Thursday, December 11, 2008


At long last, I've made it through the 1,130 pages of The Man Without Qualities that Musil published in his lifetime. In the Third Part, Into the Millennium (The Criminals) we get to know Agathe, the sister of Ulrich, the main protagonist. Indeed, Agathe becomes an unexpected focus for the entire section, not only taking our attention away from Ulrich's earlier concerns -- the planning of the great Jubilee event in honor of the Austrian Emperor; his interest in his cousin Diotima and her fascination with Arnheim, the Prussian businessman-of-the-world who gets caught up in the Austrian plans; his intrigues with Count Leinsdorf who looks to Ulrich as a man of unique sensibility who should be able to have a beneficial influence on the proceedings; his affair with Bonadea, a rather nymphomanic woman who wants to understand him better; his attraction for Clarisse, the highstrung and Nietzschean wife of Ulrich's best friend Walter, a would-be Wagnerian composer; his involvement with the Fischel family, particularly their somewhat neurasthenic daughter Gerda who, despite feeling Ulrich's morbid attraction, seems set upon uniting her future with the nascent fascist Hans Sepp -- but also eventually taking our attention away from Ulrich's own peculiar perspective on things.

At first, Agathe seems to arrive in the novel as yet another of Ulrich's women, meant to be more of a double or, as they term themselves, "Siamese twin." Interesting notion, but Agathe is not "a woman without qualities." She begins as a foil for Ulrich, and her desire to be rid of her dull and unimaginative husband Hagauer stirs Ulrich's penchant for moralizing, so that instead of defining his hero against the would-be cultural movers and shakers of a society not easily moved or shaken, Musil begins to define him beside a woman who, due to their easy complicity, comes to seem a destiny. In other words, we seem to have the makings of a grand folie à deux, its inspiring qualities (for a man who has eschewed qualities) leading Ulrich to define what he means by "the Millennium": not love that, like a stream, flows toward a goal, but "a state of being like the ocean."

" must now imagine this ocean as a state of motionlessness and detachment, filled with everlasting, crystal-clear events. In ages past, people tried to imagine such a life on earth. That is the Millennium, formed in our own image and yet like no world we know. That's how we'll live now! We shall cast off all self-seeking, we shall collect neither goods, nor knowledge, nor lovers, nor friends, nor principles, nor even ourselves! Our spirit will open up, dissolving boundaries toward man and beast, spreading open in such a way that we can no longer remain 'us' but will maintain our identities only by merging with all the world!" (871)

One could say that this Millennium is a way of denying "qualities" and connections, but as an act of transcendence -- which is surprising enough for Ulrich, but what is even more unexpected is the "we" and "our" in this statement. Ulrich has found a partner, he seems to believe, in his willful eradication of the claims of the world. And indeed the "twins" conspire to live together in a manner that recalls more than anything a poet shut-up with his muse.

But what kind of muse or double is Agathe? The interesting thing about Part Three of MWQ and, I suspect, the factor that caused Musil to have trouble maintaining the thread that would lead him to its conclusion, is that Agathe starts to take over the narrative. The investigation of her interior state comes to seem much more pressing as territory to delineate than any changes wrought in Ulrich, so much so that his efforts to continue as her guide or mentor begin to fall flat and miss their mark. This is deliberate on Musil's part, but what seems more problematic is what should replace the previous vigor in Ulrich's perspective. Millennium attained, the novel could end, happily ever after. Since it can't reach that stasis, the disruption must come from some quarter. Late in the novel Agathe, who was contemplating killing herself rather than live the diminished version of her life that seemed to face her when Ulrich, in a spate of perverse male solidarity, begins to lecture her about her ties to her husband, meets a man called Lindner who seems to give her some hope for herself -- if only she can overcome the morbid fixation upon herself and think of others.

We don't really get the sequel to this meeting. Instead the narrative takes us back to the endless discussions about the coming Great Event, but with perhaps a sense that something is about to change due to a new rival to Diotima's centrality in the planning.

For me, Agathe's possibilities create the interest of Part Three, even if it is unresolved. In imagining "criminality and purity" in Ulrich's sister, Musil creates more than a foil or double for his hero; he may have introduced, 730 pages into his novel, its heroine.

"It seemed to her that right and wrong no longer constituted a general notion, a compromise devised to serve millions of people, but were a magical encounter between Me and You, the madness of original creation before there was anything to compare it to or anything to measure it by." (867)

Agathe could be someone worth Ulrich's time, and vice versa, but as brother and sister they are doomed to either a hermetic reserve with one another or else must find "the madness of original creation." Clearly, that tension could play itself out, in Musil's capable hands, for another thousand pages or so, easily. As it is, nothing has resolved itself on the last page of this volume. Musil gives us a party that, like the one Proust's narrator attends at the close of the Recherche, brings back onto the stage figures we've done without for a couple hundred pages or more, in some cases, but, unlike the Recherche, this does not occur to give us summations or a measure of the temporal distance we've traveled before bringing things to a close. We "end" here in medias res, without "anything to compare it to or anything to measure it by."

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