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Death and the Dichter

Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

by Robert Musil, translated by Peter Wortsman
Eridanos, 145 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Five Women

by Robert Musil, translated by Eithne Wilkins, by Ernst Kaiser
Godine, 222 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Robert Musil

by Lowell A. Bangerter
Ungar, 176 pp., $16.95

The German term Dichter is not at all readily translatable. It has a wider sense than “poet,” and a more transcendental one than “writer.” Goethe, the archetypal Dichter, created masterpieces in every genre, but was also the model of thinking and being, in the science and ethic of a civilized state. Never much like its English, French, or Russian counterpart, the German novel, coming from the pen of a Dichter, has always more resembled an enterprise of the philosophical imagination.

Frank Kermode gave this interpretation of Dichtung when he spoke of its “elaborate attempts to use fiction for its true purposes, the discovery and registration of the human world.” That might mean much or little. A modest masterpiece, like a novel of Jane Austen’s, could be said to achieve such a goal as effectively as a work of vast and deliberate metaphysical scope, if not more so. It’s a question for the reader, and for the way his mind works. In the relative world of the novel revelation may come to him from an unexpected quarter. Or the discerning reader may go only for a novelist-Dichter with whom revelation is an open promise. Milan Kundera, a lively, but it must be said exceedingly naive, commentator on these matters, assures us that the novelist is an “explorer of existence,…man’s being, which the novel alone can discover.”

In a sense Kundera and Kermode are on sure ground, but there is a snag. By hailing the novelist as a Dichter (the word has unfortunate if fortuitous connotations with Diktat) they bestow on the novel a conscious and transcendent function, one that goes with the German and Goethean tradition.

A Dichter can remain a Dichter only by asserting his own absolute preeminence and authority; and, as D.H. Lawrence very sensibly put it, the strength of the novel is that it is “so incapable of the absolute.” Nothing is more absolute than an idea, and the naiveté of a lively and creative intellectual like Kundera emerges in his persistent belief that the more striking its ideas, the more effective the novel. All his disclaimers, all his insistence that the novelist is not playing with ideas but exploring human individuality, serve only to emphasize his real allegiance. For him the three great novelists of this century, the ones who really matter, are all men—all, one might say, specifically masculine—and all Central Europeans: Broch, Kafka, and Musil. And of these the real intellectual’s novelist, the one most committed to ideas, is Musil. He is the apotheosis of the modern Dichter, one who has passed beyond life into a world of abstract inquiry about it. In the foreword to his essay collection, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, as in its title, he made a joke of this. “Can a Dichter still speak of being alive?”

Well perhaps not. The author of Axel’s Castle observed that the artist’s valet would do his living for him: Musil in the next century allots the same role to thought. He was frank about this. In his diary in 1910 he wrote: “Where I cannot elaborate some special idea, the work immediately becomes too boring for me.” In one of the essays and dialogues assembled in his book The Art of the Novel Kundera observes that Fielding tells a story, Flaubert describes a story, and Musil thinks a story. The odd and indeed slightly comic paradox in all this is Kundera’s insistence, where Musil and the modern novel are concerned, on the Heideggerian existence—in der Welt sein—of Musil’s apparently “unliving” characters. “Making a character ‘alive,’ ” says Kundera, “means getting to the bottom of his existential problem…nothing more.”

But people don’t walk around with an existential problem. They walk around worrying about a visit to the dentist, buying a pound of sausages, wondering if their husbands are being unfaithful. The novel has always known this and has invented itself accordingly. As Kundera elsewhere implies, and rightly, the novel has always known what the existential thinkers in our time have been preaching as a new gospel: and yet he is himself most impressed and influenced by those novelists who have made the most elaborate attempts to use fiction for the discovery and analysis of “existence.” It is a question of which comes first: the novel, or thoughts and ideas about the novel, the metaphysical uses that the form can supply after the event. Walter Benjamin—no mean judge—saw this clearly, and said that Musil was a thinker but not a novelist: a thinker who made use of the novel.

Musil himself might well have agreed. He was not dogmatic on such issues. As Dichter he saw himself primarily as an explorer of “the other condition,” which is both the goal and the process of thinking about oneself, experiencing oneself. And by experiencing oneself one may reveal one’s experience to others. This is the delicate point in our relations with Musil—are we sharing an experience, or being asked to admire a highly complex and specialized one of his own? Is he, like Tolstoy, a solipsist who speaks for us all, or one who is only interested in a unique self?

It is the same kind of contradiction as that between man as an existentialist and as someone who is preoccupied about his pound of sausages; and to do Musil justice he is neither disturbed by it nor even made self-conscious. Of the triad of novelists exalted by Kundera he is closer to Broch than to Kafka, or to other intellectual European novelists like Canetti and Thomas Mann. But he remains very much a writer on his own. It is obvious that when we read Kafka, a very different sort of writer, we are no more meeting fully recognizable individuals than we are in the pages of Musil. Kafka’s figures are so compelling because we are at once engrossed in their experience, becoming a beetle with Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, or the victim of a mysterious trial with Josef K. What happens to them is so absorbing that we are not interested in what they are like. But with Jane Austen’s Emma, say, interest is divided between Emma as a personage, presented for our acquaintance and amusement, and Emma as a set of experiences that the author invites us to share. With Musil we have something quite different, none of these more familiar introductions to the world of other people, but simply to the mind of a man who once said that he made fictions because they were the only vehicle for the unphilosophical view that everything in thought and experience can be simultaneously true and false.

Hence the unpositive nature of Musil’s world, its lack of “characteristics.” Most novels depend on emphasizing, even exaggerating, the characteristics of things and people, so that we soon recognize everything and begin to feel at home in the world the novelist invents for us. Musil’s long, unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities, which should really be given in English the clumsier title of “The Man Without Characteristics,” pretends to use some of the usual business of the novel. There is the “Collateral Campaign,” a society project for rehabilitating the Austrian Empire; there is much satire on bureaucracy; there are investigations of a sex murderer, Moosbrugger, and of the incestuous love between Ulrich, the man without qualities, and his sister Agathe. There is the suggestion of a world on the brink of the disaster of the First World War. There are also portraits à clef of powerful women of Musil’s acquaintance, such as Lou Andreas-Salomé.

But all this is of little importance beside the play of thought—and it must be said, style—which is the real Musil experience. Musil’s triumph ultimately is to do what all other great novelists do: that is to say, compel us to share the authenticity of his world; but it is a world in which fact, event, and consideration are, as it were, ineradicably interchangeable. That is why it would be vulgarly misleading to speak of Musil’s world as existing on the brink of the abyss of war and anarchy, because the abyss may cease to exist or turn out to be something quite different. For the same reason the novel could not end, but would merely go on, until its author, impoverished and ill, died in Switzerland in 1942, just after completing a sentence. Like fiction’s version of Penelope’s web it secretly and mysteriously unraveled itself even while it was being so delicately and carefully woven.

In some metaphysical way that might be considered the highest destiny of the novel form, its ultimate essence; and it is certainly true that highly intelligent people who do not read ordinary novels will read Musil with deep admiration. He is a philosopher’s pet, like Wittgenstein, perhaps because philosophers, who try to establish what can be known, are seduced by a world of such palpable intelligence in which knowledge and experience remain absolutely free and uncommitted.

Intelligence, for Musil, is embodied in the erotic, in its sensations and discoveries, and the most graphic passages in all his books deal with sexual musings and intimations as a part of the “other condition,” the state that medieval mystics, in whom Musil was much interested, frequently likened to certain kinds of erotic experience. A tiny essay in Posthumous Papers called “Maidens and Heroes” muses about the thoughts, or nonthoughts, of servant girls exercising dogs. Is their world one of Zen-like calm, or of “thinking that the movie’s about to begin”? Another, in a style even more mesmeric and haunting, describes the narrator going to bed in a hotel room with a slight fever, and listening to the woman with him making her own preparations “in the realm of reality”:

Incomprehensible, all the walking up and down: in this corner of the room, in that. You come over to lay something on your bed; I don’t look up but what could it be? In the meantime you open the closet, put something in or take something out; I hear it close again. You lay hard, heavy objects on the table; others on the marble top of the commode. You are forever in motion. Then I recognize the familiar sounds of hair being undone and brushed. Then swirls of water in the sink. Even before that clothes being shed; now again: it’s just incomprehensible to me how many clothes you take off. Finally, you’ve slipped out of your shoes. But now your stockings slide as constantly over the soft carpet as your shoes did before. You pour water into glasses, three or four times without stopping. I can’t even guess why. In my imagination I have long since given up anything imaginable, while you evidently keep finding new things to do in the realm of reality. I hear you slip into your nightgown. But you aren’t finished yet and won’t be for a while. Again there are a hundred little actions. I know that you’re rushing for my sake, so all this must be absolutely necessary, part of your most intimate I, and like the mute motions of animals from morning till evening, you reach out with countless gestures, of which you’re unaware, into a region where you’ve never heard my step!

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