Thursday, April 26, 2012

My new Preface to The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities: Possibility as Reality

 Failure to Reconcile as Modernist Success
Although Musil occasionally fantasized about what he might do after The Man Without Qualities was finished, there is, in effect, no end in sight ― not for the deeply engaged reader who enters into the questioning, the intellectual labyrinth, of Musil’s brain; not for the scholar who may try in vain to “finish” with Musil and go on to something else ― no end to the author’s textual variants, to the possibilities, the arrangements and re-arrangements; and no final solutions to the questions earnestly posed by this critically sophisticated writer. Musil was only halted in the endless task by his sudden death, in mid-sentence, as it were ― while re-visioning one of many versions of a chapter he had begun decades before.
This endlessness has often has been read as a failure to reconcile, or come to closure. Musil’s hopeful advocacy of the  heightened aesthetic and ethical experiences characterized by the exceptional state he called “the Other Condition" has been taken by many to be an escapist attempt to achieve a lasting harmonious union, the possibility of which the paradoxical author would later come to reject. This book argues against this general view of failure, and presents the thesis that Musil’s formal experimentation with narrative non-linearity and metaphor figure forth an existential model which assumes that aesthetic experience, as active,  participatory word- and world-construction was, for Musil, the fundamental metaphysical and ethical activity of mankind[1].  While many have argued that Musil’s utopian projections were bound to fail because they 1) could not last and 2) because they could not be made to correspond with “reality,” this book argues that the formal and theoretical bases for all of Musil’s work call the criteria of both duration and so-called “reality” radically into question.
Unlike most other studies of Musil’s project, which tend to concentrate on the published sections of the novel,[2] this study engages with the novel-project in its total unfinished state, taking into consideration for the first time in a full-length English-language book the thousands of pages of unpublished material he left behind, the Nachlass.  It follows Musil into his perspectival displacements and multiplications, and traces within these formal processes the consistencies of his aesthetic and ethical concerns. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition) of the ten thousand-plus pages of the entire Musil Nachlass has recently made it possible to access this labyrinthine web of correspondences, alternative universes, and their shadows. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe also affords the opportunity to access the individual fragments and passages in a non-linear manner that foregrounds the complex cross-referencing and correspondences of Musil’s process of writing, presenting a new vision of the work. This study takes full advantage of the new resource, closely examining the way in which each of Musil's sentences is haunted by a vibrant palimpsest of choices, perspectives, descriptions and re-descriptions. Such a close reading reveals that Musil’s novel project constituted much more than an attempt at creating a completed, finite work of fiction. The supposedly finished parts (published with Musil’s reluctant approval during his life time), the not-quite finished parts (submitted and prepared for publication, but then withdrawn by Musil for more revisions), as well as the thousands of pages of experiments, drafts and re-visions that never approached publication, represent more than an interesting artifact or evidence of a writer’s method, more even than an astonishing work of art that stands on its own from out of the fragments.[3] As the book “progresses” beyond the printed material, particularly as Ulrich retreats further and further into his mystical experiment with his sister, Agathe, Musil’s search for answers to the question of “the right life” becomes increasingly serious, and the narrator's irony and intense, skeptical analysis is increasingly replaced by an earnest and often rapturous lyricism.  While more tightly wound and plot- and character-driven in the early published parts of the novel, the extensive Nachlass, thousands of pages of sketches, notes, and alternate versions of thought-experiments and thematic questions, may be seen as the real entry into Musil’s thought in its uncompromised richness and possibility. Relieved of the pressure, or even the possibility of publication in the years after his last almost-published proofs were withdrawn from publication, and during his years in exile, Musil was free to experiment in earnest, and to expand his thought-experiment to infinity.
The Nachlass and the published material together project a way of living and being in the world ― a method of life in art.  A level of engagement, aliveness, and commitment to what Walter Pater called a “failure to form habits”; a hyper-, perhaps even partially pathological consciousness of the role and responsibility of what Nietzsche would call “the creative subject” as word- and world-maker.[4] Not that he was not a consummate artist, striving for perfection in the work itself, but that his painstaking process signals the totality of immersion and attention, the way in which the work, with its many drafts and possible alternatives threaten (or promise) to take over life itself. Art, and its sources in the world of ideas and imagination, was always much more real and more meaningful to him than anything else.   
In the spirit of counterintuitiveness, however, this primacy of art over reality does not constitute the casual disengagement from reality often (and often mistakenly) associated with a devotion to the aesthetic ― the exact contrary is the case. When Musil repeats Nietzsche’s revolutionary phrase, that “reality and the world are only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon,” we would do well to remember that for both of them aesthetics and ethics were one. In a world where reality was thought to be more or less created and perceived metaphorically by the mind, for Musil art was part of this process.  The mind's perception and contingent relative arrangements were — had to be — ultimately revolutionary processes of engagement.[5] Musil saw all art as a process of disturbance, whereby the current image of the real is broken down and newly arranged (via abstraction, via metaphoric coincidence). In contrast to mimesis, which presupposes a desire to reinforce or celebrate what is, Musil’s vision of art is as an active and inventive process.
By offering a new reading of the centrality of Musil’s concept and use of metaphor as the fundamental building block of multiple de-centered worlds consciously brought into being by the “creative subject,” I am reading Musil as an exemplary proponent of the Modernist aesthetic, which attempted to grapple through existential agency with the discord and confusion of a loss of communal values, without, however, reducing the terrors of the void to a simulacrum of wholeness or order. In contrast to some interpretations of Musil’s work, this study intends to present the possibility that the rejection of static truth implied in the novel’s form, its lack of an Archimedean fixed point, does not, as might be expected, lead to a dualistic universe, signal meaninglessness, despair, cultural collapse or the irremediable loss of self, values, or individual agency.
By focusing on the Nachlass material and on Musil’s metaphysical questions about reality and his ideas about the central role of the artist in constructing our shared reality, my reading of Musil understands him as a thinker who, in many ways, challenges current attitudes about the role of art and culture as seen from our Post-Modern perspective.  A broader view of Musil’s aesthetic practices and theories might refresh some of the outworn clichés of the contentious attempts to differentiate between Modernism and Post-Modernism;[6] Musil’s work is, in fact, a perfect touchstone for discussions about subjectivity, individualism, political and social engagement, aesthetic redemption,[7] and more specifically, the debate about the alleged violence done to reality by the formation of concepts and the use of language altogether. Regarding this latter problem, Musil was deeply engaged with the reality of language’s inadequacy and the tendency or even necessity of metaphors, concepts and abstractions to leave out whatever does not fit them; but he also maintained that this inaccurate metaphor-making brings “Schönheit und Erregung in die Welt” (MoE 573; beauty and excitement in the world: MwQ, 625). Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to  the Modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for the attempt of Modernist artists to articulate individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (i.e., metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language.[8] What philosophy and science could not describe or explain, might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the conceptualizing inaccuracy of totalizing reasoning or science. On the other hand, the selecting-out process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony.  Musil’s novel plays with the oscillating figure and ground of union and dissolution, moving in and out of focus and conviction. This oscillation a movement away from what already is toward what could and might be and then back again is often overlooked in the enthusiasm to embrace a radical abandonment of formal harmony, unified selfhood, and a faith in some form of a priori reality or shared truth. To emphasize only one side of the spectrum is, however, to misread and fatally simplify Musil’s more nuanced relationship with the currently maligned “conceptualization” of essence. Musil’s Other Condition, for example, is at once a singular exceptional experience of “otherness” and something characterized repeatedly as a return to some form of originary and universal phenomena; it is both an exception from the selfsame and a return to it.
 The novel’s exploration of a protagonist without qualities certainly makes it a perfect stomping ground for territorial debates about Modernist notions of subjectivity, alienation, or “worldlessness”.[9] The multiple discourses (of science, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, Gestalt theory, literature, historiography, anthropology, mysticism, sexuality, art) utilized by Musil make it possible to enter the novel further by multiple accesses, and to digress seemingly endlessly along these various rich fault lines without coming to either final rupture or reconciliation. Musil’s own resistance to taking a stand, as well as his formal and ideological practice of perspectivism, make a variety of readings possible; and the situation is further aggravated by the fact that the novel was left unfinished, with no clear indication of where, or whether it might have ended had its author lived.  While this remains, an unresolvable mystery, a wider view of the greater Gestalt[10] of the work and its creation can provide us with a more comprehensive view of the inherent tensions and oscillations between the novel's conflicting positions and stances.  For despite his famous resistance to fixed positions, Musil did stand firmly on a number of central questions, and he took seriously his role as author in helping to shape social and ethical values.
Musil’s novel, begun in sketches as early as 1910 and still not finished in 1942, at his death in Swiss exile, naturally reflects the concerns of his times and the formal and stylistic experimentations of his contemporary authors and artists.  Yet Musil often maintained[11] that he was more spiritually connected to his predecessors than to his contemporaries. His most important luminaries were Nietzsche, Emerson, and Dostoevsky, but he devoured almost every field of study, finding nourishment and stimulus just as much from works he derided as from those to which he granted his rare approval.  Musil confessed having read no more than ten pages of Proust’s work in his life, presumably afraid of being tainted by either influence by Proust or the rumor of association. The name “Sartre” appears only once in Musil’s notes, but without any further commentary; and though he mentions Joyce once or twice, rather disparagingly, he does not seem to have been aware of Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, I will attempt in this book to situate Musil’s work within the context of some of his contemporary experimental Modernists, in hopes of illuminating both his work and theirs. Proust, above all, is a significant touchstone for Musil’s work. The Man Without Qualities and Remembrance of Things Past share multiple concerns, particularly a theoretical and formal emphasis on the metaphoric, on the tension between universal and particular, and the problem of narrative, time, and deferral. Moreover, French readings of Proust[12] have been of great benefit to my reading of Musil, perhaps because they have tended to be friendlier toward aesthetic concerns than the generally more ethically- and philosophically-minded Germanist tradition. Despite then Ulrich’s tendency toward non-participation[13] and  Musil’s own characteristic resistance to identifying with any group, it would be absurd to insist on uniqueness to such a degree that from this distance we were not able to enumerate some striking similarities between these two novels. While recent books associate him more with the Post-Modern (Patrizia McBride’s Void of Ethics and more extremely Stefan Jonsson’s Subject without Nation) and the “non-Modern”(Michael Freed’s Robert Musil and the Non-Modern),[14] this book assumes that Musil’s project, his emphasis on the agency of the subject (however fragmented), his attempt to come to terms with some form of meaning in an increasingly fragmented world, and his own theory and practice of translating  ineffable realms via experimentations with language and form, place him firmly within the shared trajectory of high literary and artistic Modernism of the late 1890s through the first half of the twentieth century. This association with Modernism tends, in many readings, to be an association with the alleged failure of the Modernist project[15]. Musil has, according to a widespread assumption, failed to reconcile oppositions between aesthetics and ethics, reality and ideal, science and art, universal and particular, concept or metaphor and the specificity of truth; failed to find a lasting, enduring solution to the problems posed by and in the novel; failed to bring the novel itself to closure.
Allen Thiher, whose otherwise nuanced and subtle study of Musil elsewhere suggests an understanding of the value of openness, stands for many others when he writes,
It can be argued that Musil's failure to find a conclusion to his novel demonstrates the difficulty characterizing the modernist project of transforming or, indeed, saving culture through literary discourse. In making this observation, however, we should recall that he mocks the idea of salvation and saving culture as much as any other idea circulating in Vienna before the First World War […]. At some point during the writing of the novel saving culture became a cliché….From this perspective, if the novel's lack of completion illustrates a failure, it is the failure to create a discourse of salvation, a very modernist failure to create a viable myth"[16]
While it may be true that Musil mocks the idea of saving culture within the novel, it is important that we note Ulrich's proviso referring to the idea of the millennium: “I only make fun of it because I love it" (MwQ 817).[17] Further, we must temper any of Musil's satirical comments on the possibility of creating a literary discourse of salvation in the novel by referring to his essays and addresses, particularly his notes for addresses during the reign of totalitarianism, where we see him engaged in an earnest "defense of culture" with the weapons of art. This is not to imply that he meant that political battles could be fought by or with art. On the contrary, he maintained explicitly that the defense of culture meant that such battles could not be fought with pens and brushes; the best one could do was maintain the free, non-affiliated voice of the artist as the last bastion of critical and non-conscripted thought, and encourage those whose job it was to use other kinds of weapons to understand that a large part of their job entailed protecting the autonomy of culture.[18] Thiher's analysis suggests that the defense of culture was to be somehow better and more successfully waged with some other weapons than the tools the Modernists had at hand, and that the "failure" of Musil's novel is indicative of the generally agreed-upon consensus about the failure of Modernism to successfully negotiate the problems of engagement with politics, with collectivism and with social issues. While there are other assessments harsher than Thiher’s, his exemplifies that even in cases when a critic is not explicitly setting out to argue against Modernism or its aesthetic aims, there seems to be a somewhat unexamined assumption about the failure and misguidedness of the project, as if it were a given.
In a fascinating last chapter called: “Staging the Failure of an Aesthetic Utopia in The Man Without Qualities,” Patrizia McBride argues in The Void of Ethics that despite Musil’s earnest experimentation, he had consistently planned over the course of three decades to depict the failure of the Other Condition and other related solutions, that “he remained fundamentally faithful to the plan of staging the collapse of Ulrich’s utopias (130). In her notes, McBride persuasively demonstrates this, quoting Musil himself speaking of failure and negative outcome. McBride explains that the illuminations culled from the Other Condition “remain utterly unintelligible and inconsequential when raised to the level of everyday experience, for they are untranslatable into conventional and conceptual and linguistic structures (141).  She acknowledges that “Meaning exists and can be irrefutably experienced, yet it is not translatable into the categories of ordinary life and therefore remains inapplicable to it.” She then goes on to delineate the two options which present themselves in the face of this conundrum: one is to accept this split between “ordinary and the other condition as irreversible and to develop strategies for making sense of the experience while acknowledging the reality of nonconceptualizable meaning”; the other is to “seek to overcome this split by making the two realms commensurable” (142). The former is obviously supposed to be the mature method, one that a reasonable skeptical modern person would adopt. The latter is Ulrich’s project, which is here presented as somewhat adolescent, immature, and bound to be grown out of over the course of the experiment. It is suggested that Ulrich’s author had always — at least during his time of writing — been more mature than his character and, thus, planned from the start to demonstrate the delusionary nature of the experimental attempt of his “friend” and alter ego. [19]
Even Roger Willemsen’s defense of aesthetics in Das Existenzrecht der Dichtung: zur Rekonstruktion einer systematischen Literaturtheorie im Werk Robert Musils (Literature’s Right to Exist: Toward a Reconstruction of a systematic Literary Theory in Robert Musil’s Work), makes up part of the chorus of voices announcing an “aesthetic of failure and of fragmentariness”.[20]  While Willemsen’s study was published in the 1980s and McBride’s and Thiher’s in 2010, the same assumption prevails over decades, without any question about its basic premises.  Willemsen writes, “The transmutation of life into art and ‘nature morte’ fails, just as the existence of the novel itself points toward failure along biographical lines”. While Willemsen concedes that fragmentariness  was inherently the central modality of Musil’s stylistic principle even before the novel breaks off, this structure is itself an object lesson telling us that art cannot possibly realize “its utopia, the identification of aesthetic and social completion”; instead, he writes, such a project is bound by its very nature to fail. The novel, he concludes, “sketches typologies of failure, which are guaranteed ahead of time” by the necessary ending in war; there is, he glosses further, a shared meaning to be gleaned from the failure of the sibling lovers and the “negative parallel of the collective” in war.[21]  This analysis is similar to, if more subtle than Lowell Bangerter’s assertion in reference to the ending of Musil’s novel.  Bangerter writes:  “only two things can be determined with relative certainty: First, Ulrich’s experiments with both mysticism and love would fail to yield a final satisfying answer, just as attempts to adapt to practical reality had done. Second, his ‘vacation’ year would end with the protagonists and their world being swallowed up by the war”.[22]
Musil studies have consistently argued about Musil’s failure to reconcile the realms of art, utopia, or the ideal to something called “reality,” often without bothering to negotiate a common definition of essential terms or concepts with which to begin the debate. Thus, before we conclude that Musil’s novel presents models which are or are not escapist, utopian, or un-realistic, whether or not its experimental aims were bound to fail, we must come to some agreement about what, in fact, reality is, or at least was to Musil, and about the role of the individual in perceiving and constructing this reality, the possibilities of language to communicate perceptions and constructions, and, thus, the role of the work of art as a prime element in this construction. 
Insofar as people tend to see only what they already know or only what they expect to see, the “selecting out” inherent in the process of thinking means that any reading (of novel, philosophy, world) will be necessarily inadequate and potentially misleading.  Subjectivity, with its inherently individualistic and possibly irrational vision, is thus pitted against a rational categorization which itself leaves much to be desired in terms of adequately describing a world of infinite and particular details and relative perspectives. This question of subjective interpretation and its seeming opposite, objective rationality, is inherently related to the specter of a language crisis haunting most Modernist and Post-modernist discourse, including Musil’s own work.  One might ask how, indeed, we can begin to use language to talk about language, when we have arrived at a place where contemporary theory tells us that all systems of explanation, all conceptualizations and categories are misleading or inadequate at best.  The important difference between inadequate and misleading is, in a sense, one of the central issues when it comes to tendentious readings of Musil and the Modernist project of reinventing and invigorating a worn-out and suspect language system and of negotiating the constructs of reason, science, and morals.  Reason, when it is a reduction of the actual complexity of reality in its moving, changing, infinity of causes and effects, probabilities and roundness, to a simple line of determined logic, is hardly “reasonable”.  Rationality, which reduces multiplicity to abstract formulas and hopeful repetitions is doing very much the same thing as art does, except that art functions by making this process of inaccuracy and selection transparent, thereby making clear the process by which life itself avails itself of such insufficiently descriptive or conceptual frameworks.  The central question here is: what can language do and how close can it get to the so-called “real”?  To what extent is our reality shaped by our constructions and conceptions of language in the first place?  Can concepts, metaphors, categories be meaningful ways to articulate specific and personal experience on some universal level, or are we doomed to choose between a silent solipsism or a hopelessly misrepresentative simulacrum of generality and abstraction?
Different critics reach varying conclusions on these questions. Some, like Stefan Jonnson, argue that Musil rejected all categorization of the subject as an oppression of individual difference,[23] others, like Thomas Harrison and Thomas Sebastian, maintain a more nuanced view of Musil’s oscillation between Ernst Mach’s functionalist view of reality and a belief in some provisional and qualified substance and essence.[24]   While we see Musil oscillating in his notes, diaries, essays, and his novel between a scientist’s assessment of what is repeatable, what can be measured and proven to be reliably real, what we only see because we have been trained to see or believe it (social construction, the persistence of habit, lazy acceptance of the status quo), and what we more actively and creatively conceive of ourselves (fruitful metaphor-making, art, existentialism), the latter mode is where Musil's energy is based and where we find the key to the aesthetic redemption sought by Musil and many of his contemporaries.
The metaphoric transparency inherent in an awareness of the way we construct the world through provisional images enables a fruitful resistance to what Musil calls “dead words,” in contrast to the “living words” that activate ethics, a sense of temporary meaning, and aesthetic experience. For Musil, the Modernist crisis of language and values does not then translate into a canceling out of voices, statements, images, intentions, or author.  Instead, Musil’s Modernist vision, embodied in the form and process of living metaphor, is itself an imperative towards constant proliferation of more and more contingent and shifting realities, all of them potentially meaningful.  Thus Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable, and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relationship[25] between human action, thought, artistic creation and the real, physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks affects and co-creates a shifting reality.   While most theorists see the void of a common denominative system as a nihilistic crisis, Musil, following Nietzsche, embraces the challenge of creating the world anew through conception, imagination, and individual perception as a joyful, imperative challenge.[26] As such, art-making, far from being an insignificant or escapist indulgence, is raised to a central reality-relevant act of ethical engagement.
Aesthetic experimentation, far from being disinterested, is intrinsically related to political and social liberation, to social ethics, as is the experimental novel, perhaps precisely because, as Bakhtin noted, it is inherently anti-canonical. “The novel,” writes Michael Holquist in his introduction to The Dialogic Imagination, “is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system” (xxxi). Allen Thiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil,   puts the case even more directly, when he says that both Musil and Bakhtin “wrote to defend freedom against stultifying dogma and illiberal totalitarianism" (137).  Thiher writes that he knows of “no other thinker… who stressed with such lucidity that ethical thinking and art are interrelated.” Thiher connects this resistance to Musil’s “theory of the destruction of forms,” invoking the Kabbalistic mystical imperative to continually repair  the original vessels of creation which are said to have burst because they could not “contain the light emanating from God's being”. Thiher reminds us that although “the vessels must be continually broken so that the light may be propagated […] there must also be vessels so that it can be contained. The destruction of the forms of perceived thought and perception is a necessary process, which gives access to a new condition beyond received ideas and their rationality”. After the destruction, in other words, there must be new creation, new forms.[27]
In the following chapters I attempt to demonstrate and suggest some new readings of Musil and of Modernism.  In Chapter 1, I present a close reading of Musil’s seemingly contradictory uses of the figure of circularity as a sort of object lesson in his characteristic complexity whereby different concepts (such as qualitylessness, repetition, metaphor) are seen as both positive and negative. Circles are presented by Musil as self-cancelling, as founts of unending originary meaning,  as images of creative self-generativity, and as a metaphor for the expanding non-linearity of the novel-project.  In Chapter 2, I explore Musil’s thinking about what can and cannot be the selfsame (seinesgleichen), and the aesthetic and ethical potential of exceptions to repetition (criminal acts or taboo forms).  This chapter also explores the tension between dead and living words and the way in which metaphor can be both a creative praxis of metaphoric world-construction and a construction or habitual use of ossified concepts. In Chapter 3, I return to the question of essence through an exploration of abstraction, primitivism, and the Modernist interest in the possibility of art and formal arrangement to alter physical reality. This chapter expands on the themes of circling by exploring the concepts of duration, timelessness and extra-temporality, and the image of resurrection. In Chapter 4, I explore the image and concept of the still-life in Musil’s novel as a cipher for aesthetic “disinterestedness” and the problems and pleasures of eternalization of art. This chapter also features a close reading of the variations in the Nachlass of the many versions of “Atemzüge eines Sommertages” (Breaths of a Summer’s Day) as illustrative of Musil’s obsessive use of metaphor as deferral and resistance to end and death.  In the Conclusion, I address the question of Musil’s engagement with politics, and his commitment to the essential importance of the artists’ role as autonomous non-affiliated word- and world-maker. While arguing that conclusions about Musil’s intentions for the end of the novel must remain speculative due to his commitment to the novel as ongoing open experiment and to the “utopia of the next step,” I present, in the Conclusion, my own reflections on the possibility inherent in Musil’s novel-project of endings and of ending altogether.
As Musil wrote in a note found amid an unfinished, unpublished collection of aphorisms: the immortality of works of art is “their indigestibility.” This statement is followed directly by another, a challenge as much to Musil himself as to the critics and readers to come. Musil writes simply: “explicate that!”  In this spirit, hopefully rising to the challenge with a good mixture of holy earnestness and necessary irony, we may, in a cosmos where there is no real beginning, certainly no end, and no static center, jump in from where we are.

[1] See of course Nietzsche’s influential definition of art as “the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life” in Preface to The Birth of Tragedy.
[2] Stefan Jonnson for example, focuses unapologetically on the first part of novel (the parallel campaign and Ulrich’s lack of qualities) and concludes that “The novel thus reveals the ways in which dominant ideologies of patriarchy, nationalism, and racism reduce the human subject to its cultural origin or sexual disposition by imposing on it an allegedly natural, and hence inescapable essence, coded in terms of ethnicity, gender, and class”. Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity ( North Carolina: Duke U P) 2000, 2.  The most recent example of this concentration on the earlier parts of Musil’s novel is Norbert Christian Wolf’s 1000+ page study, Kakanien als Gesellschaftskonstruktion: Robert Musils Sozioanalyse des 20. Jahrhunderts ( Böhlau Verlag) 2012. While it certainly ranges far beyond the material in the first part of the novel and explores Nachlass material in a deep and enlightening way, its core is in the social and political intrigues of books one and two.
[3] See Walter Fanta, “The Genesis of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften” in A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester: Camden House), 2010, 254. 
[4] See Musil’s “Vinzenz and the Mistress of Important Men” where Vinzenz describes himself not as a poet or a user of words, but as a “word-maker”. In Fiction 16.1 (1999).
[5] See  Albrecht Wellmer: The Persistence of Modernity: Essays on Aesthetics, Ethics, and Postmodernism. Trans. David Migdley ( Cambridge, MA: MIT P), 1991, 53.
[6] See Wellmer, who suggests that an important difference between Post-Modernism and Modernism is in differing attitudes toward “reconciliation”. Wellmer, Persistence, 43.
[7] See Jacques Ranciére in his Aesthetics and its Discontents for a discussion of the contemporary critique of aesthetics and its causes (20-21) and of Schiller’s idea of “free play” as a more congenial expression for the Post-Modern than the “autonomy”(27). Trans. Steven Corcoran. Malden, MA: Polity, 2011. See also Stephen Kern, The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction, on the overturning of outmoded paradigms and “grand narratives “and Philip M. Weinstein’s Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction, 2005, which stresses uncertainty and unknowing as the hallmarks of Modernism.  And Barbara Neymeyr, esp. p. 83, whose criticism of Modernist aesthetics as escapist and dangerous is typical. Utopia und Experiment: Zur Literaturtheorie, Anthropologie und Kulturkritik in Musils Essays (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter), 2009.
[8] See Marjorie Perloff: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of "philosophy" as if it were "poetry" dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death). "A philosopher," he wrote in 1944, "is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense" (CV 44). And again, "My account will be hard to follow: because it says something new but still has egg-shel  ls from the old view sticking to it" (CV 44). Perhaps it is this curious mix of mysticism and common-sense, of radical thought to which the "egg-shells" of one's old views continue to "stick," that has made Wittgenstein, who had no interest at all in the "poetry" of his own time, paradoxically a kind of patron saint for poets and artists”. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (U of Chicago P), 1996, i.
[9] This was the word used by Lukács in his searing critique of Musil’s novel as an exemplum of decadence and disengagement. See Bernd Hüppauf,  who concludes that both mysticism and, to a great extent, aesthetics are “distanced from reality,”(44-47).  Von socialer Utopie zur Mystik: Robert Musils Der Man ohne Eigenschaften (W. Fink) 1971. For an opposing view, see Thomas Sebastian’s description of Musil’s use of metaphor, 46 and Ranciére on autonomy and the construction of the world through art, “as the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world” (129), Aesthetics and its Discontents. The phrase "unresolved contradictions" (Ranciére also uses the term “dissensus”) is reminiscent of both Musil and Adorno’s “extorted reconciliation”. "Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács' Realism in Our Time”. Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, NY: Columbia U P, 1991.
[10] On the influence of Gestalt psychology on Musil see Marie-Louise Roth, Robert Musil: Ethik und Ästhetik (Münich, List, 1972), 211.
[11] As scholarship has begun to look into this question more deeply, finding more contemporaries whom Musil appreciated, admired, and supported, the myth, created in great part by Musil himself, shows signs of being broken down.
[12] Particularly Gérard Genette’s  Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P) 1980 and Giles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2000.

[13] One of Ulrich’s original names in early incarnations of the novel was “Anders,” i.e, “Other”.
[14] Patrizia McBride, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P) 2006; Stefan Jonnson, Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, 200, Duke U P; Mark M. Freed, Robert Musil and the Non-Modern (Continuum, 2011).
[15] See the introduction to “Siegreiche Niederlagen”: Scheitern: die Signatur der Moderne, where the editors, Martin Lüdke and Delf Schmidt reveal the foundation of the currently widespread canard about Modernism’s lack by equating its supposed failure with the failure of the experiment of communism by quoting Franz Fühman, whom they note was one of the leading lights of the literature of the German Democratic Republic, who laments that he has failed “in literature and in the hope for a society of which we all once dreamed” (7). See also Wellmer (88-9).
[16]  Allen Thiher, Understanding Robert Musil (South Carolina: U of SC P) 2009, 230. See also See Patrizia McBride, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P) 2006, 130-142 and Lüdke, Martin and Delf Schmidt, eds.“Siegreiche Niederlagen”: Scheitern: die Signatur der Moderne (Hamburg: Rowohlt), 1992.
[17] See also Heinz-Peter Preusser's essay on Musil’s use of Ludwig Klages as an example of how isolated readings out of context and assumptions of simplistic ideological allegiances can lead to misreadings of Musil’s more complex use of irony and distance.  “Die Masken des Ludwig Klages: Figurenkonstellation als Kritik und Adaption befremdlicher Ideen in Robert Musils Roman Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”. Musil Forum 31 (Berlin: De Gruyter), 2009-2010, 224-253.
[18]  See Klaus Amann: Robert Musil: Literatur und Politik (Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt), 2009 and also Patrizia McBride’s ““On the Utility of Art for Politics: Musil’s Armed Truce of Ideas” where she makes a case for the viability of Musil’s political-aesthetic stance today without, however, conceding that the Other Condition and the Utopia of Essayism succeeded (372,(379). She further argues that Musil’s essayism was a prescient counter to the danger of totalizing systems of war in Musil’s and our own time (382). 
[19] See also Sir Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (U of Virginia P, 1967), 128. Also see Gene Moore’s comparison of Proust and Musil, Proust and Musil: The Novel as Research Instrument (Austin, Texas: U of Texas) 1978, (ii) and Karl Corino who diagnoses Musil’s inability to finish his novels as a neurosis, which he admits was about as creative a neurosis as possible. 62-71. “Der Dämon der Möglichkeit: Vom Scheitern Robert Musils” in “Siegrieche Niederlage”.
[20] Roger Willemsen, Das Existenzrecht der Dichtung: zur Rekonstruktion einer systematischen Literaturtheorie im Werk Robert Musils (München: Wilhelm Fink), 1984, 248. Translation mine.
[21] Willemsen, Das Existenzrecht, 248-9.
[22] Lowell Bangerter, in “Experimental Utopias: The Man without Qualities”. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. Ed. Harold Bloom (PA:  Chelsea House) 2005, 8.
[23] See Jonnson, Subject, especially, p. 9, 125,134. 
[24] See Thomas Sebastian, The Intersection of Science and Literature in Musil’s The Man without Qualities,
(Rochester, NY: Camden House) 2005. 35-36, and 41-42, and Thomas Harrison, “Robert Musil: The Suspension of the World”. Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, ed. Harold Bloom (PA: Chelsea House) 2005, and, for an opposing conclusion, Neymeyr, Utopia, 69.
[25] See Jacques Bouveresse’s “Genauigkeit und Leidenschaft: Das Problem des Essays und des Essayismus im Werk
von Musil”. Trans. Rosemarie Zeller. Musil-Forum 29 (Berlin: De Gruyter) 2007, 49; and Giorgio Agamben The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert ( Stanford UP) 1999, especially pp. 1-5 wherein he connects Nietzsche’s idea of art as the highest metaphysical activity with that of art’s dangerous magical powers, 2-4.  See also  my essay “The Other Musil” in A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil (Rochester: Camden House), 2010, 337.  Similarly, Marie Louise Roth,Ethik und Ästhetik (Munich: P. List) 1972, 34.
[26] See Gabriel Josipovici,. What Ever Happened to Modernism? (New Haven, CT: Yale U P), 2010, 112-113, and 141. Also see Josipivici’s definition of Modernism, which seems to describe Musil’s attempts as well, as “a tradition of those with no tradition. And it doesn’t seem to me that this is wholly tragic…neither illustration nor abstraction but the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising will emerge”. Josipivici, What Ever Happened, 185.
[27] See Harrison’s discussion of Geist, “Robert Musil:  the Suspension,” 44.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Musil's Death Mask
Sometimes one has the ability to see how very strange things are precisely because one is, oneself, strange. While many Germanists find it odd that Americans interest themselves for German or Austrian literature and think, perhaps, that we could not possibly understand it, it strikes me tonight, after day 1 of the Klagenfurt Musil conference, that an outsider has a special chance to see the surreality of this extraordinary subculture of Musil-researchers and devotees. Not that I am entirely an outsider, since I myself have devoted about 15 years of my life so far to this long-dead genius; but in contrast to, say, Karl Corino (the author of the giant 1000+ Musil biography), who has been so immersed in the details of Musil's life for 40 years that one could almost speak of a parallel existence or at least a sort of Beziehunswahn (literally a madness of associations or relations), I am an outsider. I remember the first time I went to one of these conferences, in 2001, in Saarbrücken, where I got to meet some of the famous names I had only ever seen on book covers or read about inside the books' pages. Corino was there then too, with sunglasses on, as I remember, in the evening in the bar, where he held forth surrounded by admirers, in his deep blasé voice about what Musil was doing at any particular moment of his life, what he did or did not read when, whom he had or had not met, which version of which passage he wrote when and what words he crossed out or misspelled, when he and from whom he contracted syphilis, etc.. At that first conference I met the grandfather of Musil studies, Adolf Frisé, who was in his 90's then. He had actually met Musil when he was a young man, and had spent his whole life and career in attempting to construct and arrange, transcribe and publish the unfinished novel, etc. He was very kind to me and we wrote to each other a few times before he died a few years later. I met his wife a few years ago, also in Klagenfurt. She is a writer, and she read a story based on their marriage, "Scenes from a Marriage," which described, among other things, his Musil-obsession and the way he wrote in tiny handwriting on the back of envelopes, hundreds of envelopes, also suggesting that he had hoped, when he had finished with Musil, to devote himself to his own literary  work, which never really happened, since it was a life-long work. Anyway, the names from the books, from the history of Musil-studies still impress me; a certain academic stardust accompanies them. Today the Herr Strutz was there and I shook hands with Frau Dinklage, a beautiful glamorous woman with platinum blond hair. She asked me if I was the wife of Corino!

In any case, I really don't know how to explain what happened when, after the papers were done for the day, after we ate dinner (I sat next to a charming man from Brünn who runs a literature museum; we discussed Marx, American politics, the meaning of life, getting old, and decided that nothing is in vain; the young men across from us, one who gave a very fine talk today about masculinity in Musil and another who will speak tomorrow about Karl Kraus and Musil, discussed Swiss universities), and after we drank perhaps too much wine, we all went back into the presentation room to hear Karl Corino read his poetry and prose. Walter Fanta introduced him, saying that he had always known him to be someone who cared for the facts, for truth, and that he had been really surprised to hear that Corino wrote poetry. He said he was actually a bit terrified, so much so that he couldn't open the book he had received in the mail. Corino said, coming out of a deep melancholy silence, "to this day?" And Walter didn't answer him. In any case, Corino began to read, with an accordionist playing beautifully in between. he began with a story about Clarisse's "afterlife," that is, after Musil's death. It seemed to me like a dream or a nightmare wherein all the people whom one knows play some strange role. I could only imagine what it must be like to be so totally immersed in someone else's life that even the stories one writes are somehow woven in with his.  One can almost speak, indeed, of it as a parallel life, as if Corino somehow lost or found himself in Musil and as if he no longer really knew what belonged to him and what to Musil; as if he were responsible for Musil, for his whereabouts and thoughts and actions. And since it is also clear that in many ways he does not approve of Musil's behavior and in many ways, despite the hyper awareness of details, may not really understand him, it is sort of like an uncomfortable family relationship: a mixture of envy, resentment, pride, frustration, ownership, identification and distancing. To hear a fictional text, then, written by Corino, with Musil's characters in it, was rather disorienting, extremely disturbing even. And maybe it really demonstrates how much Musil really was distinctly Musil, and not any and everybody else; that, in the end, neither he nor his Ulrich were without qualities or subjective identity; for, the hundreds of drafts and revisions and possibilities and probabilities in Musil's laboratory of the thousand manuscripts could only have been written by him, not by a machine taking all the details and facts into account, only according to his own particular selfhood, authorship, voice. And his healthy, robust, successful twin-brother Corino, who criticized Musil for his neurosis and ambivalence, took the same characters and came up with something different. I am not sure what it was or is. Something with affiliations to Musil, for sure; but somehow something about as foreign from Musil as possible.

How can we help but be influenced, infected even, by someone whose words we are so immersed in? We hope, perhaps, like with all relations, to inherit what we find good on our fathers and mothers, and not what we dislike; but we can't always really chose. And sometimes, try as we might, we feel like children exchanged by the gypsies during the night. But now I hardly know what I am talking about.  After the Clarisse story, Corino read some poems, very seriously, perhaps even beautiful at times, with accordion in between, and ended with a short piece about his favorite object: a death mask of Musil, or, rather, a bronze copy of it, which sits in his garden and seems sometimes to come alive as the wind blows blossoms down, "Breaths of a Summer's Day". Very strange, this life in death, this likeness in difference.