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725 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1930
But do you know what it's like? It's like traveling second class in Galicia and picking up crab lice. I've never felt so filthy helpless! When you spend a lot of time with ideas you end up itching all over, and you can scratch till you bleed, without getting any relief.
And since the possession of qualities assumes a certain pleasure in their reality, we can see how a man who cannot summon up a sense of reality even in relation to himself may suddenly, one day, come to see himself as a man without qualities.
For if stupidity, seen from within, did not so much resemble talent as possess the ability to be mistaken for it, and if it did not outwardly resemble progress, genius, hope, and improvement, the chances are that no one would want to be stupid, and so there would be no stupidity.
The personal quality of any given creature is precisely that which doesn’t coincide with anything else. I once said to you that the more truth we discover, the less of the personal is left in the world, because of the longtime war against individuality that individuality is losing.
On the other hand, as soon as a soul has morality or religion, philosophy, and intensive bourgeois education and ideals in the realms of duty and of the beautiful, it is endowed with a system of regulations, conditions and directives for operation, which it has to fill out before it is entitled to think of itself as a respectable soul, and its heat, like that of a blast-furnace, is conducted into beautiful squares of sand. What remains then is fundamentally only logical problems of interpretation, of the kind as to whether an action comes under this or that commandment; and the soul presents the tranquil panorama of a battlefield after the battle, where the dead lie quiet and one can at once observe where a scrap of life yet stirs or groans. And so man makes this transition as fast as he can. If he is tormented by religious doubts, as occasionally happens in youth, he goes straight over to the persecution of unbelievers; if love deranges him, he turns it into marriage; and if other enthusiasm overwhelms him, he disentangles himself from the impossibility of living perpetually in the fire of it by beginning to live for that fire. That is, instead of filling the many moments of his day, each of which needs a content and an impetus, with his ideal state, he fills them with the activity for the sake of his ideal state, in other words, with the many means to the end, the hindrances and incidents that are a sure guarantee that he never need reach it. For only fools, the mentally deranged, and people with idees fixes, can endure unceasingly in the fire of the soul’s rapture. A sane man must content himself with declaring that life would not seem worth living without a flake of that mysterious fire. p. 219I find it even more remarkable that this book, with its warning against the seductiveness of ideas, was written from 1930 to 1942, in the years leading up to the frenzy of the fascist state, the pinnacle of Hitler’s mass seduction. This unfinished book was interrupted by World War II just as the Collateral Campaign will be interrupted by World War I. In both cases, ideas play a big part. Musil saw what was coming as well as what had passed; unfortunately nobody was paying attention, and we still aren’t.
But it is along this road that business leads to philosophy (for it is only criminals who presume to damage other people nowadays without the aid of philosophy) p227You can go to jail today for smoking a little weed, but the crooks that caused the financial crisis get off scot-free by merely hiding behind a system of signs and numbers, laws and loopholes, a philosophy or an idea.
Most of us may not believe in the story of a Devil to whom one can sell one's soul, but those who must know something about the soul (considering that as clergymen, historians, and artists they draw a good income from it) all testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics and that mathematics is the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines. The inner drought, the dreadful blend of acuity in matters of detail and indifference toward the whole, man's monstrous abandonment in a desert of details, his restlessness, malice, unsurpassed callousness, moneygrubbing, coldness, and violence, all so characteristic of our times, are by these accounts solely the consequence of damage done to the soul by keen logical thinking! Even back when Ulrich first turned to mathematics there were already those who predicted the collapse of European civilization because no human faith, no love, no simplicity, no goodness, dwelt any longer in man. These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school.And here is the same passage in the older translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser:
Perhaps not all of these people believe in that stuff about the Devil to whom one can sell one’s soul; but all those who have to know something about the soul, because they draw a good income out of it as clergy, historians or artists, bear witness to the fact that it has been ruined by mathematics and that in mathematics is the source of a wicked intellect that, while making man the lord of the earth, also makes him the slave of the machine. The inner drought, the monstrous mixture of acuity in matters of detail and indifference as regards the whole, man’s immense loneliness in a desert of detail, his restlessness, malice, incomparable callousness, his greed for money, his coldness and violence, which are characteristic of our time, are, according to such surveys, simply and solely the result of the losses that logical and accurate thinking has inflicted upon the soul! And so it was that even at that time, when Ulrich became a mathematician, there were people who were prophesying the collapse of European civilisation on the grounds that there was no longer any faith, any love, any simplicity or any goodness left in mankind; and it is significant that these people were all bad at mathematics at school.To me, it is clear that the Wilkins/Kaiser translation is superior. The newer translation takes out so much of those rhetorical gestures (‘that stuff about the Devil’ becoming ‘story of a Devil’ and ‘And so it was that even at that time’ becoming ‘Even back when’) which convey little raw information but much in the very particular ironic tone of the novel. Not to mention the complete un-musicality of the phrase “moneygrubbing” in that list of ‘s’ sounds. And the humor of that last sentence-- ‘and it is significant that these people were all bad at mathematics at school’ falls completely flat in the new translation of ‘These people had all, typically, been poor mathematicians as young people and at school.’
If he monitors his feelings, he finds nothing he can accept without reservation. He seeks a possible beloved but can't tell whether it's the right one; he is capable of killing without being sure that he will have to. The drive of his own nature to keep developing prevents him from believing that anything is final and complete. He suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. (P. 269)What is the meaning and purpose of culture? How do the different aspects of culture relate to each other? Musil often reflects on culture as an artificial game without substance. "All enforced sociability...beyond a certain naive and crude level, springs basically from the need to simulate a unity that could govern all of humanity's highly varied activities and that is never there. This stimulation was what Diotoma called culture..." (P. 104, emphasis mine). In other words, human gatherings whether they be parties or sporting events or music concerts, art openings, and so on, all cultural events are contrived efforts to create a unity between humans that doesn't exist. Musil goes on to question the validity of literature and writing itself. Through the modest sprinkling of words by the narrator such as "probably" and phrases such as "one could say" and "must have been" regarding certain character's motives or thoughts, Musil creates a sense of the limitations of the author as "knowing" anything and of the story as an infallible artifact. All art is a failed attempt to present something that is already a failed thing. Life, existence, language...nothing is grounded in the Real, so how could "Art" ever hope to portray Reality? On page 115, he writes, "Unfortunately, nothing is so hard to achieve as a literary representation of a man thinking." ...just before he begins relating the main character's thinking. There are these tidbits of hilarious irony, and in this case it does double duty as noting the impossibility of Art. Musil often muses on the purpose and value of art, and frankly, finds Art lacking. At one point, he hits literature with a devastating blow:
This era worships money, order, knowledge, calculation, measures and weights--the spirit of money and everything related to it, in short--but also deplores all that. [...] It deals with this conflict by division of labor, assigning to certain [...] literary Savonarolas and evangelists, whose presence is the most reassuring to those not personally in a position to live up to their precepts, the task of recording all such premonitions and lamentations.(p. 555)That is to say, writers make the world feel less guilty and accept the fact that we are living empty lives by writing about it. Oh, global warming may be destroying our species, but at least there's David Foster Wallace! Or Jonathan Franzen! Or Margaret Atwood!
...an idea is the most paradoxical thing in the world. The flesh in the grip of an idea is like a fetish. Bonded to an idea, it becomes magical. An ordinary slap in the face, bound up with ideas of honor, or of punishment and the like, can kill a man. And yet ideas can never maintain themselves in the state in which they are most powerful; they're like the kind of substance that, exposed to the air, instantly changes into some other, more lasting, but corrupted form. You've been through this often yourself. Because an ideas is what you are: an idea in a particular state.How breathtaking, the way Musil tosses off in one sentence of a book of 700 odd pages what the Self is. "An idea in a particular state." Stunning. Later he refers to "...the paradoxes inherent in the poem called man." Here he waxes Wittgensteinian about the nature of Ideas:
The talkers in Diotima's salon were never entirely wrong about anything, for their concepts were as misty as the outlines of bodies in the steambath. 'These ideas, on which life hangs as the eagle hangs on his wings,' Ulrich thought, 'our countless moral and artistic notions of life, by nature are as delicate as mountain ranges of granite blurred by distance.'"In several scenes, Musil reflects on ethnic hatred. In one sentence he explains, "Now, ethnic prejudice is usually nothing more than self-hatred, dredged up from the murky depths of one's own conflicts and projected onto some convenient victim, a traditional practice from time immemorial when the shaman used a stick, said to be the repository of the demon's power, to draw the sickness out of the afflicted." (p. 461) It's insights like these that make this book such a masterpiece and a joy.
Having so much attention and admiration lavished on him might have made any man other than Arnheim suspicious and unsure of himself, on the assumption that he owed it all to his money. But Arnheim regarded suspicion as the mark of an ignoble character, permissible to a man in his position only on the basis of unequivocal financial reports, and anyway he was convinced that being rich was a personal quality. Every rich man regards being rich as a personal quality. So does every poor man. There is a universal tacit understanding on the point.This general accord is troubled only slightly by the claims of logic that having money, while capable of conferring certain traits or character on whoever has it, is not in itself a human quality. Such an academic quibble need not detain us. (P. 455)And in another scene, Musil has the wealthy industrialist Arnheim thinking out loud in a manner that would make Ayn Rand proud:
To do away with force is to weaken the world order. Our task is to make man capable of greatness, although he is a mongrel cur! [...] But money is surely just as safe a means of managing human relationships as physical force, the crude uses of which it allows us to discontinue. Money is power in the abstract, a pliant, highly developed, and creative form, a unique form, of power. Isn't business really based on cunning and force, on outwitting and exploiting others, except that in business, cunning and force have become wholly civilized, internalized in fact, so that they are actually clothed in the guise of man's liberty? Capitalism, as the organization of egotism based on a hierarchy in which one's rank depends on one's capacity for getting money, is simply the greatest and yet the most humane order we have been able to devise... (p 554)Here Musil reflects on the nature of civilization itself, another frequent subject of analysis:
To begin briefly with the ecclesiastical aspect of things, as long as one believed in religion, one could defenestrate a good Christian or a pious Jew from any story in the castle of hope or prosperity, and he would always land on his spiritual feet, as it were, because all religions included in their view of life an irrational, incalculable element they called God's inscrutable will. Whenever a man could not make sense of things, he merely had to remember this rogue element in the equation, and his spirit could rub its hands with satisfaction, as it were. This falling on one's feet and rubbing one's hands is called having a working philosophy of life, and this is what modern man has lost. He must either give up thinking about life altogether, which is what many people are quite content to do, or else he finds himself strangely torn between having to think and yet never quite seeming to arrive at a satisfactory resolution of his problems. This conflict has in the course of history taken on the form of a total skepticism as often as it has that of a renewed subjection to faith, and its most prevalent form today is probably the conviction that without a spiritual dimension there can be no human life worthy of the name, but with too much of it there can be none either. It is on this conviction that our civilization as a whole is based. It takes great care to provide for education and research, but never too well, only enough money to keep education and research properly subordinated to the great sums expended on entertainment, cars, and guns.I could go on rather endlessly about this book, but I will conclude here. In the end, Musil himself notes that a book cannot have its ideas torn out, it's themes laid to view, and it's meaning understood because everything is affected by the context around it, and as such has inherent ambiguity. So I will leave by saying: beautiful, complex, deep, challenging.