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Interviewed in 1926 about his work in progress, the Austrian writer Robert Musil declared, “My aim is to make a contribution to the intellectual mastery of the world.”1 This lifelong project resulted in the gargantuan The Man Without Qualities, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1930 and 1933, respectively, and the rest of which remained an uncompleted but substantial corpus of draft text upon Musil’s death in 1942. Like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, Musil’s work implicitly asserts a hugely ambitious and characteristically German/Austrian claim: namely, that after the epistemological delegitimation of religion and metaphysics at the hands of Marx, Nietzsche, and scientific positivism, it fell to the novel to grapple with a chaos of competing ideologies to address still-vital but now-orphaned philosophical questions. What is true? What is beautiful? How should we live? Musil’s response to these questions takes the form of an attempt by his quasi-autobiographical hero Ulrich—the “man without qualities”—to take a “leave of absence from life” in order to experiment with different modes of living and being.
The Man Without Qualities has generated a vast body of research, much of which focuses on Musil’s biography and his response to / fictional recreation of the competing discourses and value systems that informed his upbringing. David S. Luft’s wide-ranging survey Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture 1880–1942 (1980) highlights key elements of this formation: Musil’s engineering studies, which inculcated in him a lifelong respect for scientific precision and method; his fascination with the non-rational and mystical dimensions of human experience; his immersion in Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s disquisitions on “love” and “the soul”; his liberating encounter with Nietzsche’s subversion of metaphysics and proclamation of artistic creation as the key mode of human activity; and his reading of writers like Emerson, whose essays combine exactness and open-endedness in a rejection of systematizing thought and thereby grant the essay a central place in the cultural discourses of the age. This mix, along with Musil’s personal encounters with prominent thinkers of his time, led to the key themes of The Man Without Qualities: the interplay of ratioïd and nicht-ratioïd (Musil’s terms for the rational and the irrational); “essayism” both as a form of cognition and as a possible way of life; the conflict between the routinization of “morality” and the unpredictable creativity of the ethical; and the [End Page 133] “Other Condition” as a mode of existence that transcends the definition of the self by socially attributed labels and “qualities.”
Many Musil scholars continue to mine his notebooks and diaries for the often multilayered sources of his characters and ideas. Others, however, have engaged in a different, more adventurous project, one that goes beyond the author’s own cultural-historical horizon in order to bring his “crisis of modernity” into dialogue with wider arguments about the modern and postmodern. Mark Freed’s exhilarating book is one of the latest additions to this Musil-meets-Lyotard subgenre. Freed structures his argument as a to-and-fro between Musil’s novel and essays, on one hand, and major landmarks in the philosophical discourse of modernity on the other. The second chapter explores Nietzsche’s radical yet ambivalent challenge to Socratic and Cartesian reason; the third treats Heidegger’s differently conceived but equally radical rupture with the western philosophical tradition; the fifth examines the dilemma of the avant-garde principally through the lenses of Bürger and Lyotard; the sixth, again invoking Lyotard, homes in on the epistemological problems inherent in the idea of the “just society.” In each instance the philosophical text is matched by correspondences and parallels found in the themes and structures of Musil’s novel and in essays such as “The German as Symptom” and “Helpless Europe,” which address (among other subjects) the radical polarization of the rational and the non-rational in contemporary intellectual culture.