philosophy

THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES BY ROBERT MUSIL

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil has been on my to-read list [or more appropriately my to-finish list] for about two years. [Two fucking years…my relationships don’t even last that long]. It is, along with Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time, part of the holy trinity of overly long and difficult novels. It is to novels what The World’s Biggest Gangbang is to porn: stupidly ambitious and inevitably exhausting. Anyway, I have finally finished it. I, to continue my metaphor, have taken all of Musil’s intellectual cocks and come out of it, aching and sore, but alive. But did I enjoy the experience? To a large extent, yes, but I have some reservations.

One of my main criticisms of the book is that reading it felt like being stuck in a traffic jam with an interesting and engaging companion. The thing is, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have been even more interested in what I was being told if I had actually been going somewhere; that the feeling of, the frustration caused by, immobility compromised my enjoyment and distracted my attention. The novel lacks what I would call narrative movement, or momentum. Now, this would not be too much of a problem if it were shorter. Yasunari Kawabata’s books do not go anywhere, they almost completely lack plot, but they work as short and evocative pieces. However, The Man Without Qualities is over 1000 pages, hundreds of pages of which are given over to quite rigorous philosophical essays. A plot relating to a campaign to celebrate the reign of a king is essentially wrapped around these philosophical musings, like a piece of delicate lace.

Upon finishing the book I was left with an impression of failure. It is neither a successful novel, nor a successful philosophy text. It tries to be both and therefore fails, because they are two separate disciplines. One has to lean more towards one type of writing, otherwise one ends up bobbing along somewhere between the two, and actually negating the benefits of either. Unlike his contemporaries Joyce or Proust or Mann, Musil doesn’t seem to be in control of his work. Over 500 pages in he is still wrestling with the nature of human consciousness and the questions what is greatness? and how should one live one’s life? It is as though he took on too many of the big questions and ended up being defeated by them [which was always going to be the case]. Having said this, there is something heroic about his endeavour, something moving even. Musil spent over 20 years writing The Man Without Qualities and died without finishing it, because what does it mean to be human? is a question not answerable by one man. You have to admire him for trying though.

Addendum

I actually wrote this review something like four years ago. I wasn’t blogging at the time, so I posted it on my facebook page. Oh yeah, I’m really that boring. In any case, since reading the book, and writing this review, I have had time to think about my experience of Musil’s epic work and have changed my mind somewhat. On reflection, I feel less convinced that it is a failure; i feel more well-disposed towards it. Yes, it is flawed, but, I dunno, like with a face, its flaws almost give it character. The Man Without Qualities is imperfect, is poorly paced and structurally somewhat of a mess, but life is imperfect, life is messy, and maybe, inadvertently, Musil’s flaws as a writer say as much about the human condition as the long philosophical passages in his novel.

ECCE HOMO BY FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Chapter 1: Why I am so brilliant

I am without weakness. I am intellectually, morally, and physically impeccable. It is surprising, to say the least, that I am not worshipped like a God.

Chapter 2: Why I am so wise

It takes a man of special genius to be able to think and write the way that I do. My genius, I ought to add, is in my eyebrows.

Chapter 3: Why I write such good reviews

My reviews are witty and perceptive, and boast an intellectual punch that is likely to knock you off your feet; I am able to engage the mind and touch the heart within the space of a single sentence. My reviews are both personal and impersonal. As my old friend Hegel suggested, this coming together of opposing concepts creates something greater than its constituent parts.

Chapter 4: Why Nietzsche is my inferior

Well, he’s dead, for one thing. And I never inspired the Nazis.

Chapter 5: Why this book speaks to me

I’m a bit of a tosser; quite often I am an arrogant tosser. A couple of examples:

1. A while ago I was out for a drink with a group of work colleagues…The good guys never get the girls, opined James as the lady he had his eye on pissed off with another man. I’m a good guy and I get loads, said I.

2. While at university I once spent an Ethics seminar arguing that any pregnant woman under the age of 25 ought to be forced to have an abortion, because, oh I don’t know, just for the hell of it. At a party during that semester a girl came up to me…

Did you really say that all women under 25 should be forced to have an abortion? she said.

Yes.

ì’ve got children and I’m 23.

Good for you.

Are you not going to retract what you said?

No. But I promise to never say anything like that again if you fuck off.

Ah, Friedrich and I: we are comrades in cuntishness.

Chapter 6: Why you ought to read Ecce Homo

If there was ever a philosophy text [of the most profound sort] that one ought to read for the laughs, as well as for the insight, then Ecce Homo is it. I am a philosophy graduate, and, certainly within my field, there are a large number of gruelling humourless monsters, like, for example, Being and Time [which I spent most of my third year studying]. I learnt a lot from those books, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t read them purely for pleasure. You won’t open up Being and Nothingness at random, glance down the page and think ha ha ha, you cheeky bugger, that’s hilarious, but you might when flicking through this text. Neitszche has a novelist’s touch; he appeared to realize that the best way to get one’s ideas across, to motivate people to want to read one’s books, was to be provocative and entertaining. Ecce Homo is his final text and is, in essence, an investigation, an overview, an elucidation, of his previous work; there’s an intimate gather round and let me tell you about all my great ideas. You may have missed them or misunderstood them the first time around, feel to the thing, and for these reasons it is probably the best introduction to one of the greatest philosophers.

As for the controversy surrounding the man, I don’t doubt for one second that he was in earnest with regards to many of his ideas, but I am of the opinion that some of the outrageous things he wrote/said were designed to jab you like a pencil to the small of your back, to wake you up, make you concentrate. To some extent he was saying: don’t just accept the first lazy thought that enters your head, don’t just fall in with popular opinion. Speculate! Be original! And that’s the finest example anyone could set for you.

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One last thing, although I am in no way comparing, in terms of quality or philosophical rigour, a book review to the work of a man of genius, if you find this review irritating then you’ll likely think the same thing of Ecce Homo.  

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

I first read Crime and Punishment when I was 14. I was, at that time, perhaps this book’s perfect reader, maybe even a perfect reader for any book; I was certainly the happiest reader I’ve ever been. I find these days that I cannot read purely for enjoyment, that I spend half my time mentally composing reviews while I turn pages. Yet when I was a teenager I wasn’t interested in literary criticism, and did not have a huge backlog of knowledge about world literature to draw from. Truth be told, my tastes were pretty unsophisticated. I knew what I liked, of course, but I didn’t really know why; and I’m sad, in a way, that I cannot go back to that state of innocence, because the more great works that I have read, the greater my critical faculty has become, the more impossible it is for a book to completely please or impress me. I mention all this, because when recently rereading Crime and Punishment I felt a little disheartened. Unfortunately, I can no longer cherish it in the way that I once did.

I doubt there are any people reading this review who are not aware of the book’s basic plot. However, just in case, here is a very brief summation: impoverished young man decides to murder woman, in part to rob her and in part [so he claims] to showcase his superiority and therefore his right to behave as he pleases, morally. What then ensues is a game of cat and mouse between the killer, Raskolnikov, and the police. Crime and Punishment is, then, a kind of existential thriller.

2013-10-14-crime[One of Fritz Eichenberg’s Crime & Punishment illustrations]

Kafka is often lazily thrown around as a comparison when reviewing or talking about literature – effectively serving as little more than a substitute for weird – but in this instance I believe that it is worthwhile to look at Raskolnikov in relation to Josef K, from The Trial. Like Josef K, Raskolnikov is oppressed at every turn, tragically and absurdly and comically. K., however, is oppressed by things outside of himself, by the other, by other people’s inability to reason, while Raskolnikov is oppressed by himself, by what is inside, by his own inability to reason his way through situations. He knows exactly how to behave in his own best interests and yet cannot; indeed he seems deliberately to draw attention to himself, and actively seeks out people to confess to. I know that some, and maybe Dostoevsky himself, would call this inability to reason conscience, but he is exactly the same prior to the murder. For example, despite being poor he turns down work when it offered to him. What I find most interesting about the Kafka-Dostoevsky comparison is that it maybe explains why Kafka is increasingly relevant and the Russian less so, because we, as a society, are more outward looking than inward looking, we tend to find our oppression in other people, rather than ourselves.

It is baffling to me that Raskolnokov is often described by readers as someone who successfully acts out a clearly defined philosophy. Yes, I know there is some stuff in the text, voiced by Raskolnikov, about supremacy and a kind of utilitarian approach to life and morality [i.e. that if good can come from the death of a wicked person, then one ought to remove the wicked person; or at least it isn’t bad to do so]. But I wouldn’t say the philosophy is clearly defined, nor is it successfully acted upon. In fact, it strikes me that this is Dostoevsky’s point, that these kinds of approaches are ok in theory, but that reality is a whole lot messier, a whole lot more difficult to control and predict. In any case, Raskolnikov isn’t any kind of success, he is actually a complete failure, both personally and philosophically. Indeed, he is, to a large extent, socially inept or awkward. Perhaps that is why young men and students often identify with him and the book.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

It is not oft mentioned but Dostoevsky’s work, and this novel in particular, is at times really very funny. All of the characters, or nearly all, are grotesque and emotionally abnormal. Take, for example, the ranting Berhardian monologues, of which there are many here [but which occur much less frequently in his more sophisticated work]. Ranting is inherently funny, to me anyway, because it involves a loss of control. It is almost a kind of physical comedy, like someone falling down or tripping up or losing their footing on ice. There is, too, a kind of randomness to the behaviour and actions of the characters, people do not act according to our [realist] expectations. Indeed, while one may anticipate that Raskolnikov – as the murderer, as a paranoiac – will behave oddly, he actually seems hardly any less volatile than a handful of other major players, such as Razumikhin, who takes a shine to the killer’s sister. This jolting unpredictability is amusing precisely because it is unexpected or unexplainable. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the book, a chronic absurdity, which means that I struggle to understand the furrow-browed, earnest response to it from many readers. Crime and Punishment is, let’s face it, to a large extent epically silly.

One could say, however, that this chronic absurdity, this epic Gogolian silliness, is a flaw with the work. Raskolnikov, we’re led to believe, is meant to be a man in torment, a man apart, a man isolated, a man in conflict with his conscience and his soul. But If he does not appear any crazier, does not strike us as more anguished, more unpredictable, and less in control of himself and his emotions, than nearly everyone else in the book, surely Dostoevsky’s vision is compromised. if you feel that the point of the book was, with high-seriousness, to explore one man’s descent into insanity, one man’s struggle with his own soul, then the book cannot possibly be deemed a success. Of course, Dostoevsky wasn’t incapable of providing contrasts, of writing straight men, serious men, sane men. There is the pious Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, for example. But Crime and Punishment was written 14 years earlier, and so perhaps he wasn’t yet capable of that kind of subtlety, and that for me is what makes it one of his lesser works.

It must also be said that the book suffers from more than just the failure to successfully execute its ideas. I was struck by how tedious and inorganic it is in places. Dostoevsky’s major novels all involve long passages in which characters exchange or discuss philosophical, moral, issues. Yet, here those conversations lack the power of those, for example, in Brothers Karamazov. Furthermore, there are pages and pages of essentially aimless interaction. Raskolnokov’s mother says almost nothing of any note, and yet she isn’t adverse to rambling on, often incoherently. Likewise, Ramusikhin is often guilty of this, as in Sonia’s mother. These characters repeat themselves frequently, and while it does, as mentioned earlier, contribute to the absurd Kafkian atmosphere, it does become, well, boring over nearly 600 pages. How is it inorganic? Dostoevsky was never the most controlled writer, his novels not often finely plotted. Here, the plot feels stage-managed, there are too many occasions when you can see the strings, when Dostoevsky signposts what he is doing. By this I mean that someone will say something or overhear something or there will be some unbelievable coincidence, and each time the purpose is obviously simply to move along the story in a particular direction.

So, if you consider Crime and Punishment a failure [relative to his best work, of course; it’s still better than most things out there], as I do, what reason is there to read it? Well, the book has much to say about the state of the world, about every man, not just one individual isolated from the rest of [civilised?] society. The world of Crime and Punishment is a world in collapse, in disintegration, where women can silently, randomly, throw themselves off a bridge; it is a world where near everyone is going loco and that is what, in my opinion, gives the book its power. In fact, to my mind Raskolnikov is reacting against this state of the world when he does the dirty deed, as he sees it as a way of distinguishing himself from other people, people he considers louses. The key to the work, for me, is that while Raskolnikov seeks to prove his superiority, to set himself apart as a great man, a man who as great is therefore outside of conventional moral obligations, he comes to realise that he isn’t any of those things, that he is, in fact, just like everyone else. That, indeed, while initially contributing to his anguish eventually leads to his salvation.