Thursday, May 2, 2013

Dear Matt Dioguardi

Dear Matt,

How can I thank you? You seem to be sufficiently un-usual to have stumbled upon and been sensitive to the aura of a certain text. That link you provided to Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, by Christoph Asendorf, is a vast garden of many delights. This morning, I came across a section (pages 202 - 203) in which three powerful paragraphs about the art of essay had an effect on me:

Only in a later text does Musil deliver a theory of animated thought -- as a theory of the essay. The essay, a much-used literary form during the fin de siècle crisis of speech and consciousness, frequently with an irrationalist ring (compare the examples of Maeterlinck and Kaßner), was rarely examined as to its theory. About the same time as Lukács's famous text in Soul and Form, and coming, in part, to the same conclusions, Musil endeavored to locate the significance of the essay in a posthumously published text dated 1914 by the editor.

The cognitive goal of the essay is "the strictest form attainable in an area where one cannot work precisely." The area is that between science, on the one hand, and life and art, on the other. This dichotomy, characterized by the opposition between systematic order and the equally complete impossibility of any such thing, is not resolved in the essay; rather it "takes its form and method from science, its matter from art....It presents not characters but a connection of thoughts, that is, a logical connection, and it proceeds from facts, like the natural sciences, to which the essay imparts an order. Except that these facts are not generally observable, and also their connections are in many cases only a singularity. There is no total solution, but only a series of particular ones."

Just as there exists for combinations of thoughts a distinction between total (that is, universally valid) and particular solutions, so are thoughts themselves subject to a distinction between the rational and the sentimental. The true-false criterion applies to both, but the material of the sentimental chain of thought is not universally comprehensible. It presupposes a "resonance," which can arise only under specific subjective conditions. Here, too, the reference to Proust's mémoire involontaire might be helpful in rendering what happens in the area of subjective thinking comprehensible. "This sudden coming alive of an idea, this lightninglike reforging of a great complex of means of the idea, so that one suddenly understands the world and oneself differently....On a smaller scale it is the constant movement of essayistic thought." The experiences (Erfahrungen) of the mystic are transformed in the animated thought of the essay into a profane (and verbal) epiphany. To treat thoughts like these experiences is Musil's utopian program.

Okay. Those three paragraphs are a delight to me and express so well the soul of essay. There are many other topics, subtle excavations, and startling insights throughout this book. It would be a good book to own -- to read comfortably in hand. But it's apparently out of print and too freaking expensive.


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