Meditating Upon the Particular
Robert Musil is best-known for the unfinished interwar novel The Man Without Qualities. But he became well-known at the age of twenty-six, publishing Young Torless in 1906. What the two books have in common, and what they share with most of Musil's work, is an interest in the subjunctive mood. Here are just three of many examples from the early novel. "He would then feel more forlorn than ever, and as though defending a lost position...." "...it was as though he could feel the lines that their flight traced in his soul." "It was something that was encircled by a whirling throng of emotions, as though by lecherous women in high-necked long robes, with masks over their faces." Young Torless is contained within its 190 pages by a specific time and place: a boarding school the titular character enters and leaves, and the bullying of another boy that takes place there. Yet without this specificity, the book could have been much longer, with Musil's digressive approach not only entertaining the event but all the possible permutations that could surround it, allowing a work no finite life. As Robert Kimball says of The Man Without Qualities: "the pattern of Ulrich's escapades and interactions with others, especially in the first volume, presupposes the supremacy of possibility, as does the formand, finally, the ultimate formlessnessof The Man Without Qualities." (New Criterion) Kimball notes too that "its dominant mood is the subjunctive; Ulrich, the man without qualities, is one in whom the sense of possibility is overdevelopedor, what amounts to the same thing, one in whom the sense of reality is in abeyance." Kimball also sees that part of the problem with the book is that the subjunctive leaves the novel unfinished. However, Young Torless has a very definitive form, suggesting that though the subjunctive can create havoc for the sort of cause and effect narrative necessary for Aristotelian plot logic, for a unity of time and space, it needn't destroy it altogether.
Nevertheless, Young Torless can read like a bildungsroman that escapes its form by the nature of its digressions and reflections. It isn't just that Torless thinks about the events that are happening to him as they take place, he also seeks from his experiences a fundamental understanding of them. It is one thing to feel the need to distance oneself from the brutal bullying of a fellow pupil; it is another to insist that one needs to find a first principle to resist joining in. When Torless thinks early in the book that "his memory of the perfected manners of that society, which never for an instant allowed itself any slip out of its own style, had a stronger effect on him than any moral considerations," he needn't think morally about events because he is expected to accept them as social niceties rather than moral claims. All sorts of behaviour would be acceptable but not always moral: the casual disregard for a servant's tiredness; snubbing a student of lower social standing; refusing to lend someone money. Habit rather than morality dictates the decision. Torless might not say as much but when he thinks like this, when he accepts that there are the right things to do because custom acknowledges that it is so, he is offering a Humean argument just as later he will muse over, deliberately, a Kantian one. When Hume reckons: "'Since we're determinedcausedto make causal inferences, then if they aren't "determin'd by reason', there must be 'some principle of equal weight and authority' that leads us to make them. Hume maintains that this principle is custom or habit" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Though Hume's interest in custom and habit goes far beyond moral concerns and incorporates epistemological and logical ones, for our purposes what matters is that for Torless such notions of how one treats servants or those generally in a lower social class needn't be interrogated but can be accepted. This is the way he has been brought up and, subsequently, this is how he should behave. Kant wanted to understand more fundamentally what could ground us in moral behaviour and found it in the famous categorical imperative. If a certain approach to custom could insist one treats others less well since we have been brought up to assume our natural superiority, then Kant proposed that such a principle could not be universally willed. "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature]." (The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals). You cannot treat someone dismissively based on social superiority; one must treat the person as one would wish to be treated oneself. This doesn't mean Hume believed that you could treat someone badly that wasn't the point. Hume proposed merely that it would be habit rather than some rational reason why you would act the way that you did.
Now of course in the book there is no mention of Hume, and Torless struggles indeed with Kant: "when after perhaps half an hour he stopped, exhausted, he had reached only the second page, and there was sweat on his forehead." He may no longer be able to rely on custom to treat people in a particular way but the complexities of Kant aren't much use to him either. The gap between the abstract notion of an imperative and the concrete element of sensuality is too great. His maths teachers might say of Kant that "here is philosophy. It treats of the grounds determining our actions. And if you could fathom this, if you could feel your way into the depths of this, you would come up against nothing but just such principles, which are inherent in the nature of thought and do in fact determine everything..." Yet there would be nothing in Kant that Torless could instinctively understand and it is this relationship with thought and feeling that he wishes to pursue. Throughout the book, we wouldn't be inclined to call him philosophical but he is constantly thinking, with the narrator attending to Torless's preoccupations. When the narrator says "it would certainly never have occurred to him to direct his indignation against the acts themselves. He would have despised such a person not for being a debauchee, but for being nothing more than that; not for licentiousness, but for the psychological condition that made him do those things," it is just one of many examples where the narrator makes us wonder how much these are thoughts that belong to Torless at the time, to Torless after the event, or that are projected as thoughts of the narrator onto a teenage boy. Torless may not be able to make much of Kant but there is the suggestion that the narrator could. At another moment the narrator says: "he was never again so moved by the theatre as at that time; the passion of those arias was for him like the wingbeats of great dark birds, and it was though he could feel the lines that their flight traced in his soul." Here we have Torless's future self incorporated into his present self but whose thoughts are the ones that follow? "These were no longer human passions that he heard; no, they were passions that had escaped out of the human hearts, taking flight as out of cages that were too cramped, too commonplace, for them."
Speaking of the genealogy of the novel, Milan Kundera discusses what he calls 'the appeal of thought' in the work of Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, both Austrian novelists of the interwar years who worked on mammoth projects: Musil of course with The Man Without Qualities; Broch on The Sleepwalkers. "Musil and Broch brought a sovereign and radiant intelligence to bear on the novel. Not to transform the novel into philosophy, but to marshal around the story all the means rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative that could illuminate man's being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis." (The Art of the Novel) But how to achieve this synthesis, and how do we see its burgeoning evidence in this early work? Firstly, philosophy cannot be taken too seriously. When Torless struggles to make sense of Kant this isn't just a teenager finding a book that goes over his head, it is also Musil proposing that a novelistic interest in contemplation is far removed from the rigour of a philosophical system. He doesn't want us to understand Kant any more than Torless does. What matters much more is why the boy cannot comprehend the philosopher partly because the exacting demands of systematic philosophy don't entertain the complex feelings in his body nor the existential questions Musil wants to raise. Torless comprehending Kant would have led Musil to entertaining the specifics of Kant's philosophy when what is more important is making sense of Torless's incomprehension, and all the better to find a meditative space for reflection rather than philosophy. As Kundera says elsewhere in The Art of the Novel, there are "three elementary possibilities for the novelist: he tells a story (Fielding), he describes a story (Flaubert) he thinks a story (Musil)." But to think a novel is to do so through characterisation, and thus the novelist thinks both more and less independently than the philosopher. While Kant works within the context of philosophical problems that take into account the history of the discipline, the novelist thinks through the characters he creates and may even struggle to think otherwise. As Kundera believes, Dostoevsky "is a great thinker only as a novelist. Which is to say that in his characters he is able to create intellectual universes that are extraordinarily rich and original." (The Art of the Novel)
However, this also suggests that the novelist needn't be held to the limitations of his characters; he can give to their burgeoning feelings elaborate and concrete thoughts. In some ways this is a reversal of free indirect discourse, so often utilized at the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, a device vaguely apparent in Austen, adopted by Flaubert, often utilized by Joyce and now so frequently used that John Mullan can say "the technique has become so common we hardly notice it." (How Novels Work) Here we have the author while in the third person adopting a tone that reflects the character's thinking even if it might appear to limit the author's. Wiliam Trevor opens the short story, 'Against the Odds' thus: "Mrs Kincaid decided to lie low. There had been a bit of bother, nothing much but enough to cause her to change her address. From time to time she was obliged to do so." Here Mullan reckons "the narrative adopts the sentiments of the character" as Trevor uses worn phrases like "to lie low", " a bit of bother" and "time to time". The assumption is that the author would be above such obvious phrasing but this is the way the character thinks, this is the way she uses language and though her self-observations do not take the form of the dialogue, it is as if Trevor has simply removed the quotation marks. This is what she would say.
Musil instead offers to his characters a meditation greater than their own thinking rather than shrinking the thought to the constriction of the character's possible articulations. As Musil says, "there is an envelope of feeling around concepts." In The Man Without Qualities one of the book's leading characters, Diotima, thinks about another main character, her "soul mate' Paul Arnheim. She muses over whether such a "prince of the intellect" should be so busy socializing. Here Musil digresses to suggest that Arnheim isn't a prince of letters at all but instead a "superman of letters". The latter is someone who owns a motor-car, travels extensively, and shows to the forces of power that he has a mind and "conscience to be reckoned with." Musil tells us that a superman of letters is not the same thing as a man of letters, and central to the former is their progressive dimension. They don't speak for the nation but cajole it into the future. Musil concludes the chapter by suggesting what the opposite of such a man would be. It would be a writer who constantly turned down invitations, would be wary of praise and "have nothing to offer in return but processes going on inside his own head, difficult to express and difficult to assess..." The chapter ends, "this at any rate was Arnheim's opinion" The chapter starts with Diotima thoughts on Arnheim and ends with Arnheim's thoughts about himself. But these are not at all similar to Trevor shrinking his authorial self into the mind of Mrs Kincaid; it is more that Diotima and Arnheim allow the narrator to expand his thoughts about existence. Kundera notes that Musil's approach "broke that old contract between the novel and the reader. And so did other writers along with him." As did Kundera, after him: "I want to think his attitudes, his way of seeing things, in his steed and more deeply than he could do it himself." (The Art of the Novel) This is less free indirect discourse than discursive application: the novelist can think more deeply than his characters but cannot think those thoughts without the creation of character.
It is in such an approach that the writer can digress, reflect, and meditate. But the novelist cannot leave behind the preoccupations of their characters. The narrator in Young Torless needn't explain Kant to us in the face of Torless's incomprehensibility, as we have noted. For the writer to comprehend Kant would be to leave the character far behind. The author might know more than their characters in Kundera's formulation, yet they can only know more than the character when they are things that concern the characters themselves. The narrator's purpose wouldn't be to explain Kant but to comprehend why the philosopher would be little use to Torless. The narrator says, "Torless could not think anything but that with Kant the problems of philosophy had been finally solved..." All it seems he needs to do is read him and everything will be well. Obviously, he can't and yet the problem doesn't lie chiefly in his difficulty with the text, as the maths teacher might assume, but that the abstract nature of Kant's thinking would be unlikely to be useful to the immediate problem he sees himself facing. Why should he not take advantage of his fellow pupil Basini, the boy others have already been abusing, physically, sexually and emotionally, and what feelings are coursing through his body as he tries to make sense of his myriad mixed emotions? As the narrator says: "Torless found the scene alternatively in very bad taste and of very great significance." While a Humean perspective would say that custom dictates he mustn't, and a Kantian position would insist that in making his own action universally applicable, he wouldn't, both might seem weak judgements next to confused bodily forces. "In the night Torless was not far from falling upon Basini, such a murderous lust had awakened in him after the anguish of that senseless stupifying day." It isn't morality at that moment that saves him but a counter bodily reaction: desire gives way to tiredness. The narrator's purpose is to explore the complexity of Torless's feelings not to explain the limitations of his intellect.
Hence the importance in Musil's work of the subjunctive mood. Rather than a narrative cause and consequence which allows for categorical action in the context of clear motivation, Young Torless insists on constantly attending to the gaps in cause and effect all the better to tease out the character's unease and confusion and his attempts to find peace. At one moment the narrator describes Torless's gaze as fleeing "nervously from one thing to another", and says "then he felt as if he had suddenly stepped out of doors into the fresh, calm air of the night. For a while his thoughts grew still." Later, thinking of the people bullying Basini, he reckons, "it was as though they were trying to pretend to lead the life of bandits." What they were actually doing he cannot easily say but Musil finds the technical means to create a novel that is full of doubt and despair. There is no sense that cause and effect lead clearly from one to another and these spaces, Torless's doubts and Musil's insistence on discursive application, open the book up to various modes of thinking, where what matters isn't that Torless comprehends a situation but that the narrator does. When one of these bullies, Beineberg, offers his ideas on why it is acceptable to humiliate Basini, he says "...if a human being has lost himself, abandoned himself, he has lost his special and peculiar purpose for which Nature created him as a human being," Torless is hardly paying attention. The narrator tells us Torless "himself had never felt the need to go in for such a metaphysical train of thought...the whole problem had simply not yet risen over the horizon of his life." That may be so, but it isn't beyond the horizon of the narrator's.
Nevertheless, though a character might not be articulating certain things, they need to be in a crisis situation for the narrator to impose more elaborate thoughts upon them. Partly why Musil so often uses the subjunctive mood is that he wants to show us what is going on not inside a character's mind but what is beyond it or beside it the often inexpressible thoughts that require a broader context than immediate experience. Here again, we can see how Musil is not adopting certain techniques of the time: whether it be ironic narration, interior monologue or stream of consciousness. Musil doesn't suggest that Torless is oblivious to the experiences around him; just that he finds them impossible to comprehend. Out of this incomprehension, he cannot easily move towards the comprehensible and thus to an interior monologue that would reflect the shaping of those thoughts. Nor are they so incoherent that stream of consciousness would reflect them either. Perhaps if Musil had adopted a first-person narration or wished to emphasize the confusion itself, then stream of consciousness would have been used. In Ulysses, Joyce uses the device often: "Yes. Thought so. Sloping into the Empire. Gone. Plain soda would do him good. Where Pat Kinsella had his Harp theatre before Whitbread ran the Queen's. Broth of a boy." Here is Woolf using it in Mrs Dalloway. "What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air." Many critics don't distinguish between interior monologue and stream of consciousness (the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory puts them together) but it can be useful to see the latter reflecting much more the fragmentation of thought while the former allows for a far higher degree of coherence.
Yet neither would allow Musil the chance to expand upon the thoughts and feelings of the character; they would be expected to reflect them, and of course an ironic narrative position would leave the reader not empathising with the character (as we may usually find in interior monologue, stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse too) but considering the distance between ourselves and the boy. By emphasising the subjunctive mood and the discursive application, Musil eschews a number of techniques all the better to explore the space where feeling can become thought, without falling into feeling or forcing the character into an articulation that would be inconsistent with character, where such an approach be detrimental to the novelistic imagination. No less a mind or free a thinker than Walter Benjamin wondered if Musil's thought was best suited to fiction. Kundera notes that "Benjamin admired his intelligence but not his art" while Eduoard Roditi "found his characters lifeless and suggested he take Proust as his model." (The Art of Fiction) Young Torless may be closer to the sort of expectations of early 20th- century fiction than The Man Without Qualities but we can see its presence as a work of discursiveness nevertheless: that Musil wasn't a writer who increasingly failed to attend to the fictional but one interested in seeing how far you could open up the discursive space while always attending to fictional necessity. Young Torless can be viewed as an integrated work of fiction that Musil never matched, or more usefully as a work that showed the burgeoning need to explore the further reaches of fictional possibilities.
The same can be said of his early short stories. In both 'The Perfecting of a Love' and 'Tonka', Musil insists on creating a space between the character and the narrator that techniques like free indirect discourse were designed to close. In 'The Perfecting of a Love', the main character Claudine is a married woman who used to have many affairs but these ended when she got married. However, on a trip to visit her daughter at school, she stays at an inn and she has an incipient return to those pre-marital feelings when seeing a man who desires her. Early in the story, the narrator says "now and then when she was listening to music this premonition touched her soul secretly, somewhere a long way out....she would feel a terror, suddenly aware of her soul's existence in the realm of the undefined." It comes just after the narrator tells us that in Claudine there was a "morbid yearning for extreme tension" that her assignations appeared to allow, if not satisfy. Later in the story, the narrator says, "perhaps all she wished now was to yield this body to her beloved, but the profound spiritual uncertainty with which she trembled somehow turned that impulse into desire for this stranger with her." It is true that many passages in the story are much closer to her immediate thoughts: "for the first time she was struck by the idea that all that had prevented her from sliding back into her former life was the fact that she had never been away from her husband, on her own." When we're told, "and then she felt in horror how, in spite of everything, her body was swelling up with lust" we could be in a Lawrence novel and one says this without any criticism of Lawrence, nor of Musil's mixture of narration that suggests the characters thoughts and feelings and the narrator's musing on those thoughts and feelings. Sometimes Musil indicates a closeness; sometimes greater distance. When Lawrence says "it was a long time before I was able to be ashamed of my sexual thoughts and desires, they are me myself, they are part of my life. I am going to accept myself sexually as I accept myself mentally and spiritually" (The State of Funk) much of his work was concerned with that question.
This wasn't quite Musil's. In Women in Love, the narrator says that Ursula was deeply and passionately in love with Birkin: "She wanted him to come to the house she would not have it otherwise, he must come at once. She was waiting for him. She stayed indoors all day, waiting for him to knock on the door. Every minute, she glanced automatically to the door. He would be there" Here Lawrence imitates her mood and her speech. We could easily hear her saying out loud "I will not have it otherwise. He must come at once", while it would be unlikely even in 'The Perfecting of a Love', perhaps Musil's most passionate and immediate tale, to hear an equivalent remark. When the narrator says: "it struck her that this was the way it had sometimes begun in the past. At the thought of such a recurrence her mind reeled with voluptuous, enervated horror as of some still nameless sin" it could not so readily be turned into speech. Lawrence's genius was often for getting very close to the sexual and emotional turmoil of characters perplexed by their desires, fighting social convention with biological determination. Musil's was for an examination of values in a broad sense. Bence Nanay sees Musil "foreshadow[ing] important debates in contemporary analytic and continental philosophy. To mention just a few, he gives early formulation of moral luck, the narrative conception of the self, a neo-formalist account of aesthetic experience, a fairly strong version of the embodiment of the mind, a similarly strong version of philosophical naturalism, and an outright radical account of human freedom..." ('The Dethroning of Idiocracy: Robert Musil as a Philosopher')
That is a lot to be getting on with and Musil got on with it, though in working on The Man Without Qualities "began to fear", J.M. Coetzee notes, "he would never complete the work." (Inner Workings) The ambition could no longer be accommodated within the confines of a particular time and place; Young Torless need stretch no further than the period of time Torless stays at the school, even if we may feel there are occasions when the book suggests him recollecting those times. In this sense, it can seem a more contained work than 'Tonka', which covers years in the life of a young scientist and could potentially stretch well into the future too. However, the story is also and most especially interested in the title figure, a woman of meagre means whom the book's central and unnamed character becomes inexplicably fascinated by. Tonka lacks education and is far from beautiful but the central character is preoccupied by her presence and all the more so when she becomes pregnant and he cannot be the father since he was out of town during the conception. Yet she insists she isn't lying and the story remains unresolved as she dies in childbirth. The tale isn't quite about a man who wastes his life on a useless, dishonest women, and isn't quite about a man who loves a woman he is suspicious over whose death leads him to acknowledge how unfair he has been. "Robert Musil's 'Tonka' is a blatantly mysterious story" ('Motivating Silence: The Recreation of the Eternal Feminine in Robert Musil's "Tonka''), Todd Kontje says, invoking other inexplicable pregnancies in the 'Gospel According to St Matthew' and Marquis von O... In the bible, Mary's pregnancy is a miracle we accept, but what if it focused chiefly on Joseph's confusion, jealousy and suspicion? We wouldn't be in a miraculous tale but closer to Swann in Love, where what matters is the speculation around Swann's fascination with Odette. If Mary's pregnancy is a mystery that a belief in God resolves, Tonka's pregnancy functions more like the acceptance of mystery as the unknown. The central character cannot know Tonka as he knows science, cannot find out who impregnated her as he can discover developments in the scientific. "With such a strong intellectual drive he could not fail to attract his teachers' attention, even as a schoolboy. He had conceived ideas for new inventions and, after taking his degree, was to spend one or two years devoting to working them out after which he hoped to rise, surely, and steadily, above that radiant horizon which is a young man's image of his glamorous unknown future." Obviously, if the story had been written at the beginning of the 21st century rather than the 20th the story could have been within the realm of scientific knowledge: developments in DNA meant that paternity testing first became available in 1988. Yet this would be to miss the point; a scientific solution doesn't get rid of doubt; it just gets rid of that doubt. What interests Musil is the nature of doubt not the specifics of its solution. When Nanay proposes that Musil anticipated or coincided with various developments in modern philosophy it rested on the huge terrain of inquiry that Musil was interested in exploring. However, this wasn't because he sought answers but wished to pursue perplexing questions.
'Tonka' may end on the inexplicable with the unnamed protagonist never finding out who impregnated her but it starts on the inexplicable too why is he so drawn to Tonka initially? Musil describes it thus: "At a hedge. A bird was singing. And then the sun was somewhere down behind the bushes. The bird stopped singing. It was evening, and the peasant girls were coming across the fields, singing. What little things! Is it petty if such things cling to a person?" They cling to Tonka, who he sees that day, even if, retrospectively, that might just have been a fairy tale he created. He doesn't know why he loves her, if he does, and of course, doesn't know who impregnated her. But while knowledge of the latter now falls into the realms of medical science, the former remains a matter of the heart that no cardiologist can explain. If for Musil they both fall into the same category, and give the story its shape, it rests on the questions to which they give rise. The central character visits doctor after doctor trying to find an explanation for Tonka's insistence that she hadn't slept with another man. "The second doctor came to the same conclusion as the first, and the third to the same conclusion as the second." He might as well have asked: whether there was "such a thing as immaculate conception? And they would only have been able to tell him: 'We have no medical evidence for it.'" Now there is evidence for paternity but Musil would no doubt have picked another area of the inexplicable if such a solution had been around at the time. However, while the biblical tale accepts the miracle and the paternity test reveals the parental, how does one remain in the question? Both are solutions: the miracle as a spiritual answer; DNA as a scientific one.
Mark M Freed reckons that, for Musil "despite scientific, technological rationality having become an increasingly significant determinant of the cultural logic of modernity, Musil maintains that this kind of "modern" thought failed to rise to the level of a "philosophy of life'." Freed adds that "Positivism, a hyper-evolved form of modern philosophy's quest for certainty, sacrificed precisely this scope and abandoned the attempt to account for the whole range of human experience." ('Robert Musil and the techne of Rewriting Modernity') Rejection of religious belief is one thing; the rejection of the metaphysical questions that give rise to it another. While many might see in Musil's work a philosophical project rather than an aesthetic one, to do so suggests a narrow notion of what aesthetics happens to be, one that even Benjamin in the context of Musil revealed. Musil needed to find within the aesthetic the philosophical; and within the philosophical, the aesthetic. One reason why we have emphasised various literary techniques has been to show that Musil's concerns are literary but that various devices available to him were of little use to the investigations he pursued. Just as Young Torless cannot expect to find in Kant the solution to his moral problems, so Musil couldn't go to even the more advanced literary procedures available to him at the time. Though Young Torless, 'Tonka' and 'The Perfection of a Love' are more conventional works than The Man Without Qualities, then the absence of certain stylistic gestures, the eschewal of stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse, for example, aren't the signs of a writer struggling with modernism but trying to find his own response to it. In a passage in Young Torless, our central character starts to think about the infinity of things. "He kept his eyes fixed on the sky, saying this aloud to himself as though he were testing the power of a magical formula. But it was of no use; the words meant nothing, or rather, they meant something quite different, as if, while dealing with the same subject, they were taking it from another side, one that was strange, unfamiliar and irrelevant." There he is trying to make sense of infinity and all he has at his disposal is a little maths and the notion of imaginary numbers. He hasn't visited the maths teacher yet and he hasn't attempted Kant but Musil wants to register the vastness of the world within the limited perspective of his protagonist. Such devices as stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse and the interior monologue would have been all very well for registering Torless's confusion but Musil is as interested in the ideas as he is in the turbulence of his central character. The closer the writer is to the chaos the better stream of consciousness can reflect this. If a writer wishes to work productively rather than affectively then the subjunctive mood becomes less a state of perplexity than of complexity the writer seeks a technique that can allow him or her not only to address the character's condition but the human condition too. Hence, Kundera says that what underpins the novel generally, and most especially works like The Man Without Qualities and Broch's Sleepwalkers, as well as his own, is an enquiry into being. This means breaking a generally assumed notion that literature is about the immediate, the sort of immediacy the techniques like stream of consciousness amplify. However, as Kundera says, "when Hermann Broch wanted to block out a character, he first seized on the character's essential position and then progressed to his more individual traits. From the abstract he moved to the concrete." (The Art of the Novel) A philosopher will usually remain in the abstract and a fiction writer in the immediate but Broch, Kundera and Musil wonder how they might shuttle between the two places without feeling obliged to the expectations of each discipline. How far into this tension, how far the writer will acknowledge the story they tell and the illumination they seek, depends on the writer's given preoccupations. Whether concrete or abstract, what will reveal an aspect of being? As Kundera says, "indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyzes in Being and Time considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy have been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the novel (four centuries of European incarnation of the novel." (The Art of the Novel)
To assume that the only way for the fiction writer to do this is by getting closer to the character may have been one of the fallacies of literary assumption; one that Kundera and others have long tried to counter. Should the author limit themselves to the limitations of the characters or go beyond those limitations - even if it may seem to leave behind just a little the characters as one meditates upon their predicament? Writing on Kundera's work, Guy Scarpetta says "it is a common, particularly widespread prejudice to hold in immediate suspicion ideas and abstractions found anywhere in the fictional genre: the good novelist, we are told, owes it to be the least 'intellectual' possible (true, most novelists have no problem meeting this criterion...)" However, as Scarpetta adds, the question is how one abstracts as he invokes Musil, Broch and Proust, while discussing the various means by which writers bring ideas into the work and expand the possibilities of the novel as they enquire into existence. While a 'roman a these' has 'something to say', an ideological point to prove or 'debate' (typical examples usually given are Atlas Shrugged, Sybil and Uncle Tom's Cabin) works by Broch, Musil and Kundera, and in a slightly different register, Camus' The Plague, Sartre's Nausea and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, do not have something to proclaim or exclaim, but something to meditate upon and investigate. Young Torless is also of course known as the Confusions of Young Torless and in this early work Musil is as concerned with the confusions as he is with speculating upon them. The subjunctive mood he so often adopts will become the investigation into those states as extended digressions in The Man Without Qualities. In this sense, Young Torless, self-contained, is the better novel. The Man Without the Qualities, a sprawling, unfinished tome that ended when Musil died at the age of sixty-two, exercising on a trampoline, the more important work.
© Tony McKibbin