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Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity

Void of Ethics: Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity

by Patrizia McBride

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In a pluralistic society without absolute standards of judgment, how can an individual live a moral life? This is the question Robert Musil (1880-1942), an Austrian-born engineer and mathematician turned writer, asked in essays, plays, and fiction that grapple with the moral ambivalence of modern life. Though unfinished, his monumental novel of Vienna in the


In a pluralistic society without absolute standards of judgment, how can an individual live a moral life? This is the question Robert Musil (1880-1942), an Austrian-born engineer and mathematician turned writer, asked in essays, plays, and fiction that grapple with the moral ambivalence of modern life. Though unfinished, his monumental novel of Vienna in the febrile days before World War I, The Man without Qualities, is identified by German scholars as the most important literary work of the twentieth century.

In a fresh examination of his essays, notebooks, and fiction, Patrizia McBride reconstructs Musil's understanding of ethics as a realm of experience that eludes language and thought. After situating Musil's work within its contemporary cultural-philosophical horizon, as well as the historical background of rising National Socialism, McBride shows how the writer's notion of ethics as a void can be understood as a coherent and innovative response to the crises haunting Europe after World War I. She explores how Musil rejected the outdated, rationalistic morality of humanism, while simultaneously critiquing the irrationalism of contemporary art movements, including symbolism, impressionism, and expressionism. Her work reveals Musil's remarkable relevance today-particularly those aspects of his thought that made him unfashionable in his own time: a commitment to fighting ethical fundamentalism and a literary imagination that validates the pluralistic character of modern life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"McBride has done an admirable job of connecting a number of disparate elements of Musil's work into a meaningful version of its coherence."  —symploke

"This is an important book. . . . The arguments are clear but deep."  —Musil-Forum

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Northwestern University Press
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Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Void of Ethics
Robert Musil and the Experience of Modernity

Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2109-6

Chapter One The Void of Ethics

"And yet it seems very important to me," she said, "that there's something impossible in every one of us. It explains so many things. While I was listening to you both, it seemed to me that if we could be cut open our entire life might look like a ring, just something that goes around something." She had already, earlier on, pulled off her wedding ring, and now she peered through it at the lamplit wall. "There's nothing inside, and yet it looks as though that were precisely what matters most." -Musil, The Man without Qualities

Introduction: An Unfashionable Modernist

At the end of one of the numerous verbal showdowns that oppose Ulrich, the protagonist in The Man without Qualities, to his boyhood friend Walter, Walter's wife Clarisse pulls off her wedding ring and comments on its round shape in what seems an attempt at changing the topic of a conversation that is going nowhere. What follows, however, is not one of those allusive and vaguely disturbing statements so typical for her character, a Nietzsche convert whose recurrent Nietzsche paraphrases indicate not so much her philosophical appreciation as her mental imbalance and impending insanity. What at first appears as one more incident testifying at once to the young woman's lurking disease and to the dangers of a Nietzsche reception gone awry turns into perhaps the most incisive diagnosis of the plight that confronts virtually all the main actors in Musil's imaginative chronicle of life in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1913. Irritated by her husband's narrow-mindedness and display of petty-bourgeois aspirations, as they once again surface in the conversation with Ulrich, Clarisse finds herself musing on what she calls the impossibility of human existence, which she suddenly sees strikingly symbolized in her wedding ring. What she has in mind is not her rocky marriage to the frustrated and resentful Walter, though. It is the ring's shape that fires her imagination, its fact of being "just something that goes around something." In peering through the ring as through a telescope of sorts, Clarisse begins to see it as a perplexing cipher for "our entire life." As she explains, "There's nothing inside, and yet it looks as though that were precisely what matters most." Clarisse's representation of life as a ring, a thin band of precious metal encircling a hollow space, would not seem to rise above the sentimental stock images so dear to her husband if it were not for its peculiar twist. Contrary to what one would expect, it is not the ring's gold or silver that make up its value, but rather what is inside it. That inside, however, is nothing but a hollow space, a void. What matters most in life, Clarisse shrewdly suggests, is its structural void, the hollow space around which life's events congeal.

In Musil's narrative, that void stands for ethics. Ethical experience, as the ineffable promise of unconditional happiness and a fulfilled life glimpsed in fleeting moments of illumination, is presented in the novel as an "Other Condition," which is destined to remain a black hole for language and thought. It thus appears as a void delimited by life's inessential, inherently meaningless circumstances. As the man without qualities later puts it to his sister, reproposing and modulating the image of a ring: "there's a whole circle of questions here, which has a large circumference and no center, and all these questions are: 'How should I live?'" (MwQ II, 972). In choosing the image of a centerless circle, Ulrich too seeks to clarify the paradox inherent in the modern quest for moral coordinates. In his characterization, the circle's circumference, though very extended, is reasonably well defined by the myriad of individual questions revolving around the quest for the good life. And yet the space inside the circle, that middle space from which all these queries are to be addressed, amounts to a logical impossibility. The circle as a geometric figure suggests a class of objects that are structurally endowed with a center. In this case, however, the particular circle whose perimeter is formed by the quest for moral co-ordinates actually lacks a center, in patent defiance of the logical properties one would expect from it. These images of a centerless circle or of a ring whose most precious attribute is the hollow space it encloses are so ostensibly fraught with contradictions that they immediately evoke a whole array of questions: Is the void normal, or is it an anomaly? Has it always been this way, or was there once something taking the place of the present nothing? And, if the circle was once replete with a lost ethical substance, where has this substance gone and what caused its disappearance? Should the void be filled again and is this still a viable proposition? If not, what is next? These questions capture the experience of modernity as it surfaces in aesthetic modernism. The idea of dysfunction and malformation suggested by the trope of a centerless circle clearly resonates with the analysis of cultural and ethical crisis that became an article of faith within German-speaking culture at the turn of the twentieth century and maintained this status throughout the upheavals of World War I, the troubled Weimar period, and the triumph of totalitarianism in both Germany and Austria. Musil's answer to these questions is, however, quite uncharacteristic of the modernist response staked out by contemporaries like Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Hermann Broch, and Rainer Maria Rilke. To be sure, Musil's characters in The Man without Qualities are primarily confronted with that "withdrawal of the real" that Jean-François Lyotard placed at the heart of the experience of modernity. Robbed of its traditional metaphysical braces-the century-old notions of self, subject, history, community, God-life recoils from the human gaze that seeks to grasp and interpret it and falls apart in a heap of fragments. The inner core of human existence, its very center and substance, becomes a void, an unpresentable idea, as Diotima, another of Musil's protagonists, discovers in her quest for a symbol that will make manifest the world-historical meaning of the Habsburg monarchy in the twentieth century. All that is presentable are life's shattered pieces, as the experts summoned to Diotima's salon demonstrate. Entrusted with the task of articulating that elusive 'Austrian idea,' each is hopelessly trapped in the cage of his or her specialized knowledge, like asteroids orbiting a black hole of meaning. But Musil's novel offers more than this stock diagnosis of the modern condition. It sets out to interrogate the nature of the void, following a path that approximates what Lyotard described as the postmodern sensibility, which, far from representing a qualitatively different successor to modernism, reaches into modernism's very heart, as it were, and makes it beat faster.

Modernism's most familiar German narratives-exemplified in paradigmatic texts such as Hofmannsthal's "Chandos Letter," Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge, Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Broch's The Sleepwalkers-tend to regard this void as resulting from the collapse of age-old certainties that provided the foundations for knowledge and morality, for politics and science, in Western civilization. This collapse, which had been prepared by epochal processes of rationalization, secularization, and specialization at work in Western societies at least since the Renaissance, was the ultimate trigger of the historical cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, the rise of totalitarianism, the Shoah. In the second half of the twentieth century, other evils have come to bolster this narrative: the atomic threat, the economic rape of so-called emerging countries, the destruction of the environment, the manipulation of genetic technology. In order to counter these sinister developments, the narrative explains, society must either reinstate the old systems of coordinates (an option that seems ever more implausible given the dizzying speed of advances and innovations that unceasingly alter the physiognomy of postindustrial societies) or formulate new reference points and binding visions that will replace the old ones (to reconceptualize the "project of modernity," to speak with Jürgen Habermas). Otherwise Western civilization-a worldwide business in an age of globalization and compulsive integration-will plunge into the chaos and anarchy produced by the unabashed pursuit of the basest human instincts: greed, egoism, lust for power, envy, resentment.

A competing, though far less popular, modernist narrative paints quite a different picture. It insists on seeing the ethical vacuum at the heart of the modern experience in terms other than the demise of binding systems of values and universal visions of the good life, if contemporary evils are to be confronted effectively. This is the narrative championed by Musil, among others, the one in which Lyotard recognized the postmodern projection of modernism. In true Nietzschean spirit, this discourse accounts for the alleged lost foundations in terms of historical constructs that helped Western societies cope with a void that characterizes the human condition by concealing it. The modern condition, then, is about the unclouded perception of this void. More specifically, it is about the impossibility of presenting a lasting ground or unity of human existence, which is only perceivable as the intimation of an ineffable harmony as it announces itself in fleeting moments of happiness. Drawing on Kant's Critique of Judgment, Lyotard accounted for the impossibility of articulating this experience by pointing to a structural discrepancy between human faculties, namely, between our faculty to conceive and our ability to present, or, in Kant's framework, the intellect and the imagination. It is this constitutive gap between the faculties that makes the void a void and not the loss of an alleged, original ethical substance. Modern art, then, is about the effort "to make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible"; it is about the impossible task of presenting the unpresentable. But, as Lyotard emphasizes, there are two possible reactions to this modern conundrum. The properly modernist response "allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents." It remains trapped within a "nostalgia for presence" that melancholically twists its gaze backward and indulges, if only unwittingly, in a yearning for the bygone certainties and foundations. The more mature, postmodernist response, on the other hand, has lost that "nostalgia for the unattainable" and can thus place its emphasis on "the power of the faculty to conceive," on "the increase of being and the jubilation which result from the invention of new rules of the game." Musil's narrative in The Man without Qualities, I believe, is deliberately nested between these two responses, "the attempt at clearing the slate and the intimation of a synthesis," as Musil summed up the aim of his project.

In bringing up Lyotard's distinction between aesthetic modernism and postmodernism, I wish to focus on the peculiar nature of Musil's modernism, on the ways in which it differs from other, contemporary modernist paradigms, and on the reasons it appears ever more appealing to us today, at a time when our ears have grown increasingly deaf to the more familiar modernist message I have described above. What interests me, in particular, is Musil's investigation of the void that lies at the heart of the experience of modernity, as it is recounted in his essays, notebooks, and, most coherently and extensively, in his ambitious thought experiment The Man without Qualities. Musil's unfinished novel tells the story of an individual's quest for an "other" condition of being against the setting of the now exhilarating, now troubling kaleidoscope of modern life in Austria, one year before the Great War. This quest originates from the protagonist's personal experience of inner division as well as from the disjointedness of a decentered, modern world torn apart by an uncontrollable proliferation of life-spheres and expert cultures. In this elusive Other Condition the man without qualities believes himself to glimpse an unintelligible ethical foundation, which lies in the intimation of a fundamental unity and accord of human life. His attempts to raise this intimation to the level of ordinary experience and turn it into a principle of conduct are doomed to failure. Yet this failure was to carry a positive valence, according to Musil's plans for the novel. It was to portray the Other Condition as a void inherent in the human condition and to denounce the violence lurking in all endeavors aimed at surreptitiously filling this void with yet another absolute vision of the good life. In some sketches for the novel's conclusion, this violence is triggered by the hapless maneuvering of the Parallel Campaign and realized in the apocalypse of World War I. In this way, Musil's experiment was to point to the flip side of the nostalgia for fullness and presence that still dogged his time; it was to debunk its ill-concealed intolerance for difference, its desire to forcibly impose coherence and consensus, and its impulse to force the incommensurable perspectives of the modern world into the straitjacket of a single, purportedly unifying account. This attitude, as Lyotard claims, prepares "a return of terror." It is a terror Musil was forced to analyze first-hand during the formidable ascent of fascist totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s.

The appeal of Musil's peculiar brand of modernism, then, lies in its invitation to acknowledge the ethical void as constitutive for the human condition and to cherish it as an opportunity for rethinking ethics in modernity. This study aims at tracing Musil's intellectual exploration of ethics by unfolding the Kantian framework that led Musil to interpret it as a void resulting from a structural discrepancy in the human mind. At issue is not, however, Kant's sublime incongruity between the power to conceive and the ability to present, as revisited by Lyotard, but rather a structural discrepancy between two incompatible states of mind, which are fleetingly bridged in the momentary bliss of aesthetic experience, as it arises through the unique coalescence of intellect and imagination in the judgment of the beautiful. Musil's original reappropriation of Kantian aesthetics, I believe, yields a modernist model for conceiving the relation of literature, ethics, and purposeful human action that speaks volumes to our time.


Excerpted from The Void of Ethics by PATRIZIA C. McBRIDE
Copyright © 2006 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Patrizia C. McBride is associate professor of German in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota.

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