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
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,
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
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,
whenmore 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 dissolved.
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 events.
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
Qualities 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
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
"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."
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His newest book is Love Songs: The
Hidden History, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Published: December 31, 2009