We Already See So Much

Susan Sontag, “Walser’s Voice,” Preface, Selected Stories by Robert Walser

…In long as in short prose Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small — as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable. Walser’s life illustrates the restlessness of one kind of depressive temperament: he had the depressive’s fascination with stasis, and with the way time distends, is consumed; and spent much of his life obsessively turning time into space: his walks. His work plays with the depressive’s appalled vision of endlessness: it is all voice—musing, conversing, rambling, running on. The important is redeemed as a species of the unimportant, wisdom as a kind of shy, valiant loquacity.

The moral core of Walser’s art is the refusal of power; of domination. I’m ordinary — that is, nobody — declares the characteristic Walser persona. In “Flower Days” (1911), Walser evokes the race of “odd people, who lack character,” who don’t want to do anything. The recurrent “I” of Walser’s prose is the opposite of the egotist’s: it is that of someone “drowning in obedience.” One knows about the repugnance Walser felt for success — the prodigious spread of failure that was his life. In “Kienast” (1917), Walser describes “a man who wanted nothing to do with anything.” This non-doer was, of course, a proud, stupendously productive writer, who secreted work, much of it written in his astonishing micro-script, without pause. What Walser says about inaction, renunciation of effort, effortlessness, is a program, an anti-romantic one, of the artist’s activity. In “A Little Ramble” (1914), he observes: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.”…

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Shawn Huelle, “Peripateticism in Robert Walser,” 3:AM Magazine 12 August 2014

Smallness plays a large role in Walser’s textual perambulations. In fact, W. G. Sebald refers to Walser as a “clairvoyant of the small.” This smallness can be made even smaller.

Walking, among other things, is also an act of self-effacement: while out on a walk, one begins to lose oneself in one’s surroundings. Walter Benjamin notices this in Walser’s writing: “Everything seems lost; a surge of words gushes forth in which each sentence only has the task of obliterating the previous one” (emphasis added).

…Or, as Walser himself puts it [The Walk, 1917]:

[The walker] must bring with him no sort of sentimentally sensitive self-love or quickness to take offense. Unselfish and unegoistic, he must let his careful eye wander and stroll where it will; only he must be continuously able in the contemplation and observation of things to efface himself. . . . If he does not, then he walks only half attentive, with only half his spirit, and that is worth nothing. . . . He must be able to bow down and sink into the deepest and smallest everyday thing, and it is probable that he can.

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