The Territory of Literature: Musil, Joyce, and Rilke as Slovenes

images (52)         download (25)       images (51)

The Territory of Literature: Musil, Joyce, and Rilke as Slovenes


Rick Harsch

(The author is a former US, now New Istrian novelist, hiding from no one, in self-imposed exile, sought by no one.)




Oral and written



Every cormorant is terrifying.

But we’ll get back to that.

It’s nice to attend an international conference without having to leave Slovene territory, I once thought on the way to Klagenfurt. Before some al-Haider fanatic bethinks to assassinate me, allow me to explain that I mean this in a very personal way. Having taken a few days off work, I was traveling a literary skein, from the coastal city of Izola, Slovenia, from where I can see across the northernmost Mediterranean the cliffs of Duino, where Rilke’s sensitivities felt in the beating wings of sea birds a gathering temblor that would rend asunder a world that wasn’t, around a promontory from Trieste, where Joyce would not be allowed to finish his work in peace, to this city, Klagenfurt, which at the time of the birth of Musil, who would better than anyone illuminate the essential and inevitable follies that would coalesce into that extravagantly inhumane war to begin perpetual war, was surrounded by a Slovene countryside.

As a writer, I will not say that it is a shame I didn’t make it. I got good and drunk in Ljubljana the night before I was to catch the train to Austria, and woke terrified at the thought of, not leaving Slovenia official, but of arriving to Slovenia that Slovenes voted into Austria. Some might call it a hangover, which in Slovene is a maček, a cat, and if Rilke could have his cormorants, I welcome my cats.










Every coincidence is terrifying.

As an emigrant American writer taken up refuge in a country now called Slovenia, I have been stricken by the phenomenon of my proximity on the Slovene coast to the presence of three extraordinary early 20th century writers. As we all know that national boundaries are ontologically absurd—and of all ways to be absurd, that is surely one of the most damning—in fact, Rilke would ask, phenomenologist that he was, what relation have we with the earth on which we stand?  Listen to his reason flapping up like a gull from the first Elegy: ‘Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need? Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside…’ A tree on a hillside, but a tree with no name, and an endurance that belies all notions of ownership. So we can easily imagine our boundaries elsewhere, perhaps a greater Slovenia that stretches beyond Devin to the west and Celovec to the north, its maritime capitol Trst, which would now have a hinterland. Or, conversely, my personal Slovenia, untrodden, a Slovenia of the artistic mind, a Slovenia embodied in writers, sculptors, painters, cobblers, and fishermen; Tartini’s Slovenia; days free of labor.

What is a Slovene?


For the purposes of this note a Slovene is a writer, which by my definition is someone without a nation in that his works defy human constructs such as territorial boundaries, who has been affected to some degree by proximity to territory inhabited by Slovenes. Given that the definition precludes attachment to the state of Slovenia, the case is easily made that Rilke, Joyce, and Musil, in that they were in no way Slovene by birth or cultural assimilation, are more than adequately qualified to be called Slovenes.


The Slovene Aspects of Rilke, Joyce, and Musil


Of the three, the case for Rilke’s Slovenicism is the most easily made with a semblance of profundity in that the land, sea and air scapes where Slovenes grew pervade his poems written from Duino in his eponymous series of stunning elegies. Textually, the case is clear regarding Joyce, in whose Finnegans Wake the Slovene language has taken root. As for Musil, one need only check the birth records, for he was born in Klagenfurt, a city that especially at that time, was the seat of a Slovene countryside.

The environment passes like mist through the writer, leaving mysterious ephemerae clinging to the self that periodically comes dislodged and washes up to the shores of consciousness like shells with no one home. Perhaps because the first time I visited Slovenia I also spent a morning in Rijeka, as a writer, as a Slovene, watching smoke from a chimney bend like a supplicant and fly off low to the southwest, the first word in the first novel I based in Europe was burja, a wind that blows through that book with all the subtlety of 20th century history. In Rilke, the presence of the burja is so subtle as to have to be surmised, as in the first elegy, when he writes ‘Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space gnaws at our faces’. Not that the burja is a night wind, nor the only one to gnaw at our faces, but neither is there steel in our veins, yet ‘Oh the Neptune inside our blood, with his appalling trident.’ After reading and re-reading the Duino Elegies, it is impossible for me to view from across the sea through the clarity of a burja sculpted skyscape the escarpments of Duino without imagining, without seeing, Rilke standing on the cliffs watching his soul taking flight and taking dives in Nietzschean alternation. The eighth elegy begins ‘With all its eyes the natural world looks out into the open’. Throughout the elegies there are references to the void, and in this natural world of ‘darkened voice(s), carried on the streaming air’, with a landscape ‘Where once an enduring house was, now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain’, no void is as yawning and hungry as that before the man on the cliffs at Duino in the literal or figurative dark, hounded by the burja,  a line tracing his mind: ‘And again the man is clapping his hands for your leap…’

images (53)

If in no other way, James Joyce earned his Slovene credentials in 1910 by getting drunk in Pirano, sleeping on the marlstone, contracting an eye infection that would lead eventually to the most significant of his purely biographical facts—his ever deteriorating eyesight. One might conjecture that had Joyce not come to taste the unique neptunally dark flavor of refošk, Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett may never have been his secretary. But such speculation is useless, for that appalling trident was surely present in Joyce’s veins, hundreds of rivers spilling from him in one short annalluvial section of Finnegan’s Wake. Nor could the sea, and of course the burja, have been absent from his admixtures while he dwelt in Trieste, where Slavic organizations were rife, where Slovene was the countryside, where the cacoharmony of infinite languages made vibrant the very air Jocye breathed in and penned out in his own Joysperanto, a concoction requiring absolutely a touch of Slovene—for where would Finnegan’s Wake be without such lines as ‘Many a diva devoucha saw her Dauber Dan at the priesty pagoda Rota ran’? Divača is an important krasroads, and of course Dober Dan is Slovene for good day. Even more fun is his lament ‘Shem skrivenitch, always cutting my prhose to please his phrase, bogorror: I declare I’ll get the jawache…’, a skrivnostič use of the Slovene word for hidden, as well as a dredging up of his lord, whom he elsewhere more directly refers to with ‘by the wrath of Bog’, bog being Slovene for god. Far more may be included here, such as the political aspects of Joyce’s Slovenicism, his connection biographical and finneganical with a man named Slataper, but a Slovene skeleton awaits in the Musil closet, a small, dark indefinably distinct space impossible to find with a map.

Yet with a map I begin, for Musil began in Klagenfurt, born certainly, and raised for a number of months, and if the Slovenicism of that countryside makes for a slim connection to my contentions, more contentious would be the exclusion from Slovenicist society simply by the demerits of physical location. Bohemia, Vienna and Geneva, for instances, are perfectly fine places to inherit, develop and/or engender one’s Slovenicism; and if a concrete example is necessary I point to the eminent English historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was raised to puberty in Vienna and heard his first tales of werewolves from a Slovene nursemaid. They were Slovene werewolves, too. I would leave out the characterization of Musil as austere, stern, and closed, because it too perfectly coincides with the worst of characterizations of Slovenes, who are not by my definition Slovenes in that they live in the nation called Slovenia. Yet despite the concrete evidence of birth place, perhaps most convincing is the coincidence or conevidence of Musil’s elegy delivered in Berlin in 1927 for the dead poet Rilke.

A Second Adherence: The War to End All Wars


Were Rilke, Joyce, and Musil not all geographic coincidentals, I would still be moved to ponder their encirclement of the, pustulently and otherwise speaking, most significant event in modern history, now called World War One, once considered the war to end all wars. Now is the time of the cormorant—for us…and perhaps that’s just what Rilke thought  as he intuited the war that would emerge from the absence of his horizon.

The most mysterious, the most disturbing, element of the Elegies, is Rilke’s obsession with angels—or theirs with him. The first two elegies were begun and finished at Duino. Here’s how they start: the first: ‘Who if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?’: and the second: ‘Every angel is terrifying,’ which is also the line that ends the first stanza of the first elegy, hardly an answer and if so a horrible one, to the initial elegiac question. I search the skies for answers to Rilke, or a balm to salve the Rilke inside me, and it’s a sea sky of gulls; I search my gastrointestinal complex for the symbol that flew with such force, finitude, and grace down the throat of the poet and I find gnawing my spleen the darkest of cormorants. I posit the transmogrification of Adriatic cormorant into Rilke-taunting angel.

It is impossible to read the Rilke elegies of 1912 and 1913 today without the interference, if indeed it is interference, of the war that followed; and when I do I want to say the war that followed by a poet’s logic logically from those poems that read now as if they contained all immensities of that coming war, or that war that was being fought in other angelic spheres Rilke sensed before the human shapes leaped from the trenches, ‘the man…clapping his hands for (their) leap’, or his leap, he who ‘waded down into more ancient blood, to ravines where Horror lay, still glutted with his fathers.’ How to read Rilke without retrospect, unless reveling within a gullible utopia, and not read World War One in ‘But the dead youth must go on by himself, and silently the Lament takes him as far as the ravine’, regardless of the poetic context, which, anyway is a powerful argument against existence. Reading Rilke today, lines combine themselves; ‘Conflict is second nature to us. Aren’t lovers always arriving at each other’s boundaries?’ from the fourth elegy arises unbidden upon reading at the end of the ninth of ‘our intimate companion Death’. In Maori myth, the cormorant is a bird that lingers wingedly over a village about to be stricken by death; biblically, the cormorant is a filthy bird, a vomiter—other myths regard the bird more kindly, but when I read Rilke, when I look over the seas, when I see the blackness of the cormorant, so much more elegantly dangerous its shape than the other water birds, I sense its apocalyptic message delivered to Rilke, while the gulls, for him a more neutral meaning and it was ‘Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.’.

No biography of Joyce could be so evocative of his experience of World War One as its absent weight in his last two extremely heavy novels. Nor did it ever fall to Joyce to speak of particular trivial matters. I say this without disparagement, for perhaps no other writer immersed himself more in the quotidian human domain and simultaneously wrote as our deity. Yet false like all gods, Joyce’s outlook was Viconian, and he would have understood the war as a horror embedded in a cycle rather than evidence of the cycle spinning itself out to a cineraceous stagnation. Where there is a beginning there is an end. The cycle spins between. We have reached our long, sanguinemetic end. I highly recommend an immersion in the hilarity of impossibilities of Finnegan’s Wake as graveyard reading.

Musil was the least fortunate of the three in at least one sense—he was forced by some wicked flappage of invisible wings to take upon himself the task of analyzing the elements that converged into the war. Rilke had no task at all; he simply suffered existence. Joyce’s task was to create universes of his own for the only reader who would matter, he who would read Joyce and only Joyce. Musil attempted the impossible, to write a single book to explain the inexplicable. He did not fail—he didn’t finish. If he were alive today the book would merely be a great deal longer. One oddity regarding Musil’s Man Without Qualities that breathes in the muck of my subterranean theme is the pleasure critics who have read his book take in boldprint asides about how nobody reads his whole book, the irony being one Musil would presumably appreciate that no one can read a whole book that isn’t whole. Nonetheless, given the number of pages available, I find myself falling short in a short paper of meaningful extractions that would do justice to Musil’s efforts. The short way of saying that is that for anyone who is not going to read Musil but would like to grasp his essence and his diagnostics I recommend the successive chapters ‘So Kill Him’ and ‘A Countermine and a Seduction’. In the former, chapter 118, you’ll find this: ‘But Clarisse had once said that fish were the aquatic bourgeoisie. Walter winced at the insult.’ I find that as good a launching point for coming to a semblance of understanding what went wrong with the human being as any. Chapter 119 yields, among other gems, ‘In his frantic haste he summoned up all the usual reasons people find nowadays to justify their acting without sincerity, or faith, or scruple, or satisfaction; and in abandoning himself to this effort he found, not, of course, any feeling of love, but a half-crazy anticipation of something like a massacre, a sex murder or, if there is such a thing, a lustful suicide, inspired by the demons of the void who lurk behind all of life’s images.’ (Italics Rilke’s.)  The apperceptual core of eventual man revealed in that passage alone explains enough of the march to war, and the subsequent title of the last chapter of our demise: ‘Lustful suicides.’



Empire, Nationalism, Disparity, Bankruptcy, the Present as a Continuation of an Old Notion of a Future


Forgive my taking delight in the Musilesque nature of this last section title. Besides, I see no point now in being a nice man, whether or not I am one. I looked forward with Blooming relish to the moment when I could appear in Klagenfurt to proclaim that I was happy still to be on Slovene territory despite crossing the absurdity of a border. Certainly some mob or other, if they heard me amidst their angelic hierarchies, would cry out proudly, defiantly, over the corpse of my foreign ideas, ‘I am an Austrian!’, and I would respond with the dregs of my thoughts, ‘Then what the hell were your forefathers doing in Bosnia?’

Myriad books have been written about World War One, but that isn’t enough, just as too much can never be written about our beginnings, whatever they were. For now, though, I will not contribute a book to the subject. My subject is the tragedy of that great comeuppance man gave himself, so often written of as such, when people realized how awfully wrongheaded they had been, the tragedy of that great comeuppance failing utterly do anything more than serve as the engine that would drive the future more assuredly in the same grotesque, bloody, unnatural direction. Twenty years ago, sitting in my used book store in America I made a pretty prim princess in a short skirt wearing pink socks and matching underwear turn pale as our future when I said that if I had it within my power to eliminate the entirety of America for the good of humanity I would do it immediately, sacrificing myself, and yes, even her. I saw no humanity in America then and I see none now. But worse, after twenty years of thought, reading, travel and observation I see that the elimination of America would not have been enough to save you.

The causes of World War One have become embedded international norms. Empires feed on the belief or acceptance of the unequal worth of man, and empires along with imperial thinking are rife in the world. America may be the most powerful empire, but every organization that assents to its power is likewise imperial. The United Nations is an empire. The European Union is an empire. The Bologna agreements regarding education are imperial in nature. The International Maritime Organization is imperial. The prevailing economic theology is especially imperial. Nationalism, the great corrective to empire, is by nature imperial and absurd. Boundary is an absolute, and the charade of modern notions of transparent boundaries self-evident. No power in existence recognizes the absolute nature of boundaries, and the self-deluding beliefs that certain boundaries needed or need to be removed are exquisite guarantors of the perpetuation of boundaries. The very idea that a transient on earth belongs in one space or another is phenomenologically bizarre, and an imperial condemnation of poor man. The celebration of the Berlin boundary’s collapse led to the profusion of boundaries and the concomitant infinitude of words about boundaries. One great self-serving conflict ended, spawning countless others, all serving the same selves.

Whatever the forefathers of Austrians were doing in Bosnia, they were certainly acting on their belief in their own superiority, without which an empire can not function. Without disparity, war is a difficult prospect. Without war, reform is inevitable. Reform is the enemy of power. Disparity must persist, and in its persistence it must widen in order to be displayed as an argument in favor of itself. Yet the human being who tolerates disparity is, for lack of a better word, inhumane. The persistence of disparity, the normalcy with which the upper tier, all of us at this conference, accept this persistence, makes monsters of us all. For the human is an animal, thus to be inhumane is to be monstrous. We are bankrupt as a species, robbed of our animate essence. We should have realized this the moment we ran so short of ideas about ourselves that we called ourselves modern, as if that is possible without the end being near. The awkward, desperate act of adding the pre-fix post- is nothing other than the typical inhumane reluctance to face the finite nature of our badly interpreted world.

The historian who heard tales of Slovene werewolves in his youth counts the 20th century beginning in 1914, for obvious enough reasons.  The War to End All Wars never ended. The Russian revolution spawned a sideshow of war and eventually generated a state of perpetual war on itself. The United States left that war intent on fighting and winning an economic war of attrition that ensured it would be deeply involved in the next world war, which itself was ensured by the outcomes of the first world war. Meanwhile, to focus somewhere specific, the British, who fell in love with the notion of a lost generation of men, finding its poetry of so much more value than what lessons could have been learned from it, the British just for instance remember, all the more rabidly and invidiously clung to their empire in India, coming in the end, if it wasn’t too late already, to destroy any possibility India would ever have of resuming her proper place among the few regions in the world where human beings could remain human. British and French machinations in the Middle East ensured a state of seething and war that will last until this end is over, tiring themselves so in the process that the exacerbating, to put it mildly, addition of Israel, a state borne from terror and terrorizing during a time when ‘fighting terror’ was an inconvenience, was allowed to fuel an even greater ferment, that we may watch the end through gasoline fumes amidst torrents of blood.

Eventually colonial tactics proved flawed and the need arose not to put an end to the idea, but to alter the strategy, which has been done with such striking and deadly results by the United States, whose bump on the imperial road in Vietnam was to prove itself an exciting diversion from their business elsewhere, such is the Congo, where after assisting in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba they engorged themselves on cash that flowered from the corpses on which Mobutu Sese Seko engorged himself, this latter example close enough to the blueprint for America’s successful run as the dominant empire from the end of World War One to the present day when they are able to run amok wherever they feel the economic need, long run or short, in part because the species has become so degraded that no large scale effort has ever been made to stop them. The only country to have used nuclear weapons, the country with the only truly threatening arsenal of nuclear weapons—no other nation has yet given any reason to believe they would ever use them, while the U.S. has seriously considered their use on literally dozens of occasions—went to war using the transparently false justification that a country might have a few of them or the intention of someday having them. I repeat, the species has become so degraded that no large scale effort has ever been made to stop them.

By now I am consciously ranting, from rage, from rage at the bankrupt civilization that spawned me, that has ensured perpetual outbreaks of slaughter, that has ensured the perpetual growth in the disparity of income world wide, and most of all has destroyed every mechanism available to retrieve the health of the species, to halt or even slow the death march I was born taking part in. There is double engagement with Musil, Joyce, and Rilke—my own horror at the first world war, its results, and its apocalyptic meaning makes it impossible for me to ignore their temporal proximity to the war; at the same time their brilliance, and especially the haunting messages from Rilke’s grave, lead me straight back into the trenches neither I nor any of us will ever be able to crawl out of. Only on these brief vacations as a Slovene, these intentionally self-deluding fantasy voyages, brief to prevent the more logical step of going insane, am I able to escape the unalterable, ugly, interpretations of the world.

Exit the cormorant.

download (25)images (51)images (52)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s