Reflections: The Man Without Qualities

Considering Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1952, 1978) brings to mind the old schoolyard joke about how being forearmed/four armed is being half an octopus. The reader must allow me at least four arms, and their accompanying hands, to describe this epic novel. It is not a book whose theme one can state simply in a sentence or two.

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.


Polsby Iggleworth said...

Very interesting description. Sometimes I wonder if long philosophical novels like this are extinct, but then I think of Infinite Jest and the rest. Interesting too that you raise the question of form. What do we make of books that stop the narration in order to speculate directly on or another point of theory or politics?

Candida said...

Can one read a book that does not promise pleasure, if one defines as pleasure the loss of self, a sense of being elsewhere, forgetting the limits of time and place? I'm not sure, and so I wonder about "Reflections," which I have not and, now, probably will not read. But your account is wonderfully provoking. As for stopping the narrative to speculate, can't we insist that this speculation be woven into the story? In such a fine fashion, I think Hilary Mantel offered an interpretation of the character of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. She's apparently working away on a sequel. I hope she writes fast.

Mille Feuille said...


I am a strong believer in the fact that any divergence from narrative must be, finally, in the service of the narrative. Whether this is the case in any given novel is, however, a question of taste (and perhaps of perception and patience as well). Is Tristram Shandy a narrative with divergences or a divergence with a narrative? The answer to this question with regards to any philosophical novel weighs heavily in my judgment of it as a novel. However, alongside my judgment of it as a novel is my consideration of it as a book (or, God forbid we publicly revive the word, a text).

I would pose another question to you in return: why are all the philosophical novels that immediately come to mind written by men? Can you (or any kind reader) provide an example of a philosophical novel by a woman?

Mille Feuille said...


A question indeed: why read novels if not to assume the carapace of another? For me, the answer would be that novels act as a kind of social currency; there is real benefit in being able to share something with a host of otherwise unknown people in the world. It is for this reason that, despite my liberal tendencies in most other classroom issues, I am a staunch advocate of teaching (not exclusively, of course) the canonical texts. I want my students to be able to show themselves to be in the club of the educated, and thereby make social connections with others, by catching a reference to Othello or Portrait of a Lady. On the other hand, I want them to be able to question, reject, and complain about them too.

candida said...

I'm not exactly sure what "philosophical" means here, but if we are talking about long discursive novels that treat the reader to "issues' of some moment, how about Daniel Deronda. We'll skip over the horror of Mary Ann Evans having to use a different name.

Mille Feuille said...

In my mind, the philosophical novel is one that explicitly and at length explores the questions of the human condition, ethics and morals, metaphysics, etc. as separated, or at least separable, from their historical conditions. In this, I wouldn't consider Daniel Deronda a philosophical novel. I might, I think, categorize Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as one, however, to answer my own question. It makes sense to me that the romantics would produce a philosophical novel, as they were so much more closely wrapped up in the continental tradition than their English successors, who focused on applied rather than abstract ethics, and often on their own historically specific context.

Candida said...

I take your point on Daniel Deronda and agree that Frankenstein is philosophical in the sense that you give of the word. Distinction well made. Thinking about women writing philosophical novels, then, interested in the human condition and moral/ethical dilemmas, I submit Marilynne Robinson's beautiful novels Gilead and Home. Are they on your shelf? Some people found the epistolary style wearisome in the former, but if you hold on it's glorious, as is Home.

Mille Feuille said...

I've tried Home, and did not find it to my taste. I don't know if that was because of its epistolarity or no. That is not usually a form that bothers me (frank advocate, as I am, of Sir Charles Grandison). I seem to remember feeling that there was something disturbingly insular about it. The memory, however, is not sharp, so don't quote me on that. I may try Gilead, on your recommendation.