Musil, Robert (1880–1942)

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MUSIL, ROBERT (1880–1942)


Austrian writer.

Robert Musil was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, into a bourgeois middle-class family. His parents envisioned an officer's career for their son, who was accordingly educated at a number of military boarding schools in Bohemia. The young man, however, rejected a lifelong future in the Austro-Hungarian army and instead opted for his father's profession of mechanical engineering. He received his diploma in Brünn in 1901 and was immediately offered a teaching position at the Technical University in Stuttgart, Germany. During the following two-year intermezzo the lecturer's profession was not fulfilling for Musil: he picked up earlier literary experiments and began to sketch his first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (1906; The confusions of young Törless), the story of an adolescent boy exposed to an authoritarian educational system similar to the one the author had endured as a teenager.

By the end of his Stuttgart period in 1903 Musil decided to pursue a more academic path and moved to Berlin to study philosophy, logic, and experimental psychology. He entered a lively and productive intellectual milieu at the city's Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. Here he participated in the reshaping of Helmholtzian psychology into early Gestalt theory. He conducted experiments in the psychological laboratory of his academic advisor Carl Stumpf and in 1908 received his doctorate in philosophy, mathematics, and physics with a dissertation on Ernst Mach's doctrines, Beitrag zur Beurteilung der Lehren Machs (A contribution to the evaluation of Mach's doctrines). Parallel to his intellectual transformation from engineer to scientific philosopher, Musil kept up his literary activity, and the publication of Törleß in 1906 immediately earned him fame as a young, aspiring author. The psychologizing depiction of the protagonist's sexual experiences and his ambiguous sexual orientation caused some uproar; the book was a minor scandal and a public success. This convinced Musil to shift his professional goals once again. After the completion of his dissertation he parted with academia for good to become an independent author and critic.

In the following years Musil lived in Vienna and Berlin, coediting and publishing in a number of literary journals, most notably the Neue Rundschau. These first professional ventures were abruptly halted by the outbreak of World War I, during which Musil served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army at the Italian front. After the war Musil again took up his life between the German and Austrian capitals, writing prose and drama as well as essays, feuilletons, and literary and theater criticism: his Drei Frauen (Three women) was published in 1923, and the play Die Schwärmer (The enthusiasts) received the prestigious Kleist prize in 1924. His story "Die Amsel" (The blackbird), which appeard in the writer's 1935 collection Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten, attempts to find a literary form for the traumatic experience of war and is informed by Musil's immediate encounter with the overpowering impact of modern combat technology.

Musil's articles, essays, and literary texts are characterized by a radical openness toward the emerging culture of twentieth-century modernity. This openness also turned him into an ideological outsider and a maverick among German intellectuals: Musil never failed to emphasize the validity of scientific rationality, applied and theoretical, that was part of his heritage as a philosopher and engineer. Through his intellectual biography he was situated beyond the conventional antagonism of techno-rationality and classical German Bildung (education), and he never fell prey to the ideological temptations that were taking hold of the vanishing German bourgeoisie. For example, he rejected all distinctions between a traditional Geist (spirit), belonging to culture proper, and a merely instrumental, supposedly superficial modern ratio (reason). In contrast to cultural conservatives of all political colors, Musil also fully recognized the demise of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture in the face of a reality that embedded individual action in mass movements; that replaced the hollow concepts of fate or historical necessity by chance; and that became increasingly structured by technical media and their effects.

Throughout the 1920s Musil worked on his magnum opus, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The man without qualities). The novel's first volume was published in 1930, marking a critical triumph for the author. The book portrays the Habsburg Monarchy's political disintegration and delineates more broadly the historical and epistemological ruptures that terminated the nineteenth century's order of knowledge and experience. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften also offers a radical revision of literary storytelling and marks a qualitative break with Musil's earlier writings. Its critique of linear, anthropocentric narration leads to a mode of representation that no longer equates literary form with the depiction of narrative causality and character development. Rather, strands of contingencies produce narrative occurrences that are marked as possible but not necessary events. The book moves among a number of characters, thus producing a panorama of its time and locale. In addition, the novel consciously integrates essayistic passages that open zones of reflection in the midst of narration. The exploration of the probable and the possible—das Mögliche—is thus woven into the texture of a novel that is no longer classical.

In a sad irony, Musil's newly discovered art of charting the possible rather than the actual was echoed on a biographical level by his ongoing process of literary sketching and revision that only ended with the author's death. After the first part of the second volume of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften appeared in 1932 Musil merely produced an enormous number of variations for potential chapters that did not make their way to publication until the mid-1950s. Musil did not live to see this moment when his oeuvre was rediscovered. His texts had been pushed into oblivion after the writer's political expulsion from the countries in which he lived and worked. When the National Socialists were elected in Germany, he left Berlin for Austria. In 1938 his native country joined the Third Reich, and Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften was banned. Musil emigrated to Switzerland, where he died in Geneva in 1942, in poverty.

See alsoGermany.


Primary Sources

Musil, Robert. Drei Frauen. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 2001.

——. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 2001.

——. Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 2001.

———. Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Böhme, Hartmut. "Die 'Zeit ohne Eigenschaften' und die 'Neue Unübersichtlichkeit': Robert Musil und die Posthistoire." In Kunst, Wissenschaft und Politik von Robert Musil bis Ingeborg Bachmann, edited by Josef Strutz, 9–33. Munich, 1986. An overview that introduces the reader to the problem of contingency and the montage of various discourses in Musil's texts, as well as providing a comparison between Musil's works and postmodern philosophies.

Corino, Karl. Robert Musil: Eine Biographie. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany, 2003. The standard work by Musil's most important biographer.

Schöne, Albrecht. "Zum Gebrauch des Konjunktivs bei Robert Musil." In Robert Musil, edited by Renate von Heydebrand, 19–53. Darmstadt, Germany, 1982. A classical study of the use of the potentialis—the Konjunktiv—in Musil's texts and of the implications for the author's literary style.

Siegert, Bernhard. "Rauschfilterung als Hörspiel: Archäologie nachrichtentechnischen Wissens in Robert Musils 'Amsel."' In Robert Musil—Dichter, Essayist, Wissenschaftler, edited by Hans-Georg Pott, 193–207. Munich, 1993. An exemplary reading of one of Musil's stories from the perspective of an archaeology of media and technology.

Philipp Ekardt