Best Book of 1930: The Man Without Qualities | Elaine L. Wang | Granta

Best Book of 1930: The Man Without Qualities

Elaine L. Wang

When reading the colossal project that is The Man Without Qualities, I find myself seized by the characters in the way that I’m seized by obscure poems. It is a book that searches for its own expression, featuring a protagonist who lives by a theory of himself. At one point, Robert Musil compares the learned reader’s efforts at interpretation to the opalescent remains of dehydrated jellyfish. Fortunately, we need do no more than attempt. The most pleasurable way to approach this unfinished, 1,800-page (and ever-growing) book is to read chapters at random. Once stirred by its obscure metaphors, go for a walk and let ‘words leap like monkeys from tree to tree’.

At the beginning of the novel we find the protagonist, Ulrich, on a year-long leave of absence. He’s served in three professions – as a lieutenant in the cavalry, a civil engineer and a mathematician. ‘The given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be,’ Ulrich thinks, and ‘the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted.’ By Chapter 62 – titled ‘The Earth Too, But Especially Ulrich, Pays Homage to the Utopia of Essayism’ – we are offered the affecting simile that Ulrich ‘feels like a stride, free to move in any direction, from equilibrium to equilibrium, but always forward’.

The simile demonstrates how thought gives way to form throughout the novel: Ulrich’s intellectual mode resembles the essay, which ‘explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it’. Musil is generous and precise; here he draws a line between Ulrich’s impulses and his own literary model. When I suggest reading the book chapter by chapter, what I mean is that it can stand as a sequence of essays. Some proceed in an equilibrium of happiness, where sentences are arranged in clear order and hierarchy, and some in an equilibrium of confusion, where meaning fluctuates and sentences take hold by association. Early on in the book, Ulrich makes cobbled use of aphorisms by Emerson, Goethe and Nietzsche, living by them as imperatives. As these thoughts take practical shape, Ulrich must develop the decisiveness and tenacity to live by his own beliefs; he must respond to and synthesize ready-made wisdom.

Ulrich’s pathologies reflect the larger crisis of moral order in pre-war Austria, where the spirit of the time tended towards suspicion – of history, of anything not scientific or teleological, and of the value of human action itself. One of the central plots of the novel is the planning of the ‘Parallel Campaign’, a public (and futile) attempt to arrange a celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph’s seventieth year on the throne. The irony in the text revolves around layers of bureaucratism and nonsense, which lives on to this day. Every country seems to have its own iteration of a ‘Parallel Campaign’. Musil’s descriptions of the unfeeling public bring to my mind a political spectacle at the National Museum in Beijing, staged around two years ago. Restrictions were imposed on the street just in front of the museum, bringing traffic to a standstill for the sake of some local leader’s outing. I slipped out of my taxi, pressing between one car and then another, to walk down the boulevard. The sky was a withered shade of blue and the ground flat. A policeman in a wrinkled, blue coat shoved himself in front of me through and started to yell. He continued until I explained that I was drawn to the enormous phalanx of poinsettia tumbling across the marble steps, and that I meant no more than to admire the order of our country. As soon as he heard those words he let me go. What a waste of our dignity, I thought, to love empires and to walk in straight lines.

During those moments when I feel on the verge of losing my sense of reality, I refer back to Musil, and his description of the philosophy of ‘essayism’, where walls loom like intersecting lines and streets curve like wings. The essayists’ domain, he writes, ‘lies between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry’.


Photograph © Xiquinhosilva

Elaine L. Wang

Elaine L. Wang is a writer traveling between Beijing and Chicago. She is working on her first book.

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