In a typically modernist “plot” line, in which the plot itself is less important than the main character’s reflections on life, the main character, Ulrich, in The Man Without Qualities is drawn into planning the great patriotic celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Francis Joseph as Austrian emperor in the year 1918, called the Parallel Campaign in competition with celebrations for the German emperor. This project provides some degree of action and considerable, intended irony and satire in the novel’s two-part first book. Started in the mid-1920’s, the novel clearly implies that the Parallel Campaign, which Ulrich joins at the beginning of the novel in 1913, was doomed because the emperor was dead in 1916 and by 1918 his empire lay torn to pieces by World War I.
The second book opens with the appearance of Agathe, Ulrich’s long-lost sister. As brother and sister get reacquainted, they experiment with new ways of belonging. The experiment becomes the novel’s new center, while the Parallel Campaign continues. Although Ulrich is five years older than his sister, they are so close that they consider each other not only twins but conjoined twins and even refer to the myth of the androgynous being, retold in Plato’s Symposion (399-390 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701). Human beings were double—that is, they had two heads, four arms, and so on—but the gods cut them in half. From that time each “half” has been looking for his or her original other half. In this sense, Agathe emerges as Ulrich’s “other.” The mention of ancient myths, such as that of Isis and Osiris, extends the possibility of the brother/sister relationship to include sexuality.
The actual transgression of incest is part of a manuscript chapter, “Die Reise ins Paradies” (“The Journey into Paradise”), not published until 1952. It may be understood in the context of three observations. First, the Ulrich/Agathe experiment is set up in terms of both mythology and the novel’s sense of possibility. It may be a provocative act or merely a provocative possibility to bring about the “other condition,” that is, not simply a different lifestyle but a truly higher level of experience—something that is beyond the conventional morality of good and evil. Second, the experiment itself fails because any transcendent “other condition” cannot have real permanence. This type of literary “reality check” is akin to Romantic irony, when a goal cannot be reached because there is always another obstacle that emerges. Third, Musil wrote the focal chapter of the Ulrich/Agathe story in the mid-1920’s, when he started working on the novel, which had the working title “The Twin Sister.” Over time, Musil may have increasingly doubted the validity and even morality of the brother/sister plot, which, in turn, made it impossible for him to complete the novel. This explanation, however, remains speculation because the mid-1920’s focal chapter already concluded with the failure of the Ulrich/Agathe plot.
Even unfinished, The...
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