Musil: The Man without Qualities

March 2, 2010

This was written in 2006, before this web log existed.  During the past week I have been thinking again about this book, and I thought that perhaps this Book Note, flawed though it is, might benefit from a little fresh air.

The Man Without Qualities (1921-1942)
Robert Musil (Vintage, 1995)
2 vols; 1806 p.  First reading.

On short lists of the great works of twentieth-century literature, certain titles recur: Joyce’s Ulysses in English literature, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in French. On more than one occasion, I had heard Robert Musil’s enormous The Man Without Qualities named as the German counterpart to those monumental works, though, curiously, I knew nothing else about it, and had never heard of anyone reading it. If it was in the race for literary greatness, it seemed to be the dark horse. Then, some time later, I stumbled across a statement of Thomas Mann to the effect that Musil’s magnum opus was “without doubt the greatest writing, ranking with the finest our epoch has to offer”. Given my admiration for Mann’s own writing, I resolved at that point to read it.

Set in Austria in 1913-14, just prior to the First World War, the novel follows the activities of the oddly named Parallel Campaign, a loose committee of diplomats, civil servants, intellectuals, and artists charged with organizing a celebration to honour the seventieth Jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef. Musil’s decision to set the events of the novel on the cusp of the Great War, yet to make only the most indirect allusions to the approaching conflict which was to so thoroughly undo all their preparations, casts a shadow of absurdity over the entire proceedings.

At the center of the story is Ulrich, the eponymous ‘man without qualities’, a soldier turned engineer turned mathematician who serves as a focal point for the novel. Yet to speak of a focus is potentially to obscure the novel’s shape, for, like much other modernist fiction, the novel’s structure is experimental, in the precise sense of having very little structure at all. The matter of the Parallel Campaign sets the stage, but beyond that the novel has no real narrative thread, consisting instead of a long series of conversations, meetings, and events, which never accumulate momentum in any one direction. This open architecture, with which an impatient reader may occasionally express exasperation, was intentional, and can I think be understood as contributing to the overall “argument” of the novel.

One respect in which The Man Without Qualities surely merits a place among the great works of literature is the sheer virtuosic brilliance of the prose. Musil’s style is precise without being concise; his sentences are long and elaborate, but they are clear and lucid.  In this respect he reminds me of Thomas Mann himself.  This does not mean, however, that the novel is easy going for the reader — quite the contrary. The novel’s subject matter is relentlessly academic and replete with psychological subtleties.

The book has a moral center. It is a kind of extended meditation on modernity, which Musil considers to be a culture that has lost its bearings and no longer knows how to carry on. Our culture teems with a great swirling mass of ideas, concerned with

algebraic series, benzol rings, the materialist as well as the universalist philosophy of history, bridge supports, the evolution of music, the essence of the automobile, Hata 606, the theory of relativity, Bohr’s atomic theory, autogeneous welding, the flora of the Himalayas, psychoanalysis, individual psychology, experimental psychology, physiological psychology, social psychology, and all the other achievements that prevent a time so greatly enriched by them from turning out good, wholesome, integral human beings,

as Musil puts it at one point. And as this quote hints, Musil’s central concern is not these ideas in the abstract, but rather their effects on our inner lives.

Central to the book’s argument as I understand it is Musil’s contention that modernity prevents an individual from maturing into an integrated, steady, grounded whole. Instead, it produces the “man without qualities”, a person whose inner life is such that they fail to acquire stable convictions or a robust stance toward life. We modern people encounter the world without a comprehensive framework for understanding it; we live in a world of competing and clashing points of view; we are skeptical of claims to truth; we are suspicious of the moral law; we “see through things”:

It just so happens that the second thought, at the very least, of every person today confronted by an overwhelming phenomenon, even if it should be its beauty that so overwhelms him, is ‘You can’t fool me! I’ll cut you down to size!’ And this mania for cutting things down to size. . .has hardly anything to do any longer with life’s natural separation of the raw from the sublime; it is, rather, much more a self-tormenting bent of mind, an inadmissible lust at the spectacle of the good being humiliated and too easily destroyed altogether.

It is easier to tear down than to defend. Freedom, we are told, means being unencumbered by tradition or obedience. Yet this habit of placing everything under our feet has a price:

‘What is left of me?’ Ulrich thought bitterly. ‘Possibly someone who…likes to think that for the sake of his inner freedom he respects only a few external laws. But this inner freedom consists of being able to think whatever one likes; it means knowing, in every human situation, why one doesn’t need to be bound by it, but never knowing what one wants to be bound by!’ In this far from happy moment, when the curious little wave of feeling that had held him for an instant ebbed away again, he would have been ready to admit that he had nothing but an ability to see two sides to everything — that moral ambivalence that marked almost all his contemporaries and was the disposition of his generation, or perhaps their fate.

This capacity to see two — or more — sides to everything does more than simply make one ambivalent, however. Pursued a little further, it exercises its power to render one’s relationship to one’s own experience tentative and self-conscious.  In time, this habit produces an incapacity for immediate experience:

[Ulrich] sometimes longed to be wholly involved in events as in a wrestling match, even if they were meaningless or criminal, as long as they were valid, absolute, without the everlasting tentativeness they have when a person is superior to his experiences.

Without a way to comprehend and assimilate our experience, Musil is saying, we are un-integrated, psychologically piece-meal. If we keep our ideas and experiences at arm’s length, warily, we find that we lack purpose. We are not in tune with the world, not at home. As Ulrich describes himself,

For a long time now a hint of aversion had lain on everything he did and experienced, a shadow of impotence and loneliness, an all-encompassing distaste for which he could not find the complimentary inclination. He felt at times as though he had been born with a talent for which there was at present no objective.

Part of the reason for this state of affairs, Musil remarks more than once, is the sheer amount of information to which we are exposed, voices clamoring without being coherent:

‘A man today who still aspires to integrity deserves a lot of credit,’ Walter said.

‘There’s no such thing anymore,’ Ulrich countered. ‘You only have to look in a newspaper. It’s filled with an immeasurable opacity. So many things are being talked about, it would surpass the intellectual capacity of a Leibniz. But we don’t even notice; we have changed. There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture-medium.’

We are fractured, too, as everyone knows, because so many of the enduring certainties on which our civilization is founded have been brought into question by modernity. The great transvaluation of values heralded by Nietzsche, the secular experiment in which all of life is to be reinterpreted without reference to God, has broken the old consensus and let loose a bewildering chatter of opposing views. In such a context, it is not easy for a person to take up a definite position before the world, not easy for them to interpret their experiences without doubt, hesitation, and second-guessing, not easy to form convictions and be resolute. This is the predicament that occupies Musil’s attention, and he explores it from many angles.

A major force behind this destabilization of culture has been science, because it claims to be a new, comprehensive way of accounting for the world without reference to most of our traditional ideas. Musil is well aware of this, and though he does not reject science, he is critical of some of its cultural effects. He admires scientific precision of thought, but, to invoke a key phrase that appears more than once in the novel, what he really wants is “precision and soul”. He makes some penetrating remarks about the dehumanizing habits of mind that a purely scientific perspective cultivates. It is odd, after all, that scientific explanations, which claim to be thorough accounts of the matter at hand, so often fail to do justice to their object:

We can begin at once with the peculiar predilection of scientific thinking for mechanical, statistical, and physical explanations that have, as it were, the heart cut out of them. The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our most intimate personal decisions are programmed behaviour; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and oral openings at either end of the same tube — such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favor by being impeccably scientific. Certainly they demonstrate the love of truth. But surrounding this clear, shining love is a predilection for disillusionment, compulsiveness, ruthlessness, cold intimidation, and dry rebuke. . .

This habit of reinterpreting our experiences in radically different terms provokes in reflective people a sundering within the inner life between knowledge and experience. When we hear that we are not free, or that our emotional life consists merely in hormonal secretions in response to stimuli, or any number of other counter-intuitive accounts of our most immediate experiences, the natural response (it seems to me) is to quarantine those experiences, to distrust them, to try to transcend them, to create a space within ourselves into which they do not penetrate. Yet if our experiences are not trusted to be truthful in that private center of ourselves, then nothing occupies that space, and we become, quite naturally, men without qualities.

Musil’s exploration of this modern pathology in its many manifestations is undoubtedly a great achievement. Whether his subject warranted a sprawling tome of this enormous size might be a matter of occasional doubt to the fatigued reader. He has a seemingly insatiable taste for labyrinthine psychological subtleties, and at times only the careful control of his prose keeps it from degenerating into a quagmire. In my view, his probing and analysis are thought-provoking, and the dedication with which he has pursued this modern predicament and brought it before our eyes deserves our thanks. But what are we to do? Is there a way out? To this question, Musil seems not to have an answer. The novel, sad to say, and despite its length, is unfinished. What remains is a magnificent torso, a sprawling, ambitious, exhausting study in the psychology of modernity. Where do we go from here?


[The modern landscape]
It was an intelligent country, it housed cultivated people who, like cultivated people all over the globe, ran around in an unsettled state of mind amid a tremendous whirl of noise, speed, innovation, conflict, and whatever goes to make up the optical-acoustical landscape of our lives; like everybody else, they read and heard every day dozens of news items that made their hair stand on end, and were willing to work themselves up over them, even to intervene, but they never got around to it because a few minutes afterward the stimulus had already been displaced in their minds by more recent ones. . . There was the special problem for persons of cultivated sensibilities: they no longer had the gift of faith or credit, nor had they learned to fake it. They no longer knew what their smiles, their sighs, their ideas, were for. What exactly was the point of their thoughts, their smiles? Their opinions were haphazard, their inclinations an old story, the scheme of things seemed to be hanging in midair, one ran into it as into a net, and there was nothing to do or leave undone with all one’s heart, because there was no unifying principle. And so the cultivated person was someone who felt steadily mounting up a debt that he would never be able to pay off, felt bankruptcy inexorably approaching; and either inveighed against the times in which he was condemned to live, even though he enjoyed living in them like anyone else, or else hurled himself with the courage of those who have nothing to lose at every idea that promised a change.

[On advertising]
So the captain of industry, disinclined to forgo greatness, which serves him as a compass, must resort to the democratic dodge of replacing the immeasurable influence of greatness by the measurable greatness of influence. So now whatever counts as great is great; but this means that eventually whatever is most loudly hawked as great is also great, and not all of us have the knack of swallowing this innermost truth of our times without gagging a little.

[A fine piece of writing]
It sometimes happened, in the midst of a social gathering in her transformed apartment, that she felt as though she were awakening in some dreamland. She would be standing there, surrounded by space and people, the light of the chandelier flowing over her hair and on down her shoulders and hips so that she seemed to feel its bright flood, and she was all statue, like some figure in a fountain, at the epicenter of the world, drenched in sublime spiritual grace. She saw it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring about everything that she had always held to be most important and supremely great, and she no longer cared particularly that she had no very clear idea what this might be. The whole apartment, the presence of people in it, the whole evening, enveloped her like a dress lined in yellow silk; she felt it on her skin, though she did not see it.

6 Responses to “Musil: The Man without Qualities”

  1. Nick Milne Says:

    I have nothing to say about this, particularly, apart from declaring that it seems interesting — but also this: I had never (that I know of) heard of this book before yesterday, when I saw the second volume thereof on a shelf at a second-hand bookshop. I wandered briefly at its odd title but did not stop to examine it. Your decision to post this reflection now strikes me as significant in that way that so many coincidences are perceived as being.

    I ended up buying two Patrick O’Brian books and a book in which are reprinted the primary documents involved in the Modernist dispute in the first decade of the twentieth century (that is, the most problematic and emblematic declarations of Loisy, Tyrrell, Von Hugel, and so on, and Pius X’s response thereto). I did not buy Herr Musil’s book. I will have to look out for it in the future.

  2. cburrell Says:

    If you haven’t heard of it, Nick, then it must really be a dark horse. Volume 2, at least in the edition I have, is generously padded with fragments from Musil’s notebooks, consisting mostly of unfinished or alternate versions of scenes. I remember I bought Volume 1 at a Barnes and Noble (in Baltimore, of all places), but had to order Volume 2 online because I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

    It sounds like you had a successful book-shopping trip anyway. How many volumes of Patrick O’Brian have you now completed?

  3. cburrell Says:

    Today I was in a used bookstore and saw Volume 1 of The Man without Qualities. This means, at the least, that seeing the book in a store, even within a day of reading or writing about it, does not necessarily mean that one should buy it. 8)

  4. Nick Milne Says:

    I’ve only managed to finish four of the PO’B books so far, given my obligations in other areas, but I’ve got the next four racked up on the shelf and ready to go. At present, though, I’m racing through LOTR and The Odyssey; last week was given over to That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man. All of this, unfortunately, on top of the stuff I have to read to prepare for my final comprehensive exam, and for the development of my thesis, and so on, and so on.

    It has been quite a rush, albeit a silent one.

  5. I finally checked this out after years of running across it from time to time on my book list…every paragraph is thrilling, seems almost mad at times but cannot be, because madness is boring and this work is a fabulous streaming vortex of ideas and images. Right up there with Mann, Proust, and Dostoevesky. And funny, at times laugh-out-loud funny. Plus it’s always expanding to explore this period just before Europe died, and I’m always puzzled by Vienna: what was it, what is it ? So in every way, bravo Musil !

  6. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Rena. I would be quite so generous with my praise as you are, but I do agree that it is a tremendously interesting book with more than a little virtuosity behind it. Certainly I am very glad to have read it.

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