Archive for September, 2010

The Ways of Great Men

September 29, 2010

Arnheim has three role models he seeks to emulate in his quest to become great by fusing great ideas and sound business practices.

In such a fix a cultivated man might for instance be reminded of the link between the world of learning and the Church in the Middle Ages. A philosopher who wanted to succeed and influence the thought of his contemporaries had to get along with the Church in those days, which might lead the vulgar freethinker to suppose that such constraints must have kept the philosopher from rising to greatness. But the opposite was the case. Our experts assure us that the result was nothing less than an incomparable Gothic beauty of thought, and if it was possible to make allowances for the Church without harming one’s intellectual quality, why shouldn’t it be possible to do the same for advertising? (I,470-471)

Goethe, too, knew how to remain lofty while living in the real world.

Arnheim modeled himself on the great poet in many ways. But his favorite story about him was the well-known incident when Goethe, while secretly sympathizing, left poor Johann Gottlieb Fichte in the lurch when the philosopher was fired from the University of Jena for having spoken of the Deity and divine matters, “grandly, but perhaps not with the proper decorum,” and went about his defense in an “impassioned” manner rather than extricating himself from the affair “in the smoothest possible way,” as the urbane master poet observes in his memoirs. Arnheim not only would have done exactly as Goethe did, but would have cited Goethe’s example to try to convince all and sundry that this alone was the Goethean, the meaningful way to act. (I,471)

Lastly, Arnheim admired Heine, who we quote directly here on the subject of Napoleon.

“Such a mind,” Heine wrote, referring to Napoleon–though he might as easily have said it of Goethe, whose diplomatic nature he always defended with the acuity of a lover who knows deep down that his is not really in accord with the object of his admiration–“Such a mind is what Kant means when he asks us to imagine one that works, not intellectually, like our own, but intuitively. The knowledge that our intellect acquires by slow analytic study and laborious deduction, the intuitive mind sees and grasps in one and the same movement. Hence his gift for understanding his time and the moment and for cajoling its spirit, never crossing it, always using it. But since this spirit of the age is not merely revolutionary but is formed by the confluence of both revolutionary and reactionary aspects, Napoleon never acted in a purely revolutionary or conterrevolutionary manner but always in the spirit of both views, both principles, both tendencies, which in him came together, and so he always acted in a manner that was natural, simple, great, never fitful or harsh, always calm and temperate. He never had the need to indulge in petty intrigue, and his coups always resulted from his skill in understanding and moving the masses. Petty, analytical minds incline to slow, intricate scheming, while synthesizing intuitive minds have their own miraculous ways of so combining the possibilities held out by the times that they can take speedy advantage of them for their own ends.”

Heine may have meant that a little differently from the way his admirer Arnheim understood it, but Arnheim felt that these words virtually described him as well. (I,472)

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A Great Author

September 29, 2010

Diotima experiences a growing feeling that the intellectual and cultural eminences at her salon are behaving more and more like ordinary people.

But when she saw princes of the cultural realm enjoying themselves as if they were just anybody, she found it had to make allowances for such a double standard. What is the underlying need, the psychological law behind this common tendency that makes men turn their backs on who they are in their professional lives? Every man is two people, and one hardly knows whether it is in the morning or in the evening that he reverts to his real self. (I,466)

She is forced to conclude that Arnheim belongs in this category.

A truly great mind, she felt, should not care quite so much to mingle with the ordinary cultural elite, nor be so ready to traffic in the fluctuating marketplace of ideas.

The truth was that Arnheim was not a great mind but only a great man of letters.

In our cultural landscape, the great man of letters has replaced the great mind just as the plutocrats have replaced royalty in the political world. Just as the regal intellect and imagination had its place in the days of great political campaigns and great department stores.The leading man of letters represents a special form of the connection between the mind and all large-scale operations. The least one may therefore expect of a great author is that he should drive a great car. (I,466)

Here we begin to wonder if Musil has in mind a specific Great Author. Could he be thinking of Thomas Mann, someone we know he disparaged?

A great author is by no means the same thing as a writer who makes lots of money. He need not necessarily write the best-seller of the year or the book of the month himself, as long as he doesn’t challenge this sort of evaluation, because it is he who sits on all the award committees, signs all the manifestos, writes all the introductions, delivers all the commencement addresses, pronounces on all the important events, and is called in whenever it is necessary to demonstrate what new height of progress have just been achieved…Our well-meaning contemporaries take the stand that having intelligence in itself is not enough (there is so much of it around that a little more or less makes no real difference; anyway, everyone thinks he has enough for his own needs), because our first priority is the struggle against stupidity, which means that intelligence must be displayed, made highly visible and operative, and since the Great Author suits this purpose better than an even greater author whom the largest number might not find quite so easy to understand, everyone does his level best to make the visibly Great even greater.

Who might he be referring to as not so easy to understand? Never mind that without Musil’s foreknowledge, Thomas Mann in 1932 started a Robert Musil Society to support the financially strapped Musil.

Moosbrugger’s Solution

September 26, 2010

Ulrich’s quest for how to live a good life is stalled. Moosbrugger, the madman, has found a solution of sorts of how to overcome the alienation of the self from the world.

 If Moosbrugger had had a big sword, he’d have drawn it and chopped the head off his chair. He would have chopped the head off the table and the window, the slop bucket, the door. Then he would have set his own head on everything, because in this cell there was only one head, his own, and that was as it should be. He could imagine his head sitting on top of things, with its broad skull, its hair like a fur cap pulled down over his forehead: he liked that.

If only the room were bigger and the food better!

He was quite glad not to see people. People were hard to take. They often had a way of spitting, or of hunching up a shoulder, that made a man feel down in the mouth and ready to drive a fist through their back, like punching a hole in the wall, Moosbrugger did not believe in God, only in what he could figure out for himself. His contemptuous terms for the eternal truths were: the cop, the bench, the preacher. He knew he could count on no one but himself to take care of things, and such a man sometimes feels that others are there only to get in his way. He saw what he had seen so often: the inkstands, the green baize, the pencils, the Emperor’s portrait on the wall, the way they all sat there around him: a booby trap camouflaged, not with grass and green leaves, just with the feeling: That’s how it is. (I,427)

Sometimes he felt annoyed, of course, with the prison regulations. Or he was hurting somewhere. But then he could ask to see the prison doctor or the warden, and things fell into place again, like water closing over a dead rat that had fallen in. Not that he thought of it quite in these terms, but he kept having the sense almost constantly these days, even if he did not have the words for it, that he was like a great shining sheet of water, not to be disturbed by anything.

The words he did have were: hm-hm, uh-uh.

The table was Moosbrugger.

The chair was Moosbrugger.

The barred window and the bolted door were himself.

There was nothing at all crazy or out of the ordinary in what he meant. It was just that the rubber bands were gone. Behind every thing or creature, when it tries to get really close to another, is a rubber band, pulling. Otherwise, things might finally go right through one another. Every movement is reined in by a rubber band that won’t let a person do quite what he wants. Now, suddenly, all those rubber bands were gone. Or was it just the feeling of being held in check, as if by rubber bands?

Maybe one just can’t cut it so fine? “For instance, women keep their stocking up with elastic. There it is!” Moosbrugger thought.  “They wear garter on their legs like amulets. Under their skirts. Just like the rings they paint around fruit trees to stop the worms from crawling up.” (I,427-428)

 His thoughts are liberating. At these times he sees everyone around him “dancing to his tune.”

At such times Moosbrugger danced for them. He danced with dignity and invisibly, he who never danced with anyone in real life, moved by a music that increasingly turned into self-communion and sleep, the womb of the Mother of God, and finally the peace of God himself, a wondrously incredible state of deathlike release; he danced for days, unseen by anyone, until it was all outside, all out of him, clinging to things around him like a cobweb stiffened and made useless by the frost. (I,430)

Literature Going to the Dogs

September 26, 2010

Arnheim passes harsh judgement on the poets of the day, so inferior to his idol, Heine.

This poet’s portentous idealism corresponded to those big deep brass instruments in the orchestra that resemble upended locomotive boilers and produce an unwieldy grunting and rumbling. With a single note they muffle a thousand possibilities. They huff and puff out huge bales of timeless emotions. Anyone capable of trumpeting poetry on such a scale–Arnheim thought, not without bitterness–is nowadays rated by us as a poet, as compared with a mere literary man. They why not rate him as a general as well? Such people after all live on the best of terms with death and constantly need several thousand dead to make them enjoy their brief moment of life with dignity.

But just then someone had made the point that even the General’s dog, howling at the moon some rose-scented night, might if challenged defend himself by saying: “So what, it’s the moon, isn’t it? I am expressing the timeless emotions of my race!” quite like one of those gentlemen so famous for doing the very same. The dog might even add that his emotion was unquestionably a powerful experience, his expression richly moving, and yet so simple that his public could understand him perfectly, and as for his ideas playing second fiddle to his feelings, that was entirely in keeping with prevailing standards and had never yet been regarded as a drawback in literature.

Arnheim, discomfited by this echoing of his thoughts, again held back the cigar smoke between lips that for a moment remained half open, as a token barrier between himself and his surroundings. He had praised some of these especially pure poets on every occasion, because it was the thing to do, and had sometimes even supported them and their inflated verses. “These heraldic figures who can’t even support themselves,” he thought, “really belong in a game preserve, together with the last of the bison and eagles.” And since, as this evening had proved, it was not in keeping with the times to support them, Arnheim’s reflections ended not without some profit for himself. (I,440-441)

 Nor can poets of the day understand the looming disaster and attempt to direct the spirit in a new direction.

Had Arnheim been able to see only a few years into the future, he would have seen that 1920 years of Christian morality, millions of dead men in the wake of a shattering war, and a whole German forest of poetry rustling in homage to the modesty of Woman could not hold back the day when women’s skirts and hair began to grow shorter and the young girls of Europe slipped off eons of taboos to emerge for a while naked, like peeled bananas. (I,442)

Even the General’s dog, which Arnheim now kindly remembered, would never have understood any other line of development, for this loyal friend of man’s character had still been formed by the stable, docile man of the previous century, in that man’s image; but its cousin the prairie rooster, would have understood readily enough. When that wild fowl, dancing for hours on end, plumes itself and claws the ground, there is probably more soul generated than by a scholar linking one thought to another at his desk. For in the last analysis, all thoughts come out of the joints, muscles, glands, eyes , and ears, and from the shadowy general impressions that the bag of skin to which they belong has of itself as a whole. (I,443)

We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when , unfortunately they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon, like the General’s much cited fox terrier. (I,445)

Arnheim in Love

September 24, 2010

Arnheim is an early master of the universe.

The bank directors’ and  industrial magnates’ predecessors had no problems; they were feudal knights who made literal mincemeat of their enemies, leaving the clergy to handle the morals. But while contemporary man has in money, as Arnheim saw it, the surest control of society, a means as tough and precise as the guillotine, it can also be as vulnerable as an arthritic–how painfully the money market limps and aches all over at the slightest draft!–and is most delicately involved with everything it controls. Because he understood this subtle interdependence of al the forms of life, which only the blind arrogance of the ideologue can overlook, Arnheim come to see the regal man of business as the synthesis of change and permanence, power and civility, sensible risk-taking and strong-minded reliance on information, but essentially as the symbolic figure of democracy-in-the-making. By the persistent and disciplined honing of his own personality, by his intellectual grasp of the economic and social complexes at hand, and by giving thought to the leadership and structure of the state as a whole, he hoped to help bring the new era to birth, that age where the social forces made unequal by fate and nature would be properly and fruitfully organized and where the ideal would not be shattered by the inevitable limitations of reality, but be purified and strengthened instead. Objectively put, he had brought about the fusion of interests between business and the soul by working out the overall concept of the Business King, and that feeling of love that had once taught him the unity of all things now formed the nucleus of his conviction that culture and all human interests formed a harmonious whole. (I,422)

He finds the perfect word to describe what he is after, “soul.”

He presumably resorted to it as a device, a flying start, a royal motto, since princes and generals certainly have no souls, and as for financiers, he was the very first to have one….In this he was a man of his time, which had recently developed a strong religious bent, not because it had a call to religion but only, it seems, out of an irritable feminine revolt against money, science, and calculation, to all of which it succumbed with a passion. What was questionable and uncertain, however, was whether Arnheim, in speaking of the soul, believed in it; whether it was real to him, like his stock portfolio. (I,422)

 Belief, though, is no longer absolutely essential to possessing transcendent ideas.

Anyone inclined to find fault should remember that having a  split personality has long since ceased to be a trick reserved for lunatics; at the present-day tempo, our capacity for political insight, for writing a piece for the newspapers, for faith in the new movements in art and literature, and for countless other things, depends wholly on a knack for being, at times, convinced against our own convictions, splitting off a part of our mind and stretching it to form a brand-new whole-hearted conviction. (I,424)

 But something, perhaps his love for Diotima, has made him sensitive to this sort of split in himself.

Something unpleasant of this sort had happened  and left its mark on him just recently. He had made use of the leisure he currently indulged himself in more frequently than was his habit, to dictate to his secretary an essay on the essential accord between government architecture and the concept of the state, and he had broken off a sentence intended to run “Contemplating this edifice, we see the silence of the walls” after the word “silence,” in order to linger for a moment over the image of the Cancelleria in Rome, which had just risen up unbidden before his inner eye. But as he looked at the typescript over his secretary’s shoulder he noticed that, anticipating him as usual, the secretary had already written: “…we see the silence of the soul.” That day Arnheim dictated no more, and on the following day he had the sentence dropped. (I,425)

Pseudoreality Prevails

September 20, 2010

In the news…

There was another new record for high-altitude flight; something to be proud of. If he was not mistaken, the record now stood at 3,700 meters and the man’s name was Jouhoux. A black boxer had beaten the white champion, the new holder of the world title was Johnson. The president of France was going to Russia; there was talk of world peace being at stake. A newly discovered tenor was garnering fees in South America that had never been equaled even in North America. A terrible earthquake had devastated Japan–the poor Japanese. In short, much was happening, there was great excitement everywhere around the turn of 1913-1914. But two years or five years earlier there had also been much excitement, every day had had its sensations, and yet it was hard, not to say impossible, to remember what it was that had actually happened. (I,390)

What is all this? History?

Examined close up, our history looks rather vague and messy, like a morass only partially made safe for pedestrian traffic, though oddly enough in the end, there does seem to be a path across it, that very “path of history” of which nobody knows the starting point. This business of serving as “the stuff of history” infuriated Ulrich. The luminous, swaying box which he was riding seemed to be a machine in which several hundred kilos of people were being rattled around, by way of being processed into “the future.” (I,390-391)

Ulrich tries to answer the question of history.

Answer Number One: Because world history undoubtedly comes into being like all the other stories. Authors can never think of anything new, and they all copy from each other. This is why all politicians study history instead of biology or whatever. So much for authors.

Answer Number Two: For the most part, however, history is made without authors. It evolves not from some inner center but from the periphery. Set in motion by trifling causes. It probably doesn’t take nearly as much as one would think to turn Gothic man or the ancient Greek into modern civilized man. Human nature is as capable of cannibalism as it is of the Critique of Pure Reason; the same convictions and qualities will serve to turn out either one, depending on circumstances, and very great external differences in the results correspond to very slight internal ones.

Digression One: Ulrich recalled a similar experience dating from his army days. The squadron rides in double file, and “Passing on orders” is the drill; each man in turn whispers the given order to the next man. So if the order given up front is: “Sergeant major move to the head of the column,” it comes out the other end as “Eight troopers to be shot at once,” or something like that. And this is just how history is made.

Answer Number Three: If, therefore, we were to transplant a generation of present-day Europeans at a tender age into the Egypt of 5000 B.C., world history would begin afresh in the year 5000 B.C., repeat itself for a while, and then for reasons nobody could fathom, gradually begin to deviate from its established path.

 Digression Two: The law of world history–it now occurred to him–was none other than the fundamental principle of government in old Kakania: “muddling through.” Kakania was an incredibly clever state.

Digression Three or Answer Number Four: The course of history was therefore not that of a billiard ball–which, once it is hit, takes a definite line–but resembles the movement of clouds, or the path of a man sauntering through the streets, turned aside by a shadow here, a crowd there, an unusual architectural outcrop, until at last he arrives at a place he never knew or meant to go to  (I,391-392)

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Who Invited Him?

September 17, 2010

Some unknown person has invited General Stumm von Bordwehr to the campaign meetings. The invitation shows signs of the writer not being completely familiar with the fine points of addressing a personage as distinguished as the Genera. Never mind; he is delighted to be there. He has an unconventional military history.

He had originally served with the cavalry, but his small hands and short legs were ill-suited to clutching and controlling so unreasonable a beast as a horse, and he so conspicuously lacked the qualities needed for giving military orders that his superiors used to say that if a squadron were positioned on the barracks square with their horses’ heads rather than their tails, as usual, toward the stable wall he would be incapable of letting them out through the gates. In revenge, little Stumm grew a beard, dark brown and rounded; he was the only officer in the  Emperor’s cavalry with a full beard, the regulation did not specifically forbid it. And he took to collecting pocketknives, in a scientific spirit. On his pay he could not afford a collection of weapons, but of knives, classified according to their make,possession of corkscrew and nail file, grade of steel, place of origin, the casing material and so on, he soon had a large number; in his room stood tall cabinets with many shallow drawers, all neatly labeled, which brought him a reputation for learning. (I,370)

 He advanced in the ranks, nonetheless, largely by being passed off by bewildered superiors. Finally he lands a desk job and his place in the military.

Now that he was mounted ona desk chair instead of the beast sacred to the cavalry, he was a different man. He made major general and could be fairly certain of making it to lieutenant general. He had of course shaved off his beard long ago, but now, with advancing age, he was growing a forehead, and his tendency to tubbiness gave him the look of a well-rounded man in every sense of the term. He even became happy, and happiness can do wonders for a man’s latent possibilities. He had been meant for a life at the top, and it showed in every way. Be it the sight of a stylishly dressed woman, the showy bad taste of the latest Viennese architecture, the outspread colors of a great produce market, be it the grayish-brown asphalt full of miasmas, smells, and fragrances, or the noise that broke apart for a few seconds to let out one specific sound, be it the endless variety of the civilian world, even those little white restaurant tables that are so incredibly individual although they undeniably all look alike: he took a delight in them all that was like the jingling of spurs in his head. (I,372)

 And so he is captivated by Diotima, in his own way.

Nowadays, when relations between the sexes have become so simplified, it is probably necessary to point out that this is likely to be the most sublime experience a man can have. General Stumm felt that his arms were too short to embrace Diotima’s lofty voluptuousness, while at the same time his mind felt the same about the world and its culture, so that he experienced everything that came his way in a state of gently pervasive infatuation, just as his rounded body took on something of the suspended roundness of the globe itself. (I,374)

Eros of the Committee Meeting

September 16, 2010

Never has anyone been more aroused by quasi-governmental committee meetings as Diotima.

 It sometimes happened, in the midst of a social gathering in her transformed apartment, with its rooms stripped of their usual furnishings, 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 on a fountain, at the epicenter of the world, drenched in sublime spiritual grace. She saw it as 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 the 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. From time to time she turned her gaze to Arnheim, who was usually standing somewhere in a group of men, talking; but the she realized that her gaze had been resting on him all along, and it was only her awakening that now followed her eyes. Even when she was not looking at him, the outermost wingtips of her soul, so to speak, always rested on his face and told her what was going on in it. (I,355,356)

 She has no passion for her husband, which wounds him in a particular way.

It is hardly too much to say that he found this utterly revolting at times, and that because of it his wife’s public success at this time caused him physical pain. Diotima had public opinion on her side, something Section Chief Tuzzi respected so unconditionally that he shied away from asserting his authority or meeting her incomprehensible moods with sarcasm, lest he seem unappreciative. It began to dawn on him that being the husband of a distinguished woman was a painful affliction that had to be carefully hidden from the world, much like an accidental castration. (I,362)

Critical Interlude: Alexander Honold

September 14, 2010

What a curious beginning to a novel.

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 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 vapor 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. (I,1)

Alexander Honold, in his Bloom essay “Endings and Beginnings: Musil’s Invention of Austrian History,” help us pry open this passage.

The first chapter mainly designates what M. Bakhtin called a chronotopos, it indicates that the following action starts in Vienna, capital of Austria-Hungary, in August 1913. Reading this in 1930 or later, it was almost impossible not to be reminded of what happened one year later. Now the crucial point in Musil’s beginning is that he manages to say two things that are absolutely contradictory at the same time. He says: Look at our pretty town dozing in its peaceful summertime, there is no reason at all to be suspicious or scared. Not even the clouds are showing any inclination to move eastward toward that Russian high-pressure area, so to speak. But only a few moments later an accident happens that disturbs this sunny opening. Just as the accident that ends this beginning results from an unpredictable urban traffic system, the end of the novel would have been marked by the collective accident of war. (120)

 The weather account creates a tension between Austria and Russia that, like weather in general, is not very well defined but with the potential for destruction (note our fascination with the Weather Channel.) Before looking more closely at the automobile accident, consider this passage with its continuation of weather imagery layered with the warlike feeling of moving armies, barbed wire and splintering sounds.

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their steady rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. (I,3)

A truck hits a pedestrian and a lady and gentleman observe the accident scene.

The lady and her companion had also come close enough to see something of the victim over the heads and bowed backs. Then they stepped back and stood there, hesitating. The lady had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, which she credited to compassion, although she mainly felt irresolute and helpless. After a while the gentleman said: “The brakes on these heavy trucks take too long to come to a full stop.” This datum gave the lady some relief, and she thanked him with an appreciative glance. She did not really understand, or care to understand, the technology involved, as long as  his explanation helped put this ghastly incident into perspective by reducing it to a technicality of no direct personal concern to her….”According to American statistics,” the gentleman said, “one hundred ninety thohousand people are killed there every year by cars and four hundred fifty thousand are injured.” (I,5)

How many people are killed in auto accidents in the US? In 1913?

Not even American statistics can be as enormous as Musil’s imagination was. Lots of critics have not been able to find any convincing explanation for these totally mistaken and exaggerated numbers. I have to admit, I did not even try to find some American statistics which could reach an amount like that. But I received some statistics from Manfried Rauchensteiner, the director of the Museum of Military History in Vienna. In the first  year of war, the Austro-Hungarian troops had had very high losses: exactly 490,000 wounded and 190,000 killed, counting from a beautiful day in August 1914–a crucial point that does not appear at the ending of Musil’s novel, but that lies buried under its beginning. (121)

Critical Interlude: Burton Pike

September 12, 2010

These remarks on Musil are from Burton Pike, the editorial consultant of the English language version I am reading. They appear in his article “Robert Musil: Literature and Experience” in the Bloom Critical Interpretations on Musil.

Musil’s Mission:

He was impelled by the desire to create through imaginative writing, by experimental means, a new morality that would reflect the new world brought about by the discoveries of the physical and human sciences, a morality that would replace the tattered set of outmoded ethics whose hollowness Nietzsche and the industrial, scientific, and technological revolutions of the nineteenth century had so pitilessly exposed. He unremittingly worked toward the goal of achieving in his writing a new synthesis of spiritual and moral values with the utmost scientific precision. (75)

 The philosophical setting:

In this century philosophy and literary criticism and theory have followed two general orientations. One gives priority to language as mediating our knowledge of the world, the other subordinates language to sensory and perceptual experience, which language serves to mediate. The first view holds that language precedes experience “logically, ontologically, and genetically, and modifies and distorts experience.” The second give priority to “the logical and ontological primacy of experience over language” (Koestenbaum xii). These orientations are by no means mutually exclusive, but serve to indicate a primary emphasis on one or the other aspect. The orientation following language describes a general line from Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Mauthner, Saussure, and Heidegger through structuralism, post structuralism, and deconstruction; the second, originating in the philosophy of Husserl, reaches generally through phenomenology to existentialism and to the group of phenomenologist critics Sarah Lawall has called “the critics of consciousness.” (76)

 Musil’s synthesis:

Musil offers the interesting case of a writer trained as a scientist for whom literature operates primarily on the basis of empirical perception and sensory experiences and for whom language serves as the vehicle to represent experience. This argument implicitly rejects the idea that what literature conveys is graspable only through an analytic procedure that reduces it to rational or rationalized elements of language such as narrative and discourse. A writer, even an analytic writer like Musil, might be interested in pursuing other goals: in his case, as Philip Payne notes, this includes the winning back of the ground of the subject. This ground “has been lost,” Payne says, “in the field of ideas, to the march of a militant objectivity which is both superficial and insensitive; it has been lost in the field of morals with the sense that principles are written on tablets of stone rather than in the human heart; it has been lost in the field of science with the disappearance of the observer from the scope of what he observes” (Payne 210-11)

Science had come to reject positivism and its claims to absolute truth in favor of a system of testable hypotheses, which could only offer probabilities of truth. Experiments, if successful, can increase the probability of truth or, if unsuccessful, give absolute truth of the failure of a hypothesis. Musil sets himself the literary task of having his characters act out and respond to experiments.

He makes his characters, within their immediate fictional situations, attempt to relate to each other and the world through their changing perceptual and sensory envelopes in terms of the experiences he tries out on them. What we can know, according to Husserl, is not the actual physical world but only our experience of it. Unlike Husserl, Musil is quite rigorous in making this process experimental and in developing a literary language that can express it with great precision. He puts all his major characters in this same experimental stance.

This is a rough enterprise for a writer, for not only is representing the complexity of experience thus understood a boundless task, but it rejects as impossibly artificial (not “true to life”) the traditional literary notions of plot, dramatic action, and characterization that normally provide a guiding structure for readers as well as writers. The results are contradictory and paradoxical: self and world, as Musil treats them, dissolve into a flow of endless “possibilities,” of the kind so lovingly developed in The Man Without Qualities. (82)

 The trick is to view the progress of the experiment without killing it. As William James said of examining transitory feelings:

If they are but flights to conclusions, stopping them to look at them before a conclusion is reached is really annihilating them…Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tract is…Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself… The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like…trying to turn up the light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” (quoted in Holton 124)

 Musil attempts to solve this problem with precision, the building up of a large number of precise observations of his characters, in all their unique qualities.

The Man Without Qualities includes a veritable catalog of the ways people talk, write, and interact in their lives, and these ways are considered unsatisfactory and insufficient. Each social class, profession, and individual in the novel is given his/her/its/their own hermetic vocabularies and grammars. Musil included mystic, philosophical, and scientific language, as well as the everyday conversational idiolects of each of the characters in the novel. …Musil even includes body language, as well as the inner, unrealized language of the inarticulate and the insane! The problem, as he saw it, lay in somehow fashioning a language that would  overcome these obstacles and permit objective communication of the whole complex flow of experience from person to person and within society as a whole, and thus make true communication possible. (84) 

Here, then, Musil is experimenting with how language can be made to convey the flow of experience in a way that is inaccessible to the conventional languages of literature and science. By his ingenious use of language, he draws the reader into re-feeling what the characters are feeling. This ability to evoke with great precision in the reader the complex web of feelings associated with the situation and thoughts of the character is perhaps Musil’s greatest achievement as a writer. (86)

Musil found reason enough to despair of himself and the world around him, of which he was a strenuous, acute, and untiring critic; but he still believed, as did  many of his modernist contemporaries, that there was a way forward, if only it could be found, and that a bridge had to be built from the individual person equipped with a new and heightened awareness to a new society in which ethics would assume a central place. This was the matrix of his experimental struggle to forge a language that would truly represent and communicate experience. (88)