MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 521-523
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Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity
Stefan Jonsson. Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. xiv + 376 pp.
The greatest contribution of this book over previous Musil scholarship is Jonsson's accessibly presented elucidation of not only cultural and philosophical but also historico-political contexts. Jonsson provides wide-ranging historical and cultural background for identity politics after the Great War, which are essential to understanding the political relevance of Musil's Man without Qualities. The aftermath of the war signalled a shift in perceptions about identity from nineteenth-century beliefs in an essential interiorized identity to a vision of the self as socially engineered, as a blank slate on which the meanings of society are inscribed. Jonsson skillfully shows that spatial conceptualizations of interior living spaces such as the boudoir or the bourgeois living room gave up their status as safe havens for the beleaguered male subject. Exterior urban spaces replace them and help shape an entirely new externalized vision of the human subject as formless and open to all kinds of social molding. Jonsson analyzes spatial and architectural tropes in the novel against the backdrop of architectural history. Vienna's urban renewal between the years 1919-34 reshaped the city as a modern community, drastically improving the living conditions for many of its working class inhabitants. Utopian visions of new urban communities organized along formalist principles were received with suspicion by contemporaries. Even though alienation and fragmentation have become hallmarks of the modern condition, Musil emphasized modernity's transformative potential for reconfiguring the subject.
Musil "reconfigures the spatial coordinates of subjectivity" to embrace the condition of modernity with its attendant perplexity: a plethora [End Page 521] of blueprints for living accompanied by disorientation, monotony, and repetition. What is to be resisted is the fixing and codification of the subject according to a defined set of rules. Musil describes and writes against a highly routinized and stratified society, the waning Austro-Hungarian Empire with its many hierarchies and categorizations. He satirizes regressive impulses to reinvest rural spaces with symbolic value, and he rejects merging with the socialist collective as a viable arena for the modern urban subject, as for instance Brecht and Lukacs do. The highly organized collectives of the fascist or nationalist state would only reintroduce further reification and stultifying disciplinary regimes. Instead, Musil chooses doubling and negative mirroring against which to constitute his subject. These fractured identities find expression in relationship to each other in the in-between (Dazwischen). They no longer adhere to the belief in an essential core self (Dasein). This tension is reflected in Musil's two alternating narrative modes throughout the novel: one a scientific, objective, and detached perspective, the other an individualized experiential account. These two are incommensurable approaches. I argue that Musil believes that a totality that might encompass both of them is given up. This also leads to a perception of time, memory, and intentionality as distended and distorted. Ulrich's life history does not make sense according to the traditional pattern of a bildungsroman identity quest. The narrative's agenda is thus to expose the self as a hollow conglomerate of layered social discourses. Musil's agenda here is somewhat similar to Schwitters's dadaist prose fiction, which creates a deliberately jagged (disjointed?) collage out of discarded lingustic scraps of the postwar world: commercial advertising, banal conversations, bureaucratic and militaristic mechanisms.
The second part of Jonsson's book deals with the internal difference and negativity of the subject, as postmodernist theorists came to theorize the Real much later. The fact that contemporaries as diverse as Kristeva and Ricoeur can become dialogue partners in a theory of the deconstruction of the self evidences the radical modernity of Musil's thought. Kristeva's notion of the self as a linguistically articulated self-in-process neatly fits Musil's view of the adult drive to narrate as a way to create approximations of the Real without ever being able to render it completely or...