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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 3: The Function of the ‘Pathological’ in Musil’s Cultural Critique

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CHAPTER 3

The Function of the ‘Pathological’ in Musil’s Cultural Critique

Stefan Jonsson begins his review of Karl Corino’s biography of Musil in the following way: “To read Robert Musil is to sense an approaching catastrophe. His narratives spiral downward from the daylight of bourgeois conventions into the night of madness, the negativity of disorder, criminality and war.” (Jonsson, 2004, p. 131) Characters seem to be sliding further into their own forms of madness. A society is presented in which chaos, incomprehension and outlandish behavior reign. While in the first volume of the novel there is a strange fascination with Moosbrugger, in the second volume Ulrich and Agathe casually flirt with one of the most central moral fundaments in society: the incest prohibition. It comes as no surprise that the prevalence of transgressive behavior in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften has drawn much attention from critics and that some have accused Musil of an obsession with the pathological.

The function, or maybe better, functions, of the pathological in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is a crucial question concerning Musil’s work and, in my view, still insufficiently documented. It is a central aspect of his work as a cultural critique. Moreover, I believe that Musil’s use of the pathological is unique and original. It should not be conflated with the ways Musil’s contemporaries made use of similar tropes in their art works. It is widely known that Vienna at the turn of the century...

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