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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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Postscript: Seinesgleichen Anno 2014… The Relevance of Musil’s Ideas for Today

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Postscript

Seinesgleichen Anno 2014… The Relevance of Musil’s Ideas for Today

In 2010, the Antwerp-based theatre company Toneelhuis introduced the first part of an ambitious stage adaptation of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, directed by Guy Cassiers. While part 1 focuses on the political intrigue of the novel, parts 2 and 3 are built around Agathe and Moosbrugger and premiered in 2011-2012.1 In this theatre production, the connection between the situation described by Musil and a general sense of political crisis prevailing in many countries today is explicitly emphasized.2 In each of the countries where the production was shown (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany…), elements of the local political malaise were inserted into Musil’s narrative.3

In the brochure of the stage adaptation, the relevance for the present of Musil’s dissection of Kakania is stressed: “…Kakania is a metaphor which is still relevant today: the feeling of living in a transitional time period in which all values become vague, is something which is not unfamiliar in our times.”4 And further in the brochure, the timeliness of the themes explored in the novel is pointed out: “In the text of Musil a series of contemporary (political) themes resound: Europe, national identity, separatism, racism, right-wing extremism, communitarian problems, language struggles, the gap between people and politics, the role of economy and money combined with an inclination towards mysticism and spirituality, etc.”5

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