Tuesday, January 02, 2007

THE UNBOUNDED VISION OF ROBERT MUSIL

First Published in The New Republic Magazine

Section: BOOKS & THE ARTS

THE UNBOUNDED VISION OF ROBERT MUSIL By Michael Andre Bernstein

I.

The Man Without Qualities
by Robert Musil
translated by Sophie
Wilkins and Burton Pike
(Knopf, 2 volumes, 1,774 pp., $60)

When Robert Musil died in exile in Geneva on April 15, 1942, he was virtually a forgotten figure, his reputation fading even among his fellow refugees from Nazism, and his masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, nowhere near completion. Only eight people attended his cremation, and the literary world, except for a few scattered and laconic notices, ignored the event completely.

This lack of attention was not simply a natural consequence of the war's all-consuming hold on the imagination, in comparison with which the fate of a single writer could scarcely be expected to arouse much interest; fifteen months earlier, after all, James Joyce's death in Zurich was marked by an outpouring of articles in mass-circulation newspapers as well as in literary journals. Moreover, even after the defeat of the Third Reich had restored a German readership to other emigre authors such as Thomas Mann and Bertold Brecht, Robert Musil remained largely unread and unpublished. The first postwar edition of The Man Without Qualities did not appear until 1952, and it took another decade and a half before anything resembling a consensus about his importance as one of the pre-eminent European writers of the century emerged.

Today there is little doubt that Musil belongs in the great constellation of European novelists, in the company of Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Svevo, writers who redefined the formal possibilities of their medium and, in the process, reshaped the ways we use storytelling to make sense of our experience. But if the recognition of Musil's mastery has taken so long to secure, this is not due merely to resistance by readers, nor to the intrinsic difficulty of his work. The whole nature of Musil's achievement, the ways in which his work is both difficult and rewarding, constitutes so singular a case that even a thorough grounding--and delight--in the complexities of the other great Modernist authors does little to prepare one for an encounter with a body of work like his.

That is why it is so crucial that a complete translation of The Man Without Qualities, on which Musil concentrated for the last twenty years of his life, has finally been made available to English-speaking readers. And that is why, whatever one's reservations about particular details of this translation, its appearance is a literary and intellectual event of singular importance. For decades now, even in the United States, Musil's novel has been alluded to regularly; it has been ransacked for its striking epigraphs and historical aperius, and invoked as one of the especially revelatory documents that nourish our ongoing fascination with the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now, though, The Man Without Qualities is available not merely to specialists in one or another academic discipline, but to any American reader eager to experience the scrupulous lucidity with which Musil transformed the well-made European novel into an open-ended thought-experiment. In Musil's hands, the novel became a "testing ground" for problems whose pertinence is no less powerful today than when he was writing.

There are many differences between Musil and most of the other Modernist masters, but foremost among them is the fact that Musil came to literature from science. He was as expert in theoretical physics, experimental psychology and mechanical engineering as in strictly literary or philosophical questions. The pre-war Austrian intelligentsia placed a much higher value on a rigorous scientific education than did their counterparts in England, France or the United States. Recall Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was initially trained in mechanical engineering, and first came to England in 1908 to study aeronautics at Manchester, before finally turning to philosophy relatively late in his education. Even more than Wittgenstein, Musil sought throughout his whole life to combine a commitment to the most stringent principles of mathematical logic with a mystical yearning for a new, less alienated way of living.

And like Wittgenstein, but with greater irony, Musil mocked everyone who substituted a vaguely inflated rhetoric of soulfulness for the kind of hard thinking that genuine understanding requires. "Anyone who is incapable of solving an integral equation, anyone who is unable to perform a laboratory experiment, should today be forbidden to discuss all spiritual matters," Musil declared in 1921, in his play Die Schwarmer (The Enthusiasts). And in The Man Without Qualities, when Diotima, the society hostess, discovers that she has a profoundly yearning soul, the narrator mordantly comments on such pretensions to spiritual inwardness: "What is a soul? It is easy to define negatively: it is simply that which sneaks off at the mention of algebraic series."

Musil's early preparation for his quest to unite mathematics and mysticism was as idiosyncratic as the project itself. He was born in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, in 1880, the son of a gifted, hard-working and emotionally distant civil engineer with a distinguished career in academic and administrative appointments, and a mother whose temperament was flamboyantly sexual and self-dramatizing. In 1882, when Musil's mother openly took a lover, Heinrich Reiter, her husband seems to have accepted the situation without a struggle, and in 1890 Reiter accompanied the Musil family as their regular "house guest" to Brunn (Brno), where Alfred Musil moved to become a professor of mechanical engineering. This permanent and oddly domestic menage a trois lasted until Hermine Musil's death in 1924.

Although he was an outstanding student, Robert Musil suffered from severe attacks of nerves throughout his childhood, and biographers have speculated, often based only on the ambiguous evidence of his fiction, about the links between his recurrent emotional crises and his family's eccentric sexual configuration. What is indisputable, and perhaps even stranger, is how much Musil was haunted by the image of his "lost" sister Elsa, who died, less than 11 months old, four years before Robert's birth. The motif of a vanished and then rediscovered sister, a twin with whom all intimacy is possible, but at the risk of transgressing into the illicit and demonic, became central to The Man Without Qualities. The most moving relationship in the novel is the tenderness between Ulrich, the book's protagonist, and his sister Agathe, siblings "who are doppelgangers, who have two souls, but are one." Their mutual attachment is described by Agathe herself as "no longer a love story; it is the very last love story there can be."

Like many boys of his class, Musil was sent to boarding schools as an adolescent. For three years he attended the same military cadet institution in Mahrisch-Weisskirchen that Rainer Maria Rilke had so loathed several years earlier. Musil's first important work, Young Torless, which was published to considerable critical acclaim in 1906, contains a bitter account of the boarding school's atmosphere of claustrophobia, snobbism, homosexual brutality and intellectual nullity. He abandoned his plans for a military career in 1898, after just one year in Vienna at the Military Academy of Technology, and returned to Brunn to take up civil engineering. Once back in Brunn, though, he also began to attend lectures on literature and philosophy, and became more systematic about noting down his personal impressions and projects in a series of diaries that he continued to keep for the rest of his life.

In 1902, he obtained an assistantship at Germany's most advanced laboratory for mechanical engineering, the Technical Institute in Stuttgart, but a year later, he was already bored with his research and moved to Berlin to begin doctoral studies in philosophy (particularly logic) and experimental psychology. Musil continued to read widely in literature, while simultaneously applying his engineering skills to patent a new design for a color wheel used in experimental psychology tests. In Berlin, Musil studied with Carl Stumpf (to whom Edmund Husserl later dedicated his Logical Investigations), and in 1908 he received his doctorate in philosophy, physics and mathematics for a thesis on Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist and philosopher for whom the Mach number, representing the ratio of the speed of an object to the speed of sound in the atmosphere, was named.

But to the disgruntlement of his family, who were still supporting him financially, Musil rejected the academic post that he was offered in order to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1911, he married Martha Marcovaldi, a Jewish-born Berliner who had been married twice before. Martha, who originally had been trained as a visual artist, became the one person on whom Musil was always ready to rely, for his writing and his emotional well-being. Although Agathe in The Man Without Qualities differs in many ways from Martha Musil, it is fascinating to see that Musil often referred to his wife as his "married sister." The short stories that he was writing during these years, "The Perfecting of a Love" and "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" (they were published in 1911 and appear in English translationin a book of Musil's stories called Five Women), seem almost collaborative works, so clearly can one sense the perspective and voice of Martha in the texture of both narratives.

Despite Musil's literary success, however, his refusal of an academic career left the couple in precarious circumstances throughout his life, and neither his regular work as a reviewer, editor and cultural critic for leading journals in Berlin and Vienna, nor his brief stints at the Library of the Technical University in Vienna (1911-1914) and at the Press Office of the Austrian Foreign Ministry (1919-1920), assured him of financial stability. In The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich has sufficient means to take off a year from his work as a mathematician in order to live free of external constraints, and there is no doubt that his character's economic independence satisfies one of Musil's own persistent yearnings.

Musil continued to produce essays on an enormous range of topics, including politics, art, cinema, metaphysics and the nature of essayistic thinking. The best of these--they are available in English as Precision and Soul--contain some of the century's most searching discussions of the breakdown of the European intellectual and imaginative order. Sentences such as "If I want to have a worldview, then I must view the world," or "We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little intellect in matters of the soul," are gradually becoming as much a part of the German aphoristic tradition as the most memorable of Nietzsche's or Schopenhauer's epigrams.

Still, even his two plays, Die Schwarmer (The Enthusiasts) and the still untranslated Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Manner (Vincent and the Mistress of Important Men), which appeared in 1923, did little to improve his financial position. The need for a steady income became all the more pressing as Musil began to devote himself with ever-increasing determination to his great novel. Musil's diary entries show that elements of The Man Without Qualities began to crystallize in his mind well before the outbreak of World War I. By 1919 he had already blocked out many of the book's fundamental themes and specific situations, and by 1924 he was working on it full time.

Beginning in 1925, Musil was receiving regular, if modest, advances for the novel (still tentatively called "The Twin Sister") from his publisher Ernst Rowohlt, and in 1926 Musil gave the first extensive interview in a literary journal about his forthcoming book. In October 1930, at the urging of the increasingly impatient Rowohlt, Musil published the first volume of The Man Without Qualities, 1,075 pages containing all of Sections One and Two ("A Sort of Introduction" and "Pseudo-reality Prevails"). In 1933, again yielding to pressure from Rowohlt, Musil reluctantly published a second volume of 608 pages, comprising a portion of Part Three ("Into the Millennium"). Musil resented having to publish his work piecemeal. He was afraid that once a significant portion was in print, he would be locked into formulations that did not fully satisfy him, without having the chance to revise these parts in the light of subsequent realizations.

At almost the same time as the second volume appeared, Musil and Martha left Berlin for Vienna, in response to the Nazi accession to power. After the German annexation of Austria in 1938, the Musils again fled, this time to Switzerland, where they lived on increasingly depleted resources until the writer's death in 1942. A third volume of The Man Without Qualities had been prepared by Musil for publication in 1938, in an effort to keep alive some public interest in his work. These twenty chapters were intended as a continuation of Part Three, not as its conclusion, but Musil withdrew them when they were already set in galleys. No further parts of The Man Without Qualities appeared during Musil's lifetime, but in 1943 Martha had the withdrawn chapters, along with a very small selection from his voluminous drafts and fragments, published at her own expense in Lausanne as Volume Three. Since 1952, under the editorship of Adolf Frise, who became fascinated with Musil's novel in the 1930s and contacted Martha after the war to inquire about the state of the manuscripts, The Man Without Qualities has appeared in increasingly expanded and revised editions, incorporating more of Musil's posthumous fragments and draft chapters (the Nachlass). The latest of these editions was published in 1978, and serves as the basis of the new translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike.
II.

More than most long and complex novels, The Man Without Qualities resists being summarized. Far from coming together to form a coherent plot, the book's diverse incidents become increasingly more disparate and fragmented as the novel unfolds. Indeed, the inability of separate stories, motifs and perspectives to coalesce into a meaningful pattern is one of Musil's major themes. The Man Without Qualities may be understood as a series of events in search of a plot, just as the Habsburg Empire itself is shown as a haphazard political amalgam engaged in a hopeless search for some unifying meaning or identity.

At the center of all these stories, and providing the novel's sustained focus and source of continuity, is Ulrich, the "man without qualities." An ex-soldier, an experimental scientist, a brilliant mathematician and a casual womanizer, Ulrich decides, at the age of 32, to take a year-long "vacation from life," so as to discover in himself the intellectual rigor, spiritual intensity and emotional depth that, he has grown to feel, must underlie any meaningful action. He has many talents, but he has no qualities, in the sense that his acute self-awareness detaches him from his own attributes, and gives them, in his eyes, a kind of impersonal and even transitory nature. If the other characters in the book have a stable identity and a conviction that whatever beliefs bolster their position in the world must be universally beneficent, Ulrich deliberately resists the reassurance of such stability; he does not want to assume a possessive stance toward the qualities he has, nor use them to take a proprietary attitude toward the world.

The Man Without Qualities opens in August 1913, less than a year before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Habsburg throne, triggered the outbreak of the First World War. The specific historical situation is central to the novel's unfolding, since Ulrich is prodded by his anxious father, a judge with aristocratic connections, and his beautiful, muddled cousin Diotima, to assume the position of secretary for an ambitious but incoherent plan--the "Parallel Campaign"--to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Emperor Franz Joseph's coronation, which is due to fall on December 2, 1918. Conceived as a patriotic response to the already formulated German idea of honoring Wilhelm II, on July 15, 1918, with a national festival celebrating his thirty years on the throne, the Austrian scheme (or Parallelaktion) is pathetically, even risibly, futile, since Franz Joseph was to die in 1916, and in 1918 both the Austrian and the German Empires would collapse and be replaced by republics.

In the first two sections of the novel ("A Sort of Introduction" and "Pseudoreality Prevails"), Ulrich is drawn into the frantic but essentially vacuous activities set in motion by the Parallel Campaign. Diotima's salon becomes the project's unofficial headquarters, and since almost every section of Austrian society wants to influence the direction of the planned jubilee, Musil is able to paint a rich portrait of the epoch's leading character types and their ideas. At Diotima's receptions, Ulrich encounters everyone from members of the Imperial government and Army General Staff to career diplomats, bourgeois plutocrats and arriviste poets, and in these chapters Musil comes close to creating a kind of Human Comedy of the Habsburg Empire in its final months.

In a separate development, Ulrich also begins to follow the trial of an obsessed sex-murderer named Moosbrugger, who exerts a hold on the Viennese imagination of the day somewhat as Charles Manson did on the American imagination not long ago. And just as the Parallel Campaign provided Musil with a central focus for the political and economic machinations of Austria's ruling classes, so the Moosbrugger trial turns the novel in a different direction, broaching the themes of madness and messianic delusion as these touch another group of Ulrich's acquaintances, from his frustrated childhood friends Walter and Clarisse to the young right-wing Germanic nationalist Hans Sepp. These minor characters are often compelling in their own right, especially Moosbrugger and Clarisse, whose craziness is disturbingly close to Ulrich's own glimpses of a "second consciousness." Yet they function primarily to enrich the breadth of the novel's social canvas, and, equally importantly, to bring into focus the difficulty and the riskiness of Ulrich's decision not to settle for a partial solution to his search for a meaningful new "science of feeling."

But his father's death and his own increasing indifference to the world of power and politics distance Ulrich more and more from the Campaign. In the third, unfinished section of the work ("Into the Millennium [The Criminals]"), he gives up his position as the Campaign's secretary, abandons his concern with Moosbrugger, and withdraws almost completely from society in order to pursue his quest for a way to heal the rupture between scientific precision and mystical intensity. His sister, Agathe, whom he rediscovers during the settling of their father's estate, decides to divorce her husband and set up house with Ulrich, and together the siblings dedicate themselves to learning how "to hold fast to their intimations ... [of a] second reality ... a day-bright mysticism ... [that] mustn't ever be more than an hour old!"

The mysticism that Ulrich and Agathe seek is not "a secret through which we enter another world, but only ... the secret of living differently" in this world. Musil never finished his description of Ulrich and Agathe's joint search, but the notes that he left behind suggest that this quest, too, ultimately would have failed. In its isolation from the rest of humankind, even as sublime a passion as Ulrich's and Agathe's ends up exhausting itself on the "unstable borderline" between the ecstatic and the solipsistic.
III.

"Unfortunately, nothing is so hard to achieve as a literary representation of a man thinking." This rueful admission by Musil's narrator crystallizes both the difficulty as well as the originality of The Man Without Qualities. To an extent unprecedented in Western literature, large stretches of the book contain neither forward-moving action nor inward character development. In their place, we are often given extended sections of pure intellectual-moral speculation, essayistic reflections that exist less to illuminate the private passions of a character than to follow the inner logic of a concept with its own independent claims on our attention. This is a kind of novelistic "essayism," a term that exactly translates Musil's loan-word Essayismus. By that word Musil did not mean philosophical systematizing, but rather "the unique and unalterable form assumed by a man's inner life in a decisive thought."

This notion is crucial to Musil's conception of the novel's responsibility to express the fullest possible range of human consciousness. Essayism is no longer a question of genre, it is a way of thinking about and experiencing the world as an unfixable, variegated and constantly self-transforming phenomenon "between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry." Several times in The Man Without Qualities, Musil tries to explain his intention and to justify the new kind of writing that intention calls forth: "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?"

Consider, as an example of one of the novel's "essays," this passage from Ulrich's meditation on the nature of water:

Nothing had occurred to him except that water is something three times the size of the land, even counting only what everyone recognizes as water: rivers, seas, lakes, springs. It was long thought to be akin to air. The great Newton thought so, and yet most of his other ideas are still as up-to-date as if they had been thought today. The Greeks thought that the world and life had arisen from water. It was a god: Okeanos. Later, water sprites, elves, mermaids, and nymphs were invented. Temples and oracles were built by the waters' edge. The cathedrals of Hildesheim, Paderborn and Bremen were all built over springs, and behold, are those cathedrals not still standing today? And isn't water still used for baptism? And aren't there devotees of water and apostles of natural healing, whose souls are in such oddly sepulchral health? So there was a place in the world like a blurred spot or grass trodden flat. And of course the man without qualities also had modern scientific concepts in his head, whether he happened to be thinking of them or not. According to them water is a colorless liquid, blue only in thick layers, odorless and tasteless, as you recite it over and over in school until you can never forget it, although physiologically it also contains bacteria, vegetable matter, air, iron, calcium sulphate and calcium bicarbonate, and although physically this archetype of liquids is not basically a liquid at all, but, depending on circumstances, a solid, a liquid or a gas. Ultimately it all dissolves into systems of formulas, all somehow interlinked, and there were only a few dozen people in the whole wide world who thought alike about even so simple a thing as water; all the rest talk about it in languages that belong somewhere between today and some thousands of years ago. So one must say that as soon as a man begins to reflect even a little, he falls into disorderly company!

These thoughts are entirely disinterested and abstract, and yet unmistakably redolent of Ulrich's temperament, his way of giving himself over to whatever grips his attention. The prodigious range, in this passage, of references and contexts, rapid shifts in tone and intensely personal juxtaposition of discursive reasoning and sudden, metaphoric intuitions: these all crystallize the ways in which Ulrich's intelligence works, and yet unraveling the separate components does not yield anything like a "psychological portrait" in the accepted novelistic sense. Ulrich is fascinated with water throughout the book, no doubt because in its protean and endlessly changing manifestations it has no fixed identity, and occurs only as a series of temporary states--as a solid, a liquid or a gas--each of which is the element's way of existing in different conditions. Water, that is, can itself be thought of as an element without qualities, and in its lability it is a strikingly appropriate subject for Ulrich's sympathetic attention. Always itself yet always adaptable to multiple ways of manifesting itself, water is essayistic in its self-transformative, unstable and discontinuous character, and thus, by the kind of reasoning Ulrich often enjoys, "having no qualities" is fundamentally akin to an essayistic mode of being.

Ulrich himself could just as easily be called "the Essayistic Man," and Musil makes clear that the concepts of "essayism" and being "without qualities" are simply positive and negative ways of formulating the same cast of mind. Ulrich amuses himself by itemizing the many characteristics, meanings and associations that are linked to the single word "water." What emerges from his catalog is an understanding of how much these meanings change depending on the cultural-historical worldview in which the word participates, and at the same time, how often it has been linked to myths of creation, creativity and rebirth.

Even this brief survey takes in Greek legends, medieval Christianity, modern geography, physics, chemistry and medicine, as well as the superstitions of health faddists and the equally blinkered self-assurance of classroom pedagogues. Ulrich's gift here, as throughout the novel, is to be able to listen to diverse and formally irreconcilable meanings without pre-judging them, and his sharpest irony is reserved for those who insist that only their explanatory terms are really "true" and "complete." Paradoxically, to think clearly is to "fall into disorderly company," because there simply is no unique formula or single perspective that can satisfactorily encompass the diverse meanings of a term such as water within a hierarchical order.

It is only for the insane that everything falls into place, like the sex-murderer Moosbrugger, whom Ulrich views as "a rampant metaphor of order." For the truly mad, the whole universe is just a manifestation of their demand for an absolute order based on the impoverished categories of their own egos. Thus, during Moosbrugger's time in jail, Musil gives us a terrifying glimpse of a too-ordered consciousness at its most pathological:

If Moosbrugger had had a big sword, he'd have ... 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.... The table was Moosbrugger. The chair was Moosbrugger. The barred window and bolted door were himself.

Ulrich's flexible and inclusive intelligence is emphasized so strongly in the essayistic passages of Parts One and Two, precisely because his longing for a new kind of mystical "oneness with the world" in which "all affirmations express only a single surging experience" is not without an eerie affinity to Moosbrugger's ecstatic delirium. And it is precisely our familiarity with Ulrich's essayism, his insistence on the provisional character of any realization, that makes us trust his experiences of transcendent wholeness in Part Three, while still, like the narrator himself, keeping a certain critical distance from the full sweep of Ulrich's and Agathe's "second reality." But because the essayistic mode of being relativizes everything, Ulrich is no more willing to stay entirely within rational, analytic categories than he is able to abandon them completely. Hence, at the end of his meditations on water, he discards the abstract concepts to pull himself back into his body, by becoming aware of "that dumb but deep, exciting sensation ... when one sniffs one's own skin." Immediately afterward we are told that Ulrich "stood up and pulled the curtains back from the window," and the mundane gesture startles us because in this chapter, as so often at the end of Musil's "essays," one needs to remind oneself of the actual location of the thinking characters, so completely has the narrative been given over to the ideas.

Even in Proust and Joyce, where the inner thoughts of the characters are the real focus of interest, we never forget the context and circumstances that both frame and often prompt those thoughts: Molly Bloom lying in bed, or Marcel listening to the rain falling outside his window. In Musil, by contrast, there is often no indication that any particular set of events or immediate anxieties have triggered what is being thought about. Indeed, the absence of any readily categorizeable motivation for their musings is what distinguishes Ulrich and Agathe from the other figures in the book, whose delight in large, philosophical-sounding pronouncements is brilliantly satirized by having its self-serving and self-referential function laid bare. Musil's most vividly realized secondary characters, like the great industrialist Paul Arnheim (modeled after the German tycoon and Weimar Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau), or the Austrian aristocrat Count Leinsdorf, all use ideas to validate their particular class or professional interests; society figures such as Diotima try on important cultural issues like a sort of jewelry, designed to confer distinction on their bearer. (Leinsdorf is memorably described as being unable to recognize anything in what he reads, "other than agreement with or mistaken divergence from his own principles.")

But the refusal to exploit ideas ideologically, to inflate the limited and fixed perspectives of a class or character into a totalizing explanatory system, only raises the stakes of the book's deep intellectual quest for das rechte Leben, the right life and the right way to live that life. Since Ulrich's scientific and mathematical skepticism co-exists with a powerful longing for a condition of being in which feeling and knowledge would act in concert, neither perspective can be sacrificed. To him, "faith as a diminished form of knowledge was abhorrent," and he uses his analytic intelligence to question the slack religiosity of those whose dissatisfaction with the modern world comes not from a need for something more, but from a futile wish to go back to some earlier, supposedly less complex order.
IV.

Of course, readers of The Man without Qualities know from the outset that the world the novel describes has very little time left before perishing in the conflagration of World War I. But Musil does not use the reader's knowledge of the imminent dissolution of Austro-Hungary as a basis for representing the actions and hopes of the characters in the book as absurd, nor is his ironic perspective on contemporary political events based on their eventual outcome. The Parallel Campaign is not ludicrous because the ruler it planned to honor will die and his dynasty be overthrown before the celebration's announced date. In its intellectual incoherence and ideological blindness, the Campaign is ludicrous from the moment of its conception.

In the salons and the ministries of Vienna, the chance of a general European conflict is kept in mind, but it is presented as only one of a wide range of possibilities, and avoiding such an outcome is the chief purpose of many of the characters in Musil's book. The Man Without Qualities is full of intimations of the coming war, but it is just as resonant with suggestions that such a cataclysm can be prevented. The important point is that Musil skillfully allows the whole range of ideas and hopes held by his characters in 1913 to be heard clearly on their own terms. He regularly satirizes all of his characters' positions, but only when their blindness and self-deception are already fully demonstrable in the context of their own day, not when they fail to foresee the future.

Musil's solution to the technical and epistemological problems raised by the narration of historical events whose outcome is already known is exemplary in its fairness: it is impossible for the reader to suspend a knowledge of the book's historical aftermath, and so the narrator deliberately plays on that knowledge, not to exploit it for the emotional intensities thatit might add to the story, but to undermine any sense of historical inevitability. The dense network of voices and ideas makes the reader's faith in a superior, because subsequent, vantage point impossible. There are so many plausible scenarios for the future sketched out in The Man Without Qualities, so many different hopes and expectations expressed by characters in a position to make astute forecasts, that the novel swarms with projections of contradictory prospects. Inevitably, though, because we know which of these projected futures come to pass, we are tempted to pay special attention whenever any character seems to articulate what actually happened as the likeliest possibility. Musil repeatedly makes fun of the urge to endow a specific moment with greater portentousness because of what actually ensued: "Time was making a fresh start then (it does so all the time).... There was great excitement everywhere around the turn of 1913-1914. But two years or five years earlier there had also been much excitement."

Just as Ulrich is deeply frustrated by the gulf separating modern man's expert knowledge in the professional and scientific areas of life from the uncritical assumptions with which he interprets the world in his private and moral life, so the novel as a whole seeks to undo the narrative conventions by which the reader imposes a linear, scripted pattern on the motility of historical events and individual psyches. Musil's irony works so effectively because he expects readers to approach a novel set on the eve of the Great War as though it would manifest all the familiar devices of deterministic inevitability. Thus we, too, are already "set up" by our own expectations to undergo the shock of realizing that all of us, not just the book's characters, indulge in no longer credible patterns of thinking.

For Musil, history is not destiny. The most satiric parts of Musil's novel describe a world in stasis or in a self-perpetuating muddle, rather than on the verge of disintegration. The Habsburg Empire that we actually are shown could just as easily have lasted for many years more. Musil's typically ironic, yet serious way to establish the speciousness of deterministic thinking is to deny the attribute of inevitability even to Divine creation: "God himself probably preferred to speak of His world in the subjunctive of possibility ... for God creates the world and thinks while He is at it that it could just as well be done differently." And this, in a sense, is also the problem confronting the novelist.

The novelist must create a plausible world while still indicating that "it could just as well be done differently." And so, irrespective of some posthumous drafts in which Musil briefly tries out having Ulrich go into combat, it is unlikely that the war could have been inserted successfully into the novel. Only by setting his narrative before the outbreak of hostilities can Musil guarantee that neither his characters nor his narrator speak with predictive historical certainty. Since Musil is so concerned to show that many things can be imagined as likely to happen, that history is not driven by any rational principle or internal logic that would let the future be accurately predicted, he is also particularly careful not to allow the war to undermine the novel's fidelity to a sense of multifarious possibilities (Moglichkeitssinn). To include the war directly would risk giving it the privilege of being not just an event in the narrative, but rather its meaning, and this, precisely, is what Musil thought unacceptable.

But simply at the level of composing a coherent work of art, Musil's refusal to use the war as an externally authenticated closure to his book left him with an impossible struggle to create a structure that would provide a narratable resolution to his theoretical and ethical requirements. This he failed to do. His failure is clear not only from the incompleteness of the novel at the time of his death, but also from the nature of the last sections that he actually published and the enormous mass of drafts and fragments he left behind. A variety of reasons--including depression over the lack of an audience, an intermittent but long-standing "writer's block," intellectual exhaustion, the financial uncertainties of an exile's life--have all been advanced to explain Musil's inability to complete his book. But once Musil rejected ending the novel with the melodramatic thunderclap of the outbreak of war (say, for example, with the reading of a telegram announcing Franz Ferdinand's assassination at what would then obviously become the last meeting of the Parallel Campaign), the novel had to remain unfinished, I think, for strictly internal reasons.

The Man Without Qualities is a work that, for all its biting irony, struggles to achieve not a distance from the world, but an adequacy to the world's complexity. The problem, in its simplest terms, is that the exclusion of the war turns the various contradictory futures projected by the book's different characters into permanently available possibilities. This in turn makes the novel itself permanently unresolvable into an outcome of any kind, since the choice of an ending counter to the real, historical one would have the intolerable effect of relegating the entirety of the book to the realm of the fantastical. Even a resolution in the text that remained entirely private but had no correspondence in or influence on the public world--say, the illuminations of what Ulrich and Agathe call their "holy conversations" on the nature of love--would have been unsatisfactory and, by Musil's standards, unprincipled. Hence the need for Musil to make clear that even these two marvelously prepared lovers fail to sustain the "incomparable birth of the spirit out of darkness."

And yet the posthumous fragments about Ulrich's and Agathe's quest for a new and private way of living contain some of the book's most moving passages. The satiric tone of the earlier portions drops away. Musil's spiritual yearning begins to penetrate Ulrich's and Agathe's discussions, and so does his extensive reading in the Church Fathers and Christian mystics. Finally their "understanding gives way to irrepressible astonishment." This love story encompasses intellect, passion, transcendence and rootedness in the world in a way that is unique in post-medieval literature. The intense inwardness of some of the meditations do succeed in giving intimations that a different relationship to self, world and desire might be attainable. Sometimes, in reading these chapters, it is almost as if we are encountering a poet simultaneously imbued with the ecstatic longing of a great mystic and the fastidious rationality of a great logician:

Not only do external relationships melt away and re-form in the whispering enclosures of light and shadow, but the inner relationships, too, move closer together in a new way.... And it is not the mouth that pours out its adoration but the body, which, from head to foot, is stretched taut in exaltation above the darkness of the earth and beneath the light of the heavens, oscillating between two stars. And the whispering with one's companion is full of a quite unknown sensuality, which is not the sensuality of an individual human being but of all that is earthly, of all that penetrates perception and sensation, the suddenly revealed tenderness of the world that incessantly touches all our senses and is touched by them.

The chapters containing passages such as this one have never before appeared in English, and their presence alone makes the new edition indispensable.

The previous three-volume English translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser originally appeared between 1953 and 1960 and has long been out of print. It contained only those sections published during Musil's lifetime, thus omitting not only all of the posthumous drafts and fragments, but even the chapters that Musil withdrew from publication in 1938. The new edition, elegantly printed in two volumes and ably translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, thus contains almost 50 percent more material than the earlier one, and its arrangement of the posthumous drafts is in some ways even more satisfying for the non-scholarly reader than the German source-text. Whereas Frise prints the posthumous material in reverse chronological order, beginning with the pages on which Musil was working at the end of his life, Burton Pike, who was responsible for these portions of the book, shrewdly chooses to group the material together according to the characters treated, the alternative plot developments with which Musil was experimenting, and finally according to Musil's notes about the novel as a whole.

These sections are wonderfully translated, and the startling shifts in Musil's tone, from analytic to ecstatic, from aloofly ironical to soaringly impassioned, are rendered into English with some of the rapidity and the sharpness of the original. To translate Musil requires a good measure of the precision and soul that he himself sought in his life and work. Pike's translation often attains this union. The same, alas, cannot said of the earlier parts, done primarily by Sophie Wilkins. Although she corrects some obvious errors and anachronisms in the first English version, her ear betrays her with distressing frequency. Typically, for example, she refers to Ulrich's father as having been elevated, like Alfred Musil himself, to Austria's "House of Lords," a term that immediately suggests London rather than Vienna. She then tops this by offering "Cultural Revolution" as a chapter title, without realizing that readers are likely to think they have been transported from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the People's Republic of China.

Far more distressing, though, is Wilkins's clumsiness with Musil's epigrams, and when two versions exist, almost every instance makes clear the superiority of the 1954 rendering. (Compare Wilkins's "But having more of a life is one of the earliest and subtlest signs of mediocrity" to the older "But this capacity to experience more is one of the earliest and subtlest signs by which mediocrity can be recognized.") Still, there are also definite improvements: "Parallel Campaign" is better than "Collateral Campaign," and, best of all, the title of Part Two (Seinesgleichen geschiet)is translated, with a touch of inspiration, as "Pseudoreality Prevails," instead of the older and largely meaningless title, "The Like of It Now Happens."

But finally, such dissatisfaction with particular formulations matters only insofar as it might encourage some revisions in future printings of this edition. The translators and the publishers have given us the version of The Man Without Qualities that will define Robert Musil's achievement for this generation of English-speaking readers. In one of Musil's plays, a character cries out in frustration, "But then life always makes you choose between two possibilities, and you always feel: One is missing! Always one--the uninvented third possibility." To read The Man Without Qualities is to encounter, in all its intellectual richness and imaginative density, the risks and the excitements of that uninvented third possibility.


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By Michael Andre Bernstein

Michael Andre Bernstein is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most recently of Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (University of California Press).

1 comment:

Rodney Welch said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I'm reading the book now, and this is a richly intelligent and educational essay that digs deep into the heart of a novel that as a notoriously thick crust