Literary Ambitions

In 1898 Robert Musil notes on a sheet entitled Monsieur le Vivisecteur ideas on a Conversation Book. It should consist of two parts: the first part will deal with the life of mr. le Vivisecteur told through a series of anecdotes. The second part contains Pages from the Nightbook of msr. le Vivisecteur, in which his thoughts, observations and so on will be displayed. Musil starts his notes on the book with the image of him as a child staring out the window, looking at nothing particular at all, a memory in which all his childhood memories seem to have crystallised themselves. The published diaries of Musil begin with these notes.

After a short period Musil stops working on these notes for two years. Meanwhile he has begun putting down all sorts of psychological-typological notes on a great diversity of observations. In 1902 he intends to resume his notes, but now not only for his literary intentions, but as a diary, with observations, ideas, philosophical, psychological, and also historical contemplations.

If the notes Musil took on msr. le Vivisecteur were somewhat distant and aesthetic, his diaries from now on read as a pretension-less work- and notebook, influenced by the discipline he needs for his technical studies. It will remain distant, which is one of the characteristic features of most of Musil’s writing.

Personal notes I will not, or only seldom, make, and only then when I believe that it will be of philosophical interest to me to remember them.

This increasing detachment of his personality, as he calls it, goes hand in hand with an increasing instability of his intellectual self. He concludes that his first literary efforts combine this detachment with his rational convictions. He states, in his diaries, that now, there is more room in his life for emotional and sensual experiences than he would previously have believed possible.

In the meantime Musil has started reading the classics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Maeterlinck, d’Anunzio, Dostojewski, but above all Nietzsche. The latter he discovered after having said farewell to the Military Academy. From Nietzsche he learns that thinking of the inner and outer self as being two separate entities is not the proper basic terms to base his thinking upon:

They mean, with profound emotions one reaches deep into the inner self, one approaches the heart of nature. But these emotions are only profound, when with them, hardly noticeable, certain complex groups of thought are excited, which we call profound; an emotion is profound because we consider the accompanying thoughts as profound. But these profound thoughts can nevertheless be far from true, like for instance every metaphysical; if one were to deduct the mixed in thought-experience, the profound emotion remains, and this guarantees nothing for the statement at all, just like a strong faith only proves its strength, and not the truth of faith.

In the writings of Nietzsche the basis of Musil’s emotion-psychology is to be found. When in the future he attempts to make clear to himself his experiences, he finds himself entangled in such dilemma as the above. Forty years after his first readings of Nietzsche, while working on the last chapters of the Man Without Qualities, Nietzsches remarks on Private and general morality, on the logic of the dream, suffering and empathy and love and justice provide Ulrich with entries for the discussions he has with his sister Agathe.

Every strongly experienced mood brings naturally with it related experiences: together they mix up thinking. Something is remembered and these memories brings to our consciousness similar situations and their origins. Thus relationships between feelings and thoughts are constructed, when the follow one and another swiftly, as though they were a unity, instead of a complex of thoughts and emotions. In this respect one speaks of moral feelings, of religious feelings as if they were unities when in truth they are floods with a myriad of sources and branches. As often is the case here too the oneness of the word does not guarantee the oneness of the significance.

Musil wonders in his diaries how it is possible that Nietzsche had so much influence on his works, because when reading him during his childhood he did not understand a third of what Nietzsches words meant. It is Nietzsches relativism and inversion of the words ‘depth’ and ‘surface’, Nietzsches antitheses of ‘unity of word’ against the ‘multiplicity of meaning’ that take up a central position in Musil’s works.

One other problem is how to find a way of storytelling that gives greater credit to his thoughts, and thinking in general, than he has hitherto been used to reading. Nietzsches work has convinced him that literature should convey knowledge and insight. Mere description is not enough:

Literature has not so much the task of what is, but what should be. In other words: Literature conveys symbols

To Musil many authors lack the syntheses of thought and telling. About Dostojewski he says that, although he loves his works, that he misses a precision that is necessary to effectively deal with the problems Dostojewski concerns himself with.

He appeared to me intellectually inaccurate: I had the impression his formulations were not unequivocal enough! It did not offer enough!

To Musil, style is the crystallisation of thought. But how to put ones thoughts into words? How precise, unambiguous can one be? Hermann Broch says the following on Musil’s style:

Musil realises that one can only hide the profound in the only place where it is bearable: on the surface.

ii. Philosophy and Martha

In 1903 Musil starts his philosophy-study in Berlin. He fears that without knowledge or insight he cannot formulate poetic thoughts that can bring him to some understanding of human nature. His subjects are phenomenology and logic and is heavily influenced by what is called “Lebensphilosophie”. But even in philosophy Musil will not find the answers, or questions, he is looking for. Just the question what is real and what is insignificant creates confusion which even philosophy cannot solve: doubt only becomes more real.

As opposed to poetry one can at one look at the production of philosophical works in one year have its doubts. Yet, one finds in this endlessness with his sixth sense only a few books that will become important to one. The literature that is produced in natural sciences has the advantage that every book modifies its predecessor, builds on it, makes it obsolete. Only in philosophy one does not know whom to learn from.

Despite these misgivings Musil will have some intellectual experiences that will become essential to him, and will serve him while working on his main body of work. The most important are the introduction to the aforementioned “Gestaltpsychologi” and his thesis on the work of Ernst Mach

His main concern is the influence of natural sciences on philosophy, which is becoming more and more apparent (positivism): Mach claims that his positivistic convictions have only been achieved through observation, and thus should find their way into philosophy. Musil sees a discrepancy in this: Mach the Philosopher denies the Necessity-principle, he just sees a functional relation in nature, but Mach the scientist cannot evade this Necessity-principle as a law of nature.

The Young Torless, which was first published in 1906, in a way reflects the feuds Musil was caught between: his search for the balance between the emotional and rational, finding the undefined and undefinable in mankind so to avoid it. A perspective to achieve this is missing, though. He knows, feels, that what is clear and obvious for others will always (also) have a second meaning: he will look at in with different eyes.

In 1908 he finishes his thesis: major philosophy, minors mathematics and physics (Beiträge zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs).

In 1911 “Vereinigungen” are published to little acclaim. His father in the meantime is considering his writer-ship increasingly as a pastime, a hobby, something which will not grant him to live on. Musil does not blame his father for finding him a job at the Wiener Technische Akademie. He accepts the job, but warns his parents

I will accept it, but you should not think I will associate with someone from Viennese society.

Before going off to Vienna in 1910 he and his wife Martha Marcovaldi, will spend three months vacationing in Italy. He met her in 1907. Of the period 1903-1910 he would later state that it is a period with a negative achieved goals balance. Except of course him meeting Martha;

She is not something I have achieved, that I have won, she is something that I have become and has become me.

When World War I began, Musil joined the Army, stationed first in Tirol, and then away from danger at Austria’s Supreme Army Command in Bolzano. In 1916 Musil visited Prague and met Franz Kafka, whose work he held in high esteem, as he did the work of Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. At the memorial service for Rilke in Berlin, Musil remarked that Rilke was “undervalued” for most of his life, and by the time of his death, he had turned into “a delicate, well-matured liqueur suitable for grown-up ladies”, but that his work is “too demanding” to be “considered relaxing”. After the war’s end, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Musil returned to his literary career in Vienna. He published a collection of short stories, Drei Frauen (Three Women), in 1924, and then in 1930 and 1932 the first two volumes of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities).

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