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There Will Be No More Great Ideas

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Robert Musil and the NonModern

By Mark M. Freed
Continuum, 2011

In European and American culture of the past two centuries, a sense of rupture pervaded the collective consciousness. The reasons are familiar: revolutions in France and in America; the age of industry; urbanization; class conflict; religious doubt; the spread of empire… taken together, these different dimensions of change converged and accumulated, until a discourse of novelty became inescapable.

So writes the literary critic Michael Levenson, in a recent account of the tangled relations between ‘modernity’ and ‘modernism,’ two words whose meanings scholars have never stopped struggling to settle, but which could be summed up, simply, as follows. Where ‘modernity’ signals a change in society’s self-understanding, ‘modernism’ names our artistic attempts to make sense of that change, and to forge new forms of expression that might, perhaps, prove adequate to it. On this line of thinking, ‘modernist’ writers (like, say, James Joyce) can be seen as working within the terms of a time which, as the sociologist Jürgen Habermas once said, refuses to ‘borrow criteria’ from bygone eras, and sets out instead to reinvent them.

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities has taken a while to achieve recognition as a modernist masterpiece. This could be because it doesn’t quite fit with such orderly models of what ‘the modern’ might mean. The trouble is, Musil wasn’t Joyce, nor Proust, and to weigh up his book as some Germanic answer to Ulysses or A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to miss its point. Or rather, its lack of one. Because, however many times you read this famously unfinished novel, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never fully take the measure of its pointlessness.

It’d be a stretch to say that the text makes sense of itself, let alone of ‘modernity.’ Rather, its freewheeling narrative propels it somewhere beyond the familiar aims of modernist art. For unlike those others, this book doesn’t want to build systems, to give order to memory or history, or to shore up anything much against its ruins. Instead, it lets those ruins remain as they are: incomplete, enigmatic, never entirely intelligible.

Born in 1880, Robert Musil was a man of transient qualities. After abandoning a military career for one in engineering, he took a detour into doctoral work in psychology and philosophy. When offered an academic post he declined it, dropping out to devote himself solely to literature, poverty, and the pursuit of his interminable, impossible novel. We know he began work on The Man Without Qualities sometime in the 1920s, publishing its first two ‘volumes’ in 1930 and 1932. Each went almost wholly unacknowledged, and indeed he grew to regret printing either, resenting the fixity they imposed on his ever-evolving work. Yet he went on writing nonetheless, and part of the project’s third installment was published after his death, in 1942. For a decade or so the novel was nearly forgotten, only resurfacing in the early 1950s, and first reaching English readers in 1953. The current translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike dates from 1995.

Experts have speculated at length on just how long the finished book might have been. The truth is that no one knows, not even Musil. By the end of its 1,130 pages, Wilkins and Pike’s edition doesn’t just fail to reach a conclusion; it barely even begins to begin. For many readers, myself included, this is the book’s strangest, greatest achievement. What has to be grasped about The Man Without Qualities is that it’s not just another ‘unfinished’ masterpiece, in the sense that, say, Kafka’s greatest books aren’t finished. It’s a failed masterpiece, and one whose failure ends up being the essence of its greatness. It’s a failed book bound up with a failed life, in the way that many literary lives are failed. This point has been eloquently made by Maurice Blanchot, who says of Musil’s book that it’s

an excessive work on which he labours for almost his entire creative life, a work that is for him the equivalent of his life. This book that he does not entirely master, that resists him and that he also resists, seeking to impose on it a plan that is perhaps not suitable for it. A strange experiment that makes his existence depend on a book.

Robert Musil

An experiment, moreover, that’s open-ended, and whose results get rerouted into its method. This idea of an endless, open process is what The Man Without Qualities is all about; it’s central both to its composition and to what could be called, with some caution, its ‘plot.’
The story is set in Vienna in 1913, and loosely concerns an attempt by the waning Austrian state to devise a ‘parallel campaign’; an effort to ensure that the seventieth anniversary of Franz Joseph’s reign eclipses Germany’s celebration of thirty years under Wilhelm II. The campaign aims to capture what we might call the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Austrian populace, but it’s quickly shown up as an impossible plan. It didn’t take place in historical time, of course, and nor does it ever occur in the time of the novel. The essence of the Empire will not be synthesized under the sign of a great idea. There will be no more great ideas, no unifying solutions. When Musil’s protagonist, Ulrich, falls into the orbit of this endeavor, its endlessness only echoes his own indeterminacy; his failure to add up to anything more than the sum of the parts that he plays. For Ulrich, as for Austria, modern life’s failure to fix its own meaning manifests as a mixture of crisis and promise. As the following famous description shows, this is precisely what Musil means when he says that Ulrich is a ‘man without qualities’:

His appearance gives no clue to what his profession might be, and yet he doesn’t look like a man without a profession either. He always knows what to do. He knows how to gaze into a woman’s eyes. He can put his mind to any question at any time. He can box. He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect—why quibble, suppose we grant him all those qualities—yet he has none of them! They have made him what he is, they have set his course for him, and yet they don’t belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He’ll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context—nothing is, to him, what it is: everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a super-whole that, however, he knows nothing about.

For Mark M. Freed, this acute concern for life’s lived ambiguities – its contradictory traits, its impossible projects – is what makes The Man Without Qualities not so much a modernist novel as an ‘intervention in the philosophical discourse of modernity’. Freed’s definition of that discourse runs something like this. Modern life sets itself up through a series of exclusions and oppositions; it severs the self from the world, art from science, reason from feeling, and so on. Everything grows increasingly specialized, so that the more modern we get, the more we’re caught up in an escalating state of alienation. Freed’s remarkable study, Robert Musil and the NonModern, maps a terrain that’s at odds with all this, using Musil to call into question some of our basic assumptions about what it means to be modern. In this account, Musil isn’t so much a modernist (let alone a postmodernist) as someone who writes from both within and without, always ‘on the margins’ of any such absolute categories. His is a literature of the ‘nonmodern’; one which refuses to recognize modern conceptual boundaries. In short, The Man Without Qualities sets out to shake up all of the modern world’s ‘purified distinctions.’ For an example of how this gets played out in practice, we need only consider the novel’s opening passage:

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and the setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapour in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.

What makes this style of writing ‘nonmodern’ is its method of merging the language of science with that of everyday life. In so doing, it fuses two of modernity’s most deeply divided domains back together, not as opposites, but as equally valid alternatives, held in a state of suspension. Hence, neither way of describing the world is free or clear of the other, yet neither outdoes the other; neither takes precedent. As Freed rightly remarks, Musil’s own name for this practice is ‘essayism’ – a term whose meaning hinges on the etymological echoing of ‘essay’ from assay, or ‘attempt’. So, like the novel itself, like the life of its protagonist, and very much like the parallel campaign, an essay is only ever an attempt, never a means to an end. Indeed, it’s only an essay so long as it escapes every ending, endlessly running away with itself. It’s a goalless multiplication of options, and this, says Freed, is what makes it ‘neither modern nor postmodern’. Instead, it’s a new way of writing, thinking and living that may just make possible ‘a nonmodern engagement with the problems of modernity’.

In this vein, the real achievement of Freed’s reading of Musil lies in his rich exposition of essayism as an ‘ethic’; not just a literary technique but a view of the world, and a nonmodern means of moving through it. For Freed, Musil makes this explicit in his characterization of Ulrich as a man who attempts to live essayistically, taking the essay as ‘a model for the structure of experience’, and remaking his life as an unending set of experiments. Here’s Musil again, musing on Ulrich’s own understanding of the events he encounters:

It was more or less the way an essay itself explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it… that he believed he could rightly survey and handle the world and his own life.

Picking up on this thought, Freed hones in on what must be Musil’s most brilliant notion, and perhaps the prime example of a Musilian mixture of artistic statement and scientific discovery. Put simply, the idea behind Ulrich’s ‘essayist’ lifestyle is that it’s possible to live with an experimental exactness, steered by a ‘utopian idea of exact living’. Like the best advances in both art and science, this bold new ethic is unnerving and unsentimental. If it brings on a feeling of vertigo, that’s because it opens onto a dizzying well of potential that was formerly closed to us.

What’s more, Freed goes on to show how Ulrich’s ethic of essayism is enabled by the very thing that gives Musil’s novel (or better yet, essay) its title: an absence of qualities. That is to say, Ulrich’s role as a ‘man of possibility’ turns out to depend on his being without qualities. As we saw above, the crux of his condition is that while he ‘has’ qualities, he never quite ‘owns’ them; they’re independent of his essence. He’s what we might call a well-rounded man, but one whose attributes can’t quite account for any underlying substance. Thus, as Freed puts it, Ulrich is

not a what that could possess qualities but a how in the sense of a being confronted with a range of possible ways of being… a mode of being poised to seize a wider range of possibilities of existence, not a substance to which qualities adhere.

If the actual forms a life takes in its time are arbitrary, a man without qualities is one who’s aware of his arbitrariness, and whose life may then remain open to its own essayistic potential. An essayist doesn’t experience things by accident; he assays them, tries them on for size, takes their measure. One troubling upshot of this, for Ulrich, is that he’s even able to empathize with a character like Moosbrugger, the ‘sex murderer’, whose pathological outlook has to be seen as a viable life among all lives, lived with its own internal coherence. That’s what makes the essayist unsentimental; he’s prepared to assay every option. It’s also why Ulrich will finally try to transcend himself in an incestuous bond with his sister, Agathe. Such choices are logical outcomes of Musil’s science of the soul, and of a personal essay that’s always in search of new ways to outwit its end. Yet they’re also procedures for preserving life’s unfinished future. This is what Musil means when he hints that the unreached ending of every essay gives a glimpse of ‘utopia.’ To quote Blanchot again,

the man without particularities is precisely the man of ‘not yet’, the one who considers nothing as firm, stops every system, prevents every fixation, who does not say no to life, but not yet, who, finally, acts as if the world could never begin except on the next day.

Robert Musil and the NonModern is not without its flaws, first among which would be its unusually un-Musilian effort to provide an explanatory ‘theory’ of Musil. Like Beckett, Musil is one of those writers whom critics should never take lightly. His work seems to want to tempt the critic into overzealous gestures, at the same time pre-empting precisely such gestures, containing them, and thereby escaping them. The problem with Freed’s perspective lies in his eagerness to assume that philosophical frameworks can just be applied to Musil, and, for that matter, to literature. He makes a big deal of ‘homologies’, and of what he calls ‘conceptual correspondences’ relating Musil to Heidegger, Musil to Nietzsche, and so on. What risks getting lost in all this is a chance to let Musil speak for himself, or talk to himself: an application of Musil to Musil. After all, what is a ‘conceptual correspondence’ anyway? And does it really give us a good way of thinking about fiction, or about thinking?

Perhaps this kind of criticism takes a bit too much for granted about its applications. The academic study of literature has reached a slightly strange understanding of itself, if it thinks that insights drawn from philosophy and social theory can straightforwardly account for aspects of fictional worlds, and fictional characters. In this sense, something seriously odd gets glossed over in the midst of Freed’s comparisons. Given that Ulrich famously advises one of his fellow characters that they should live ‘as if they were characters in a novel’, what does it mean for a critic to come along and describe them as if they belonged to the same social world as himself? More work should surely be done to unearth these buried presuppositions. Until critics give some closer attention to why they’re applying their theories to fictional objects, such applications might seem to rely on little more than a confusion of categories.

For all this, it’s only fair to forgive Freed’s book for falling prey to the most common problems of contemporary criticism. And of course, to ask for a critical study to be truly adequate to Musil’s art is to ask a great deal. Robert Musil and the NonModern offers the most exciting reading to date of Musil’s experimental method, his essayism, and his uncompromising openness to the hope of a lived utopia. Yet after encountering such a commanding analysis, it’s only right, if you love reading Musil, to want to pull his work out from under the weight of what’s been applied to it. There’s something about The Man Without Qualities that seems to resist conclusive criticism. Something not so much unfinished as uniquely continuous; infinite. The reason the novel is unlike anything else you’ll ever read is because it goes on reading itself when you’ve finished reading it. Any kind of critical account would miss that mark, and how could a critic hope to catch up with a book that’s always outrunning its readers? Musil’s novel never will require to be read in order to exist. It will go on regardless, forever essaying itself, perfecting itself.

David Winters is a writer of fiction and literary criticism. He is Contributing Editor at 3:AM Magazine, and has also written for The Millions, Bookslut, ReadySteadyBook, The Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, and others. His blog is called Why Not Burn Books?