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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. Literary representations of the “national character”

The man without qualities

Robert Musil
Traduction de Sophie Wilkins et Burton Pike

Texte intégral

1Title: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The man without qualities)

2Originally published: Berlin, Rowohlt, vol. I (1930), vol. II (1933), and vol. III (1943)

3Language: German

4The excerpts used are from Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 28–31, 575–577.

About the author

5Robert Musil [1880, Klagenfurt – 1942, Geneva]: writer, dramatist and essayist. Musil spent most of his childhood in Steyr and Brünn (Cz. Brno), where his father, an engineer, was appointed to the chair of Mechanical Engineering at the German Technical University in 1891. Between 1892 and 1894, Musil attended the military boarding schools at Kismarton (Ger. Eisenstadt) in Hungary, and then, until 1897, in Mährisch Weißkirchen (present-day Hranice, Czech Republic). Between 1898 and 1901 he studied at the German Technical University in Brünn, qualifying as an engineer. Following his military service (1901–1902), he worked as an unpaid assistant at the Technical University in Stuttgart. In 1904, he obtained his grammar school matriculation and went to Berlin to study psychology and philosophy. In 1909, Musil completed his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin with a thesis on the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. Mach’s theory that the world was to be understood objectively based on sensory experiences was often adopted by Musil in his literary works. Between 1911 and 1914, Musil worked as a librarian at the Technical University of Vienna. When the First World War started, Musil was a journalist for the Neue Rundschau. After serving briefly on the Italian front, he was transferred to the ‘War Press Service’. After the war, Musil worked as a civil servant and, from 1921 as a theatre critic, essayist and writer in Vienna. His play Die Schwärmer (The enthusiasts) was published in 1921, for which Musil was awarded the prestigious H. Kleist Prize in 1923. He also received the G. Hauptmann Prize in 1929. Between 1931 and 1933, Musil lived in Berlin. In 1932, the Musil-Gesellschaft (Musil Society) was established in Berlin, aiming to provide Musil with the necessary financial means to continue working on the novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The man without qualities). After Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor, Musil returned to Vienna, but immigrated to Switzerland in 1938, where he lived until his death in 1942. Musil’s first novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The confusions of young Törless) was highly acclaimed when published in 1906. Many of the themes discussed in this novel, like sexuality and alienation, were explored in Musil’s subsequent writings. Musil’s main novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften remained unfinished. The first two parts were published in 1930 and 1933, but the third was published posthumously by his widow in 1943. Musil’s complete works were published during the 1950s, generating successive waves of critical scholarship about his contribution to Austrian and world literature.

6Main works: Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß [The confusions of young Törless] (1906); Vereinigungen [Unions] (1911); Die Schwärmer [The enthusiasts] (1921); Drei Frauen [Three women] (1924); Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer [Vinzenz and the friend of important men] (1924). Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten [Posthumous papers of a living author] (1936); Über die Dummheit [About stupidity] (1937); Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften vols. I–III [The man without qualities] (1930– 1943); Diaries, ed. by. A. Frisé, 2 vols. (1976).


7Since the publication of the studies by Carl Schorske, William M. Johnston, William McGrath, Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin in the 1970s and 1980s, Vienna has become a fashionable scholarly topic. Schorske, for example, explained the origins of the modernist culture of Vienna through the retreat of the heirs of Austrian liberalism, the children of the bourgeoisie, from the political realm — where various illiberal collectivisms threatened the liberal assumptions of historical, rational progress — and into the cultural temple of the aesthetic and psychological. It was a form of ahistorical modernism, Schorske contended, epitomized by the concept of Vienna as a “garden.” Another of Schorske’s interpretations, namely his perception of the emergence of a “politics in a new key,” proved equally resilient in the scholarship.

8Fin-de-siècle Vienna was the home not only of literary personalities like Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler, composers like Arnold Schönberg and Gustav Mahler, or painters like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, but also of the pan-German and antisemitic politician Georg von Schönerer and the charismatic populist mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger. After the 1890s, these two individuals shaped Austrian politics. The often discussed crisis of liberalism and the rise of right-wing, conservative and antisemitic forces in Vienna was often associated with, or considered a consequence of, the election of Karl Lueger as mayor in 1897. Moreover, the growing nationalism amongst Germans, Hungarians, Czechs and other minorities became more radical with the beginning of the twentieth century.

9The emergence of mass politics in the ‘new key’ challenged the existing cultural and political order when the new intellectual elite rejected traditional politics, and turned to a form of aesthetic modernism and the occult and, ultimately, abandoned those societal values that had nurtured them. Yet, the youth’s revolts against their spiritual and biological ‘fathers’ also generated an unprecedented cultural creativity and syncretism that eventually prompted the rise of modernism and modernity in Vienna, as it did in other European capitals at the time like Paris, London and Berlin.

10Finally, one particular characteristic of the Viennese modernity was its Jewish dimension. Most lawyers, physicians, and journalists as well as prominent intellectuals, art patrons and artists were Jewish or of Jewish descent. Assimilation into the dominant Austro-German culture was these groups’ preferred option, but the rise of antisemitism in Europe and the Habsburg Monarchy prompted some Jewish intellectuals, Theodor Herzl among them, to think of various forms of political identity for Jews separate from the traditional ideologies of the day: liberalism and conservatism.

11Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften powerfully reflects this cultural and political environment. The book tells the story of Ulrich, a man without qualities in Vienna of 1913. The book is as much about the main character as it is about Austria before the outbreak of the First World War: both Ulrich and Austria are experiencing severe identity crises. Musil approached these crises — spiritual, cultural and political — not only in terms of their content, but also as a search for new techniques for engaging with modernity. Influenced by Mach’s philosophy, Musil believed that a scientific view of the world could fulfill an organizing function counteracting the disruptive effects of political ideologies. This scientism also signals his association with the cultural critique of modernism shared by other fin-de-siècle authors like Herman Hesse, Georg Trakl and Max Frisch.

12The first part of the novel concentrates on introducing the main characters and their cultural and political settings. It is here that Musil offered one of the most lasting descriptions of the Habsburg Monarchy as “Kakania,” “k. k.” (short for kaiserlich-königlich) and “k. u. k.” (kaiserlich und königlich) respectively. It is this expression that aptly reflects the excessive relationship between national identity and Austrian culture. Since 1867, the Austro- Hungarian Empire perfected its own brand of co-evolution in a constantly refined process of sublime simulation and blatant gratuitousness. The Empire’s symbiotic dramaturgy of Catholic and Habsburg ceremonies, the enormous cast of its century-old intricate bureaucracy with its minutely defined, painstakingly differentiated roles, the role-playing in the assimilation of Vienna’s multi-ethnic transplants from all regions of the dual monarchy, and the histrionic excesses of representation in competition with other empires offered a problematic historical context and an anachronistic poetics of politics. In portraying Ulrich as a man from Vienna, without qualities, Musil explicitly connected these two dimensions of his character: he was situated at the centre of the Empire, but felt marginal and excluded.

13In the excerpts selected here, Musil described a society characterized by routine and stratification, that of the waning Austro-Hungarian Empire with its many hierarchies, categorizations and contradictions. He satirized impulses to invest the Empire’s national spaces with symbolic value, as he knew that reality indicated the contrary, namely lack of ethnic solidarity and harmony in Vienna and other centers of the Empire. The historical context described by Musil was permanently in flux, and the fractured national identities of the Empire found expression in the identity of the novel’s main character.

14This tension between the individual and its larger social unit (community and state) is also reflected in Musil’s two alternating narrative modes throughout the novel: one offering a scientific, objective and detached perspective, the other posing an individualized existentialist account. These are two main ways of explaining the situation in pre-1914 Kakania, and both led to a perception of time, memory and space as distended and distorted. To this end, Ulrich’s personal life does not make sense according to the traditional pattern of a Bildungsroman identity quest. In fact, Ulrich — like Kakania — is described through a conglomerate of layered social discourses and a collection of commercial advertising, banal conversations, bureaucratic fixation and militaristic audacity, all characterizing features of the Viennese elite before and during the First World War.

15Musil’s ‘The man without qualities’ can, ultimately, be read as an evaluation of the ethical and the aesthetic in the emerging Austrian national identity after 1914. More specifically, the novel dramatizes the attempt to aesthetically bridge the two conditions. Ulrich constantly attempts to elevate his existence to the level of ordinary experience, but he fails due to the unacceptability of the obliteration of practical social values this experience entails. The failure also points to what the Austro-Hungarian Empire was to experiment after 1918, that is, abandoning the quest for a multinational identity and reconciling with its new form of existence in a national state. This was to be a state organized not around dynastic and religious principles but around a host of practical and pragmatic considerations and guided by the hybrid reality of conflicting claims to what constituted a modern Austrian identity.

16After his death Musil’s work was almost forgotten in German speaking countries, and his writings only started to reappear in the beginning of the 1950s. Yet, today, due to the ever growing scholarship on modernity, and the role Austria played in the emergence of the modern aesthetic, art and literature, Robert Musil is constantly discussed and analyzed. Scholars like David Luft, Stefan Jonsson and Hannah Hickman in particular, describe him as one of the most important analysts of the transition from nineteenth-century idealist modernity to its more somber, twentieth-century version.


The man without qualities

18There, in Kakania, that state since vanished that no one understood, in many ways an exemplary state, though unappreciated, there was a tempo too, but not too much tempo. Whenever one thought of that country from someplace abroad, the memory that hovered before one’s eyes was of white, wide, prosperous-looking roads dating from the era of foot marches and mail coaches, roads that crisscrossed the country in every direction like rivers of order, like ribbons of bright military twill, the paper-white arm of the administration holding all the provinces in its embrace. And what provinces they were! Glaciers and sea, Karst limestone and Bohemian fields of grain, nights on the Adriatic chirping with restless cicadas, and Slovakian villages where the smoke rose from chimneys as from upturned nostrils while the village cowered between two small hills as if the earth had parted its lips to warm its child between them. Of course cars rolled on these roads too, but not too many! The conquest of the air was being prepared here too, but not too intensively. A ship would now and then be sent off to South America or East Asia, but not too often. There was no ambition for world markets or world power. Here at the very center of Europe, where the world’s old axes crossed, words such as “colony” and “overseas” sounded like something quite untried and remote. There was some show of luxury, but by no means as in such overrefined ways as the French. People went in for sports, but not as fanatically as the English. Ruinous sums of money were spent on the army, but only just enough to secure its position as the second-weakest among he great powers. The capital, too, was somewhat smaller than all the other biggest cities of the world, but considerably bigger than a mere big city. And the country’s administration was conducted in an enlightened, unobtrusive manner, with all sharp edges cautiously smoothed over, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be faulted only in that it regarded genius, and any brilliant individual initiative not backed by noble birth or official status, as insolent and presumptuous. But then, who welcomes interference from unqualified outsiders? And in Kakania, at least, it would only happen that a genius would be regarded as a lout, but never was a mere lout taken—as happens elsewhere for a genius.

19All in all, how many amazing things might be said about this vanished Kakania! Everything and every person in it, for instance, bore the label of kaiserlich-königlich (Imperial-Royal) or kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal), abbreviated as “k.k.” or “k.&k.,” but to be sure which institutions and which persons were to be designated by “k.k.” and which by “k.&k.” required the mastery of a secret science. On paper it was called the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but in conversation it was called Austria, a name solemnly abjured officially while stubbornly retained emotionally, just to show that feelings are quite as important as constitutional law and that regulations are one thing but real life is something else entirely. Liberal in its constitution, it was administered clerically. The government was clerical, but everyday life was liberal. All citizens were equal before the law, but not everyone was a citizen. There was a Parliament, which asserted its freedom so forcefully that it was usually kept shut; there was also an Emergency Powers Act that enabled the government to get along without Parliament, but then, when everyone had happily settled for absolutism, the Crown decreed that it was time to go back to parliamentary rule. The country was full of such goings on, among them the sort of nationalist movements that rightly attracted so much attention in Europe and are so thoroughly misunderstood today. They were so violent that they jammed the machinery of government and brought it to a dead stop several times a year, but in the intervals and during the deadlocks people got along perfectly well and acted as if nothing had happened. And in fact, nothing really had happened. It was only that everyone’s natural resentment of everyone else’s efforts to get ahead, a resentment we all feel nowadays, had crystallized earlier in Kakania, where it can be said to have assumed the form of a sublimated ceremonial rite, which could have had a great future had its development not been cut prematurely short by a catastrophe.

20For it was not only the resentment of one’s fellow citizens that had become intensified there into a strong sense of community; even the lack of faith in oneself and one’s own fate took on the character of a deep self-certainty. In this country one acted—sometimes to the highest degree of passion and its consequences—differently from the way one thought, or one thought differently from the way one acted. Uninitiated observers have mistaken this for charm, or even for a weakness of what they thought to be the Austrian character. But they were wrong; it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. He unites them in himself, but they dissolve him, so that he is really nothing more than a small basin hollowed out by these many streamlets that trickle into it and drain out of it again, to join other such rills in filling some other basin. Which is why every inhabitant of the earth also has a tenth character that is nothing else than the passive fantasy of spaces yet unfilled. This permits a person all but one thing: to take seriously what his at least nine other characters do and what happens to them; in other words, it prevents precisely what should be his true fulfillment. This interior space—admittedly hard to describe—is of a different shade and shape in Italy from what it is in England, because everything that stands out in relief against it is of a different shade and shape; and yet it is in both places the same: an empty, invisible space, with reality standing inside it like a child’s toy town deserted by the imagination.

21Insofar as this can become visible to all eyes it had happened in Kakania, making Kakania, unbeknownst to the world, the most progressive state of all; a state just barely able to go along with itself. One enjoyed a negative freedom there, always with the sense of insufficient grounds for one’s own existence, and lapped around by the great fantasy of all that not happened irrevocably as by the breath of those oceans from which mankind had once emerged.

22Events that might be regarded as momentous elsewhere were here introduced with a casual ,,Es ist passiert…”—a peculiar form of “it happened” unknown elsewhere in German or any other language, whose breath could transform facts and blows of fate into something as light as thistledown or thought. Perhaps, despite so much that can be said against it, Kakania was, after all, a country for geniuses which is probably what brought it to its ruin. […]

  • 1 Bona Dea (“the good goddess”): Roman deity worshipped only by women on the Calends of May.

23And so this reflection on the principle of psychic equilibrium leads us from the beautiful example of Bonadea1 to the sad case of Kakania. For Kakania was the first country in our present historical phase from which God withdrew His credit: the love of life, faith in itself, and the ability of all civilized nations to disseminate the useful illusion that they have a mission to fulfill. It was an intelligent country, it housed cultivated people who, like cultivated people all over the globe, ran around in an unsettled state of mind amid a tremendous whirl of noise, speed, innovation, conflict, and whatever goes to make up the optical-acoustical landscape of our lives; like everybody else, they read and heard every day dozens of news items that made their hair stand on end, and were willing to work themselves up over them, even to intervene, but they never got around to it because a few minutes afterward the stimulus had already been displaced in their minds by more recent ones; like everyone else, they felt surrounded by murder, killings, passion, self-sacrifice, and greatness, all somehow going on within the Gordian knot that was forming around them, but they could never break through to these adventures because they were trapped in an office or somewhere, at work, and by evening, when they where free, their unresolved tensions exploded into forms of relaxation that failed to relax them. There was the special problem for persons of cultivated sensibilities, at least for those who did not devote themselves so single-mindedly to love as Bonadea: they no longer had the gift of faith or credit, nor had they learned to fake it. They no longer knew what their smiles, their sighs, their ideas, were for. What exactly was the point of their thoughts, their smiles? Their opinions were haphazard, their inclinations an old story, the scheme of things seemed to be hanging in midair, one ran into it as into a net, and there was nothing to do or leave undone with all one’s heart, because there was no unifying principle. And so the cultivated person was someone who felt steadily mounting up a debt that he would never be able to pay off, felt bankruptcy inexorably approaching; and either inveighed against the times in which he was condemned to live, even though he-enjoyed living in them like anyone else, or else hurled himself with the courage of those who have nothing to lose at every idea that promised a change.

24It was the same as anywhere else in the world, of course, but when God cut off Kakania’s credit, He did it in so special a style that whole nations had their eyes opened to the high cost of civilization. Like bacteria they had been sitting pretty in their culture medium, without bothering their heads about the proper curvature of the sky above or anything, when suddenly things tightened up. Although men are not normally aware of it, they must believe that they are something more than they are in order to be capable of being what they are; they need to feel this something more above and around them, and there are times when they suddenly miss it. What is missed is something imaginary. Nothing at all had happened in Kakania, and formerly it would have been thought of as the old, unobtrusive Kakanian way of life, but this nothing had become as disturbing as getting no sleep or seeing no sense in anything. And so it was easy enough for the intellectuals, once they had persuaded themselves that an ethnically homogeneous culture was the answer, to make the Kakanian ethnic minorities believe it, as a kind of substitute for religion or for the ideal of the Good Emperor in Vienna, or simply as a way of understanding the incomprehensible fact that there are seven days in the week. There are so many inexplicable things in life, but one loses sight of them when singing the national anthem. It would naturally be at such a moment that a good Kakanian could have joyfully answered the question of what he was by saying: “Nothing,” meaning that Something that could make of a Kakanian everything he had never yet been! But the Kakanians were not so stiff-necked a people and contented themselves with a compromise, in that every nationality tried only to do with every other nationality whatever suited its own purposes. It is naturally hard in these circumstances to empathize with grievances not one’s own. After two thousand years of altruistic teachings, we have become so unselfish that even if it means you or I have to suffer, we are bound to take the part of the other fellow. But it would be wrong to think of the notorious Kakanian nationalist rivalries as particularly savage. It was more a historical process than a real one. The people actually quite liked each other; even though they did crack each others heads and spit in each other’s faces, it was done as a matter of higher cultural considerations, as when a man who normally wouldn’t hurt a fly, for instance, will sit in court under the image of Christ Crucified and condemn another man to death. It is only fair to say that whenever their higher selves relaxed a bit, the Kakanians breathed a sigh of relief and, born consumers of food and drink as they were, looked with amazement upon their role as the tools of history.

25Translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike in Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 28–31 and 575–577.


1 Bona Dea (“the good goddess”): Roman deity worshipped only by women on the Calends of May.

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