Essayismus Musiland

Lately, you may have noticed the spate of articles and books that take interest in the essay as a flexible and very human literary form. These include “The Wayward Essay” and Phillip Lopate’s reflections on the relationship between essay and doubt, and books such as “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s elegant portrait of Montaigne, the 16th-century patriarch of the genre, and an edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called “Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time.”

It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times. What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences?

I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”

What do I mean with this lofty expression?

Let’s start with form’s beginning. The word Michel de Montaigne chose to describe his prose ruminations published in 1580 was “Essais,” which, at the time, meant merely “Attempts,” as no such genre had yet been codified. This etymology is significant, as it points toward the experimental nature of essayistic writing: it involves the nuanced process of trying something out. Later on, at the end of the 16th century, Francis Bacon imported the French term into English as a title for his more boxy and solemn prose. The deal was thus sealed: essays they were and essays they would stay. There was just one problem: the discrepancy in style and substance between the texts of Michel and Francis was, like the English Channel that separated them, deep enough to drown in. I’ve always been on Team Michel, that guy who would probably show you his rash, tell you some dirty jokes, and ask you what you thought about death. I imagine, perhaps erroneously, that Team Francis tends to attract a more cocksure, buttoned-up fan base, what with all the “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises,” and whatnot.

With such divergent progenitors, the essay has never recovered from this chronic undecidability. As a genre that emerged to accommodate the expressive needs of the Renaissance Man, the essay necessarily keeps all tools and skills at its disposal. The essayist samples more than a D.J.: a loop of the epic here, a little lyric replay there, a polyvocal breakand citations from greatnesses past, all with a signature scratch on top.

There is certainly disagreement on the wobbly matter of what counts as an essay and what does not. I have generally found that for every rule I could establish about the essay, a dozen exceptions scuttle up. I recently taught a graduate seminar on the topic and, at the end of the course, to the question “What can we say of the essay with absolute certainty?,” all of us, armed with our panoply of canonical essay theories and our own conjectures, had to admit that the answer is: “Almost nothing.” But this is the force of the essay: it impels you to face the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence.

When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude. Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but. These texts include the kind of writing expected on the SAT, in seminar papers, dissertations, professional criticism or other scholarly writing; politically engaged texts or other forms of peremptory writing that insist upon their theses and leave no room for uncertainty; or other short prose forms in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised. What these texts often have in common is, first, their self-conscious hiding of the “I” under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where rigor and science are the managers on duty.

Second, these texts are untentative: they know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.

What is perhaps most interesting about the essay is what happens when it cannot be contained by its generic borders, leaking outside the short prose form into other formats such as the essayistic novel, the essay-film, the photo-essay, and life itself. In his unfinished novel “The Man Without Qualities,” the early 20th-century Austrian writer Robert Musil coined a term for this leakage. He called it “essayism” (Essayismus in German) and he called those who live by it “possibilitarians” (Möglichkeitsmenschen). This mode is defined by contingency and trying things out digressively, following this or that forking path, feeling around life without a specific ambition: not for discovery’s sake, not for conquest’s sake, not for proof’s sake, but simply for the sake of trying.

The possibilitarian is a virtuoso of the hypothetical. One of my dissertation advisers Thomas Harrison wrote a handsome book on the topic called “Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello,” in which he argues that the essayism Musil sought to describe was a “solution in the absence of a solution,” a fuzzy response to Europe’s precarity during the years he worked on his unfinishable masterpiece. I would argue that many of us in contemporary America these days are prone to essayism, in various guises, but always in the spirit of open-endedness and with serious reservations about committing to any one thing.

Essayism consists in a self-absorbed subject feeling around life, exercising what Theodor Adorno called the “essay’s groping intention,” approaching everything tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal. Banal, everyday phenomena — what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us — rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life? Why something rather than nothing? Like the Father of the Essay, we let the mind and body flit from thing to thing, clicking around from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink: if Montaigne were alive today, maybe he too would be diagnosed with A.D.H.D.

The essayist is interested in thinking about himself thinking about things. We believe our opinions on everything from politics to pizza parlors to be of great import. This explains our generosity in volunteering them to complete strangers. And as D.I.Y. culture finds its own language today, we can recognize in it Arthur Benson’s dictum from 1922 that, “An essay is a thing which someone does himself.”

In Italian, the word for essay is “saggio”and contains the same root as the term “assaggiare,” which means to sample, taste or nibble food. Today, we like to sample, taste or nibble experiences: Internet dating, speed dating, online shopping and buy-and-try consumerism, mash-ups and digital sampling, the money-back guarantee, the temporary tattoo, the test-drive, shareware. If you are not satisfied with your product, your writing, your husband, you may return/delete/divorce it. The essay, like many of us, is notoriously noncommittal.

I certainly don’t argue that no one is committing these days; it only takes a few moments of exposure to contemporary American political discourse to realize the extent of dogmatic commitment to this or that party, to this or that platform. However, for many, the certainty with which the dogmatists make their pronouncements feels increasingly like a bothersome vestige of the past. We can either cling rigidly to dissolving categories or we can let ambivalence wash over us, allowing its tide to carry us toward new life configurations that were inconceivable even 20 years ago. Essayism, when imagined as a constructive approach to existence, is a blanket of possibilities draped consciously on the world.


Essayism is predicated on at least three things: personal stability, technocratic stability and societal instability.

Montaigne certainly possessed the first. He grew up in a privileged family, spoke Latin before French, had the educational, financial and social means to lead a life of civic engagement and writing. While most of us probably didn’t know fluent Latin as children (and never will) and aren’t in a position to become high-ranking civil servants, we have a relatively high literacy rate and unprecedented access to technologies of communication and reserves of knowledge. Furthermore, as a counter-narrative to our supposed busy-ness, there’s lots of evidence that we have plenty of idle time on our hands. Despite our search for distractions in any form, these empty hours give us time to contemplate the hardships of contemporary life. The thoughts just creep in if given the means.

Regarding technocracy, the maturation of print culture during the Renaissance meant that the great texts of Antiquity and newer philosophical, literary and scientific materials could reach a wider audience, albeit mainly composed of people of privilege. The experts of science and technology at that time siphoned some of the power that had been monopolized by the church and the crown. We could draw a similar analogy today: Silicon Valley and the technocratic business class still force the church and the state to share much of their cultural power. The essay thrives under these conditions.

As for societal instability, life outside Montaigne’s château was not rosy: the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants raged in France starting in the 1560s. Turmoil and uncertainty, dogmatism and blood: such circumstances make one reflect on the meaning of life, but it is sometimes too hard to look such a question right in the face. Instead, one asks it obliquely by wondering about those smallnesses that make up the human experience. Today, unresolved issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and other categories have created a volatile social dynamic, and, with our current economic instability to boot, it is no wonder that throwing oneself wholeheartedly toward any particular idea or endeavor seems a risky proposition to many of us. Finally, the bloody wars of religion and ideology continue to rage on in our time. In the early 20th century, when the French writer André Malraux predicted that the 21st century would be a century of renewed mysticism, he perhaps did not imagine that the pursuit of God would take such a politically volatile form.

Essayism, as an expressive mode and as a way of life, accommodates our insecurities, our self-absorption, our simple pleasures, our unnerving questions and the need to compare and share our experiences with other humans. I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.

We need a cogent response to the renewed dogmatism of today’s political and social landscape and our intuitive attraction to the essay could be pointing us toward this genre and its spirit as a provisional solution. Today’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right. The essayification of everything means turning life itself into a protracted attempt.

The essay, like this one, is a form for trying out the heretofore untried. Its spirit resists closed-ended, hierarchical thinking and encourages both writer and reader to postpone their verdict on life. It is an invitation to maintain the elasticity of mind and to get comfortable with the world’s inherent ambivalence. And, most importantly, it is an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be.

RELATED: “How to Live Without Irony” by Christy Wampole.


Christy Wampole is an assistant professor of French at Princeton University. Her research focuses primarily on 20th- and 21st-century French and Italian literature and thought.

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

The essayist samples more than a D.J.: a loop of the epic here, a little lyric replay there, all with a signature scratch on top.

 Failure to Reconcile as Modernist Success

Although Musil occasionally fantasized about what he might do after The Man Without Qualities was finished, there is, in effect, no end in sight ― not for the deeply engaged reader who enters into the questioning, the intellectual labyrinth, of Musil’s brain; not for the scholar who may try in vain to “finish” with Musil and go on to something else ― no end to the author’s textual variants, to the possibilities, the arrangements and re-arrangements; and no final solutions to the questions earnestly posed by this critically sophisticated writer. Musil was only halted in the endless task by his sudden death, in mid-sentence, as it were ― while re-visioning one of many versions of a chapter he had begun decades before.

This endlessness has often has been read as a failure to reconcile, or come to closure. Musil’s hopeful advocacy of the  heightened aesthetic and ethical experiences characterized by the exceptional state he called “the Other Condition" has been taken by many to be an escapist attempt to achieve a lasting harmonious union, the possibility of which the paradoxical author would later come to reject. This book argues against this general view of failure, and presents the thesis that Musil’s formal experimentation with narrative non-linearity and metaphor figure forth an existential model which assumes that aesthetic experience, as active,  participatory word- and world-construction was, for Musil, the fundamental metaphysical and ethical activity of mankind[1].  While many have argued that Musil’s utopian projections were bound to fail because they 1) could not last and 2) because they could not be made to correspond with “reality,” this book argues that the formal and theoretical bases for all of Musil’s work call the criteria of both duration and so-called “reality” radically into question.

Unlike most other studies of Musil’s project, which tend to concentrate on the published sections of the novel,[2] this study engages with the novel-project in its total unfinished state, taking into consideration for the first time in a full-length English-language book the thousands of pages of unpublished material he left behind, the Nachlass.  It follows Musil into his perspectival displacements and multiplications, and traces within these formal processes the consistencies of his aesthetic and ethical concerns. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe (Klagenfurt Edition) of the ten thousand-plus pages of the entire Musil Nachlass has recently made it possible to access this labyrinthine web of correspondences, alternative universes, and their shadows. The Klagenfurter Ausgabe also affords the opportunity to access the individual fragments and passages in a non-linear manner that foregrounds the complex cross-referencing and correspondences of Musil’s process of writing, presenting a new vision of the work. This study takes full advantage of the new resource, closely examining the way in which each of Musil's sentences is haunted by a vibrant palimpsest of choices, perspectives, descriptions and re-descriptions. Such a close reading reveals that Musil’s novel project constituted much more than an attempt at creating a completed, finite work of fiction. The supposedly finished parts (published with Musil’s reluctant approval during his life time), the not-quite finished parts (submitted and prepared for publication, but then withdrawn by Musil for more revisions), as well as the thousands of pages of experiments, drafts and re-visions that never approached publication, represent more than an interesting artifact or evidence of a writer’s method, more even than an astonishing work of art that stands on its own from out of the fragments.[3] As the book “progresses” beyond the printed material, particularly as Ulrich retreats further and further into his mystical experiment with his sister, Agathe, Musil’s search for answers to the question of “the right life” becomes increasingly serious, and the narrator's irony and intense, skeptical analysis is increasingly replaced by an earnest and often rapturous lyricism.  While more tightly wound and plot- and character-driven in the early published parts of the novel, the extensive Nachlass, thousands of pages of sketches, notes, and alternate versions of thought-experiments and thematic questions, may be seen as the real entry into Musil’s thought in its uncompromised richness and possibility. Relieved of the pressure, or even the possibility of publication in the years after his last almost-published proofs were withdrawn from publication, and during his years in exile, Musil was free to experiment in earnest, and to expand his thought-experiment to infinity.

The Nachlass and the published material together project a way of living and being in the world ― a method of life in art.  A level of engagement, aliveness, and commitment to what Walter Pater called a “failure to form habits”; a hyper-, perhaps even partially pathological consciousness of the role and responsibility of what Nietzsche would call “the creative subject” as word- and world-maker.[4] Not that he was not a consummate artist, striving for perfection in the work itself, but that his painstaking process signals the totality of immersion and attention, the way in which the work, with its many drafts and possible alternatives threaten (or promise) to take over life itself. Art, and its sources in the world of ideas and imagination, was always much more real and more meaningful to him than anything else.   

In the spirit of counterintuitiveness, however, this primacy of art over reality does not constitute the casual disengagement from reality often (and often mistakenly) associated with a devotion to the aesthetic ― the exact contrary is the case. When Musil repeats Nietzsche’s revolutionary phrase, that “reality and the world are only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon,” we would do well to remember that for both of them aesthetics and ethics were one. In a world where reality was thought to be more or less created and perceived metaphorically by the mind, for Musil art was part of this process.  The mind's perception and contingent relative arrangements were — had to be — ultimately revolutionary processes of engagement.[5] Musil saw all art as a process of disturbance, whereby the current image of the real is broken down and newly arranged (via abstraction, via metaphoric coincidence). In contrast to mimesis, which presupposes a desire to reinforce or celebrate what is, Musil’s vision of art is as an active and inventive process.

By offering a new reading of the centrality of Musil’s concept and use of metaphor as the fundamental building block of multiple de-centered worlds consciously brought into being by the “creative subject,” I am reading Musil as an exemplary proponent of the Modernist aesthetic, which attempted to grapple through existential agency with the discord and confusion of a loss of communal values, without, however, reducing the terrors of the void to a simulacrum of wholeness or order. In contrast to some interpretations of Musil’s work, this study intends to present the possibility that the rejection of static truth implied in the novel’s form, its lack of an Archimedean fixed point, does not, as might be expected, lead to a dualistic universe, signal meaninglessness, despair, cultural collapse or the irremediable loss of self, values, or individual agency.

By focusing on the Nachlass material and on Musil’s metaphysical questions about reality and his ideas about the central role of the artist in constructing our shared reality, my reading of Musil understands him as a thinker who, in many ways, challenges current attitudes about the role of art and culture as seen from our Post-Modern perspective.  A broader view of Musil’s aesthetic practices and theories might refresh some of the outworn clichés of the contentious attempts to differentiate between Modernism and Post-Modernism;[6] Musil’s work is, in fact, a perfect touchstone for discussions about subjectivity, individualism, political and social engagement, aesthetic redemption,[7] and more specifically, the debate about the alleged violence done to reality by the formation of concepts and the use of language altogether. Regarding this latter problem, Musil was deeply engaged with the reality of language’s inadequacy and the tendency or even necessity of metaphors, concepts and abstractions to leave out whatever does not fit them; but he also maintained that this inaccurate metaphor-making brings “Schönheit und Erregung in die Welt” (MoE 573; beauty and excitement in the world: MwQ, 625). Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to  the Modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for the attempt of Modernist artists to articulate individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (i.e., metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language. What philosophy and science could not describe or explain, might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the conceptualizing inaccuracy of totalizing reasoning or science. On the other hand, the selecting-out process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony.  Musil’s novel plays with the oscillating figure and ground of union and dissolution, moving in and out of focus and conviction. This oscillation — a movement away from what already is toward what could and might be and then back again — is often overlooked in the enthusiasm to embrace a radical abandonment of formal harmony, unified selfhood, and a faith in some form of a priori reality or shared truth. To emphasize only one side of the spectrum is, however, to misread and fatally simplify Musil’s more nuanced relationship with the currently maligned “conceptualization” of essence. Musil’s Other Condition, for example, is at once a singular exceptional experience of “otherness” and something characterized repeatedly as a return to some form of originary and universal phenomena; it is both an exception from the selfsame and a return to it.

 The novel’s exploration of a protagonist without qualities certainly makes it a perfect stomping ground for territorial debates about Modernist notions of subjectivity, alienation, or “worldlessness”.[9] The multiple discourses (of science, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, Gestalt theory, literature, historiography, anthropology, mysticism, sexuality, art) utilized by Musil make it possible to enter the novel further by multiple accesses, and to digress seemingly endlessly along these various rich fault lines without coming to either final rupture or reconciliation. Musil’s own resistance to taking a stand, as well as his formal and ideological practice of perspectivism, make a variety of readings possible; and the situation is further aggravated by the fact that the novel was left unfinished, with no clear indication of where, or whether it might have ended had its author lived.  While this remains, an unresolvable mystery, a wider view of the greater Gestalt[10] of the work and its creation can provide us with a more comprehensive view of the inherent tensions and oscillations between the novel's conflicting positions and stances.  For despite his famous resistance to fixed positions, Musil did stand firmly on a number of central questions, and he took seriously his role as author in helping to shape social and ethical values.

Musil’s novel, begun in sketches as early as 1910 and still not finished in 1942, at his death in Swiss exile, naturally reflects the concerns of his times and the formal and stylistic experimentations of his contemporary authors and artists.  Yet Musil often maintained[11] that he was more spiritually connected to his predecessors than to his contemporaries. His most important luminaries were Nietzsche, Emerson, and Dostoevsky, but he devoured almost every field of study, finding nourishment and stimulus just as much from works he derided as from those to which he granted his rare approval.  Musil confessed having read no more than ten pages of Proust’s work in his life, presumably afraid of being tainted by either influence by Proust or the rumor of association. The name “Sartre” appears only once in Musil’s notes, but without any further commentary; and though he mentions Joyce once or twice, rather disparagingly, he does not seem to have been aware of Virginia Woolf. Nevertheless, I will attempt in this book to situate Musil’s work within the context of some of his contemporary experimental Modernists, in hopes of illuminating both his work and theirs. Proust, above all, is a significant touchstone for Musil’s work. The Man Without Qualities and Remembrance of Things Past share multiple concerns, particularly a theoretical and formal emphasis on the metaphoric, on the tension between universal and particular, and the problem of narrative, time, and deferral. Moreover, French readings of Proust[12] have been of great benefit to my reading of Musil, perhaps because they have tended to be friendlier toward aesthetic concerns than the generally more ethically- and philosophically-minded Germanist tradition. Despite then Ulrich’s tendency toward non-participation[13] and  Musil’s own characteristic resistance to identifying with any group, it would be absurd to insist on uniqueness to such a degree that from this distance we were not able to enumerate some striking similarities between these two novels. While recent books associate him more with the Post-Modern (Patrizia McBride’s Void of Ethics and more extremely Stefan Jonsson’s Subject without Nation) and the “non-Modern”(Michael Freed’s Robert Musil and the Non-Modern),[14] this book assumes that Musil’s project, his emphasis on the agency of the subject (however fragmented), his attempt to come to terms with some form of meaning in an increasingly fragmented world, and his own theory and practice of translating  ineffable realms via experimentations with language and form, place him firmly within the shared trajectory of high literary and artistic Modernism of the late 1890s through the first half of the twentieth century. This association with Modernism tends, in many readings, to be an association with the alleged failure of the Modernist project[15]. Musil has, according to a widespread assumption, failed to reconcile oppositions between aesthetics and ethics, reality and ideal, science and art, universal and particular, concept or metaphor and the specificity of truth; failed to find a lasting, enduring solution to the problems posed by and in the novel; failed to bring the novel itself to closure.

Allen Thiher, whose otherwise nuanced and subtle study of Musil elsewhere suggests an understanding of the value of openness, stands for many others when he writes,

It can be argued that Musil's failure to find a conclusion to his novel demonstrates the difficulty characterizing the modernist project of transforming or, indeed, saving culture through literary discourse. In making this observation, however, we should recall that he mocks the idea of salvation and saving culture as much as any other idea circulating in Vienna before the First World War […]. At some point during the writing of the novel saving culture became a cliché….From this perspective, if the novel's lack of completion illustrates a failure, it is the failure to create a discourse of salvation, a very modernist failure to create a viable myth"[16]

While it may be true that Musil mocks the idea of saving culture within the novel, it is important that we note Ulrich's proviso referring to the idea of the millennium: “I only make fun of it because I love it" (MwQ 817).[17] Further, we must temper any of Musil's satirical comments on the possibility of creating a literary discourse of salvation in the novel by referring to his essays and addresses, particularly his notes for addresses during the reign of totalitarianism, where we see him engaged in an earnest "defense of culture" with the weapons of art. This is not to imply that he meant that political battles could be fought by or with art. On the contrary, he maintained explicitly that the defense of culture meant that such battles could not be fought with pens and brushes; the best one could do was maintain the free, non-affiliated voice of the artist as the last bastion of critical and non-conscripted thought, and encourage those whose job it was to use other kinds of weapons to understand that a large part of their job entailed protecting the autonomy of culture.[18] Thiher's analysis suggests that the defense of culture was to be somehow better and more successfully waged with some other weapons than the tools the Modernists had at hand, and that the "failure" of Musil's novel is indicative of the generally agreed-upon consensus about the failure of Modernism to successfully negotiate the problems of engagement with politics, with collectivism and with social issues. While there are other assessments harsher than Thiher’s, his exemplifies that even in cases when a critic is not explicitly setting out to argue against Modernism or its aesthetic aims, there seems to be a somewhat unexamined assumption about the failure and misguidedness of the project, as if it were a given.

In a fascinating last chapter called: “Staging the Failure of an Aesthetic Utopia in The Man Without Qualities,” Patrizia McBride argues in The Void of Ethics that despite Musil’s earnest experimentation, he had consistently planned over the course of three decades to depict the failure of the Other Condition and other related solutions, that “he remained fundamentally faithful to the plan of staging the collapse of Ulrich’s utopias (130). In her notes, McBride persuasively demonstrates this, quoting Musil himself speaking of failure and negative outcome. McBride explains that the illuminations culled from the Other Condition “remain utterly unintelligible and inconsequential when raised to the level of everyday experience, for they are untranslatable into conventional and conceptual and linguistic structures (141).  She acknowledges that “Meaning exists and can be irrefutably experienced, yet it is not translatable into the categories of ordinary life and therefore remains inapplicable to it.” She then goes on to delineate the two options which present themselves in the face of this conundrum: one is to accept this split between “ordinary and the other condition as irreversible and to develop strategies for making sense of the experience while acknowledging the reality of nonconceptualizable meaning”; the other is to “seek to overcome this split by making the two realms commensurable” (142). The former is obviously supposed to be the mature method, one that a reasonable skeptical modern person would adopt. The latter is Ulrich’s project, which is here presented as somewhat adolescent, immature, and bound to be grown out of over the course of the experiment. It is suggested that Ulrich’s author had always — at least during his time of writing — been more mature than his character and, thus, planned from the start to demonstrate the delusionary nature of the experimental attempt of his “friend” and alter ego. [19]

Even Roger Willemsen’s defense of aesthetics in Das Existenzrecht der Dichtung: zur Rekonstruktion einer systematischen Literaturtheorie im Werk Robert Musils (Literature’s Right to Exist: Toward a Reconstruction of a systematic Literary Theory in Robert Musil’s Work), makes up part of the chorus of voices announcing an “aesthetic of failure and of fragmentariness”.[20]  While Willemsen’s study was published in the 1980s and McBride’s and Thiher’s in 2010, the same assumption prevails over decades, without any question about its basic premises.  Willemsen writes, “The transmutation of life into art and ‘nature morte’ fails, just as the existence of the novel itself points toward failure along biographical lines”. While Willemsen concedes that fragmentariness  was inherently the central modality of Musil’s stylistic principle even before the novel breaks off, this structure is itself an object lesson telling us that art cannot possibly realize “its utopia, the identification of aesthetic and social completion”; instead, he writes, such a project is bound by its very nature to fail. The novel, he concludes, “sketches typologies of failure, which are guaranteed ahead of time” by the necessary ending in war; there is, he glosses further, a shared meaning to be gleaned from the failure of the sibling lovers and the “negative parallel of the collective” in war.[21]  This analysis is similar to, if more subtle than Lowell Bangerter’s assertion in reference to the ending of Musil’s novel.  Bangerter writes:  “only two things can be determined with relative certainty: First, Ulrich’s experiments with both mysticism and love would fail to yield a final satisfying answer, just as attempts to adapt to practical reality had done. Second, his ‘vacation’ year would end with the protagonists and their world being swallowed up by the war”.[22]

Musil studies have consistently argued about Musil’s failure to reconcile the realms of art, utopia, or the ideal to something called “reality,” often without bothering to negotiate a common definition of essential terms or concepts with which to begin the debate. Thus, before we conclude that Musil’s novel presents models which are or are not escapist, utopian, or un-realistic, whether or not its experimental aims were bound to fail, we must come to some agreement about what, in fact, reality is, or at least was to Musil, and about the role of the individual in perceiving and constructing this reality, the possibilities of language to communicate perceptions and constructions, and, thus, the role of the work of art as a prime element in this construction. 

Insofar as people tend to see only what they already know or only what they expect to see, the “selecting out” inherent in the process of thinking means that any reading (of novel, philosophy, world) will be necessarily inadequate and potentially misleading.  Subjectivity, with its inherently individualistic and possibly irrational vision, is thus pitted against a rational categorization which itself leaves much to be desired in terms of adequately describing a world of infinite and particular details and relative perspectives. This question of subjective interpretation and its seeming opposite, objective rationality, is inherently related to the specter of a language crisis haunting most Modernist and Post-modernist discourse, including Musil’s own work.  One might ask how, indeed, we can begin to use language to talk about language, when we have arrived at a place where contemporary theory tells us that all systems of explanation, all conceptualizations and categories are misleading or inadequate at best.  The important difference between inadequate and misleading is, in a sense, one of the central issues when it comes to tendentious readings of Musil and the Modernist project of reinventing and invigorating a worn-out and suspect language system and of negotiating the constructs of reason, science, and morals.  Reason, when it is a reduction of the actual complexity of reality in its moving, changing, infinity of causes and effects, probabilities and roundness, to a simple line of determined logic, is hardly “reasonable”.  Rationality, which reduces multiplicity to abstract formulas and hopeful repetitions is doing very much the same thing as art does, except that art functions by making this process of inaccuracy and selection transparent, thereby making clear the process by which life itself avails itself of such insufficiently descriptive or conceptual frameworks.  The central question here is: what can language do and how close can it get to the so-called “real”?  To what extent is our reality shaped by our constructions and conceptions of language in the first place?  Can concepts, metaphors, categories be meaningful ways to articulate specific and personal experience on some universal level, or are we doomed to choose between a silent solipsism or a hopelessly misrepresentative simulacrum of generality and abstraction?

Different critics reach varying conclusions on these questions. Some, like Stefan Jonnson, argue that Musil rejected all categorization of the subject as an oppression of individual difference,[23] others, like Thomas Harrison and Thomas Sebastian, maintain a more nuanced view of Musil’s oscillation between Ernst Mach’s functionalist view of reality and a belief in some provisional and qualified substance and essence.[24]   While we see Musil oscillating in his notes, diaries, essays, and his novel between a scientist’s assessment of what is repeatable, what can be measured and proven to be reliably real, what we only see because we have been trained to see or believe it (social construction, the persistence of habit, lazy acceptance of the status quo), and what we more actively and creatively conceive of ourselves (fruitful metaphor-making, art, existentialism), the latter mode is where Musil's energy is based and where we find the key to the aesthetic redemption sought by Musil and many of his contemporaries.

The metaphoric transparency inherent in an awareness of the way we construct the world through provisional images enables a fruitful resistance to what Musil calls “dead words,” in contrast to the “living words” that activate ethics, a sense of temporary meaning, and aesthetic experience. For Musil, the Modernist crisis of language and values does not then translate into a canceling out of voices, statements, images, intentions, or author.  Instead, Musil’s Modernist vision, embodied in the form and process of living metaphor, is itself an imperative towards constant proliferation of more and more contingent and shifting realities, all of them potentially meaningful.  Thus Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable, and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relationship[25] between human action, thought, artistic creation and the real, physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks affects and co-creates a shifting reality.   While most theorists see the void of a common denominative system as a nihilistic crisis, Musil, following Nietzsche, embraces the challenge of creating the world anew through conception, imagination, and individual perception as a joyful, imperative challenge.[26] As such, art-making, far from being an insignificant or escapist indulgence, is raised to a central reality-relevant act of ethical engagement.

Aesthetic experimentation, far from being disinterested, is intrinsically related to political and social liberation, to social ethics, as is the experimental novel, perhaps precisely because, as Bakhtin noted, it is inherently anti-canonical. “The novel,” writes Michael Holquist in his introduction to The Dialogic Imagination, “is the name Bakhtin gives to whatever force is at work within a given literary system to reveal the limits, the artificial constraints of that system” (xxxi). Allen Thiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil,   puts the case even more directly, when he says that both Musil and Bakhtin “wrote to defend freedom against stultifying dogma and illiberal totalitarianism" (137).  Thiher writes that he knows of “no other thinker… who stressed with such lucidity that ethical thinking and art are interrelated.” Thiher connects this resistance to Musil’s “theory of the destruction of forms,” invoking the Kabbalistic mystical imperative to continually repair  the original vessels of creation which are said to have burst because they could not “contain the light emanating from God's being”. Thiher reminds us that although “the vessels must be continually broken so that the light may be propagated […] there must also be vessels so that it can be contained. The destruction of the forms of perceived thought and perception is a necessary process, which gives access to a new condition beyond received ideas and their rationality”. After the destruction, in other words, there must be new creation, new forms.[27]

In the following chapters I attempt to demonstrate and suggest some new readings of Musil and of Modernism.  In Chapter 1, I present a close reading of Musil’s seemingly contradictory uses of the figure of circularity as a sort of object lesson in his characteristic complexity whereby different concepts (such as qualitylessness, repetition, metaphor) are seen as both positive and negative. Circles are presented by Musil as self-cancelling, as founts of unending originary meaning,  as images of creative self-generativity, and as a metaphor for the expanding non-linearity of the novel-project.  In Chapter 2, I explore Musil’s thinking about what can and cannot be the selfsame (seinesgleichen), and the aesthetic and ethical potential of exceptions to repetition (criminal acts or taboo forms).  This chapter also explores the tension between dead and living words and the way in which metaphor can be both a creative praxis of metaphoric world-construction and a construction or habitual use of ossified concepts. In Chapter 3, I return to the question of essence through an exploration of abstraction, primitivism, and the Modernist interest in the possibility of art and formal arrangement to alter physical reality. This chapter expands on the themes of circling by exploring the concepts of duration, timelessness and extra-temporality, and the image of resurrection. In Chapter 4, I explore the image and concept of the still-life in Musil’s novel as a cipher for aesthetic “disinterestedness” and the problems and pleasures of eternalization of art. This chapter also features a close reading of the variations in the Nachlass of the many versions of “Atemzüge eines Sommertages” (Breaths of a Summer’s Day) as illustrative of Musil’s obsessive use of metaphor as deferral and resistance to end and death.  In the Conclusion, I address the question of Musil’s engagement with politics, and his commitment to the essential importance of the artists’ role as autonomous non-affiliated word- and world-maker. While arguing that conclusions about Musil’s intentions for the end of the novel must remain speculative due to his commitment to the novel as ongoing open experiment and to the “utopia of the next step,” I present, in the Conclusion, my own reflections on the possibility inherent in Musil’s novel-project of endings and of ending altogether.

As Musil wrote in a note found amid an unfinished, unpublished collection of aphorisms: the immortality of works of art is “their indigestibility.” This statement is followed directly by another, a challenge as much to Musil himself as to the critics and readers to come. Musil writes simply: “explicate that!”  In this spirit, hopefully rising to the challenge with a good mixture of holy earnestness and necessary irony, we may, in a cosmos where there is no real beginning, certainly no end, and no static center, jump in from where we are.



Patrizia McBride, The Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U P) 2006; Stefan Jonnson, Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, 200, Duke U P; Mark M. Freed, Robert Musil and the Non-Modern (Continuum, 2011).

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