Tagged: crushes

Shaken into Modernism

All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.

I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.

There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***

Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.


* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.

** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.

*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.

**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.





Another Case of Literary Necrophilia

Krishna's Fluting Causes the Palace Women to Swoon, via Wikimedia Commons

Krishna’s Fluting Causes the Palace Women to Swoon, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, dear. I have the probably harmless tendency of developing crushes on dead writers, fellas who were most likely, or in some cases on record as being, wrecks at human relationships. Kerouac was my first affair of this sort, and from that high school-through-college infatuation, I moved on to Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, and Zbigniew Herbert. And now look: on the narrowing edge of forty, the madness hasn’t ceased; here comes poet James Merrill to make me simultaneously swoon with delight and seethe in mad envy at his wordplay.* “The Broken Bowl” is too long to reel off here in its entirety– and the version I have, found in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, seems to have been redone in later collections, and not, to my manner of thinking, for the better. But the unsentimental way in which Merrill moves, without your even suspecting it, from the consideration of a shattered glass container to the wholes love can construct out of the fragments left behind by battered lives, is quietly stunning– and the first time I read it out loud, I ended up in tears.

Here are the last couple of stanzas:

No lucid, self-containing artifice
At last, but fire, ice,
A world in jeopardy. What lets the bowl
Nonetheless triumph by inconsequence
And wrestle harmony from dissonance
And with the fragments build another, whole,
Inside us, which we feel
Can never break, or grow less bountiful?

Love does that. Spectral through the fallen dark,
Eye-beam and ingle-spark
Refract our ruin into this new space,
Timeless and concentric, a spotlight
To whose elate arena we allot
Love’s facets reassembling face by face,
Love’s warbler among leaves,
Love’s monuments, or tombstones, on our lives.**


Well. At least I have the words to keep me company. Throw in some Chet Baker, and we’ve got ourselves a mood…


* My selection of love objects seems to be getting increasingly futile; in addition to being dead, Merrill didn’t even like girls. There goes any possibility of ghostly sweet nothings. N.b., most times this barrier of gender preferences-at-odds popped up in the past, my dreamy ardor tended not to take no for an answer. In one instance, after spending a semester in college making an infatuated ass out of myself with a linguistics professor, it was revealed to me that my true love was gay. At my sheepish look of incredulity, a Southern belle classmate of mine tried to comfort me with, “Oh, don’t worry, honey, he’s European; you couldn’t have known.”

** James Merrill, “The Broken Bowl,” in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976 (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 7.