Before beginning Vol. 2, I wanted to review the first volume and get a feeling of what to expect next. I found a good resource in an academic article by Patrizia McBride.

On the cultural setting:

Musil’s reflection on aesthetics, ethics, and politics developed as a response to the historical upheaval surrounding the catastrophe of World War I. Like many of his contemporaries Musil viewed the war as a catalyst for the deep-seated crisis triggered by the demise of traditional coordinates for spiritual orientation. In particular reference systems rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the secularized humanist reflection that culminated in the Enlightenment appeared increasingly inadequate for making sense of a world caught in the transformations produced by unprecedented advances in technology and the natural sciences. If already in the 1870s Nietzsche described the modern condition as characterized by the loss of a finite horizon of meaning capable of encircling the totality of human experience,” the destruction of the war further exacerbated the modern perception of disorientation and “transzendentale Obdachlosigkeit,” to use Lukacs’s famous formula [transcendental homelessness: JE].

On the nature of modern reality:

Echoing Nietzsche’s critique of modernity in the second of his UnzeitgemaBe Betrachtungen Musil lends voice to the widespread perception of modern reality as a tangle of disjointed facts which are endlessly refracted through the perspective of specialized discourses and seem to lack a unitary principle of organization. Neither the relics of the liberal faith in progress nor the chimeras of nationalism, antiSemitism, or Catholicism are adequate for addressing this situation. What makes them unfit, Musil suggests, is the anachronistic longing for Archimedean standpoints and comprehensive perspectives that informs these essentially anti-modern movements. In this regard the disorientation and confusion that plague the common man are not to be explained in terms of a facile cultural pessimism that portrays the present as an age of decline, but must rather be traced to the increased complexity of modern societies. As Musil moreover argues, in a world of highly specialized life spheres the individual is confronted with questions that far exceed his ability to make an informed decision.

On the rational and feeling powers:

Musil understands that questioning the purpose and orientation of individual and collective experience demands taking a fresh look at the issue of ethics and ethical experience. The background for his investigation is provided by contemporary debates on the relation of the rational and the non-rational, intellect and feeling, consciousness and the unconscious, singular and iterable experiences: disputes which cut across fields of inquiry as diverse as the nascent disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis, and the most innovative lines of philosophical inquiry, from Mach’s analysis of perceptions, to Dilthey’s Lebensphilosophie and Husserl’s phenomenology, to the neoKantianism of Rickert, Windelband, and Ernst Cassirer. What unites these diverse endeavors is the desire to acknowledge the specificity of non-scientific realms of experience, most notably the ethical, and thereby subtract them from the grip of a dogmatic positivism, without, however, relinquishing the demand for a reliable and accountable method of inquiry.

Following a rigorously empirical investigation commensurate with his training in the natural sciences and experimental psychology, Musil came to view ethical experience as inscribed in one of two primary spheres of existence which he described with the neologisms “ratioides and nichtratioides Gebiet” (GW8,1026-28). The ratioid, the realm proper to science and knowledge, encompasses those facts that are iterable, measurable, verifiable and which lend themselves to systematization, to elaborating laws and principles. If the focus on regularities and verifiable phenomena in the ratioid makes it possible to camouflage the ultimate lack of a firm foundation for cognition and allows for the illusion of stable coordinates in a domain dominated by “Regel[n] mit Ausnahmen,” this illusion becomes impossible in the realm of the non-ratioid, “das Gebiet der Werte and Bewertungen, das der ethischen and asthetischen Beziehungen, das Gebiet der Idee” (GW 8, 1028). The utterly particular, non-iterable facts of this realm do not allow for abstraction and systematization, but draw their meaning exclusively from the situation in which they are uniquely embedded.

On the (dis)unity of knowledge:

Gone is the idea of a center, of an immutable system of values. As meaning can never be extricated from the context in which it is embedded, so moral judgments can never be uncoupled from the situation in which they are uttered. Recognizing the advantages of the essayistic mode, young Ulrich attempts to turn it into an ethos and a principle of action.

Ulrich’s utopia of essayism, defined as the willingness to accommodate diverging perspectives and discourses without ever attempting to reduce them to a common set of coordinates, epitomizes the openended, incessant movement of aesthetic imagination in the novel. Conceived as a medium for exploring the complex of ethical questions that lacks a center in modernity, aesthetic imagination lends itself to investigating the multiplicity of perspectives which characterizes the modern world. Literature is reconfigured within this frame as a realm for thought experiments, more specifically, for exploring the ethical and political ramifications of alternative modes of experience. This is not to say that the essayistic mode presents competing perspectives as equivalent or interchangeable. As innumerable examples in the novel indicate, essayistic imagination does not refrain from depicting some options as more or less desirable than others. What it never omits, however, is the acknowledgment that any value judgment concerning these perspectives can never be supported by a superior perspective, be it a universal language of reason or the nonrational gift of intuition claimed by the poet.

The impasse of Volume 1:

Because essayism does not allow for systematization and generalization, it fails to make any of the reflections or situations it engages universally true or compelling. Hence it does not lend itself to distilling non-contingent truths or certainties and remains unable to provide concrete directives for moral judgments or political actions. In order to gain such a perspective one is compelled to give up the condition of the literary and step into a different realm. It follows that the program of an essayistic life finds neither grounding nor support in the movement of essayistic reflection. And this is precisely the problem Ulrich is compelled to address in the first book of the novel which in essence narrates how he progressively gains insight into the crisis this illusory choice has triggered.

As a self-referential reflection on the potentialities and the limits of aesthetic imagination the novel presents essayism as a medium that can make sense of experience in its contingency and situatedness without postulating the fiction of a center. Because of its respect for the singularity and situatedness of experience, however, essayism produces the paradox of the artwork as a unique model, a model that cannot be generalized and hence does not lend itself to articulating guidelines for conduct. At the conclusion of the novel’s first book the question of how to live one’s life in modernity seems to have led to an impasse, for neither the outlived quest for comprehensive horizons and privileged perspectives epitomized by the “Parallelaktion” nor the open-ended, inconclusive movement of essayism-the movement that carries aesthetic imagination-can offer a viable model for engendering meaningful action.

A new direction:

The novel does not stop at this impasse. Its second book goes on to narrate Ulrich’s quest for an “andere[n] Zustand” beyond the grasp of language and conceptual thought which promises the realization of a fully moral life and surfaces in Ulrich’s erotically charged relationship with his sister Agathe.


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