- They Have All Been Healed: Reading Robert Walser by Jan Plug
The Swiss modernist author Robert Walser has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years. Despite a number of early successes, and the admiration of some of his most discerning peers, Walser largely lived a life of poverty and marginality, eventually ceasing to publish, and then ceasing to write altogether after moving to the second of two mental asylums in which he lived until his death in 1956. Correspondingly, the story of Walser's belated reception has become, for better or worse, almost as well known as his work itself. In particular, the posthumous discovery of Walser's so-called "microscripts" or Bleistiftgebiet (pencil zone) and their deciphering and publication (only completed in 2000) by Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte, as well as the spate of recent excellent translations of Walser's work into English by Susan Bernofsky, have all contributed to a renewed interest in Walser and the—eminently deserved—enshrinement of his work in the canon of German modernist literature on a par with that of Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil.
Jan Plug's monograph They Have All Been Healed: Reading Robert Walser is one of the latest results of the interest in Walser, and indeed in a double sense. The book is structured according to the principle of "encounter": each of the book's four chapters is devoted to one of Walser's texts, read together with an interpretation by one of four of the most prominent thinkers and/or artists who have engaged with Walser's work from the late 1920s to the mid-1990s. Plug opens with Walter Benjamin's well-known statement on Walser: "These are figures who have put madness behind them and thus remain so laceratingly, inhumanly, and unfailingly superficial. If we wish to find one word to describe what is pleasing and uncanny about them, we may say: they have all been healed" (quoted on 3–4; emphasis in original). This phrase serves Plug not just as the title of his book, but also as leitmotif and declaration of method, a method in which "healing" is understood to mean "the promise of the perfect chiasmic articulation of knowledge and experience," which nevertheless introduces "a madness that throws into question every concept and understanding, every conception of understanding" (5). Plug thereby gives himself the commendable goal of reading Walser in a way that does not attempt to subsume the texts under a particular concept or interpretation, but rather leaves them open to what Plug sees as their inherent conceptual resistance. In so doing, Plug also clearly aims at establishing a close [End Page 849] affinity between Walser's writing and his own critical methods (in implicit parallel to the affinities drawn between Walser and the book's other interlocutors). Just as, according to Plug, Walser's "language functions less as saying than it does as figure, a figurality that emerges, in fact, where language refuses such expression," Plug describes his own readings as ones that "seek neither to articulate a thesis and thus to resolve the endless difficulty of a language that forgoes expression," nor, however, insofar as they are readings, "do they claim to refuse the thetic entirely by assuming for themselves a figurality that does not express" (12).
This negotiation between "a language that forgoes expression" and its conceptual opposite will provide the dominant theme for the readings that follow. The first chapter moves directly from Plug's Prologue to Walser's staging of the "process of healing" in the early dramolet Snow White (Schneewittchen). Starting from Benjamin's comment on the "very Swiss" feeling of "shame" in regard to language, Plug interprets the dramolet's drolly inconclusive self-retelling of the Grimm fairytale as a disruption of" every conception of language as either safeguarding or disfiguring history and meaning" (quoted on 18, 27). The second chapter reads Walser's short prose text "The Walk" ("Der Spaziergang") in terms of Giorgio Agamben's conception...