The Man Without Qualities

by Robert Musil
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities defies easy summary, for it is not a novel in the realist tradition, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In addition, Musil had written and published the novel in pieces over several years, and he left the novel unfinished at his death in 1942. In 1938, Musil had withdrawn at minimum twenty chapters from the galleys of the second volume, and those chapters, in addition to more than three hundred pages of notes, character sketches, and narrative drafts, were published posthumously, in 1943.

Much like Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu(1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Musil’s novel plays loosely with conventional literary structure. The Man Without Qualities eschews plot and action in favor of an essayistic structure in which the central characters dart in and out of various situations set in Vienna, Austria, against the backdrop of the year just before the outbreak of World War I. Musil’s approach to the novel as a kind of experiment in which no characters can be fixed in their identities and no story can be reduced to a formula also makes easy summary of the story difficult. Some have even described Musil’s novel as a set of events in search of a plot and in terms of a destiny without a destiny—it meanders over much territory without a specific end in sight, though with one large historical ending (the fall of the Habsburg Empire) in mind.

Like Remembrance of Things Past, The Man Without Qualities captures the tortured consciousness of a protagonist who must reconcile the vagaries of time and space with the slow demise of a social world on the brink of destruction. Like Ulysses, Musil’s novel tests the boundaries of realistic fiction, creating its own rules for tracing the jerky movements of its protagonist through daily life. More than either of these modernist classics, however, Musil’s novel resembles Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game, 1969), with its focus on the desire for mystical spiritual union, and, above all, Franz Kafka’s parables of bureaucracy gone mad in Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930). Like Joseph K. in The Trial, Ulrich discovers that he is caught in a social world where no discernible meaning exists. Caught in the labyrinthine justice system filled with dead ends and no endings, Joseph K. fruitlessly strives to find the right life (das rechte Leben). In the same way, Ulrich fruitlessly strives to find the right life, only to be frustrated, or at least to come up empty-handed, in his search. Ironically, both The Trial and The Man Without Qualities were unfinished at the time of their respective authors’ deaths.

Musil’s novel also shares similarities with Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), for Ulrich, much like Hans Castorp, withdraws completely from society in his quest for some kind of mystical and spiritual understanding of the world. The Man Without Qualities, too, anticipates W. G. Sebald’s meandering novels of spiritual malaise, lost worlds, and postponed endings.

Musil was not a novelist by profession; he was a scientist who had written one of the most respected treatises on the theories of the Austrian philosopher-physicist Ernst Mach. When Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities, he brought to the story his own scientific sensibilities. As a scientist, he strived for the greatest precision in representing the novel’s characters and their views. The novel contains every imaginable dialect, and Musil presents people of various professions—scientists, philosophers, poets, politicians—and social classes speaking in their own vocabularies. As a scientist, Musil was searching for a single language in which all these speakers could communicate; thus, one of the reasons that Ulrich fails to embrace any other character’s position is that he cannot objectively understand the other’s position.

As many critics have pointed out, Musil strives through this novel to present experience in all of its complexity by gathering data much as he would gather data for a scientific experiment. The novel then becomes a laboratory—much like it had been for Émile Zola—in which the knowledge of reality grows through a meticulous and demanding process of experimentation. As Ulrich demonstrates in The Man Without Qualities, such experimentation leads to a greater and more sophisticated knowledge of morality. Only by experimenting with various methods of achieving meaning, order, and spiritual intensity does Ulrich come close to reaching, with his sister, Agathe, the kind of moral order for which he is searching.

The Man Without Qualities resembles a collection of essays more than it does a novel, in part because of Musil’s obsession with precision in capturing the ideas and attitudes of a particular society. Musil had coined his own word, “essayismus,” to describe his writing style. In a long reflection on the nature of essayismus, he observes that an essay is the unique and unalterable form assumed by a person’s inner life in a decisive thought. In Musil’s definition, an essayist is not a writer like Samuel Johnson or Charles Lamb but a master of the “hovering life” because his (or her) realm lies between various areas: religion and knowledge, example and doctrine, love of the intellect and poetry. Ulrich is the essayistic man because he hovers between the world of science and the world of aesthetics, the world of order and the world of disorder, the world of spirit and the world of matter, the world of love and the world of loss, and the world of morality and the world of metaphysics. Given this definition, Musil’s novel is a series of extended essays on the search for order and the experiments that Ulrich carries out so that he can achieve with precision the moral meanings for which he continues to search.

In his diaries, Musil writes that a work is well written if, after a period of time, it strikes one as alien, as if one would be incapable of writing that same work a second time. The Man Without Qualities demonstrates the force of Musil’s reflection, and readers cannot imagine how Musil’s precision in writing the novel could be repeated a second time.

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