Friday 17 July 2020

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Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn’t know what to do with them?” says Jakob. He abandons his family, we learn nothing of his family, and enrols himself in the Benjamenta Institute, ostensibly a school for servants, seemingly a school, in the loftier sense of the word, for the nullification of one’s individuality, all the better to conform, all the better to meet the demands of the world upon a person. “As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish,” says Jakob, realistically. There are no other options. The relinquishment of the self, so to call it, learned at the Benjamenta Institute is not a path to enlightenment but to its opposite, a path to unknowing, an abnegation, a resignation, an obliteration, a relief from the burden of internal life. Not so different from enlightenment, so to call it, perhaps. To obey, to conform, to suppress thought, to extinguish that part of yourself that resists boredom, the part that smarts from the indignity of existence, from mundanity, how better to fit in, to blend in, just as is expected of us? “What we pupils do, we do because we have to, but why we have to, nobody quite knows. We obey without considering what one day will come of all of this thoughtless obedience, and we work without thinking if it is right and good to do our work,” says Jakob, ominously. “We don’t rebel. It would never cross our minds. We have, collectively, so few thoughts. I have perhaps the most thoughts, that’s quite possible, but at root I despise my capacity for thinking.” What cannot be opposed must be allowed to extinguish us if it is not to cause us anguish. “One must learn to love and cherish necessity,” says Jakob. “Here at the Benjamenta Institute one learns to suffer and endure losses, and that is in my view a craft. We pupils have no hopes, it is even forbidden to us to nourish hopes for life in our hearts, and yet we are completely calm and happy.” This achievement is a non-achievement, an unenlightening. “I have become a quite different person, I have become an ordinary person,” says Jakob, “and I have the Benjamentas to thank for my becoming ordinary.” By conforming to expectations without the slightest resistance, Jakob displaces exactly his own volume in these expectations. His obedience is the ultimate disobedience, his submission is the ultimate escape. To oppose the forces of conformity would be to acknowledge those forces more generously than to submit to them, for one can sarcastically conform where one cannot sarcastically oppose. “It suits me to disappear, as inconspicuously as possible,” said Walser, somewhere else. Not only to disappear but to do so inconspicuously. (>>You can read something I wrote on Walser here.) “We are small, small all the way down the scale to utter worthlessness,” says Jakob. All actions in Walser’s books are without consequence, all details are immediately forgotten, time moves on with the sole result that the moments are left behind, relinquished, obliterated. If existence is anguish, this is the best possible result, this snagless moving-forward of time is almost cheerful. Walser seems capable of expressing anguish only in a cheerful way. He has no other vocabulary. He has inexhaustible anguish. He writes to suppress his anguish. Cheerfully. Walser’s characters are all surplus to the requirements of meaningful occurrence, so to call it, if there could even be such a thing as meaningful occurrence, and they are relieved of the conundrum of whether there could be such a thing as meaningful occurrence by being excluded in any case from meaningful occurrence if there was such a thing. Politeness relieves them of their lack of purpose. Politeness is a way of not existing, or, perhaps, a way of existing in your own absence. Jakob is the sworn enemy of his own individuality. He has no effect on the world and he is not affected by it. He is without reciprocation. His nullity is a blank mirror upon which Fraulein Benjamenta destroys herself by looking to him for love, a blank mirror for which Herr Benjamenta ultimately closes his school, declares his love for Jakob the perfectly unreachable pupil, attempts to strangle him, engages him to accompany him. “The individual in me is only a zero,” says Jakob. “But now I’ll throw away my pen! Away with the life of thought! I’m going with Herr Benjamenta into the desert.”

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