Friday, March 23, 2007

More on Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften

The Man Without Qualities is surely one of greatest titles for a novel ever. The original German, Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, sounds even better, with its harsh music so typical of the German language. I like this title because it manages to capture all the grave ideas discussed in the book even when it itself is so simple and direct. I had earlier posted an excerpt which throws some light on the title of the novel. Basically Musil is alluding to the scientific (i.e. modern) ways of looking at things and defining them. It is alright to define, say water, in terms of its physical and chemical qualities -- its smell, colour or its behaviour in a chemical reaction. You can chart all the qualities of water on a paper and you will get water in the end. But what if one follows the same process with a human being? We will then ultimate end with a man without qualities or even worse, qualities without a man. In a way Musil is repeating what Nietzsche had already said, about the "death of god" and also the idea of soul and personal identity but reading Musil is in a way more harrowing and also exhilarating (not that I have read Nietzsche) because one gets to know what it really means to live in a world without absolutes and with the knowledge of the hollowness one feels inside oneself.

Musil also takes over from Nietzsche and goes beyond. He interpolates his ideas into the domains of interpersonal relationships, sexual desires, social and political institutions and finds the same hollowness everywhere. Through the character of Arnheim Musil paints a hilarious caricature of Capitalism and financial institutions, which in a way is not far from reality. Without a moral core, or a conscience at the centre of things, they are more or less systems of loot, injustice and exploitation. Of course there are legal systems in place which ensure that these things do not happen or at least they are in limits but the entire legal system itself is based on shaky foundations. Our ideas about human intentionality and personal responsibilty require radical redefinitions in the light of the idea of "man without qualities". There are passages in the novel about a sex-murderer named Moosbrugger which analyses in detail what do law and justice mean in this post-Nietzschean world, in which the Kantian absolutes (that the Hero's father believes in) have been shown to be illusions and lies. It is not that people aren't aware of these things but they often invent pompous abstractions and delude themselves. In a way he also shows why such an essential concept and a word like "soul" has become so meaningless in our contemporary culture, with our own shares of Arnheim and other charlatans and hypocrites and spiritual peddlers like him.

Another aspect of the novel which struck me, and I have mentioned it before too, is the total absence of the feeling of nostalgia over the passing of the old order. Ulrich, the novel's hero, for example finds the idea of god "embarrassing", an idea I am sure the narrator feels sympathetic towards too. Another noteworthy thing is the scorn Musil heaps on the austro-hungarian empire, or at least its symbols -- military, bureaucracy and aristocracy. I was even more shocked because I had read Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March a few months back and my idea of the the austro-hungarian empire was still based on that book. Now after having read the first volume of MwQ, Roth's book feels like a bloodbath of sentimentality (I still love that book very much though.) Musil knows that old stability and order was based on lies and falsehoods and there is no choice but to give way to its collapse and move forward. Anything incompatible with science, that longing for childish faith just won't do anymore. It is also noteworthy that unlike his fellow modernists, most notably Eliot perhaps who reached the same conclusions after similar cultural diagnosis, he is not ready to succumb to the easy temptations of preservations of culture and order through Fascism. He is even more critical of such easy solutions. In fact reading this book one is awed at the prophetic insight he had into where Europe was heading towards. He knew everything, saw everything and he also understood everything. He is bitterly (sometimes in a good humoured way too) critical of any idea that smacks of nationalism, militarism, conservatism, cultural chauvinism and fascism.

There are many more things to say about the book, most notably its extreme form and structure and also the way Musil portrays the female consciousness from the inside. I think it must be one of the most extreme cases, it is way beyond what even Tolstoy, Flaubert or even Henry James could do with their female characters. (I might be wrong here, I am interested in what more learned readers, feminists and literary critics think about it. I have read that in second volume the character of Agathe is even more complete and detailed.) I am now on my way into the second volume. More posts on the book will continue.

Previous posts on the book here and here.


Cheshire Cat said...

There's a difference between preserving culture, preserving the old order, and selectively fashioning a new one with the pretense that it captures the essential character of the old. Was Eliot involved in an enterprise of the second kind? If so, only in the realm of poetry... Perhaps it's better to be a nostalgist than a complete cynic as Musil seems to have been - a person without hope.

Alok said...

I don't want to make any large claims since I haven't read much but I guess Eliot was indeed, if not directly involved, then at least sympathetic to anti-democratic line of thought prevalent in the pre-war conservative circles. I think he wrote many essays on this topic too. Not just poetry. His anti-semitism is also more of question of degree.

Personally I also think that Musil is very harsh in his criticism. But it also shows his integrity and strength of character, this ability to see things for what they are and not pine about how they should be and could have been.

Cheshire Cat said...

"Things as they are" - the most Romantic of notions :)

jyothsnay said...

Essentially, as driven by one's aspirations, and the intensity - like directing at a blameless kippered herring a look of such intense bitterness that the fish seemed to sizzle beneath it, the human core displays a highly distorted image at the window, when the world comes for the shopping
what a delusionary journey in which we indulge in silent conflicts with the true self, but we spoke no more the language that's so unique to us, during the journey, but one can well imagine that by then the whole routine had been thoroughly upset
How many lies and how much falsehood each one of us manages to carry n so effortlessly? Alok, do not we perceive it on a daily basis? do not you feel that hue of first lie, that tinge of red on the cheek, that bite of wha if is at the work place....I dnot mull over the hopelessness bit at all, but would love to explore the complexity, the gnarled effect of emotions n perceptions each one of us carries inside, which, by itself, is an insightful journey...

Alok said...

Hi Jyothsna,

that was a nicely written comment. thank you!

the post was more about the loss of "faith" and illusions. and the word faith is used in a more wider sense, faith in moral and philosophical absolutes and the resulting disorientation human mind feels when those absolutes are taken away from him. some people invent new illusions to replace those illusions which can help them go on living and some don't compromise. I was saying that the author of the book belongs to the latter group.