Thursday, July 3, 2008

Robert Musil's Analytic Metaphors

I've been struck by the richness of figurative language in The Man Without Qualities. Musil comes up with a seemingly endless variety of metaphors and similes, unexpected, often humorous, often slightly off balance, hitting their target at oblique angles, yet perfect. Think of Twyla Tharp--how her dancers will land off center, choreographed stutter steps, flinging themselves at one another and missing, and how absolutely right it feels.

I wish I'd begun to mark them from the beginning--to take notes. For more than 600 pages I've been trying to understand how he uses metaphor, what it is that marks his style. Then on p. 634 there's a paragraph about metaphors, the points here are repeated in the next chapter, which is a prolonged essay on metaphors (Musil uses the word essay in Montaigne's sense; his protagonist, Ulrich, wants to make his life an essay, a trying out, an experiment as-you-go). Now I can account for the cerebral quality of these comparisons--the metaphor is for Musil the equivalent of a scientific instrument, an analytic tool he uses to take apart things (language, ideas, beliefs, illusions) and recombine them to see what happens. Ulrich himself is a meta-metaphor, a thing of language always in process--why he has no "qualities."

Let me quote Musil. First, toward the end of chapter 115, The Tip of Your Breast is Like a Poppy Leaf:

Now he experienced a moment of that special lucidity that lights up everything going on behind the scenes of oneself, though one may be far from being able to express it. He understood the relationship between a dream and what it expresses,which is no more than analogy, a metaphor, something he often thought about. A metaphor holds a truth and an untruth, felt as inextricably bound up with each other. If one takes it as it is and gives it some sensual form, in the shape of reality, one gets dreams and art; but between these two and real, full-scale life there is a glass partition. If one analyzes it for its rational content and separates the unverifiable from the verifiable, one gets truth and knowledge but kills the feeling. Like certain kinds of bacteria that split an organic substance into two parts, mankind splits the original living body of the metaphor into the firm substance of reality and truth, and the glassy unreality of intuition, faith, and artifact. There seems to be nothing in between; and yet how often a vaguely conceived undertaking does succeed, if only one goes ahead without worrying it too much. Ulrich felt that he had at last emerged from the tangle of streets through which his thoughts and moods had so often taken him, into the central square where all streets had their beginning.

Here you have ideas, several at once, really--developed through a succession of metaphorical analogies, but not at all in the way the "conceit" --a single extended metaphor (he does this on occasion, but not often, and then, to wrap up a set of ideas he's been working through)--but each one independent in itself, each called on to break down for analysis a different aspect of the idea being examined.

A few pages later (637) in chapter 116: The Two Trees of Life and a Proposal To Establish A General Secretariat for Precision and Soul., we find a variation of this idea, only explored from different side. This is Count Leinsdorf speaking.

An Austrian Year or a World Year of Austria is a splendid idea, of course, but I must say that every symbol must in due course turn into something real; that is to say, I can let myself be deeply moved by a symbol without necessarily understanding it, but after a while I am bound to turn away from the rirror of my heart and get something else done, something I have meanwhile found needs doing.

Then on pp. 644-5:

In such a world it was absurd to think in terms of metaphors and the vague borderline shapes life might possibly, or impossibly, assume. Ulrich felt that there was nothing amiss with his perception of life as a crude and needy condition where it was better not to worry too much about tomorrow because it was hard enough to get through today. How could one fail to see that the human world is no hovering, insubstantial thing but craves the most concentrated solidity, for fear that anything out of the way might make it go utterly to pieces? Or, to take it a step further, how could a sound observer fail to recognize that this living compound of anxieties, instincts, and ideas, such as it is, thought it uses ideas at most in order to justify itself, or as stimulants, gives those ideas their form and coherence, whatever defines them and set them in motion? We may press the wine from the grapes but how much more beautiful than a pool of wine is the sloping vineyard with its inedible rough soil and its endless rows of shining wooden stakes. In short, he reflected, the cosmos was generated not by a theory but--he was about to say "by violence," but a word he had not expected leapt to mind and so he finished by thinking: but by violence and love, and the usual linkage between these two is wrong.

The violence here is like that which sunders the parts of the metaphor to better understand it--while rendering it impotent to lend meaning to what such understanding as we've won from it.

p. 647=8

These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. [...] No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth...has had the same effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boield to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses.

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