Robert Musil is difficult to write about. He outsmarts most of his commentators. Burton Pike’s “Robert Musil: Literature as Experience” is one of the better essays I’ve read on him, trying to link Musil’s hard-to-pin-down process in The Man Without Qualities to Husserlian phenomenology, and also with Susanne Langer’s theories of art that draw heavily on Ernst Cassirer’s theories of symbolic forms.
Musil attended the University of Berlin from 1903-1905, while Stumpf, Dilthey, and Simmel were teaching there, and he read and remarked on Husserl. I haven’t seen that much criticism exploring these connections (I haven’t looked too deeply), but they certainly merit it.
Pike’s essay focuses on Musil’s attempt to bridge the gap between lived experience and language through the host of characters and emotions and ideologies he meticulously dissects in The Man Without Qualities. My response is to ask whether the problem is made more difficult by thinking of it as a gap.
Can Musil’s project be better served, and saved, by reformulating it in a more language-centric way? Rather than bemoaning a myopic focus on language, should those following the spirit of Musil appropriate its study?
Robert Musil: Literature as Experience
Burton Pike, Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 18, no. 2 (Summer 1994)
My general argument is that writers of the early modernist generation, and certainly Musil, were not blocked by language’s presumed inability to represent experience, but on the contrary were struggling to develop a new kind of literary language that would adequately represent experience as a cognitive process as it was then coming to be understood.
It might also be said of modernist literature generally that it resists the attempts of theory to reduce literary expression to the problem of language alone. This kind of literature uses language to project images that incorporate action in an envelope of sensory experience rather than using it descriptively or discursively. The senses, emotions, affects, moods, and subliminal effects involved in perception and experience are considered essential. It is too reductive, as some critics would have it, to consider literary language as merely a doomed attempt at some kind of rational discourse that eludes both writer and reader, a fruitless butting one’s head against the walls of the “prison-house of language.”
I would extend this to say that it is a trap to separate language and experience as though they are separate or as though one is a subset of the other. They are inextricable, each possessed of certain aspects that the other cannot make fully manifest (it is important that this be bidirectional and that we recognize that language has capacities beyond one person’s experience).
The simultaneous disdain of both experience (via attacks on “Cartesianism,” “subjectivity,” and the like) and language (by blocking it off from thought, experience, and the world) demarcates a desiccated zone for linguistic exploration that turns solipsistic all too easily. Derrida may well be the sine qua non of this approach, but one can argue that people from Quine to Brett Bourbon also fall prey to this temptation. It is ubiquitous.
The anchoring of modernist literature in perceptual and sensory images possibly illustrates what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote in the Philosophical Investigations that “a picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (Wittgenstein 48, ¶115). Suzanne Langer expressed something similar when she said that the artist’s way of knowing feelings and emotions “is not expressible in ordinary discourse [because] … the forms of feeling and the forms of discursive expression are logically incommensurate, so that any exact concepts of feeling and emotion cannot be projected into the logical form of literal language” (Langer 91).
On the other hand, Langer presupposes that literal language is an unproblematic concept. Husserl’s epoche (ἐποχή for you Greek readers)—his method of bracketing off mental experience from our presuppositions–assumed an ability to get at pure experience that seems a bit optimistic. But the apparent failure of that project does not result in a conception of two worlds–one of feeling and emotion, one of language–that are incommensurable.
Rather, the perceptual and sensorial accompany both domains, but in heterogenous ways. The challenge which faces any serious writer is in getting language and conceptual experience partly to line up, through a monumental force of will and organization.
In fact, this task is really easy if you line them up in the conventional, contemporary ways which we receive from our birth on. But then you have written something of no importance whatsoever.
The burden of language as Musil understands it is not to mystify, but to analyze and order experience without reducing it. He makes his characters, within their immediate ﬁctional situations, attempt to relate to each other and the world through their changing perceptual and sensory envelopes in terms of the experiences he tries out on them. What we can know, according to Husserl, is not the actual physical world but only our experience of it. Unlike Husserl, Musil is quite rigorous in making this process experimental and in developing a literary language that can express it with great precision. He puts all his major characters in this same experimental stance.
This is a tough enterprise for a writer, for not only is representing the complexity of experience thus understood a boundless task, but it rejects as impossibly artiﬁcial (not “true to life”) the traditional literary notions of plot, dramatic action, and characterization that normally provide a guiding structure for readers as well as writers. The results are contradictory and paradoxical: self and world, as Musil treats them, dissolve into a ﬂow of endless “possibilities,” of the kind so lovingly developed in The Man without Qualities. The only way to temporarily arrest this ﬂow, Musil postulates, is for an individual to attain an attenuated, tentative, ineffable, and quite transitory mystical state that he calls the “other condition,” an ecstatic state of heightened awareness similar to that advocated by Walter Pater.
This is a very modernist move, and I think it is a valuable and not-common-enough move to link it to Husserl. (Thomas Harrison talks a fair bit about this in his book Essayism.) Pike is a bit off-base on Husserl but the description of Musil’s method as being one of exploring the objects of thought does link Musil to Husserl, and their methodologies are not so different, though Musil is far more empirical.
This postulation of an ideal state of awareness and reception is most vulnerable if we think of it as an emancipatory suspension of all conditions on our thinking and our self. That’s a pretty high bar. If considered more modestly as either
- a suspension of some core prejudices and predispositions, or
- a framework-destroying entertaining of contradictory, coextant, and willfully foreign concepts;
–then there is still the possibility for something genuinely innovative to arise. Musil’s method can survive the attack better than Husserl’s original conception of the epoche. I tend to believe that any genuine epoche would require cessation of thought altogether, making it not terribly useful for present purposes.
The problem with regarding thoughts and sensations as a stream or ﬂow with intermittent stases is, to quote William James, “introspectively, to see the transitive parts for what they really are. If they are but ﬂights to conclusions, stopping them to look at them before a conclusion is reached is really annihilating them…. Let anyone try to cut a thought across the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see now difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tract is…. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself…. The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like … trying to turn up the light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks” (quoted in Holton 124).
Musil, who was quite familiar with James’s work, understood this dilemma very well: throughout his diaries, essays, and interviews he worries endlessly about the technical problems this posed for him as a writer. Rejecting narrative in the traditional sense, he relies on a narrator external to the action to frame and control the experimental process as it unfolds. But since each scene is limited to representing the envelope of perceptions, sensations, actions, and experiences of the characters who are perceiving, sensing, acting, and experiencing within it, each scene tends to become a hermetic unit and mise-en-abyme. No extended dramatic narrative (for which characters must be deﬁned as consistent types or counters) is possible. Musil’s “non-narrative narrative” consists of a sequence of quasi-independent micro-narratives, each of which could be extended at will in any direction or interspersed with other micro-narratives. Like Husserl, Musil believed in building up and analyzing all the data that hypothetically constitute experience. He did not, like Thomas Mann or Hermann Broch, for example, begin with an a priori set of values or literary notions.
This might explain why Musil had trouble ﬁnishing anything, notably The Man without Qualities and his essays: the experimental path he set up, “the path of the smallest steps” as he called it, that would ultimately reconcile the potential of probability with the reality of what actually happens, can never end. This is a negative consequence of his dedication to a hypothetical approach that gives primacy to “a scale of degrees of probability,” and that deﬁnes certainty as only the closest approach to the greatest achievable degree of probability—a kind of Zeno’s arrow of probability suspended in its ﬂight toward certainty.
It’s worth noting that a significant change does take place between the two published mammoth parts of The Man Without Qualities. The appeal to the mystical experience only really kicks in with the arrival of Agathe, when it seems clear that Musil is trying to get beyond the critical approach that dominated Pseudoreality Prevails and move tentatively toward a more constructive approach in Into the Millennium (The Criminals). The critical approach remains and it does not sit easily with the constructive project, something for which Musil has suffered criticism. I think it is here that the unfinished nature of the book makes it hardest to judge the role of the constituent approaches.
The conﬂicts and paradoxes inherent in this approach to ﬁction are set out at the very beginning of The Man without Qualities. A scientist and mathematician, Ulrich is unable to ﬁx any actual or potential moment in the ﬂow of experience as deﬁnitive, or to fashion a language that could mediate the ﬂow of experience in any reliable fashion, such as empirical science demands. In his very ﬁrst appearance in the novel, Ulrich is standing behind a window in his house with a stopwatch in his hand, trying without success to freeze the ﬂow of traffic and pedestrians on the street outside in a statistical measurement.
Representation, and the language that is its vehicle, can only be valid in Musil’s view if rendered with the utmost precision. The Man without Qualities contains a veritable catalog of the ways people talk, write, and interact in their lives, and these ways are considered unsatisfactory and insufficient. Each social class, profession, and individual in the novel is given his/her/its/their own hermetic vocabularies and grammars. Musil included mystic, philosophical, and scientiﬁc language, as well as the everyday conversational idiolects of each of the characters in the novel. (Each character speaks in his or her own style, idiom, vocabulary, and syntax, crossing but rarely intersecting with the others.) Musil even includes body language, as well as the inner, unrealized language of the inarticulate and the insane! The problem, as he saw it, lay in somehow fashioning a language that would overcome these obstacles and permit objective communication of the whole complex ﬂow of experience from person to person and within society as a whole, and thus make true communication possible.
This is awfully close to Habermas’ fabled Ideal Speech Situation, though I’m not sure if Pike means to invoke it here. I do not think that “objective communication” is necessarily the goal. I believe Musil would have backed the distinction between the natural sciences and human sciences that Dilthey drew, and thus would have asked different things of the science he was constructing for The Man Without Qualities than he would have asked of physics.
I’d have to look carefully at Musil’s language to figure out what he thought. He criticizes contemporary literature for Gegenstandslosigkeit, a lack of objectivism, an embrace of abstractions that make it solipsistic and inward-turning, no longer attuned to present-day reality. But to include this in literature is not to embrace objectivity per se but to extend the warrant of literature to contain all these unsatisfactory means in the hopes of realizing satisfactory communication. The critical project is a necessary part of the constructive project.
There would seem to have been in the early phenomenologists and in Musil an underlying idealism that has since been lost, a belief that in spite of the increasing solipsism and dehumanizing specialization of modern life there is some sphere or some level—one hardly knows what to call it—in or on which all the conﬂicting and apparently unrelated fragments, self and world, feeling and intellect, science and society, skepticism and belief, could somehow be melded into a coherent, ethical whole. This might explain why the phenomenological basis is no longer fashionable in literary criticism and theory, and why language-based criticism, with its entrenched skepticism about idealist assumptions, has become dominant—it suits the temper of our time, which is disillusioned about any form of larger unity in the world. In the tradition of idealistic philosophy, phenomenology conceived experience as the experience of an individual person, but underlying the phenomenological enterprise was the intention of bringing about moral and ethical reform on the level of the larger community, and the belief that this could be done through an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world. Our time, however—as Musil himself trenchantly observed many times in his essays and in The Man without Qualities—has moved instead to a collectivist mode of thinking in which political, ideological, ethnic, and tribal thought and behavior rather than the individual’s subjectivity have become the framework for social thought, and in which literary characters, no longer the anchoring centers of the world they had been since Romanticism, have become in extreme cases cartoon characters. In collectivist fashion the contemporary human sciences, psychology, medicine, and sociology approach the individual only as a statistical manifestation of generalized and abstracted characteristics. (Thus the disease is more important than the patient, who represents for the medical profession only a manifestation of it, a “case.”)
Pike’s point is that the recent dominant trends of art and literature have echoed and reinforced the instrumentalization and taxonomizing of human experience rather than challenging it. This seems hard to deny, although bad literature has always done this to some extent.
But Pike paints the picture as rather dire by phrasing it in a somewhat transcendental way: by saying that we must construct a unity and understanding that seems ever more difficult to reach as the world gets bigger, faster, and more complicated. If Musil couldn’t build this unity, what chance do we have?
What Pike calls “an awakened subjectivity that would somehow expand outwards from the individual to the social and cultural world” seems unlikely when phrased that way. Better to think of it as latent possibilities in language and action (in which subjectivity participates), beaten-down and ignored by the dominant forces of the world, to which we can attune ourselves through open-mindedness and study.
I think this is what Musil was after in the first place, hence why he needed to spend such great time dissecting unsatisfactory languages. Not an awakened subjectivity, but an expanded world. All our experience is already in our language, if language can only be wrangled into sufficiently compelling conceptual forms. Faced with the richness of language’s conceptual possibilities, many writers and scholars have sought to reduce and contain it. Destroying this reduction of language would be enough to avoid the reduction and ignorance of experience.