Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities

Paul Edwards, Bath SPA University College, on 21 May 2002

Robert Musil (1880-1942) is considered to be one of the great masters of European Modernism, of comparable stature to Proust and Joyce, though his masterpiece, The Man without Qualities, remained unfinished at his death. In the latest translation, including many of Musil's drafts, it is about 2,000 pages long.

An Austrian, Musil attended a military boarding school (an experience reflected in his first novel, Young Törless), but rejected the army and studied engineering. The precision of mathematics and engineering remained an ideal he aspired towards as a writer, even in areas of human thought and experience where it is unlikely to be achieved. His early short stories, Unions, trace emotions through metaphors with such `precision' that the demands on the reader (as well as, originally, on the writer himself) have been found by some readers excessive and self-defeating. From engineering Musil turned to psychology and eventually to full-time writing.

The Man without Qualities is the story of the involvement of a Musil-like figure, Ulrich, in an absurd official campaign (the `Collateral Campaign') initiated in 1913 to plan for celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the accession of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef in 1918. The irony is that the Emperor would die in 1916, half-way through the war that would sweep the Austro-Hungarian empire away for ever. In some respects the novel is satirical, in others it is elegiac, but what is most noticeable to a reader is its `essayistic' form. Eventually the reader realises that Musil is concerned with the moral and spiritual uncertainties of living in the modern world. Positive science provides a model of `precision', but it is destructive of the spiritual foundation upon which our moral judgements have traditionally been made. All our moral decisions are approximate, based on hunches or out of date conventions. Ulrich is a modern Descartes, apparently submitting everything to a process of critique and doubt, living provisionally and ironically until some sort of overarching formula is found, chaos falls into order, and the precision of science is brought under the aegis of Spirit or Soul. The Collateral Campaign, along with most other actions recorded in the novel, is a sort of vulgarised version of Ulrich's quest, and the novel is in some respects an anatomy of the modern world's failed expedients. Ulrich's own expedients are treated more respectfully, and the possibility of his being successful (tantalisingly proposed by the title of the final, unfinished volume, Into the Millennium) is never repudiated by Musil.

For two main reasons the promise will remain unfulfilled, and the novel unfinishable. First, society will remain pluralistic, and shared social identity (an organic society) is incompatible with the democratic egalitarianism inherent in science and its ideological equivalents. We will have to make do with fragmentary and momentary convergences (`water-cooler' moments). Second, when Musil was writing, history was moving in the opposite direction to a union of precision and soul: the rise of Nazism constituted a recrudescence of romantic irrationalism (a `bad' millennialism). Communism, in the meantime, with equal inhumanity, aspired to bring social life into the sphere of rationalism and scientific control. Musil is a great writer because he succumbed to neither of the two great totalitarian political visions of the twentieth century, even though he was fully aware why they were such tempting prescriptions for overcoming the fragmented and incoherent plurality of modern life. For this he should be respected even by those who find his interminable novel almost unreadable.

Paul Edwards


Paul Edwards described Man Without Qualities, as part satire and part philosophical love story, often classed with Ulysses by Joyce, or A la Recherché de Temps Perdue by Proust, but he himself seemed reluctant to put it in this class. He described it as an attempt to- `reconcile the irreconcilable', that is to say `precision and the soul'.

It was evident from the discussion that very few people had been able to get through the book, which was 1300-1700 pages long, but as Paul Edwards said, it still never seemed to get going, and those looking for the plot would look in vain. He said that Musil classed himself as a religious atheist, and this accounted for the mystical vision as seen by some. He emphasised that Musil's education was very wide and included mathematics, engineering and philosophy, and was more extensive than Joyce's in these subjects. Victor Suchar, elaborated on this, pointing out that the influence of the positivist philosopher Mach, and also Nietzsche accounted for the characters of the book. Also for its satire and comi-tragedy in which the players, including the women, take themselves so seriously and yet accomplish very little in real terms, in the parallel campaign. He also suggested the book is a literary expression of Musil's doctoral thesis in his use of aestheticism and mysticism. Another member, Gerard Bellart, questioned the relevance of Musil's educational background to creative writing. Goetheian superman Arnheim turns out to be a disappointment, because the actors loose sight of where they are going. The convenor felt that the continuous intellectual diversions actually interfered with its function as a creative expression of life, or statement of universal truth, and the book read like a personal internal monologue of Musil himself, and as such had limited appeal. Joyce on the other hand in Ulysses applies all his intellect as a means of expressing life itself. War and Peace, also alluded to by another member for comparison, covered the whole vista of life, including Tolstoy's military experience.

Peter Valentine