Musil’s Soliman, The real Angelo Soliman, Natural History, Diff’rent Strokes

February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Was thinking about the character Soliman from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. For some reason he remains the character most crisp in my mind. A little googling revealed that he was in fact modeled after a real person, Angelo Soliman. There was an exhibit at the Wien museum dedicated to him. The real Soliman was one of about 40 Africans that lived in Vienna around the mid eighteenth century. He spoke Italian, Latin, German, Czech, French and English and was a free mason. He was kidnapped from what is today Sokoto and arrived in Marseilles as a slave and eventually found himself in the care of a marchioness in Messina. He chose the name Angelo because he was fond of another house servant named Angelina. After repeated requests, he was given as a gift in 1734 to Prince Georg Christian, Fürst von Lobkowitz, the imperial governor of Sicily. He became the Prince’s valet and traveling companion, accompanying him on military campaigns throughout Europe and reportedly saving his life on one occasion, a pivotal event responsible for his social ascension. After the death of Prince Lobkowitz, Soliman was taken into the Vienna household of Joseph Wenzel I, Prince of Liechtenstein, eventually rising to chief servant. Later, he became royal tutor of the heir to the Prince, Aloys I. In Vienna he married one Magdalena Christiani, born  von Kellermann (a widow) and had two children with her, a daughter named Josephine and a son named Eduard. By some accounts he made the acquaintance of Mozart and it is speculated that he inspired the character Monostatos in The Magic Flute. It is by any account a truly remarkable life, though his death was a reflection of the deep ambiguities regarding race in Viennese society in the late 18th c.

Though he was tutor to the children of Prince Lichtenstein he remained an object of fascination at court. He sadly suffered the same fate as Saartjie Baartman… that is to say following his death he was stuffed and placed in a museum, despite his children’s pleas for a proper funeral and burial. This also, by the way happened in the United States to Qisuk and Minik, Greenland eskimos brought to the Natural History museum in New York by Robert Peary. Minik was adopted by an American family and took on the last name of Wallace. He eventually found out that despite a phony burial staged for his benefit that his father’s skeleton was in fact on display at the museum, which according to his adoptive parents placed him in an inconsolable depression. Minik Wallace’s adoptive father, by they way was the one who prepared Qisuk’s body for study and eventual display.

In the case of Soliman and Baartman it was their skins that were of museological interest. Soliman’s stuffed body was kept on display at the Imperial Museum of Natural History, along with two other bodies of deceased Africans— a six year old girl and a gardener, whose biographical details are unkown. Angelo’s body and of the two others was displayed in that wünderkammer amongst exotic animals taxidermied by the academic sculptor Franz Thaller, until the whole collection burned there in the October revolution of 1848. A plaster cast of his head was made (also by Thaller) and was on display for the recent show in Vienna and remains on display there today as a part of the permanent collection. Baartman’s remains were kept in the Musée de l’homme in Paris until 1974, when it was hidden away in a basement. Her body was returned to Africa in 2002, following a formal request by then President Mandela in 1994. She was buried close to her birthplace, almost 200 years after her death.

Musil’s rendering of Soliman is in some ways a most amazing tribute, and a brilliant allegory of what Spivak calls the “poisoned gift” of colonial enlightenment. Before he was 14 Arnheim was feeding the precocious Soliman volumes by Stendahl and Dumas. By 16 Soliman was nothing more than Arnheim’s servant. Arnheim was fearful of Soliman’s intellectual autonomy, his inevitable sexuality and his potentially powerful resentment. Perhaps tucked not too far away in Arnheim’s mind was the revenge of Pierre Picaud (in The Count of Monte Cristo), a character who in many way mirrored aspects of the the life of both Musil’s Soliman and Angelo Soliman. Picaud, like (Angelo) Soliman was tutored by a rich and well meaning Italian. In Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften Musil portrayed Arnheim as a sort of hybrid figure combining in Arnheim both the qualities of Picaud’s kind Italian benefactor and those  of the three men who committed wrong against Picaud in his youth. Stendahl’s The Red and The Black is in there as well, but I haven’t read it.

In any case, back to Soliman. The normal circumstances of puberty are difficult for parents, who have grown accustomed to their privileged role as the caring shapers and shepards of their progeny when very suddenly your body decides to take over (and I’m not trying to trivialize here, there is perhaps no event as common and as traumatizing as your body doing things that neither you nor your parents warranted). This trauma of involuntary biological fact is immeasurably amplified in Arnheim, who clearly never wanted to raise a child (or adult), but rather was conducting his own rather self absorbed experiment in enlightenment. This fear of biology never left the minds of those who championed real-life Angelo Soliman, who themselves pointed avidly to him as the living evidence of ‘perfectibility’ through education. He was, after all the shining exemplar of noble savagery, but still in their minds a savage. Here I’d like to recall Kant’s opening description of Enlightenment in “What is Enlightenment?”

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

This is to say Enlightenment is a willful decision to enter into adulthood, intellectually speaking. Kant goes on to compare biological maturity to intellectual enlightenment—and no doubt drawing upon his own experiences comes to the understanding that in his modern times there is a lag time between these two processes of maturation. I think Musil handles this very issue incredibly beautifully in the book when Soliman finds himself attracted to a young girl and he is unable to express himself as this ‘aspect’ of life was never shared with him, this alas was never a part of his enlightenment. Indeed, if sexual repression was not a part of the enlightenment then we would have never needed Freud.

Anyway, Arnheim’s solution to both Soliman’s biological maturation and the potential problem of Soliman’s own understanding—his enlightenment—was to simply make a footman out of him. This is analogous to a sort of shift in values of the ‘mission civilisatrice‘, which I would argue was not only a rationale, but also a half-hearted ‘project’ that was transformed into a rationale. This was a shift from abstract principles of liberty towards values based in the civilizing power of work. This was a transformation that ran parallel, I would argue with the global spread of industrial capitalism. But that was predictable of me, wasn’t it?

Now, I don’t want to seem irreverant here… but I can’t help that something of this whole reflection reminds me of an episode of Diff’rent Strokes that really affected me as an impressionable young child. Some googling later to find some details about this episode and I found THIS!!!! — apparently this episode affected other historians in their youth!!!!!  Anyway, in the episode Mr. Drummond inherits a large piece of property in Harlem that is potentially worth $2 million (big bucks in the 80s). He intends to build a community center there, but before he can break ground he  makes the troubling discovery that his ancestor Heinrich von Drummond who originally owned the land was a slave trader. Mr. Drummond is so troubled by this that he rips up the evidence. Willis eventually finds out about this. The conflict is resolved when Mr. Drummond decides to live openly with the facts of his ancestry, perhaps coming to the conclusion that he had a stranger for an ancestor—from whose money, however he was NOT estranged. I suppose this conflict was resolved by the fact that Mr. Drummond (even before he found out about the little piece of family history) always intended to turn the property into a community center. OK, now I’ve really messed up the whole tone of this reflection, but I can’t help who I am. The TV raised me, what can I say.

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