Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gathering clouds




Continuing to read Willa Muir's 'Belonging' and I am immersed in the 1930s and Willa's honest account of how they both saw the gathering clouds of war and yet could not fully comprehend the oncoming darkness.

They had been aware of the depths of antisemitism since their stay in Germany in 1921 but never had that encounter suggested the possibility of the complete breakdown in values that was to come.

One of their tasks of the the 30s was to spend a year on the translation of Herman Broch's 'The Sleepwalkers': a trilogy of novels chronicling in experimental terms the disintegration (in steps) of the values of western civilization. They instinctively resisted Broch's pessimism but when they met him subsequently, they realized that he was prescient. He, himself, became an exile.

The problem with reading of this kind is that it adds to the cumulative pile of future reading. I read Broch's trilogy when I lived in Wales. I fear I read with Muirs' eyes - a kind of suspended disbelief that such relentless pessimism - the emptying out of possibility - was a true vision of things. It is a masterpiece of a sobering kind. I found myself with an encroaching sense of needing to read it again - and his other great novel: The Death of Virgil has long sat impatiently on a shelf.

But I do not know whether I can presently face these two examples of high Modernism.

Broch had a radical sense of literature's inadequacy - it did not provide 'knowledge' and 'knowledge' was what was necessary - a new foundation for ethics.

Broch brilliantly captures the dilemma of what enables an ethical life. He imagines that this requires a rational foundation above all else and yet a rational foundation is insufficient. An alluring narrative of moral possibility is necessary and yet imagination contains multiple paths of possible illusion.

It was a paradox with which he wrestles highly creatively.


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