Posts Tagged ‘Robert Musil’

Gustaw Herling: “I never stopped thinking about the evil I had seen.”

Saturday, December 10th, 2016
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herlingPolish writer Gustaw Herling is too little known in the West, although Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz (a longtime Berkeley resident) called him “one of the most important witnesses of the twentieth century, a heroic man and truly worthy writer.”

It was a generous appraisal. Although Herling always recognized Milosz as a great poet, the younger writer took issue with Captive Mind, Milosz’s landmark analysis of what happens to the creative mind under totalitarianism, through four case studies. “Our friendly relations were not affected by his negative opinion of my book, The Captive Mind, though I was never able to grasp his argument,” Milosz wrote. “He seemed to reproach me for ascribing ideological motives to intellectuals who had collaborated with communism. According to him they acted mostly out of fear or a desire for a career.

“Herling had valid reasons to judge severely the intellectuals of the twentieth century. Those in the West closed their ears to his report on Soviet Gulags. In Italy, where he lived for many years, the intellectual establishment, which was controlled by Communists, changed him into a nonperson only to discover him suddenly after the fall of the Soviet empire. My Captive Mind had hardly fared better with leftist readers than his World Apart.

He experienced some of the worst the last century had to offer, beginning with World War II in Poland. He established Poland’s first anti-Nazi resistance cell, fled east to join the Free Polish Army, was arrested by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) in Soviet-occupied Poland, and was imprisoned in a labor camp on the White Sea. After his release in 1942, he was wounded in the Battle of Monte Cassino. He co-founded the influential literary journal Kultura in Maisons Laffitte with Jerzy Giedroyc (well, we told that story here). His books include A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor, Volcano and Miracle, The Island, and others.

A few excerpts from Kelly Zinkowski’s excellent Paris Review Q&A from 2000 – first, on Captive Mind:, a book that was very influential for Humble Moi, describing not only life under Communism, but anywhere the mind is “bent”:

captive-mindHerlingThe behavior of the intellectuals before the war, during the war and after the war with respect to fascism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism of various descriptions was not very respectable. So they were happy to have Milosz’s book, to have their behavior absolved, if not validated. Because to have something like Ketman or the New Faith is certainly preferable to listening to me telling them that they had betrayed themselves for career and family. Not that the Poles were alone in this. The behavior of writers and intellectuals in Italy during the Fascist reign was the same thing. They should be ashamed of what they wrote, especially because they weren’t writing out of any genuine conviction of fascism’s merits. They were merely trying to advance their respective careers. To some extent it was the same with German writers under the Nazis. Thomas Mann wasn’t sure about what choice to make.

InterviewerUnlike Robert Musil, who in his exile liked to say that he was merely following his readers.

HerlingYes. Mann was in a way negotiating with the Nazis. He wanted to know if the Nazis would publish his books, if they would guarantee the safety of his great library in Munich, and so on. We have to be extremely conscious of this problem. I remember the great Italian writer, my friend Ignazio Silone; his intransigence against Italian Fascism was very badly looked upon by his colleagues. They called him a fanatic, which is a terrible word—

Interviewer: Implying that he’d lost his reason.

HerlingAnd so on. I don’t mean to reopen this discussion with Milosz. He’s a great writer. I recognize his greatness, in his poetry especially, his beautiful novel The Issa Valley, and in other things. I was very pleased by, and contributed to his getting—because they’re not so easy to get!—the Nobel Prize. But I remain adamant where our dispute is concerned.

***

world-apartInterviewerCould you talk a bit more about your position vis-à-vis those who compromised, either with communism or fascism?

Herling Let us divide these intellectuals, as far as Poland is concerned, into two categories, the first being single-minded Communist careerists who didn’t want to allow any anti-Communist voices. I remember a very well-known writer who visited me during the time of Poland’s Communist regime. I told him, You’re writing trash, absolute trash. He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a photograph of his wife and family and said, This is my answer. So just stop with all your anti-Communist moralizing.

InterviewerA difficult point to argue, under the circumstances.

HerlingBut we are marked by what we do. This is the first category. The second category is much more dignified, that of writers and intellectuals in totalitarian regimes, like fascism or Nazism, good writers with Nazi sympathies . . . If you could interrogate Heidegger, for example, you would get all of his explanations for why he did what he did, why he accepted the position of university rector, why he wrote all that trash. There was always a reason—he wasn’t stupid. So the second category is this: those who tried to invent good and intelligent reasons. When Milosz says they are using the technique of —claiming to believe everything they were supposed to believe, just to live, to work—it was a kind of lie.

InterviewerAlbeit a historically sanctioned lie—a flamboyantly erudite example of Emerson’s maxim that once a particular point of view is taken, all of history can be made to prove it.

HerlingYes.

***

gulag-archipelago

On Alexander Solzhenitsyn: 


Herling
Take the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Although it goes under his name, he is not the only one who wrote it. It was compiled from the memoirs of some two hundred Gulag veterans to whom he had written and asked to recount their experiences. So it’s not really his book; it’s a kind of encyclopedia of the camps. It is true, it is good, it is interesting, it made a profound impression in the West. In my opinion it utterly transformed the position of the French intelligentsia vis-à-vis the Soviet Union; it eradicated communism as a viable position among the intellectual classes there. But it is not Solzhenitsyn’s book in the same way that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is. I didn’t plan to write the story of my two years in Kargopol near the White Sea. But, as I’ve said, it was there that I was awakened as a writer, so I approached my subject as a writer, not as a rapporteur. In some respects it is a book of fiction, but not as conventionally understood.

***

On evil:

HerlingDuring my two years in the concentration camp, I saw an accumulation of evil that left a very deep trace. Even after I was released and reacquired some sense of normality, I never stopped thinking about the evil I had seen. Then, observing the world, reading the papers, listening to stories, it became absolutely apparent that evil exists and is spreading every day. This became my obsession, and it is a constant theme in my stories. My idea of evil differs from the one shared by the church, Plotinus, and Thomas Aquinas, which maintains that evil is merely the absence of goodness. This is the official theory, and I don’t believe it. I think evil is utterly autonomous. What I see every day, in this terrible procession of events, disgusts me and confirms me in my belief; I am almost desperate. And the germ of this notion was formed in the camps. I saw a lot of things there, some of which I wrote about, some of which I didn’t. For a man of my age then, it was a terrible experience to see how the world really is. And this is the reason I decided to abandon my plans for a university career and to become a writer.

Read the whole thing here

Robert Musil: “If one wants to prevent revolutions, one must encourage the writing of literature”

Saturday, June 28th, 2014
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Musil

Real writer

It’s the 100th anniversary of the assassination that triggered World War I. On this day in 1914, the 19-year-old Serbian Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian  Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The assassin was one of those nobodies who pops up occasionally in history, rather like John Wilkes Booth, but the Austrian writer Robert Musil has another take on the schoolboy, who was secretly a poet – as well as French leader Georges Clémenceau, who “obviously had a poet living inside him,” and Italian novelist/playwright Benito Mussolini. In this passage taken from his notebooks in late 1935 or early 1936:

princip

Writer wannabe

“In a word, one must remind those irredeemably blind people who despise literature that even Nero set Rome on fire once, and this not just because he was mentally ill, as is maintained, but above all because he was a writer. Their respect for writing will increase if they notice that not only amateur writers, writing dilettantes, but also writers who for one reason or another never fully managed to devote themselves to writing, have set the world on fire.

“Compared to them, the real or fully developed writers are not dangerous in any way and, aside from spiritual theft, bourgeois bankruptcy, and offences against public decency, have never done anything serious at all. The source of restlessness in the kind of people who destroy worlds is transformed in these writers to a quietly burning and nourishing hearth-flame and they make a well-ordered export business out of the adventures of their fantasy…”

Read the rest at the blog on Musil, Attempts to Find Another Human Being,  here. As I recall, Joseph Stalin was an aspiring writer, too, and Mao Tse-Tung was a poet of note. I suppose it could be flipped around to be an argument for killing all of us early… Some sort of fireworks exploding outside as I write. I find it rather chilling on a warm summer night.

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
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Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.