:: Article

I can only speak for myself

By Dominic Jaeckle.

Looking at Pictures: Review

Robert Walser, Looking at Pictures, trans. Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis & Christopher Middleton (New Directions, 2015)

Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice by others.
– Robert Walser, ‘An Exhibition of Belgian Art’

Today our unsophisticated cameras record in their own way our hastily assembled and painted world.
– Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

 Every time a shutter is triggered and an image results, a fiction is created. Something is separated from its source and surroundings, from the stream of life.

When this image is of an identifiable object, an illusion results both from this separation and from this image being placed in a different context.
– Robert Leverant, ‘Ontology of the Snapshot Image’

This new collection of Robert Walser’s ekphrastic writings – Looking at Pictures, a select twenty five pieces that span Walser’s career, collating original and extant translations of Walser’s work – aspires towards a redirection of his writings. While the work encompasses the personal through an exploration of the tendentious qualities of particular works of art and a dissection of the impulse to produce and create, it also leans towards a view of the public life of the art object. Alluding to the difficult interpolation of consumption and observation, it draws attention to selfishness as a critical epithet central to our habits in the museum, suggesting that we design ourselves appropriately to the digestion of work – soft work rather than hard – that paints little beyond a picture of personality as reflected in the abstract objects of creative labour.

The image is central to Walser’s legacy and, beyond his portrait, the more preponderate pictures that pertain to his body of work are of his own notes; the abbreviated script or “delicate” shorthand, as Walter Benjamin termed it, in which Walser would practice his “pencil method” on the backs of envelopes, business cards, rejection slips and telegrams in a private language. A script particular to Walser’s personal economy of symbols – exclusive to his object of attention. The privacy innate to the cryptic character of Walser’s “microscripts” proves significant here; Middleton suggests that this backlog of materials could truncate as an autobiography beyond decipherability but insists that, as Walser’s readers, a chronological sequencing of the texts should not allure us. “Walser’s own notes should not be mistaken as a means to focus attention on Walser as a person.” Both as author and as individual, Middleton suggests that Walser’s work “articulates a large and general cast of mind, such as strictly personal writings seldom do”. This thesis is enacted across Looking at Pictures but is strung through with the melancholy of paradox. How do we move between the general and the personal? How can we write for anybody but ourselves? How can we objectify and calculate the processes of engagement and hours of work that formulate and arrange themselves in the simple facticity of a picture? These questions litter a reading of the essays, fictions and reviews included here and, if Walser was to respond to such interrogation with a simple, aphoric answer, perhaps we could suggest that the collection presents one singular remark as rephrased throughout its contents: “I can only speak for myself.” In other words, the only way into the general is through an onus on the particular.

Walser's microscript

Responsive to such a conceit, Walser’s deep couching in the critical fabric of literary modernism has undergone something of a circular repreciation in recent times. Although celebrated early into his career – pinned by Musil as a precursor to Kafka’s movement from author to adjective – Walser has perhaps been rendered more implicit as a philosophical object of attention than another node in that cultural network. Benjamin, writing in 1929, and with an attention paired down to the level of the sentence, suggests that Walser’s uses of language remark a process of insensible evolution or refusal: “Each sentence has the sole purpose of rendering the previous one forgotten,” Benjamin writes. Benjamin Kunkel, writing for The New Yorker in 2007, decorates Walser as a writer of “everything and nothing”. Kunkel associates his Walser with what Giorgio Agamben terms the “irreparable” in his reading of Walser’s fiction – elucidating “a world of left behind objects” – a “dissolved” world, to appropriate Sebald’s reading. Ben Lerner concurs, writing in the introduction to Damion Searls’s recent translation of A Schoolboys Diary, portraying Walser as grounding a theory of literary repudiation – suggesting that his writing takes on an “evasive” quality so as to connote the “acute political significance” of a “Bartleby-like refusal of ambition” as so often characterises his narrators; singular peoples that live as though only a short walk away from Walser himself, drinking off a lyrical cocktail of “exuberance,” “abandon” and “self-abnegation”. Rather than transmitting such a sense of loss and fracture in Walser’s prose, Bernofsky, in introduction to her own translation of Walser’s Berlin Stories, suggests his balance of sharp wit with flat sagacity finds some equilibrium in his sense of the personal. We can recognise shared emphases in the ideas that bunch around Walser’s work and a history of its publication; its sold to us as a literature of reconciliation – a writing of the balancing of powers either through a refusal to conform or a submission to the terms of others. We’re never told which is the best foot forwards, the fork in the road remains the only presentation.

Susan Bernofsky’s credit as translator in this case is complemented with the support of Christopher Middleton – who was long engaged in the translation of Walser’s work into English – and Lydia Davis. The collective work of these three translators in their propagation of Walser’s voice represents a disharmony appropriate to Walser’s own wondering eye as depicted – drawing different objects to the fore, different observations to varying states of conclusion. The disjointed voice of this collection feels like an addendum to the philosophical stress that permeates Walser’s work in terms of both its style and content and his ongoing critical reception. Walser is repeatedly interested in possession throughout this collection – distinguishing his work from the work of others, his own insight and the object of his attentions. The translatability of his work conveys this idea in its essence. We’re given a series of Walsers that pertain, intermittently, to Davis, to Bernofsky, to Middleton. The idea of a cultured and created property – filtered through the identity of a writer or translator – mirrors much of the standing of Walser’s various theses on looking. How can I read and deem the reading mine? How does my looking affect the pictured conveyed? Reading Walser against the backdrop of European literary history, the forgetfulness and problematic posterity implied within such an account – the wayward distinction between subject and object – provides a lens with which to observe this new collection and scrutinise its difficult pluralism. “Walser’s way of seeing,” as Bernofsky and Burgin write in their introduction to this collection, “is eminently his own.” Rather than letting us into the nooks of that particular perspectivism, however, Walser suggests we remain loyal only to our own.

Critics regularly remark on the little we know of Walser. Although born in 1878, the more acute and memorable image of Walser in the public mind is of his death. The writer snowing over the blank white of a Swiss winter scene, Walser suffers a heart attack whilst out hiking in 1956 near the Herisau asylum he had intermittently called home – his body found by children, his photo taken by the authorities. That fact of his history, married up with the waning popularity of his works in his twilight years, anchored in the deep effect of political and social turmoil of a war-torn Europe upon him – the singular life represented as a broader metonym here – argues that the reach of his own biography configures him as victim. Representative of the fickle character of popular attention. A figuration of bad timing mired up with a personal disappointment sculpted by the controlling hand of others. Walser dreams of a life in theatre, and fails. Walser’s works in service to the upper echelons of Swiss-German society and disappears; enrolling in a school for servants, taking the role of butler in a Silesian château. Walser the copyist. Walser the assistant. Another minor writer rendered through the pitch of the major historical event. Another writer pictured as mute, subservient to the tenor of a ruling class. His history constellates with a sense of the negativity posed by Benjamin’s view of his writing. We image him within the context of his era and we lose the singular identity of the writer through their subjugation to critical time and, as Benjamin perhaps suggests, a process grounded in the strategies of containment that define a view of his practice. We willingly forget one author for another as we look to find a more fitting and forgotten example for a given era’s historical representation. We disregard the analogical qualities of story in favour of a photographic view of the writer’s activity, the translator’s choices, the onlooker’s fetishes – each sentence frames itself with an aphoric clarity that both illustrates and distorts the scene conveyed, outlining its takeaway as something more symbolic than subject driven. It’s an idea demonstrated through the activities of observation here and the regular “I” that qualifies critical vision.

The collection thus represents Walser as methodologically attuned to the smaller details in life – “A region, for instance, becomes bigger and richer in a surround of mountains,” he states in ‘Thoughts on Cézanne’ – and the collected pieces here can be argued as a casebook for the ways in which the personal outweighs and abstracts the plural or is otherwise consumed within it, seeking concern and validation from such a pool.

As the title infers directly, we’re dealing with Walser’s life as an observer rather than as writer here, yet Looking at Pictures offers up an angle on Walser’s own equivocal view of critical perspectivism – an idea entirely foregrounded by the heavy editorial hand in this new arrangement of his work. How do we associate the picture and the painter, the painter and their world, the picture and its portrayal? These are all questions that Walser himself teases out across this collection and they pertain as much to a consideration of his own craft as to the social mechanisms of the painter’s work. Early on into Bernofsky and Christine Burgin’s introduction to this new collection they cite photographer Dorothea Lange: “A camera,” Lange claims, “is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.” Bernofsky and Burgin continue to suggest that something analogous can be said of the pieces accommodated within this collection: “We can say a similar thing about Robert Walser’s writings on art.” The point of connect developed between Walser’s operations as an author and Lange’s suggestion – that the camera needs be assimilated into the specifics of our definition of the photographer themselves – speaks volumes as to the character of Walser’s probing conception of review, of medium, and his adumbration of the critic’s task as established across these pieces, relative to the book’s advertised tendency toward ekphrasis, and the ways in which – through the act of looking, Walser endeavours to get under the artist’s skin.

As a hypothetical figure that assumes a degree of auraticism within his perambulatory discussions of the distinction between the painting and its painter, the artist is accorded with a fair degree of envy here. In numerous examples across the collection Walser anchors this takeaway with regular élan, balancing the practical insights of his jealousies with an admission to the fact that, as a writer, he can only ever account for a single point of view – a regular detail of these texts that could well be argued as an idée fixe in Bernofsky and Burgin’s editorial interventions into Walser’s corpus. A writer “is supposed to report above all on the world and human beings”, he claims in the introductory piece ‘A Painter’ – the writer, as he elsewhere suggests, “lags behind” the artist. The painter – “the brutal poet of the brush” – presents us with a concentration of “nature” – a “subtle reproduction” of an otherwise “inward” imaginative process. Writing, conversely, is submissive to a less introspective cache of pressures according to Walser. “The writing of a prose piece puts me in a devotional mood,” he claims in ‘Catastrophe’ and, as he would add in the essay ‘A Discussion of a Picture’, we have to approach his writing under the assumption of face-value fact fed through the impact of his own subjective handle on the scene. What we see can only ever be an “approximation”. What he shares is only ever a means of distraction; as the world keeps spinning he begs the question of himself: “Beautiful women adorn the promenade with their presence, and still I sit here writing?”

Whilst the pieces interred in Looking at Pictures have the character of a private notebook – interspersing its self-definition as a series of reflections on medium, as an insight into the industrial variations that intercede his relationship with his brother (renowned secessionist painter, Karl Walser), an envisioning of the potential need to comingle an understanding of literature with a more general culture of image-making, or a sentimental address of the artist’s seat in society – these complex critical atmospheres are rendered complicated by Bernofsky and Burgin’s allusion to photography. The stress of Lange’s suggestion connotes this anxiety that can be traced through the collection – Walser is still writing. Lange wants us to ignore the mechanical or technological nature of the camera to focus our attentions, instead, on the sovereignty of the eye at the eyepiece. To read this assertion as a guiding line with which to read this collection, Walser’s work imposes two contrary versions of “truth”, presenting two vicarious critical methodologies consummate in his arrangement of his text as sat between between the observer and the observed, the eye and the image produced. We have a distinction between a truth as grounded in the subjective inquiry of an individual artwork or artist and a truth-as-proposition, anchored in historical fact. The dissimilarity between these two modes is intractable as a critical dilemma, of course, and the results of any argument would be dictated better by our own vicarious desires as consumers than by the determinism of any critical rubric. However, these two divergent interests in the truism are carried through as a quiet detail that bridges the pieces in this collection and anchors Walser’s interests in a critical relationship between the reader and writer as with the artist and his or her produce.


This is an idea backed up by the character of the texts: ‘A Painter’, ‘Catastrophe’ and ‘A Scene from the life of the Painter Karl-Stauffer Bern’ are ostensibly fiction, albeit of a deeply allegorical grain; ‘A Note on Van Gogh’s LArlésienne’, ‘Hodler’s Beech Forest’ and ‘Olympia’ present critical circumnavigation of a works uniqueness or, as is the case for Van Gogh, an inaccessible genius; ‘An Exhibition of Belgian Art’ and ‘A Discussion of a Picture’ are oblique reviews, presented in a highly personal and obfuscated vernacular. ‘Beardsley’, a short reflection on Aubrey Beardsley’s self-portrait, reads like a blueprint for the quiet pleasures of criticism as a form of detective work. Given the broad personality of these pieces taken separately, the fixing of these texts as one singular collection assumes an ambiguous agenda of sorts. Our interests have to be in critical agency – in the fact that, as Walser phrases it himself, “Everything [we] neglected to say can be given voice by others” – and that we need hold work up against the world to note the differences and glean something as to the shifting pattern of human presences strung through our static cultural objects. Writing on Jean-Antoine Watteau, Walser concludes with aphorism: for all our looking, our study and our experiments we perceive little but an “all too intimate” and yet “familiar distance” in the works of others.

The collection concludes with the aforementioned ‘Thoughts on Cézanne’, translated by Middleton, and it offers a curious juxtaposition to Bernofsky and Burgin’s early allusion to Lange’s thoughts on photography. All we ever have is an “outline” when we look at work, Walser suggests. A frame in which to couch our thinking that distorts the clarity of the picture itself by virtue of the amplification of its allusions and its critical reach. With the picture’s own contexts devoid and its detail clouded in favour of the our own, we aim to fill the gaps with empathy and, in so doing, “commiserate” through projection:

If one chose to, one might notice a lack of bodilessness; but outline is the principal thing, long years, perhaps, of concern for the object. The man I’m now speaking of gazed, for instance, at these fruits, which are as ordinary as they are remarkable, for a long time, he pondered there look, the skin stretched taut around them, the strange repose of their being, their laughing, glowing, good-humoured appearance. “Isn’t it well-nigh tragic,” he might have said to himself, “that they cannot be conscious of their use and beauty?” He would have liked them to communicate, to infuse, to transmit into them, on account of their being unable to have any conception of themselves. I feel convinced that he commiserated with them, and then again with himself, and that for a long time he really did not know why.

But this process is limited in prose; Walser continues to admit his failures of language in lieu of the painter’s ability to capture light: “I recognise that my wording is inadequate, but I would like to think that I can be understood nevertheless, or perhaps better and more deeply, on account of such provisional phrasing, [the ways] in which the lights have a shimmering effect.” Unable to write illumination, Walser resorts to a theory of ownership as key to his understanding of individual valorisation, as the act of looking – of receipt – can convey nothing but ourselves until the object of attention changes hands, until the moment of secondary purchase. In looking, we “abandon theory for practice”, Walser suggests, and are given in to the personal framework that scaffolds all of our verbs. Lange’s statement is appropriate to the work’s intentions, but the collection enacts the remark in a melancholy manner. Walser tries and fails to hold work up to the world and see anything through it. All he sees is a picture of his own engagement.


Dominic Jaeckle

Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 10th, 2015.