Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften

[This page by Malcolm Spencer]

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften; The Man Without Qualities (written 1919-42)

The main page for Musil has outlined some of the elements in the cultural, intellectual and social landscape of his life up to the outbreak of war in 1914: his technically oriented upbringing and education in a provincial Austrian city; his inability to commit himself, however, to a scientific career because of a growing sense that factual and scientific knowledge and intuitive, emotional or religious experience had parted company in the modern age (Musil tends to use the words ‘Verstand’; ‘reason’ and ‘Seele’’ ‘soul’ to describe these two poles);  his wide reading of ‘subversive’ imaginative literature and philosophy, most of all Nietzsche, the most radical critic of later 19th-century bourgeois society. Nietzsche’s assault on conventional morality stimulated Musil’s awareness as a young man that the society of late Habsburg Austria that surrounded him was not what it claimed to be, that it was bereft of inner identity and coherence. In the novel, he summed up that awareness in the mind of his protagonist Ulrich thus: ‘[…] über allem lagen die Spuren eines stark bewegten Lebens, das innerlich leer ist.’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke, 3:672); ‘Over everything lay the traces of a strongly moving life that was inwardly empty’. Other elements derived from Musil’s academic study and his private life: he was trained in the new discipline of experimental psychology and influenced by the ideas of Ernst Mach, the subject of his doctoral thesis, who believed that the self was not a firm entity but only a flux of sensations. Through his relationship with and marriage to Martha he had experienced a love in which two people cease to be separate beings and become ‘one’, a process he had sought to describe in Vereinigungen; Unions. Musil believed that this kind of mystical experience (as felt in love or in religious fervour, which he called ‘der andere Zustand’, ‘the other state’) was suppressed in a modern, technological society. A last element essential to the conception of the novel was Musil’s experience of the summer of 1914. His diaries and essays record that he experienced the outbreak of war as a moment of collective intoxication, in which crowds also became ‘one’, but pathologically: ‘Der Krieg kam wie eine Krankheit, besser wie das begleitende Fieber, über mich’ (Tagebücher, 956); ‘The war came over me like an illness, or rather like the fever which accompanies it.’ All the elements listed here are to found interwoven in the fabric of Musil’s novel which was written between 1919 up to his death in 1942, though its first drafts went back to as early as 1903-06.

At that time, Musil sketched a novel (Die Geschichte dreier Personen, The Story of Three People) about himself and the friends of his youth, Gustav Donath and Alice Charlemont, to whom he gave the names Walter and Clarisse. During the war, Musil had considered a satire on the corruption of the Austrian ruling classes but had never written it, and from 1919 worked on a novel project entitled Der Spion; The Spy which would explain how the mass hysteria of 1914 and the war had come about and in which the Austrian hero (Achilles) and his sister (Agathe) were involved in espionage for Russia. The novel would also satirise the modes of thinking of a large number of contemporary figures (for instance, Walther Rathenau, the German industrialist and politician, murdered by right-wing extremists in 1922). The third stage of Musil’s project was a draft called Der Erlöser; The Redeemer in which the hero, called Anders (= Andrew / other), has rejected the bourgeois values of his father, and as his name suggests, strives to be different from the society around him. After meeting his sister Agathe in the house where their father has died, the siblings forge the father’s will and begin a relationship which moves towards love – or even possibly incest. (It should be stressed that in many of Musil’s drafts up until the end of his life, he ‘experiments‘ with ideas without giving them a definitive form.) The Musil scholar Walter Fanta believes that by 1924, Musil had a summarized a kind of ‘master plan’ for the novel project (now entitled Die Zwillingsschwester, The Twin Sister) in which individual madness (Clarisse) and violence (the execution of Moosbrugger, a murderer) is coupled with the collective  breakdown of 1914 and the outbreak of war, with incest at the core of the plot. The interview that Musil gave in the journal Die Literarische Welt in April 1926 gives a good idea of how far his project had developed by this time. In it he summarized five aspects of the novel: it was not a historical novel, all its material was to have contemporary validity, it was to have about 20 main characters, its style was to be ironic, it was to point the way towards a new kind of morality, and its end would be the mobilization of the summer of 1914: ‘Daß Krieg wurde, werden mußte, ist die Summe all der widerstrebenden Strömungen und Einflüsse und Bewegungen, die ich zeige.’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke 7:941), ‘That war happened, had to happen, that is the end result of all the contradictory currents, influences and movements which I show.’ Musil also described his main ironic idea for the work, the comic fantasy of the Parallelaktion (Parallel Campaign); his novel, set in the period just before 1914, would presuppose that Austria would be celebrating in the year 1918 the 70th anniversary of the reign of Kaiser Franz Josef (‘The Emperor of Peace’) simultaneously with the 30th anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. This ‘media event’ (as it would be called today) would have been theoretically possible (though Franz Josef would have been 88 years old by then) but all Musil’s readers know what the participants planning the event do not – that by the end of 1918 neither the Austrian nor the German Empires will exist!

It should be made clear that Musil’s inability to complete the novel was not the result of his infinitely prolonging the deliberations of the Parallelaktion in order to avoid depicting the incest. Musil had no qualms about depicting in his fiction scenes of sexuality, violence and deviance as all readers of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften know: in the course of it, a man awaits trial for murdering a prostitute, Ulrich cruelly seduces Gerda and in one draft rapes Diotima at a fancy-dress party; in another, Walther rapes Clarisse (the victim in her childhood of attempted abuse) and in Part III, a sexual exhibitionist appears in the garden of a house where a dinner-party is taking place. As J.P. Stern notes about the novel: ‘Sexuality is unredeemed and repeatedly associated with aggression, violence and war, and war with suicide.’ (Stern, 1995: 163) However, as Musil worked through his drafts he always refined them, so some of the most violent scenes in his Nachlaß (posthumous papers, for example Hans Sepp’s suicide) would have been given a more subtle form. By 1927, with Musil now able to concentrate full-time on the project as a result of the subventions he was receiving from his publisher Rowohlt, the novel’s shape and title were clear: it was to be called Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften and it was to have two books of equal weight. 

When Book I was published in 1930, it consisted of two parts: Part 1, Eine Art Einleitung (A Sort of Introduction) with 19 relatively short chapters and Part 2 Seinesgleichen geschieht (which Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike translate as ‘Pseudoreality Prevails’) with 104 chapters of varying length.  In Rowohlt’s 1978 edition, these two parts amount to 670 pages. Book II is entitled Ins Tausendjährige Reich with the subtitle Die Verbrecher (‘Into the Millenium’; the subtitle ‘The Criminals’ refers to Ulrich and Agathe’s forging of their father’s will and their possibly incestuous relationship).  Only the first 38 chapters of Book II, some of which are very long, were published in Musil’s lifetime, adding up to 370 pages in the 1978 edition. About 20 further chapters exist in fairly complete form (including the six chapters Musil rewrote in 1940-42) but at the time of the author’s sudden death none of Part 2, Eine Art Ende (A Sort of Conclusion) had been written. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is therefore a torso, though a very substantial one – the author’s Nachlaß (posthumous papers) contains more than 10,000 pages of materials. The two main reasons for Musil’s inability to complete the work were the very difficult conditions he faced in exile and his own working methods: he was an experimental writer, constantly trying to examine subjects from new angles or conducting a new ‘experiment’ on his characters which would involve imagining how they would act in a different situation. Musil did not live in the computer age, but the digital edition of his novel which finally became available in 2009 (Kommentierte digitale Ausgabe Robert Musil, ed. Walter Fanta, Klagenfurt) and which enables readers to look at all the drafts of a particular chapter would have pleased him.  This edition allows his work to remain open to different possibilities as he intended.  He did not seek finished answers to the problems he addressed, he thought literature could only provide a ‘Teillösung’; ‘partial solution’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke, 7:970-1) or ‘Fragmente einer Lebenslehre’; ‘fragments of teaching about life’. As Klaus Amann puts it: ‘[Musils Denken] ist prinzipiell ein unabgeschlossener Vorgang, ein Weg ins Offene, Unerwartete, nicht Vorhersehbare. Der Ausgang ist ungewiss, wie es [...] auch das Ende seines Romans ist.’ (Amann, 2007:39); ‘Musil’s thinking is an unconcluded process, a path into things that are open, unexpected and unforeseen. The ending is uncertain, as is the end of his novel.’

Any reader opening Book I of the novel will be immediately struck by the chapter titles. The first chapter’s title is: ‘Woraus bemerkenswerter Weise nichts hervorgeht’; ‘In which in a remarkable way nothing happens’ – subverting the reader’s expectation of an opening chapter. Chapter 28’s title is: ‘Ein Kapitel, das jeder überschlagen kann, der von der Beschäftigung mit Gedanken keine besondere Meinung hat’; ‘A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation’: the author dares you to do this, but if you are not interested in thinking, why are you reading this novel of ideas? The title of chapter 38 of Book II is: ‘Ein großes Ereignis ist im Entstehen. Aber man hat es nicht gemerkt’; ‘A great event is on the way. But nobody has noticed it’: here Musil ironises the imminent outbreak of war. In the absence of a linear narrative, these titles may tell the reader more about the function of the chapter, or they may link chapters in different parts of the book, or act as commentary on the dialogues this particular chapter contains. 

There is no forward narrative in Book I because it describes the world of ‘Seinesgleichen’ (i.e. the same things over and over again) which for Musil characterizes modernity: people have experiences which are repeated many times but without inner meaning. There is no ‘ohnegleichen’ or uniqueness about their experience. Ulrich, the hero, now appointed secretary to the Parallelaktion through his father’s contacts, is a person of restless intelligence, but none of his experiences lead to any fulfillment. All the people ‘with qualities’ who busy themselves with the Parallelaktion talk endlessly, but fail to find the ‘big idea’ which will unite Austria, because modern society is characterized by fragmentation of belief and the absence of unity. The narratives that they privately desire are figments of their imagination, providing them with comfort in the midst of chaos. In Book I, we meet most of the characters in the novel: Moosbrugger, Ulrich’s alter ego, a murderer who has rejected society and symbolizes the violence that is repressed in society; Walther, Ulrich’s friend when they were students, and his mentally unstable wife Clarisse; Diotima (her real name is Ermelinda Tuzzi) a bourgeois woman who aspires to host a glittering salon in Vienna; Ulrich’s adversary, Arnheim, a Prussian millionaire who has come to diffuse spirit and culture in Vienna but has his eyes on the Galician oilfields. These figures are subjected to sustained criticism, some readers may think excessively so, but Musil is satirising a society based on false values, one which rouses his anger. For some characters the author (and sometimes Ulrich, too) has more sympathy: Count Leinsdorf is an Austrian aristocrat chosen to run the Parallelaktion – he has no political instincts, but has style and humanity; Diotima’s husband Sektionschef Tuzzi, is a senior civil servant with a sceptical, perceptive outlook and finally there is General Stumm von Bordwehr, co-opted onto the committee to represent the army and Musil’s most comic invention. Sometimes these figures are presented in a more conventional way – we are told about Leinsdorf’s appearance and his residence, a Baroque palace – but normally Musil shows us not the external world but the workings of these people’s minds and the interplay of their emotions and values.

At the beginning of Book II, the pace of the book changes when Ulrich meets his long-lost sister Agathe at their father’s funeral and Musil shows us a new way of living, an alternative to the world of ‘Seinesgleichen’.  The question is whether he succeeds or not: he can only present to us their conversations and their feelings, not the way of life that would accompany such a relationship, though it involves meditation, reading and garden walks. Other elements of the plot intrude to defer the development of this (of course, potentially incestuous) relationship: in one of the Nachlaß chapters we learn that the Government is planning a World Peace Conference in Vienna in the Autumn of 1914 and the Parallelaktion has been deputed to look after the festive side of the event, with Diotima responsible for the costumes. But the comic interludes are now subsidiary to the mystical perceptions of the siblings. Philip Payne writes: ‘The latter stages of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften take us into the deepest levels of feeling to which Musil had access.’  (Payne, 2007: 44)

How should such a demanding work be read?  This is, as we have seen, a novel written over much of lifetime, and it requires a corresponding investment of time and effort.  Some students start to read it during their Year Abroad, appreciating Musil’s extraordinary use of language. Whenever you start it, you should not hurry it, but read perhaps no more than one or two chapters a day, allowing their ideas to sink in – or sometimes their humour to take effect. When you have thought and felt your way (for this book is emotional as well as intellectual) into a sufficiently large part of the book, then you can read it in any order you wish, selecting just one chapter depending on which themes you wish to explore. Read in this way, the book’s mixture of high seriousness and subtle comedy is exceptionally  rewarding. As Musil himself wrote: ‘Es ist kein leichtes und kein schweres Buch, denn das kommt ganz auf den Leser an’; ‘It is not an easy book nor a difficult book, as this depends entirely on the reader.’ (Musil, Gesammelte Werke, 5:1939)


English Translation


Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, ed. by Burton Pike, trans. by Sophie Wilkins & Burton Pike (New York: Knopf, 1995)


German Edition


Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in neun Bänden (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978)


Further Reading in English


Gemma Blackshaw, ‘“Hell is not interesting, it is terrifying”: A reading of the madhouse chapter in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities’, in Journeys into Madness: Mapping mental illness in the Austro-Hungarian empire, ed. by Gemma Blackshaw and Sabine Wieber (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2012)

Genese Grill, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities: Possibility as Reality (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2012)

Timothy Mehigan, The Critical Response to Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2003)

Philip Payne, Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Marjorie Perloff, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), Chapter 3 on The Man without Qualities

Thomas Sebastian, The Intersection of Science and Literature in Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2005) 

Gabriela Stoicea, ‘Moosbrugger and the Case for Responsibility in Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’, German Quarterly 91:1 (2018)

Malcolm Spencer, In the Shadow of Empire, Austrian Experiences of Modernity in the Writings of Musil, Roth and Bachmann (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2010)

J.P. Stern, The Dear Purchase (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 135-82

Zeynep Talay, ‘Self and Other in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’, German Quarterly 86:1 (2013), 60-71

Kristin Veel, Narrative Negotiations: Information Structures in Literary Fictions, Palaestra 331 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009)

Further Reading in German

Helmut Arntzen, Musil-Kommentar zu dem Roman Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (Munich: Winkler, 1982)

Gerhard Meisel, Liebe im Zeitalter der Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Das Prosawerk Robert Musils (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1991)

Peter Nadermann, Schreiben als anderes Leben. Eine Untersuchung zu Robert Musils Roman ‚Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990)

Further Reading in French

Marie-Louise Roth, Robert Musil, L’homme au double regard (Paris: Balland, 1987)