Commentary Magazine


The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, has spoken of fiction as a great European invention for the discovery of truth. But what kinds of truth can fiction be said to discover? And how does it go about making such discoveries? These large, not to say bulky, questions are at the heart of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a vast work whose first sections began to appear in Germany in the early 1930’s and which has now been newly translated into English in a handsome edition mat includes many of the author’s notes.1

The Man Without Qualities has frequently been linked with Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past as one of the great masterworks of modern literature. But, despite its monumentality—it is nearly 1,800 pages long—and its large cast of characters, it does not otherwise much resemble the novels of either James Joyce or Marcel Proust. Musil’s assumptions, psychology, style, aesthetic goals are each distinctly and significantly different—and not only from Joyce and Proust, but from just about every other modern master one is likely to encounter.

“Yop, I botched it,” Ezra Pound is reported to have said of his own vastly ambitious poetic work, The Cantos, and one may wonder if Robert Musil, who worked on his book for more than twenty years, did not go to his grave feeling similarly. The literary historian Henry Hatfield has called The Man Without Qualities “a great book but not a successful work of art.” The critic J. P. Stern puts a slightly different spin on the same paradoxical judgment: “To the question whether what [Musil] has written is a great novel there is, I think, only one answer: it is great, but it is not a novel.” I myself would say that Musil wrote neither a great work of art nor a great book but is the author of modern literature’s most impressive failure, which is itself no small achievement.

The first bald, brutal fact about The Man Without Qualities is that it is unfinished. The novel is unfinished not in the way of Schubert’s great symphony or of works that require another draft or a final polish, but so substantially unfinished, despite its immense length, that one cannot claim to be certain what its major drift, or direction, or even denouement (if Musil had one in mind) was finally meant to have been.

Some critics have attempted to make a virtue of this deficiency. The novelist and memoirist Elias Canetti once claimed that Musil’s novel is endless in two senses: “immortal as well as unfinished.” In a review of the new translation in the New Yorker, George Steiner has taken this a step further by remarking that “there is something strangely right about the ‘interminability’ of The Man Without Qualities.”

Is that so—or did Musil, Pound-like, botch it? Why was he unable to complete his novel? Is it possible that The Man Without Qualities is a book that, in a fundamental way, badly misunderstands, and hence sadly misuses, the art of fiction itself?

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Born in Austria in 1880, Robert Musil was of that remarkable generation of German-language writers—often referred to as the “Generation of 1905”—who came into their literary maturity in the decade before World War I. Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Broch were the leading figures in this generation.

Musil’s family was, in terms we would recognize today, upper-middle-class academic, of Austrian and part-Czech descent. His father was a professor of mechanical engineering at the Technical Institute at Brno. Of this man, Musil would say that “he believed nothing and offered nothing as a surrogate” for belief. But if, in his father, intellection predominated over feeling, in Musil’s mother nearly the reverse obtained: she was a woman of unruly emotions, whom her son once likened to a pretty woman with messy hair. One of her male admirers actually moved into the household when Musil was a boy and remained there for years.

Musil grew up, as David S. Luft, one of his best critics, writes, “in an entirely secular atmosphere, virtually untouched by religion.” One of the results of this upbringing was to leave him with a spiritual hunger that neither philosophy nor finally, it appears, literature could satisfy. At eleven, he was sent off to military school, first in Burgenland in eastern Austria, and then in Moravia—the latter school was also attended, and detested, by Rilke—and for a time he planned a career as a professional soldier. At seventeen he dropped this notion to study engineering. From there he went on to philosophy, logic, and experimental psychology.

Although Musil is identified with Vienna—the scene of The Man Without Qualities—he came into his intellectual maturity in Berlin. There he cut a minor figure in the salon of Paul Cassirer, the brother of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. He wrote his dissertation, at the University of Berlin, on the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, published scientific papers, and had to his credit the invention of a chromameter (a color wheel for use in optical experiments). He remained dependent on his parents until 1911, when he was past thirty and already married to Martha Macovaldi, a partly Jewish woman, seven years his elder, who had been married twice before and had young children.

Engineering, science, and philosophy all having proved inadequate, Musil at last settled on literature as a career. There is no evidence that he read widely in fiction, though he is said to have admired Stendhal, no doubt for his coolness and lucidity, and to have disliked Joyce. As a literary intellectual (Luft reports), he much preferred Nietzsche to Wagner, favoring the clarity of the former over the darkness of the latter. In his student years in Berlin, Musil had been swept up by artistic modernism and its ideals, and so he would remain. “Since my youth,” he wrote in his diary, “I have looked upon the aesthetic as the ethical.”

Although Musil would die broke, thinking himself a neglected writer, his first novel, Young Torless (1906), received a generous response. In Berlin, Alfred Kerr, one of the leading critics of the day, called it “a book that will last.” Other reviewers lined up to praise it, some as an important generational work. Much later, Erich Kahler would cite the book as one of the first existential texts in modern German literature.

Like a good deal that Musil wrote, Young Törless has a strong if not a direct basis in autobiography. The novel is set in a military school, not so different from the one Musil himself attended in Moravia. In it Törless, taken up by two older, aristocratic youths, is maneuvered into helping them bully a younger boy who has been caught stealing from his fellow students. This boy, Basini, is put through hell by the two older boys; in Törless, he arouses both disgust and sexual excitement.

Less an indictment of the cruelty of military schools than a novel about the psychology of adolescence, Young Törless is even more a portrait of a rather peculiar artist as a young man. Törless is a premature artist, groping his way: “It’s as if I had one extra sense, one more than the others have, but not completely developed, a sense that’s there and makes itself noticed, but doesn’t function.” In the book, Törless attempts to understand his own irrational desires and the no less irrational arrangements that pass for adult behavior. As so often in Musil—as so often in so many writers who worked in the atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Austria-Hungary—sexual excitement jump-starts elaborate mental activity. In this instance, the activity being recorded has to do with how people think, with the bridges between thought and experience, with the intuition of artists, and with the link between the sexual and the artistic impulse.

That is a lot for a slender novel, written by a man of twenty-five, to bear, and one tends to admire the book’s intellectual earnestness rather more than one takes pleasure in reading it. Though it shows every sign of an emerging talent, Young Törless is also pervaded by an airlessness and the less than enticing feeling of ambiguity that comes from irresolution in art.

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As might be expected of one trained in science and philosophy, Musil’s fiction was generally set into motion by ideas. Yet there was one distinct body of ideas in the air that he never took at all seriously: psychoanalytic theory. Vladimir Nabokov’s characterization of Freudian psychoanalysis as the application of Greek myths to private parts was something with which Musil would have agreed. Psychoanalysis, he wrote, took the individual, confused and stunted, and instructed him that “all he needs is courage and healthy gonads.” This was very far indeed from Musil’s own notion of either the problem or the solution to the complexities of life in the modern world.

The central problem of modernity was, for Musil, the state of fragmentation in which men and women found themselves. As for the solution, it had to do with somehow bringing the intellect, with its capacity for concentration and precision, into alignment with the soul. “Everything which is currently expressed by the word soul one does not understand with the intellect,” Musil lamented, “in the way in which one always understands scientific philosophy with the necessary concentration.” In The Man Without Qualities, Musil has his hero propose that the Austrian government set up a World Secretariat for Precision and Soul, and Precision and Soul is the English title of a volume of Musil’s essays.

The word “soul” seems to mean many things in Musil, ranging from one’s animal energies and appetites, to one’s unconscious, to that which cannot be understood by anyone else, to one’s religious essence. Inexact, even irritating, though this may be, what Musil essentially argued is that intellect and soul, mind and spirit, would have to be brought into conjunction if the fragmentation of modern life was ever to be healed, and later he would claim just this as his own artistic program. In an essay entitled “Mind and Experience,” Musil noted that “those who wanted to introduce intellect into literature could not think. They couldn’t because they thought in airy words whose content lacked any empirical restraint.” By finding a way to join art and intellect, he planned to cut through what he saw as the impotence of each.

It would be a hard slog. In the years between the publication of Young Törless and World War I, during which he served four years as an officer in the Austrian army, Musil produced two plays and five stories, along with a quantity of drama criticism, essays, and literary criticism. None would give anything like a hint of the vastness of his artistic ambitions, though evidence of his subtlety and depth is unarguably on display in the stories. One of them, “The Lady from Portugal,” is a mythic tale about a family of Teutonic barons who select brides from far-off lands. In it, Musil demonstrates his ability to deploy a beautifully paced narrative that enraptures the reader in the customary and timeworn way of fiction. He can do death scenes, he displays descriptive power, he can strike the persuasive philosophical note.

Yet, though it was available to him, Musil seems to have rejected this sort of traditional writing. “What I value in art,” says a character in his story, “The Perfecting of a Love,” “is the subtlety of the right ending, which consoles us for the humdrum of everyday life.” But we are not supposed much to value the views of this character, and Musil himself did not purvey such consolation. With the exception of “Tonka,” which retells Musil’s own difficult and ultimately hopeless love affair with a woman below his own social class—“How little one knows what one knows,” says the narrator, “or wants what one wants”—Musil’s stories are chiefly investigations of psychological states. They also foreshadow the core concerns of The Man Without Qualities: the loneliness of the solitary mind (“all she knew was that at some point in time something had come between her and life, leaving a barrier”); the paradoxical conditions of emotion (“she knew the wonderful, dangerous intensification of feeling that came with lying and cheating in love”); and what can only be called flirting with God (“She said: ‘I have a vague notion of what people might be to each other. . . . What you sometimes call God is like the thing I mean’”).

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Musil himself must have grown impatient with the extent of his progress. After World War I, he worked for the Austrian Foreign Ministry as a press secretary of sorts, and following this he was employed as a scientific adviser to the Austrian War Ministry. From 1922 on, he wrote as a free-lance. He apparently traveled nowhere without his wife, who is said to have taken over all the financial and other practical details of their lives. As with just about every Viennese intellectual or artist one has ever heard or read about, Musil suffered no shortage of neuroses (something in the water, or in the ideas, no doubt). He did not handle money; he preferred not to shake hands. He was a heavy smoker who practiced a regular physical workout regimen.

Elias Canetti reports that Musil had no small talk: in the best scientific manner, he felt that a conversation “should start from something precise and aim at something precise.” Canetti adds:

For devious ways he felt contempt and hatred. But he did not aim at simplicity; he had an unerring instinct for the inadequacy of the simple and was capable of shattering it with a detailed portrait. His mind was too richly endowed, too active and acute to content itself with simplicity.

Such a man, such a mind, found what might have seemed its perfect project, its ideal objective correlative, in the vast novel that was to be The Man Without Qualities. A study of Viennese society, an analysis of the malaise of modern man, an attempt to penetrate the wellsprings of human nature—it was as if Musil had been in training all his early life for writing this novel. He set to work on it not long after the end of the war, and essentially labored on it for the remainder of his days. In the end, the novel defeated him, not only aesthetically but in other ways as well.

In a foreword to an earlier English edition of the first volume of The Man Without Qualities (1952), Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, its translators, recount the sad publishing history of Musil’s would-be masterwork. In Europe the first volume appeared in 1931, during the Depression; still, it sold 8,000 copies and was a succès d’estime. Publication of the second volume was badly timed, coinciding with the rise to power of the Nazis. Musil did not permit the third volume to come out, withdrawing the first twenty chapters when they were already in galley proof. Whenever and wherever he traveled, three suitcases went with him, containing the manuscript and notes for later chapters. Talk about a stone around one’s neck.

With no money coming in, Musil was forced to rely on the patronage of friends of literature who formed a Musil Society; its members, chiefly professionals and businessmen, made quarterly payments to help support him, though not in very grand style. As most members of the society were Jews, Hitler’s racial policies had the additional effect of putting an end to Musil’s financial backing. In 1938, he emigrated to Switzerland, where he continued to add to his out-of-control book until the very morning in 1942 when, after a good session at the writing table in his garden in Geneva, he died. The expression on his face is said to have been a mixture of mockery and astonishment—in some ways the perfect death mask for a novelist. Eight people, reportedly, attended his funeral.

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Always treat a work of art like a prince, an old proverb has it—that is, let it speak to you first. I take this to mean that it is best to confront a work of art directly, without any introductions, critical aids, or the rest of the contemporary apparatus of literary understanding. But in the case of The Man Without Qualities the trouble is that the work’s reputation as a modern classic precedes it, and this reputation has only been further burnished by the enthusiastic critical reception accorded the new English version. So impressive have been some of the essays occasioned by its appearance that one wonders, in fact, whether Robert Musil may not be one of those writers—Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Elias Canetti—who are rather more interesting to read about than actually to read.

Of the two possible ways of reading The Man Without Qualities, the first and perhaps more sympathetic is to recognize its brilliance, be grateful that we have what we do of it, explain away its weaknesses where possible, and let it go at that. The second, which I propose, is to attempt to fathom why Musil could not finish this, his life’s work, the book he seems to have been born to write yet did not come anywhere near close to completing. What is even sadder, there is good reason to believe that had he lived another twenty years, he still would not have been able to finish the monster to which he had given birth.

The Man Without Qualities begins in August 1913, one year before Europe will be drawn into war. Its protagonist, Ulrich (his last name is never given), a man of thirty-two, a former military officer, a mathematician of some power, a man attractive to women, and, most pertinently, the possessor of a philosophical temperament matched perhaps only by his detachment, has decided to take a year off, in effect a “vacation from life,” to get his bearings. But the city he chooses for this purpose, Vienna, is not the perfect place, for of all cities in Europe at the time it might well be the most uncentered, unhinged, unreal. (The satirist Karl Kraus was able to keep his magazine, Die Fackel, afloat chiefly by attacking the madhouse quality of Viennese intellectual life, and he never ran out of material.)

The ostensible premise of The Man Without Qualities is built on a sociopolitical swamp. The swamp is the notion, held by many of the novel’s chief characters, that life in Austria, with its empire and emperor, will go on, pretty much business-as-usual. We know, of course, that only a year later in historical time, in August 1914, Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke and presumptive heir to the throne of Franz Joseph, will be assassinated, an event that will set off World War I, and by that war’s end the Austro-Hungarian empire will be finished, the monarchy replaced by a republic, the class system and intricate European balance of power done for. But in 1913, the scene and setting of Musil’s novel, everyone, though perhaps a little nervous in the service, is still playing let’s pretend, assuming the best, mit schlag.

In this atmosphere, a rich muddle characterized by only a slight apprehension of decline but no genuine belief in a fall, the intellectually ruthless Ulrich attempts to find a way. But a way toward what? Early in the first volume, Ulrich is mugged on the streets of Vienna, and the next morning his mind turns to the complexities of a society in which the violent and the civilized live side by side. “It is the old story of the contradictions, the inconsistency, and the imperfections of life,” writes Musil. But Ulrich himself has no tolerance for contradictions and inconsistencies; instead, he feels the need to work through them to discover explanations, solutions, answers.

As we soon learn, however, that is almost the only need he does feel. For along with his desire to get to the bottom of everything, Ulrich coolly distances himself from what the rest of the world is pleased to call reality. He cannot, Musil tells us, summon up “a sense of reality even in relation to himself.” From this it follows that nothing is understood by him as stable, everything is open to question, standard motives for human conduct are viewed comically, and the world is seen as through a series of funhouse mirrors. Ulrich, in short, is of the type of the intellectual, but the intellectual taken to the highest power: unaffiliated, utterly skeptical, without any loyalties except to those ideas that hold up under the deepest scrutiny—of which, one must immediately add, none does.

From Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground through Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the socially detached, spiritually deracinated intellectual has been a recurring type in literature and in life. As a secondary character in Musil’s novel says of Ulrich: “There are millions of them nowadays. It’s the human type produced by our time.” This chapter also nicely nails the instability of vision of our man without qualities:

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 super-whole that, however, he knows nothing about.

This man without qualities, this pure type of the intellectual, would be really quite hopeless if he were not so clever and entertaining. And Musil, speaking through Ulrich, can be spectacularly clever and delightfully entertaining. On such subjects as the democratization of genius—so that one speaks, these days, of an advertising or a basketball genius, or even the genius of a racehorse; or the strange way in which presumably new cultural eras arrive (so that “finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older”); or the phenomenon of those who practice “the profession of being the next generation,” Ulrich/Musil is dazzling. Reading the first hundred or so pages of The Man Without Qualities, watching Musil set up the furniture for all that is to follow, one cannot mistake that one is in the presence of a superior mind and a major talent. One also senses that Musil himself is writing more expansively than ever before. Wit, till now not in strong evidence in his fiction, gets free play. His lens has widened; windows have been opened. The only question, again, is to what end it will all conduce.

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Initially, one is led to believe that the end is satire—lovely, devastating, utterly destructive satire. Clearly, satire seems intended when Ulrich meets a cousin, a woman of whom he is enamored and to whom he gives the classical name Diotima. It is she who arranges for him to become secretary to something called the Committee for the Parallel Campaign. This has been organized for the purpose of celebrating, five years hence, the 70th anniversary of the rule of Franz Joseph, and the reason the committee’s project is “parallel” is that it is in a natural rivalry with the German campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The Parallel Campaign is itself sheer PR, but the people organizing it have not yet reached the stage of cynicism that successful public relations requires; in other words, they half-believe their own nonsense. The campaign thus functions as a brilliant device, allowing Musil (by way of Ulrich) to view Viennese society through the complex prism of its various social classes, institutions, and characteristic types, the list of which includes aristocrats, young radicals, businessmen, Jews, false poets, military men, social climbers, and the rest.

And not Viennese society alone. Our man without qualities views, with proper ironic detachment, the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the state without qualities. This was a state, as the historian Lewis Namier once put it, that “did not exist except in reminiscences of the past and pious hopes for the future,” and that “displayed more frontier and less coherence than any other state in Europe.” With its smug aristocrats, its middle classes encased in a “corset of culture,” its pretensions to military power, it has, in the pages of this novel, doom written all over it. Glut and confusion rule the day; integrity in such circumstances is not so much impossible as beside the point. “There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world,” says Ulrich, “only a human something moving about in a general culture-medium.”

In this “general culture-medium,” the hardest question is the question of reality: what is it, where is it, who claims to have grasped it, does it truly exist? As it turns out, anyone who feels he has the answers to these questions is in for the greatest mockery of all. The true fools are those who think they know something.

Perhaps the greatest fool of all is one of the novel’s most interesting characters: Paul Arnheim, a German-Jewish industrialist of philosophical bent whom Musil is said to have modeled on Walter Rathenau, the Foreign Minister in the Weimar Republic who was assassinated in Berlin in 1922. In the novel, Arnheim joins the Parallel Campaign to give it a more international flavor, and also becomes a competitor of sorts with Ulrich for Diotima’s affections. Apart from sexual rival-rousness, what Ulrich despises about Arnheim is his certainty about how the world is not only meant to be but actually works. Arnheim is a global explainer who always finds time to look after his own business first.

Alas, because of the unfinished state of The Man Without Qualities, Arnheim, a delicious character, drops out, as do many other characters, subplots, and promising threads. Most frustrating in its inconclusiveness is the story of another central character, a mad sex murderer named Christian Moosbrugger. Ulrich and others are obsessed with the case of Moosbrugger, who figures alternately for them as a martyr, a monster, and someone in whom the civilized and the rational can indulge their fascination with the barbaric and the irrational. One character—herself quite mad—describes Moosbrugger as “Nietzsche in the shape of a sinner.” But as to what, precisely, Musil himself meant Moosbrugger to signify, this remains a mystery. As Burton Pike, the editorial consultant to the new English version, puts it, he “is so ambiguously presented that any clearly symbolic interpretation of his character is impossible.”

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This, unfortunately, could be said of numerous aspects of The Man Without Qualities. Many promises, in the literary sense which Chekhov intended when he said that a shotgun placed over the mantel in the first act of a play ought to be fired by the third, are made yet not really kept in this sprawling work. The Man Without Qualities is a novel filled with brilliant scenes, patches, observations, and aphorisms, usually bitter: “That one is not loved as one deserves is the sorrow of all old maids of both sexes.” “When the father is poor the sons love money; when Papa has money, the sons love mankind.” “Isn’t it strange that almost every single person knows himself least of all and loves himself most of all?” And, a thought to prevent one from falling asleep at night: “This freedom of will is man’s ability to do voluntarily what he wishes involuntarily.”

Musil’s penchant for the aphorism is related to his admiration for the essay. Time and again he stops his novel for diverse reflections of a kind more natural to that form, though generally without its successful sense of a safe landing. The novel even contains a brief essay on the essay, where the reader is told that it is “the unique and unalterable form assumed by a man’s inner life in decisive thought.” Of Musil’s essayism, Pike rightly notes: “I would say that it generally arises from a feeling on the part of the author . . . that a fictional vehicle is an inadequate means of presenting all that he is trying to say.”

The English critic VS. Pritchett has defended The Man Without Qualities by saying that in it “the habit of intellectual analysis is not stultifying to drama, movement, or invention, but enhances them”—but Pritchett was writing before the publication of this, the more complete edition. It is true that early in the novel, the essayistic element is fairly well integrated with the story. In the new material, however, essayism looms larger, all but takes over, so that at the close of yet another discourse on, say, the precise definition of emotion, one feels almost as if the story were an interruption and that one ought really to be getting back to yet another longueur.

The reason the essayistic element begins to take over is that Musil has begun to lose control of his novel and to steer it in an entirely new direction—on “a journey of no return,” as J.P. Stern has observed. In the third part, he in fact all but abandons his account of the Parallel Campaign, with its many interesting characters and possibilities, and begins to tell a love story, although one which also never comes to anything like true fruition. It is a story of incest, of Ulrich and his sister Agathe’s love for each other; it is, if one has a taste for the mythical, also the story of Isis, the deity of ancient Egypt, and her husband Osiris; it is a story of hermaphroditic completeness; and it is, in a sense no novelist would wish to hear pronounced about his work, quite incredible.

When Musil takes up this story line, he shifts from analysis of reality to the search, through mysticism, for a higher plane of morality, a second state of being, a new union between the world and the self. This search ends in muddle, boredom, and emptiness. Very late in the novel, Musil writes:

The blows of confused and anarchic ideas that Ulrich received every day, and the movement of these thoughts in an imprudent but clearly palpable direction, had in fact gradually swept him up, and the only thing that still differentiated his life from that of the insane was a consciousness of his situation, which he could interrupt by an effort.

As so often, Musil appears to be speaking here quite as much about himself and his intractable novel as about his protagonist. Poor Musil, he must have sensed that his readers would not be similarly “swept up” by the ideas he had given to Ulrich to discover; nor would they, even by an effort, be able to sustain interest in a by now all but interminable novel, if novel it could any longer be called.

Musil’s own dubiety about his project seems to have grown greater with time. A note printed toward the end of this edition reads: “Does greatness never lie in content? In a way of ordering things?” Another, a self-invocation, reads: “Dramatize! Make all this present!” Endlessly revising, turning out countless drafts, withdrawing sections at the last moment before print, rethinking, reworking, devising divergences in plot, coming up with different endings—all that brilliance, all that literary talent, all for nearly nothing.

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In a very sensible chapter on Musil in The Dear Purchase, his study of modern German literature, J.P. Stern writes: “With Musil, the tug-of-war between philosophical ambition and literary gifts is never resolved; on the contrary, it is exacerbated by his passionate conviction that ‘the only function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.’” Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, among modern novelists, were able to get the literary and the philosophical in the right balance. But Musil, more the trained philosopher than either, could not.

The literary problem that is at the center of The Man Without Qualities was touched upon by Musil himself—before he began writing his novel—in an essay entitled “Sketch of What the Writer Knows” (1918). There, he set up two realms—they are not quite methods—of thinking, which he gave the inelegant names of “ratoid” and “nonratoid.” The former mode works from cause to effect, with proven facts, toward the creation of rules, laws, and concepts. The thinking of the scientist, psychologist, philosopher is ratoid. By contrast, Musil goes on, “if the ratoid is the domination of the ‘rule with exceptions,’ the nonratoid area is that of the dominance of the exceptions over the rule.”

The imaginative writer is the nonratoid thinker par excellence, concerned with values and valuations, ethics and aesthetic relationships. He steps in where “facts do not submit, laws are sieves, events do not repeat themselves but are infinitely variable and individual.” Writers do not build systems, create concepts, shore up laws; when they are at their best they demonstrate how, in some of the most interesting cases, none of these quite applies. “Create a concept,” said Ortegay Gasset, “and reality leaves the room.” The job of the imaginative writer is sometimes to smash the concept and bring reality back into the room.

Musil knew all this, of course. He must have sensed, in writing the first two parts of his novel, that the philosophical skepticism behind his satire could only take him so far. So in the second half of his novel he decided to go farther—as it turned out, however, much too far. Attempting to reinstate a myth, to found a morality, to build a Utopia, if only for two people caught up in an incestuous love, Musil worked at everything but telling his story, whose thread he had irrevocably lost.

In the end, perhaps, it was his hunger for precision, for the kind of truth which philosophy but not fiction can provide, that snuffed the literary flame in Robert Musil. He remained too much the true writer not to know that he had failed—failed grandly, failed heroically, but in the end failed indubitably. Fiction cannot create morality; it can only show what morality is about. Nor is it properly in the business of limning Utopias, or endorsing myths. This, to his sorrow, the author of The Man Without Qualities came to learn. “The story of this novel,” Musil wrote in a note, “amounts to this, that the story that ought to be told is not told.” Case, sadly, closed.


Footnotes

1 Translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike; editorial consultant, Burton Pike. Knopf; two volumes, 1,770 pp.; $60.00.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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