture that has lost its bearings and no longer knows how to carry on. Our culture teems with a great swirling mass of ideas, concerned with

algebraic series, benzol rings, the materialist as well as the universalist philosophy of history, bridge supports, the evolution of music, the essence of the automobile, Hata 606, the theory of relativity, Bohr’s atomic theory, autogeneous welding, the flora of the Himalayas, psychoanalysis, individual psychology, experimental psychology, physiological psychology, social psychology, and all the other achievements that prevent a time so greatly enriched by them from turning out good, wholesome, integral human beings,

as Musil puts it at one point. And as this quote hints, Musil’s central concern is not these ideas in the abstract, but rather their effects on our inner lives.

Central to the book’s argument as I understand it is Musil’s contention that modernity prevents an individual from maturing into an integrated, steady, grounded whole. Instead, it produces the “man without qualities”, a person whose inner life is such that they fail to acquire stable convictions or a robust stance toward life. We modern people encounter the world without a comprehensive framework for understanding it; we live in a world of competing and clashing points of view; we are skeptical of claims to truth; we are suspicious of the moral law; we “see through things”:

It just so happens that the second thought, at the very least, of every person today confronted by an overwhelming phenomenon, even if it should be its beauty that so overwhelms him, is ‘You can’t fool me! I’ll cut you down to size!’ And this mania for cutting things down to size. . .has hardly anything to do any longer with life’s natural separation of the raw from the sublime; it is, rather, much more a self-tormenting bent of mind, an inadmissible lust at the spectacle of the good being humiliated and too easily destroyed altogether.

It is easier to tear down than to defend. Freedom, we are told, means being unencumbered by tradition or obedience. Yet this habit of placing everything under our feet has a price:

‘What is left of me?’ Ulrich thought bitterly. ‘Possibly someone who…likes to think that for the sake of his inner freedom he respects only a few external laws. But this inner freedom consists of being able to think whatever one likes; it means knowing, in every human situation, why one doesn’t need to be bound by it, but never knowing what one wants to be bound by!’ In this far from happy moment, when the curious little wave of feeling that had held him for an instant ebbed away again, he would have been ready to admit that he had nothing but an ability to see two sides to everything — that moral ambivalence that marked almost all his contemporaries and was the disposition of his generation, or perhaps their fate.

This capacity to see two — or more — sides to everything does more than simply make one ambivalent, however. Pursued a little further, it exercises its power to render one’s relationship to one’s own experience tentative and self-conscious.  In time, this habit produces an incapacity for immediate experience:

[Ulrich] sometimes longed to be wholly involved in events as in a wrestling match, even if they were meaningless or criminal, as long as they were valid, absolute, without the everlasting tentativeness they have when a person is superior to his experiences.

Without a way to comprehend and assimilate our experience, Musil is saying, we are un-integrated, psychologically piece-meal. If we keep our ideas and experiences at arm’s length, warily, we find that we lack purpose. We are not in tune with the world, not at home. As Ulrich describes himself,

For a long time now a hint of aversion had lain on everything he did and experienced, a shadow of impotence and loneliness, an all-encompassing distaste for which he could not find the complimentary inclination. He felt at times as though he had been born with a talent for which there was at present no objective.

Part of the reason for this state of affairs, Musil remarks more than once, is the sheer amount of information to which we are exposed, voices clamoring without being coherent:

‘A man today who still aspires to integrity deserves a lot of credit,’ Walter said.

‘There’s no such thing anymore,’ Ulrich countered. ‘You only have to look in a newspaper. It’s filled with an immeasurable opacity. So many things are being talked about, it would surpass the intellectual capacity of a Leibniz. But we don’t even notice; we have changed. There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture-medium.’

We are fractured, too, as everyone knows, because so many of the enduring certainties on which our civilization is founded have been brought into question by modernity. The great transvaluation of values heralded by Nietzsche, the secular experiment in which all of life is to be reinterpreted without reference to God, has broken the old consensus and let loose a bewildering chatter of opposing views. In such a context, it is not easy for a person to take up a definite position before the world, not easy for them to interpret their experiences without doubt, hesitation, and second-guessing, not easy to form convictions and be resolute. This is the predicament that occupies Musil’s attention, and he explores it from many angles.

A major force behind this destabilization of culture has been science, because it claims to be a new, comprehensive way of accounting for the world without reference to most of our traditional ideas. Musil is well aware of this, and though he does not reject science, he is critical of some of its cultural effects. He admires scientific precision of thought, but, to invoke a key phrase that appears more than once in the novel, what he really wants is “precision and soul”. He makes some penetrating remarks about the dehumanizing habits of mind that a purely scientific perspective cultivates. It is odd, after all, that scientific explanations, which claim to be thorough accounts of the matter at hand, so often fail to do justice to their object:

We can begin at once with the peculiar predilection of scientific thinking for mechanical, statistical, and physical explanations that have, as it were, the heart cut out of them. The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our most intimate personal decisions are programmed behaviour; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and oral openings at either end of the same tube — such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favor by being impeccably scientific. Certainly they demonstrate the love of truth. But surrounding this clear, shining love is a predilection for disillusionment, compulsiveness, ruthlessness, cold intimidation, and dry rebuke. . .

This habit of reinterpreting our experiences in radically different terms provokes in reflective people a sundering within the inner life between knowledge and experience. When we hear that we are not free, or that our emotional life consists merely in hormonal secretions in response to stimuli, or any number of other counter-intuitive accounts of our most immediate experiences, the natural response (it seems to me) is to quarantine those experiences, to distrust them, to try to transcend them, to create a space within ourselves into which they do not penetrate. Yet if our experiences are not trusted to be truthful in that private center of ourselves, then nothing occupies that space, and we become, quite naturally, men without qualities.

Musil’s exploration of this modern pathology in its many manifestations is undoubtedly a great achievement. Whether his subject warranted a sprawling tome of this enormous size might be a matter of occasional doubt to the fatigued reader. He has a seemingly insatiable taste for labyrinthine psychological subtleties, and at times only the careful control of his prose keeps it from degenerating into a quagmire. In my view, his probing and analysis are thought-provoking, and the dedication with which he has pursued this modern predicament and brought it before our eyes deserves our thanks. But what are we to do? Is there a way out? To this question, Musil seems not to have an answer. The novel, sad to say, and despite its length, is unfinished. What remains is a magnificent torso, a sprawling, ambitious, exhausting study in the psychology of modernity. Where do we go from here?


[The modern landscape]
It was an intelligent country, it housed cultivated people who, like cultivated people all over the globe, ran around in an unsettled state of mind amid a tremendous whirl of noise, speed, innovation, conflict, and whatever goes to make up the optical-acoustical landscape of our lives; like everybody else, they read and heard every day dozens of news items that made their hair stand on end, and were willing to work themselves up over them, even to intervene, but they never got around to it because a few minutes afterward the stimulus had already been displaced in their minds by more recent ones. . . There was the special problem for persons of cultivated sensibilities: they no longer had the gift of faith or credit, nor had they learned to fake it. They no longer knew what their smiles, their sighs, their ideas, were for. What exactly was the point of their thoughts, their smiles? Their opinions were haphazard, their inclinations an old story, the scheme of things seemed to be hanging in midair, one ran into it as into a net, and there was nothing to do or leave undone with all one’s heart, because there was no unifying principle. And so the cultivated person was someone who felt steadily mounting up a debt that he would never be able to pay off, felt bankruptcy inexorably approaching; and either inveighed against the times in which he was condemned to live, even though he enjoyed living in them like anyone else, or else hurled himself with the courage of those who have nothing to lose at every idea that promised a change.

[On advertising]
So the captain of industry, disinclined to forgo greatness, which serves him as a compass, must resort to the democratic dodge of replacing the immeasurable influence of greatness by the measurable greatness of influence. So now whatever counts as great is great; but this means that eventually whatever is most loudly hawked as great is also great, and not all of us have the knack of swallowing this innermost truth of our times without gagging a little.

[A fine piece of writing]
It sometimes happened, in the midst of a social gathering in her transformed apartment, that she felt as though she were awakening in some dreamland. She would be standing there, surrounded by space and people, the light of the chandelier flowing over her hair and on down her shoulders and hips so that she seemed to feel its bright flood, and she was all statue, like some figure in a fountain, at the epicenter of the world, drenched in sublime spiritual grace. She saw it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring about everything that she had always held to be most important and supremely great, and she no longer cared particularly that she had no very clear idea what this might be. The whole apartment, the presence of people in it, the whole evening, enveloped her like a dress lined in yellow silk; she felt it on her skin, though she did not see it.


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