Musil’s MwQ, Control of the Imaginary

Maurice Blanchot preferred to translate Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as L’homme sans particularités or The man without particularities. Musil’s concept for his protagonist, Ulrich, is that he lacks substance, that there is no causal link between essence and effect, that his self is formed and responds impersonally, almost randomly, to elements and events of his environment. As Blanchot puts it, “the man does not accept being crystallised into a character or fixed in a stable personality”.

I’ve never been much of a believer in the entrenched idea that individuals have fixed personality characteristics that are essentially unchanged over the course of a life, so looking through Ulrich’s eyes feels like returning to a comfortable armchair in a favourite corner of a much-loved home. The term personality is rooted in the Latin persona, and ancient Greek pros-opon, and referred originally to a mask worn by actors. That personality is little more than the way we appear to others makes more sense to me.

I’ll be reading The Man Without Qualities for several more weeks. It is slow but delicious to follow Musil’s sentences to their conclusion, and it feels too rich to read more than two of three chapters without transferring underlined parts into my notebooks. I’m resisting the temptation to read anything in parallel as The Man Without Qualities is permeating my dreams, both day and night, and I’m rather enjoying the saturation. I’m reading this book alongside Frances and Richard throughout the summer.

Let me share briefly a description Musil offers of a moment of illumination, not unlike my sensations while reading his book.

“Life’s very shape was completely altered. Not placed in the focus of ordinary attention but freed from sharpness. Seen this way, everything seemed a little scattered and blurred, and being infused all the while with a delicate clarity and certainty from other centres. All of life’s questions and occurrences took on an incomparable mildness, gentleness, and serenity, while their meaning was utterly transformed.”

It isn’t easy to concentrate at a time when the political landscape in this country is facing a radical transfiguration at the hands of fruitcakes, lunatics and not-so-closet racists, but there are few writers more distracting than Musil to elevate oneself away from the cares of everyday existence for an hour or two here or there.

7 thoughts on “Musil’s MwQ, Control of the Imaginary

  1. I really look forward to reading your forthcoming commentary on Musil – however long it takes to read, transcribe into notebook, and comment. Came into knowledge of Musil in early adolescence; read Man Without Qualities too young – but of course one can read it again, and again. Someday I hope to read it with a group as attentive and insightful as your co-readers. Yes, just the perfect book for a time of “radical transfiguration at the hands of fruitcakes, lunatics and not-so-closet racists.” “Make Kakatania great again?” Well, onward.

    • Thank you, Hilary. It is my second attempt to read MwQ and I’m very much in tune with it so have little doubt I’ll be reading it for several weeks.

  2. Sorry. “Kakania.” (I make this mistake a lot; this is why I fear talking about books in public.)

  3. I look forward to your commentaries on this great twentieth century novel. I have read and enjoyed its many pleasures more than once and consider it my favorite twentieth-century novel. Although I am currently beginning an immersion in Broch’s The Death of VIrgil I plan to once more read TMWQ in its entirety this coming winter.

  4. I had meant to post this comment before, but was having problems with my WordPress account. As you may know, “eigen” in German is own, so another way to think about Musil’s title (at the risk of a certain semantic extravagance) is that nothing of Ulrich is Ulrich’s own, that what he lacks is self-possession –– character as well as characteristics.

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