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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 2: The Critical-Utopian Aspect of Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften


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The Critical-Utopian Aspect of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften

In the first chapter, I have described the way Musil assessed his times as a period of confusion and inadequate responses caused by an overly rigid morality. With his critique he wanted to move beyond the petrified limitations that blocked people from exploring other possibilities. But what was his aim with his critique and these new possibilities? The aim of this critique is the utopian aspect of his work. As I will explain, Musil’s ‘utopianism’ does not refer to one single aspect of his writing but to multiple phenomena, which will be clarified in this chapter.

Throughout Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Ulrich proposes a series of enigmatic, alternative guidelines to live our lives differently, which he calls utopias. Musil’s conscious use of the notion of ‘utopia’ may seem strange in times when this term was getting a distinctly negative connotation. The negative connotations of the term utopia have only increased after the disastrous utopian political projects of the twentieth century. A utopia is nowadays often defined as literally a non-place, as an idealized mirage which by definition can never be achieved. It has become synonymous with unattainable ideals. Or worse, it is such an impossible ideal which people want to achieve at all costs, that it creates enormous violence and fanaticism. By consciously choosing the term ‘utopia’, Musil gives fuel to the critics who claimed that he turned away from reality...

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