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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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Introduction: The Cultural Critique of Robert Musil


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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...

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