dimanche 11 août 2013

"The Perfecting of a Love"

Coetzee sur L'Accomplissement de l'amour, pas le mien ! La nouvelle de Musil, mon modèle. 

J.M. COETZEE - On the Edge of Revelation

This having been said, however, there remains in the stories a certain amount of lofty gesturing toward mystical love, transcendent consummation. We see this in "Grigia" and "The Lady from Portugal"; it is also the weakest feature of "The Perfecting of a Love," one of the earlier stories collected here. Nonetheless, "The Perfecting of a Love" is an audacious piece of sustained poetic intensity, and one of the key texts of German modernism. Some fifty-five pages in length, it was the outcome of two years of fevered work by its author. It is the story of a woman, Claudine, who "perfects" her love of her husband by giving herself with reluctant voluptuousness to acts of sexual self-abasement with a stranger she has no feeling for, a complacent middleaged philanderer. By the end of the brief liaison Claudine feels she has reached a state of mystical liberation, "a state...like giving herself to everyone and yet belonging only to the one beloved."
As Musil's private papers make clear, the story is based on the infidelity of his wife-to-be, Martha Marcovaldi. Starting as an attempt to explore his own feelings of jealousy, it became a somewhat grandiose plea for mystical adultery (in a 1913 essay Musil went further, looking forward to a time when "bipolar erotics" would be outdated), but also perhaps (and this is a kind of possibility that Musil's narrative treatment, locked on to Claudine's inner life, does not allow to emerge into articulation) an effort to take over the woman's sexual experience — by writing it, by becoming its author — and thereby strip it of its disturbing autonomy. "The Perfecting of a Love" was hard to write, I would guess, because it presented a real, and ultimately ethical, challenge to the integrity of Musil's enterprise, the enterprise of yielding himself to the processes by which thought thinks itself out, analogically or paralogically, in metaphors, likenesses, similitudes. The rhythms of Claudine's meditation (if hers is indeed the voice of the text) invite us to lapse into lulled will-lessness as they lead us along what Musil would later call "the maximally laden path...the way of the most gradual, imperceptible transitions," from contended marital rectitude to perverse abandonment.
Claudine's story gives several fin-de-siècle twists to the Christian teaching that as long as the soul is pure it cannot be harmed by violations performed upon the flesh. The first twist takes place when Claudine offers her body to violation, the second when she gives herself without reserve, yielding her will as well as her body. The test, we are to presume, is whether she can maintain an ultimate kernel of selfhood untouched by the martyrdom of the flesh. But Claudine is aware of, and does not repudiate, an ultimate stage of perversion the doctrine can undergo: of actively seeking out violation, torture, and death as a means of negative transcendence. To her husband she confesses a fascination with the inner experience of a psychopath she calls G., later to be reembodied as the sex killer Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities. "I think...he believes his actions are good," she says. In more ways than one, "The Perfection of a Love" is an exercise in thinking the unthinkable.

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