Editing Scandal/The Scandals of Editing

“Editing Scandal/The Scandals of Editing: Questionable Incest in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften,” German Graduate Student Conference, “Skandal!”, Columbia University, February 2007.

The original ending considered too scandalous for publication, Thomas Mann was requested to change his last line of his short story of incest, “Wälsungenblut.” Editors are now confronted with two easily identifiable, if not necessarily easily interpreted, variants and must decide which ending to include as the original, which to footnote, or whether to footnote the second at all. This decision, though crucial,
pales in comparison with the ones facing the editor of
Robert Musil’s story of possible sibling incest, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Musil died without completing his massive work and the manuscripts that remain offer a number of potential endings. This proliferation of possiblities creates problems for the editors and translator who must present a reading of the ending, or endings, of his work. If translating or editing can be viewed as an attempt to represent a work as close as possible to the original author’s idea of it, the editor of Musil’s work faces a particularly complicated and frustrating situation. Musil, as far as we know, had not drawn any definite conclusions on what he would do and even contemplated that the completion of his task might be impossible, that a conclusion might oppose the nature of the project itself. Whatever editors decide will limit and change the scope Musil’s work, while leaving the work with innumerable endings limits the work’s comprehensibility and defeats the point of editing (and number of readers).

More so than with most works, editors and translators have often been held directly responsible for Musil’s reception. Ending with Ulrich and Agathe having sex, seemed “novelettish” to some critics and to prove that Musil’s work could not finish in any satisfactory fashion. In contrast, other critics have complained when offered a more mystical ending, claiming it misrepresents Musil’s project. Passionless, distanced and ironic, Ulrich comes closest to feeling something he could posit as “true” or passionate through his sister and his love for her is closely connected to his potential to produce. Ulrich’s hesitation to sleep with his sister can be connected to his decision to not, or inability to, create. But, in the ending in which Agathe and Ulrich consummate their love, Ulrich does not necessarily feel completion for long and is certainly not spurred to write or create because of it. Incest can be seen, as so many things in Ulrich’s life, as an explored dead-end and, therefore, not an ending at all. I will address why incest is a particularly powerful mode with which to discuss producation and how diverse readings of Ulrich and Agathe’s love relate to Musil’s artistic project, including how several critics have interpreted the conclusions with which they have been presented.

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