It is my favourite occupation to gaze at the starry heavens at night – that being the best way to turn my eyes away from earth and from life. And perhaps it may be pardoned in me that I still cling to my distant hopes? That I dream of a freer life, where the actuality of my fondest anticipations is revealed to be without any torturing residue of disillusionment? Of a life where there are no more horizons?
(Thomas Mann, “Disillusionment”)
Nature consists of nothing but ugly little things that one hardly notices and which live as sadly far apart from each other as stars in the night-sky.
(Robert Musil, “Tonka”)
In 2014, future president of the United States Donald Trump called Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” a “great song actually” and “a very interesting song.” My friend tells me that there is nothing interesting about this, but I have a soft spot for allegories and Trump’s comments on the song make for a good one: after all, from a strictly generic point of view, Peggy Lee’s song is a carpe diem, which is to say, a diatribe against hope. The Obama campaign’s use of the word “hope” was always a precarious affair. It was an ever so gentle attempt to reintroduce metaphysics into politics; it sought to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism, earnest enough to disarm cynicism but deployed with a skill that assured us that fanaticism of any sort would be held at bay. Eight and a half years later, it seems that the balance was too precarious to survive Obama’s presidency. What has emerged in its place is a carpe diem politics, a relentless mining of disappointment to fuel a final effort to destroy, among other things, the remains of Western metaphysics.
In the spring of 2017, a few months after the elections and fourteen years after first arriving in the United States, I am in a Lyft car heading to the San Francisco airport, where I will take a flight to a conference. It is my first time riding with Lyft. Until a few weeks ago I had only used Uber, but then I overheard a conversation on campus about Uber mistreating their employees. Now that I am sitting in the car I feel vaguely disappointed. The driver has colorless hair and mustache and a sense of fading away about him; but what bothers me is not his mortality but that he speaks English very well. This is not surprising since he is American, but it reminds me that my Uber rides used to be opportunities to compare notes with drivers who had recently arrived in the United States. I do not expect anything like that to happen now, but John surprises me: After encouraging me to help myself to the water bottles and candy placed in the backseat pocket, he proceeds to tell me his life story.
John moved to San Francisco in the 1990s from New York because conditions in the latter back then were not ideal for gay men. He went to art school and after graduation worked as a video editor, but his bosses exploited him and he never gained a foothold in the industry. He was passionate about art, but after years of frustration he decided to quit and start driving for Lyft. He has never looked back and he is no longer anxious about the future. He is going through something like a midlife crisis but in a positive sense, he insists; he is experiencing a new sense of freedom. Did he mean freedom from hope, I wonder while I walk toward the terminal, and then it occurs to me that perhaps aging is not all that different from immigrating.
When Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller adapted Thomas Mann’s 1896 short story Enttäuschung (“Disillusionment”) into the lyrics we know from Peggy Lee’s song, they changed not just some of the details (no trip to the sea or search for a horizonless view), but also its genre. In the song, disillusionment is cause to “break out the booze and have a ball.” In Mann’s story, the speaker is a committed disillusionist. There’s no booze and ball here, no seizing of the day; the theme of Mann’s parable is disillusionment for disillusionment’s sake. Its hero is an obstinate man who resists not only hope but the use of disillusionment for carpe diem. This is all the more notable given Mann’s use of illusionists in his later work, especially in the 1929 Mario und der Zauberer (“Mario and the Magician”), where Cipolla the hypnotist represents Mann’s critique of fascism.
My conference is in the Swiss Alps and it is about antiquity. Beyond the so-called classical antiquity, attendees talk about Chinese, Inca, even Scythian antiquities. Toward the end of the conference somebody asks how we should distinguish between antiquity and the mere past. Someone else offers the theory that antiquity is a device to cover up an undesirable past, and adds that Jurassic Park is America’s antiquity. I notice that there are no Swiss at the conference, and remember that Thomas Mann fled from Nazi Germany to Switzerland in 1933, then further to the United States for the duration of the Second World War, and finally moved back to Switzerland. Then, I think of Nietzsche’s ecstatic and increasingly unhinged letters from Sils-Maria. Between the conference sessions, we take strolls in the snow and the March sun gives us a tan.
After the conference ends, I take a flight from Zurich to Budapest to visit my parents for an evening before returning to the United States. The memories of this trip are hazy, but I remember walking down a small street toward the house I grew up in and passing a black top coat hanging from the streetside of a fence. The street is empty except for the coat and myself, and I realize that after a long winter when the city starts coming back to life for a brief moment it feels like a village. During this week I forget about John the Lyft driver and the midlife crisis that seemed to quietly consume him.
In 1923, Austrian author Robert Musil published a small book called Drei Frauen (“Three Women”). Musil had a complicated relationship with Thomas Mann. According to one scholar, Musil thought that Mann achieved the kind of critical and commercial success that he, Musil, deserved. Nevertheless, Musil appealed repeatedly to Mann for help in popularizing his work, which the latter did, naming Musil’s opus magnum The Man Without Qualities the best novel of the time and later founding the Robert Musil Society. Nonetheless, it seems Musil’s opinion about Mann didn’t change.
In “Tonka,” which in Nobel prize winner J. M. Coetzee’s opinion is “the most considerable” of the five stories included in the expanded English edition, Musil offers a literary anatomy of disappointment. A young scientist from a well-to-do family enters into a love affair with a Czech girl named Tonka, short for Toninka, which itself is the diminutive of the German name Antonie. It should be noted that Musil’s stories often feature men who lust for Slavic women. At any rate, Tonka and the young man live together for some years when they learn that she is pregnant, and since the young man was away on a journey when conception must have happened, he has to face the likelihood of Tonka’s infidelity. Tonka denies everything, but further evidence emerges when she also turns out to have contracted syphilis. The young man does not have the will to believe Tonka but he also does not have enough certainty not to believe her. Torn between faithlessness and uncertainty, for a moment he contemplates the possibility of immaculate conception. The story ends without a second coming when Tonka dies in the hospital.
A day after my visit in Budapest I am back at the San Francisco airport talking to a young border security agent. During the flight I entertained myself with The Man Without Qualities, and I was surprised to see Musil switch from the lyric voice of “Tonka” to satire, though one could argue that this is because in the later work his attention turned from existential disillusionment to the bureaucratic nationalism of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. The American border security agent asks what I did in Hungary, the kind of question I dislike not so much on account of its tacit assumption that I may have been assembling explosive devices but because it makes my stomach cramp from the thought that I may not have been doing anything at all. I say that I visited my parents. The officer asks how they are doing, and I answer that they are getting old. He laughs as if relieved, says something about parents being known for that, and then hands back my Hungarian passport and tells me “welcome home.” America is not my home, I want to tell him, but then I remember the green card he inserted back into my passport just a moment ago, so I say thanks and move out of the way.
In 1609, renowned London printer George Eld published a play by William Shakespeare called Troilus and Cressida, the story of an ill-fated love amidst the Trojan War. In his introduction to the 1966 edition of Musil’s Five Women, English critic Frank Kermode compares “Tonka” to Troilus and Cressida, though he finds them mostly dissimilar. Shakespeare’s play begins with the Trojan prince declaring that he is in love with the witty Trojan lady Cressida and that he no longer believes in the war against the Greeks. Two acts later, thanks to the diligence of Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, the Trojan lovers do indeed find a moment of repose in the midst of war. But their affair proves short lived when Cressida is turned over to the enemy camp, where she forms a liaison with a Greek warrior. The disappointed Troilus throws himself into the raging final battle, and the play ends with Pandarus, who bequeaths his venereal disease to the audience.
Pandarus’s character has a precedent in Homer’s Iliad, where Pándaros is a young warrior known for his heroics in the battlefield. Little would seem to be in common between him and Shakespeare’s decrepit pimp, except that in the Iliad, Pándaros is an extraordinarily skillful archer. This makes one wonder if Shakespeare imagined his Pandarus as a grotesquely old, STD-ridden Putto with mangled wings and a broken bow.
In the same year, George Eld also printed a small book of poetry called Shake-speares Sonnets. The volume contains 153 sonnets, plus one poem that has only twelve lines and then two sets of empty parentheses:
Scholars have not been able to agree on whether the poem should be considered an incomplete sonnet or a twelve-line poem. Nobody seems to have noticed that this is the Sonnets’ Pandarus moment, and that therefore the poem is neither incomplete nor complete but rather mutilated, inviting us to ask what is missing from it. In the twelve lines preceding the two sets of parentheses, the poem warns a “lovely boy,” who might be identical with the previous 125 sonnets’ young man or might be the infant god of love, Cupid himself, that his triumphs (“Omnia vincit Amor”) are an illusion. In reality, the poem claims, Nature has used the boy as a pawn against Time, and when the latter eventually wins the game, Nature will turn the boy over to the enemy as a “quietus,” that is, acquittance and release from life.The scene that the poem describes is proverbial; in fact, since seventeenth-century artists were fond of depicting an old, brawny Time clipping Cupid’s wings (see image), the poem’s allegorical tone makes one wonder if Shakespeare relied on visual sources. In any event, the poem’s mutilated form reflects its content, and if we ask what has been clipped from the sonnet, the easy answer is again carpe diem. The poem articulates the premise of every carpe diem, the reckoning of time’s destructive power, without drawing any conclusion from it. By doing so, it turns carpe diem into a memento mori, the call to seize the day into a reminder of mortality. More than a reminder: the allegorical decorum is a thin disguise for the poem’s anger, which turns the very disappointment that the sequence expresses about love’s inability to stop time into a vengeful vision of love’s coming death.
When I walk past border security, I realize how odd I still feel about the officer’s gesture of welcoming me home. I wonder if he took pity on me because of my parents growing old and wanted to provide assurance that there is a new home waiting for me here in the United States. When I finally get through customs I call an Uber. The driver’s name is Mohammed and he is from Afghanistan, where he worked as an interpreter for US troops for a few years, which is how he earned his green card. He arrived in the United States not long ago, and he misses many things about home: friends and family, food and weather, the beauty of the country, the chatter of the city. As it turns out, Mohammed is from a wealthy family; his father was a landowner and Mohammed was expected to take over the management of his lands. He chose to come to America instead because he wanted to see the world: out of curiosity, he tells me.
Then he confides that there are a great many things he does not like about his new home. He works long hours for Uber and still finds it hard to make ends meet. The apartment he rents in Daly City is small and dark and damp, and his neighbors are not friendly. In fact, Mohammed finds that it is generally difficult to make friends in the United States because people are reserved, they do not volunteer to share their meals the way people do in Afghanistan; they can be polite when he addresses them but they show no interest in sustaining the conversation. It is also cold in the Bay Area. Mohammed turns his eyes toward me in the rear view mirror.
Enchanted by Mohammed’s gentle melancholy, I begin to say something about how we live in a society where an ever more perfect infrastructure erases our need for each other. Mainly I just want to assure Mohammed of my sympathy, but he shakes his head with unexpected vehemence. He does not know what I mean by infrastructure, he says, and in any case he plans to bring over his friends and family from Afghanistan. We arrive at my place. Mohammed gets out of the car to say goodbye; he then looks at the house and asks me if I own it.