Robert Musil published many essays during his lifetime in which he dealt with contemporary issues concerning the visual arts, sciences, politics, religion, theater, motion pictures, literature, social and economic conditions of women, nationalism, and empiricism. He was also highly active as a theater and art critic, as his large output of reviews demonstrates. As a trained physicist and engineer, Musil dealt with a wide range of human issues by combining analytical with inspirational and mystical thinking, and thus challenged his contemporaries with radically different views about life. As an essayist Musil established himself as a central figure of European intellectual discourse, although with the rise of National Socialism and the barbarous culture of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s he was increasingly marginalized, and died, almost forgotten, at the height of World War II.
In his famous fragmentary novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930–43; The Man Without Qualities) Musil explicitly outlines the meaning of the essay for the future of Western culture at large: the essay facilitates the study of any object from many different angles, without necessarily discussing it to its full extent; otherwise the object would be reduced to a label and thus lose its individual contours. Relativity plays a major role in Musil’s thinking: a murderer, for example, could be either considered as such and tried by the courts, or seen as a national hero and celebrated. In Musil’s eyes every human being is given an infinite number of possibilities for his or her life and can pursue a plurality of connections with other people and objects. The “unwritten poem” serves as a metaphor for the powerful impact of emotions, intuitions, and sensations on reality.
Morality is a matter of definition and social circumstances, not an absolute value. Modern sciences (particularly psychology) indicate, as Musil emphasizes, the breaking up of traditional values, injecting into them a plethora of new meanings. The essayist is not a philosopher in the narrow sense of the word, but explores through narrative alternatives the framework and conditions of life.
As Musil suggests, the modern world has lost its sense of logic and order; only the essay can capture the essential thoughts and ideas in the inner life of a human being and give expression to the chaotic conditions of existence. Essayists assume a position between religion and science, between a poem and an intellectual argument, and between scholarship and literature. The essayist does not strive for truth as such, nor does he create fiction, but rather searcbes for a conviction and for the potentiality of his own being.
In The Man Without Qualities the crucial realization of what life’s meaning might be occurs shortly before Book Two when Ulrich learns that his father has died. According to the narrator the modern world has lost the sense for the epic and its narrative continuum, whereas the lyric offers nothing but an illusionary refuge. Life can no longer be represented by either literary genre, instead appearing as a dimension of endless and forever intertwining threads, which form the basic elements of the essay.
Not surprisingly, Musil never managed to complete The Man Without Qualities, and exhausted himself in trying without much success to pull together the whole work, a huge collection of essays in itself. Musil’s tragic error lay in not seeing that his expressly stated goal to conquer the world by “force of mind and spirit” was in stark contradiction to the idea of the essay as the primary foundation of the literary treatment of reality. Novelistic narration is still a major force in Musil’s masterpiece, but both aphorisms and essayistic passages increasingly replace the traditional reliance on fictional elements. Its title indicates the extent to which the author has understood that the modern world can no longer be represented in illusionary fiction, but finds its appropriate expression in the paradox of the man without qualities.
Musil’s farsightedness and modernity is documented not only in his essayistic novel, but also in his large number of essays. In fact, through his essays, which he had hoped to publish in a collection in 1926, he searches for the new man and a new society that will rise in the wake of the technological and scientific revolution in the first half of the 20th century. Musil had written only two technical articles and his doctoral dissertation on Ernst Mach when he joined the public debate about the relationship between sickness and art with the essay “Das Unanständige und Kranke in der Kunst” (1911; “The Obscene and Pathological in Art”). Here he takes the side of those people suppressed and persecuted by the authorities, particularly because his moral and intellectual relativism opened his eyes to alternative views.
Because of his thorough training as a scientist, his critical writing is strongly influenced by scientific discourse and pure rationality. In his essay “Das Geistliche, der Modernismus und die Metaphysis” (1912.; “The Religious Spirit, Modernism, and Metaphysics”) Musil argues that modernity was simply the result of injecting religion with bourgeois reason, of discarding emotions, and of ignoring rationality as the prime goal of the modern world. He laments the loss of the soul which may be the corresponding element to ratio, and recommends exploring the spiritual life with the same tools scientists use to study the objective world.
Musil also examined the political structure and culture of the Austrian Empire with its artificially sustained aristocratic system and idealization of the monarchy. In his postwar essay “Buridans Österreicher” (1919; “Buridan’s Austria”) Musil observes Austria’s longstanding dilemma between forming a federation of nations in the Danube region (Balkan) or joining the German Reich. He maintains satirically that Austria was populated by 50 million intellectuals and 1000 working-class people, whereas the ratio was the opposite in Germany. In this and other essays he formulates many ideas which later were incorporated in The Man Without Qualities. The same applies to his studies on morality, pathology, mathematics, metaphysics, nationalism, poetry, and sciences.
The outstanding feature of all of Musil’s essays is their analytic precision and high level of rational penetration into a problem, be it the church, the state, modern literature, or a combination of any of these elements. Musil’s literary works such as his narratives (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless [1906; Young Törless], Drei Frauen [1924; Three women, translated as Five Women], Nachlass zu Lebzeiten [1936; Posthumous Papers of a Living Author]) and his dramatic texts (Die Schwärmer [1921; The Enthusiasts] and Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer [1924; Vinzenz and the girlfriend of important men]) strongly reflect the essayist and mathematician in the writer who also attempts to understand the human soul, mystical experiences, love, and other areas of the irrational mind. Musil coined the phrases “ratioid” and “nicht-ratioid” for the opposition between these two dimensions of human epistemology. Consequently he also investigated the differences between “civilization” and “culture,” between nation and individual. But his main interest as an essayist was to discuss the course of world history, the future development of humankind, the revolution of science and morality, and the essence of history.
Musil’s style is that of both scientist and moralist. He despised the glorification of feelings without studying them with the rational eye of a mathematician. Hence he opted for the essay as the most important literary form in the 20th century because in it he could combine science and mysticism, or rationality and emotions. Whereas physics and the other natural sciences had forged ahead of their time, neither morality nor ethics, neither aesthetics nor spirituality had kept up with the transitions of the early 20th century. With his essays Musil attempted to inject the moral world with the same investigative and analytical tools as were employed in laboratories (“Politische Bekenntnisse eines jungen Mannes” [1913; Political confessions of a young man]). Whereas science had made the development of the modern world possible, the arts and literature had not progressed and were in strong need of reform. The essay, as a genre, was for Musil one feasible avenue toward this goal.
Simultaneously Musil was very interested in modern art forms and art media, as his essays on film (“Ansätze zu einer neuen Ästhetik” [1925; “Toward a New Aesthetic”), on the relationship between literature and psychology, and on individual avant-garde poets (“Zu Kerrs 60. Geburtstag” [1927; On Kerr’s 60th birthday]) indicate. He also treated the various literary genres, stylistic features, and themes in his essays, examined the situation of women in modern society (“Die Frau gestern und morgen” [1929; “Women Yesterday and Tomorrow"), but always searched for a combination of natural science (mathematics) with the world of emotions, or, put differently, scientific analysis with the essay.
Although Musil never gained broad acceptance as an essayist and social and ethical philosopher, his critical writing represents the avant-garde of modern literature and still awaits public recognition.
Robert Edler von Musil. Born 6 November 1880 in Klagenfurt, Austria. Studied engineering at the Technische Hochschule, Brno, 1898–1901; military service, 1901–02; assistant researcher at the Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart, 1902–03; studied philosophy, psychology, and mathematics at the University of Berlin, 1903–05, Ph.D.,
1908. Contributor to various journals and newspapers throughout his life. Married Martha Marcovaldi, 1911. Librarian, Technische Hochschule, Vienna, 1911–14; editor, Die neue Rundschau (The new review), Berlin, 1914. Captain in the Austrian army, 1914–16: hospitalized, 1916, and editor of army newspaper, 1916–18. Head of the education office, 1918–19, and consultant, 1920–22, Defense Ministry; worked in the press section of the
Office of Foreign Affairs, Vienna, 1919–20. Lived in Berlin, 1931–33, Vienna, 1933–38, and Zurich and Geneva, 1938–42.
Awards: Kleist Prize, 1923; City of Vienna Prize, 1924.
Died (of a stroke) in Geneva, 15 April 1942.
Essays and Related Prose
Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (novel), 3 vols., 1930–43; as The Man Without Qualities, translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, 3 vols., 1953–60, and Sophie Wilkins, 2 vols., 1995
Tagebücher, Aphorismen, Essays und Reden (vol. 2 of Gesammelte Werke), edited by Adolf Frisé, 1955
Das hilflose Europa: Drei Essays, 1961
Theater: Kritisches und Theoretisches, edited by Marie-Louise Roth, 1965
Selected Writings, edited by Burton Pike, 1986
Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses, edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S.Luft, 1990
Kleine Prosa, Aphorismen, Autobiographisches; Essays und Reden, Kritik (part of Gesammelte Werke), edited by Adolf Frisé, 1978
Der literarische Nachlass (CD-Rom), edited by Friedbert Aspetsberger, Karl Eibl, and Adolf Frisé, 1992
Other writings: another novel (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless [Young Törless], 1906), short stories (including Nachlass zu Lebzeiten [Posthumous Papers of a Living Author], 1936), novellas, two plays, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Gesammelte Werke, edited by Adolf Frisé, 3 vols., 1952–57, revised edition, 2 vols., 1978.
Arntzen, Helmut, Musil-Kommentar sämtlicher zu Lebzeiten erschienener Schriften ausser dem Roman “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”, Munich: Winkler, 1980:279–310
Arntzen, Helmut, Musil-Kommentar zum Roman “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”, Munich: Winkler, 1982:450–80
King, Lynda J., “Robert Musil Bibliography 1976/1977,” MusilForum 4 (1978): 104–16
Mae, Michiko, “Robert-Musil-Bibliographie 1977–1980,” MusilForum 6 (1980): 239–58
Mae, Michiko, “Robert Musil-Bibliographie: Ergänzungsbibliographie 1980–1983,”
Musil-Forum 9 (1983): 183–220
Rogowski, Christian, Distinguished Outsider: Robert Musil and His Critics, Columbia, South Carolina: Camden House, 1994
Thöming, Jürgen C., Robert-Musil-Bibliographie, Bad Homburg: Gehlen, 1968
Arntzen, Helmut, Satirischer Stil: Zur Satire Robert Musils im “Mann ohne
Eigenschaften”, Bonn: Bouvier, 1970 (original edition, 1960)
Corino, Karl, Robert Musil: Leben und Werk in Bildern und Texten, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1988
Dinklage, Karl, Elisabeth Albertson, and Karl Corino, editors, Robert Musil: Studien zu seinem Werk, Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1970
Harrison, Thomas, Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Hickman, Hannah, editor, Robert Musil and the Literary Landscape of His Time, Salford, Lancashire: University of Salford Department of Modern Languages, 1991
Hochstätter, Dietrich, Sprache des Möglichen: Stilistischer Perspektivismus in Robert Musils “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”, Frankfurt-on-Main: Athenäum, 1972
Kaiser, Gerhard R., Proust, Musil, Joyce: Zum Verhältnis von Literatur und Gesellschaft
am Paradigma des Zitats, Frankfurton-Main: Athenäum, 1972
Luft, David S., Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880–1942, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
Payne, Philip, Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”: A Critical Study, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988
Pfeiffer, Peter C., Aphorismus und Romanstruktur: Zu Robert Musils “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”, Bonn: Bouvier, 1990
Renier-Servranckx, Annie, Robert Musil, Bonn: Bouvier, 1972
Roth, Marie-Louise, Robert Musil: Ethik und Ästhetik, Munich: List, 1972
Venturelli, Aldo, “Die Kunst als fröhliche Wissenschaft: Zum Verhältnis Musils zu Nietzsche,” Nietzsche-Studien 9 (1980): 302–37
Willemsen, Roger, Robert Musil: Vom intellektuellen Eros, Munich: Piper, 1985
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