Topos Uranios: Robert Musil on Truth, Opinion and the Media

One of the threads that runs throughout Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, is the lines that are blurred, especially by those in authority and the media, between truth and opinion.  The protagonist, Ulrich, is hired to be a part of the campaign to celebrate the 70th jubilee of Franz Josef’s reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and suddenly finds himself coming in contact with the Austrian social, political and economic elites.  One such character is not even Austrian, but a Prussian businessman and prolific writer named Arnheim whose celebrity status outweighs the fact that he is not from the mother country yet is helping to plan a nationalist campaign to celebrate Austria.  The media adores this man of industry, a veritable Renaissance man who is able to discuss and be knowledgeable on just about any topic.  When the Austrian media is supposed to be covering the Austrian campaign to celebrate its Austria emperor, it is Arnheim, the Prussian, that most interests them.  Musil’s commentary on the situation is clever, witty and still relevant 100 years later:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In an age when one is just as likely to see or read a news story about world politics as the Kardashians in any major, global news outlet, this paragraph could just as well have been written about the current state of truth/opinion/media.


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A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

I’ve spent the last couple of days immersed in Musil’s enormous, 1,400 plus, two volume, unfinished Magnum Opus and have been completely drawn in and captivated by his writing.  My reading experience reminds me, so far, of War and Peace, which I devoured the winter before last in a matter of three weeks.  Musil constantly switches his narrative back and forth among different characters, buildings layers of interest through his third person point-of-view.  He starts, of course, with his main character, Ulrich—the very man without qualities—and then gives us portraits of those with whom Ulrich has contact, from the maid of a distant cousin, to a convicted murder in the news headlines,  to important members of the Austrian government.  What makes an epic book like this, and War and Peace, a truly great piece of literature is the level of riveting detailed that is maintained throughout the writing.

Another initial impression I have from reading the first few hundred pages of A Man without Qualities is what a brilliant and amazing wit Musil possesses.  I didn’t quite detect it, not at this level anyway, from reading his shorter works.  The chapter titles, for instance, are cleverly  funny: Chapter 28 is “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” and Chapter 39 is “A man without qualities consists of qualities without a man.”

In addition, when Musil is satirizing upper class society, intellectuals and the Austrian bureaucracy he uses bizarre and hilarious metaphors.  “But even at that time, as one got older and on longer acquaintance with the smokehouse of the mind, in which the world cures the bacon of its daily affairs, one learned to adapt oneself to reality, and a person with a trained mind would finally end up limiting himself to his specialty and spend the rest of his life convinced that the whole of life should perhaps be different, but there was no point in thinking about it. This is more of less how people who follow intellectual pursuits maintain their equilibrium.”  Ulrich has had failed careers as a soldier and an academic mathematician and now, while he tries to decide what he should do with the rest of his life,  he accidentally falls into a governmental position.  Ulrich is appointed to the committee that is planning a celebration of the 70th year of Franz Josef’s reign, a committee which has no real goals, no concrete ideas and isn’t quite sure what to call itself.  Musil’s wit reminds me of Dickens whose novel Little Dorrit, in particular,  is mixed with witty and serious commentary on the ludicrous nature of bureaucracy.

But Musil doesn’t go too far with his humor which would make his characters ridiculous and uninteresting.  Ulrich’s existential crisis and his inability to choose a career cause him to do a great deal of thinking and these passages are some of the most philosophical, and profound, of the novel:

Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change.  It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time.  In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whos appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently.  What is even more peculiar is that most people don’t even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune.  Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape.

Some might find a novel with such a philosophical bent tedious, but this type of writing is what draws me to Tolstoy, and Dickens and now to Musil.

My friend and fellow blogger Tony is also reading A Man without Qualities and has an excellent post on the theme of mathematics in Musil that I encourage everyone to also read:


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A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

Even though this final work of Tolstoy’s, not published until after his death, is rather brief, the narrative techniques are similar to his greatest historical novel, War and Peace. The eponymous hero of the book is Hadji Murat, a well-respected, Muslim tribal leader. During the 1851 Chechen revolt against the Russians, Murat helped lead the locals in the charge against the Russians who claimed that they were bringing modern government and prosperity to an archaic, Muslim state. Tolstoy’s story constantly switches back and forth between characters that range from the lowest peasants in the Chechen villages to Prince Nicholas I. This incessant picking up and dropping off of different narrative threads is what causes me to devour his novels. What will happen to the soldier who is shot while on night watch? Which lover will Prince Nicholas choose? And how will Murat meet his tragic end?

Murat is drawn into an argument with Shamil, the leader of the Chechen revolt, and defects to the Russian side when Shamil captures and threatens Murat’s family. Tolstoy portrays both sides as flawed and Murat is caught between two ruthless, cruel and unpredictable dictators. There may be cultural difference between east and west—in dress, religion, social habits, etc. But one thing they have in common is the brutality of an all-powerful despot. My favorite passage in the book is Tolstoy’s description of Nicholas I, which could also just as easily describe many a world leader in the 21st century:

The flattery, continuous, obvious, completely divorced from reality—of the people around him had distorted his vision of himself to such an extent that he no longer saw his own contradictions, did not attempt to reconcile his actions and words with reality or logic or even basic common sense and was quite convinced that all his directions, however senseless, unfair and contradictory they might be, became unreasonable, fair and consistent with each other simply because he had delivered them.


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Have Some Good Wine: Horace, Ode 2.11

Another of Horace’s Carpe Diem poems (translation is my own):

May you stop wondering, Quinctius Hirpinus, what the warlike
Cantabrian or the Scythian, separated from us by the Adriatic Sea,
are plotting, and may you not be anxious about what purpose life
has for us, life that demands few things. Fickle youth and beauty
slip behind us, while boring old-age drives away playful love
and easy sleep. Spring flowers do not hold their beauty forever,
nor does the red moon perpetually glow with the same appearance.
Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a
soul that is not up to such a task? Why should we not, instead,
have some good wine, while we still can, reclining under a lofty
plane or pine tree—in fact, let us do this without a care in the
world, and adorn our gray hair with flowers and Assyrian scents.
Bacchus drives away our all-consuming worries. What servant is readily
available to dilute the cups of fiery Falernian wine with water
from the flowing stream? Who will lure Lyde, that wild sex fiend,
from her house? Come on now, and use your ivory lyre to persuade her
to hurry up—she has her hair arranged in that sexy, Laconian Greek way.



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Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry