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The Man without Qualities, Volume 1: A Sort…

The Man without Qualities, Volume 1: A Sort of Introduction; The Like of…

by Robert Musil

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I’m always appreciative of a book that at first feels unapproachable to me, because this means that I can come back to it when I’m ready, when I’ve grown. This is the case with The Man Without Qualities, a book I had attempted twice last year but found hard to really get into. I picked it up again this year and started from page one, and this time it just clicked. It’s important to me as a reader to get the voice of the writer in my head just right, and it seems to me that I just couldn’t do that initially. But with my third attempt, the voice suddenly made sense, I got the rhythms and understood the sounds, the extra words and the tonality of it, and the remarkable and remarkably understated humor.

One of the chapters is called ‘A chapter that can be skipped by anyone who has no very high opinion of thinking as an occupation’. This title could probably just as well be applied to the entire book. It reads like philosophy with the novel/plot-parts sprinkled sparingly throughout. I had to write down the characters’ names not because there were too many to keep track of in my mind, as in some Russian novels, but more because you only get a brief glimpse of these characters before being plunged into 20 more pages of philosophy and when you come out of it you may not still remember who they were; the book constantly goes on these wild thought provoking tangents (this, too, fits the themes of the novel, for the man without qualities is one who has no sense of reality, a dreamer and an idealist, essentially, and this book puts you in that mindset, not allowing you to connect to the ‘reality’ of the novel for more than a few pages at a time) .

Instead of finding this intolerable, I thought it was attractive and even liberating to me on the third read. A lot of his philosophizing is put into serpentine syntactical structures, long sentences full of commas and slightly odd diction and tone, but not in a way that is obscure... the sentences made intuitive sense once I could hear that unique ‘writer’s voice’ in my head. In fact, I can’t imagine them phrased differently, and they expressed so well (and precisely) things that I can’t easily put into words; a lot of it concerns the state of the world as Musil saw it then, crystallized into perfect perceptive wit. Yes, a lot of it is very funny, but in a way that is biting and subtle so that you can’t exactly pinpoint one particular phrase as containing all the-funny without also including the phrases before and after it. There are very few one-liners in here, or at least very few one-liners that aren’t made more funny by including the preceding 100-liners.

One of the reasons I like longish plotless novels, and this is a feeling I discovered also with Hopscotch, is that in a traditional novel it is more-or-less like a flat plain. There are some hills and some valleys with their bodies of water, but basically you can stand on the highest elevation and see the complete trajectory of the thing, see all the people, how the dogs are chasing frisbees etc. But in these longish less plot-oriented novels, there are little nooks and crannies that you cannot see even from the highest points--shaded creeks leading to icy caves or overhanging cliffs, little areas in the prose to hide in. There are friendly places in this narrative to stop and think, to live and breathe in instead of just going forward forward forward. Also, there are favorite places where you can go back over and over again, and it feels private, like nobody else has been there since the last time you were there and ate your ham croissant by the ant-trail (look the ants are still there, carrying your crumbs).

One thing that gets brushed over when people call this a ‘novel of ideas’ is that it’s also a novel against ideas. Or at least, a warning against those who use and rely on ideas without knowing what they mean, without thinking clearly and critically about them, but merely try them on for size or as a fashion statement.

For example, it’s telling that at the beginning the Collateral Campaign is looking for an idea that is worthy of the occasion. It’s not that the campaign started with an idea, but that the campaign is going to happen no matter what, and a noble idea must be found for it. Musil also pokes fun at almost all the characters for having ideals that they blindly try to live up to, or worship without actually having to think one iota. Diotima falls into this, and so does her maid Rachel. They are enamored by ideas and the people who have ideas, whereas the people who have ideas (like Paul Arnheim) only use them out of convenience, as a sort of fashionable trinket or social cachet, something they use to their own ulterior ends. In fact, almost all the characters fall prey to the dangerous side of ideas, in one way or another, with the possible exception of Ulrich (though he’s not immune to being made fun of also, for many other self-deprecatory reasons (I say self-deprecatory because I believe Ulrich is a stand in for the author himself)).

This notion of the thing or action coming before the idea might seem silly at first, but is ubiquitous. Think about political campaigns trying to find a platform or a catchy slogan, advertising campaigns looking for a unique angle or image, even graphic design firms trying to evoke a feeling or a lifestyle through a color or clean line. These things don’t have ideas in and of themselves. Whereas traditionally we think of the idea snug at the core of a thing, as a kernel preceding the event, Musil understood even in the 1930s that things were increasingly empty at the core. These were hollow things that then took on an idea as a wrapping-around like an outer shell, forming an ideal surface that is perfectly attractive and relatable to the target audience’s delusions.

The Collateral Campaign reminds me of many other parallels in recent history. For example, the Olympic Games in China. And by extension, all of the recent Olympics too, but in China it was even more exaggeratedly obvious that it was merely a show, a nation’s grand facade with all the underlying hypocrisies that echo Musil’s example.

The ‘tea party’ movement, is another example, since is touted as this organic grass roots movement. Similarly, the organizers of the Campaign stress repeatedly how the movement must come organically from the people; but in practice, it achieves this end by having high level officials meet repeatedly to plan it out, because the masses aren’t to be trusted with big ideas.

On the other hand, as soon as a soul has morality or religion, philosophy, and intensive bourgeois education and ideals in the realms of duty and of the beautiful, it is endowed with a system of regulations, conditions and directives for operation, which it has to fill out before it is entitled to think of itself as a respectable soul, and its heat, like that of a blast-furnace, is conducted into beautiful squares of sand. What remains then is fundamentally only logical problems of interpretation, of the kind as to whether an action comes under this or that commandment; and the soul presents the tranquil panorama of a battlefield after the battle, where the dead lie quiet and one can at once observe where a scrap of life yet stirs or groans. And so man makes this transition as fast as he can. If he is tormented by religious doubts, as occasionally happens in youth, he goes straight over to the persecution of unbelievers; if love deranges him, he turns it into marriage; and if other enthusiasm overwhelms him, he disentangles himself from the impossibility of living perpetually in the fire of it by beginning to live for that fire. That is, instead of filling the many moments of his day, each of which needs a content and an impetus, with his ideal state, he fills them with the activity for the sake of his ideal state, in other words, with the many means to the end, the hindrances and incidents that are a sure guarantee that he never need reach it. For only fools, the mentally deranged, and people with idees fixes, can endure unceasingly in the fire of the soul’s rapture. A sane man must content himself with declaring that life would not seem worth living without a flake of that mysterious fire. p. 219

I find it even more remarkable that this book, with its warning against the seductiveness of ideas, was written from 1930 to 1942, in the years leading up to the frenzy of the fascist state, the pinnacle of Hitler’s mass seduction. This unfinished book was interrupted by World War II just as the Collateral Campaign will be interrupted by World War I. In both cases, ideas play a big part. Musil saw what was coming as well as what had passed; unfortunately nobody was paying attention, and we still aren’t.

Along these lines, Hitler is a criminal with the help of an idea and thus he was on the top of society. Whereas Moosbrugger was a common criminal and madman and espoused no ideas, so he belonged to the bottom rung of humanity. This made Moosbrugger, in Ulrich’s eyes, somewhat noble:

But it is along this road that business leads to philosophy (for it is only criminals who presume to damage other people nowadays without the aid of philosophy) p227

You can go to jail today for smoking a little weed, but the crooks that caused the financial crisis get off scot-free by merely hiding behind a system of signs and numbers, laws and loopholes, a philosophy or an idea.

An Essay on the Curious Coincidence of the Number 62

I find it curious that one of the central ideas of this book is a concept Musil calls ‘Essayism’ and that it is explored primarily in chapter 62. And that Julio Cortazar, who in the book Hopscotch references The Man without Qualities on more than one occasion, chooses chapter 62 of his book to be the basis of an entirely different book: 62: A Model Kit. Coincidence? Or does the concept of Essayism apply to what Cortazar was doing in these two books?

Essayism is hard to put into better words than Musil has already done in his book. But I will try and fail anyway: It has to do with the word ‘essay’ which means ‘attempt’, to attempt to get at something (without preconceived goals) from various angles, which is a type of thinking and a type of living too. This is contrasted with the tendency for one generation to react to the previous generation’s extremism by revoking everything and going to the opposite extreme. Thus, history, when zoomed out, looks like a yoyo going back and forth between ideals, without ever meeting in the middle. Essayism is interested in living in this in-between state (the bridge metaphor in Hopscotch as well as Torless comes back to me here). However, part of the consequences of this kind of living is a lack of convictions, since any term like “morality” for example, must be defined by the context in which it is used and cannot be declared definitively. Thus, ideals live “in a field of energy the constellation of which charge them with meaning, and they contain good and evil just as an atom contains the potentialities of chemical combination.” Likewise, the Man Without Qualities, being a man between states, draws no conclusions and no convictions from his many potentialities, thus he is a man without action (whereas Paul Arnheim is full of action). The realm of the essay is the realm of thought and not of action. Perhaps this is why nobody did anything in Hopscotch either.

One aspect of these extreme ideals that Ulrich/Musil is especially interested in is the one between facts as scientific/real data/information and facts as a metaphysical passion/experience of truth. So the fact that the “atmospheric temperature was in proper relation to the average annual temperature” versus the fact that “it was a fine August day in the year 1913” (from the opening paragraph) is a central concern of the book. The man “in between” would have to come to an attempt at living between these so that he was “no longer thinking, neither was [he] feeling in the usual incoherent way. It was a ‘comprehending wholly’”. Thought and emotion merged.

Of course, I am oversimplifying, as any summary of an idea is bound to do. In fact, I am going against exactly what Essayism says, which is that any attempt to systematize a genuine essay, which is an attempt where the thought moves in between ideas is “to transform wisdom, even as it is, into a theory of life, and so to extract some ‘content’ from the motion of those who were moved: what is left over is about as much as remains of a jelly-fish’s delicately opalescent body after it has been lifted out of the water and laid on the sand. The teachings of the inspired crumble into dust in the rationality of the uninspired, crumble into contradiction and nonsense.” So, to Musil, it is the process of the attempt itself which constitutes its worth, not any kind of “conclusion” that others may draw from it like a residue after the act. This reminds me very much of the sense of playfulness and experimentation in Hopscotch, where the act is made wholly and holy, and the result is inconsequential.

I will have to go out on a limb in order to draw connections with 62: A Model Kit, but I am convinced they are there... The idea of a Man Without Qualities is necessarily a man with all qualities, and all potentialities. This is the modern man, with multiplicities within himself, in which he simply chooses certain aspects to show in certain settings. “It is not altogether easy to recognise the driving passion in a temperament like this” (p. 176). So it is qualities or characteristics or ‘ideas’ that are constantly being bounced around in this book, for the book has no real plot except for the interaction between the different character’s thoughts. These thoughts, which are almost interchangeable, are passed from character to character, bouncing off some, sticking to others.

Likewise, 62: A Model Kit is plotless in the traditional sense. Instead, we have characters who are like amoebas, made up of vectors that affect one another in strangely mathematical yet emotional ways. The difference here is that I think Cortazar is more interested in psychological states than the trajectory of ideas between his characters. Thus, we have in Model Kit a novel of subtle mental shifts, a kind of Jungian jungle of consciousness.

I told you I was going out on a limb.

A few paragraphs that can be skipped by anyone who has no very high opinion of thinking about the art of literary translation:

I read the older translation of this, done by Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. I’ve only read volume 1, which ends in the middle of the actual book’s volume 1 (chapter 72), but I plan on reading the rest ASAP. The new (and more popular and widely available) translation compiles it into only 2 volumes instead of 3, and is translated by Sophie Wilkins (any relation to Eithne?) and Burton Pike.

The quality of this older translation is in my opinion superior to the new translation. Although William Gass calls it “truncated and uninspired”, this older translation has the cadence of poetry and that unique rhythm that is necessary to bring out the ideas. I don’t know what Gass was thinking when he made that judgement, perhaps he dismissed the older translation without really reading it closely. Here’s a side by side comparison so you can see for yourself. First, the new translation, by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike:

Most of us may not believe in the story of a Devil to whom one can sell one's soul, but those who must know something about the soul (considering that as clergymen, historians, and artists they draw a good income from it) all testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics and that mathematics is the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines. The inner drought, the dreadful blend of acuity in matters of detail and indifference toward the whole, man's monstrous abandonment in a desert of details, his restlessness, malice, unsurpassed callousness, moneygrubbing, coldness, and violence, all so characteristic of our times, are by these accounts solely the consequence of damage done to the soul by keen logical thinking! Even back when Ulrich first turned to mathematics there were already those who predicted the collapse of European civilization because no human faith, no love, no simplicity, no goodness, dwelt any longer in man. These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school.

And here is the same passage in the older translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser:

Perhaps not all of these people believe in that stuff about the Devil to whom one can sell one’s soul; but all those who have to know something about the soul, because they draw a good income out of it as clergy, historians or artists, bear witness to the fact that it has been ruined by mathematics and that in mathematics is the source of a wicked intellect that, while making man the lord of the earth, also makes him the slave of the machine. The inner drought, the monstrous mixture of acuity in matters of detail and indifference as regards the whole, man’s immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his greed for money, his coldness and violence, which are characteristic of our time, are, according to such surveys, simply and solely the result of the losses that logical and accurate thinking has inflicted upon the soul! And so it was that even at that time, when Ulrich became a mathematician, there were people who were prophesying the collapse of European civilisation on the grounds that there was no longer any faith, any love, any simplicity or any goodness left in mankind; and it is significant that these people were all bad at mathematics at school.

To me, it is clear that the Wilkins/Kaiser translation is superior. The newer translation takes out so much of those rhetorical gestures (‘that stuff about the Devil’ becoming ‘story of a Devil’ and ‘And so it was that even at that time’ becoming ‘Even back when’) which convey little raw information but much in the very particular ironic tone of the novel. Not to mention the complete un-musicality of the phrase “moneygrubbing” in that list of ‘s’ sounds. And the humor of that last sentence-- ‘and it is significant that these people were all bad at mathematics at school’ falls completely flat in the new translation of ‘These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school.’

The only downsides of the older translation: 1. a few typos, for some reason 2. uses British English, but this is easy to get used to 3. out of print (but you can get used copies on Amazon). ( )
1 vote JimmyChanga | Jun 10, 2011 |
the best incomplete 20th century novel
  Liebding | May 30, 2008 |
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This is the 1st volume of the incomplete 3-volume translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. The contents are different from the 1st volume of the longer translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, in 2 volumes. Please DO NOT combine these editions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0399501525, Paperback)

Set in Vienna on the eve of WWI, adn peopled with some of the most memorable characters in literature, this novel presents a profound, witty, and striking portrait of life as it dissects and tries to define the individual in the modern world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:01 -0400)

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