Exhuming Robert Musil: A Fresh Look at The Man Without Qualities

The novel of ideas is dead. Of course, we never read the obituary. It was one of those deaths that is hushed up, kept out of the newspapers. It happened around the time Moses Herzog started writing those crazy philosophical letters to dead people. Ideas, once the gold standard of the “serious novelist” – ah, the very phrase seems so quaint these days -- became the currency of the unhinged. The mantra of the MFA programs in creative writing became “Don’t tell us, show us.” And the novel of ideas was too much in the “tell us” camp.

Serious ideas once gave dignity to a work of fiction. Remember the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky? Or those great debates between the humanist Settembrini and the radical Naphta in The Magic Mountain? These passages are brilliant, exhilarating and . . . hopelessly old- fashioned. Even when a contemporary novelist borrows the trappings of the novel of ideas – see for example Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, with its dense bibliography and constant footnotes – the metaphysical trappings are just there for decoration. The plot moves on in cinematic fashion, brilliantly so, and the reader never needs to complete a syllogism or dust off an abstract concept.

Why did the novel of ideas fall out of favor? Perhaps our distrust of concepts is hard earned, due to recently completing a century in which ideas fared so poorly. It was a period in which the really heinous actions were always done in the name of some idea. Or perhaps the novel—like everything else in society these days—is more comfortable gliding over ideologies rather than digging into ideas. But maybe an even simpler explanation can be mustered. The dominant role of films and television in contemporary story-telling—a pre-eminence that has emphasized “showing” versus “telling”—has created a widespread impatience among audiences with those subtle, metaphysical things that can’t be shown.

In such an environment, a novelist such as Robert Musil is bound to look hopelessly old fashioned. His masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, is drenched from start to finish in ideas. Imagine the "Grand Inquisitor to the power of ten, and you have some idea of the tone of this massive work. For more than a thousand pages, the theories and hypotheses, the aphorisms and paradoxes, the points and counterpoints pour out, in an overwhelming torrent. If the novel of ideas ever comes back into favor, Musil will probably rise from his second tier status – today he is sort of poor man’s Joyce or Proust – and be acknowledged as a great, instead of a near-great, author.

But there are few signs that the novel of ideas will ever make a comeback. Are you familiar with T.S. Eliot’s bon mot about Henry James? “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” To some extent, that describes all of us these days—although we typically lack the compensating psychological acumen of James. In that same essay, Eliot wrote: “we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.” Although he was writing ninety years ago, Eliot expressed a viewpoint that—although radical and different at the time – is now a commonplace. Too great a refinement of ideas is invariably seen today as a dodge, a ruse, an escape from confronting more profound emotional truths. In short, the modern reader is like those intrusive “facilitators” at therapy groups or encounter sessions, where participants are derided when they linger in the realm of the concepts. The most clichéd facilitator line has become a mantra of sorts: “tell us what you feel, not what you think.”

Musil would not make a good facilitator for a therapy group. In fact, he would hardly make for a successful writer nowadays. He would flunk out of the Iowa writers’ workshop. He would get dinged with a pre- printed form letter from The New Yorker. A Hollywood director would take one look at his screenplay, and scrawl on the cover: “NOT ENOUGH DIALOGUE!!! NOT ENOUGH ACTION!!!” But perhaps – dare I say it? – the modern reader is missing something by always wanting to be shown, and never told.

In truth, there is a magic to Musil. The Man Without Qualities depicts a strange world in which a couple is given a copy of Nietzsche as a wedding gift, a murderer on death row spends his days speculating on the nature of reality, and the most fashionable social gatherings are dominated by heated discussions on the essence of the soul. Neither you nor I have ever lived in such a world. In fact, I doubt that Robert Musil did, although his depiction of Vienna in the period leading up to World War I would lead you to believe that this was a society obsessed with grand thoughts and philosophical debates. But it is a provocative, exciting world, even if it is a fictional one, a world in which personal initiatives and social interactions reverberate with an intensity and intellectual potency rare in any age.

The protagonist Ulrich is the man without qualities. But lacking a center, he changes his ideas with the ease of an actor learning a new role. He is prone to making sweeping statements, such as: "In times to come, when more is known, the word ‘destiny’ will probably have acquired a statistical meaning.” Or: “It seems really that it’s only the people who don’t do much good who are able to preserve their goodness intact.” Or: “The difference between a normal person and an insane one is precisely that the normal person has all the diseases of the mind, while the madman has only one.” His eloquence and ability to turn a phrase are stunning, yet his ideas never cohere into a philosophy or a belief system. They are as ephemeral as a passing storm.

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