Robert Musil Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Musil Long Fiction Analysis

The full German title of Robert Musil’s early novel Young Törless translates literally as “the perplexities of Cadet Törless,” which echoes the title of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779). Young Törless is, on one level, a story of adolescent intrigue among cadets at the most prestigious military academy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it has also been read as an early and prophetic vision of the sadistic and irrational tendencies that were later to find expression in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Young Törless

The plot of the novel is fairly simple. Törless, a young and lonely new cadet in an academy in a remote setting on the Russian frontier of the empire, gravitates toward his more forceful older classmates, Beineberg, a would-be Eastern mystic, and Reiting, a Machiavellian schemer. When Beineberg and Reiting accidentally discover that a third cadet, a pudgy and effeminate boy named Basini, has been stealing from other boys’ lockers, they blackmail Basini into becoming their virtual slave; in a secret “Red Chamber” in the attic of their dormitory, they regularly subject Basini to psychological and sexual abuse that grows increasingly severe. Törless watches Basini’s degradation from the sidelines until finally, when Beineberg and Reiting threaten to kill Basini, the school authorities are notified and the scandal is exposed. Törless is asked to explain himself before the headmaster, but he can only try to express the impossibility of all explanation, since language only skims the surface and is inadequate for exploring the irrational depths that house things like Basini’s torture: “There’s something dark in me, deep under all my thoughts, something I can’t measure out with thoughts, a sort of life that can’t be expressed in words and which is my life, all the same.” In the final scene, Törless leaves the school, accompanied by his mother.

The moral of this story, as Törless puts it, is the cynical realization that “things just happen: that’s the sum total of wisdom.” Underneath this superficial cynicism, however, lies Törless’s more challenging recognition that conventions cannot be accepted merely for the sake of comfort and that much of human reality indeed lies outside the realm of the expressible. For these reasons, Young Törless was hailed as an important contribution to German Expressionism when the book first appeared in 1906. In view of the unity of Musil’s approach throughout his career, it is also possible to see this novel as an early sketch for his later work; Törless is a “cadet without qualities” who is unwilling to take a stand on any foundations that cannot themselves bear the burden of close scrutiny. An excellent German film version of the novel, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, was released in 1966.

The Man Without Qualities

The Man Without Qualities (the German title of which, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, could perhaps be rendered more accurately as “the man without anything of his own”) is the magnum opus on which, or toward which, Musil was working throughout his life, in which he sought to bring together and integrate all the various strands of his experience by subjecting them to a rigorous and ironic analysis. Thematic sketches for such a novel appear even in Musil’s earliest known diary entries, dating back to around 1899. He finally settled down to work on the novel in the 1920’s, and he continued working on it for the rest of his life. Although the novel was not yet finished when Musil died, the first two volumes, together amounting to more than one thousand printed pages, were published by 1933; until 1995, these were the only portions of the novel available in English, in three volumes published from 1953 to 1960. The 1978 German edition of the novel is more than two thousand pages long because it includes a large selection of materials from what was “left behind”: drafts of chapters, unfinished sketches, notes and projects, and so on. The two-volume 1995 English translation also includes many such additional materials.

The Man Without Qualities is the story of Ulrich, a brilliant and well-to-do young Viennese intellectual who decides, in August, 1913, to take a year’s “vacation from life” in order to make a final attempt to become a “meaningful man,” one whose life has a meaning that can be proved. Ulrich (like Musil) has already broken off possible careers as a military officer, a mechanical engineer, and a mathematician. For Ulrich, it is important not simply to discover the right profession but also to find a way of life that does not exclude any of the other possibilities of which he is constantly aware. He is described as a man with a “sense of possibility”: Whoever has this sense doesn’t say, for example: Here this or that happened, will happen, must happen; instead he considers: Here could, should, or might happen; and if someone tells him that something is the way it is, he thinks: Well, it could probably also be some other way. So the sense of possibility could be defined as the ability to think of all that could just as well be otherwise, and of not regarding what is as more important than what isn’t.

If this is fantasy, it is fantasy with a purpose, for this approach enables Ulrich to find the flaw in all the ready-made attitudes and conventions that are presented to him.

The structure of the novel is fundamentally ironic, because the end of Ulrich’s yearlong experiment will coincide with the thunder of the guns of August, 1914. No sooner has Ulrich decided to undertake this project than his father arranges for him to serve as honorary secretary to the Parallel Action, a group composed of the best minds in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The group has been asked by Count Leinsdorf, an enlightened aristocrat and representative of the old order, to decide how the seventieth anniversary of the reign of the Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph I, should best be celebrated five years later, in 1918 (in “parallel” competition with the thirtieth anniversary of the German emperor being celebrated that same year). This group of high-minded and patriotic experts meets regularly in the salon of Ulrich’s cousin Diotima, where they seek to discover the “Austrian idea,” the spiritual essence of the empire that was in political fact a patchwork conglomeration of many diverse peoples, all with their own languages, cultural traditions, and national interests.

Musil calls the empire “Kakania,” a nickname based on the ubiquitous abbreviation of a phrase describing the double nature of Austro-Hungarian sovereignty, which was both imperial and royal (“kaiserlich und königlich”: k.u.k.). He portrays Kakanian society with loving irony as a muddling, quasi-imaginary world in which things are regularly—as an old Austrian proverb puts it—“hopeless, but not serious.” Musil was not alone in noting the...

(The entire section is 2912 words.)