The novel of ideas is dead.  Of course, we never read the obituary.  It
was one of those deaths that is hushed up, kept out of the
newspapers.  It happened around the time Moses Herzog started writing
those crazy philosophical letters to dead people.  Ideas, once the gold
standard of the “serious novelist” – ah, the very phrase seems so
quaint these days -- became the currency of the unhinged.  The mantra
of the MFA programs in creative writing became “Don’t tell us, show
us.”  And the novel of ideas was too much in the “tell us” camp.
Exhuming Robert Musil:  
A Fresh Look at
The Man Without Qualities

by Ted Gioia
Serious ideas once gave dignity to a work of fiction.  Remember the
Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky?  Or those great debates between the
humanist Settembrini and the radical Naphta in
The Magic Mountain?  
These passages are brilliant, exhilarating and  . . . hopelessly old-
fashioned.  Even when a contemporary novelist borrows the trappings
of the novel of ideas – see for example Marisha Pessl’s
Special Topics in
Calamity Physics
, with its dense bibliography and constant footnotes –
the metaphysical trappings are just there for decoration.  The plot
moves on in cinematic fashion, brilliantly so, and the reader never needs
to complete a syllogism or dust off an abstract concept.   

Why did the novel of ideas fall out of favor?  Perhaps our distrust of
concepts is hard earned, due to recently completing a century in which
ideas fared so poorly.  It was a period in which the really heinous
actions were always done in the name of some idea.  Or perhaps the
novel—like everything else in society these days—is more comfortable
gliding over ideologies rather than digging into ideas.  But maybe an
even simpler explanation can be mustered.  The dominant role of films
and television in contemporary story-telling—a pre-eminence that has
emphasized “showing” versus “telling”—has created a widespread
impatience among audiences with those subtle, metaphysical things that
can’t be shown.  

In such an environment, a novelist such as
Robert Musil is bound to look hopelessly
old fashioned.  His masterpiece,
The Man
Without Qualities
, is drenched from start
to finish in ideas.  Imagine the "Grand
Inquisitor to the power of ten, and you
have some idea of the tone of this massive
work.  For more than a thousand pages,
the theories and hypotheses, the aphorisms
and paradoxes, the points and counterpoints
pour out, in an overwhelming torrent.  If the
novel of ideas ever comes back into favor,
Musil will probably rise from his second tier
status – today he is sort of poor man’s Joyce or Proust – and be
acknowledged as a great, instead of a near-great, author.  

But there are few signs that the novel of ideas will ever make a
comeback.  Are you familiar with T.S. Eliot’s
bon mot about Henry
James?  “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”  To some
extent, that describes all of us these days—although we typically lack
the compensating psychological acumen of James.  In that same essay,
Eliot wrote:  “we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public,
the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.”  
Although he was writing ninety years ago, Eliot expressed a viewpoint
that—although radical and different at the time – is now a
commonplace.  Too great a refinement of ideas is invariably seen today
as a dodge, a ruse, an escape from confronting more profound
emotional truths.  In short, the modern reader is like those intrusive
“facilitators” at therapy groups or encounter sessions, where
participants are derided when they linger in the realm of the concepts.  
The most clichéd facilitator line has become a mantra of sorts:  “tell us
what you feel, not what you think.”

Musil would not make a good facilitator for a therapy group.  In fact, he
would hardly make for a successful writer nowadays.  He would flunk
out of the Iowa writers’ workshop.  He would get dinged with a pre-
printed form letter from
The New Yorker.   A Hollywood director would
take one look at his screenplay, and scrawl on the cover: “NOT ENOUGH
DIALOGUE!!! NOT ENOUGH ACTION!!!”  But perhaps – dare I say it? –
the modern reader is missing something by always wanting to be
shown, and never told.   

In truth, there is a magic to Musil.  
The Man Without Qualities depicts a
strange world in which a couple is given a copy of Nietzsche as a
wedding gift, a murderer on death row spends his days speculating on
the nature of reality, and the most fashionable social gatherings are
dominated by heated discussions on the essence of the soul.  Neither
you nor I have ever lived in such a world.  In fact, I doubt that Robert
Musil did, although his depiction of Vienna in the period leading up to
World War I would lead you to believe that this was a society obsessed
with grand thoughts and philosophical debates.  But it is a provocative,
exciting world, even if it is a fictional one, a world in which personal
initiatives and social interactions reverberate with an intensity and
intellectual potency rare in any age.  

The protagonist Ulrich is the man without qualities.  But lacking a
center, he changes his ideas with the ease of an actor learning a new
role.  He is prone to making sweeping statements, such as: "In times to
come, when more is known, the word ‘destiny’ will probably have
acquired a statistical meaning.” Or: “It seems really that it’s only the
people who don’t do much good who are able to preserve their
goodness intact.” Or:  “The difference between a normal person and an
insane one is precisely that the normal person has all the diseases of
the mind, while the madman has only one.”  His eloquence and ability to
turn a phrase are stunning, yet his ideas never cohere into a philosophy
or a belief system.  They are as ephemeral as a passing storm.  

In order to give scope to the clash of ideas, Musil builds his plot around
a committee searching for a grand unifying concept to guide the
celebration of  the 70th anniversary of Emperor Franz Joseph's
coronation.  This campaign falters almost from the start, and serves
only to show the clash and confusion of attitudes and opinions. In
desperation, the committee resolves to undertake “an Inquiry for the
Drafting of a Guiding Resolution to Ascertain the Desires of the
Concerned Sections of the Population.”  Ulrich collects the various
proposals submitted in two folders – one full of dreamy notions of
rushing into a future utopia, the second one, equally overflowing,
comprised of plans to return to some nostalgic past.  The first folder is
marked with the name “Forward to . . .” and the second one is labeled
“Back to. . .”  

Here we encounter the equivocal nature of Musil’s master work.  For
this same novelist who is so enamored with ideas is also the quickest to
show their emptiness and danger.  By setting his novel before the
outbreak of World War I, he conveys the futility of his characters’
heated debate.  Although they are obsessed with finding the rallying
idea for the anniversary of the Emperor’s rise to the throne, the event
will never take place.  Franz Joseph died in 1916, in the middle of the
war, and after the end of hostilities his Austro-Hungarian empire was

J.M. Coetzee has called
The Man Without Qualities a “book overtaken by
history during its writing."  When Musil started work on the book at the
dawn of the 1920s, the memory of
the Great War was still fresh in the
minds of the public, and the attempt
to show the tumult of opinions and
philosophies that had preceded the
senseless bloodshed must have seemed
a grand idea for a major work of fiction.
The Austro-Hungarian military alone
sustained more than one million fatalities
during that war – losses that cast a un-
mentioned pallor over the bright-eyed
optimism of Musil’s characters.  When
the first sections of the book were
published in 1930, the tragedies of the
Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele
would still have been a vivid part of contemporary history.  But as Musil
continued to work on his novel during the 1930s, the rise of Nazi
ideology cast a new light on
The Man Without Qualities.  No matter
what Musil might have hoped or wanted, the subsequent rise of Hitler
changes how later generations read this book, accentuating our sense
of the naiveté of some characters and the pathological tendencies of
others.  It is to Musil’s credit that his novel possesses levels of meaning
and nuance that became more relevant in the aftermath of subsequent

Musil himself suffered from the change in political climate.  Along with
his Jewish wife, Martha, he was forced to leave Vienna in 1938, and seek
asylum in Switzerland.  Here the couple lived in great financial hardship.  
Only two years previously, Thomas Mann had cited
The Man Without
when asked to name an eminent contemporary novel, and
there was even talk of Musil winning the Nobel Prize in literature.  But he
struggled to find paying work in Swiss literary circles.  “Today they
ignore us,” Musil complained to Ignazio Silone.  “But once we are dead
they will boast that they gave us asylum.”  Even so, Musil thought he
had many years of productive work ahead of him, when he could
complete his great novel.  But the author died suddenly of a cerebral
hemorrhage, after an exercise session, on April 15, 1942.  He was only
sixty-two years old.  

Even if Musil had lived longer, he might have struggled to put closure on
this novel.  Indeed, the defining quality of the work is that the ideas it
raises have no obvious closure.  Almost one thousand pages into the
book, after making hundreds of philosophical pronouncements, Ulrich
muses:  “I have never subjected myself to an idea with staying power.  
One never turned up.  One should love an idea like a woman;  be
overjoyed to get back to it.  And one always has it inside oneself! And
always looks for it in everything outside!  I never formed such ideas.  
My relationship to the so-called great ideas, and perhaps even to those
that really are great, has always been man-to-man:  I never felt I was
born to submit to them;  they always provoked me to overthrow them
and put others in their place.”  

Each of the characters in  Musil’s book shares, to some extent, this
intellectual confusion.  We encounter Clarisse, who eventually decides
that one is “obliged to surrender oneself to an illusion if one received
the grace of having one.”  Or the General Stumm, who decides to map
out all of the great ideas of the day, as if they were the plans for a
military campaign, and discovers to his amazement that they only end in
contradiction.  He lays out his charts and documents for Ulrich to
consider, then sadly admits:  “The whole thing is – although I can’t
actually believe what I’m saying – what any one of our commanding
officers would be bound to call one hell of a mess!”

Does this represent Musil’s own feelings?  Certainly the General, a man
of simple thoughts and candid observations, comes across as a more
sympathetic character than the intellectuals in
The Man Without
Qualities.  (
And Musil had strange fantasies about military leaders.  In
his first novel,
The Confusions of Young Törless, he depicts a General
whose hidden secret is his obsession with obscure works of Indian
philosophy.)   But Musil does not relinquish his hope that some way
might be found of bringing the precision and progress of science and
technology -- and, of course, the military -- to the realm of the spirit.  
Toward the close of the novel, Ulrich makes a provocative appeal:  
“Today we are facing too many possibilities of feeling, too many possible
ways of living.  But isn’t it like the kind of problem our intellect deals
with whenever it is confronted with a vast number of facts and a history
of the relevant theories?  And for the intellect we have developed an
open-ended but precise procedure, which I don’t need to describe to
you.  Now tell me whether something of the kind isn’t equally possible
for the feelings.”  His interlocutor responds, in a tone of warning, that
“this implies an increasing relationship with God.”  To which Ulrich
merely replies:  “Would that be so terrible? . . . But I haven’t gone that
far yet.”

Musil, like Ulrich, is the man who has not gone that far yet.  He hopes
for a science of the soul – perhaps something akin to what Sir John
Templeton envisioned when he established a major annual award for
“progress” in the world of the spirit.  What a peculiar concept!  Many
people might justifiably doubt that progress is attainable in such a
metaphysical realm.  And Musil, too, is less than totally committed to its
possibility.  But his hopes remain centered on its elusive attainability.  

There are no easy answers in
The Man Without Qualities.  By constantly
undermining its own best and brightest ideas, the novel leaves the
reader in a skeptical mood, which few today are bound to savor.  Those
who are looking for a story with a bold, simple message will do well to
read a different book   But in age of ideology, in which everything is
painted in black-and-white, some brave souls will still find it exhilarating
to plunge into an open-ended novel on a grand scale where ideas battle
with the vigor of well trained athletes, and not even the author knows
which side will ultimately prevail.

  Ted Gioia
Robert Musil
"He is a man without qualities . . .
There are millions of them nowadays
. . . What he thinks of anything will
always depend on some possible
context -- nothing is, to him, what it
is;  everything is subject to change,
in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite
number of wholes presumably adding
up to a superwhole that, however, he
knows nothing about.  So every
answer he gives is only a partial
answer, every feeling only an opinion,
and he never cares what something
is, only 'how' it is."

Robert Musil
Robert Musil:
The Man Without Qualities