The middle road is the only one which does not lead to Rome.
Tertium non datur.
At the end of his treatise on harmony Arnold Schoenberg makes a wry but revealing admission: Mit mir nur rat ich, red ich zu dir (In speaking with you, I am merely deliberating with myself). This entire Theory of Harmony, completed on July 1, 1911, is presented as though it were nothing more than an internal conversation. This “teacher” is a pupil pursuing his own instruction, perhaps grappling with problems that do not even allow for a solution. If he voices his uncertainties publicly, it is certainly not in order to persuade anyone. It is to put others in a similar situation. His method, he notes, is like shaking a box to get three tubes of differing diameters to rest inside each other. One does it in the belief that “movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails.” And the same applies to learning of every type. “Only activity, movement is productive.” The teacher’s first task “is to shake up the pupil thoroughly.” His internal unrest must infect his students, “then they will search as he does” (Schoenberg 1911a: 417 and 2–3).
What goes for the teacher also goes for the artist. In Schoenberg’s own phrase, the music he composes in the years surrounding the Theory of Harmony “emancipates dissonance” from the rule of consonance (Schoenberg 1926, 1941). Consonance, a pleasing resolution of clashing tones, is like comfort. It avoids movement; it “does not take up the search.” Schoenberg’s compositions have more faith in disquiet than rest, uncertainty than knowledge, difficulty than ease. This type of art—and all good art, in Schoenberg’s view—plays out an unfinished, intellectual quest. Aiming only “to make things clear to himself,”
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the artist pursues clarity in open confusion. Here there is no intention of “provoking” an audience with such dissonant compositions, as many might think. The artist simply “comes to terms with himself and the public listens; for the people know: it concerns them” (Schoenberg 1911a: 2 and 417).
What Schoenberg describes in the Theory of Harmony is a singularly unsettled new art of the prewar years: an art of perceptual struggle, of willing contention, of dynamic and irresolvable tension. Its newness consists in the manifestation of a plight, the transcription of a quandary. Similar claims are advanced by other artists in the years that Schoenberg turned from classical harmonic structures to atonality. The harmony of the age, writes Vasily Kandinsky, can only be one of “opposites and contradictions.” “Clashing discords, loss of equilibrium, ‘principles’ overthrown, unexpected drumbeats, great questionings, apparently purposeless strivings, stress and longing . . . this is our harmony .” What might strike the audience as a lack of artistic cohesion, notes the painter, is actually the proper form for a much deeper, though not immediately perceivable, unity. Wilhelm Worringer, the art historian, generalizes the same principle to art of all ages: “The imaginative life of mankind,” he writes in Form Problems of the Gothic (1910), “obeys a very simple law; it lives on antithesis.” Two years later the painter August Macke declares that “the form of art, its style, is a result of tension” (Kandinsky 1909–11: 193 and 209; Worringer 1910: 28; Macke 1912: 85).
Macke’s, Worringer’s, and Kandinsky’s statements are not descriptions of the timeless nature of art, even if they are meant as such. They are fruits of a moment, deductions and generalizations on the basis of a contemporary, historical scenario. Other artists and thinkers offer comparable accounts at nearly the same time. Moreover, their statements ultimately say less about art in itself than about the foundations on which it rests. Antitheses and contradictions are that which art brings into harmony (Kandinsky); the imagination lives on antithesis (Worringer); art results from tension (Macke). And these tense, antithetical foundations involve a whole world of experience—political as well as
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existential, ideological as well as psychological. Before the Great War a call is sounded for art to speak of unity by way of difference or not speak at all.
Why such a call? Why such dissonance in music? Such jarring and clashing forms in painting? Such dark and unreconciled tragedies in plays, novels, and poetry? Do they have counterparts in the social and institutional realms? And what might be “emancipating” about this ordering of disorder? The question Why? cannot be laid to rest by portraying the historical grounds of the issue at stake. As Aristotle explained it, Why? seeks not only material causes but also final ones—the objectives of the phenomenon in question. While art always responds to historical conditions, it also aims to reveal something these conditions themselves do not express. In the process it complicates the understanding with which we started, redefining our sense of the “causes” by the nature of its response. When we identify circumstances and experiences that help nourish a creative act, we have only offered the first turn in a circle, a circle not completed until we return to those experiences with the new understanding that is provided by the act in question. And this changes our initial view, starting the circle all over. No understanding of circumstances “determining” a work of art is of much use unless it is directly determined by the work itself. And this gives us as many understandings as there are readings. At this moment the question Why? cedes its priority to the questions What? and How? (circular though they also prove to be). What are the issues that a work strives to define? And how are they formed by the terms in which they are said? Here the question Why? breaks into a series of reciprocally determining relations, ramifications of social, ideological, and psychic experience which might not even share a common foundation. At this point one turns to the relations, hoping that their Why? might become clear in their What? and their How?
Gorizia, Judaic Indeterminacy and Triestine Art
To many keen minds in Europe, experience in 1910 appears racked by contradiction. The continent stands on the brink of the First World War. And in one perspective the war already bespeaks the dissonance whose unity the artists seek: a struggle between union and division, nationalism and internationalism, aristocracy and bourgeoisie, ethnic specificity and imperial anonymity. The European frame of mind in the
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years preceding the war is also the effect of concrete struggles: the unbalancing of power by the Triple Entente in 1907, the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria in 1908, the Moroccan and Ulster crises, the Turco-Italian clash, the Baltic Wars, the conflicting allegiances of Czechs, Serbs, Magyars and other amalgamated groups of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Social ideology finds itself increasingly polarized between the Radical and the Conservative, the Left and the Right, Man and Woman, the Young and the Old.For Freud it is time to reckon with the fact that even the psyche is an “arena and battle-ground for mutually opposing purposes or, to put it non-dynamically, that it consists of contradictions and pairs of contraries” (Freud 1915–17: 76–77). Psychoanalysis tells a story in which the conscious mind vies with its unconscious counterpart, the licit with the illicit impulses, the wishes with the needs, whose cooperation will never be less than strained. The conflict, as the sociologists Max Weber and Georg Simmel argue, extends out from the self to its social relations. The health of the ego relies, psychologically as well as sociologically, partially on acceding to the demands of others, partially on resisting those same demands.
Since the late nineteenth century, European thinkers had diagnosed two radically antithetical syndromes in both psyches and civilizations: ascendancy and decline, sanity and sickness, vitality and degeneration.
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By the early twentieth century, Lebensphilosophen (life philosophers) and pragmatists have reduced the conflict to a fundamental opposition between exuberant will and petrifying reason, or soul and spirit. Phenomenologists and language philosophers have separated signs from their meanings, and apparently self-evident facts from values. All this plays a part in the dissonance artists felt called on to harmonize in 1910.
Were these conflicts more “real” or more “tragic” than others in previous eras? For example, did the youth of Italy or Austria-Hungary suffer more deeply from sexual repression in 1910 than the youth of a century earlier, as has frequently been suggested? Whatever facts might answer such questions are not as important as the way these facts themselves are perceived. Repression, the process by which a psyche defends itself against an unacceptable impulse, was one of the new perceptions of the age. “It was a novelty, and nothing like it had ever before been recognized in mental life” (Freud 1925: 18). Moral and psychological repression was no doubt even stronger in earlier ages; but it was not identified in that way before the turn of the twentieth century. Something similar applies to the notions of conflict, struggle, and tragedy. If tragedy relies on the perception—not the fact—that experience is hounded by painfully irreconcilable oppositions, then the years preceding the First World War were among the most tragic in Europe. Miguel de Unamuno spoke on behalf not only of Spain but of the whole continent when he described The Tragic Sense of Life in 1913: “Since we only live in and by contradictions, since life is tragedy and tragedy is perpetual struggle, without victory or the hope of victory, life is contradiction” (Unamuno 1913: 14). By 1910 the philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche had pervaded even the middlebrow culture of Europe. Georg Simmel goes so far as to describe tragedy as fundamental not only to culture but to the organic unfolding of life (in “The Metaphysics of Death” of 1910 and “On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture” of 1911). Georg Lukács views tragedy as the essential form of human experience which surfaces at all moments of decisive historical transition. It is of his own historical age that he is thinking when he notes that tragedy structures the modes of collective understanding in each “heroic age of decadence,”
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as new sentiments and institutions surge up to battle old ones. The “profound ethical and ideological conflict [from which] tragedies draw their origins” has one of two consequences: “either the soul of old humans is lacerated by the irreducible dissonance between the old and the new, or the new feelings are destroyed by the weight and still vital force of the old institutions” (Lukács 1911b: 56–57).
This strife-ridden conception of human experience is hardly alleviated by the historical conditions into which many artists of this moment were born. In Austria-Hungary, to take one example, the situation was fairly complex. “There has never been anything like it in history,” writes Oskar Kokoschka.
When I think back to my schooling I have the feeling that it was a reflection of the whole history of Austria. Many peoples were joined together in the old Austrian Empire, each retaining its individuality, its particular aptitude. . . . In my class there were boys from the Alpine countries, Hungarians, Slays, Jews, Triestines, Sudeten Germans. A real gathering of peoples. And every second master came from a different country, and had brought with him some unmistakable national element, a colouring in his voice, his manner, his way of thought. In this sense, school was a preparation for my later life, in which I became a wanderer. (Kokoschka 1974: 17)
The wanderer that Kokoschka became was partially what the state had already forced him to be; a situation which might have seemed like a complex organic unity was actually a sprawling mélange of ethnic and political rivalries that “made most people aware of themselves as minorities” (Gordon 1987: 133). How could issues such as dissonance, difference, and conflict not come to the fore when they were already experienced in the daily travails of cohabitation? The problems were endemic to multicultural states, faced with the task of managing the interests of their increasingly differentiated and self-conscious citizens. In 1908, the particular year that Kokoschka recalls, a similar awareness arises across the Alps, where a group of young men found an eclectic Florentine weekly called La Voce . A forum on sexuality, politics, psychoanalysis, the arts, Catholicism, American pragmatism, and the urgency of collective moral direction, La Voce is bent on the “cultural renovation” of Italy. What it concludes, however, is that renovation requires an “affirmation of peripheral identities against the central one” (Asor Rosa 1985: 45).
If the tensions of cultural heterogeneity are stronger in Austria-Hungary than in other empires of Europe, it is because it incorporates so many peripheral identities in its dozens of ill-defined parts—like
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the one Florentines seek to liberate from their northern neighbors, the Italian regions of Friuli and Venezia-Giulia. Their symbol is the city of Trieste, harangued for capitulating to the Austrians by the futurist F. T. Marinetti in March, 1909. But Marinetti knew less about Trieste than his fellow Italian, Scipio Slataper, and it came as a surprise to many readers of La Voce that this author of the five “Letters on Trieste” (1909) was not as concerned with the political disenfranchisement of Italians in Trieste as with the city’s own lack of identity. The first of the letters carried its theme in its title: “Trieste Has No Cultural Traditions.” What is distinct about this city without traditions, claimed Slataper, is that it consists in an unprecedented distillation of three different cultures: Italian, Germanic, and Slavic. Certainly a “Triestine type” has developed out of this comixture; with the blood of three races coursing through his veins, Slataper himself is a perfect example. Yet the intellectual task still facing Triestines is to make this confluence productive. They must now learn, explains Slataper, to “transform the harm of this contact into an advantage.” What awaits the living products of this extraordinary cultural amalgam is a formalization of the singular blend—a “Triestine art,” one which could re-create “this fitful and anxious life of ours in the joy of clear expression” (Slataper 1909: 44 and 46).
Extended beyond the borders of a single city, Triestine art means international art, not traceable to a pure and single root. Triestine art is one that would present the varied, irrepeatable contingencies of a complex place and time as productive, proper, and necessary. And this is in part the ambition of what we call modernism in art, as least the modernism of the early twentieth century, visible no less in the medieval recuperations of the poet Ezra Pound than in the Oceanic and African inspirations of French painters and sculptors. The most explicitly internationalist art, however, took place not in Florence or Paris but in Munich, where Kandinsky had immigrated in 1896 and where, be-
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tween 1910 and 1912, he compiled an almanac of art considered to be the epitome of this transcontinental and transhistorical aesthetic, not to mention the very manifesto of expressionism: Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). In fact, it was for their “unGermanness” that Kandinsky’s group was condemned—and not only by the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937, but already in the critical polemics of 1910–1911. In our century, purist nationalism has always been up against a more palpable development whose symbol is Trieste, one dissonant locus in the hyphenated empire of Austria-Hungary. This, too, is the soil of art in 1910.
On the same soil, forty-four kilometers northwest of Slataper’s Trieste, is a city known to Austrians as Görz, to the Italians as Gorizia, and to Slovenes as Gorica. Carlo Michelstaedter’s family had emigrated to its vicinity from the German city of Michelstadt, near Darmstadt, in the 1700s, upon hearing that the province offered working opportunities for Jews. By the end of the nineteenth century, these Michelstaedters were firmly Italian, even if educated, like most citizens of the empire, primarily in German. Italian for themselves and Austrians for the state, they were primarily Jews for others. On such disinherited fringes of states, questions of identity are not a choice but a painful fatality. 
Gorizia passed from Austrian to Italian rule at the end of World War I. Twenty-seven years later, after the signing of the armistice of World War II, the city of Gorizia was overrun by the Yugoslav troops of General Tito. A full month passed before the Allies responded to Italian appeals for help. No doubt the delay could be attributed to the fact that, in part, Tito was an ally and Italy in part a vanquished power. Whatever the explanation, Tito’s claims to the territory took hold. No better way was found to settle the contentions between Italians and Slays than by running the national frontier right through the
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Map of East Central Europe in 1910.
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Map of East Central Europe in 1992.
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city. Nearly fifty years later, an iron barrier still separates one side of Gorizia from the other causing streets to come to dead-ends, as in former Berlin. A fourth of one piazza is in Italy, three-fourths in a country later transformed, in 1991, into the Republic of Slovenia. To walk from one side of town to another you must cross border patrol. And still, as in Michelstaedter’s day, Italians and Slovenes inhabit both parts of the city, alongside rare Austrians who adorn their houses with photographs of the emperor Franz Joseph, deceased in 1914. Only the Jews are gone, Michelstaedter’s eighty-nine-year-old mother and sister among them, deported by the Germans to Auschwitz in 1943, the population reduced from nearly three hundred to fewer than ten.Consistently marginalized from the states to which it has belonged, Gorizia—like Trieste—means less to Italy today than it once did to Austria. To make the irony even more bitter, the cemetery of those Jews who embraced the Italian cause against Austria—the one where Michelstaedter and his family are buried—lies neither in Italy nor in Austria, but in a country that none of them knew. Here, too, the home of all is the home of none.
Mitteleuropean scholarship has a name for this syndrome: the experience of the Jew, an emblem of not belonging, of the failure of ethnic, social, ethical, and psychological integration. It did not take Otto Weininger to posit this link, forging connections between Judaic experience and a spirit of indirection, opposition, and disintegration. The main steps had already been taken by the tradition to which he belonged. By the beginning of the twentieth century dozens of thinkers had associated Judaism with all that threatened firm cultural identity: skepticism, reflection, materialism, egotism, and indifference to conventional belief. At one point or another, historians of culture had laid the responsibility for such ills as rationalism, empiricism, and individualism all at the door of the Jews. In the most extreme reading, the alleged propensity of Jews for speculative thinking was traceable to an inbred perversion. They were “anti-nature,” instinctively opposed to the productive and self-evident forms of a natural life. In a milder reading,
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advanced in the forties by Jean-Paul Sartre, the talent of Jews for abstraction, speculation and calculation appeared rather to be the consequence—not the cause—of an ill, and one for which they were not responsible. It was a reaction to their forcible exclusion from the traditions and opportunities of the cultures they inhabited. In addition to these essentialist or historical arguments, there were ideological reasons that were adduced to explain differences between Christians and Jews. Judaism was a private, paradoxical creed, less grounded in ritual than Christianity. It encouraged its subjects to develop their reflective and analytical skills. Not fettered by the accumulated history of a Church, Jews were more likely to explore the paths of free thinking.
Weininger gave metaphysical reasons for the Jewish type, not biological or historical ones. The Jew, he declared, is essentially a “disbeliever,” a person who believes in nothing. Judaism and nihilism are thus synonymous, inclining people to place their immediate and practical interests above all else. What happens, asks Weininger, when a person “has no ultimate goal, a foundation on which the psychologist’s probe strikes with a definitive sound?” Anything and everything. The psychic contents of the Jew are “all affected by a duality or plurality; from this ambiguity, duplicity, indeed multiplicity, he can never liberate himself” (Weininger 1903: 27). Bereaved of that “psychic simplicity” which flowers into unquestioning devotion to a spontaneous moral tradition (obviously the Christian tradition), the Jew is a creature of masks, speculative in more senses than one: given to restructure reality in thought as well as to mirror the beliefs of others, irrespective of whether they are true or false.
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Almost a century after the publication of Weininger’s Sex and Character , the ambiguity, duplicity, “indeed multiplicity” that he would have liked to erase from human behavior have come to be seen as fundamental traits of modernist culture. In fact, it is not by chance that today, at the end of the century, we search Central and Eastern Europe, the historical soil of this Jewish experience, for insight into our own postmodern future. The vanished Jew of Mitteleuropa is just the most dramatic casualty of a breakdown of political and psychological integrity that has marked the last hundred years. Others include the “mad” groups of wandering artists. Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna from 1887 to 1910, made it clear how extensive the Jew-concept could be when he declared, “I decide who is a Jew” (cited in Eksteins 1990: 319). Authority defines even those it excludes, not just as dissonant to the rule, but as intrinsically anarchic.
This is not to say that in 1910 Jews or descendants of Jews like Schoenberg, Michelstaedter, Buber, Wittgenstein, Lukács, and Simmel suffered the type of persecution that awaited them after the First World War. According to Schoenberg at least, the racial theories at the beginning of the century had more influence on Jews than Gentiles:
There were only small groups, among students mostly, which were subdued by them. And all the great Jewish thinkers, scientists, artists, writers and innovators . . . had as many admirers, followers and pupils, corresponding to their work, without any regard for their Jewish origin. And from my own experience I can tell you that the number of my Aryan pupils and followers was very much larger than I could have expected. . . . Indeed, I personally found myself far more appreciated by Aryans than by Jews. . . . The latter, deprived of their racial self-confidence, doubted a Jew’s creative capacity more than the Aryans did. (Schoenberg 1934–35: 504)
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Nor is it to deny that a wide spectrum of differences separates Wittgenstein’s Protestant upbringing from Buber’s defense of the Hasidic tradition (a spectrum actually crossed by Schoenberg: born into a Jewish family, he converted to Protestantism in 1898 but in the face of Hitler, in 1933, reverted back to Judaism). It is simply to say that the Jewish question loomed inevitably over each of these figures—in a sense as the question of all questions, for it epitomized the antagonism between convention and difference, normalcy and abnormalcy, consonance and dissonance, belief and unbelief that marked the whole era. It pointed to the problem of ideological, psychological, and cultural disunity; but it also raised the suspicion that what lurked beneath such issues of unity and identity was a problem of indeterminate foundations, of personal and ontological non-knowledge.
The rival allegiances of groups, a growing distance between individual and public spheres, a feeling that one’s innermost identity was inadequately anchored to political and ideological institutions: these factors form a general phenomenology to which art in 1910 feels compelled to respond. In responding, however, it also reconstitutes the phenomenology, furnishing perspectives for reinterpreting and reassessing its nature. Indeed, this feedback from interpretation to “originary” datum is what Schoenberg associates with the artistic process, thriving on displacing the expectations of audiences rather than on reaffirming received ideas. Few artists in 1910 are interested in articulating the “historical foundations” of their art. Such an operation could be performed just as well without any help from art. No artist in this study aims merely to reflect their social or political conditions (where “aesthetic chaos” would mirror the reality of fractured experience). That function can be performed by much lesser artists. If anything, the artistic “chaos” of 1910 seeks an order that is missingfrom historical experience: new modes of comprehension transcending the traditional and stubborn dualities (cause/effect, male and female, consonance/dissonance, Aryan/Jew, belonging/not belonging). This, if anything, is the “final cause” of the antagonisms of 1910.
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Kandinsky’s “harmony of contradiction,” for example, envisions the possibility of more flexible interpretive acts than those mechanically refracting the world, ones decongealing these oppositions and allowing them to turn productive. Years after the First World War, when Schoenberg hears a rumor that Kandinsky has become anti-Semitic, he addresses his onetime friend in the most unanswerable of terms. He notes that the real Kandinsky, the artist and genius of 1910, the Kandinsky that Schoenberg loved, could not possibly have thought in such terms (Schoenberg and Kandinsky 1984: 78–83). To emancipate dissonance is not only to recognize, suffer, or reflect such dissonance. It is to make it the basis for a new type of art. To borrow a phrase from Massimo Cacciari (1993: 106), the prewar aesthetics of Schoenberg and Kandinsky wish to promote the “functional multiplicity of languages” over and beyond their reduction into one. The suspicion that anarchy might be the only true ground for meaning confronts art, not with the liberty of license, but with the most stringent of formal tasks.
Two years after Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony a restless bohemian called Dino Campana presents a comparable scenario for contemporary art. His own art of poetry is the fruit of travels by foot throughout Italy and Europe, each ending in a clash with the law and a forced return to his hometown of Maradi, north of Florence. The pattern is repeated dozens of times, even as far away as Argentina. And each time Campana is charged with mental alienation; finally he is committed to an asylum for the last fourteen years of his life (19 18–1932).
Orphic Songs (Canti Orfici, 1914), his only collection of poems, opens not by commemorating a lyrical experience, advancing a symbol, or evoking a love, but by describing a situation that Campana calls “The Night”:
Ricordo una vecchia città, rossa di mura e turrita, arsa su Ia pianura sterminata nell’Agosto torrido, con il lontano refrigerio di colline verdi e molli sullo sfondo. Archi enormemente vuoti di ponti sul flume impaludato in magre stagnazioni plumbee: sagome nere di zingari mobili e silenziose sulla riva: tra il barbaglio lontano di un canneto lontane forme ignude di adolescenti e il profllo e la barba giudaica di un vecchio: e a un tratto dal mezzo dell’acqua morta le zingare e un canto, da Ia palude afona una nenia primordiale monotona e irritante: e del tempo fu sospeso il corso. (Campana 1914: 83)
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[I recall an old city, red-walled and turreted, parched on the boundless lowlands in scorching August, with the distant coolness of green and wet hills in the background. Enormously empty arches of bridges over the river swamped in meager leaden stagnations: black molds of mobile and silent gypsies on the banks: in the distant glare of a cane field, the distant nude forms of adolescents and the profile and Judaic beard of an old man: and suddenly from out of the dead water the gypsy women and a song, from the voiceless marsh a primordial, monotonous, and irritating dirge: and the course of time was arrested.]
In this lurid conglomeration of images, everything contends with everything: red with green, youth with age, motion with immobility, closeness with distance, brightness with darkness. Above the torrid and burnt out plains the hills are a “frigidarium.” The flowing river has become stagnant. The arches of the bridges are “enormously empty,” constructed not of their stone, but of the spaces they frame. Two shapes can be made out in the dazzle of the dark scene, bound only by contrast: the distant naked forms of adolescents and the Judaic “profile and beard” of an elderly man. The first image is general and indistinct, the other magnified and detailed. From the soundless swamp a song emerges. Time, which typically runs, has come to a halt. The rest of this opening poem only confirms the pattern, elaborating a simile of paradox, a hallucinatory narrative of sensual and imaginative deviance.
The second poem of the Orphic Songs , perhaps the earliest to be written, gives a name to this perplexing experience: “Chimera.” Mythologically, a chimera is a fire-breathing monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. Figuratively, she is a creature of the imagination, as inexplicable as she is unattainable. In the field of genetics, a chimera is an organism possessing the tissues of two sexes or species. In each case she is a hybrid phenomenon, an anomalous event, a possibility as alluring as she is rare. Addressing his Chimera directly, Campana does not mask his confusion:
Non so se tra roccie il tuo pallido
Viso m’apparve, o sorriso
Di lontanze ignote
Fosti, la china eburnea
Fronte fulgente o giovine
Suora de Ia Gioconda:
O delle primavere
Spente, per i tuoi mitici pallori
O Regina o Regina adolescente:
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Non so se Ia fiamma pallida
Fu dei capelli il vivente
Segno del suo pallore,
Non so se fu un dolce vapore,
Dolce sul mio dolore,
Sorriso di un volto notturno:
Guardo le bianche rocce le mute fonti dei venti
E l’immobilità dei firmamenti
E i gonfii rivi che vanno piangenti
E l’ombre del lavoro umano curve là sui poggi algenti
E ancora per teneri cieli lontane chiare ombre correnti
E ancora ti chiamo ti chiamo Chimera.
(Campana 1914: 105–106)
[I do not know if among rocks
Your pallid face appeared to me, or if
You were the smile of unknown distances,
Your slanted ivory brow refulgent
Oh young sister of La Gioconda:
Oh for your mythical pallor
Of dead springs,
Oh Queen oh adolescent Queen:
I do not know if the pale flame
Of her hair was the living sign of her pallor,
I do not know whether it was a sweet haze,
Sweet to my grief,
Smile of a face in the night:
I look at the white rocks the mute sources of winds
And the immobility of the firmaments
And the swollen streams that go weeping
And the shadows of human labor curved there on frozen hills
And still distant bright shadows running through soft skies
And still I call you I call you Chimera.]
No attempt to identify this Chimera can diminish her sway over Campana’s entire literary production. She names no living woman, no momentary sensation, no haunting vision of the poet—indeed, no identity at all—but rather historical experience pure and simple, experience that unhinges the witnessing mind, generating confusion in its agent. In turn this agent—this poet—can find no significance but in articulating that same confusion. Like Schoenberg’s dissonance, the Chimera names an art that emancipates the confusion built into experience, revealing it, transmitting it, making it appear to have its own order. Campana’s poem is organized around one chronically repeated statement, “I do not know,” as if to say, “I can give you nothing but the Chimera I see, sweet to my grief.” By the time of T. S. Eliot, Eugenio Montale, and other poets of
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the twenties, such confessed ignorance is commonplace; in Campana and in 1910, it stems from a naked confrontation with the disorientation at work in the imagination.
To get to the bottom of his concern, Campana seeks out the clarity of the night:
Ma per il tuo ignoto poema
Di voluttà e di dolore
Musica fanciulla esangue,
Segnato di linea di sangue
Nel cerchio delle labbra sinuose,
Regina della melodia:
Ma per il vergine capo
Reclino, io poeta notturno
Vegliai le stelle vivide nei pelaghi del cielo,
Io per il tuo dolce mistero
Io per il tuo divenir taciturno.
(Campana 1914: 105)
[But for your unknown poem
Of voluptuousness and grief
Ashen-faced musical girl
Marked with a line of blood
Circling in sinuous lips,
Queen of melody:
But for your virgin head,
Reclined, I nocturnal poet
Kept watch of the bright stars in the seas of the sky.
I for your sweet mystery
I for your taciturn becoming.]
Straining to understand the Chimera’s poem, the nocturnal poet presents his bewilderment as the product of a specular world. His benighted intelligence spirals into a battle between vitality and death, between darkness and stars. On the adolescent and virginal Queen lies a pallor of dead springs. A line of blood marks her bloodless face, signaling her lips. Her flaming hair is the single “living sign” of what is otherwise closer to a corpse. The unknowable, chimerical poem announces an inextricable union of presence and absence in voluptuous pain, to the point where the poet cannot say whether this gruesomely lovely face ever appeared at all or whether he just felt it as a smile of “unknown distance.” The origin of both the experience and its voice in art is as taciturn as the mute source of winds, testament to unfathomably duplicitous conditions. “At night in the deserted square,” Campana writes later in his collection, “I, under the sad electric light, felt my infinite solitude” (Campana 1914: 161–162). This poem, called
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“Dualism,” finds the poet suspended between two unreconcilable worlds: one manifested by love for a real, historical woman and the other by the appeal of an abstract, unknowable one, whose name must remain “Oblivion” (Campana 1914: 164).
Some elements of Campana’s style are familiar to us from French symbolist poetry, so much so that scholarly emphasis on this lineage has obscured a proper view of the more raw, “Teutonic,” expressionistic dimensions of his verse. Symbolism and expressionism are both interested in relations between things dissimilar on the surface, in the junctures and recesses implied by the very tying of meanings together, in the possibility of awakening some invisible world by means of different and unusual ties. Both stress the intellectual confusion between sensory and theoretical perception. The difference between the arts, however, lies in the nature of their respective achievements. Symbolism valorizes consciousness at the very edge of perception. It suspects that there may be some unifying ground of signs and surface appearances. Expressionism is more concerned with the disorientation already at work in perceptual and conceptual understanding, the disjunction between “alternative” and “everyday” modes of vision. Where the earlier nineteenth-century poets discover invisible links among discordant phenomena, the later ones heighten the phenomenon of discord itself, suggesting that harmony can be discovered only in these structures of tension, not beyond or behind them. Here artistic revelations of “another world” beyond the apparent one become all but impossible. The surfaces of perceptible experience fail to become symbols of intuitable wholes. Rather, these surfaces appear “unnaturally” natural, eluding the meanings one might like to assign them, while yielding no others. And this is the “demonic” dimension of expressionistic writing, entrusting itself to the space between the visible and the invisible, the natural and the transcendent, the “will” and the power.
An example lies in a story called “The Perfecting of a Love” (Die Vollendung eine Liebe, 1910), written during the short-lived expressionist phase of the Austrian writer Robert Musil. The task Musil sets himself in this masterpiece of expressionist prose—in this story “formed by disgust with storytelling,” as he puts it (Musil 1911b: 10)—is to externalize the psychic unrest of a woman on the verge of betraying her husband. Most of this psychic externalization occurs through mind-stretching analogies between things pertaining to entirely different orders of being, as if to suggest that rational or discursive com-
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mentary cannot come near to explaining the inner movements of human subjectivity:
There was something gay and light about it all, a dilation as when walls open out—something loosened and unburdened and full of tenderness. And from her own body too the gentle weight was now lifted, leaving in her ears a sensation as of melting snow, gradually passing over into a ceaseless, light, loose tinkling. She felt as if with her husband she were living in the world as in a foaming sphere full of beads and bubbles and little feathery rustling clouds. (Musil 1910–11: 133)
As Musil explains it in a sketch for a foreword to Unions (1911), the volume in which “The Perfecting of a Love” appeared, the objective of this writing is to penetrate to a deeper sphere of the psyche than one revealing honest characters to have “specks of rascality [and] rascals specks of honesty. . . . A little deeper still, and people dissolve into futility.” One takes this deeper sphere seriously “not from the futility, but from the tragic enthusiasm it engenders” (Musil 1911b: 9). And it is for this reason that Musil constructs his floating network of concomitant images and values: to articulate what concepts cannot: “the wandering point of fixation, the dis unity in disparate phenomena.” This, he claims, is “inner understanding: a being confounded” (Musil 1912: 14–15).
Nevertheless, at the rare moments when the narrator does try to explain (discursively or rationally) the internal turmoil of his protagonist Claudine, we sense the extent to which her turbulence involves the dissociation of the realm of appearances from all ideal requirements of meaning. Latent in Claudine, notes the narrator, is an intuition that something is grotesquely inappropriate about the shapes that external experience assumes. What struck her most as she gazed around her
was the random nature of her surroundings: not the fact that everything looked the way it did, but that this appearance persisted, adhering to things as if it were part of them, perversely holding on to them as with claws. It was like an expression that has remained on a face long after the emotion has gone. And oddly—as though a link had snapped in the silently unwinding chain of events and swiveled out of its true position, jutting out of its dimension—all the people and all the things grew rigid in the attitude of that chance moment, combining, squarely and solidly, to form another, abnormal order. Only she herself went sliding on, her swaying senses outspread among these faces and things—sliding downwards—away. (Musil 1910–11: 163)
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What bothers Claudine is not simply that this aspect of things is arbitrary, but that it “persists,” resisting the fluidity of temporal change. Chance forms seem to operate independently of all inner intention, holding onto things “as with claws.” This aggressive situation never allows a thing to be what it is, to act and signify as it might deem fit. At moments like these all natural phenomena appear irremediably unnatural. And in contrast to the tenacity of this inessential objective world, the subjectivity of Claudine goes “sliding on . . . sliding downwards—away.”
Perceived reality is never estranged to this point in consonant, reciprocal, symbolist worlds. If there are any reciprocal relations in Musil’s passage, they are only those of mutual and insoluble oppositions. Just as the appearance of a thing comes loose from its essence, so the moment becomes dissociated from eternity, the contingent from the necessary, the perception from thing perceived, the volatility of inner subjective life from the heavy immobility of objective fact. Expressionist writing does inherit the symbolistic tendency to transform the structure of everyday experience in such a way as to make meaning transcend all appearance; but this “meaning” is now far too transcendent to seize. To make matters worse, such transcendence of meaning is never so autonomous or complete as to transubstantiate or cancel its natural point of departure (the physical world). All that remains sure is the disjunction between an appearance or sign and its possible significance. Imaginative knowledge is impossible to extricate from its world of contorted forms.
Expressionism finds its path between symbolism and the other aesthetic that it inherits: naturalism, or the “crude” and “overly realistic” depiction of positive, historical life. Just as expressionism naturalizes the domain of the symbol by tying it to everything it wishes to transcend, it also makes the natural symbolic. Only now the natural is symbolic of no more than its own discordant, dynamic, and insufficiently expressive energy. Campana is only one point of transition. Each one of his images struggles to become a symbol, but few succeed. And when they do, they are forced. What is not forced—and this may have to do with Campana’s own mental imbalance, the “natural logic” of his madness, as it were—is the reciprocal clash of these images, each striving to become a symbol, but also failing to receive cohesive, significant organization.
The expressionism of Campana also appears in the recurring and insuperable confrontation, in his verse, between a suffering ego and
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a deliriating cosmos. The Tragedy of the Last German in Italy : thus reads the subtitle of the Orphic Songs . The collection also ends with a colophon, a paraphrase of Walt Whitman: “They were all cover’d with the boy’s blood.” This ending of the volume turns the issue away from the subject of the tragedy—the last German in Italy—to the responsible agents. Campana explains from his asylum what he meant by the last German. He is the “idealistic and imperialistic” barbarian of the Middle Ages, who met his end in Italy through “moral purity.” The boy of the Whitman passage is similar: an innocent victim of corrupt assassins’ hands. Both images reinforce the collection’s governing figure of the poet as a mythical Orpheus torn limb from limb by hysterical Maenads. The artist as a martyr done in by his own attempt to charm the jungle finds more resonance in the Teutonic, expressionist company of Kokoschka, Schiele, and Trakl than in the Gaulic and symbolist one of Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stáphane Mallarmé.
Only a handful of prewar poets depict experience in such violent and conflictual terms—Georg Heym, Jakob van Hoddis, and Gottfried Benn among them. A few others, like Sergio Corazzini and Else Lasker-Schüler, the premier woman expressionist (married from 1901 to 1911 to the expressionist impressario Herwarth Walden), make language oscillate between opposites that eventually come to settle their differences:
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Komm, wir wollen uns näher verbergen . . .
Das Leben liegt in aller Herzen
Wie in Särgen.
Du! Wir wollen uns tief küssen—
Es pocht eine Sehnsucht an die Welt,
An der wir sterben müssen.
[Come, let's go sneaking off then . . .
In everybody's heart life lies
As in a coffin.
Ah! Let's kiss deeply, you and I—
A longing's knocking at the world
From which we'll surely die.]
(Lasker-Schüler 1982: 130–131)
The most radical oscillation, however, occurs neither in Campana nor Lasker-Schüler, but in her friend Georg Trakl, the most ambivalent poet of the twentieth century.
It is impossible to imagine a writer more sensitive to the spiritual indefiniteness resulting from two millennia of opposition between the sacred and the secular than Trakl. This poet charges his understanding with the elementary power of almost every antithesis with which European thinking has struggled from the start: life and death, innocence and guilt, sanity and madness, fertility and sterility, nature and law, divinity and evil, relevation and benightedness. In Trakl the conflicting pull of these forces has finally become unbearable. Whatever one would like to keep separate here commingles incestuously, contaminating the nature of its other. Was it Trakl’s own psyche, so frequently investigated by scholars and psychologists, that made him so prone to paradox?
Born of Austrian parents in 1887, two years after Campana—in the same year as Michelstaedter and Giovanni Boine (Kokoschka, Schiele, Lukács, Slataper and Wittgenstein were similarly born between 1885 and 1890)—Trakl had an even more tormented life than the Italian poet. As a child he was pathologically shy, subject, like Michelstaedter, to fits of rage. To avoid having to face passengers in trains, he would travel standing in the aisles outside compartments. He was given to sui-
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cidal acts from a very young age—throwing himself in front of a moving train, leaping in front of a skittish horse, walking into a pond until he disappeared underneath the water, leaving only his hat to mark the place for his rescuers. Ridiculed by his family for writing poetry, Trakl grew increasingly introverted. His father was at best indifferent, at worst insensitive, to him and his five siblings. His mother (whom he hated and once said that he would have liked to murder) was cold, uncaring, and drug-addicted. By age fifteen, Trakl, too, was regularly equipped with chloroform. The drugs that he used to “keep himself in life,” as he put it, for the next twelve years, included opium, morphine, Veronal, and cocaine.
Not surprisingly, Trakl became a chemist. Unable to keep a job, he volunteered for the war in 1914. Left to tend for ninety wounded men, with scarce medications, on the treacherous eastern front of the Austrian campaign, Trakl had as gruesome an experience as any in the war, witnessing men not only in incurable pain but hanging themselves from trees. The poet cracked, and attempted to take his own life. Apprehended before succeeding, he tried to desert, was apprehended again, and committed to medical supervision. The diagnosis was dementia praecox. Three weeks later, toward the end of 1914, he died from an overdose of cocaine.
Among his few close friends, and amid long periods of silence, Trakl would speak erratically of spiritual degeneracy. No doubt he shared more of these reflections with his younger sister, Grete, to whom it seems he was incestuously attached. And the closeness was reciprocal: in 1917, less than three years after his death, she repeated Georg’s gesture, shooting herself at a party with Herwarth Walden.
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So many themes of Trakl’s poetry replicate those of his life—especially incest, derangement, and persecution—that scholars may be right to approach his poetry as a series of carefully crafted disguises for feelings, experiences, and phobias from which he actually suffered. And yet such transformations of personal experience are common to every poet. What else is at work in Trakl’s cryptic language, distorted to the point where it all but erases its historical referents? What is actually wrought by his linguistic transcriptions? From the very start, contentions so rack his perception and grammar that nothing seems to remain but questions:
Des Unbewegten Odem. Ein Tiergesicht
Erstarrt vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit.
Gewaltig ist das Schweigen im Stein;
Die Maske eines nächtlichen Vogels. Sanfter Dreiklang
Verklingt in einem. Elai! dein Antlitz
Beugt sich sprachlos über bläuliche Wasser.
O! ihr stillen Spiegel der Wahrheit.
An des Einsamen elfenbeinerner Schläfe
Erscheint der Abglanz gefallener Engel.
The breath of the Unmoved. An animal face
Grows stiff with blue, with its holiness.
Mighty is the stillness in the stone,
The mask of a nightbird. A gentle triad
Ebbs into unity. Elai! your countenance
Bows speechlessly above the bluish water.
O you silent mirrors of truth!
On the ivory temples of the lonely one
Appears the reflection of fallen angels.]
(Trakl 1969: 68, 1988: 29)
If elemental forces speak louder here than visible, semantic intentions, it is because of their internal alignment and reinforcement in analogical chains (“something unmoved,” “the stillness of stone,” “a speechless countenance,” “the silent mirrors of truth,” and so on). So opaque are these figures of speech that whatever significance they promise retreats to the penumbras of unintelligibility. All faces stiffen into a mask, every presence into an absence. Here all one can recognize—as Ludwig Wittgenstein did, when making the anonymous gift of a large family
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inheritance to Trakl—is an unmistakable Trakl “tone,” a tone of still, bright darkness, in which all things are veils of incomprehension.
The tone is sounded by a recurring situation. In a lunar or sylvan setting, a subject suddenly witnesses an unnatural encounter or signal. It is sometimes a sight, sometimes a communicating animal, sometimes the voice of one deceased. But never is the protagonist, the action, or context endowed with a precise or stable identity. Everything oversteps its own nature. Within one and the same poem, words such as “blue,” “animal,” and “brother” take on mutually exclusive connotations; Trakl replaces them from draft to draft with words that mean their opposite. To make matters worse, he twists and breaks syntax—the regulating structures of comprehension—into all so many shards of sense. Frequently it is impossible to decide whether to read a word as an adjective modifying a noun or an adverb describing the action. As subjects are estranged from their surroundings, characteristics are attributed to phenomena ill-equipped to carry them (“stillness” as “mighty,” for example). Recognizable elements of the historical world turn polymorphous, bereaved of a proper name, their internal and external relations uncertain. Descriptions break off into invocations. Speaking becomes a form of listening. Indeed, there comes a point (as noted by Sokel, Saas, and Firmage) where phenomenal reality is subjected to such a process of abstraction that movements, colors, and motifs assume the free-floating independence that they have in Kandinsky. A “new dimension of spiritual space” is opened up by Trakl’s poems, notes Rainer Maria Rilke (1950: 527). And it undermines everything definite and well-defined, everything systematically structured by the moral and intellectual understanding.
The structural dissonances entail thematic ones:
Schlaf und Tod, die düstern Adler
Umrauschen nachtlang dieses Haupt:
Des Menschen goldnes Bildnis
Verschlänge die eisige Woge
Der Ewigkeit. An schaurigen Riffen
Zerschellt der purpurne Leib
Und es klagt die dunkle Stimme
Über dem Meer.
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Schwester stürmischer Schwermut
Sieh ein ängstlicher Kahn versinkt
Dem schweigenden Antlitz der Nacht.
Sleep and death, the somber eagles,
Rush all night about this head:
May the icy surge of eternity
Engulf the golden image
Of man. The crimson body
Shatters on the horrid reefs,
And a dark voice weeps
Above the sea.
Sister of stormy melancholy,
Look, an anxious vessel sinks
Beneath the stars,
The silent countenance of night.]
Über den weißen Weiher
Sind die wilden Vögel fortgezogen.
Am Abend weht von unsern Sternen ein eisiger
Über unsere Gräber
Beugt sich die zerbrochene Stirne der Nacht.
Unter Eichen schaukeln wir auf einem silbernen
Immer klingen die weib en Mauern der Stadt.
O mein Bruder klimmen wir blinde Zeiger gen
Above the white pond
The wild birds have flown away.
An icy wind blows from our stars at evening.
Above our graves
The shattered brow of night is bowed.
We rock beneath the oaktrees in a silver skiff.
The white walls of the city ring forever.
Beneath thorn arches,
O my brother we blind hands climb toward midnight.]
(Trakl 1969: 166 and 116, 1988: 121 and 69)
Each of these poems is articulated around groups of antithetical phenomena. On one side stand blindness, midnight, thorn arches, a shat-
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tered brow, and a grave. On the other, a white pond, stars, white walls, a silver skiff, and an icy wind. In “Lament” we find not only sleep, death, a dark voice, and a body shattering on reefs, but also alternative images for what may be the same things: stars, the sea, a surge of eternity, and the golden image of man. Both poems insert a subjective “we” into a lifelessly impersonal setting, a dialogue of “brothers” and “sisters” into disembodied communicative acts. All interpretation is directed to the semantic tensions embodying the voice of this “stormy melancholy,” even on the level of preposition (tensions between “above” and “under,” “toward” and “from,” not to mention the verbs generated from them: umrauschen, fortgezogen, and so on). “It is,” writes the poet, “a nameless unhappiness when one’s world breaks in two” (Trakl 1969: 530). Here the “two” are the disparate realms in which the Western vocabulary has traditionally cast its experience. In every object of vision Trakl perceives both: the luminous and the shadowy, the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the material. His images fluctuate between a Christian theology of all-unifying love (the “gentle triad” of “Night Song”) and pagan violence. Everything that rises sinks, everything that sinks rises up again. His murderers are his victims, his saints his sinners, and those who are “deranged” clairvoyant. Subjective and objective experience is caught in a perpetual transit; the “from where” and “to where,” however, remain unclear.
If there is a “unity” in Trakl’s poetic experience it consists in intellectual agony: in the breaking apart of one’s world at the moment one struggles to bring it into order. It is the tragic and sacred pain of philosophers both ancient and modern, of Heraclitus and Nietzsche, rooted in the soil of paradox. Trakl knows none of the intuitive serenity of symbolist and late nineteenth-century poets. Or if he does, it is simultaneously accompanied by upheaval, bearing witness to the aporetic nature of all articulated truths and feelings. The unity is also present in the coherence of tone and imagery, in the tragic quality of the situations depicted, in the state of mind they evoke with their threats and their risks and their confusion. An inexplicable “project” is in process in Trakl’s poetry, the investigation of a dark autumnal fate. What is even more astonishing in all this is the musical order into which Trakl succeeds in organizing his delirium. His poems tend to fall into three or four parts, each composed of four evenly lengthed lines of three to five feet. The rhythms are iambic and dactylic. Alliteration and vowel consonance present the rarest of phonetic combinations (“Schwester stürmischer Schwermut,” “weißen Weiher . . . wilden Vögel . . . ein
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eisiger Wind”). From 1909 to 1911 he frequently even rhymes his verse. Only after 1912 does he complicate this musical coherence with uneven meters and stanzas, bringing forth the formal forests of his late prose poems.
Music tames the wildest of passions. Versified disorder is disorder controlled. For Trakl this control proves necessary: His semantic and syntactic dissonance would overwhelm his readers were it not for the unity of sound in which it is bound, where each poem is a voice or a variation in a type of larger, choral composition, unfolded in repetitive patterns over the course of his collections. Able to speak only in dissonant ways, Trakl found harmony in song. He entrusted his meanings to music.
It is much more difficult to identify “content” in music than poetry. Without lyrics coupled to tones, we “make sense” of musical compositions, not by seeking a meaning, but by relating them to some prior world of sound, experience, and feeling with which we are already familiar. The result is imponderable enough as it goes—with indescribable impressions, muscular and nervous energies, vague waves of association solicited anew each time a piece of music is heard. Something like this made the philosopher Schopenhauer describe music as a pure voice of the will—or of that kernel of subjectivity which desires and suffers even before it knows how or why. It could be that this is as close as we can get to describing the content of music: a set of feelings coherently presented in form. And the coherence is pleasing, even when saddening, making one think that music is by definition sound arranged in melodious and harmonic patterns. Or so it would seem until Schoenberg’s compositions of 1908–1913. For these expressionist pieces reject even that sonorous consonance on which such dissonant poets as Trakl relied. Here even that aesthetic coherence of sound which mitigated the loss of semantic clarity is broken. Schoenberg dares do, in the most instinctively appeasing of aesthetic media, what Trakl does on the verbal and conceptual plane. Indeed, he goes further, bringing more elements of his art into opposition.
If the premise is right that feeling, will, or subjective interiority are the “content” of music (though the claim can be debated), and if these are also the raw material of Schoenberg’s music, then we must note at least this: Here the spectrum of feeling becomes extraordinarily vast—
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unpatterned and self-estranged. It is no longer spurred by an “outer occasion” (a military victory, a devotional creed, a gurgling fountain or peaceful landscape). Even where there is a text that accompanies the music (a “program” so to speak), Schoenberg’s compositions divorce themselves from it, freeing themselves from all content but that of their own formal relations. The content of this new, expressionist music, developed before the war and elaborated in original ways by Schoenberg’s pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg, is form unhinged from all content whatsoever—forms of pure sound in its unmitigated and alien materiality. If they have any emotional purpose, it is certainly not solace, consolation, joy, or reassurance. It is something closer to the unsettled, inexplicable emotions of turmoil, agitation, and unease. Here Apollo, the clarifying god of consonant harmony, gives way to the frenzied Dionysus.
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In the centuries leading up to Schoenberg, European composition had been governed by certain stabilizing structural elements: (1) a tonal center, or key, recognizable soon after a piece began, (2) a resolution of the piece into no less definitive a key (usually, but not necessarily, the same one with which it began), (3) a fixed scale of tones on which a melody could be constructed (major, minor, modal), (4) a harmonization of the melody in chords built out of privileged combinations of tones in the scale (from the Baroque period onward, the 1-3-5 intervals of the major triad chord). Variations on these patterns were naturally permitted within the composition, even serving to produce rich and surprising effects; but they were eventually expected to settle back into the consonant pattern from which they had veered. Dissonance was the name for these momentary deviations from an established harmonic order.
Schoenberg’s innovation consisted in nothing less than a valediction to this framework for composition. Hesitantly in 1908, and more decisively in Erwartung of 1909, he confided his melodic and harmonic lines to a formal language bereft of conventional resolutions, resting in no order that could be deduced from the tones of a scale. This was a logical, not a random development. The dissonance freed by Schoenberg between the last movement of the Second String Quartet (1907–08) and Die glückliche Hand (1910–13) is the end point of a musical itinerary prepared by the withering away of triadic harmony in nineteenth-century music. The decisive move here lay in the chromaticism of Richard Wagner, which no longer subordinated dissonance to modulations from one key to another, but made it an inherent struc-
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tural component of the composition, a formal correlative, as it were, of empirical fluidity and movement. In Wagner’s wake, Richard Strauss, Aleksander Scriabin, Claude Debussy, and Gustave Mahler elaborated dissonance to the point where the only step not yet taken was the complete and categorical liberation of dissonance from all dependence on tonal resolution. This was the leap of Schoenberg, determined, as he put it, to do away with the bad faith of composers who ventured to the farthest reaches of tonal experimentation only to end their pieces by obediently reaffirming the harmonies expected by their audience.
Dissonance is radicalized when it is presented as the universal and exclusive substance of harmonic order. On one level Schoenberg’s compositions from 1908–1913 seem to be entirely ruled by negativity and contradiction. They sound “atonal” and “athematic,” contemptuous of all “natural” aural laws, replacing the virtually divine providence of the triadic chord with a pandemonium of clashing sonorities. What once were moments of passing harshness now pervade the entire fabric of the works, causing unrelieved anguish in listeners. Indeed, one sometimes wonders whether these musical contortions, like the figural ones of expressionist painting, do not intend primarily to disrupt the whole notion of an enjoyable “aesthetic experience,” scoffing at the call for beauty, order, and the regulation of feeling. These musical anti-forms seem to be based on a contention that an easily recognizable arrangement of pitch, rhythm, and harmony means an unnecessary concession to psychic comfort. The voices of Schoenberg’s compositions move independently; musical syntax loses its binding power; paratactical collisions seem not to be means to an end, but ends in themselves.
On further study, however, it appears that a new compositional method is at work in the dark disorder of this free atonal music, even if it is not easy to hear, and even if it is exercised differently by each work. The question Schoenberg raises at this critical moment in his art is whether one can establish unity among elements of a work which do not seem to share any preestablished “sympathy”—irreconcilable musical intervals, for example, or strident orchestrations. Can unity be found in strife itself? Ordinarily one tolerates the conflict between one thing and another because of some larger whole to which they contribute, where their immediate differences appear superseded, if not reconciled. But what if we do not “rationalize” these differences by reference to a larger, abstract system in which they participate? What if one tries to find unity within the actual and immediately present relations of sound? The question, in other words, is whether what has
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been traditionally called dissonance cannot be seen as revealing its own consonance. If the answer is yes, then this will mean that each work will have its own individual unity, not furnished by an external and abstract scale or by a habitual harmonic procedure.
This is the paradoxical unity that Schoenberg seeks as he tries to make each composition enact its own inexorable logic, revealing formal possibilities that contemporary audiences hardly suspected that music had. The relative unimportance of pitch (or the position of notes on a scale) in these compositions is compensated for by greater sensitivity to the dynamics with which these pitches are sounded. Harmony becomes a function of volatile and interrelating tone timbres and colors known as Klangfarben . So exacting was Schoenberg on this issue of the execution of his tone colors that he believed that his music was not appreciated simply because instrumentalists had not acquired the necessary sensitivity to perform it. “My music is not modern,” he is reported to have said, “it is just badly played” (Rosen 1975: 50). In the cold and rarefied songs of Pierrot Lunaire (1912) the dynamics of the vocal line vary from whisper to shriek. Their texture, too, is unstable. Neither a singing nor a speaking, it is in between: Sprechstimme, a pitched declamation, an unprecedented hybrid of tone and word. The unorthodox orchestrations of the chamber ensemble require instruments to be used in unlikely ways and registers. With the voices of the soprano and the instruments almost never coinciding, it becomes “impossible for the mind to draw from the work’s unfolding a sense of general law or pattern being observed, as one can when listening to tonal or twelve-tone music” (Wuorinen 1975).
The new effect of this prewar music does not rest exclusively on surprising dynamics of timbre and color. It also involves the dramatic power of sonorous simultaneity, the supersaturation, as it were, of musical texture in an instant of time. Traditional, thematic organizations of melodies in larger, harmonized units give way to motivic constructions of short, independent sequences of notes. Not immersed in homol-
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ogous and homogeneous contexts, the motifs appear abandoned and naked. No “accompaniment” makes their journey a destiny. Taken in their community of solitude, however, these divergent motifs and voices shape a fluid, contextual harmony so responsive to its own components that it alters with each newcomer. This may be most evident in the monodrama Erwartung, where, as Anton Webern remarks, the musical components follow each other in “an uninterrupted, ever-changing stream of sounds which have never been heard before. There is not a single bar in this score which does not display a completely new tonal picture. The instruments are treated as soloists throughout” (cited in Schoenberg 1991). Once constructed in vertical layers of chords, harmony is now generated by the horizontal divagations of crossing lines. Musical repetition gives way to multiplicity, uniqueness, and difference.
Parts once subordinated to wholes and “signs” once serving preestablished meanings now become so autonomous and self-contained that they produce the briefest musical miniatures in history. The best examples probably lie in the works of Anton Webern, particularly his Six Bagatelles (1911–13), five of which last less than a minute, and his earlier Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (1909), ranging in length from fifty seconds to five and a half minutes. But none of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) is longer. The thirty-six songs of hisBook of the Hanging Gardens (1908) add up to only twenty-five minutes. In such a terse environment, overarching, synthetic wholes become as impossible as “natural,” organic progressions. If music once illustrated feeling extensively, in broad narrative lines, it now does the opposite, compressing the expression to an instant. The thirty minutes of Erwartung, for example, are devoted to a single second of emotion in which a woman discovers her lover killed by the edge of a wood. The strident miniatures, too, are interested in the transitional density of immediate time, including its quotient of silence, as though wishing to say that when faced with the inherent “expressions” of a moment’s contending forces, all “impressions” received from the outside grow dumb. As registers, colors, and lines are developed in such a way as to let no note drown out any other, “a unity of sound is created, in spite of everything” (Webern, cited in Schoenberg 1991). For the very first time in music, all notes seem capable of coexisting with each other. “The tonal relations, clusters, and rhythms expand and contract ‘like a gas’” (Schorske 1981: 351). And this makes for a type of resolution after all.
While theorizing new forms of musical harmony, Schoenberg was
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also exploring other avenues of artistic expression. One was painting. Of his sixty-five canvases, two-thirds were painted between 1908 and 1910 and his first exhibit was held in Vienna on October 8, 1910. In the same period Schoenberg also experiments with stage productions and trenchant aphorisms. The formal restlessness of his career bears out the principle already explicit in the Theory of Harmony, to the effect that there is no single or fixed procedure by which to express an artistic intention. No abstract method can fully formalize or finalize the energy that sets it in motion. Every form is a provisional response to provisional problems in time. Historical, existential, and moral as these problems are, they necessitate a constant transmutation and over-spilling of form, an exploration of numerous expressive genres, a form for the “formlessness” of every novel intention. Schoenberg’s multiple forms of art perhaps ultimately finalize the “non-finality” of artistic content—or the fact that this “content” can only be that which a form enables it to be. And this is why Schoenberg speaks of a dynamic circularity in the relationship between art and experience, art and audience, art and idea.
Spirituality and Materialism
At the moment Schoenberg found himself turning to painting, the painter Vasily Kandinsky sought inspiration in music. What Kandinsky was attracted to in music was its nonrepresentational nature. In it he sought a model by which to break the representative constrictions of visual art. Just as Schoenberg developed tone color to the point where textures of sound have the formal autonomy of an abstract tableau, so
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Kandinsky attempted to liberate the signifying possibilities of painting from all reliance on a depicted objective world. After attending a concert by Schoenberg on the first day of 1911, Kandinsky received confirmation of the direction he himself had been taking throughout the previous year. Recognizing the analogous efforts of Schoenberg to construct new principles of formal harmony, he immediately contacted the musician, establishing an alliance that proved to be one of the most productive in twentieth-century art. These proponents of atonal music and abstract painting were both determined to articulate tensions that had hitherto received no legitimate form. The turning point in Kandinsky’s thinking, he recounts in 1913, came when, standing in front of Monet’s painting the Haystack, he failed to see what subject it represented. At that moment he realized that this absence of recognizable content made no difference whatsoever in the painting’s effect. On the contrary, what suddenly became clear was the absolutely “unsuspected power of the palette, previously concealed from me, which exceeded all my dreams” (Kandinsky 1913: 363). This was the thought that developed into abstract art, so analogous to the new forms of Schoenberg’s music.
The year preceding Schoenberg’s concert in Munich, 1910, is the one in which Kandinsky reaps the implications of his intuition. It is the transitional moment of his career, during which he works out his conceptual rationale for abstract art. As yet, however, he has not taken the plunge into full abstraction. He has not abandoned the depiction of natural, empirical forms. In 1910 he stands at the juncture of two imaginative worlds, two different conceptions of art, two “warring forces” in the history of European thinking. And what Kandinsky’s great paintings of the prewar years show is precisely the meeting of the worlds. At this moment he conceives of harmony as residing in their clash, a clash that he sees as both the origin and the end of artistic expression.
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Written mainly in 1909–1910 and published at the end of 1911, Kandinsky’s study On the Spiritual in Art calls the two warring forces materialism and spirituality. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it claims, the two are contending for the control of Europe. Materialism has held the upper hand for centuries. Its knowledge is based on the procedures of science and statistical computation, assuring us that truth can be observed, tested, and communicated in clear and unequivocal form. Its ethic is consumeristic, hankering after what Søren Kierkegaard calls the “interesting” experience. Its economy legitimates greed and its politics consists in muscling one’s neighbors. In decades to come, Max Weber and Martin Heidegger will have something similar in mind when they speak of the totally administered, rationalized world, which reduces all of life to an ensemble of objects. In Kandinsky’s view, the art of proper materialism is realism. By the end of the nineteenth century it gives way to naturalism, which in turn dissolves into impressionism. And in this development, Kandinsky claims, we see that the reign of materialism is coming to a close. In impressionism hard, objective facts are presented as functions of something else, not primary but secondary truths, consequences of subjective interpretation.
In the first decade of the new century a spark of inner life has finally begun to pierce the materialistic night. The spirit, writes Kandinsky, has begun to awaken, even if not surely enough to provide cause for celebration. The fledgling “soul” as yet lacks direction and a means of expression. More distressing still, it lies in a precarious state of convalescence, struggling to recover from that debilitating “desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose” with which it has been afflicted for so many centuries. The feeble glimmer of a star in a vast gulf of darkness is at present no more than a beacon of hope, which “the soul scarcely has the courage to perceive, doubtful whether this light might not itself be a dream, and the circle of blackness, reality” (Kandinsky 1909–11: 128). The maturing of soul will depend on whether it succeeds in countering the practical pressures bearing down on it.
Never has the strife between these cosmic forces been as pronounced as in the moment in which Kandinsky is writing. The “modern movement” of culture, claims the painter in 1912, is a conjunction of two related syndromes:
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1. The destruction of the soulless material life of the nineteenth century, i.e., the collapse of those supports of the material [life] that have firmly been regarded as unique, and the crumbling and the dissolution of the individual components thereof.
2. The building-up of the spiritual-intellectual life of the twentieth century, which we too experience, and which already manifests and embodies itself in powerful, expressive, and definite forms. (Kandinsky 1912a: 256–257)
There is no question in Kandinsky’s mind: He intends to promote the second moment, the construction of the spiritual life. This is what he identifies as the avenue to unimagined new meanings in art and knowledge. And yet, at this stage of his career he cannot separate the construction from the destruction to which it is tied. However much theosophists and cultural philosophers might have called out for spiritual regeneration and self-realization at the turn of the century, Kandinsky considers no rebirth to be possible outside the world of hard and fateful constrictions. The spiritual atmosphere is like the air, he writes, “which can either be pure or filled with foreign bodies.” What makes up this atmosphere are not only visible and external experiences but also “perfectly secret actions that ‘no-one knows about’”:
Suicide, murder, violence, unworthy and base thoughts, hate, enmity, egotism, envy, “patriotism,” prejudice are all spiritual forms, spiritual entities that go to create the atmosphere. And on the contrary, self-sacrifice, help, pure, high-minded thoughts, love, altruism, delight in the happiness of others, humanity, and justice are also such entities, which can kill the others as the sun kills microbes, and can reconstitute the pure atmosphere. (Kandinsky 1909–11: 192)
In 1910 Kandinsky resolves to bring art into the service of such purification. In fact, this is the decision that causes the rupture between him and the group of artists known as the Munich New Artists’ Alliance (NKVM) over which he had presided since 1909. But what is remarkable about this acknowledged pioneer in abstract and formalist art, however, is his insistence that no artistic form has any rationale
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whatsoever outside of the content that it serves. Even paintings that contain no recognizable figures of the material world, he claims, must be held strictly accountable to the question of what they express. Without this accountability they can never amount to anything more than senseless ornament. “Form, ” writes Kandinsky in “On the Question of Form,” “is the external expression of inner content ” (Kandinsky 1912a: 237). What are we to understand by inner content? At first blush it would seem to be precisely that spirituality which Kandinsky has taken such pains to distinguish from materialism. And this spirituality, in turn, is associated with what, inOn the Spiritual in Art, he calls the “internal necessity” of the artist, a “secret, inborn power of ‘vision,”‘ the “feeling (to which the talent of the artist is the path)” (Kandinsky 1909–11: 131 and 141). The spirituality that constitutes a work’s content appears to be a type of order or knowledge, grasped by emotion and articulated by art, of the invisible structures of historical existence.
And yet, this description of content tells only half the story. If we examine Kandinsky’s writings between 1909 and 1911 more closely, we find that the content of art is not one of two elements in the cosmic antithesis but the antithesis itself . At Kandinsky’s last exhibition with the NKVM, in September, 1910, he addresses the question of artistic form and content as follows:
Cold calculation, patches leaping at random, mathematically exact construction . . . silent, screaming drawing . . . fanfares of colors . . . great, calm, heavy, disintegrating surfaces.
Is this not form?
Is this not the means ?
Suffering, searching, tormented souls with a deep rift, caused by the collision of the spiritual with the material. . . . The living element of living and “dead” nature. Consolation in the appearances of the world—external, internal. Premonitions of joy. The call. Speaking of the hidden by means of the hidden.
Is this not content?
Is this not the conscious or unconscious purpose of the compulsive urge to create? (Kandinsky 1910a: 82)
The modern, if not eternal, content of art is the collision of the spiritual and the material, or human experience as a clash of fundamental, ontological difference. Art is concerned with the interconnection of inner and outer, spirit and matter, subject and object. “Our point of departure,” Kandinsky claims in 1909,
is the belief that the artist, apart from those impressions that he receives from the world of external appearances, continually accumulates experi-
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Vasily Kandinsky, Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor), 1910 or 1913, pencil, watercolor, and
Indian ink. Courtesy Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.
ences within his own inner world. We seek artistic forms that should express the reciprocal permeation of all these experiences . . . in short, artistic synthesis. This seems to us a solution that once more today unites in spirit increasing numbers of artists. (Kandinsky 1909–10: 53)
Accordingly, Kandinsky’s paintings of these years contain both types of elements: dissolving forms of the material world—mountain peaks, churches, horses, boats, and riders—as well as abstract patterns. Works such as Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor) (dated 1910, but more likely from 1913) and Improvisation XI (1910) present the derealization of the physical world as an impetus for new and alternative constructions. Colors, structures, and centers of visual energy become every bit as important as the phenomena contextualized within them. Here jagged, linear vectors cut across soft, diffused, and rounded shapes. Bold and primary colors, combined in ways “long considered dishartnonious,” press up against or bounce off each other in countless directions (Kandinsky 1909–11: 193). The physical depth lost in the two-dimensionality of his canvases is compensated for by deep swirls of temporal and spatial movement onto which the composition opens like a window on cosmic combustion. Pictorial motifs become ciphers of
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Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation XI, 1910, oil. Courtesy Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
universal forces within a network. Here unions and contrasts are one and the same.
At this junction of materialism and spirituality, Kandinsky describes his language of form and color as constructed out of a series of self-propagating oppositions: warm and cold, light and dark, concentric and eccentric, activity and passivity (Kandinsky 1909–11: 161–195; Cheetham 1991: 76–77). The two poles between which art has always found its place—namely, objective “impression” and subjective “expression”—come to meet at their extremes. “Realism = Abstraction / Abstraction = Realism. The greatest external dissimilarity becomes the greatest internal similarity ” (Kandinsky 1912a: 245).
The new spiritual order contained in this kind of painting is admittedly not easy to recognize. Many people see it rather as anarchy, the same word they use to characterize music in 1910. For them, observes
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Kandinsky, anarchy means “aimless iconoclasm and lack of order.” But this is not anarchy; anarchy is rather
a certain systematicity and order that are created . . . by one’s feeling for what is good . Thus, here too there are limits . . . [but they] are constantly widened, whereby arises that ever-increasing freedom which, for its part, opens the way for further revelations. (Kandinsky 1912a: 242)
What seems to be disorder, then, is actually the order of a struggle that is at the heart of art: of freedom against constraint, of formative energy against form, of new meanings against the signs in which convention tries to trap them. What looks like anarchy is simply the record of art’s inevitable destruction and reconstruction of language. Anarchy is only a disparaging word for artistic extensions of formal order, of art’s battle against the fossilization of rhetoric on behalf of a “feeling for the good.”
What does Kandinsky mean by this feeling for the good? In the same text he likens it to a process of “evolution,” “freedom,” “progress forward and upward,” “revelation,” “the inevitable, continual triumph of new values.” The feeling for the good is that which is embodied in those “powerful, expressive, and definite forms” that burst the constraints on a soul (Kandinsky 1912a: 236 and 257). Schoenberg describes a comparable energy when he stresses that art cannot be produced by technical ingenuity, but only by spiritual compulsion: “Expressive content wishes to make itself understood; its upheaval produces a form. A volcano erupts . . . a steam-kettle explodes” (Schoenberg 1911b: 367). The same inevitability is at work in the feeling for the good. The feeling for the good is not itself an “expressive content” with a proper, corresponding form of its own. It is rather an upheaval of the content in the very effort to make itself understood. Accordingly, the form of this upheaval can only be turbulent, dynamic, and unresolved. This, if anything, is the “expressionism” of Kandinsky’s and Schoenberg’s art: a “pressing out” of something not necessarily understood in which discovery occurs. Like others of their generation, Kandinsky and Schoenberg were familiar with the theories of the art
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historian Alois Riegl to the effect that every artwork manifests an artistic will, or Kunstwollen . Here, however, something else is at work. What art ultimately expresses—the “content” it shapes—is actually the struggle for expression. And this struggle is good in itself. It is itself the good, a feeling for the good, a wish to understand. This may, indeed, be the only justification for “expression.”
The idea is repeated in different terms by August Macke, also, like Schoenberg, a contributor to Kandinsky’s Blue Rider almanac. Art, writes Macke, exists only where a work reveals the historical, existential, or emotional turbulence out of which it arises: “The joys, the sorrows of man, of nations, lie behind the inscriptions, paintings, temples, cathedrals, and masks, behind the musical compositions, stage spectacles, and dances. If they are not there, if form becomes empty and groundless, then there is no art” (Macke 1912: 89). Joy and sorrow—without which no form can be artistic—are upheavals of spiritual content, destabilizations of a given mental condition. Art is an intellectualization of passion. It is not a manifestation of spiritual content so much as a form revealing the upheaval of this content, in joy or sorrow. Dances, cathedrals, paintings, and plays are products of dissonant or ecstatic experience. If they do not reveal this turbulence they amount to nothing. Thus even a certain “formalist” art has its own content, which consists in its own effort at self-definition.
Destiny at Odds with Itself
If the Munich school of Kandinsky and Marc gives an intellectual, metaphysical face to this self-expressive discord, painters in Vienna, Dresden, and later Berlin are more struck by the toll it takes on the psyche. Schoenberg is as pivotal a figure here as he is in Munich. He studies painting with Richard Gerstl, the pioneer of Viennese expressionist portraiture. A teacher of Webern and Berg, he is a friend of the writers Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg as well as the architect Adolf Loos. He bridges the arts. Like Kokoschka and the Brücke artists from Dresden, he takes his message to Berlin (Kokoschka in 1910, Schoenberg and the others in 1911). While his atonal music is analogous to the abstractions of Munich, his pictorial work is closer to the tortured figural representations produced in other Germanic cities. Indeed, his close-ups of haunted and distorted faces, his “gazes,” “stares,” or “visions,” were disturbing to Kandinsky, as was the work of other painters soon to be called fellow expressionists: Kokoschka, Egon Schiele,
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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Erich Heckel. They were too egocentric for Kandinsky’s taste, too dramatic and confessional, too subjective (Kallir 1984: 60–61; Vogt 1980: 52). And yet, with his crude and stylized faces, Schoenberg was ultimately more typical of pictorial expressionism than his Russian friend.
The climate of prewar painting, and of expressionism in particular, is created by a rejection of the placid harmonies of impressionism on the one hand, and of naturalistic imitations of physical nature on the other. The main inspirations for expressionism are Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Paul Cézanne; sexuality, physical and emotional dynamics; the “primitive directness” of non-European arts. One effect of these interests is enthusiasm for new structures and techniques of pictorial composition, manifested especially by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and the Italian futurists. Another is the questioning, in art, of the very provenance of visions and forms. Once seemingly natural or objective unities have been reinterpreted as impressions or symbols, artists find it increasingly difficult to steer away from the question of the origin of these symbol-impressions. And this question of the provenance of vision is the question of the artist—who might well be a seer, but might just as easily be deranged. It is this analysis of human vision which begins with Munch, van Gogh, and Cézanne. In presenting both the natural and the symbolic grasps of vision as unstable, painting shifts its focus from the object to the subject of vision. Even where the canvas does not show a literal self-portrait of the artist but only a naked, awkward body, as in Cézanne ‘s Male Model of 1900, human reality is still the focus of the formative act, as difficult to make graceful as any sensory object. The post-impressionists bequeath to the expressionists the problem of the link between natural and symbolic data, between impression and expression, between figures and the many ways they can be envisioned.
Prefigurations of these problems can be found in the works of Munch, which show neither spirit nor matter, but an experience to which both must answer. A lithograph of 1901 called Sin presents a beautiful, naked woman staring past the viewer with a hypnotic, malignant gaze. Her shoulders and arms are hidden by disheveled hair flowing down to her waist. The outlines of her waist disappear altogether, as though she mysteriously materialized out of the white-gray background. Munch turns the magnificent woman that his model must have been into a spectral image. Her hair is an unnatural orange, her flesh a colorless white, sparsely shaded with yellow, her eyes lime green.
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Edvard Munch, Sin, 1901, lithograph. Photo courtesy Munch Museum, Oslo.
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What Munch accomplishes here and elsewhere is neither an affirmation nor a rejection of empirical form, but acritique, voicing the suspicion that matter may be a conduit for a world of the spirit whose effects are all but terrifying. A “naturalist of the phenomena of soul” (Przybyszewski, cited in Tuchman 1986: 33), Munch reads into and out of such form, not presenting it as an icon for some transcendent meaning in a purely symbolist fashion, but pondering its inherent implications. Instead of “transfiguring” this form he contorts it, boring into it to ask what it says in itself before it says anything else, before yielding some clear identity. And this is the difference between an expressionist depiction of a figure and a realistic one. Expressionism seeks “something else” within the figure’s appearance—some recess in its surface. It does not believe that it has captured the essence of a face or a phenomenon unless it has also unveiled this “something else,” this subjectivity, as it were, of an object, or this objectivity of a subject. Expressionistic revisions of perceptible form are shocking rewritings of the real, translations of everyday experience into chimerical unions of spirit and matter. They estrange the habitual appearances of things, turning their once recognizable features into tokens of something that neither the mind nor the eye can understand. Expressionist art keeps the physical fully real and the transcendent alarmingly distant.
What Munch begins, the artists of 1910 complete, depicting vision, understanding, and artistic activity as motion from body to soul and soul back to body again, from appearance to idea and idea to appearance, the couplings never reducible to one. The inner impinges on the outer, the outer on the inner. In Dresden, Vienna, and Berlin, the duplicitous experience is not as cerebral as it is in Munich. It is more moral, emotional, psychological, re-creating its discomfort in viewers. In Kokoschka, Heckel, Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde, and others, vision and understanding are firmly planted in existence: in the historical conditions accompanying the aspiration to spiritual transcendence. However much these prewar expressionists may grasp for the true nature of “soul,” they end up reaffirming its primordial
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conflict with matter, or that dissonance from which Kandinsky had said that art arises.
Prototypical expressionist depictions of the human figure can be found in the water colors, woodcuts, and oils of the Brücke . Schematically speaking, most show human experience transported to arenas it does seem to occupy in habitual and everyday experience—whether the heights of ecstatic elation or the hell of physical oppression. Experience is either the scene of a losing battle or the occasion for a vigorous flight, as in Kirchner’s Bareback Rider of 1912. Nolde cultivates both extremes, from the exuberant Dance around the Golden Calf (1910) to martyric subjects like Apostle Head V (1909) and the Life of Christ cycle (1912). No less than that of Kandinsky and Marc, this art expresses the efforts of a spirit to reach expression—in a gesture or a grimace, in a diffident or a mystified glance, in a signal of unspeakable feeling or, as in Kokoschka’s Portrait of Auguste Forel (1909), the radiant intellectuality of a face that ignores its own decrepitude.
Even if these artists attempt to break through the rhetoric of material form, they have only this rhetoric with which to work, in which to locate the persuasion of a soul. If the intimacy of the spirit is their subject, as historians of expressionism have traditionally claimed, then this intimacy is paradoxical and schizoid, noble but also fragile, luminous but dark, transcendent but constricted. The paintings of Kirchner and the Brücke , Gerstl, Kokoschka, and Schiele give us likenesses of a soul no more than Kandinsky’s paintings give us autonomous spirit. If anything, they give us failures of likeness, visions of noncorrespondence, as though to suggest that something is operative in human reality which no likeness can convey, something that can only be approached by way of grotesque distortions of the typical conduits of human expression. Against the background of fragmented, supersaturated or empty spaces, among jarring colorations or clashing planes, a face or a figure mysteriously emerges, flattened into two dimensions, bespeaking perception but not understanding. Whatever assumptions the sitters for portraits by these artists might have had about their inner identities, in these works they find them unmasked, and then remasked, recast as essences at odds with their appearances. Offering neither a likeness of a subject nor a transformation of that likeness into a transcendent symbol, expressionistic portraits present allegories of a destiny spent anxiously negotiating the difference—between fact and interpretation or objective and subjective reality, both allegories of a third, estranged condition in which everything is tension, emotion, and drama.
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The governing principle of these dramatic portrayals has frequently been called empathy, a process investigated by Theodor Lipps, Max Scheler, and other thinkers in the years between 1890 and 1920.Empathy involves a prodecure whereby one psyche feels itself into another. Now, there is certainly more empathy at work in the art of 1910 than in the art of many earlier moments in Europe, and certainly more in the expressionists of Mitteleuropa than in most French avant-gardists. Nonetheless, the scandalized distance of portraitists like Kokoschka and Schiele from their subjects could hardly be greater. “Whatever has been said about my being a humanist,” Kokoschka confesses in his autobiography, “I do not really love humanity; I see it as a phenomenon, like a flash of lightning from a clear sky, a serpent in the grass”:
The human soul’s propensity for goat-like leaps, its tragedy, its sublimity, and also its triviality and absurdity, attracted me, as a visitor to the zoo is attracted by the idea of observing the life of his own forebears. . . . I could have foretold the future life of any of my sitters at that time, observing, like a sociologist, how environmental conditions modify innate character just as soil and climate affect the growth of a potted plant. (Kokoschka 1974: 36–37)
If anything, what Kokoschka empathizes with is the dehumanization of his subjects, in the same way that Schiele distorts the body he represents to the point of brutalizing it. In both, the line between empathy and aggression is hard to fix.
To empathize with one’s fellow creatures means to imagine their experience so vividly that one comes to feel it oneself. However, to step out of one’s self-enclosure in this way is not merely to be receptive to external impressions. It is to project one’s own self-understanding onto the other, to go through the process of imagining how I might feel if I
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were in that person’s shoes. If empathy binds two selves, it does so on the basis of their difference. It finds the place for its experience and vision in that space between inner and outet; between fact and projection, which Kandinsky identifies as the realm of art.
The duplicity of this space is captured by the most striking characterization there is of expressionist art. In an aphorism from 1909–1910, Schoenberg describes this “empathetic” type of art as (1) a spiritual outburst, (2) a quest for understanding, (3) a moral battle, (4) an echo of the inexpressible tension out of which these first three features arise:
Art is the cry for help of those who experience in themselves the fate of humanity. Who wrestle with it instead of accommodating themselves to it. Who do not bluntly serve the engine of “dark powers,” but who plunge into the running machinery to grasp its construction. Who do not avert their eyes to protect themselves from emotion, but rather open them wide to tackle what has to be tackled. But who frequently shut their eyes to perceive what the senses do not convey, to behold within what only seemingly takes place outside. And within, inside them, is the agitation of the world; what breaks through to the outside is only its echo: the work of art. (Schoenberg 1910a: 12)
Art is a cry for help or need (Notschrei )—a cry for harmony, resolution, and peace. And it arises only as a consequence of grappling with fate (Schicksal ). Art may thus be understood as a search for clarity and understanding in the face of a destined human struggle that calls for courage, clear-sightedness, and stamina. And yet, to see this fate one must also sometimes close one’s eyes to its deceptive empirical forms. Only then does it reveal itself in its pure and naked form as the movement, agitation, or commotion [Bewegung ] of the world. This, if anything, is the “content” of art, encountered in both inward and outward experience. Whatever a work’s ostensible topic might be (a nocturnal, chimerical face or an abstract truth), this is its true substance and interest. Art is no more than its echo.
An Ontology of Opposition
Is there a general metaphysics or ideology that explains art’s need to give form to dissonance at this moment in time? There is none that is immediately apparent, and yet countless indications reveal that by 1910 duplicity has become the overriding issue for the reflective mind. The work of Campana, Trakl, Schoenberg, and the painters bears witness
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to a situation in which thinking no longer understands how to reintegrate those antitheses out of which it had always attempted to construct its knowledge: the one and the many, the ego and the world, fact and value, freedom and possibility. In the period stretching from the Renaissance humanists to the German idealists, philosophers had generally found a way to tease these oppositions into a cooperative scheme. But by the end of the nineteenth century these terms have lost their flexibility. Every seeming integration of opposites appears only to mask a more primordial principle from which the integration arises: polemos panten pater , strife is the father of all things.
The manifestations of this strife are so notable by the late nineteenth century that Wilhelm Dilthey feels the need to defend the Geisteswissenschaften , or the spiritual sciences, against the natural and empirical ones. The increasing domination of science over all issues of truth make it necessary to legitimate more intuitive, more amorphous, and less systematic approaches to knowledge. Before Dilthey, Nietzsche had already maintained that the hard and fast facts of science were themselves just methodical lies. But the full-fledged battle comes later, between 1900 and 1920, when virtually every thinker, scientist, and psychologist in Europe is forced to sort out the conflicting claims of objective material evidence and the interpretive imagination in which this evidence comes to count as evidence. At this moment of history there appears to be little point in saying anything at all before settling this crisis in understanding.
On one side of the divide stand thinkers who assert the purely theoretical (rather than the referentially reliable) status of scientific truths and facts. Before taking his own life in Duino, near Trieste, in 1906, the eminent physicist Ludwig Boltzmann shakes the foundations of science by arguing that two mutually exclusive explanations of natural occurrences can be equally valid. In The Philosophy of “As If” of 1911, Hans Vaihinger reduces materialistic accounts of experience to imaginative schemes. Between 1903 and 1907 Henri Bergson argues that intuition, not sensory perception, is the primal conduit of knowledge. The theosophists Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner describe knowledge as a response to the auras and thought-forms of a nonrational world soul. Giovanni Gentile sees history as the unfolding of pure idea. Sharing premises with these “idealists” and “intuitionists” are phenomenologists, vitalists, and a variety of cultural moralists, a short list of whom would include Ludwig Klages, Georg Simmel, Edmund Husserl, Miguel de Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Martin Buber, and Max Scheler.
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The same period sees the beginning of a new type of cultural sociology (partially represented by Simmel, Lukács, Max Weber, and Vilfredo Pareto) that traces the deleterious effects on social organization of any purely pragmatic understanding of experience as a manipulable totality of facts.
On the other side of the divide stand defenders of hard and practical knowledge. One group, meeting for the first time in a Viennese café in 1910, achieves fame under the rubric of neopositivists or logical empiricists (Otto Neurath, Philipp Frank, and Hans Hahn). Another, composed of historical materialists, makes its classic attack on idealism and “impressionistic” philosophers in Vladimir Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism(1909). Others include behaviorists, experimental psychologists, sociologists, and psychoanalysts, though each group will have its defectors (Carl Jung, for one). Representatives of either side of the debate will try to discredit their antagonists’ position or reinterpret it as a bad version of their own. Idealists will describe scientific materialism as a possible worldview among many, while neopositivists will claim that idealism is no more than a linguistic misunderstanding.
Between these two positions lie various attempts to synthesize perceptible and conceptual experience into a unitary picture of reality (the phenomenism of Ernst Mach, the pragmatism of William James, the “fourth dimension” of P. D. Ouspensky). But these monistic aspirations only confirm the original suspicion—that never since the Greeks has the mind been so racked by a spirit of antithesis. When Kandinsky asserts that the harmony of the age must necessarily be a harmony of opposition and contrast, it is because the ostensibly single world has broken into two.
This is the climate for the most antithetical conception of experience to be advanced since Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy . It is Carlo Michelstaedter’s dissertation, Persuasion and Rhetoric , completed on October 17, 1910 and published posthumously. Indeed, it is more
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polarized a conception than Nietzsche’s, for Nietzsche at least tried to overcome the Platonic division of all life into essence and appearance, being and becoming, identity and difference. Michelstaedter instead accepts these classical oppositions of Western thought, pushing them to the point where they must either be explicitly rejected, as Heidegger does in the late twenties, or redefined in only the most paradoxical of ways.
On the surface Michelstaedter belongs to the first group of contending thinkers: the humanists, idealists, vitalists, or irrationalists (misleading though these labels may be). The single intention of Michelstaedter’s writing, sketches, and existential decisions is to repair that rift between theory and practice from which he considers the West to have suffered since Plato and Aristotle. When, in 1905, the eighteen-year-old Michelstaedter moves to Florence instead of Vienna (where he had decided to study engineering), his decision seems to be based on two main factors: faith in the humanizing potential of figurative art, epitomized by the traditions of Renaissance Florence, and a desire to discover the spiritual homeland which his upbringing in Austria-Hungary had never afforded: Italy, his cultural soil, the all-unifying mother tongue.
Michelstaedter spends his first years in Florence studying classical figure drawing, as though in the hope that art could achieve that unity of theory and practice and body and soul which he sought. However, as his intellectual curiosity prevails over the technical study of art, Michelstaedter enrolls in the University of Florence. His interests take him to the theoretical roots of humanism itself. By 1909 he has decided to write a thesis on the concepts of persuasion and rhetoric in Plato and Aristotle. His dissertation and creative writings thus show the same objective as his figurative art, and precisely the one he finds increasingly rare in contemporary culture: integration of intention and
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expression. This Jewish Italian Austrian, who wrote nearly as fluently in Greek and Latin as in German and Italian, sought a single language for human comportment. Indeed, if by language we mean a medium through which meanings and judgments are transmitted, the language he sought would not even be a language at all. It would be the unmediated voice of experience itself.
From the start Michelstaedter’s dissertation on persuasion and rhetoric sets itself the most difficult of tasks: to overcome the rift that the West has opened up between being and becoming, permanence and change, soulful repose and anxious desire. And yet, the procedure he follows in attempting to do so only makes the bind tighter for he ends up defending the first set of terms against the second. Being, permanence, and peace are allied with “persuasion,” by which Michelstaedter means passionate commitment and singleminded intention. People are committed, persuaded, or convinced of their action only when they recognize and practice the truth of their being. Persuasion means resisting the shifty appeal of rhetorical illusion. However, the problem for Michelstaedter is that this persuasion is all but impossible to achieve in the world as we know it, which is exhausted by the second set of terms: turbulent becoming; change, anxiety and desire; the mediation of language and signs; the coercions of external necessity. Rhetoric is the name for this second set of terms, and it pervades every aspect of historical behavior, whether theoretical or practical, human or animal (for animals, too, have their illusions about life, “rhetorical” strategies for coping with change). Persuaded though a creature may be of its goals or ideals, it can hardly avoid operating rhetorically, or by following pragmatic, self-interested ends on the basis of interpretive activities. To make matters worse, the very distinctions on which Michelstaedter’s argument relies—being vs. becoming, oneness vs. multiplicity, persuasion vs. rhetoric—are themselves rhetorical ones, phantasms of language. Michelstaedter is thus faced with the seemingly impossible task of repairing a rift apparently inhabiting the very nature of the understanding.
The first lines of his dissertation set forth the condition in which such tension arises:
I know that I want and do not have what I want. A weight hangs on a hook and in hanging suffers that it cannot descend: it cannot get off the hook for, being a weight, it pends and in pending depends.
We want to give it satisfaction: we free it from its dependence; we let it go, so that it may satisfy its hunger for lower spots and independently descend as far down as it wants to descend.—But it is not happy to stop at any spot that it reaches and would like to keep descending, for the next
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spot is even lower than the one it occupies at any moment. And no future spot will ever be one that will please it and be necessary to its life, so long as a lower one awaits it . . . every time it is presented each spot will have been rendered void of attraction, not being still lower; so that at every spot it lacks lower spots, and these attract it all the more: it is always in the throes of the same hunger for what is lower, and its will to descend stays infinite.—
For if everything were finished at a given point, and if at a single point it could possess the infinite descent of the infinite future—at that point it would no longer be what it is: a weight .
Its life is this lack of its life. If it ever lacked nothing—but were finished and perfect—if it possessed itself, it would have ceased to exist.—The weight is its own impediment to possessing its life, and its inability to satisfy itself depends on itself alone. The weight can never be persuaded. (Michelstaedter 1910: 39–40)
The paradox of the weight is that in order to be what it is it must wish to be other than it is, to exist in some other situation of space and time. The “mistake” of the weight is that it is internally obsessed with things external to its nature. It imagines that it can be released from its own inbred anxiety by a change in its historical conditions (a notion nourished in turn by the fantasy that the weight could be reconciled to a particular condition, which is false). The weight is bewitched by the doctrine that life is elsewhere. It suffers from a rhetorical illusion. (And the “rhetoric” of Michelstaedter’s own parable, anthropomorphizing a lifeless object, is perfectly expressionistic, making the external and the internal, the inanimate and the animate impinge on each other in ways that cannot be undone.) If the weight had self-knowledge it would acknowledge that it will always and necessarily suffer the seduction of things outside it. It fails to see that, in an existence where everything is activity and change, if ever it “possessed itself. . . it would have ceased to exist.” Thus the weight is its own obstacle to the fulfillment of its life. Until it changes its way of thinking, it will never appreciate its present.
And the same can be said for organic life as a whole, ceaselessly hankering for what it is not, pursuing not life but a vision of life, a future project, whose productivity and creativity is only an offshoot of self-destructive anxiety. As all fullness proves empty and all emptiness full, experience amounts only to “mortal pain” (Michelstaedter 1910: 47). Wanting things today (even in the literal sense of “wanting” as lacking), we make some plan for tomorrow. And tomorrow we continue in kind.
There are more contradictions to life than this. Michelstaedter notes,
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for example, that things might be themselves if ever they could succeed in being identical at any two moments. “Life would be, ” he writes, “if time did not constantly defer its being into the next instant.” Life “would be one, immobile, and formless if it could consist in a single point” (Michelstaedter 1910: 43). However, no sooner does a creature achieve a condition in time than it finds itself in another subsequent time, making the life of the present no life at all, but just a succession of different moments, without duration or extension. Praesens nullum ha bet spatium, St. Augustine had said in The Confessions (XI, 15 ): the present occupies no space. Such experience is not “being,” but flux and becoming, eternal variance and impermanence. In historical time, as Schopenhauer had argued a century earlier, all things are ruled by a craving or will. They ceaselessly desire more than they ever possess and further their “life” in a fear of death.
In the presence of others each one of these “subjects” is instantly transmuted into an object, a thing for those others to manipulate as they will. “Everything has insofar as it is had ” (Michelstaedter 1910: 44). Nothing has any being except “in relation to a consciousness ,” namely, the consciousness of someone or something else for which this subject is not itself, but an object (Michelstaedter 1910: 45). All “identity” is thus a function of difference, just as the “now” is a function of a “before” and an “after.” Knowledge, by consequence, is an ingrained error, a self-interested conviction of an individual viewing the world from some particular situation of time and space.
The average person never faces up to this error and tends to think simply
“this is,” rather than “this is, according to me.” He says “this is good” instead of “I like this”; for the I according to which a thing is, or is good, is indeed his own consciousness, his pleasure, his current condition, which for him is absolutely firm outside of time. . . . And thingsare good or bad, useful or harmful [insofar as] his current condition has, in pleasure (or displeasure), organized a forecast of whatever is suited to the continuation of his organism. (Michelstaedter 1910: 52)
Everyday experience is conducted on the basis of deceptive deductions, working schemes, “useful” and self-furthering orientations.
The word “orientation” is not Michelstaedter’s, but Martin Buber’s. In the year that Persuasion and Rhetoricwas first published (1913), the Austrian philosopher speaks of orientation as the typical manner of establishing some order between those two great “polarities,” being and counter-being, which govern the contingency and differentiation
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of all things in the world. Because we fail to discover truthful and permanent stability in a world of contraries, we resort to a rhetoric of orientation: strategies for masking these differences in coherent relations. Instead of recognizing the value of things in their singularity, we subject them to conceptual and practical schemes, superficial and facile correlations. “Orientation installs all happening in formulas, rules, connections” (Buber 1913a: 94). People become pragmatically yoked to
the multiplicity of their aims, their means, their knowledge—everything is conditioned by everything, everything is decided out of everything, everything is related to everything, and over all there rules the security of orientation that has information. (Buber 1913a: 77)
The result of this rhetorical orientation is not persuasion, or a firm and reliable language, but pure “commotion.” Buber objects to this commotion on the same grounds as Michelstaedter; for each thing it substitutes a sign, for every meaning a formula—all in the interests of a self that is no self.
Michelstaedter and Buber are both moral thinkers, concerned, above all, with the question of how experience should be conducted in a dissonant, rhetorical world. Once one recognizes the “commotion” for what it is, two avenues seem to open up for the reflective person. Either one continues to seek “meaning,” “identity,” and “being” in another setting—namely, outside the domain of language, and more particularly in the unutterable persuasion of inner experience—or else one seeks a more communicative system of signs, allowing one to achieve that integrated understanding which is lacking in “orientation.” The first would appear to be the choice of the ethical self, the second of the artist.
The first implies ascetic self-ensconcement. Here everything that does not appear to be inherently connected to the innermost essence of an I is reduced to the status of a mere illusion. The second route makes the I itself look like the illusion, no more than a sum of what it is not, a fictitious unity of the myriad things and beliefs by which it is filled. If the self, like the weight, is thoroughly occupied by its objects of orientation, and these are all external, then it never assumes any direction of its own. The first of these avenues entails militancy towards things in which one loses oneself (everyday experience, the society of others, the tyrannical instincts of nature, the habits and thoughts one inherits from culture). The second entails a dissolution of the I in the cosmos, in which subjectivity gives itself over to the ebb and flow of objective becoming.
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At first glance Michelstaedter’s idea of persuasion seems closer to the first solution. It names that ideal of “being oneself” whose most ancient advocate is Socrates and whose most recent version would have been familiar to Michelstaedter in the Nietzschean notion of the Übermensch . When Michelstaedter speaks of persuasion, the word is usually synonymous with self-determination. Recognizing that there are no valid external reasons for doing one thing rather than another persuaded persons act on the basis of inner conviction. They withstand the suasive, chimerical lure of fashion, the opinions of others, the speciousness of reasons and religious appeals. Persuasion begins in the knowledge that one can never rely on others for personal direction. The I must thus embrace self-rule. In this light, persuasion, like Kandinsky’s spirituality, is the force that breaks the external constraints on a soul, allowing it to produce its own forms. No signposts or proverbs or storehouse of wisdom can lend it guidance:
There is no accomplished thing, no prepared way, no achieved method or work by which you can reach life; there are no words that can give you life: for life consists wholly in creating everything by oneself, in not adapting to any way: there is no language, but you must create it, you must create the world, create each thing: in order to possess your life as your own. (Michelstaedter 1910: 103)
Yet to create the world in this way is also to have no world, for, where everything is flux and becoming, it is neither the same river one steps into twice nor the same person who does so. To be oneself in this manner is also to be no one. The two avenues that open up upon the recognition of the rhetoric of everyday action—narcissistic solipsism and ecstatic externality—may thus be two extremes that meet. If the essential desire of an I always consists in something else that it must covet, resist, or subdue, then the distance between an I and another is also an absolute proximity. Here subject and object, identity and difference, dissonance and consonance, pain and joy, dissolve into each other.
Indeed, Michelstaedter reduces the entire panoply of human emotions to variations of pain and joy, doloreand gioia . Even emotions such as anger, remorse, envy, and boredom are only covers for these two basic responses to having and not having, being and not being, accomplishing and failing. The best description of the dissonant life of this I-that-is-no-I probably lies in the Fragments (Frammenti, 1915) of Michelstaedter’s contemporary, Giovanni Boine, he too, like Slataper, a writer for La Voce :
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35) A blindman who loses his staff, I have discarded each one of your forms of logic. A leaf in the wind, a boat bobbing on the surf, I do not reach for the tiller.
36) I say that there is no rudder. Will and passion—empty words.
37) Passion and will are entirely in the joy of today, and entirely in the pain of the present.
38) I am desperately joyful and hopelessly sad. I believe violently in Hell and am de facto certain of a Paradise.
39) For my life is not constructed on the basis of a project, piece by piece, like buildings made of stone, and I run toward no goal like a horse to the finish. I have no future for I have no past. Lacking memory, I even lack hope.
40) My desire is the blaze of a furnace, and my annihilation like the abyss of the night. I know only how to rejoice, only how to suffer. I have no shelter from pain, nor temper my joy with reflection. (Boine 1915: 263)
Not only would Michelstaedter have endorsed these fragments of his fellow Italian expressionist; he would also have understood the fluctuant condition of Boine’s protagonist at the end of the novel Sin (Il peccato, 1913):
He undulated in this abundant, tragic-joyful conception of the world as though in a bursting torrent; a violent and barbaric jubilation where limits are limitless, as though in a music whose melody is born from clashing disharmony . . . he undulated between this Bacchic exultation and an attentive, sharp control of the soul, a nearly stingy, always conscious effort of order. (Boine 1913: 71)
Here we find a tumultuous coexistence of two seemingly opposite things: ecstatic unity with the outside world and rational control on the part of an estranged individuality, both facets of a single metaphysics of tragic-joyful strife. Alone and at odds with all things, the I of both Boine and Michelstaedter is at the same time only a function of these things, a “moment” in a formless torrent. And this transforms the first conception of persuasion—as autonomy and self-possession—into the second—ecstatic dissolution.
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To be persuaded ultimately means to live out the paradoxical junction of these two extremes. One might say that persuasion is the conscious knowledge of the solitary I in this single, duplicitous condition, where no subject exists but in objects, no being but in becoming, and no permanence but in change. Once rhetorical distinctions have lost their power of persuasion, there is no sure way to distinguish between self-affirmation and self-abnegation, or between victory and defeat. Indeed, Michelstaedter’s examples of persuaded selves are philosophers, martyrs, prophets, and artists who found their homes in the world only by feeling they did notbelong: characters such as Heraclitus, Pergolesi, Leopardi, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Socrates, and Christ.
Images of such characters reconciled to the dissonance of the world return repeatedly in the first years of the century. They are what Michelstaedter and his fellow Italians Giovanni Gentile and Julius Evola call instances of the individuo assoluto (the absolute individual), who must lose life before being able to gain it. Thus Oskar Kokoschka, in a poster for Der Sturm (Self-Portrait, 1910, fig. 23), depicts himself bare-chested, with no hair on his head, grimacing and pointing with his finger to a bloody wound in his breast. To master the splitness of life is to be a type of Christ: an absolute being in a relative world. Christ represents the transcendent mystery “of the divine incarnate in the Son of Man,” writes Kokoschka. And the story of his passion
is the eternal story of man. Even the miracle of the Resurrection can be understood in human terms, if it is grasped as a truth of the inner life: one does not become human once and for all just by being born. One must be resurrected as a human being every day. (Kokoschka 1974: 25–26)
In a similar vein, “Whoever wants to possess his own life,” writes Michelstaedter “must not consider himself born, and alive, just because he was born” (Michelstaedter 1910: 70). Or in Buber’s words, whoever “lives life in genuine, realizing knowledge must perpetually begin anew, perpetually risk all anew; thus his truth is not a having but a becoming” (Buber 1913a: 90). The image returns in Schiele’s self-portrait as the martyr Saint Sebastian, shot through with arrows, as well as in the poems that Schoenberg chooses to set to music, whose subjects are fate-contending selves, fools, and alienated artists. By the end of Pierrot Lunaire, after the poet and the fool of its songs have
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jointly ventured into drunkenness, idiocy, violence, and martyrdom, the bitter lunar setting makes way for a sun-drenched return to the fullness of day.
This conjunction of moon and sun, of dying and rebirth, is all that remains after the formal orientations of rhetoric have lost their force. But so strange is such a conjunction that Michelstaedter is unable to devote more than thirty of the one hundred fifty pages of his Persuasion and Rhetoric to it. To acquire a broader sense of what Michelstaedter means by persuasion we must return to Buber and to a text that he too wrote in 1910.
In “The Way of the Tao” Buber describes almost the very thing that Michelstaedter means by persuasion as “fulfillment” or “perfection. In a world racked by struggle and fragmentation, he claims, the primary responsibility of a thinking person is self-perfection. This is the basic teaching not only of Taoism but also of early Christianity. The essence of Christianity, claims Buber, “is not concerned with the unity of God, but with the likeness of the unified man to God.” The Christian conception of God
is there, so to speak, only for the sake of the necessary. And the same holds with the teaching of the Tao, where all that is said of the “path” of the world points to the path of the perfected person, and receives from it its verification and fulfillment. (Buber 1910a: 38)
Buber also calls the perfection of the path “direction.” Not waylaid by the seductive calculations of rhetoric, people achieve direction in the form of “purposeful undividedness: as the unifying force that overcomes all straying away from the ground of life” (Buber 1910a: 50). If “straying” is orientation, the “ground” from which we stray is opposition, contradiction, absurdity, and risk. For this is what rhetoric masks by means of its identities, theories, and systems. One returns to the ground by accepting its disorder as a fundamental and insuperable condition. One returns to the ground by establishing direction upon it.
Unlike orientation, direction arises only in recognition of the “thousand-named, nameless polarity of all being,” or in acknowledgment of the tension
between piece and piece of the world, between thing and thing, between image and being, between world and you, in the very heart of yourself, at all places, with its swinging tensions and its streaming reciprocity. Know
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the sign of the primal being in it. And know that here is your task: to create unity out of your and all duality, to establish unity in the world. (Buber 1913a: 98)
A persuasive realization of the unity of being comes with the knowledge that there is no method for achieving such unity. As with Kandinsky’s “anarchy,” the apparently incoherent forms of historical experience come to be seen as the only “material” of spiritual construction. Only this seeming incoherence originates that direction which truly “realizes” the world, making it real for the very first time (Buber 1913a: 71). The persuaded person, in Michelstaedter, “must take the responsibility for his life on himself, for how he must live it in order to reach life . . . he must create himself and the world, which does not exist before him.” He “must make his own legs for walking—and make a path where there is no road.” Such a person “is alone in the midst of the desert ” (Michelstaedter 1910: 73 and 70). One embraces such a desert by appropriating that spiritual indeterminacy, that internal multiplicity and lack of identity, which belies the unifying illusions of rhetoric. And in this speechlessly indeterminate condition, claim Buber and Michelstaedter, the unbearable emptiness of presence gives way to fullness and elation (Michelstaedter 1910: 86). All things that once seemed intolerably “different,” contingent, and relative now appear to be unconditionally what they are. The lack of existential finality begins to look like a final and permanent state. Things dead return to life. And while insatiable, rhetorical lust “accelerates time in its continuous anxiety for the future,” the persuaded, self-directed person “occupies infinite time in the present. . . . Each of his moments is a century in the life of others” (Michelstaedter 1910: 89).
Michelstaedter’s persuasion and Buber’s direction are not subjective qualities imposed upon a world of experience. They are the “primal tension” of experience itself, moving one “to choose and realize this and no other out of the infinity of possibilities.” In this primal tension the soul strips off “the net of space and of time, of causes and of ends, of subjects and of objects . . . it goes forth to meet the whirlpool, enters into the whirlpool. And such is its power that it charms it, magically charms it, so that it stands naked in the naked and is not destroyed” (Buber 1913a: 56–57). From the most manifold, incommensurable experiences now opens a “gate of the one.” “All that is scattered, fleeting, and fragmentary grows together into unity” (Buber 1913a: 39). This unity is not an inner, psychological condition or a mystical union of outside experience. It is the unity of complex, contingent, and finite
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relations into which all things enter at any moment in time, the manifold dimensions of a “life-experience” in which subjects and objects historically participate. This life-experience is not something outside us, an empirical “material” that we form and that can be detached from the manners in which we form it (Buber 1913a: 66). Nor is it a screen that changes with our perspectives and mental projections. Rather, it is our immersion in the dynamics of time and space. Life-experience allows no self to be detached from things outside it, no things to be detached from a self. The only I of which we can speak in this historical experience is “the I of a tension. . . . No pole, no force, no thing—only polarity, only stream, only unification” (Buber 1913a: 142). Direction, realization, perfection, and persuasion only exist in act. They are forms of experience, or better, the actualformation at work in experience.
In persuasion, the non-finality of form is final—unique in its insuperable limitations, properly evanescent, elusive of explanation and categorical description. Finite and “meaningless” things no longer require the aid of something transcendent—a religion or a system of knowledge—to redeem their existence. If anything, these things are redeemed precisely by the fact that there is nothing transcendent about them, or by the fact, as Rainer Maria Rilke puts it in the elegies that he begins in 1911, they occur
Once and no more. And we too,
once . And never again. But this
once to have been, if only this once :
to have been of the earth seems beyond reckoning.
(Rilke 1911–23: 65)
This once and once only is what makes these events transcendent—transcending themselves in the moment. In rhetorical, orientative hours “the many overshadow and weaken the one,” writes Buber. In persuasive direction, on the contrary, such hours make way for moments “in which the one shines in the undiminished fullness of its splendor, because it is related to nothing other than itself” (Buber 1913a: 69). And this is what restores the “sacredness” of being, the only sacredness there is in a world of becoming. Out of the godless depths of disorder and despair “holy countenances” start to radiate in faces that previously could only, and barely, be fixed in memory. Here nothing is related to
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anything but the horizon of its own historical presence, offering itself as a “sign of the eternal.” This kingdom “of danger and of risk, of eternal beginning and of eternal becoming” is the only true kingdom of god, for Michelstaedter as well as Buber, “the kingdom of holy insecurity” (Buber 1913a: 68, 94, 95). The very fact that “depths” and “meanings” are always withheld from the surfaces of the world is that which revives the notion of the sacred.
This is also the “holiness” of experience that Trakl’s duplicitous vision cannot separate from the fallenness of the world, as though it were the consequence of not being able to give a literal reading of experience: holiness as the product of the eternal risks of misunderstanding. A similar paradox can be found in Georg Lukács’s Soul and Form, which sets itself the task of understanding how “soul”—the very antagonist of all shifting, deceptive, historical forms—can only be expressed in form. The last essay of his collection makes the paradox clear: The basis for the formal realization of experience is tragic disunity. If mysticism lies in “suffering the All,” or in dissolving one’s “identity” into the outer, objective world, then tragic experience lies in “creating” the All (Lukács 1910–11a: 160). Mysticism consists only in passive submission to one side of life’s polarity; tragedy means active engagement in the polarity. A similar development unfolds in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge . Throughout the first half of his stay in Paris, the fictional author of these notebooks despairs over the insubstantial nature of experience and the ways it is typically understood. What he discovers later, however, is that this feeling of meaningless oppression is the only true birthplace of joy, love, and artistic understanding.
This mention of Rilke, Lukács, and Trakl brings artistic activity into the arena of what in Michelstaedter and Buber would appear to be purely a matter of lived experience. The link between living one’s life and forming it only becomes stronger when we think of Schoenberg and Kandinsky. Kandinsky speaks of his art as harmonizing contradiction. As we have seen, the very substance of such an art is the war of opposites, the contradictory “ground” from which no one can stray without falling into rhetoric. The “spirituality” that Kandinsky and Schoenberg identify as the content of art and harmony is ultimately the Bewegung der Welt, the grappling with destiny of which Buber and Michelstaedter speak and which art can only echo. While it is easy to characterize the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological forms of “materialism” (in realism, consumerism, science, and so on), Kandinsky
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cannot do the same for the forms of spirituality which he sees awakening in 1910. For by definition, spirituality is the very principle of formative generation, a process which is not exhausted by any mere form. It is volatile and self-transforming, changing with the nature of time. The institution of language, it has no metalanguage or method to which it can answer. As with Schoenberg’s open and restless new harmonies, persuasive generations of form always “yield possibilities in excess of those that have actually been realized” (Schoenberg 1911a: 11).
Nonetheless, a question still remains when Michelstaedter and Buber are placed back to back with these other artists. Kandinsky and Schoenberg conceive of the harmony of dissonance as an achievement of aesthetics, not of immediate, historical experience. Michelstaedter and Buber, by contrast, say that this dissonant harmony can only be lived, and lived with the commitment of the entirety of one’s being, not merely depicted, theorized, or imagined. How can we reconcile these positions? One way might be to observe that what Michelstaedter and Buber say, they say in books . To make their own arguments persuasive, they illustrate them with images, figures, and legends. For example, Buber likens the sense of reality which arises from dissonant but unified life-experience to the “heightened meaning” of a word in a poem (Buber 1913a: 67). In a poem, a word means more than it says and more than any other word can say about it. If ever there was a place where rhetoric is transmuted into persuasion, or dissonance into harmony, or depths conveyed by a surface, it is here, in a work of art. In rejecting his life, did not Michelstaedter confess that his sacred, persuasive harmonization could not be equated with a given historical form? That there was a rift between it and his life? Trakl, also a suicide, spends more time depicting the dark than the luminous dimensions of holy experience. Campana ends his days among the insane. Schoenberg never outgrows his polemical bearing toward his own epoch, upholding to the end the estranged and maligned independence of the creative artist. As a current in art and thought, expressionism at large is certainly more taken by the (rhetorical) deficiencies of being than by any of its self-justifying persuasions. If anything, its affirmations of negativity, discord, and dissonance present a better fit for the main model for these artists—the tragic, Dionysian philosopher Nietzsche—than for their own achievements. And he, too, went mad. Thus the question returns: Are these artists speaking of a harmony that can truly be realized in everyday living or of only an imaginative ideal?
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What is the relation between experience and art in expressionist thought? Are the two inherently different, or are they images for one and the same thing?
Here we might construct a hypothetical itinerary from one to the other. It is an itinerary that begins in consciousness of discordant historical experience and seeks unity within it. This “consciousness” is what the expressionists inherit as the cultural material of their time and with which they are forced to work: the dissonance of conflicting psychological, political, and ethical facts; of facts which may not even be facts but only values; of divergent “orientations” not unified by any coherent goal; of words opposed to things and of an “is” opposed to an “ought.” The goal of these artists is to find unity in such sorely fragmented experience. In that respect, they work back from the surface contradictions of historical experience towards some unity (musical, pictorial, poetic, or philosophical) in which these contradictions might be bound. And this might make us suspect that, at this moment in history, the only true life-experience is polarity and that the coherence into which art might bring it is sheer rhetorical fancy.
But the suspicion would be insufficient. What art articulates is always, in some way, already experienced. The form of a work answers some call. Buber admits it himself: The “heightened meaning” of a poem can only stem “from moments of heightened existence, heightened humanity, heightened knowledge” (Buber 1913a: 67). Similarly, it is necessarily some “life-experience” that leads Michelstaedter, Trakl, and Campana to reinterpret this experience’s material, rhetorical, or theoretical surfaces. Indeed, one can go further: An art of unified life-experience does not imagine such unity; such art arises from it. It is the form, or “expression,” of a unity such is otherwise mute. It does not react to the disintegration of everyday forms in transcriptive, mimetic fashion; it responds to something beckoning within this disintegration, like a portraitist in front of a phenomenal figure. Such art is determined not merely by the confusions, dissonances, or conflicts of material history but also by a sense that, in a still inarticulate way, these differences are bound at the core. To put it more simply, if Trakl intuits a union of opposites, it is because that union is part of his life-experience. The same can be said of Kandinsky, Michelstaedter, and the others.
Their art moves to and fro—from the historical/rhetorical givenness of discord toward that “life-experience” in which the discord appears.
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This life-experience does not name a transcendent harmonious unity over and beyond the fractured forms of conventional reality. It is not an abstract and metaphysical “oneness” at the bottom of all illusory forms. Indeed, when these artists seek a historical correlative of unity—especially an inner, autonomous, directing soul—they fail. In them, the I proves to lack any unitary intuitions or knowledge. It is never anything more than its life-experience: an experience of polarity, stream, and tension. The dissonance of being is a final condition.
The itinerary thus consists in three moments which depend on each other: (1) The consciousness of dissonance entails (2) a sense that some harmony within it is just outside the reach of one’s available rhetoric. This sense, in turn, causes (3) a criticism and reorganization of those same deficiencies, oppositions, and contingencies that make up the dissonance (the interpretive labor of seeking the unity they mask). Insofar as no unity can be found at the bottom or outside any audible dissonance, but only within it, the movement from (1) to (2)—or the activity of (3)—is the only experience there is. This is the true nature of life-experience: the third of the three moments, not the first or the second. This is where unity resides, in the effort to articulate the relations of a dissonance emancipated from a rhetorical conception of unity. Dissonance already houses the unity that these expressionists seek, revealing all transcendence to be bound to immanence and all integrity to fragmentation. No experience can be reduced to unitary terms. This, too, is the experience that is heightened in art: the experience of a sign with multiple and indefinite meanings, of a “one” that is always two and three and four. It is the experience of constantly reading into and out of things from which one can reap no profit or of witnessing a surface whose depths cannot be plumbed.
The artistic process is the context and substance of persuasion, “realization,” or unifying direction. It is there that persuasion occurs. The “moments of heightened existence,” which are like the heightened meaning of a word in a poem, are also the moments “that fix speech, renew speech” (Buber 1913a: 67). Mere din, by contrast (the unharmonized dissonance of rhetorical, material commotion) only passes on the speech that it receives, not endowing it with anything further. The renewal of speech, and with it of life, is the very meaning of harmonization. “The creative hours, acting and beholding, forming and thinking,” writes Buber, “are the unifying hours” (Buber 1913a: 72). These hours make up the “third moment” in the movement from dissonance
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to harmony—or the “content” of art, the Bewegung of the destiny it treats, the “necessity” it shapes. The life shaped by the movement is itself the movement.
Searching for unity in the dissonance of being, the artists of 1910 discover that unity is constituted in the dissonance itself. This is the endpoint of their journey (3). What remains to be seen in greater detail are the way stations (1) and (2). Potentially paralyzing encounters with the deficiency of being are the subject of (1), and of the following chapter. The unsuccessful quest for a transcendent principle of spiritual unity (2) is the topic of the chapter following that. Chapter four then circles back to examine how in (3), or in the conclusively inconclusive Bewegung of the world, appearance and essence, aesthetics and ethics, can no longer be separated.