A Diagnosis of Modern Life

Robert Musil’s "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften </I>as a Critical-Utopian Project

by Stijn De Cauwer (Author)
©2014 Monographs 282 Pages


Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is not only a towering masterpiece of German literature but also an impressively rich and razor-sharp assessment of life in the beginning of the twentieth century. Musil can be regarded as one of the most original and hard-hitting cultural critics of his time. This book explores in detail the cultural critique at work in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Firstly, the place of morality and ideology in Musil’s critique is explained and how his writings function as an ideology critique. Secondly, the question of Musil’s utopianism is clarified. His utopianism is not a future or ideal place but an increased awareness of the possibilities in the present, opened up by the process of critique. Thirdly, the function of the ‘pathological’ in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is analyzed. Musil’s novel was meant to be an intervention into a condition which he compared to a pathological affliction. Finally, this book takes up the difficult question of whether Musil’s analysis and original ideas still have relevance today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Glossary of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: The Cultural Critique of Robert Musil
  • 1. Robert Musil as a Cultural Theorist
  • 2. Musil’s Life and Background
  • 3. Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften
  • 4. The Impossibility of Coming to a Synthesis of the Times
  • 5. The Best of Two Worlds: Science and Mysticism
  • 6. The Incapacity to Face Modern Times as a Moral Problem
  • 7. Toward an Ethics of Transformation
  • 8. Musil’s Influences: Inheriting Problems
  • 9. The Different Editions of Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften
  • 10. The Reception of Musil’s Work
  • 11. A Critical-Utopian Project
  • 12. Concerns with Using the Texts of Musil
  • Chapter 1: Musil’s Critique of Moral and Ideological Rigidity
  • 1. Tracing the Role of Morality and Ideology in Musil’s Cultural Critique
  • 2. The Motivational Deficit at the Turn of the Century
  • 3. The Symptoms of Modern Life
  • 4. Further Clarifications of Musil’s Ideology Critique
  • 5. Concluding Remarks
  • Chapter 2: The Critical-Utopian Aspect of Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften
  • 1. The Critique of Georg Lukács as a Paradigm
  • 2. The Utopias of Exact Living and Essayism
  • 3. The Utopia to Ground One’s Life in the ‘Other Condition’:
  • a) The Other Condition is an Intensification, not a Withdrawal
  • b) The Other Condition as a Dereification (Entdinglichung)
  • c) The Other Condition Can Bring About a Synthesis of Different Faculties
  • d) The Other Condition as an Overcoming or a Transformation of the Self
  • e) The Other Condition is not an Ideal in Itself
  • 4. Beyond the Utopia of the Other Condition
  • 5. Musil’s Critical-Utopian Project: From One Final Norm to the Conditions of Possibility of New Norms
  • 6. The Aim of Musil’s Critical-Utopian Project
  • a) Similarities and Differences between Musil’s Analysis and Lukács’ Theory of Reification
  • b) Possibility and Temporality in Bloch and Musil
  • c) The Nietzschean Influence on Musil: Error and Origin
  • 7. Musil’s Attitude to the Women’s Movement in the Light of his Critical-Utopian Project
  • 8. Concluding Remarks
  • Chapter 3: The Function of the ‘Pathological’ in Musil’s Cultural Critique
  • 1. The World as a Madhouse
  • Excursus: Pathology, Normativity and the Law in the Theories of Georges Canguilhem
  • 2. Pathology and Moral Rigidity: How the Struggle Against Pathology Leads to the Worst Kind of Pathology
  • Excursus: Threatened Oedipus. Musil, Kraus and Freudian Psychoanalysis
  • 3. Madness Becomes Method
  • 4. The Influence of Nietzschean ‘Immunology’
  • 5. Concluding Remarks
  • Conclusion: Working Through the Symptoms of Modern Life; Musil’s Critical-Utopian Project
  • Postscript: Seinesgleichen Anno 2014… The Relevance of Musil’s Ideas for Today
  • 1. Seinesgleichen Continued…
  • 2. Do we Live in Times that are Mad?
  • 3. Can Musil Provide a Cure?
  • 4. The Novel, Still…
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names

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Glossary of Abbreviations

All German citations are from Robert Musil: Klagenfurter Ausgabe. Kommentierte digitale Edition sämtlicher Werke, Briefe und nachgelassener Schriften. Mit Transkriptionen und Faksimiles aller Handschriften. Herausgegeben vom Walter Fanta, Klaus Amann und Carl Corino. Klagenfurt: Robert Musil-Institut der Universität Klagenfurt. DVD-Version 2009.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften:

MoE I Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 1, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften – erstes Buch
MoE II Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 2, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften – zweites Buch
MI Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Mappen, Weitere Mappen, Vortrag 128-135, Moosbrugger im Irrenhaus. Eine Kartenpartie.

Other prose writings, drama and stories:

VZT Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 5, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß
NL Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 8, Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten
VF Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 7, Dramen, Vinzenz und die Freundin beteundender Männer.
SG Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 11, Kleine Prosa, Glossen 1921-1932, Stilgeneration oder Generationsstil.

Public addresses:

RRF Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 9, Reden, Rede zur Rilke-Feier
DDZ Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 9, Reden, Der Dichter in dieser Zeit
UD Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 9, Reden, Über die Dummheit


UKK Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Das Unanständige und Kranke in der Kunst
PBM Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Politisches Bekenntnis eines jungen Mannes
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SED Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Skizze der Erkenntnis des Dichters
AD Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Der Anschluß an Deutschland
NIW Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Die Nation als Ideal und Wirklichkeit
HE Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Das Hilflose Europa oder Reise vom Hundertsten ins Tausendste
GE Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Geist und Erfahrung
ANA Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Ansätze zu neuer Ästhetik
FGM Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Die Frau gestern und morgen
LL Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 12, Essays, Literat und Literatur
DMS Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 15, Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, Essayistische Fragmente, Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom
DMSN Musil, KA; KOMMENTARE & APPARATE; Werkkommentare, Band 15, Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, Essayistische Fragmente, Das Essaybuch, Der deutsche Mensch als Symptom
BL Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 15, Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, Essayistische Fragmente, Bedenken eines Langsamen

From the diaries:

FT Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 16, Frühe Tagebuchhefte 1899-1926
ST Musil, KA; LESETEXTE; Band 17, Späte Tagebuchhefte 1928-1918
TH10 Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Hefte, Heft 10 “Hohes Notizbuch”
TH19 Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Hefte, Heft 19 “Braun Quart” “Kehraus”
TH25 Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Hefte, Heft 25 “Schwarzes Heft Essays”
TH26 Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Hefte, Heft 26 “Blaues Heft Essays”
TH31 Musil, KA; TRANSKRIPTIONEN & FAKSIMILES, NACHLASS Hefte, Heft 31 “Verschiedene Notizen”, “Notizen zu den Essays”

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The English citations of Robert Musil are from the following translations:

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The Cultural Critique of Robert Musil

1. Robert Musil as a Cultural Theorist

After Musil’s death in 1942, it took several decades for his masterpiece Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften to receive the attention it merits, mainly due to its unfinished state and overwhelming scope and complexity. Nowadays the novel is acknowledged as a modernist classic that has its place in the canon of the greatest literature of the twentieth century, next to Joyce, Proust or Kafka. In 1999, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften was voted as the most important German-language novel of the century by a jury of 99 German writers and scholars, before classics like Der Zauberberg or Der Prozess.

More recently, Musil’s work has also drawn increasing attention from philosophers, finding in his writings reflections of such richness and originality that they deserve to be studied on their own. French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse raises the question in one of his studies of Musil whether the time hasn’t finally come to regard Musil’s thought as a philosophy in its own right (Bouveresse, 2001). Also in France, a book has appeared with the title La philosophie autrichienne de Bolzano à Musil; Histoire et actualité, granting Musil a central place in Austrian philosophy (Mulligan and Commeti, eds., 2002). In 2014, the philosophy journal The Monist published a special issue devoted entirely to ‘the philosophy of Robert Musil’. In their classic study of Vienna at the turn of the century, Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin wrote: “In its own way, therefore, The Man Without Qualities is pre-eminently a ‘philosopher’s novel’, and deserves special attention from students of twentieth-century philosophy…” (Janik and Toulmin, 1973, p. 119) Throughout the years, Musil’s work has been eagerly used by the most diverse thinkers, philosophers or literary critics, who all gratefully make use of the huge amount of challenging ideas and images that can be found in his writings.1

It is by no means the intention of these people to artificially separate Musil the thinker from Musil the writer. It is a fact that Musil consciously refused an academic career in order to work on his great novel. Besides ← 15 | 16 → the occasional essay, play and short story, it was the novel, though quite an unusual one in his case, that was for him the preferred form and medium to express himself. It should also not be forgotten that Musil had some very harsh things to say about philosophy as a discipline, which, he thought, was too inclined to reduce experience to grand, rigid systems and overly limited in what it deemed worthy of philosophical reflection.2 In Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften he writes: “Philosophers are despots who have no armies to command, so they subject the world to their tyranny by locking it up in a system of thought.”3 (MwQ 272) Musil consciously chose not to have a career as a philosopher but as a writer, which was a medium that allowed him to both expose the limits of certain domains, whether philosophy or science, and to combine the best of these worlds.4

The tendency to speak of ‘the philosophy of Robert Musil’ comes out of the fact that Musil’s work contains such an incredible amount of original, sharp and unique reflections which cannot be reduced to any direct influence or intellectual trend, that even scholars feel as if they are only beginning to get a grip on the complexities of his work. As Michael A. Bernstein ← 16 | 17 → writes: “…the whole nature of his achievement, the ways in which his work is both difficult and rewarding, constitutes such a singular case that even a thorough grounding – and delight – in the complexities of other great modernist authors does little to prepare oneself for an encounter with a body of writing like his.” (Bernstein, 2000, p. 36) The position I will take in this book is different from scholars who study Musil for his literary value or those who want to situate him within a philosophical tradition. From every page of Musil’s work, whether Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, the essays or his diaries, it is evident that Musil sees it as his main goal to do an intervention in the cultural climate, which seemed to go from one crisis to the next. His body of work could be described as one long critical analysis of the shortcomings in the artistic, intellectual and political debates of his time, but analysis is not strong enough; his writings are meant to be a direct experience that problematizes the common conceptions by which people view themselves and the world and that allows for the formation of different conceptual frameworks. I will regard his work as a forceful cultural critique and Musil himself as one of the most lucid and original cultural theorists of his generation.

One only has to open up a random page of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften to notice the relentless critical edge of his writing, which made some critics wrongly conclude that Musil seems to simply reject everything or that his negativity is total and all-encompassing. In his view, literature first and foremost had to serve a critical function. Ulrich, the protagonist of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, gives the novel unambiguously a critical function: “Every great book breathes the spirit of this love for the fate of individuals at odds with the forms the community tries to impose on them. … Extract the meaning out of all literature, and what you will get is a denial, however incomplete, but nonetheless an endless series of individual examples all based on experience, which refute the accepted rules, principles, and prescriptions underpinning the very society that loves these works of art!”5 (MwQ 398-399).

Musil was driven by a need, not simply to describe his society and provide a detailed portrait of it, but to intervene in the intellectual, moral, artistic and political debates of his time. His incisive observations are always at the same time a problematization, a displacement of what he is describing, ← 17 | 18 → ruthlessly exposing its shortcomings and inadequacy to cope with the huge challenges of modernity. His aim was to expose the flaws and impasses of the intellectual life he was living in, along with its disastrous consequences, and to increase the capacity to explore other possibilities. His ambition was nothing less than to change the way society was ordered and how human beings define themselves, and for this he chose the novel, which had to serve as a large ‘experimental station’, as his preferred means of expression.6 Only the novel allowed him the flexibility to explore possibilities from different angles and to permanently readjust his approach, which was necessary to face the rapidly changing historical conditions, as opposed to academic philosophy which he compared to an overbred bulldog that is no longer capable of biting.7

Before presenting the stakes of this book, I will briefly describe Musil’s life, his main concerns and the complexities surrounding Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

2. Musil’s Life and Background

Musil was born in 1880 in Klagenfurt, Carinthia.8 His only sister died as a young child before his birth. His father belonged to the well-off Habsburg administration and in 1890, the entire family moved to Brno (also known by its German name Brünn) where Musil’s father was appointed as a professor in mechanical engineering. Musil grew up in a rather peculiar domestic situation: from 1882 to her death in 1924, his mother Hermine took a lover into their house, who lived there all that time with the consent of Musil’s father and who was called ‘uncle Heinrich’ by little Robert, even though it was never a secret that he was his mother’s lover. Musil was born into an environment which stood for traditional Habsburg values and customs, but which at the same time ← 18 | 19 → was very accepting of experimenting with lifestyles that challenged the common moral norms.

This paradox became more problematic when he was sent to the military boarding schools of Eisenstadt and Mährisch-Weißkirchen, an experience that became the inspiration for his first literary success: Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß, published in 1906. Rilke, who shortly went to the same school at Mährisch-Weißkirchen, had to be removed from the school by his parents after less than a year. While the institutions were supposed to install an unshakable sense of moral duty and loyalty to the Habsburg values in the students, all coming from respectable families, Musil described the fierce homo-erotic games and sadistic bullying that went on at night. It was as if the school was a miniature image of the future moral hypocrisy and cruelty of the Nazi era. Nevertheless, at the age of 26, Musil had a literary success which both evoked awe for its style and shocked reactions for its content.

After the boarding schools, Musil spent one year at the Military Academy of Vienna, abandoning it after one year because he was tired of the boorish types the military attracted and he moved back to Brno to study engineering like his father. While devoting his day time to his studies, he frantically spent his nights reading up on literature and philosophy, which provided what was lacking in his studies. From that time on he kept a series of detailed notebooks in which he systematically recorded his ideas, his reflections on his readings and the times, along with experimental drafts for future novels. In 1902, he was appointed as assistant at the Technical Institute of Stuttgart, one of the most prestigious institutions for engineers, but already after one year he could not find anything compelling about the job anymore and he moved to Berlin to begin doctoral studies in philosophy and experimental psychology. That department, with notable professors like Carl Stumpf, was at that time a cutting-edge place for the study of epistemology, early phenomenology and experimental psychology. During his stay there, Musil invented a color wheel used in psychological experiments which is patented to his name. In 1908, Musil finished his doctoral studies with a study of the Austrian philosopher of science Ernst Mach, under the supervision of Carl Stumpf.9 Stimulated by his early literary success and disappointed by his disagreements with Stumpf, Musil finished his doctoral studies without much enthusiasm, having already decided that he would embark on a career as a writer.10

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ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
German literature cultural critique ideology morality
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 282 pp.

Biographical notes

Stijn De Cauwer (Author)

Stijn De Cauwer is postdoctoral researcher in literature and culture at the University of Leuven. His research is funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). He obtained his PhD on the work of Robert Musil at the University of Utrecht.


Title: A Diagnosis of Modern Life
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282 pages