The Man without Qualities

March 6, 2007 at 4:29 pm (literature)

The title says it all. That one by Musil is one of my favourite books and I’m just curious to see if there are others out there who have also read it (at least partly) and found it remarkable. True, it’s a long one. Some say it’s a philosophical essay in the form of a novel, and that’s a fact: it is about life, science, strange love, and mystic experiences. But most important of all, it’s about us, men without qualities. We are intelligent, we know a lot of things, we know what we want, we have a lot of qualities — still, we don’t have any. We are not united with them but we possess them, and we vaguely feel sometimes that it might be that actually they possess us. We have dissolved and lost something, says Musil, though we have gained the light of rationality and intellect. ‘The human brain has divided things successfully but those things have divided the heart.’ says Walter.

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. isaiah said,

    It is a book so full of details, more a chain of mountains than one mountain. Very austrian. I do know no comparable book. Well, there is Proust, but this is something different.
    Actually I can identify myself more with General Stumm for I feel a bit more ‘connected’ to my qualities than perhaps Ulrich. Chapter 100 is my favourite one and those at the end about Agathe and Ulrich, I think especially in the second part. I like the idea of taking a year vaction from your life. Musil’s observations of the relations of humans are superb. There is so much to say about this book…the nice irony…
    What are your other favourite books?

  2. northern raven said,

    Well, I am another who adores that book. Among its many other features, one thing that fascinates me is the way it captures different kinds of “stream of consciousness” thinking, not by some wierd stylistic gimmick, but by accurately describing the peculiar combinations of reasoning, random images, wishes and vanities that capture how I at least “think” from moment to moment.

  3. soniarott said,

    Isaiah wrote:
    ”It is a book so full of details, more a chain of mountains than one mountain. Very austrian. I do know no comparable book. Well, there is Proust, but this is something different.”

    This is a very apt description. This book is like a labyrinth of mirrors: as you’re wandering in it you catch a glimpse of something you saw fifty chapters before and might see again, from a slightly different angle ten chapters later. Yes, it reminds one of Proust somehow.
    Isaiah wrote:

    ”Actually I can identify myself more with General Stumm for I feel a bit more ‘connected’ to my qualities than perhaps Ulrich. Chapter 100 is my favourite one and those at the end about Agathe and Ulrich, I think especially in the second part. I like the idea of taking a year vaction from your life. Musil’s observations of the relations of humans are superb. There is so much to say about this book…the nice irony…”

    O yes, General Stumm is a person who still believes there are ‘great thoughts’ in the original sense of ‘great’ and is shocked by the lifeless order of a big library. I’ve worked in a library myself and I can understand Stumm’s feelings very well. As I see it, that chapter is about another possible way of getting alienated from thoughts; a way that is embodied in the institution of a library: the chief librarian, the ‘lord’ of the library, has not read any of the books and has no contact with the thoughts in them except for their titles and the tables of contents — ‘otherwise you’re lost as a librarian’ as he puts it. A book is already an abstraction, and a library is the abstraction of abstractions with the bibliography of bibliographies at its heart.

    I also like the idea of taking a year-long vacation from life. But that’s not a simple out-of-work period for Ulrich but actually the deepest desperation. He has lost his illusions: he ascended from the practical soldier to the still practical but also theoretical engineer to the mathematical logician who breathes in the air of pure thought — but he suddenly ran out of fuel. I love Musil’s description of science as a chain of mountains you climb one after the other, until one day you ask yourself ‘Will this chain of mountains ever end? But then why do I do it?’ Truth, which is the Great Objective of Science, is an ever-receding fairy tale and it is science itself that proves it to be so. I wonder what the fate of Ulrich would have been if Musil had managed to finish the book. He probably would have left it open but with a sinister tone I think.
    Isaiah wrote:

    ”What are your other favourite books?”

    Well, Hesse in all quantities. Dostoyevsky, of course. Bulgakov. Mann is also a writer hard for me to stop reading. Joyce’s Ulysses. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (That’s a book consisting of four parts about how four people lived through the same things — love, basically (what else?). You’re shown the network of relationships from the four points of view: you see great love from the point of view of one lover’s just for it to turn out to be a great lie when you see it from the world of the other…) Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek. There are many… How about you?

  4. soniarott said,

    Northern Raven wrote:
    ”Well, I am another who adores that book. Among its many other features, one thing that fascinates me is the way it captures different kinds of “stream of consciousness” thinking, not by some wierd stylistic gimmick, but by accurately describing the peculiar combinations of reasoning, random images, wishes and vanities that capture how I at least “think” from moment to moment.”

    Absolutely. Musil clearly saw that everybody is a different universe and at least as much as we differ in our bodily traits, we differ in our mental worlds and had the means to describe them. We are the way we weave the story we call our lives and that can be shockingly different. I’m particularly at a loss with Moosbrugger’s world.

  5. isaiah said,

    I agree that Ulrich’s vacation from his life is just not a holiday. More an expression of the helplessness raised from the question ‘what the hell am I doing here’. And the expression itself, vacation from my life, sounds so very innocent. Like general Stumm, he just thinks, Ok I go to that library and find the most beautiful thought ever, this striking naivity and then you think, ok, on the first sight it looks even horribly naive, but then, why not, why is it such a naive thought that there has to be a most beautiful thought and then as a logical consequence going to a library and ask a person there

  6. soniarott said,

    I guess that Moosbrugger is the personification of the world which has lost its foundations (Ulrich is experiencing later these feelings that he has no connections to space, somewhat removed from ‘real’ world.) Ulrich says, forgotten where, that if the whole human race as one person would dream, Moosbrugger would be a result of this dream.
    Ulrich is experiencing his ‘removed from real world’ feelings not as a negation of ratio.

    Cortazar’s book is not like Musil. It is a bout a group of young southamerican people in Paris in the late 50ies(?), wondering about & hunting the sense of life. All the paragraphs on the book have numbers and at the end of each chapter there is a number leading to the next chapter, thus you are always leafing, so you read it not from the first to the last page, but Cortazar says you can as well do that. I followed its numbers and found it not distracting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: