The Austrian novelist Robert Musil ranks with Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka among major German writers of the 20th century, but the highly essayistic nature of much of his writing makes him less of a storyteller than Mann and less of a pure modernist than Kafka. None the less, his extraordinary intelligence and his genius for metaphor allowed him to achieve in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities) a prose that has few equals in German literature, and no one writing in German in the 20th century has had more balanced or penetrating insight into so broad a range of issues.
The task of Musil’s fiction was to invent the inner person and to extend our understanding in the realm of the soul by portraying borderline experiences of perception, sexuality, and mysticism. His first novel, Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Torless (Young Torless), established these themes when he was only 25; this portrayal of adolescent homosexuality and political conflict is the most realistic and accessible of Musil’s narrative works, but even here the emphasis is on the protagonist’s inner crisis and his complex feelings about sexuality and the behaviour of those around him. In the stories of Vereinigungen [Unions] Musil continued to explore sexuality and ethical experience, but now from the perspective of feminine consciousness; by this time, Musil was familiar with Freud and ready for an ambitious experiment in the metaphorical representation of inwardness. In these stories, as in the aesthetically more perfected novellas of Drei Frauen (Five Women) and the play Die Schwarmer (The Enthusiasts), Musil was preoccupied with the unreal life of the feelings—not the lives we lead but the lives we feel.
What makes Musil a writer of such a high order is that he was able to deal with these psychological themes in relation to the problems of modern, technological society and the breakdown of traditional European ideologies. His scientific training and his dissertation on Ernst Mach (1908) not only established his high level of scientific sophistication, but provided him with the tools for criticizing outmoded ideologies and theories of human nature and history. Drawing on Nietzsche as well as Mach, Musil began to develop his critique of ideology and morality in the essays that he wrote for the Neue Rundschau and other liberal journals before World War I. But it was the war that brought his characteristic themes into focus, and the major essays of the post war period clarified his view that European civilization before 1914 had failed to create a meaningful cultural and emotional life. The realm of the spirit had failed to keep pace with the practical achievements of the age.
Burton Pike is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and German at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has also taught at the University of Hamburg, Germany, Cornell, and Queens and Hunter Colleges of CUNY, and was a Visiting Professor at Yale. He has had a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1992 was awarded the Medal of Merit by the City of Klagenfurt, Austria, for his work on Robert Musil. He is a member of the PEN Translation Committee, and until recently a member of the Board of the International Musil Society.
Precision and Soul by Robert Musil, ..
Professor Pike wrote the first critical study of Musil (Cornell, 1961) and has edited and co-translated a number of his works: Robert Musil: Selected Writings (Continuum, 1986), Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses (Chicago, 1990), and The Man without Qualities (Knopf, 1995), a translation which was awarded a special citation by the PEN/Book of the Month Club Prize. He has contributed chapters on Musil to The New History of German Literature (Harvard, 2004) and The Musil Companion (Camden House, 2007).
Precision and Soul : Essays and Addresses
David Luft joined the OSU History Department in the fall of 2008 as Thomas Hart and Mary Jones Horning Professor in the Humanities. He is the author of Eros and Inwardness in Vienna: Weininger, Musil, Doderer (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture: 1880–1942 (University of California Press, 1980). He was also co-translator and co-editor with Burton Pike of Precision and Soul, the essays and addresses of Robert Musil (Chicago, 1990). Luft is currently working on another translation edition, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the Austrian Idea, and writing an intellectual history of German-speaking Austria since the late 18th century: The Austrian Tradition in German Culture.