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A Diagnosis of Modern Life

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

Stijn De Cauwer

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.
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Chapter 1: Musil’s Critique of Moral and Ideological Rigidity


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Musil’s Critique of Moral and Ideological Rigidity

The opening chapters of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften contain one of the most vivid descriptions to be found in literature of the overwhelming sensory overload the big city had become in modern times. Musil describes the modern city as a pulsating, swirling mass, with accelerating and jolting rhythms, partly working smoothly like an oiled machine, partly embodying conflicting forces:

Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its contending rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.1 (MwQ 4)

It was beyond comprehension that such a vortex of speeds, noises, motion and energy could keep on going without spinning out of control.

We first encounter Ulrich when he is standing at the window of his father’s house, looking outside at the vertigo-inducing movement on the street. What else could a person do in the face of such inhuman and intimidating forces, with more sensory stimuli than one could handle, but stare despondently at all that motion or simply surrender to it? The opening pages of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften describe...

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