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"The Man With Extraordinary Qualities:" a review of Posthumous Papers of a Living Author from Anthony Heilbut in The New York Times


[review for the 1988 Eradonos edition of Posthumous Papers of a Living Author]


SINCE so little of Robert Musil’s work is available in English, this collection’s appearance is a major literary event. A congeries of light sketches, composed for Austrian and German newspapers between 1913 and 1929, it was compiled in 1935 when Musil was still living in Austria. But it was first published a year later in Switzerland, the country he fled to in 1938 following the Anschluss. So often ahead of his time, the archivist of social estrangement seems to have anticipated this exile. By 1935 he was both impoverished and horrified by Austrian politics. His audience, never large, had been reduced to a small group, predominantly Jewish and even more endangered than he. Musil’s sense that with the destruction of his public he had “outlived himself” underlines the not quite facetious title, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author.


Trained as a mathematician, behavioral psychologist and engineer, Musil, who died in 1942, had worked as a journalist, librarian and civil servant before devoting his energies exclusively to literature. With a more academically honed intelligence than any of his peers, he attempted to make of the solitary act of thinking a literary drama. Rather than pursue a Joycean stream of consciousness, he captured the divagation of thought in essays. Indeed, his great novel, The Man Without Qualities, is a perfected instance of essayistic fiction. Each qualification of thought is answered by some astonishing image or incident. The transition between dramatic and discursive realms is a seamless one.


The Musilian posture is fraught with contradictions. In the novel, he hails the essay’s capacity to regard “a thing from many sides without comprehending it wholly, for a thing wholly comprehended instantly loses its bulk and becomes a concept.” For Musil, concepts were dogmatic, totalitarian, destructive of every living pattern. He also found them vulgar and humorless, and thus had no time for the Big Idea men, Freud, Heidegger or Jung. On the other hand, Musil said that the essay’s best trait was its reflection of the form “a man’s inner life assumes in a decisive thought” – that is, thought that discovers itself in the process of enunciation. But decisiveness is precisely what you don’t find in his writing. Ulrich, the hero of The Man Without Qualities, possesses so many attributes—professional, national, political, cultural—that they conspire to dissolve him unless he acquires “the passive illusion of spaces unfilled.” This capacity for making yourself a receptacle for experience, rather atypical for a male protagonist, allows him to regard his public lives with baffled amusement: grim, moralistic but never entirely serious. The playfulness —and the transcendence—reside in the freedom from concepts.


Musil enjoyed the permutations and combinations produced by the collision of our several roles. But how is “decisive thought” possible amid such chaos? Perhaps not since David Hume has a writer so thoroughly exposed the impossibility of objective thought, and then relied on verbal momentum to steer him out of his cul-de-sac.


Yet a theoretical liability frees the essayist’s talent. As he strolls among his several selves, Musil becomes a flaneur of thought. He loiters among impressions as much as objects, regarding them with equal amplitude and precision. Having defined our various traits, he has a particular alertness to popular culture, the kitsch and more-than-kitsch that saturate our lives. After years in Berlin and Vienna, he was too shrewd to condemn the masses’ entertainment. Though exquisitely refined, he was no cultural elitist. Musil’s conceit is that the only alternative to the generalized mess he has revealed is the coherence of his meandering thought. His linguistic facility—the merging of aim, manner and result—is virtuosic. He’s such a consummate stylist that after him Kafka may seem immature, Mann chatty, Brecht arch, Rilke precious and Walter Benjamin hermetic.


In these Posthumous Papers, Musil’s pleasure is to start small. The first essay, “Flypaper,” begins with an almost pedantic description of the sticky substance. It proceeds to focus on trapped insects, briefly comparing them to a woman fighting off a strong man’s grip, and ends with the image of a fly’s moribund twitching, compared to “a minuscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.” This is the patented Musilian cadence. An immensely sensuous and concrete prose carries us from the ordinary to the almost-surreal and near-apocalyptic, a progression that appears logical, if not methodical.


Part wit, part logician, Musil makes us anticipate the invariable rush of qualifications. When he dominates us intellectually, he exhibits a conventionally male sense of authority. But his imagery expresses the “passive sense of unfilled space.” A deeply erotic writer, Musil exhibits an astonishing fellow-feeling with women. They are his sisters, literally so in The Man Without Qualities, in which Ulrich and his half-sibling Agathe perform a kind of spiritual incest. Musilian eros bypasses consummation. In one sketch, “Awakening,” he lies in bed, listening to a woman’s footsteps in the streets; never will he share such intimacy with his lover. In “Clearhearing,” he becomes so absorbed in the sound of each dropped garment postponing their embrace, that he gives up on “anything imaginable.” In another essay, a chambermaid’s smile protects her against the “onslaught of desire.” At such altitudes of feeling, orgasm would be reductive: Musil told his friend Hans Mayer than Ulrich wouldn’t sleep with Agathe because “the characters don’t want it.”


Musil’s social diagnoses are equally surprising. In the novel, Ulrich appears to be the one sane citizen of Kakania, a fictive Austria hectically planning an imperial celebration in 1913. The Posthumous Papers indicate that the world war that followed didn’t bring people to their senses. If anything, Musil’s analyses reveal a deepening confusion of past and present that atomizes our already fractured selves. Industry tampers with both nature and art until one ends up preferring prints to paintings, department stores to Vienna woods. Yet nobody is culpable. Our bad taste is prepackaged for we are generated by language. In “The Paintspreader,” words “twist” and shape us, precede our existence and define our responses.


But the words are seldom right. Kitsch “strips language of life” even as it turns sentiments, living feelings, into concepts. How does one escape from this maze, still alert and lucid? Artists could help us but, in truth, they merely swoon to higher orders of kitsch. In “Surrounded by Poets and Thinkers,” Musil finds that literary circles thrive all over town, each Vatican with a self-appointed Pope. He prophetically discerns the outcome. Some “genuine paranoiac” will sweep all these amateurs offstage. His will be the latest word, and the last.


Nevertheless, this is no lament for a bygone age; excavations or regrets won’t restore these ruins. As for that Viennese specialty, psychoanalysis, Musil considers its sense of emotional history insufficiently inflected, with too many “qualities” missing. He acknowledges Freud’s obsession with domesticity, which turned the haven in a heartless world into the arena of a born-again humanism. But the materialist in Musil demolishes Freudian tenets. In “Threatened Oedipus,” he traces the famous complex to an 1870’s style in skirts. The discarding of folded pleats and their intimation of secret passages, he points out, has simplified the female lap. Today, any lap, even a male one will do, and Orestes nudges Oedipus offstage.


By now, some readers will feel immobilized by irony, and in desperate need of an action that is not so stunningly mental. Anticipating them, Musil ends the collection with a group of stories, though most of them are simply new forms of essay in which a dramatized metaphor artfully replaces the more usual mental loitering. “A Man Without Character” provides an entry into the similarly named novel. Its hero is so multifaceted that, when asked to describe his fiancee, he replies, “From the point of view of which character?” He is an athlete gone to seed, although his former, nimble self seems to lurk within the corpulence. In other words, he is Musilian thought rendered visible, his body a palimpsest, character overlaid by the weight of years.


The last story, “The Blackbird,” is the book’s longest piece. The narrator, Atwo, is a peripatetic fellow; he even spends some years in the Soviet Union where, typically, he likes the system but hates the litany. On three occasions he hears a blackbird: while deciding to leave his wife; while dodging bullets in wartime; and while reading a children’s book, after the death of his mother. Demonstrating that sentiment is possible, when no longer kitschified into concepts, Musil ends with an extravagance no professional hack would risk. Believing that his dead mother alone preserved a steady image of him—doubtless a false one, but her error constituted his identity—Atwo determines that she is the blackbird. This conclusion is not entirely satirical. It predicts the impulse that led Musil during a particularly miserable exile to develop a form of “religion without God.”


Musil was not the first person exile turned quixotic.


Granting that he liked to dart between radical and conservative politics—and recognizing that his Jewish wife and largely Jewish public condemned him in the eyes of the Nazis as a religious fellow-traveler—his political pronouncements can be troubling. He was at times intrigued by fascist forms of social control, equivocal about democracy and convinced that the postwar powers would continue the imperial shenanigans of his native “Kakania” (this was not necessarily an error). Our disappointment with his politics is a perverse tribute; an admirer of Musil may want to follow him everywhere.


Peter Wortsman’s translation is splendid, succeeding better than any I’ve read in capturing this author’s unique combination of quizzical authority and austere hedonism. Mr. Wortsman finds colloquial equivalents for Viennese slang and makes available a writer whose accessibility may previously have been in doubt.

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