Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Musil Links

I am trying to catch up with The Man Without Qualities. It is not really a difficult book to read, it doesn't have the long and complex sentences of Proust but the ideas are very complex. On more than a few occasions I had to skip a few passages carrying with me only a vague understanding of what Musil is really saying. If one is familiar with the philosophical background, specially the critics of the enlightenment tradition and scientific worldview and also various sociological theories of "Modernity" one will have an easy time with the text.

Anyway, I had copied a long introductory essay on Musil's life and MwQ a few days ago on the blog and posted it with an earlier date because it is very long. It was fist published in the new republic. (It is not entirely legal and if you feel the same, you should get a subscription to the magazine! And now those guys have said sorry for cheer-leading the Iraq war too!)

Also there are a bunch of essays on this website dedicated to Musil, including a couple by J M Coetzee. (He is his usual pedantic self. He is berating the editors, both English and German, for calling the volumes under review "diaries" rather than "notebooks" which is what he claims they actually are!)

The best essay however is the one by literary critic George Steiner. It is also a great defence of "novel of ideas" and the idea of a novelist as an original thinker, something that is rarer in the anglo-american tradition of the novel. (There are some spelling and punctuation typos but still worth reading.) He compares Musil with Proust about whom he says:

By contrast, if the notion of literature should disappear, Proust's place in intellectual life would remain eminent. He is, after Aristotle and Kant, one of the seminal thinkers on aesthetics, on the theoretical and pragmatic relations between form and meaning. His analyses of the psychosomatic texture of human emotions, of the phenomenology of experience, are of compelling philosophical interest. Even in his lifetime, it became a cliché to set "Proust on time" beside Einstein and the new Physics. "A la Recherche du Temp Perdu" is interwoven with motif of epistemology, philosophy of art (including music), and ethical debate which nevertheless have their own independent status. Only Musil provides a counterpart.

Also via Waggish, this is an informative article about Walther Rathenau, who was the foreign minister of Germany and also an extremely successful business tycoon and one of the leading intellectuals of his time. One of the main characters in the book, Paul Arnheim, is modeled after him. He is a rather quixotic figure who is trying to bring about "a union of soul and economics" and is also trying to "bring philosophy to the corridors of power". He even likes to use "Bergsonian philosophy" in determining the correct coal pricing. He doesn't hesitate to give pompous philosophical justifications for the profiteering activities of his fellow businessmen. He is their philosophical face and also a representative and a caricature of a "modern" and "rational" man.

It is also a little strange reading his satirical exegesis of the old world order just when it was breaking apart. (The main action of the novel is set in 1913, one year before the great war.) When ridiculing the idea of "global European spirit," that the Austro-Hungarian empire stood for, for example he just comes across as extremely cynical. Cynicism is in a way justified given the fact that the so-called European spirit was soon subsumed into petty and barbaric nationalisms but he could have at least shown some sympathy with the original idea. Similarly knowing the eventual fate of Rathenau (he was murdered by right-wing anti-semitic fanatics), it is jarring to read how he makes fun of his character. As Waggish says:
Musil’s engagement with Arnheim/Rathenau is total, but by 1934, it could not have seemed relevant. He was attacking an Enlightenment-derived ideology in one of the better statesmen of the century while National Socialism had taken over the world around him. Excavation of a flawed “frame” was hardly noticeable while the house was on fire.

May be this was the reason why he couldn't finish the book. It is also very interesting to compare his attitude to that of Joseph Roth who wrote on the same subject but whose books and stories, such as The Radetzky March or The Bust of the Emperor, are filled with painful longing and melancholia about the demise of the old order. As one of the characters in MwQ (the count I think) says, "there is no voluntary turning back when it comes to history of human affairs." There is no turning back, even when it is all doom and destruction ahead! I can't complain about Musil being pessimistic, just that I find his distrust and skepticism about the empire hard to swallow.


Cheshire Cat said...

"bring philosophy to the corridors of power" - Masaryk is an example? And yes, the Iraq war can be blamed on philosophers as well...

I've never understood what a "novel of ideas" is exactly. There's a fatal redundancy to the phrase.

Alok said...

Yes in a way, any novel of any worth will always have some "idea." A more appropriate term I think will be "digressive" or "essayistic" novel. If one comes via "creative writing school" ("rounded characters", structure, "show, don't tell" etc) one will get pissed off with Musil and his likes. (Proust actually does both very well.)

Musil would have appreciated the irony of these neo-con "philosophers" and ideologues advocating the iraq war. he lampoons the kind of language that one sees in the newspaper op-eds even these days.

read about masaryk just now. Musil is too cynical and pessimistic about these things and arnheim's portrait is very satirical -- this platonic idea of philosopher king he would find ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

What is the "canon" of great/groundbreaking philosophical novels? A la Recherche, The Magic Mountain, The Man Without Qualities, going back earlier War and Peace, recently The Discovery of Heaven...what else? There was a quote from an Italo Calvino essay collected in the Uses of Literature where he says something to the effect of anyone who wants to make a major statement on philosophy/aesthetics/history nowadays writes an essay, they don't write a book like TMWQ or the Magic he right? the Discovery of Heaven was the only recent novel I could think of that could really be termed a "novel of ideas" -- one of the criterion being, in my understanding, that some of the ideas animating the novel are explicitly discussed/argued over by the characters themselves, rather than merely embodied or manifested through their personalities/actions.

Anonymous said...

(Among recent, forgot Kundera..)

Antonia said...

I completely agree with Cheshire about the 'fatal redundancy' of this phrase...
I read an essay by Koeppen once who named Musil's book a chain of mountains. The Steiner quote is an apt description...and his essay great...Agathe and Ulrich....there all the cynisicm parts, I tell you. He isn't such a cynic. He rather describes things with a generous indifference. Often I just think he made fun of the circumstances of his times, bitter fun.
excellent post,alok.

Alok said...

anonymous: A novel like MwQ or Magic Mountain do stand out from regular plot or character driven, even epic, novels in the way these writers use the form of novel to comment on big philosophical questions of their time. Most of the characters in these novels will be stand-ins for some philosophical system. In MwQ for example it seems everybody went to some philsophy school or at least the narrator is so sharp that even a psyhopathic serial killer becomes a mouthpiece for some really complex worldview!

Antonia: "Generous Indifference" sounds really nice, and it does fit the tone of the book. and at a deeper level Musil must have felt some sympathy for the characters of Arnheim or Diotima or other, at least in their knowledge that something is missing inside them, even when he mocks their pretensions.

Alok said...

this is a nice review/summary of Kundera's latest book on the history of novel. I think in a way most of the modernist novels are "novels of ideas"

His third chapter explores the "soul" of the novel, in particular how 20th-century writers turned fiction away from "fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition)."

praymont said...

Here's another on-line article about Musil, by Roger Kimball:

On philosophical novels: I've just acquired (but haven't yet read) some by authors from the former Yugoslavia. There's 'Death and the Dervish' by Mesa Selimovic, 'How to Quiet a Vampire' by Borislav Pekic, and 'Conversation with Spinoza' by Goce Smilevski. As for other Austrians, how about Hermann Broch? I'm part way through his 'Sleepwalkers' and love it.

Excellent blog!

Alok said...

Hi Thanks for the link. Had read it actually but after I wrote the post...

I am not familiar with the Balkan novels you mention but have read parts of The Sleepwalkers. Need to find some time to devote to it... sometime soon hopefully.