Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A failed pursuit of morality: When a scientist writes a novel

The subject of this post is Robert Musil and his novel “The man without qualities”.  Reading a two-volume novel was always going to be a real challenge, let alone an unfinished one.  George Orwell once said “writing is an exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness”. Well, reading the man without qualities is equally painful I would say. This post is not meant to be a book review and I’m not qualified to write one in the first place. However, I can’t resist expressing my frustration with the prevailing “nothingness” and absence of any sort of plot in the endless 1700 pages. Yet, the book was certainly worth reading.

 Reading more about Musil’s background and writings, it was evident that very few literary works had the same influence as Musil’s unfinished novel on German and perhaps European modernism. The man without qualities is one of the early works that have absorbed Freudian philosophy. This was particularly apparent in defining the characters’ sexual incentives. Some passages are actually just a reflection of the deep meaning of erotica where a sexually charged scene ends with no encounters.

Another interesting aspect of Musil’s work is the implicit acknowledgment of political and social change, an integral part of the formation of modernism. This change is often characterized by the absence of a reference. Parallel ideas are left in suspension and everything seems blurry and subjective. There was really no shortage of space to layout as many philosophical twists before the reader as Musil’s imagination could produce. Surely, Musil didn’t think of a page limit and had he lived longer, the finished work could have been even more colossal.

The book in a way is a reflection of Musil’s life and the transitions he encountered. An engineer turned into an obsessed psychologist and philosopher is an unusual transformation. Yet, his scientific background has left the most impact on his unfinished novel. The relativity of ideas and values is another transformation of Einstein's theory of relativity in Musil’s mind. The man without qualities is full of observations of personalities, ideologies and society that can only be spotted by a scientifically trained observer. Perhaps Musil, the scientist, had acknowledged the turbulent human nature and that being different is normal but when normality prevails morality fails.