10 August 2010

To See Things Otherwise Unseen

ראש חודש אלול תש"ע
30 Av 5770
"A swoon, a cramp, a stupor--these are always both physical and mental.  So I experienced a period of disruption that was mirrored, as it were, in my handwriting and its disintegration, and when I copied out the texts from this pencil assignment, I learned again, like a little boy, to write."  Robert Walser, Briefe
Susan Bernofsky's translation of Swiss writer Robert Walser's Microscripts is a beautiful read into the tortured soul of one of the German language's great modernist writers who, as he battled mental illness and schizophrenia, developed his own form of writing--the microscript--and cryptically used it to give voice to his poetic language and insight into the transitions of the early twentieth century.  The book itself, published by New Directions/Christine Burgin, is quite literally, a beautiful book.

A swoon, a cramp, a stupor:  terms Walser employs to describe his writer's cramp in 1927, are as equally symptomatic of the general dislocation experienced by many as Modernity rapidly moved along, claiming victims of an earlier era of innocence.  Walser puts down his pen--a machine of progress--and roots himself in the wood and the lead, an elemental expression of rootedness that will, apparently, heal.

Walser adopted a unique form of writing--a microscript in pencil written on thin strips of paper--and therefore invented a language all his own, leaving to subsequent generations a series of stories and meditations on more than the thoughts themselves.

One contemplates the simplicity of this insight in the context of our own era, especially since so many among us seem to be in said swoons, cramps and stupors, brought about by economic dislocation, a rapidly and continually transforming communications universe, and an increasingly dangerous, troubling, and angry world.

Driving around upstate New York last week, we saw lots of angry political signs.  When catching the news, we read about the hysterical backlash to the downtown Islamic Center not only in New York but across the country.  This, coupled with continued anger about taxes, guns, immigration, Wall Street, and government, really leaves one with the impression that the seemingly insurmountable nature of it all is too much for people to bear.   This general anger is mirrored in political races across the country, throughout Europe and Asia and the Muslim world.  And, as violence seems to increase in alarmingly unpredictable ways, one can't quite figure out how it all ends.

Reading Walser provides comfort.  This poor, troubled man.  Himself mentally ill; a brother who died in an asylum; another brother who committed suicide.  J.M. Coetzee's article about Walser from the New York Review of Books points out that one of things Walser loved about writing in pencil was that it 'calmed him down and cheered him up.'

The artist's sacrifice to us is often an insight like that.  Finding the ways, away from the crowd, to "calm down and cheer up."  In the companionship of no one but one's own soul, we are able to see things otherwise unseen.

(Image courtesy of Robert Walser Archive, Bern, made available by New Directions/Christine Burgin)

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