Musil And Essayism


Book Title:


Brian Dillon

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Guideline Price:

For those of us elders who went to school under the old dispensation, nothing was more surely calculated to make us detest the essay form than that stout textbook of English prose forced on us as part of the general memory test that in those days passed for education.

The piece from that ponderous compendium everyone remembers is Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation upon Roast Pig – children are always interested in food – but how many years had to pass before it dawned on us that the likes of William Hazlitt and Robert Louis Stevenson were surpassingly fine writers?

For Dillon, essays and essayists achieve ‘a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be’

Stevenson and Hazlitt were masters of the essay form, but it is a question, of course, as to whether the essay is a form at all. Brian Dillon, in this wonderful, subtle and deceptively fragmentary little book, quotes Michael Hamburger from the dissident side: the essay “has no form: it is a game that creates its own rules”. Dillon himself is more affirmative, though ambiguously so; for him, essays and essayists achieve “a combination of exactitude and evasion that seems to me to define what writing ought to be”.

He takes his title from a chapter – the 62nd, he notes; essaysists tend towards the finical – of Robert Musil’s behemoth of a novel, The Man without Qualities, in which the author accepts that etymologically the word “essay” suggests an attempt, but not in the sense that it may or may not fail. “Terms like true and false, wise and unwise, are especially inapplicable,” according to Musil, “and yet the essay is subject to laws that are not less strict for appearing to be delicate and ineffable.”

In the course of his enjoyably roundabout and light-fingered attempt at making some sort of classification of the subject of his book, Dillon quotes from an impressively wide range of sources – he is a deft picker-up of well-considered trifles – ranging from Sir Thomas Browne to Joan Didion, from Robert Burton to Virginia Woolf, from Montaigne, naturally, to Maeve Brennan, and many other disparate practitioners of the art.

All the passages he adduces are apposite and apt to his theme. Here, for instance, is the philosopher and Frankfurt Scholar Theodor Adorno, who with characteristic papal bullishness insists that “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal”.

Dillon begins the book with a list of subjects, “almost all of which are real”, on which writers have written essays. He suspects, he tells us, that the essay “has a peculiar affinity with the list, its rigours and its pleasures”. One might raise an eyebrow at the notion of mere parataxis – “one damn thing after another” – as a provider of pleasure, but Dillon offers convincing instances, such as the exhaustingly comic catalogues perpetrated in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses – Joyce, who cheerfully acknowledged the weak inventiveness of his imagination, dearly loved a list – and that apotheosis of the catalogue, William Gass’s On Being Blue, one of that marvellous writer’s most marvellous and superbly wrought conceits.

Dillon is a strong admirer of Virginia Woolf as essayist, treasuring her ‘infinitesimal imagination, her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all’

Dillon is a strong admirer of Virginia Woolf as essayist – in which role, some of us would say, she was at her best – treasuring her “infinitesimal imagination, her rigorous feeling for what is hardly there at all”. A study could be made of “particles” in Woolf’s novels and essays, he observes, and goes on to relate a delightful anecdote about the husband of a friend of his, who studies cosmic dust at the South Pole. “Thirty thousand tonnes of extra-terrestrial material enters the earth’s atmosphere each year” – did you know that? – “in the form of irregularly shaped particles or cosmic spherules . . .” The scientist, Dillon’s friend told him, spent weeks studying under his microscope what he took for one such tiny speck of stardust, which seemed to consist of a material neither he nor any of his colleagues had encountered before. Then one day the object simply disappeared: “It had been an air bubble all along.”

Might dust, Dillon wonders, be “the founding metaphor by which to broach the unruly topic of the essay?” In an exquisite following passage, he worries that the metaphor will carry connotations of the essay as “antique and moribund”, a liminal form surviving only in classrooms and libraries: “Essays, ancient and modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however and they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed.”

Then, a few pages later, in a section headed “On consolation”, the book with a sudden but perfectly timed jolt veers off in an entirely unexpected direction, and, as is often the case with the essay, we discover that the author’s real subject is much more than it at first seemed – much more weighty, much more intricate, much more personal. “In the summer of 2015,” Dillon writes, “the life I had lived for a decade and a half came to an end.” Wisely, he offers few details of the calamity that befell him – a relationship of long standing was broken, followed by a long bout of suicidal depression, and a course of psychotherapy.

This chapter, not even four pages long, interrupts the elegant flow of the narrative – let us call it a narrative – like an anguished sob piercing through the subdued hubbub of a salon conversation. At first one is shocked, and unsure what to make of the brief outcry. Is the book we are reading no more than “a constellation of glittering motes” surrounding an all-too-solid object – that is, the author’s spiritual maladies?

What, he asks, might he mean by style? The answer he provides is at once an apologia for and a vindication of the book he is writing

Consternation deepens when we turn the page and find ourselves, in the chapter “On style”, back among the passionate civilities Dillon accustomed us to from the outset. Style, he surmises, is what he prizes most in the essay – and, we assume, in other forms of writing too. What on earth, we demand, has felicitous prose got to do with the emotional collapse described in the previous pages?

But ah. What, he asks, might he mean by style? The answer he provides, subtle to the point of slyness, is at once an apologia for and a vindication of the book he is writing, and eventually will have written. Perhaps his passion for style, he ventures, “is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy excess of admiration, a crush. On what? The very idea. Form and texture rescued from chaos, the precision and extravagance of it, the daring, in the end the distance, such as I think I could never attain. As much as in a person, in a body, as in prose: those who can keep it together. ‘I like your style’ means: I admire, dear human, what you have clawed back from sickness and pain and madness.”

There is much more to Essayism that has been essayed here. There are meditations on the aphorism – how can he characterise La Rochefoucauld’s maxims as “somewhat glib and static phrases”! – on the pain of watching his mother die young, on his years as what used to be called a “budding writer” in 1980s Dublin, and on, of course, the writers he most loves, who include Roland Barthes, EM Cioran – one wonders if he is aware of Cioran’s poisonous anti-Semitism when he was a young man in pre-war Romania – Cyril Connolly and WG Sebald. To borrow from one of Barthes’s titles, this is a lover’s discourse, the love object being writing, not only in the essay but in all its forms.

It is also a testament to the consolatory, even the healing, powers of art. And at the last, in its consciously diffident fashion – Dillon is a literary flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin – it is its own kind of self-made masterpiece.

  • John Banville’s latest work is Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir

“Why, then, aren’t we realists?” Ulrich asked himself. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their ideas and their conduct had long left no doubt of that; but they were nihilists and activists, sometimes one and sometimes the other, whichever happened to come up.
—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value.
—Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

Musil’s play Die Schwärmer (1921, The Enthusiasts) explores that favored modern topic, the collapse of traditional bourgeois ideals; its taut language and intense dramatization won it the Kleist Prize in 1923 and, eventually, a regular spot in the German theatrical repertory. Drei Frauen (1924, Three Women), a celebrated suite of three novellas, plumbs the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence—one of Musil’s staple themes.

Then there are Musil’s essays, some of which are masterpieces of ironic cultural commentary. “Uber die Dummheit” (“On Stupidity”), a lecture that Musil delivered in Vienna in 1937, deserves special mention for its signal contemporary relevance. Particularly pertinent is its withering analysis of “the higher, pretentious form of stupidity” —the “real disease of culture,” in Musil’s opinion, which infiltrates even “the highest intellectual sphere” and has repercussions throughout society. “The examples,” he dryly notes, “are pretty blatant.” As indeed they are. Finally, some of Musil’s short prose pieces, collected in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten (1936, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author), rival Kafka’s fables in their vertiginous humor and enigmatic creepiness.

All of Musil’s works (the German edition of which runs to nine volumes) have their partisans and admirers. But for most of us, Robert Musil is first and foremost the author of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities), a book in which the major themes of his earlier works coalesce to form a novelistic tapestry of extraordinary wit, complexity, and intelligence.

Set in Vienna in 1913, it depicts a world on the edge of a precipice—the moral, cultural, political precipice that was to give way to the abyss of World War I the following year. But it turns out that, in Musil’s hands, peregrinations at the brink of disaster are as amusing as they are poignant; and Musil’s man without qualities—a gifted, amoral, concupiscent mathematician of good family named Ulrich—is one of the most engaging comic anti-heroes in modern fiction.

It almost goes without saying that The Man Without Qualities is a peculiar book, or set of books. Like the other great novels just mentioned, it is monumental—in its literary ambition, its intellectual sophistication, and, not least, in its length. Certainly, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Musil began working on The Man Without Qualities in 1924. He published the first volume—some thousand pages—in 1930, and the first part of the second volume in 1933 (for which he was awarded that year’s Goethe Prize).

Under pressure from his publisher, who had been steadily advancing him money for years, Musil reluctantly began preparing the second part of the second volume for publication in the late 1930s. By then, Musil and his wife Martha, a painter whose parents were assimilated Jews, were living in penurious exile from the Nazis in Switzerland. An energetic (not to say fanatical) rewriter— a literary perfectionist, really—Musil had retrieved the galleys from the printer and was in the process of extensively reworking them when, in April 1942 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died. Apparently, he succumbed while performing his morning gymnastics (another activity to which he was fanatically devoted). According to his widow, who found him a short while later, the look on his face was one of “mockery and mild astonishment.”

We really have no idea how Musil intended to end The Man Without Qualities. Probably, the last section would have been titled “A Sort of Ending” to mirror the opening sequence, “A Sort of Introduction.” He once said that he wanted to conclude the book in the middle of a sentence, with a comma. Be that as it may, in addition to the twenty chapters in half-corrected galley proof, there exist dozens of draft chapters as well as voluminous notes, character sketches, alternative chapters, and miscellaneous jottings related to the book. Musil’s widow published the second part of the second volume in 1943. The “complete” German edition of this incomplete novel was published in 1951.

The one clear advantage of the new, two-volume translation of The Man Without Qualities[1] by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike is that it contains Musil’s posthumously published chapters. It also contains several hundred pages of Musil’s notes, sketches, and alternative versions of chapters. While some of this material will interest readers of the novel (as distinct from those who prefer to dissect it), much of it will command the attention only of Musil specialists. It must be said, too, that shoe-horning all of this material into only two volumes has bloated the second volume to tumid, phone-book proportions: a pity, not only because it makes the book difficult to handle, but also because it seems unfair to the striking and elegant jacket design that Knopf provided.

In an afterword, Burton Pike tells us that “the translator’s intention was to have the writing startle the reader in English in the same way it startles a reader in German.” In the event, he and his co-translator have produced a version of the novel that is generally a bit more literal than the previous translation; whether it is always quite as readable is another question. It is perhaps an improvement to translate “Haus und Wohnung des Mannes ohne Eigenschaften” as “House and home of the man without qualities” (Wilkins–Pike) instead of “Abode of the Man Without Qualities” (Wilkins– Kaiser); or to render “ein leichter Geruch von verbranntem Pferdehaar” as “a whiff of burnt horsehair” (W–P) rather than “a faint whiff of brimstone” (W–K)—though given the presence of the devil in the previous clause, there is surely something to be said for “brimstone.”

In any event, other decisions in the new translation are more dubious. For example, Wilkins–Kaiser translated the second part of the first volume, “Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.” If nothing else, this does have the advantage of more or less accurately rendering the German. The Wilkins–Pike alternative— “Pseudoreality Prevails”—may indeed fulfill Mr. Pike’s ambition to “startle the reader.” The problem is that it would probably have startled the author as well: presumably, if Musil had wanted “Pseudoreality Prevails” he would have written it.

For readers in the habit of opposing the claims of science to those of art, part of what makes Musil difficult is the way that he complicates the Romantic impulse to champion art as a kind of escape or redemption from unpalatable scientific truths. I will have more to say about this subject—a key theme in The Man Without Qualities— below. But for now it is enough to note Musil was himself of a scientific bent by temperament and training (or perhaps by temperament because of training). Not for nothing was Genauigkeit (“precision,” “accuracy,” “exactness”) one of his favorite words. And Musil was genau in everything: dress, speech, manner, and intellectual comportment. As he put it in one essay, “If I want to have a worldview, then I must view the world. That is, I must establish the facts.”

Musil had great respect for facts, and for the procedures science had devised for obtaining them. His education was primarily technical, not literary. The only son of the knighted engineer Hofrat Alfred Edler von Musil, Robert was sent at a young age to military school, first at Eisenstadt and then at Weisskirchen, the latter providing the inspiration for the dismal institution that Musil portrayed in Törless. (Asked later whether the school was the original for the “W.” of Törless, Musil laughed and said that the fictional school was as nothing compared to the reality.)

But the portrait of Robert Musil, technician, is not of course the whole story. If Musil was the son of an engineer, he was also the son of a tempestuous, artistically inclined mother, Hermine. As a boy, he was socially withdrawn, often sickly, but also defiant and—in the schoolyard, anyway— effectively pugilistic. Although he was baptized Catholic, his parents were ardent secularists, and Robert was brought up without religious instruction. Nevertheless, Musil later developed an intense “outsider’s” interest in religion. In one place he describes Ulrich as “a religious person who simply happened to believe in nothing at the moment”—not a bad definition of Musil himself—and he lards the second volume of The Man Without Qualities with quotations from various classics of mystical literature.

Musil’s early family life was calculated to breed complication. Apparently with the acquiescence of her husband, Hermine maintained what amounted to a ménage à trois with one Heinrich Reiter, who met the family in 1881, shortly after Robert was born. As he grew older, Musil quite naturally came to resent Reiter and to despise his father. About his mother he seems to have entertained a mixture of indifference and contempt. In view of her notable accomplishments as an amateur pianist, the contempt no doubt continued to show itself in Musil’s unusual hostility to music when he was an adult; his indifference seems to have been reciprocated by both parents.

The erotic irregularity of the Musil household later had profound echoes in Robert’s fiction—as did an earlier tragedy. Musil’s only sibling, Elsa, died in infancy before he was born. Although he never knew her, the image of this lost sister came to haunt him as the embodiment of an unobtainable unity and wholeness: an alter ego or “other half” such as Aristophanes famously described in his speech about the nature of love in Plato’s Symposium. She would come back as Agathe, Ulrich’s “forgotten sister,” in the second volume of The Man Without Qualities.

It must also be understood that Musil, born in 1880 in Klagenfurth, southern Austria, was very much a product of the hothouse atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Vienna. This was an atmosphere in which, as the historian Carl Schorske put it, “the usual moralistic culture of the European bourgeoisie was … both overlaid and undermined by an amoral Gefühlskultur [sentimental culture].” As Schorske went on to note, this revolution in sensibility amounted to a crisis of morality—Hermann Broch called it a “value vacuum”—that quickly precipitated a crisis in liberal cultural and political life tout court. “Narcissism and a hypertrophy of the life of feeling were the consequence,” he continued.

The threat of the political mass movements lent new intensity to this already present trend by weakening the traditional liberal confidence in its own legacy of rationality, moral law, and progress. Art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value.

Of course, these transformations were a catalyst for disaster. The resources of civilization—epitomized by the faith in rationality, moral law, and progress that Schorske mentions—were hollowed out from within; weightless, they soon lost the capacity to resist the barbarism of feeling—aesthetic, sexual, social, political feeling—that rushed in everywhere that a spiritual vacancy was felt. It was, as the Marxists used to say, “no accident” that Nazism and other extreme movements got their start in this narcotic environment. Musil put it in terms of the credit system:

In love as in business, in science as in the long jump, one has to believe before one can win and score, so how can it be otherwise for life as a whole? However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it, a faith that, in fact, always marks the spot where the new growth begins, as in a plant; once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.

Musil’s contemporary Hugo von Hofmannsthal spoke in this context of das Gleitende: the slipping away of the world in an access of aestheticized sentimentality. To locate Musil within the folds of fin-de-siècle Vienna is not to say that he preferred his spirituality mit Schlag, as it were. In many respects, he vigorously rebelled against the Gefühlskultur that Schorske evokes; but he also, in other crucial respects, capitulated to it. The Man Without Qualities contains a record of both activities.

There was at any rate a great deal in Musil’s background and milieu to complicate and enlarge his “technical” temperament. What he wanted was not Genauigkeit alone but rather Genauigkeit und Seele, “precision and soul.” The supremely empirical Musil emerges as a champion of spiritual values in the face of the twin threats of desiccating rationalism and enthusiastic irrationalism. Which is to say that Musil was both a partisan of “soul,” and that he was a sharp and exceedingly entertaining critic of “Soul”—upper case and in scare quotes.

In his 1924 essay on Oswald Spengler, Thomas Mann observed that “the spiritual essay” or “intellectual novel” was the dominant contemporary form of fiction. His own greatest novels (The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus) certainly answer to that description, as do many other classics of modernism. Broch’s Sleepwalkers even has a long essay (“The Disintegration of Values,” a very Musilian topic) distributed throughout it in short sections. Yet The Man Without Qualities was probably the most self-consciously essayistic of all these novels.

It’s not simply that the book often reads like a series of essays, with its short, discursive chapters, its many quotations and allusions, and its wry chapter titles: “4. If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility”; “12. The lady whose love Ulrich won after a conversation about sports and mysticism”; “13. A racehorse of genius crystallizes the recognition of being a man without qualities,” etc. Musil mimicked the essay form in order to enjoy something of the authority of assertion without incurring all of its responsibilities.

Although potentially disingenuous, this procedure offers the novelist one way to explore that hazy territory between the simple indicative, which outstrips his knowledge, and the frankly fictional, which seems insufficiently urgent. In a 1914 piece on the essay form, Musil defined the genre as “the strictest form attainable in an area where one cannot work precisely.” The essay, he wrote, “takes its form and method from science, its matter from art.” In the first volume of The Man Without Qualities, the narrator observes that “a man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?” The short answer, no doubt, is that he writes The Man Without Qualities.

Initially liberating, the triumph of possibility over reality is in the end an invitation to despair—something that Musil himself seems to have discovered along with Ulrich. But the pattern of Ulrich’s escapades and interactions with others, especially in the first volume, presupposes the supremacy of possibility, as does the form—and, finally, the ultimate formlessness—of The Man Without Qualities.

Before the story of the novel begins, Ulrich had made three attempts to be a “great man,” first through the cavalry, then in civil engineering, and finally in mathematics. He left the army after having been reprimanded for seducing an archduke’s wife, quit engineering after concluding that engineers tend to “have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis,” and was now settled on his own in mathematics, doing respectable but unrewarding work.

Ulrich gave up on greatness the day he happened to see a racehorse described as “a racehorse of genius.” If a racehorse can be a “genius,” what then? Concluding that “no matter what you do … it doesn’t make the slightest difference,” Ulrich decides “to take a year’s leave of absence from his life in order to seek an appropriate application for his abilities.” The Man Without Qualities is an account of that year’s holiday from life.

Ulrich’s basic sense of confusion is mirrored in his house, a small château that “had something blurred about it, like a double-exposed photograph.” Faced with the prospect of redecorating it, he feels paralyzed by the infinite possibilities that yawn open before him. Free to choose any style “from the Assyrians to Cubism,”

he was in that familiar state … of incoherent ideas spreading outward without a center, so characteristic of the present, and whose strange arithmetic adds up to a random proliferation of numbers without forming a unit. Finally he dreamed up only impracticable rooms, revolving rooms, kaleidoscopic rooms, adjustable scenery for the soul, and his ideas grew steadily more devoid of content.

It was also the perfect repository for Musil’s wicked sense of humor. Who could have foretold that Kakania—Musil’s name for the Austro-Hungarian Empire—would disappear before those celebrations could take place? In 1913, everything was still so gemütlich.

Of course cars rolled on these roads too, but not too many! The conquest of the air was being prepared here too, but not too intensively. A ship would now and then be sent off to South America or East Asia, but not too often. There was no ambition for world markets or world power. Here at the very center of Europe … words such as “colony” and “overseas” sounded like something quite untried and remote. There was some show of luxury, but by no means as in such overrefined ways as the French. People went in for sports, but not as fanatically as the English. Ruinous sums of money were spent on the army, but only just enough to secure its position as the second-weakest among the great powers.

And yet even in Kakania, something strange was happening:

Men who once merely headed minor sects have become aged celebrities; publishers and art dealers have become rich; new movements are constantly being started; everybody attends both the academic and the avant-garde shows, and even the avant-garde of the avant-garde; the family magazines have bobbed their hair; politicians like to sound off on the cultural arts, and newspapers make literary history… . Persons who would before never have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed in uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere became blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

And then there is Ulrich’s cousin Ermelinda Tuzzi, a prime mover of the Parallel Campaign. Her real name is Hermine (like Musil’s mother), but Ulrich nicknames her Diotima, after the high priestess of love in Plato’s Symposium. The beautiful, unhappy wife of a high-ranking civil servant, Diotima was drawn to “Maeterlinck’s batik-wrapped metaphysics,” Novalis, and “most of all … the ineffable wave of anemic romanticism and yearning for God that, for a while, the machine age squirted out as an expression of its spiritual and artistic misgivings about itself.” Her contribution to the Parallel Campaign included such assertions as “true Austria is the whole world” and “any feeling that isn’t boundless is worthless.”

One of Diotima’s many admirers is Dr. Paul Arnheim, an immeasurably rich Prussian industrialist who is half-Jewish and speaks five languages. His chief ambition is to bring “ideas into the spheres of power,” and he has written many books and pamphlets declaring the union of “soul and economics.” Not that Arnheim is a narrow specialist; on the contrary, he also writes extensively on “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, autogenous welding, the flora of the Himalayas, psychoanalysis … and all the other achievements that prevent a time so greatly enriched by them from turning out good, wholesome, integral human beings.” It seemed to both Arnheim and Diotima that they had been fated by destiny to find true, if unfulfillable, love with each other; but then it turns out that Arnheim’s chief interest in the Parallel Campaign had something to do with gaining control of the Galician oil fields.

This tactic has many advantages. “Instead of his feeling bad and unable to work, it was now the times that were sick, while he was fine. His life, which had come to nothing, was now, all at once, tremendously accounted for, justified on a world-historical scale.” No longer does Walter talk about “contemporary art” and “the art of the future,” ideas that Clarrisse has associated with him since she was fifteen. Now, he

would draw a line somewhere—in music stopping at, say, Bach, in literature at Stifter, in painting at Ingres—and explain that everything that came later was florid, degenerate, over-sophisticated and on the downward path. And he became increasingly violent in his assertion that in a time so poisoned at its spiritual roots as the present an artist of real integrity must abstain from creation altogether. But the treacherous thing was that although such austere opinions issued from his mouth, what issued from his room, as soon as he had locked himself in, was, more and more often, the sound of Wagner’s music, that is to say, a kind of music that in earlier years he had taught Clarisse to despise as the perfect example of a philistine, florid, degenerate era, and to which he himself had now become addicted as to thickly brewed, hot, intoxicating poison.

Finally, some mention must be made of the carpenter Christian Moosbrugger: a huge, physically powerful man who is something of a simpleton. Moosbrugger has “a face blessed by God with every sign of goodness” but also just happens to be a crazed sex murderer whose trial for brutally slaughtering a prostitute forms one of the many leitmotifs of The Man Without Qualities. Whether Moosbrugger is mentally competent to stand trial is a question mooted throughout the book; since he tends to regard his acts as having “perched on him like birds that had flown in from somewhere or other,” perhaps not. Although Musil never resolved Moosbrugger’s fate, or his exact significance for the novel, it is clear that Moosbrugger represents the dark, unconscious viciousness and irrationalism pulsating underneath Kakania’s rancid optimism. “If mankind could dream collectively [als Ganzes],” Ulrich reflects, “it would dream Moosbrugger.” Ulrich flirts with trying to get Moosbrugger acquitted, and the increasingly deranged Clarisse becomes obsessed with him: “the murderer,” she exclaims, “is musical!” In Moosbrugger, Clarisse envisions the eruption of a transforming violence that would sweep away the detritus of her frustrated, rudderless existence.

In one pivotal chapter, Musil reflects on the “peculiar predilection of scientific thinking for mechanical, statistical, and physical explanations that have, as it were, the heart cut out of them.” This is the key passage:

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 mental 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 behavior; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and the 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 as being impeccably scientific.

Scientific rationality in this sense is not merely disillusioning; it is radically dehumanizing. It replaces the living texture of experience with a skeleton of “causes,” “drives,” “impulses,” and the like. The enormous power over nature that science has brought man, Musil suggests, is only part of its attraction. Psychologically just as important is the power it gives one to dispense with the human claims of experience. How liberating to know that kindness is just another form of egotism! That beauty is merely a matter of fatty tissues being arranged properly! That every inflection of our emotional life is nothing but the entirely predictable result of glandular activity! Just another, merely, nothing but … How liberating, how dismissive are these instruments of dispensation—but how untrue, finally, to our experience.

Musil presents scientific rationality as a temptation as well as an accomplishment because he sees that inherent in its view of the world is an invitation to forget one’s humanity. It is this Promethean aspect of science that links it with evil. The feeling that “nothing in life can be relied on unless it is firmly nailed down,” Musil writes, is “a basic feeling embedded in the sobriety of science; and though we are too respectable to call it the Devil, a slight whiff of brimstone still clings to it.”

At the same time, however, Musil is never willing to side wholeheartedly with the Romantic attack on science. A bit earlier, he reminds his readers that

One must not forget that basically the scientific cast of mind is more God-oriented than the aesthetic mind, ready to submit to “Him” the moment “He” deigns to show Himself under the conditions it prescribes for recognizing Him, while our aesthetes, confronted with His manifestation, would find only that His talent was not original and that His view of the world was not sufficiently intelligible to rank Him with really God-given talents.

Volume one concludes after Ulrich’s proposal to establish a General Secretariat for Precision and Soul is (not surprisingly) rebuffed by the organizers of the Parallel Campaign. The machinations of the Campaign now begin to recede and the story of Ulrich and his sister, Agathe, comes to the fore. (Like many of the important female characters, Agathe’s name is of some significance: it comes from the Greek word agathos, “the good,” i.e., that to which we all aspire.) Brought together after many years’ separation by the death of their father, the siblings rediscover each other. The mood of the book now changes substantially: gone is the bright, satirical tone of the first volume. This may have been partly due to darkening elements in Musil’s life. Since at least the mid-Twenties, Musil’s financial condition had been precarious; increasingly, his psychological condition followed suit. In 1929, the year before the first volume of The Man Without Qualities appeared, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Friends started a Musil Society to help support the novelist, but he was never really to know financial security again for the rest of his life. In 1933, he and Martha left Germany for Vienna when Hitler came to power; in 1938, they left for Switzerland after the Anschluss delivered Austria into Hitler’s hands. In the meantime, in 1936, Musil suffered a stroke, but was able to work again before long.

The later portions of The Man Without Qualities have their admirers. But for many they will be slow going. The long conversations between Ulrich and Agathe, and the detailed ruminations on various religious texts, are dramatically static. There are many enlivening episodes and aperçus as the pages accumulate, but accumulate they do; the novel never really recovers its momentum. This is a pity, for Musil clearly invested a great deal in the story of Ulrich and Agathe; there is even some evidence that he regarded the story of their relationship as the centerpiece of the book: when he began working on the novel, in the mid-Twenties, his working title was “The Twin Sister.” It is daunting to think of the thousand pages of the first volume of The Man Without Qualities as prolegomenon, but there you are. Unfortunately, this is a case in which aspiration did not match achievement. As Musil himself acknowledged in a note, “Volume One closes approximately at the high point of an arch; on the other side it has no support.”

It has often been pointed out that, at bottom, Musil was a kind of moralist. Like Rilke, his favorite poet, he wanted his work to communicate the imperative “Du muát dein leben ändern” (“You must change your life”). He hoped that the relationship between Ulrich and Agathe would furnish a model for that imperative. It is here that Musil’s investment in Nietzsche betrays him. The title of the second volume of The Man Without Qualities is “Into the Millennium (The Criminals).” The criminals in question were Ulrich and Agathe. Their crime, in the first instance, was to shatter, or attempt to shatter, the traditional bourgeois moral code. Musil signals this by hinting at an incestuous union between them. He hoped that by placing the siblings “beyond good and evil” he could picture a form of life that transcended the many human and cultural deficiencies he had anatomized in the first volume. Musil’s term for this state of transcendence was der andere Zustand, “the other condition,” a species of aestheticized religious experience that Musil summarized in one essay as “the condition of love, of goodness, of renunciation of the world, of contemplation, of vision, of approach to God, of entrancement, of will-lessness, of meditation,” etc. One might dismiss such experiences, he wrote, did they not leave traces everywhere and did they “not constitute the marrow of our morality and idealism.”

One finds again and again the presence of another world, like a solid ocean bottom from which the restless waves of the ordinary world have drawn back; and in the image of this world there is neither measure nor precision, neither purpose nor cause: good and evil simply fall away.


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  1. An English version of this essay appears in Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, by Robert Musil, edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft (University of Chicago Press, 301 pages, $29.95; $16.95 paper). Go back to the text.
  2. The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike; Knopf, 1,774 pages, $60 (two-volume boxed set). Go back to the text.


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