Weighing Walser’s Words

Ben Lerner perceives a peculiar energy in the work of Robert Walser:

Robert Walser / Jugendbildnis - - Walser, RobertThe force of Walser’s writing derives from this simultaneous valorization of irreducible individuality and of sameness, smallness, interchangeability. In the most various terms, Walser praises monotony; it makes it wonderfully difficult to read his tone. When is he serious? When is he mocking the will to conform?

Susan Sontag wrote that “the moral core of Walser’s art is the refusal of power; of domination.” And yet, paradoxically, part of the power of Walser’s art lies in how that refusal of domination interacts with his narrators’ demands to be dominated. Walser’s voice is a strange mix of exuberance and submission, lyrical abandon and self-abnegation. His refusals are anti-heroic, wavering; they reveal—sometimes comically, sometimes tragically—how the desire to be ruled enters the subject, the son, the servant, the pupil.

How can a writer refuse even the power of refusal, preserve his freedom while falling all over himself to give it away? Maybe the answer has to do with how Walser’s singular sentences themselves “step aside”: one of the most notable effects of his prose is how it seems to evaporate as you read. Walter Benjamin said of Walser’s “garlands of language” that “each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten.” This is not to say there aren’t depths of meaning and memorable passages, but Walser’s genius often involves a kind of disappearing act.

Previous Dish on Walser here.