Saturday, February 10, 2007

from The Man Without Qualities

My literary tour of Austria continues. After Bernhard, Jelinek, Bachmann, Roth, Schnitzler, Freud, now it's the turn of what is generally considered the greatest work of Austrian (or Central European) literature-- The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I have read around 200 pages so far and it has been more entertaining and much easier to read than what I had expected it to be. It is surprisingly very funny and the tone is predominantly satirical, in a good humoured sort of way, even when he goes all ballistic on the desolations and the shallowness of the modern world. I read somewhere that it gets serious, bleak and slow towards the end but so far it is a rollicking read. I will try to write down a summary of whatever I have read sometime (to keep track of my own reading more than anything else). For now here is a very enlightening extract which explains the title of the novel and the central character of the book and also elucidates the central idea of the novel -- that in the modern world man has lost his "essence", "soul" or "qualities" as scientifically minded Musil would prefer to call it. It is conversation between a couple, Walter and Clarisse, who are boyhood friends of Ulrich, the titular man without qualities.

Walter said vehemently: "Today it's all decadence! A bottomless pit of intelligence! He is intelligent, I grant you that, but he knows nothing about the power of the soul in full possession of itself. What Goethe calls personality, what Goethe calls mobile order-- those are the things he doesn't have a clue about!"[...]

"There are millions of them nowadays," Walter declared. "It's the human type produced by our time!"[...] "Just look at him! what would you take him for? Does he look like a doctor, a buisenessman, a painter or a diplomat?"

"He's none of those," Clarisse said dryly.

"Well, does he look like a mathematician?"

"I don't know -- how should I know what a mathematician is supposed to look like?"

"You've hit the nail on the head! A mathematician looks like nothing at all--that is, he is likely to look intelligent in such a general way that there isn't a single specific thing to pin him down! Except for the Roman Catholic Clergy, no one these days looks the way he should, because we use our heads even more impersonally than our hands. But mathematics is the absolute limit: it already knows as little about itself as future generations, feeding on energy pills instead of bread and meat, will be likely to know about meadows and young calves and chickens!"

[...]

"His appearance gives no clue to what his profession might be, and yet he doesn't look like a man without a profession either. Consider what he's like: He always knows what to do. He knows how to gaze into a woman's eyes. He can put his mind to any question at any time. He can box. He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, curcumspect--why quibble, suppose we grant him all these qualities--yet he has none of them! They've made him what he is, they've set the course for him, and yet they don't belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He'll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context--nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a superwhole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only how it is--some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that's what interests him. I don't know whether I am making myself clear--?"

[...] By the time he finished he had recognized that Ulrich stood for nothing but this state of dissolution that all present-day phenomena have.

15 comments:

Szerelem said...

Its nice to know that I am not the only one who takes off on regional literary tours. Turkey, Central Asia, the Balkans. Next stop - Egypt. Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy. have you happened to read it?

Alok said...

nope... havent read it. I am still in Europe. Old Europe....

Crp said...

Well Walter is pretty shallow himself -- mathematicians, like all other highly evolved species, are easy to spot. Just observe one cross a busy street. You'll hear screeching brakes, you'll see 10 cars pile up one on the other and you'll see one bemused mathematician trying to figure out what all the fuss is about...

There's as much personality and "soul" in there as in 1200 pages of bile.

Alok said...

Hehe... yes, Actually Musil himself satirizes Walter and people like him. His intent is clearer in his caricatures of Diotima and Paul Arnheim (the man who is attempting a "Union of Soul and Economics").

Musil will have none of the mystifications which goes with all the "soul-talk." He is a committed man of science but he knows that something is lost when one sees oneself and the world from a strictly analytical and scientific point of view.

Cheshire Cat said...

This extract wounded me to the very core. Wounded I was, but something in me was pleased...

Crp said...

Alok: I agree. It's Musil's light touch, more than anything else, that's had me hooked so far (I've read the first 60 or so chapters).

btw, as a long time lurker I must say I've greatly enjoyed your posts and links. Thanks!

Antonia said...

the end doesn't get gloomy, maybe more slow,more thoughtful,but still,I think in the end there are some of the best chapters & fragments, especially the ones that describe Agathe and Ulrich's relationship.

Antonia said...

actually the Agathe & Ulrich chapters and fragments belong to the most beautiful & sensitive chapters on love I have ever read. Could sometimes see this almost visually happening. Really, sometimes I wonder was it good that he never managed to finish it, or would it have become even more beautiful.
the book is much better than his first stories, no?

Alok said...

antonia: yes, much better than Tonka... it is a fantastic book in fact. even in the beginning his insights and discussions of love (in a couple of chapters) are so fascinating and profound. no sentimentality and no mumbo-jumbo... he is so sharp and intelligent and reading it one starts feeling more intelligent himself. the english edition comes with the fragments and unfinished drafts too. it will take some time for me to get there though!

cat: don't be sad. he says similar things about engineers, military officers, financiers, industrialists, diplomats, everybody in fact. its the representative type for our modern age!

crp: thanks :)

Antonia said...

glad you have an edition with the fragments, there really are the gems.
I was always thinking that General Stumm maybe is the secret hero.

Alok said...

yet me meet general stumm. i am waiting for chapter 100 too! and now i am drunk, another night wasted!!

Antonia said...

being drunk is not waisted, believe me, you're laying foundations for Lowry :)

Alok said...

Oh I am still a beginner in these matters. i will never be like these great men ;)

the art of memory said...

great blog, and a great book, thanks.

Alok said...

thank you!