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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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Conclusion: Working Through the Symptoms of Modern Life; Musil’s Critical-Utopian Project


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Working Through the Symptoms of Modern Life; Musil’s Critical-Utopian Project

In Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften and his other writings, Robert Musil undertook an extensive and razor-sharp dissection of a condition his society had been suffering from since the end of the nineteenth century. This condition reminded him of patients suffering from a pathological affliction, as he had witnessed in Rome. It had grown in the wake of the relentless and vertigo-inducing acceleration of modernity, transforming society and people’s lives as they had always known them. History seemed to have become an overwhelming and incomprehensible force, which swept society along towards an unknown and unforeseeable destination. Modern life became increasingly complex and incomprehensible, accelerating the specialization and atomization of different domains. In such a society which at the same time produces monstrous forms of order and organization and unleashes powerful forms of entropy and disintegration, what role was left for a human being? What could a man or woman do who does not want to be a mere passive cog in the unfolding of history or a part of a community that was like a ship of fools racing eagerly towards its own catastrophic downfall?

This question becomes even more difficult if we look at the particular nature of the condition society was in. Modernity drastically transformed the lives of people in all its aspects, from their living conditions to the meaningful order of society in which everything has a well-defined...

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