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.
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 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)