‘A Schoolboy’s Diary And Other Stories’ is the fourth Robert Walser book I’ve read so far. And what strikes me about the Swiss-German writer, among other things, is the following: if the ontological characteristic of art and literature be rupture with distribution of the sensible constitutive of the horizon of meaning; and thus rupture with cogitation, signification and measure, then there are two modalities for this ontology of the immeasurable or the meaureless to register itself. The first is that of an explosive evental heroism while the second is inconspicuousness of self-effacement, or progressive minimisation of the self. A kind of persistently joyous self-evacuation, or kenosis. It’s the latter that Walser’s ‘prosaic’ literary discourse offers.
If the first inspires a romanticism of the political as the moment of an eruptive break with the tyranny of the monumental, the second arguably instils in us fidelity to that break with the monumental in the ethical form of persevering in the measure-eluding inconspicuousness of the minor. This puts the Walserian minor on the same page as Walter Benjamin’s “destructive character”. Benjamin described the destructive character with reference to Brecht thus: “…challenges everything almost before it has been achieved.” And Brecht is correct in characterising this destructive aspect of his character as “manic”.
In Walser, this mania emerges, however, not as anxiety but in hues that are pleasing, clam, tender and sweet..In Walser’s work this mania, or hysteria — which necessarily always manifests itself in pleasantly whimsical and achingly wistful tonalities — is, at once, both an articulation of infantilising petty-bourgeois neurosis equivocating between difference and measure, and that of its radical opposite: the minoritarian movement of the universalisability of measurelessness or singularity. Distinct from the Nietzschean master-morality and its heroic register of pagan-warrior nobility is Walser’s equally pagan natural-historical morality of radical solitude and peaceability, which is registered by smallness, insignificance and fleetingness. In a certain sense there is, as my wife Paramita once remarked after reading The Assistant, a certain unmistakable affinity and resonance between Walser and Vinod Kumar Shukla. That Robert Walser told fairy-tales of modernity will be quite apparent to anybody who cares to read anything by him. His work, however, is arguably an accomplished poetry of materialist ethics too.