Why Musil Remains Our Century’s Foremost Modernist

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<i> Michael Andre Bernstein teaches English and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. His recent books include "Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero" and "Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History." He is currently completing a novel titled "Progressive Lenses."</i>

Although it took almost four decades for the Austrian-born Robert Musil (1880-1942) to be generally recognized as one of the preeminent European writers of the century, by now there is little doubt that Musil belongs in the great constellation of novelists that includes Joyce, Proust and Kafka, writers who fundamentally transformed the formal possibilities of their medium and reshaped the ways we use storytelling to make sense of our experience.

Even in German, the vast majority of Musil’s writings were only published posthumously, and we have had to wait even longer for the most important of these to be translated into English. To understand the effects of this time-lag, imagine for a moment how different our sense of the modern world would be if we could only now begin to read a comprehensive selection of Kafka’s or Proust’s output. With Musil, though, the problem is still more acute because both his interests and his areas of expertise were so different from those of his literary peers. Musil was a true polymath, as much of an expert in theoretical physics, experimental psychology and mechanical engineering as in strictly literary or philosophical questions. It is difficult to imagine a more unusual training for a great novelist than Musil’s singular trajectory from unhappy cadet at Austria’s most famous military school (the setting for his first novel, “Young Torless”), to his studies in Berlin with the influential theoretical psychologist Carl Stumpf, to his receiving a doctorate in philosophy, physics and mathematics for a thesis on the Austrian physicist and thinker Ernst Mach (1838-1916), after whom the Mach number, representing the ratio of the speed of an object to the speed of sound in the atmosphere, is named. The unprecedented diversity and intellectual range of Musil’s preoccupations are most nakedly evident in his “Diaries,” and their American publication is an important cultural event for which everyone involved with the project deserves our gratitude.

Mark Mirsky and Philip Payne’s edition of the “Diaries” can take its place alongside the English versions of Musil’s major writings, including the recent two-volume edition of his masterpiece, “The Man Without Qualities,” which Musil worked on for more than 25 years; the selection of essays published under the apt title, “Precision and Soul”; the haunting novellas gathered as “Five Women”; the early novel “Young Torless,” and one of his two plays, “The Enthusiasts.” Regrettably, this selection of the “Diaries” prints only about two-fifths of Adolf Frise’s 1976 German edition, but the choice of what to include seems to me fundamentally sound. The introductory materials and notes are enormously useful, and even in this condensed form the book greatly enriches our sense both of Musil’s creative life and, equally important, of the tumultuous European history through which he lived. Musil saw “this grotesque Austria [as] nothing but a particularly clear-cut case of the modern world,” and just as “The Man Without Qualities” contains the most vivid portrait we have of the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the “Diaries” comprise a panoramic survey of European life, art, politics and thought from the turn of the century through the darkest years of Nazism.


It is his unprecedented combination of eroticism and rationality, mysticism and scientific rigor that distinguishes Musil from even the most brilliant of his contemporaries. Like many thinkers in the first third of this century, Musil recognized that modern consciousness was becoming increasingly splintered and fragmentary, lacking the kind of central, synthesizing principles that could command the simultaneous allegiance of mind and heart. As he puts it, in the lapidary formulation of one of the diary entries, “[t]he facts of contemporary life have outgrown the concepts of the old.” But he had none of the simplifying, coercive nostalgia that led so many modernists to long for a militantly renewed religious orthodoxy or to try to substitute a violence-besotted, primitivist mythology of land and race for the complexities of contemporary existence.

Musil had no patience for any attempt to evade the hard thinking genuine insight requires. “Anyone who is incapable of solving an integral equation, anyone who is unable to perform a laboratory experiment, should today be forbidden to discuss all spiritual matters” is how he put it with characteristic pugnacity in “The Enthusiasts.” Instead, Musil kept looking for a way to make sense of himself and the world that would not be compartmentalized into discrete domains. The new ethical, moral and sexual dispensation he sought would have to reflect the scientific, practical world modern man inhabits but be able to overcome its isolating and dehumanizing effects. For Musil, writing and the imagination were not a means of fleeing the world but his way of struggling toward an ever deeper engagement with it. Against a culture that assumed an irreconcilable conflict between imagination, intelligence and passion, Musil insisted that “we do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little intellect in matters of the soul” (from the essay “Helpless Europe”). He deliberately undertook the challenge of inventing not merely a new literary language but also a way of combining intellect and soul without sacrificing either one. The aim was never just to create another great work of art but rather use all the resources of both his scientific training and his imagination to find a way out of the sterile oppositions and destructive tendencies of his era. In the process, Musil transformed the well-made European novel into an open-ended thought experiment, a “testing ground” for problems whose pertinence is no less powerful today than when he was writing.

Not surprisingly, Musil failed in his quest to find a new synthesis, and his independence of mind and character made him increasingly isolated during a time when thinking itself was becoming ferociously politicized and ideological. His contempt for the Nazis was closely matched by a deep-seated revulsion against the Soviet forms of despotism, and his insistence on maintaining the right not to align himself with any party eventually deprived him of both an audience and a livelihood. In 1938, right after Austria’s annexation into Hitler’s Reich, Musil fled the country with Martha, his Jewish wife and life-long spiritual and intellectual companion. All of his works were immediately banned throughout Nazi Europe, and he died bankrupt and essentially forgotten four years later in Swiss exile. At his death, he left “The Man Without Qualities” unfinished, with a mass of spiraling drafts and fragments whose length greatly exceeded the two sections of the novel that had been published in 1931 and 1933.

In the “Diaries,” a 40-year-old Musil confidently outlined a plan to compose what he called “the twenty works,” an immense, almost Balzacian catalogue of projects that he vowed to complete, not one of which ever went beyond the pages of his private notebooks. By 1937, though, even before his flight to Switzerland, Musil had begun to worry he had lost his way as a writer. He kept going over his earlier writings, obsessively dissecting and re-imagining everything about them, often concluding that they should have been written differently. Such a ruthless self-critique is a debilitating barrier to finishing any work, and yet, paradoxically, it was also the indispensable enabling condition of his intellectual imagination.

Musil’s relationship to his own work exactly matches the way Ulrich, the hero of “The Man Without Qualities,” describes God’s relationship to the world: “for God creates the world and while doing so thinks that it could just as well be done some other way.” The very imaginative freedom, the ability always to envisage previously unthought alternatives, that nourishes Musil’s sharpest insights also makes him a chronically dissatisfied reviser of his work, incapable of letting go of a text or of finding sufficient any single aesthetic structure. How do you bring closure to what is, by definition, provisional?

Musil was a fiercely proud man who despised public self-dramatization, and without the “Diaries,” it would have been impossible to suspect the asperity with which he judged his own writings. The “Diaries” were never intended for publication, and even their title is an editorial convenience, since Musil himself preferred the simpler German word, Hefte, or “notebooks.” They make clear, in a way none of his other texts do, that among this century’s foremost writers, only Kafka and Wittgenstein experienced the very act of writing with as deep-seated an ambivalence and as acute a sense of personal risk as did Musil. Even during his bleakest moments, though, Musil never lost either his luminous intellectual curiosity or his sense of irony. “Diaries” will no doubt always be read in the first instance for the insights they provide into Musil’s major writings, and as such, the notebooks are indeed invaluable. For admirers of “The Man Without Qualities,” it is riveting to come across the first sketchy outlines of central motifs and episodes in the novel and to see how carefully Musil recorded impressions of people and situations that he would later use almost verbatim in his fiction writing. But in addition to the pleasure of exploring the quarry, out of whose raw materials a literary masterpiece emerged, the “Diaries” have their own internal richness.


Musil’s gift for aphorism is as evident here as anywhere in his writings, and caustic observations about his contemporaries co-exist alongside brilliant insights into the writings of his most important literary predecessors. A sentence like, “ ‘He is the greatest creative writer alive today!’ They ought to say: ‘The greatest I can understand!’ ”, is as finely honed as anything in “The Man Without Qualities,” as is the more wistful, yearning tone of insights like, “Who among us does not spend the greater part of his life in the shadow of an event that has not yet taken place?”. At one point, he crystallizes the uncanny mixture of irony and longing that is the hallmark of both his prose and temperament: “Irony has to contain an element of suffering in it. (Otherwise it is the attitude of a know-it-all.) Enmity and sympathy.” Irony and suffering are the direct emotional and stylistic correlates of Musil’s demand for precision and soul, and if “The Man Without Qualities” shows how potent that amalgam is on the page, the “Diaries” trace the personal struggle required to sustain it. Musil placed extraordinary, indeed impossible demands on himself as a writer and thinker, but he understood better than almost anyone else how much still remained to be done before we can achieve a way to talk about what matters most to us without relying on outworn premises and discredited conventions. For Musil, everything, including the shape and rhythm of our own sentences, should have the freshness of a new discovery. His definition of good writing in the “Diaries” has a generosity of responsiveness to the specific moment that is almost profligate in its refusal to keep anything back: “Something is well-written if, after some time, it strikes one as alien--one would be incapable of writing it that way a second time. Such an idea (expression) did not come from the fund that is available for daily expenditure.” To read Musil is to encounter both the risks and the sheer excitement of that kind of writing.