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The Man without Qualities Paperback – May 17, 1965
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It is by far easiest to talk of the odyssey of Ulrich the protagonist, himself battered to and fro through various situations on his way to some destiny. He is not meant to be some clever and successful Ulysses seeking his Penelope, but is a traveler of uncertain direction and goal. He has many characters to deal with along the way that others may discuss and of which I will not generally speak further. Plot is not a strong suit of this novel so much as intrigue, argumentation and debate and inconsistency.
The Social Satire is quite worthy of comparison with those of Jane Austen at more personal levels, Cervantes on dualistic argumentation with Ukrich opposed to a noble, his sister, his cousin, a general, his best friend and even the daughter of a stock broker friend and her friends in terms that reflect the debates between a Quijote and his Sancho Panza. Ever an idealist, if often quite inconsistently so-even within some paragraphs and in response to the same partner-Ulrich makes impractical and often nebulous arguments, many far from valid, but rather often trailing off with a loss of substantially.
I see the Vienna of this work, and the other Austrian locale of the Third Part (2nd Volume of this set) as a social metaphor for the idea of Scientific understanding of its day. Try to follow me here, please!
Substance of matter had become first Atomic, then Relativistic and even was becoming Quantum. At each turn, reality was becoming less fixed, particle versus wave, solid versus probabilistic and mass versus energy or maybe both. Such seems to be the Vienna of Ulrich as well.
It is not that Ulrich or his compatriots do not have goals, intentions or paths, but that they are the manner of chimeric, changing from one moment to another based upon some background. Motives and objects for almost everybody here have lost materiality. A planned celebration for the 70th Anniversary of the Emperor is a central task of the book's middle part and moves this way and that to no clear solution. Nobody really has the foggiest idea of what to do with this and all propose continuing tasks that administratively proceed almost nowhere of any certain direction. Meanwhile, a prominent task is to further one's position within the pecking order of the committee or to further the position of one's parties (Arnheim, the General Stumm and others). The one party who wants no part in the whole business, Ulrich himself, is found to be the most essential by most all of the characters to either use as a means of getting information, advancement or bracing for some vague sensation of being overwhelmed (count Leinsdorf). It is truly hysterical that Ulrich gets more extricated in the events as he tries to separate himself from it and even brings his nymphomaniac occasional lover into the mix in her aim of trying to secure her own aims.
As the novel moves along, or alternatively gets bogged down in philosophy, often both at the same time, one realizes that everything for most everybody involved is in total flux. It is as if Ethics are present in a Quantum Ethics sense, any path from A to B can and is often sought in turn and without precedence to others. Things move along not as they should, but as they will, almost at random.
A significant exception here, also in its own hysterical sense is that of Moosbrugger, an outsider to the plot who is an intellectually-deprived, violent criminal with multiple past crimes and a recent murder. He is a part of the concerns of some characters, though peripheral to the action. He is not clearly in control of his actions, but he is yet the only character capable of decisive action! It is as if the very notion of decisive action in this society has become both criminal and psychiatrically pathological!
I have maybe given away some of the business of the novel here, but I feel that it is a social commentary, which while may be controversial in its statement here, is a major subtlety in understanding Musil's work.
As a Scientist, even having written on Mach's work, and with Ulrich as a Mathematical and Scientific mind, it is rather reasonable to assume that Musil was able to see his Society in the metaphorical context of the various ways that Science was seeing much of the World about it. As most people are neither conversant in regards to those ideas of Mach, Einstein or Schroedinger; there is some likelihood that they might have difficulty appreciating a similarly complex and ever-morphing business of how life and it's actions are to be viewed. It may not have the linguistic complexities of Finnegan's Wake, but it is nonetheless rather imposing in its own self-extricated foundation. It is far from surprising that Musil could not easily formulate some conclusion to this work. He may have had Nazi persecution as a problem, but even without that, how is one to define some end to a rather indecisive take on who we are and where we are going? Ulrich is not meant to achieve the end of his odyssey; it can have no end as it has no boundaries.
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