No purpose whatever

I’ve always loved the work of Robert Walser. NYRB recently published a new volume of stories that I’m itching to read. Balloon Journey is one from his Selected Stories that I think of from time to time. In addition to Balloon Journey, The Walk and Kleist in Thun are also marvelous.

In Violence and Splendor, Alphonso Lingis discusses how inmates of mental institutions were considered to be artists of the so-called art brut movement upon publication of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Lingis writes, “artists were seen as devoting themselves to discharging their creative forces in works without utilitarian function, gratuitous, ends in themselves.” And yet, upon publication of Artistry of the Mentally Ill, these patients were placed at the center of the art world and their work was considered to have the same intentions as work that was gallery-bound.

I can’t help but think of Walser’s Microscripts when reading about art brut. The volume, published a couple of years ago by New Directions, includes to-scale images of Walser’s microscopic encoded writings. They are beautiful, unique things to behold, but one cannot escape the notion that Walser was an afflicted man. When reading Microscripts or any other volume of Walser’s work, I have to keep in mind that I will never truly understand them and their origins, that they are ends in themselves and are the result of whatever strange energy that needed to be excised from his being.

Robert Walser microscripts courtesy of Robert Walser Archive, Bern courtesy New Directions and Christine Burgin

That said, what we have of Walser’s is something to stir wonder from our cold, academic minds:

“And how warm it is, as if one were sitting in a room, just like home, with mother, aunt, sister, brother, or with one’s lover, lamplit, and reading from a beautiful but rather monotonous long story. The girl wants to sleep; looking at things has made her quite tired now. The two men standing in the basket gaze silently but resolutely into the light. Remarkably white, polished-looking, plateaus alternate with gardens and small wildernesses of bush. One peers down into regions where one’s feet would never, never have trod, because in certain regions, indeed in most, one has no purpose whatever.”

– Robert Walser, Balloon Journey

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