Reflections: The Man Without Qualities
It is, on one hand, a book about the conflict between romantic idealism and empirical rationality, which considers the effect on the human mind and spirit produced by aristocratic (romantic) versus bureaucratic (empirical) nation state apparatuses. On the/an other hand, it is a novel about the rise of German nationalism in the early twentieth century and the concomitant increase in anti-Semitism. On the metaphorical third hand, it is a fiction about the impossibility of arriving at a true consensus, whether between two lovers, a handful of eminent people, or a nation of citizens. Finally, it is a novel about the terrifying plight of finding yourself without a sufficient attachment to reality to allow you to withstand its constant incursion upon your mental life without suffering mental breakdown. To create in the reader the feeling of this experience, the novel takes as its dizzying project recording the incalculable effort that this life requires. The main character, Ulrich, is as interested in the task as Musil, and he figures that "If all those leaps of attention, flexings of eye muscles, fluctuations of the psyche, if all the effort it takes for a man just to hold himself upright within the flow of traffic on a busy street could be measured…the grand total would surely dwarf the energy needed by Atlas to hold up the world" (7 of the Wilkins, Pike translation). This is certainly how characters like Ulrich, Clarisse (his best friend's mentally unstable wife), and Moosbrugger (a convicted murderer who seems to stand in as a reflection of what Ulrich might have been, given a set of different circumstances) feel, and how the narrative tends, and, I believe, intends, to make the reader feel.
At the center of this philosophical novel is Ulrich, the titular man without qualities. Ulrich's moniker, like everything else in the novel, has multiple and contradictory explanations provided for it. Ulrich wears this label because he does nothing in life and also because he has all of the fine qualities in a man ("He is gifted, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, circumspect…"), but is not defined by any one of them (62). For the reader, he is a man without qualities in that he is as close to the narrator's idea of the generic citizen produced by the exigencies of the age, but for the novel's characters, that very generic nature causes him to seem extraordinary.
The thread of this novel's story takes up, perhaps, a mere quarter of its pages, while the rest presents (intentionally) inconsistent philosophical reflections on the human spirit. The story, such as it is, can be summarized thus: a capable but directionless young man takes a year's sabbatical to try to reconfigure his life in such a way as to support himself without sacrificing the few ideals that remain to him. His lack of a plan leads him into a job whose main responsibility is to identify the very core of the Austrian character circa 1914. In his dealings with friends, friends of friends, family, friends of family, servants, aristocratic employers, criminals, acquaintances, and would be lovers (of whom there are not a few), he (and Musil) flirts with the obvious conclusion that the empire is too diverse to share common values or goals. The volume draws to a close as Ulrich's campaign not only fails to discover a unifying force, but in fact becomes a force of disunification.
While not a pleasure read, this is a novel to be taken seriously as an examination of the factors that led to a period of simultaneous moral relativism and extremist reaction to that relativism. It is, too, a novel that successfully evokes in the reader the moral confusion from which its characters suffer, and so prohibits one generation's sanctimonious denial of the sins of another.
Posted by Mille Feuille