GREG GERKE: You once wrote that you’d dedicated your life to Robert Musil. You’ve written your dissertation on him, translated two books of his writings, and are working on a third. Why Musil? How did this magnetism between his work and yourself come about? In your book The World as Metaphor, you talk about his “fascination with the mystical idea of the criminal act as a portal to new spiritual experiences,” something detailed in The Man Without Qualities, but already apparent in the two early novellas comprising Unions, “where acts that are normally considered abhorrent or anti-social are seen as possibly beneficial.” How does this idea play into your relation to Musil’s aesthetic possibilities?
GENESE GRILL: I remember first hearing Musil, in translation, at a reading given by Burton Pike at CUNY Graduate Center. It was the passage from The Man Without Qualities where Clarisse and Walter are playing the piano, their duet compared to the violent rush of two competing locomotives! In just a few sentences, the words had transported me from the concrete to the cosmic and back again, opening up multiple worlds and illuminating subtleties and contradictions in brilliant, rhythmically astounding prose. I went to the original German and began reading. At first, I was confused. It was like nothing else I had ever read. But in no time, Musil had gotten inside me, to the extent that all the questions his characters were asking seemed to be the very questions vital to my own existence. Here were characters who were not only searching for answers to the modern predicament of how to live ethically in a world of uncertain moorings and morals, but who were not satisfied with simplistic solutions that left out the aesthetic dimension of dynamics and chiaroscuro, the human need for a tension between what is given (status quo) and what might be (possibility) — a duality that Musil also configured as that between repeatability and crime.
As I continued to read, I followed these questions to an essential crux, and concluded that Musil — like his mentors Nietzsche and Emerson — envisioned the ethical-aesthetic universe as a field of fruitful tension between natural, recurring realities and the human being’s creative collaboration and agency in co-creating new realities. Aesthetic possibilities, then, are ethical opportunities to see anew what is already given in reality, and to bring these new visions into focus. Insofar as new seeing leads to new ways of being in the world, and new action, art can be seen as a sort of crime against the status quo. Art as ethical — quasi-criminal — co-creation of the ever-changing world.
This task became more and more important to me, both for my writing about Musil and my own writing, as I strained against those postmodern nihilisms that denied the possibility of shared meaning and denounced the Enlightenment belief in what is sometimes ridiculed as “aesthetic redemption.” Musil, despite all his skepticism and sophistication about society and culture, believed strongly in the important social role of art and education. Instead of just smashing the idols and questioning old values, Musil and Nietzsche were committed to salvaging some older pre-Christian values and also experimenting with the creation of new ones.
Burton Pike influenced my thinking here, as well, by clarifying the Modernist project, not as a wholesale rejection of meaning, but a much subtler attempt to find formal strategies (metaphor, fragmentation, syntactical experiments) to approach the new consciousnesses of relativity, subconscious processes, psychology, and perspectivism. Meaning(s) and truth(s), while much more complex than had formerly been conceived, were still worth scrambling for. One was called upon to approximate, approach, and attempt, as aesthetic-ethical imperative. In my own essayistic work, this developed into a study of the ways in which the material world is and is not created or changed by the spiritual processes of thought, imagination, or constructs. I maintain that our most life-affirming approach to existence is one which honors the reality of the material world — beauty, gravity, death, change — and empowers what Nietzsche called “creative subjects” — i.e., all human beings — to be agents of necessary reality-renewal.
In the introduction to Unions, you write, “A translator must work especially hard […] to resist unjustified guessing at meanings, over-articulation of vagueness, or the addition of explanatory words where the author has intentionally left the meaning vague; to resist smoothing out or ameliorating recurring ticks and oddities.” Along with this, what is your process of translation? Do you go sentence by sentence or might something that comes through later affect how you will see a previous section, image, or word?
Burton Pike was my professor at CUNY Graduate Center and also my Doktorvater for my Musil dissertation. He taught me how to think about literature, both within cultural contexts and by reading closely and analytically. One of his courses on literary criticism was conducted via translation. We were asked to translate a few short texts every week and then to parse and explicate their syntax, the kinds of images used, their tempo, and other particularities, and to comment on how these details did or did not correspond to the movements with which these works might be associated. This extremely close reading seemed for me the greatest training in translation possible.
As to my current process of translation, it is important to my work that I know Musil’s work as a whole intimately, so that I can hypothesize about where he might be going in times of ambiguity. But that also means that I sense when it might be important to leave something open or suggestive, rather than making the classic translator mistake of polishing or completing what was not meant to be explicit. Because Musil was obsessed with the difference between dead and living words, it is most important to avoid rendering his very fresh language and very unexpected ideas into old pigeon-holed phraseology or style. Thus, while there is word-by-word work, the rendering of each word is informed by my own reading of the vast oeuvre and, whenever possible, by Musil’s expressed intentions for the particular work. Last but not least, I also learned from Burton Pike to think about rhythm, that particular tempo and melody of a Musil sentence, trippingly light and elegant on the surface, but often carrying a very potent explosive in its vest pocket.
In your other Musil translation, Thought Flights, a collection of smaller fiction and nonfiction fragments, you write in the introduction how “Musil and many of his contemporaries wrote brief, often light, discursive, observational pieces for newspapers and journals,” mixing many modes into them. Reviewing an author who has enjoyed such a renaissance in our time, Robert Walser, Musil writes that his pieces are written, “with much softness, dreaminess, freedom, and the moral richness of one of those seemingly unprofitable, lazy days.” Yet, Musil’s pieces are nothing like this — they are much more pungent, diving into their subject matter, grabbing attention like a boxer’s first quick jab. Your own prose pieces are more long-form essays; explications of art and self — how we see the world and how we use language and written in an ornate, Teutonic manner:
All of us, men and women, are constantly in conflict with the undifferentiated mass of everything-ness, and all of us, sons and daughters, are caught in an ongoing process of individuation away from our mothers (and fathers), learning from and also rejecting parts of what we are given, accepting or changing nature and culture, but always acknowledging all parts of the past as our complex beloved and hated heritage.
Assuming you wrote them contemporaneously with these translations, do you feel Musil’s style, which includes sentences that, as you write, “complexify along the way [...] [a]nd in so doing, they teach us how to think,” has transformed your own, which I view as more of a throwback to the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially Emerson and Thoreau, and little of the (no less superb) pivots of Walser, which gel with the more ellipsis-style more of our moment?
I think that anyone who is struggling with complicated ideas is challenged to articulate those ideas in sentences that are intelligible, without sacrificing their inherent complexities. Musil is a master of the elegant yet complex sentence — a feat of verbal legerdemain that one attempts to imitate at some peril. I can only aspire, helplessly, to such grace. Yet, yes, certainly, I was drawn to Musil because I myself also have some innate need to vivisect and parse, a “certain inclination toward the negative” — as Musil writes of his Ulrich — “a flexible dialectic of feeling that easily leads him to discover a flaw in something widely approved or, conversely, to defend the forbidden.” Musil enacts this analysis on the sentence level, educating the reader, phrase by phrase, in the complexities of any given idea. And, whether consciously or innately, I tend to do the same.
There is, however, also an aesthetic element. Those of us who marvel at complexity and are unsatisfied with one-sided pronouncements may revel in the sheer spectacle of even unintelligible displays of brilliant-seeming mappings of ideas, allusions, digressions. Pictures of such complexity, whether decipherable or not, do say something about an artist’s vision of the world. They warn us, or celebrate the fact, of complexity itself. Nevertheless, I do strive, with more or less success, for clarity, and do not approve of writers who aim to obfuscate for the sake of seeming profound. When I was in graduate school, Burton Pike wrote this on the margin of one of my papers: “A paragraph utterly devoid of meaning.” I was duly and memorably scolded.
As to Emerson and Thoreau, yes, they are important influences in my essay writing. Musil, of course, esteemed Emerson, and seems to have read some Thoreau. I also include Walter Pater and Yeats as my inspirations, writers who complexified and digressed in their own sumptuously ornate, nonlinear ways. While I delight in the light touch of Walser, I am afraid I have a hard time keeping my mind trained on small discrete subjects or momentary haiku-like glimpses. I am always making connections and also divisions, and I am always tempted to include everything in every piece. Form and content, as for Musil, are one here. The fact that the world is made up of so many interconnected, yet invariably divaricating and distinct singularities, that no one thing can be understood without seeing it in relation to all other things — moving and changing even as we observers move and change our perspectives — is itself at the heart of the delightful and frightful matter.
In a recently published essay in The Georgia Review, “Psyche’s Stolen Pleasure: Women Who Like to Look, Objectification and Animism of the Inanimate,” you write about the spiritual side of looking and living, by examining animism. You start by citing your own experience, looking at a fence outside a Berlin café: “The sun was shining on the cast iron ornamentation and the metal seemed infused with meaning; it was alive.” Then you discuss animism, by way of Kenneth Clark and a Yeats poem, before tying that in to the dangers and pleasures of objectification: “[O]ur desire for a particularly intriguing object or a particularly lovely person need not (it usually does not) turn violently predatory or inconsiderate of its object’s pleasure or sanctity.” Then you celebrate the senses, before writing: “Material, come alive, through our own vision of it, makes us feel alive too; things and parts of people seen as beautiful are portals to a world where everything is alive and filled with meaning.” This Bachelardian outlook is so refreshing against the world of commodification we now live in, where people get pleasure out of the data on their screens as they walk down the street, but bottle it and only share it electronically to others in the vast metadata web, not to those persons they are physically around. Does the world, as it is now in 2020, repel or impel (or both), charging you to keep shy in your ways of seeing, or to proclaim them more loudly?
This essay, part of a collection exploring the tension between Spirit and Matter, was written in response to the deleterious contemporary moralistic trend toward devaluing the material — in this case, physical beauty and sexual pleasure. The material world is denigrated today in favor of the so-called spiritual, which may be exemplified by the virtual, on the one hand, or by a pious emphasis on allegedly more important internal beauty, on the other. In all cases, there is a denial of the meaningful connection between externalities and internalities. Like all of the essays, this one was searching out correspondences between surface and depth, beauty and truth, nature and culture, aesthetics and ethics.
Basically, I do not believe that spirit exists without matter or matter without spirit, but I wanted to tease out the “spiritual” dimensions of matter, the difference between some materiality — art, nature, bodies — and other, shallower, materialism. I began the collection with an investigation of the history of books as objects and of current theories of virtuality, contending that when we remove the materiality from a book, we are severing its essential magical role as conduit between ideas and the world, between imagination and reality, thought and action. I further tested this conjecture by creating, over the course of five years, a gigantic room-sized accordion book (each of its 10 panels is four feet by eight feet), which I illuminated and inscribed, letter by letter, with the essay, thus experiencing firsthand the tribulations that matter is heir to — peeling paint, cumbersome panels, painstaking inscription work, gravity, breakage — as well as its pleasures and ritual potency.
The world, even in 2020, is rife with richly spiritual materiality, but this rare aesthetic and ethical aspect of human life is increasingly drowned out by the pervasive roar of hollow, vulgar consumerism, on the one hand, and, on the other, by those voices that deny the inherent value of physical reality, beauty, art, and nature. Such a nihilistic perspective leaves an aching abyss in our lives, all-too-easily filled by the peddlers of dissipating, violating virtuality. My work is fueled, thus, in good part by opposition to these latter dangers; but, also, it is fueled by what I love. In the wake of a rising tide of anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic, moralistic de-materialization, I am impelled — compelled? repelled? — by the hate that I feel for that which threatens what I love. Yet the work is, I hope, more of a yay- than a nay-saying.
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, were both published by Splice in the autumn of 2019.