Death and the Dichter

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

by Robert Musil, translated by Peter Wortsman
Eridanos, 145 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Five Women

by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser
Godine, 222 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Robert Musil

by Lowell A. Bangerter
Ungar, 176 pp., $16.95

The German term Dichter is not at all readily translatable. It has a wider sense than “poet,” and a more transcendental one than “writer.” Goethe, the archetypal Dichter, created masterpieces in every genre, but was also the model of thinking and being, in the science and ethic of a civilized state. Never much like its English, French, or Russian counterpart, the German novel, coming from the pen of a Dichter, has always more resembled an enterprise of the philosophical imagination.

Frank Kermode gave this interpretation of Dichtung when he spoke of its “elaborate attempts to use fiction for its true purposes, the discovery and registration of the human world.” That might mean much or little. A modest masterpiece, like a novel of Jane Austen’s, could be said to achieve such a goal as effectively as a work of vast and deliberate metaphysical scope, if not more so. It’s a question for the reader, and for the way his mind works. In the relative world of the novel revelation may come to him from an unexpected quarter. Or the discerning reader may go only for a novelist-Dichter with whom revelation is an open promise. Milan Kundera, a lively, but it must be said exceedingly naive, commentator on these matters, assures us that the novelist is an “explorer of existence,…man’s being, which the novel alone can discover.”

In a sense Kundera and Kermode are on sure ground, but there is a snag. By hailing the novelist as a Dichter (the word has unfortunate if fortuitous connotations with Diktat) they bestow on the novel a conscious and transcendent function, one that goes with the German and Goethean tradition.

A Dichter can remain a Dichter only by asserting his own absolute preeminence and authority; and, as D.H. Lawrence very sensibly put it, the strength of the novel is that it is “so incapable of the absolute.” Nothing is more absolute than an idea, and the naiveté of a lively and creative intellectual like Kundera emerges in his persistent belief that the more striking its ideas, the more effective the novel. All his disclaimers, all his insistence that the novelist is not playing with ideas but exploring human individuality, serve only to emphasize his real allegiance. For him the three great novelists of this century, the ones who really matter, are all men—all, one might say, specifically masculine—and all Central Europeans: Broch, Kafka, and Musil. And of these the real intellectual’s novelist, the one most committed to ideas, is Musil. He is the apotheosis of the modern Dichter, one who has passed beyond life into a world of abstract inquiry about it. In the foreword to his essay collection, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, as in its title, he made a joke of this. “Can a Dichter still speak of being alive?”

Well perhaps not. The author of Axel’s Castle observed that the artist’s valet would do his living for him: Musil in the next century allots the same role to thought. He…

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