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Catherine Wilson MORALITY AND THE SELF IN ROBERT MUSIL'S THE PERFECTING OFA LOVE Philosophers who have looked to literature as a source of moral enlightenment have typically been concerned with the capacity of literary works to portray the moral strength or moral weakness of a particular character in a critical situation. Indeed it is difficult to see how a work of fiction could be considered philosophically significant other dian in virtue of its capacity to present such moral exemplars in bright and vivifying light. Such an assumption, however, carries with it a kind of unconscious bias towards die immediately edifying , so diat works which take as their theme the experience of moral disorder are in danger of being regarded as something other dian contributions to our understanding. It is sometimes said of such works diat they have sacrificed ethical considerations to aesdietic considerations, and there is often believed to be something deeply unsatisfying about the experience of reading them. The story which is the subject of this essay, Robert Musil's The Perfecting ofa Love, which originally appeared in German as Die Vollendung der Liebe, ' falls, together with several of Musil's other lesser-known works,2 into this problematic category. The plot of the story is simple: a happily married woman with a disreputable past, who is travelling alone for the first time in her married life, meets a stranger whom she allows to make love to her after she has known him for little more than a day. As a result she achieves the insight which justifies the title of the story. Despite the fact that these events are described in Musil's matchless prose, the reader is likely to find the evident inscrutability of the theme standing between him and the story. Normally one would suppose diat it is by disregarding the inclinations of the moment and by holding fast to an ideal of marriage even under the most extreme temptation that one might discover the true depth of one's love for a husband or wife. Is die tide then meant ironically? Is the story intended allegorically? Is it simply a study in self-deception? Musil's writing, one baffled critic observes, "is . . . perfect of its kind and expresses something which could not be expressed in any other way, but the 'kind' and the 'something ' are decidedly recherché." 3 Beyond noting diat die story is "clearly in some 222 Catherine Wilson223 sense representing minus as plus" he has litde to offer by way of clarification. Less charitable readers are apt to find the story not simply inscrutable, but morally distasteful; something which is clearly a moral minus, they are likely to feel, is being — immorally — paraded by the author himself as a moral plus. To read the story in this way is, I want to argue, to succumb to a dangerous habit, that of evaluating both the moral worth of fictional characters and the moral significance of fictional works by reference exclusively to assumptions about experience and action which one brings from other departments oflife.4 I do not propose here to examine the question whether Musil's heroine acted wrongly; it is not, I think, the role of the philosopher to distribute wreaths for excellence of conduct. Clearly what she did was not in any sense exemplary. But it is equally misguided to see her role as exemplary in the negative sense of showing what, under certain conditions, ought not to be done. To understand a work such as Musil's it is essential to abandon the habits of thought which encourage us to read a work of fiction as though its characters simply represented a set of possibilities on a continuum extending from good to evil. The moral awareness which an effective reading of the story must supply can only be received by a reader who is willing both to accept the narrative at face value and to accept the possibility that the value of a work of art may reside in the challenge it presents to certain philosophical assumptions. The purpose of this essay is to show how this may be done. The important episodes of the story occur in the following...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 222-235
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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