Robert Musil and The Man Without Qualities: Imperial Vienna as a Portrait of Now

January 7, 2011 | 5 5 min read

coverRobert Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities in the 1930s, but his modernist elegy to Belle Époque Vienna offers an achingly familiar picture of dissolution and malaise. Perhaps history will prove otherwise, but with our unending wars, economic stagnation, and crumbling infrastructure, it’s difficult not to feel like we in the United States have entered the waning days as the world’s great power, a period not so different from the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it rushed or perhaps stumbled headlong to its destruction in World War I, a period in which – as Musil observes – “[w]e have gained reality and lost dream.”

Musil’s work is a sprawling piece of architecture in which he guides the reader through an endless labyrinth filled with beautiful, often startling rooms and hallways, but which leave us uncertain if he’s following a master plan or adding obsessively like a mad artist. Loosely, the plot follows a quasi-governmental committee assembled under the leadership of a striving aristocratic idealist (the wife of a mid-level diplomat) to celebrate the 75th year in power of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph; the committee becomes a highly publicized (and eventually political) affair as different factions attempt to promote their own visions of a unifying idea – both earnest and not – to celebrate Austria (The Year of Austria, The Year of Peace, The Year of Nietzsche) and later to put this idea into practice, with proposals ranging from parades to – more hilariously – soup kitchens.

The chapters offer perspectives from an ensemble of characters, all tied to one protagonist (Ulrich, or the actual “man without qualities,” as both Musil as narrator and Ulrich’s friends refer to him). Ulrich, an intellectually gifted mathematician, is starting to look back on his youth when we meet him, and is aimless and unmotivated; as Musil observes in one of an endless number of quotes that at first glance concern a character but sting the reader (or at least this reader): “In every profession followed not for money but for love there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to lead to a void.”

At the prodding of his father, Ulrich accepts a job as the secretary to an important count, who then assigns him to work on the committee, the leader of which (the diplomat’s wife) also happens to be Ulrich’s distant cousin. From the start, he’s skeptical of the committee’s ability to accomplish anything, and in this way serves as a foil to his high-minded cousin as they discuss themes related to life in the modern era, ranging from whether great ideas are still possible (and related questions of genius and beauty), to fame and success, to how one should navigate the emotional waters of love and sex and fidelity, all of which are thematic currents that run under the more superficial machinations of the committee.

Subplots involving an insane but sometimes (frighteningly) insightful murderer who may or may not be condemned to death and the countess’s maid and her affair with an African-born servant of a Prussian man who also serves on the committee allow Musil to examine class and servitude and responsibility, or namely how in modern times, thanks to the increasing division of labor, we can order or pay others to do things that would be too odious to be carried out on our own, an idea that has horrifying implications if we consider what the second world war is about to deliver. (Musil died in 1942 after his books were banned by the Nazis and he fled to Switzerland with his Jewish wife.)

There’s a detached, logical, and often satirical quality to the prose that makes it feel as if it belongs as much to a philosophical treatise as a literary drama (I mean this in a good way); it’s unlikely that you’ll be “swept away” by the unfolding story and more likely to find moments of quiet enlightenment in Musil’s discussion of his characters and their society. His observations often seem prophetic, whether he’s discussing the effect of media: “The probability of experiencing something unusual through the newspaper is much greater than that of experiencing it in person; in other words, the more important things take place today in the abstract and the more trivial ones in real life,” or the degrading psychological effects of governmental surveillance: “There is always something ghostly about living constantly in a well-ordered state. You cannot step in the street or drink a glass of water or get on a streetcar without touching the balanced levers of a gigantic apparatus of laws and interrelations, setting them in motion or letting them maintain you in your peaceful existence.”

Which is not to say that Musil isn’t interested in the beauty of language; one of the miracles of The Man Without Qualities is the stunning combination of abstract insight and poetic metaphor, such as when Musil describes a new form of “irrationalism…[that] haunts our era like a night bird lost in the dawn.” Or when he ponders exactly what has been lost in the present as compared to the past: “Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune…There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitely arrived.”

And while the book is overwhelmingly pessimistic about the trajectory of society, there’s an underlying optimism about possibility of the individual, namely that we can each make sense of the inevitable chaos of our lives to create a retrospective narrative, no matter how random or nonsensical events might have seemed when we encountered (or more often: endured) them. As Musil states: “[W]hen one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: ‘First this happened and then that happened.’…Terrible things may have happened to [someone], he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially takes into account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crunching through the snow and ice at ten below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device…were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers.”

To read Musil is to understand why Vienna is known as the “City of Dreams”: just as there’s an otherworldly quality to the pink and orange skies that so often frame its baroque monuments to death and lost power, in The Man Without Qualities we find a past that at first glance seems very remote, but as we continue on unveils a future we approach with both craving and dread.

[Image credits: Matthew Gallaway]

is the author of The Metropolis Case (Crown, 2011).