The Man Without Qualities
Voices: First Speaker, Second Speaker, Ulrich, Musil
FIRST SPEAKER: Before we address the topic we have chosen, we must ask, Who was Robert Musil? We ask because his name has been on quite a few people’s lips for a considerable time—because even a few histories of literature have dedicated a paragraph, if only a brief one, to him and because, as seems more important to us, a major German publisher has just now issued a new edition of his work, a literary corpus that had vanished from the book market.
SECOND SPEAKER: Robert von Musil; born in 1880 in Klagenfurt, Austria; died in 1942 in Geneva. A novel, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906), kept the German literary reviews busy with its unprecedented treatment of psychology and even caused quite a sensation purely on account of its subject-matter, because it dared to depict the confusions of a boy going through puberty. Even though Musil later emphatically distanced himself from German expressionism, expressionist prose took this work as its starting point. Moreover, the German literary reviews gaped at the stupendous psychological knowhow of its author, who had succeeded at evoking and limning even the most inarticulable mental experiences.
Long intervals of silence were interrupted by the publication of two collections of novellas, Associations (1911) and Three Women (1924).
FIRST SPEAKER: In these prose pieces, Musil had already dramatically outdistanced his first novel. And yet after their initial success they were scarcely noticed. What did Hofmannsthal’s enthusiastic praise of one of these novellas matter to him? He had allowed himself to pursue a path that nobody was expecting him to take.
SECOND SPEAKER: In 1920 he began working on a novel that he left unfinished at his death 22 years later. The first two volumes were published in 1930 and 1932; the third volume had to be published by a subscription started by the author’s widow. This was in 1943.
FIRST SPEAKER: And at the time it seemed as though Musil had been cut off from his German readers forever. The Man without Qualities—this is the work we are speaking of—a project that had consumed an entire life, met with no further response. It had never enjoyed much popularity. All the same, a few reviewers realized that the first two volumes were an unprecedented work for which there was no parallel in German literature, a work whose qualities couldn’t be fairly appraised because there were no criteria for doing so. And so there emerged those tentative and rather inapposite comparisons to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, to Balzac’s Comédie humaine and Voltaire’s Candide. Musil was now regarded as a member of a highly select society, but hardly anybody was reading him, and he was acquiring a very peculiar sort of fame that quite nonplussed him:
MUSIL: “What a singularly odd hue and cry [Ruf]! It is vigorous but not loud. When I think about it, I am often compelled to conclude that it is the most paradoxical example imaginable of the simultaneous existence and nonexistence of a phenomenon. It is not in the grand reputation [Ruf] writers enjoy, the specialists’ reputation engendered by the grandees of the literary conventicle, in which their profile (however rarified it may be) is reflected. I venture to say of my reputation (not of myself) that it is that of a great writer who is published in small print runs. He misses out on social impact…I am missing out on the tens of thousands of copies that can barely be secured by the others or must be guaranteed to them.”2
FIRST SPEAKER: This passage appears on a page at the top which are written the words, “I can’t go on…”—what lies behind those words is distressing: the decades-long and ultimately doomed effort to bring this one book that mattered to him to a conclusion, and the despair-ridden existential struggle of a writer to write in the service of his native country when it did not acknowledge him as one of its own—as he himself bitterly described his plight.
SECOND SPEAKER: Musil was born into a well-to-do old Austrian family of bureaucrats, scholars, engineers, and military officers. His father had been a professor at the technical academy in Brno for some time and was later elevated to the nobility as a councilor at the patent court. His mother was the daughter of one of the builders of one of the first continental railways, the Linz-Budweis line. Like many sons of the haut-bourgeois milieu, he was dumped into a military boarding school—
FIRST SPEAKER: —the world of the confusions of young Törless—
SECOND SPEAKER: —and prepared for a career as an officer in the imperial and royal military. While studying the science of artillery he discovers his technical capabilities. He changes his area of concentration to mechanical engineering, passes the state engineering examination, and becomes an assistant professor at the technical academy in Stuttgart.
FIRST SPEAKER: Our pursuit of this writer’s life history is not the result of a dubious obsession with thoroughness but an integral part of a well-defined plan. For Ulrich, the Man without Qualities with whose embassy we must preoccupy ourselves, has almost undisguisedly passed through the phases of Musil’s life before we walk into his life. When Ulrich thinks back on this period, he describes it as that of his attempts to become a man of significance. This is an attempt that fails along with certain others; nevertheless, he owes to it the rudiments of his morality.
MUSIL: “From the moment he entered the lecture hall of mechanical science onwards Ulrich was in the grip of a feverish passion. Why did one still need the Apollo Belvedere when one had the new ideal form of a turbo-dynamo or the play of the members of a steam-machine mechanism before one’s eyes! Who need be shackled by the multi-millennially ancient palaver about the nature of good and evil when it has already become evident that there are absolutely no ‘constants’ but rather only ‘functional values,’ such that the value of achievements is contingent upon historical circumstances and the value of human beings upon the pyrotechnical skill with which one makes the most of their respective qualities.”3
FIRST SPEAKER: In a word: like our writer himself at one point, Ulrich had developed a vigorous idea of the business of being an engineer. The technically minded men whom he was getting to know had a few advantages over their military counterparts: they were laudably brimming over with proficiency and audacity and were moving the world another step forward with every passing hour, and yet…There was something about them that disturbed him—namely, that their thoughts and emotions were by no means keeping pace with this specialized audacity. For example, they pinned “brooches with stag’s teeth” onto their lapels or miniature horseshoes onto their neckties; they wore suits that put one in mind of the early days of the automobile; indeed, they never would have dreamed of bringing their intellectual audacity to bear upon themselves; they would have rejected such an activity as…
MUSIL: “…a perverse impertinence tantamount to misusing a hammer as a murder weapon!”4
SECOND SPEAKER: Musil changed his career plan once again: he went from Stuttgart to Berlin and studied logic and experimental psychology under Carl Stumpf, the distinguished experimental psychologist, with such success that a few years later he was up for consideration as a lecturer at the universities of Munich and Graz.
FIRST SPEAKER: Viewed alternatively as an episode in the biography of the Man Without Qualities, this period seems to constitute his most important attempt. Ulrich undergoes a similar course of intellectual training as a mathematician. He underwent it because he was “humanely in love” with mathematics in virtue of its razor-sharp, razor-cold body of thought. And he loved it on account of the people who “couldn’t stand it,” on account of those guys…
MUSIL: “…who blamed the collapse of European civilization on mathematics as the mother of the exact natural sciences, as the grandmother of technology, and also as the matriarch of that spirit from which poison gas and fighter planes ultimately emanated. He understood it as the origin of a colossal intellectual reorganization for the benefit of a science that was vigorously and courageously opening one fold after another of God’s mantle in His very presence.
“And Ulrich sensed that people simply didn’t know this, that they had no inkling of how one could think at all; that if one could teach them to think in a new way, they would also live in a different way.”5
SECOND SPEAKER: Despite its generous terms, Musil rejected the offer of a lectureship. Meanwhile he had written The Confusions of Young Törless and sensed that there was now only one path left that he could pursue.
FIRST SPEAKER: This path offered no guarantees—no bourgeois security, no steady advancement through the ranks; it offered him nothing but inextinguishable doubt and secret certainty, disappointment, solitude, and that fortunate misfortune—distance, which sets great minds apart from the age they represent. What subsequently happens is the effect of happenstance.
SECOND SPEAKER: He lives in Vienna as a librarian until the outbreak of the First World War, in which he serves at the Italian front. After the war he becomes a technical adviser at the Austrian army ministry and eventually goes to Berlin, where in those years—this is the period of the Weimar Republic—the tensions and conflicts of German intellectual life are most palpable. After Hitler’s seizure of power, although under no external compulsion to leave, he returns disheartened to Vienna and resumes work on The Man without Qualities, whose first volumes are now published. Now he is a freelance writer in the bitterest sense of the word. His fortune had vanished in the great inflation. He is one of the few who leave Austria voluntarily and shares the fate of most political and Jewish emigrants. Unknown, out of money, out of friends, he lives in Zurich, a nameless figure, one of that city’s all-too-numerous unwelcome guests. Then in Geneva until his death on April 15, 1942. Only eight people bid him farewell at the Cimetière de Saint Georges. Only when his widow advertised for subscribers to the posthumous volume did the conversation about Musil resume. But it would have to wait nearly another ten years to reach Germany.
FIRST SPEAKER: And as an emigrant this same man had once written:
MUSIL: “I dedicate this novel to the German youth…to the youth who will arrive in the near future and will be obliged to begin precisely where we…left off…This novel takes place before 1914, in other words, during a period that young people are no longer familiar with at all. And it does not describe this period as it actually was, in a way that would allow one to use the book as a historical primer. It describes this period, rather, as it is reflected in a single person who is by no means an authoritative figure.”6
FIRST SPEAKER: So in what sense does this book matter to people who are alive today? But let’s first take a look at this unauthoritative figure, who we learn is named Ulrich, and in whom the world of his time is reflected. Let us release the man imprisoned in the mirror even as we ourselves dive into the mirror and behold its world and regard it as a model rather than as reality.
SECOND SPEAKER: A young man who we know is an unauthoritative figure—just like us—who has struggled with various career plans, returns to Vienna one fine day in 1913, at a moment when his life seems to be petering out into nothing. He recalls that his native country is known as a place with a mysterious knack for letting people put down roots…
MUSIL: “…and he took up residence in it feeling like a wanderer settling down on a bench for eternity even though he senses he will be standing up again right away.”7
SECOND SPEAKER: As his means permit him to do so, he moves into rented lodgings in a chateau and resolves to take a year-long break from his life.
FIRST SPEAKER: To take a break from his life—in other words, to do nothing. And for a healthy young man who is capable of doing a multitude of useful things, this is tantamount to doing something forbidden. But in Ulrich’s eyes, doing nothing for a year is worth the “effort” it costs.
SECOND SPEAKER: How in the world might a young man who calls doing absolutely nothing an expenditure of “effort” be constituted?
FIRST SPEAKER: Well, let us say that he is a thoroughly impractical man who will always behave in an unpredictable way towards other people and is always pursuing eccentric projects. He is—let us say—a man without qualities.
SECOND SPEAKER: The time has come for us to attempt to specify what a man without qualities is. The phrase evokes all sorts of misleading associations—from a human being concocted in an alchemist’s retort to a human being devoid of moral character.
FIRST SPEAKER: Ulrich is neither the one nor the other—rather, and in short, he has a greater sense of possibility than a sense of reality, and this quality—no, not a quality, for if it were one he would have one—makes him a man without qualities. As a man without qualities, he is subject to supervision from two sides—from that of his disciplined intellect and that of his sensitivity to emotional phenomena. Naturally he also has a sense of reality, for he is neither a fantasist nor an idealist inclined to flee from reality. But his sense of the as-yet unborn reality, in other words of possibility, impels him to engage in an intellectual struggle for a reality that must be engendered afresh, a struggle that must be fought out ahead of the front lines of existing reality. He is—and this must be said, even at the risk of making him misunderstood—a utopian. At an early point in his life, Ulrich has realized that his own age, for all its learning, for all the abundance of learning it enjoys by comparison with previous ages, seems to be incapable of making any decisive change in the course of history. And the reason for this seems to be that reality is being shaped today by a pitifully small proportion of humankind itself because human beings are no longer creative because they have dwindled into a tiny heap of qualities and habits and experience life itself within the confines of a prefabricated schema.
MUSIL: “Their experiences have gone into research institutes and into reports on research expeditions, into intellectual and religious collectivities, the predetermined modes of experience, at the cost of compelling them to treat other people like the subjects of a social experiment…So who today can still say that his rage is actually rage, when so many people are interfering with it and can understand it better than he does?! A world of qualities without man has emerged, a world of experiences without anyone to experience them…”8
FIRST SPEAKER: Ulrich now realizes that he is “as close to and distant from” all qualities as other people are, but that he is sincerely indifferent to all of them. He is capable of detaching the value of an action or the value of a quality from the goals they serve and extricating them from the nexuses in which they have become implicated. He sees through to their essences and investigates them like an anatomist.
MUSIL: “In his eyes, a character, a vocation, a fixed mentality, are notions in which the skeleton he is destined to leave behind is already adumbrated.”9
FIRST SPEAKER: He shudders to think of this. We may safely assert that Ulrich, Musil’s protagonist, naturally also hails from a family that we already familiar with. To a certain extent, he is a descendant of Hofmannsthal’s difficult man and also a descendant of all the likeable and unlikeable malcontents who breathed Nestroy’s air. He has the visual acuity, the proclivity for lethal criticism and self-criticism, that has often thrived in the Viennese climate, and like a few other worthy minds who preceded him, he moves above the uncanny undertow which nobody dares to discuss and into which he knows he will be dragged to his destruction the moment his consciousness and his skepticism forsake him. From such ancestors and such air he derives his unacknowledged suicidal or mystical disposition, a disposition towards irony and towards “not wanting to be original,” and—last but not least—towards a hostility to metaphysics.
SECOND SPEAKER: This “difficult man’s” family, of which Ulrich is also a member, was at home in the country that is preserved in our history books because it has ceased to exist, in a polity that was “somehow already just playing along” even in its own lifetime—in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But it is otiose to say anything about this country, since Musil has said the most trenchant things that can be said about it:
MUSIL: “There, in Kakania, that…dilapidated, misunderstood polity in which so much that was commendable failed to be appreciated, there was also a tempo, but not too much of a tempo…Naturally automobiles rolled along its streets, but not too many automobiles! People were working towards the conquest of the skies here as well, but not too intensively. Now and then a ship was launched on a voyage to South America or eastern Asia, but not too often.”10
FIRST SPEAKER: There in Kakania…
MUSIL: “In writing it was called the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and it allowed itself to be spoken of as Austria; so it had a name that it had cast aside with a solemn political oath, but that it continued to abide by in all emotional matters, as a token attesting that emotions were just as important as public law and that the seriousness of life was not reducible to regulations. It was constitutionally liberal, but it was ruled by its clergy. It was ruled by its clergy, but its people lived like freethinkers.”11
FIRST SPEAKER: Regarding its national conflicts:
MUSIL: “They were so violent that several times a year they caused the machinery of State to grind to a standstill, but during the intervals and pauses in governmental business everybody got along splendidly.”11
FIRST SPEAKER: It was there in Kakania that Musil sited the “parallel campaign,” the central plotline of the novel, to the extent that it is possible to speak of its having any sort of “plot” at all. Its protagonist’s individual destiny is closely tied to the story of this ramblingly organized cultural and political undertaking, of this salvaging operation on behalf of the spiritual “values of the occident.” The fact that this macabrely patriotic undertaking was carried out under the auspices of the Danube Monarchy, which Musil depicted with so much erudition, so much clandestine love and redoubtable criticism, would lead one to believe that we are dealing with a historical novel, with a swansong for the dying Kakania. But Musil himself once tried to obviate potential misconceptions about his work by defining it thus:
MUSIL: “It is not the great Austrian novel that everybody has been waiting for from time immemorial…
It is by no means a naturalistic depiction of a certain period, in which Mr…can be spotted in all his living and loving actuality…
It is by no means an avowal of a credo, but rather a satire…
It is by no means a satire, but rather an affirmative edifice…”13
SECOND SPEAKER: At any rate, the first part of the novel is in large measure a satire and a critique of the period in which it is set. It leads us through the labyrinth of now-desolated ruling ideas, and we make the acquaintance of the leading exponents of these ideas, who allow us to understand how the breakdown of civilization came about.
FIRST SPEAKER: With the exception of Ulrich, all of the novel’s characters may be regarded as incarnations of specific types of worldview. Let us survey each of them in turn:
SECOND SPEAKER: The “great author” Arnheim: his pet project consists in dealing with business matters exclusively in connection with intellectual questions—in applying, for example, Maeterlinck’s or Bergson’s philosophy to the settlement of disputes about the price of coal and the political regulation of cartels. He regards his own age as an age lamentably bereft of deities and therefore descants enthusiastically on the necessity of reorganizing the psychological faculty of emotional sensitivity as a means of saving humankind from the curse of soullessness. He travels a great deal, enjoys audiences with cabinet ministers, gives lectures, serves on all prize-awarding juries, signs all public appeals, delivers all the important birthday speeches, issues statements on all important events, professionally wages war against the intellectual perversity of the age and evinces intellectual probity. His intrinsic shortcoming: he acts like a businessman and talks of non-material perspectives; he is an administrator of the heavy industry of the spirit of our age.
FIRST SPEAKER: General Stumm von Bordwehr, head of the military, cultural, and educational division at the ministry of war—
SECOND SPEAKER—who has been tasked with “keeping a bit of an eye on what’s going on” in the parallel campaign, and is interested in familiarizing himself with the most important “civilian questions.” A lover of art and music who dreams of a world in which questions about the military and its armaments are virtuously decided by popular consensus. His last piece of advice for the parallel campaign: given that no global peace conference has ever yet been convened, one might as well build up the army and the navy, if only as a precautionary measure.
FIRST SPEAKER: Count Leinsdorf:
SECOND SPEAKER: The actual deviser of the parallel campaign; a typical Austrian aristocrat: he is striving to practice “Realpolitik.” In other words, in his opinion:
MUSIL: “Doing the very opposite of one would really like to do; on the other hand, one can win people over to one’s side by catering to their petty whims!”14
SECOND SPEAKER: He doesn’t wasn’t to make noble ideas into realities but rather to—
MUSIL: “…pull the people together!”
SECOND SPEAKER: In other words, in his opinion: to counter all proposals with a proposal to form a collective, for—
MUSIL: “…when a large number of people are in favor of something, you can be pretty sure something will come out of it.”15
SECOND SPEAKER: In a word, he has at his command firm, healthy political opinions, believes in the necessity of the considerate integration of every human individual into the political system, believes that the people are “good,” and traces all his less benign volitions to “fundamentally kindhearted impulses.”
FIRST SPEAKER: By contrast, the Jewish bank manager Fischel—
SECOND SPEAKER: —a representative of economic life who views the patriotic campaign with suspicion, has a tragic battle to fight in his own house, a battle against his daughter’s Germanic Christian circle of friends and their brazenly flaunted antisemitism. Formerly a respected freethinker, he now suddenly finds himself being pigeonholed as a “Jewish capitalist.” Despite all this, he believes in an idea of progress that must somehow have been modeled on the progressively increasing profitability of his bank and—
MUSIL: “—As a man who was competent in his professional sphere, he naturally knew that one could only ever have a conviction about something one really knew inside and out…the colossal proliferation of his activities at work did not leave room for their development in other places.”16
FIRST SPEAKER: Lindner the university professor, nicknamed “The Do-Gooder”—
SECOND SPEAKER: —transforms everything he comes into contact with into an ethical challenge. His maintenance of his personality through body and character-flexing exercises fails to prevent him from falling almost embarrassingly in love with Ulrich’s “morally feebleminded” sister and bungling the education of his son under the auspices of his regimen of virtue. This son will soon figure as a representative of a rising generation signalized by its rebellion against its pharisaical fathers: in the terms of his own lexicon, Lindner himself would describe his son as an “Evildoer.”
FIRST SPEAKER: The round dance continues, via the socialist Schmeisser and the homosexual Meingast, behind whose features may be descried those of the philosopher Klages, to the ambitious young poet Friedel Feuermaul with his extraordinarily bombastic outbursts of “Humankind is good.” Musil is said to have limned this character as a portrait of Franz Werfel. But a list of the most important characters must undoubtedly include Moosbrugger, the murderer of prostitutes, and Clarisse, a dubious woman whom Ulrich befriended in his youth—two pathological figures, extreme incarnations of the pathology of the age.
Some lines in Musil’s notebook distinctly describe Moosbrugger’s significance in the context of the novel:
MUSIL: “Nations are legally unaccountable for their actions because they are mentally impaired…comparison with mentally ill individuals. They have no wills. But they do things to one another.”17
SECOND SPEAKER: Moosbrugger lives on the dark side of life. His world is a mystical one. He is a symptomatic symbol of the established order and an image, but one that is no more alien than any of the rest of the world’s images. And because he suffers vicariously for humankind, as Clarisse asserts, he constitutes part of the religious nodus of the novel—
FIRST SPEAKER: —a nodus whose actuality Musil acknowledges when he says that this book is religious but subject to the requirements of unbelievers.
SECOND SPEAKER: Clarisse, obsessed with Nietzsche’s and Klage’s world of ideas, driven by a yearning for salvation, eventually succumbs to madness. She is imbued with a mixture of the most contradictory religious tendencies—she regards herself as a superman and as the great hermaphrodite, as a composite of man and woman; she doesn’t wish to be “one” like Ulrich and Agathe, but “two”; but she is also Christ and wishes to reenact all the stations of his passion and believes that she is capable of taking on the sins of the world in an increasingly drastic succession of irrational sacrifices that culminates in her complete breakdown.
FIRST SPEAKER: Musil has overlaid the entire novel with a giant shadow of the collapse. A shadow is cast by the people on their country and by the country on its people. But the Hapsburg Monarchy is explicitly singled out by Musil as but an especially sharply defined case in illustration of the modern world, because it was the first polity that had taken it upon itself to champion belief in the Christian God. Its internal and external breakdown allows it to illustrate the fate of the modern world in general. Even Ulrich’s antagonist, Arnheim the Prussian—behind whose features may be descried those of [Walther] Rathenau; a man who, like the figures who congregate in the highbrow salon of the Viennese hostess Diotima, is beset by human and political confusions—treads the boards of this miniature global stage only to give visibility to Germany’s fate as the fate of Europe.
So we shall have to deny ourselves the pleasure of dwelling on the superstructural narrative complex that every reader regards as one of the work’s most charming features; of dwelling on its captivating portraits of milieus and depictions of people, on its black humor and its bitter comedy. For this complex is but a means to an authorial end—a means of engaging in an audacious experiment in the philosophy of history, an experiment that has accidentally wandered into the realm of imaginative literature.
SECOND SPEAKER: In point of fact the book has little in common with traditional narrative prose works. It is nearly crushed to death by its superabundance of reflection, by the obliqueness of its mise en scène. It is a conglomeration of essays, aphorisms, and the interior monologues of Ulrich and two dozen secondary characters.
FIRST SPEAKER: And yet it is more meticulously composed and structured than any other book written in this century. Musil is an intellectual strategist who labors at the execution of his plan with a supremely fascinating intelligence, who employs all manner of linguistic devices, every possible style, every displacement of consciousness, every possible mode of experience. And he is actuated by a passion of an exceedingly cold-blooded and peculiar kind:
MUSIL: “This book is imbued with a passion that in our time has to some extent been displaced into the domain of imaginative literature—a passion for accuracy, for precision.”18
SECOND SPEAKER: A good many years before starting work on his great novel, Robert Musil had published in a magazine an essay in cultural criticism entitled Defenseless Europe. In this essay he for the first time decisively spoke out against the notion—one still quite popular in our own time—that the European “crisis” was owing to the increasing mechanization of existence, that the use of our intellect, the proliferation of forms of knowledge made available by scientific thought and the consequent proliferation of new technologies, was leading to spiritual dissolution and was to blame “for everything.” In opposition to this, he propounded the thesis that something that was no longer intact could no longer be preserved and that the intellect could not subvert anything that had not already been subverted.
MUSIL: “We therefore cannot be dealing with anything other than a misalignment, a mis-synchronized cohabitation of intellect and soul. The problem is not that we have too much intellect and too little soul, but rather that we have too little intellectual understanding of questions pertaining to the soul.”19
SECOND SPEAKER: This insight is at the basis of Ulrich’s conflict. This thought also constitutes the starting point of Ulrich’s thoughts. And although he has been conceived as a “man without qualities,” hence as a protagonist who lacks the qualifications for being a man of action, once set in motion by this thought, he throws himself into an adventure that is a completely new one for the protagonist of a novel. He resolves to reactivate his powers of thinking and acting “instead of howling with the wolves.”
SECOND SPEAKER: This seemingly rather theoretical undertaking is derived from the reflection that the reactivation can only come from a new morality—
FIRST SPEAKER: —and since the root of morality is religious belief, it can only come from a new religion.
SECOND SPEAKER: Instead of setting off in search of the lost religion and the lost morality, the Man Without Qualities engages in bold—and, when necessary,
circumspect—experiments aimed at unleashing a new form of intellectual atomic energy. And he liberates forces that he and his age are as yet unable to utilize.
But let us not delude ourselves: a conflict is always a moral conflict, and in contrast to the book’s other characters, Ulrich, whom Musil ironically classes among the “morally feebleminded decadents,” is engaged in a conflict that dwarfs all other conflicts. He is preoccupied with the “morality of morality,” because our morality is lodged in a mindset that is several centuries out of date. Ulrich recognizes that the moral values towards which everyone around him is orientating himself are “function concepts.” In other words: the same act can be both good and evil and in the final analysis proves to be a unique characteristic of European morality, such that the commandments of this morality hopelessly contradict one another.
It is during one of his first encounters with his sister Agatha that Ulrich first lets himself express these sentiments unreservedly:
ULRICH: “You asked me what I believe…I believe that all the prescriptions of our morality are concessions to a society of savage beasts.
I believe that none of these concessions is just.
A different meaning shimmers behind them. A fire that ought to melt them into something new.
I believe that nothing is finished.
I believe that nothing is ever in a state of equilibrium, that to the contrary everything is always trying to hoist aloft everything else.
I believe this; it was born with me or I with it…
It seems to me that without my having had anything to do with it, I was born with a morality that sets me apart.
You asked me what I believe! I believe that I can be shown why something is good or beautiful via a thousand valid proofs and be left unmoved, and I shall be guided solely and exclusively by my sense of whether being close to that something will make me rise or fall.
Of whether or not I will be awakened to life by it.
Of whether it is being spoken of merely by my tongue and my brain or by the radiant shiver in my fingertips.
But I myself cannot prove anything either.
And I am even convinced that a person who surrenders himself to that something is lost. He ends up stuck in a twilight state. In fog and bilge. In inchoate tedium.
If you take away the unequivocal out of our life, what’s left is a hornet’s nest with nobody to stir it up.
I accordingly believe that chicanery is actually our good angel, our guardian angel!
So I don’t believe anything!
But I believe least of all in the enslavement of evil by good that defines our gallimaufry of a civilization: that disgusts me!
But perhaps I believe that not long from now people will be very intelligent on the one hand and mystics on the other. Perhaps our present morality is already decaying into these two elements. I might even say it’s decaying into mathematics and mysticism. Into pragmatic melioration and unknown adventure!20
FIRST SPEAKER: Ulrich embarks on that unknown adventure with his sister Agathe.
SECOND SPEAKER: He has not seen her since his childhood and reencounters her at his father’s funeral and a moment when her life is likewise beginning to peter out into nothing. The two of them begin to feel a wondrous, bashful affection for each other. Ulrich withdraws further and further from cultural activity and discovers in Agathe his Siamese twin, his shadowy double.
FIRST SPEAKER: The path of their thought coincides with that of their love, and what now takes place is not the unfolding of a love story, but rather that of the “last love story.” Brother and sister stumble onto a path that has much in common with that of the “God-smitten.” They pore over the testimonials of great mystics with the aim of figuring out how to strip away the boundaries of the world and of consciousness, and for a brief period they attain “another state of mind” in which they are morally dissolved into a primevally subatomic state—the “other state of mind.”
SECOND SPEAKER: In an unpublished poem from his posthumous papers, “Isis and Osiris,” Musil has left us a variation on the theme of love between siblings…
MUSIL: On the stellar leaves the young lad lay
’Neath silver moon’s repose,
And the solar circle turned his way
And watched him there adoze.
From the desert wastes the red wind blew,
And from the coast no sail’s in view.
And the sleeper’s sister gently sliced
his penis off and it devoured.
And in its place her heart she spliced,
And there the soft red organ flowered.
And as he dreamed his beauteous sex grew back.
And she enjoyed it as a snack.
Lo: then the sun began to thunder,
The sleeper started from his slumber,
Stars reeled and swayed like sailing vessels,
Like trees connected to chains
When the great storm sheds its rains.
Lo: then his brothers stormed and raged
By the lovely brigand shrouded,
And the rainbow he uncaged,
And the blue expanse disclouded,
Woodlands broke beneath their stride,
And the anxious stars ran by their side.
But the tender girl with the bird-shoulders
Outpaced them all, run as far as they might.
Only the lad whom she summoned at night
A single one of all her hundred brothers
Finds her, when moon where sun once was now is
And he eats her heart, and she devours his.21
FIRST SPEAKER: All of Ulrich’s thoughts are now circling around the question, “What is it possible to believe in at all?” Mysticism as a state of perpetual God-smittenness strikes him as “slovenly”: he fashions the concept of a “clear-eyed mysticism” as a possible means of deviating from the customary organization of lived experience. In virtue of its tendency to transmute into a direct orientation towards God, this deviation is repugnant to him. As a scientist, he knows that it cannot lead to any advances in cognition. Indeed, every orientation that wishes to be fruitful must take as its point of departure an “intuition based on the best of one’s knowledge.” As for everything else, as he shouts at his sister one day:
ULRICH: “It’s nothing better than Icarus’s wax wings, which melted away in the heavens. Anyone who doesn’t just want to fly in his dreams has got to learn how to fly with metal wings!”22
FIRST SPEAKER: One will find the Man Without Qualities’ recourse to the idea of the Thousand-Year Reich, his hankering for “the other state of mind,” for the “unio mystica,” less off-putting if one joins [Ulrich] in conceiving of it as a possible utopia. And keeps it in view not as a goal but as a vector. For Musil’s body of thought is averse to goals, motile. It flies in the face of the dominant systems, in which everything has been reduced to a single actualization of its manifold possibilities. Indeed, every system strikes him as absurd and wax dummy-ish whenever anybody takes it seriously and clings to it after its expiration date. He prefers the notion that the world—as a system—is merely one of x trial runs and that God perhaps only ever provides partial solutions—a partial solution out of which the world is forever fashioning a relative totality, but a totality that no solution ever fits. To be sure, God is a hypothetical entity. One must abandon oneself to intuition. <…>
SECOND SPEAKER: So what significance is now to be attributed to the utopia of that “other state of mind?” On the surface it is realized in the siblings’ tendency towards flight from the world; they go away to Italy. Ulrich perceives this “journey to paradise” as being deeply interconnected with his rejection of the world, and as an experiment, and he has resolved to take his own life if this experiment fails.
FIRST SPEAKER: To make a long story short: the experiment fails and with it fails the utopia of the “other state of mind,” and Ulrich can no longer find any compelling reason to kill himself. The siblings part company. In order to avoid having to love Ulrich again, Agathe will have liaisons with other men. And Ulrich will go off to war, even though he could take refuge in Switzerland, even though he execrates war, in which he also sees a version of the “other state of mind”—
MUSIL: “…but mingled with evil.”
FIRST SPEAKER: And Musil elaborates on his interpretation of this love story:
MUSIL: “Ulrich and Agathe’s relationship is actually an attempt to put anarchism into practice in an amorous context. The attempt itself then has a negative ending. This bespeaks the profundity of the connection between the love story and the war!”23
SPEAKER: But before talking about this love story’s connection to the war, one must realize that the war is the novel’s all-embracing problem. All the lines that Musil has traced lead to the war; the one that leads there most conspicuously is of course the parallel campaign, and everyone welcomes it in some fashion or other because everyone has found in it something known as “belief” or “conviction”—something that Ulrich despises and against which he pits his utopia, his “other state of mind,” pure contemplation. Nevertheless, this utopia comes to a tragic conclusion.
Musil knows that this utopia is doomed to failure, for:
MUSIL: “Renunciation of the world has no purpose. This is owing to the fact that it is always aiming for God, for a goal that is unreal and unattainable.”24
FIRST SPEAKER: And yet this utopia is also a guiding image for another guiding image that can liberate humankind from its ideological fetters. For after the miscarriage of his journey into the Thousand-Year Reich, is not Ulrich still left with the very intuition in which the moving force of spirit unflaggingly keeps itself alive and in readiness? Love as negation, as a state of emergency, cannot last. Like religious faith, self-externalization and ecstasy endure for only an hour. Of course, the “other state of mind” has led from society to absolute freedom, but Ulrich now knows that the utopia of this other life can provide no prescriptions for the praxis of life. For those who live in society this utopia must be replaced by the utopia of the established social reality. Musil also calls it “the utopia of the inductive mindset” from time to time. But both ideologies make it possible for open ideologies to take the place of closed ones.
SECOND SPEAKER: Musil could no longer execute the last chapter. But at bottom it was intended to articulate the “final outcome of the utopia of the inductive mindset.” For Ulrich this was to mean:
MUSIL: “Gaining insight, working, being pious without make-believe plus the final outcome of the inductive mindset.”25
FIRST SPEAKER: And this insight comes to him at a moment in which the insanity that breaks out in the summer of 1914 is ushering in the collapse of civilization and of the idea of civilization. And now there arises [---]26
1. Bachmann’s editors report that she began work on this essay sometime after December 1952, when Rowohlt’s edition of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man Without Qualities] was published, that its broadcast date and broadcaster are no longer ascertainable, and that the conclusion of its typescript is missing, whence its breaking off in mid-sentence.
2. Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, (Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1958 [fourth printing of the 1952 edition]), p. 1646 f. This citation and all those that follow, along with all associated commentary unless otherwise noted, are taken from Bachmann’s editors’ notes.
3. Ibid., p. 37.
4. Ibid., p. 39.
5. Ibid., p. 40., with modifications, and p. 41.
6. Ibid., pp. 1638-1639.
7. Ibid., p. 19.
8. Ibid., p. 154, slightly modified.
9. Ibid. p. 257.
10. Ibid., p. 33.
11. Ibid., p. 34.
13. Ibid., p. 1642. The order of the last two sentences has been reversed.
14. Ibid., p. 356.
15. Ibid., p. 360.
16. Ibid. p. 138f.
17. Ibid. p. 1618.
18. Ibid. p. 1640.
19. Robert Musil, Tagebücher, Aphorismen, Essays und Reden [Diaries, Aphorisms, Essays, and Speeches]. (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1955), p. 638.
20. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, p. 786f.
21. Contrary to Bachmann’s assumption, this poem was published for the first time in Die Neue Rundschau in Berlin in 1923. Republished in: Robert Musil, Prosa, Dramen, späte Briefe [Prose, Plays, Late Letters] (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1957), p. 597.
22. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, p. 782, with modifications.
23. Ibid., p. 1619.
24. Ibid., p. 1616.
25. Ibid., p. 1617.
26. “Arises” is a conjecture whose virtual arbitrariness is excusable by the fact that the concluding sentence-fragment, “Und nun stellt,” contains no subject and the probability that stellt is part of a longer verb—e.g., darstellt or vorstellt (DR).
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 80-102.