The Man Without Qualities

by Robert Musil

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2109

Musil’s total philosophy is expressed in this novel, composed of a complex weaving of ideas, related and contrasting. Order, soul, morality, and love are the themes. What is Musil’s intention as he weaves them throughout the text? Details in the novel, developments and relationships, point to this intention in the end. For example, Ulrich’s early resolve to take a “vacation from life” for a year is emblematic of Musil’s own attitude toward the novel. Here is the direction that the main character is taking: a suspension from the common narrative order, from the serial progression of events that one calls one’s life, a period of pure examination. It is in this suspended atmosphere that the events of the novel take place. Thus the first clue to Musil’s intentions is that the ideas presented are contemplative ones, ideas designed to be viewed in the abstract, away from the demands of pragmatism. The reader would be in error, then, to question the efficacy, the practicality, of any suggestions that the author-narrator makes. They are ideas only. This approach itself is revealing of the author’s intent: He wishes to investigate what can be, not what is. In this respect, the novel is utopian, but without a concrete resolution to offer in place of the real world.

The novel’s themes are condensed in the male-female relationships. These relationships are presented in detail, from outside the relationship and from the points of view of each participant. All the relationships are imperfect, all the relationships echo one another, and in every pair the similarities between the two participants are a force of exterior combination, as though narrative order brings them together but abstract ideas keep them apart. Walter and Clarisse are childless, by Clarisse’s wishes and against Walter’s. They both play Wagner, they both have Ulrich for a friend. Rachel and Soliman are both servants, both devoted (on the surface) to a greater authority and both demonstrating basically romantic tendencies. They are in the shadow of the far greater, superficially purer, relationship between their masters, Arnheim and Diotima. The servant pair and the master pair are pitiable echoes of each other in the idealistic nonsense of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the women and the outwardly gentlemanly but inwardly conniving natures of the men. Soliman is a small, black version of Arnheim, as Rachel is a stupid, lower-class version of Diotima.

Another pair that reflects all the others in a frightening way is the pair made up by Moosbrugger and his victim. On the animal level where prostitutes and itinerant carpenters survive, Moosbrugger and his victim perform the same pas de deux performed by the other pairs—the vague, often-imperceptible sense of “right living” snuffed out suddenly by the “frothing lunacy” which seems eternally to threaten the moral sanity of every man (and here Musil refers to the polarities of love and sex as well). Moosbrugger is plagued by his victim just as Ulrich is plagued by the series of women who throw themselves at his feet. Ulrich’s seduction of Gerda, for example, bears so many of the same motivations as Moosbrugger’s murder that the reader is astonished at the brazen admission that the episode implies. Ulrich seduces Gerda to rid himself of her, despite his disgust for her plainness, despite his “moral” code which forbade it. Gerda is as persistent and as gnawing as the poor prostitute who dies at Moosbrugger’s hands.

One specific passage demonstrates the complexity of the novel’s plot, always tied to inaction or the inability to act. Clarisse visits Moosbrugger in the insane asylum, where she herself will be...

(This entire section contains 2109 words.)

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eventually. Before this visit, Clarisse has attempted to force Ulrich into fathering her child. She goes to his room, does all she can to arouse him, and fails. Her desire to see Moosbrugger is a sublimation and a symbolic fulfillment of that same wish—the wish to see man reduced to animal by his passions, passions (like so many of Wagner’s themes) which underlie and negate all lofty moral propositions, all order, and all concepts of some other reality in which the soul dares to be defined.

Moosbrugger, on the other hand, does not articulate his feelings, and the nature of the relationship between Moosbrugger and Ulrich poses an interesting question. On the surface, the answer is simple: Ulrich, in his contemplation of what is “right living,” sees Moosbrugger’s plight as a rent in the pious, legal, or social definition. Ulrich’s father spent much energy trying to determine the degree of guilt in a madman, but his father was a man of qualities, who was clear about the nature of morality and whose life had a narrative order. Moosbrugger attracts Ulrich because of his honest face, in marked contrast to the shackles which bind him. Yet this surface attraction does not fully explain the blatant comparisons of Moosbrugger and Ulrich. One cannot help thinking that Ulrich sees a Moosbrugger in himself, in all people. Ulrich and Moosbrugger are personifications, perhaps, of two sides of a human being: the ideal and the real, the mind and the body. This duality is incomplete, however, because neither one of the pair is exclusively one or the other.

“Musical,” Clarisse’s word to describe Moosbrugger, means harmonious, expressive of human passion, Wagnerian in power and action. Moosbrugger has acted, has pounded out the last heavy chords of his masterwork. Ulrich refuses to play; he merely reads the music silently, to himself. There is something “other” than either Moosbrugger or Ulrich, something that lies between them. That “something,” the most difficult abstraction with which Musil had to contend, is no more definable than Musil’s final theme itself, but it can be encircled by an examination of the major symbol in the novel: the relationship between Ulrich and Agathe.

On one level, Agathe is Ulrich’s soul, his other half in a mystical or even physiological sense, but this view is a screen to Musil’s real intentions. Ulrich and Agathe, as a pair, do not form a complete person, and it is not Musil’s contention that a man need only find his soul to be happy. Aside from the complicated possibilities in defining the soul and the very real question in the mind of Musil (as echoed in his characters’ discussions of the soul) as to whether a soul even exists, there is the distressing fact that Ulrich and Agathe are not happy, do not make a complete person, and are not the end point at which Ulrich-Agathe can resume “life” after a long vacation from it. It is true that Ulrich realizes that, by allowing Agathe to move in with him, he is giving up his “vacation.” That admission, however, is not from Ulrich’s conscious mind so much as from his unconscious understanding of what that “vacation” implies—a suspension of feeling, a suspension of love, and an exchange of self. Thus, Agathe is not the soul of Ulrich, but rather the vexing impediment that prevents Ulrich from suspending the narrative order of everyday life.

What makes the point for this view (that Agathe is not Ulrich’s soul, simply and purely) is that Ulrich is all too aware of imperfections in Agathe: She is married to Hagaeur, she forges their father’s will, and she changes the medals on his coat before burial. In the symbolic matrix of this novel, these features relate back to the fact that their father was a man of qualities, and his will and his medals (that is, his public reputation) are jeopardized by Ulrich and Agathe. She is willing to have lovers other than Ulrich, and she carries around her neck (although he does not realize it) a picture of her first love and a capsule of poison for her own destruction, another way to be free of decision making. While Ulrich may not take note of the locket, Musil wants the reader to do so, inserting the theme of suicide, the final act of a man without qualities. Musil wants the reader to see the romantic attitude in Agathe that precludes her identity as a soul. Her suicidal impulse gives her a character more complex than a mere psychelike personification of spiritual life. The fact that Agathe can kill her husband or herself means that she is not Ulrich’s soul but Moosbrugger in female disguise, a counterpart of Ulrich that is denied an existence by dint of Ulrich’s temporary suspension from “life.” In other words, when Agathe enters Ulrich’s life, Ulrich must act, and it is only action that separates Ulrich from Moosbrugger. This imperative to act explains why Agathe enters the novel so late and why Musil never finished his novel—it would have meant an engagement with the world that Musil refused to admit.

Anton Chekhov, in his play Dyadya Vanya (1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914), makes the statement, through the character of Astrov (who shares with Ulrich his inability to act on the moment), that, without a guiding light somewhere outside the forest, the stumbling of humankind in the dark is unbearable, but when even one light outside the forest can be seen, the wanderer no longer feels the twigs snapping against his face. Ulrich, in this analogy, has chosen to stop in the forest, to get his bearings, to look for a light, and, perhaps, to discover some path (narrative order) in the forest. If he chooses, as Moosbrugger did, to live in the forest instead of trying to leave it, he will have relieved himself of all moral choice, by making the choice to become an animal without moral responsibility.

The implications of the novel’s themes are many, but a consensus of scholars’ speculations about how Musil wanted the novel to end can be attempted. Musil’s Ulrich will “make history” by “acting on his baser qualities.” Ulrich will reach that point in his investigation when he will no longer be able to say “not yet” to life but must either say yes to it, by admitting to his soul that it exists, or say no to it, thereby denying forever the existence of an order greater than the artificial one imposed by man in society. By saying no, Ulrich will deny that morality exists, that right and wrong exist. In this respect, Musil’s novel is a modernist novel, in which the entire spectrum of man’s decision making is reduced to the question of meaning versus meaninglessness. What makes the novel rich in implication, however, is the reasoning which allows the reader to conclude that saying no to life is the only truly moral act Ulrich can possibly perform. It is easy to understand why finishing the novel was so difficult for Musil.

When a man denies all morality, when he will not acknowledge any written or unwritten code of action as being right and any other code of action as being wrong, that man moves from the order of the soul into the order of the Nietzschean Will. To answer to no morality is to answer to the only morality: self-will, choice.

What was Musil’s intention in writing The Man Without Qualities? The question is made more intriguing by the absence of an available conclusion by Musil himself: His random notes, unedited and untranslated, may either support or confuse what has gone before, but no simple explanation is available. The novel has led to the very absence of qualities that Musil uses as his premise.

It is possible that Musil planned to have Ulrich commit some antisocial, sexual, perhaps even bestial act—perhaps the murder of Hagaeur (Agathe’s husband), perhaps the incestuous union with his sister, or (allowing for certain plot developments) perhaps some confrontation with Moosbrugger that would lead to a double suicide of Ulrich and Agathe. It seems clear that Musil intended Ulrich to transcend the earthly boundaries of morality and love, freeing himself from the temporary inaction of his “vacation from life” and, in doing so, resolving the perplexing problem of what constitutes “right living.” From a moral standpoint, Ulrich must reconcile the superficially atrocious actions of Moosbrugger with Moosbrugger’s innocence. Ulrich must complete himself by denying both his male, active self and Agathe, his soi-disant passive self. His final act must be a real act in the real world and absolutely unpardonable in the eyes of common morality, but this act must be the final anguished declaration of his own humanity, the resolution of his most vital doubt: whether the soul exists and how it makes itself known.