Living Essayistically


Arts & Culture

Robert Musil. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am looking at a photograph of a late-middle-aged man in a gray suit with broad lapels. He is wearing a bow tie. There are dark leaves behind him and the lines of a sunlit house. His right hand dangles across the armrest of a wicker chair in which he is sitting with one leg draped over the other. The left hand, wearing a signet ring, rests on a round table and is loosely holding a cigarette. The face could belong to a European diplomat or businessman of a now extinct type: refined, austere, intellectual. The dark, dense eyebrows add an expression of calm virility. The only incongruous detail is the eyes: they are closed.

One assumes at first that the snapshot was taken at the moment of blinking. But it is difficult to imagine this face with the eyes open, because all its features and in fact the whole gesture of the body, which at first glance appeared so urbanely relaxed in its well-tailored suit, are drained of motility, as if drugged. At any minute, the cigarette may drop from between those slackly curved fingers. Is this a picture of mortal exhaustion or of extremely attenuated contemplation? Probably it is both. The man depicted is Robert Musil, who died at the age of sixty-one, less than two years after this photograph was taken. At Musil’s funeral, which was attended by eight people, the eulogist applied to him a statement Musil had made about Rilke: “He was not a summit of this age—he was one of those elevations upon which the destiny of the human spirit strides across ages.”

Today no one would dream of describing a human being in such grandiose terms—a political program, perhaps, or a space mission, but not a person, and certainly not a writer. It may have something to do with the expectations writers have of themselves, and with a rather diminished sense, generally, of the human spirit having any sort of destiny. Perhaps it’s better that way. A more modest perspective may open up a vision of what is staring us in the face: that unless we supply the essential necessities to the collective body of man, the spirit may have to find another planet for the fulfillment of its destiny. Musil himself was coming to a similar conclusion near the end of his life (chastened, perhaps, by the enormity of World War II and by his own experience of severe poverty): “The most important thing is not to produce spiritual values, but food, clothing, security, order … And it is just as important to produce the principles necessary for the supply of food, clothing, etc. Let us call it—the spirit of privation.” Elsewhere he described himself as “building a house of cards as the earth begins to crack.”

The house of cards was a huge, phenomenally ambitious construction, more than twenty years in the making and never finished, titled The Man without Qualities—a satire on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a utopian novel about untried possibilities of being, a meditation on the nature of history, a critique of the major ideologies of the twentieth century, an attempt to combine the different exactitudes of reason and mysticism. The book, a critical success after its first volume was published in 1930, was virtually unknown at the time of the author’s death in 1942. Today it is frequently mentioned along with Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time as one of the great modern novels.


The term novel bears a great deal of stretching. Randall Jarrell’s witty definition—“a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”—seems designed to fit most if not all cases. But The Man without Qualities does not match that description because it appears to be intent, from the beginning, on subverting narration itself. As soon as a lively scene or dramatic incident threatens to turn into a story, a train of reflection comes along to interrupt it. Some of these digressions exfoliate in the protagonist’s brain or issue from his mouth in lengthy soliloquies, others accompany his reflections as a kind of meta-commentary, still others play themselves out in his absence, describing the mental and emotional states of other characters, or detach themselves entirely from the novel’s plot to disport themselves freely in a chapter or two of their own.

But perhaps the idea of narration bears some stretching as well. Essay, in this quintessentially essayistic novel, is the mode for depicting a mind so active that it nearly constitutes a character independent of the man whose mind it is. That man is a thirty-two-year-old Austrian mathematician known to the reader only by his first name, Ulrich, who, disillusioned in his quest for intellectual glory after reading in a newspaper about a racehorse of genius, decides to take a yearlong “vacation from life,” which he conceives of as an experiment in pure philosophical contemplation—“living essayistically,” he calls it—in the hope of perhaps, by that pathless route, discovering an occupation better suited to his abilities. If he does not find it within a year, he will put an end to his life, because, to his fanatically logical and consequent mind, an unjustified life is not worth living.


One of Ulrich’s favorite maxims is that reality is just a possibility: everything that happens could have turned out differently. So it is no surprise to him when, almost immediately after he begins his retreat from active engagement with the world, his father, a prominent legal scholar, introduces him to a circle of socialites, aristocrats, financiers, and intellectuals who are nothing less than obsessed with action. They are planning a “great patriotic campaign” to celebrate the seventieth jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef in December 1918. They call it the Parallel Campaign because a similar festival is being prepared in Germany for the thirtieth anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign in the same year. Upstaging the Germans is no small matter, especially as the Parallel Campaign’s director, the benign and elderly Count Leinsdorf, seems constitutionally unable to make a decision without crippling it with dilatory maneuvers. But the ultimate goal is both noble and grand: to demonstrate, with a resounding festival, Austria’s preeminence among nations as a fountainhead of culture, intellect, beneficence, peace, and, why not, military might as well.

Ulrich is appointed the honorary secretary of this cabal, and it is mainly through his eyes that we witness the high-minded pedantry, boondoggle, and oratorical pomp, with a dash of chicanery in the mix, by which its members contrive to get nothing done in their endeavor.


Ulrich’s year of “vacation from life” begins in August 1913. Sarajevo is just ten months away. Of course he cannot know this. The Parallel Campaign’s designs for a pan-Austrian peace festival will eventuate almost on schedule in the collapse of the empire following Germany’s defeat in a pan-European war. None of the characters in The Man without Qualities are prepared for the impending disaster.

Does that lead their endeavors and hopes ad absurdum? Not at all. Nothing was further from Musil’s intentions than a grim demonstration of historical necessity, for the simple reason that he did not believe in such a thing. Every one of his characters, even the most foolish and most deranged, is an avatar of possibility. The war itself, even though it actually happened, was no more and no less than that.


One of the many received notions Ulrich takes pleasure in discarding is that a man—not just any man and not, generally speaking, a woman, but a man of account in the world—must be endowed with qualities for which he is known and by which he knows himself. Ulrich has many admirable and a few unattractive qualities, but they don’t adhere to him; they are not, to his own perception, even tangentially his. Because he commits himself to this paradox and lives authentically within it, he exerts, especially on women, a mysterious appeal that one jealous friend characterizes as the empty glamour of “a man without qualities.” That is a designation Ulrich is happy to accept, and in fact he is that in much the same way that a tightrope walker can be said to be a man or woman without gravity. Ulrich performs, on an often brilliantly funny level of abstraction, the dizzying, high-stakes adventure of divesting himself of all the cultural axioms that support what his contemporaries agree to call “reality,” in order finally to arrive at the great Platonic question, and to ask it in earnest and without flinching: What is the good life—or the holy life, if you will—and how can one live it without self-deception, and without retreating into prerational modes of feeling and thinking, in a world that has lost its passion for the good?

This question does not crystallize in Ulrich’s thoughts until he meets his sister Agathe more than seven hundred pages into the novel. Her name—which, significantly, is derived from the Greek word for “good”—has not been mentioned before: she appears, as it were, out of nowhere. As their relationship unfolds (how apt the floral image in that metaphor seems here: a continual, unhurried opening and disclosure), one has the impression that she has been present to him all along precisely by her absence. In all his dealings with both men and women before meeting Agathe, Ulrich has displayed charm, diplomacy, lust, aloofness, private scorn, occasional stirrings of compassion, but on the whole a notable absence of tenderness, let alone love. Something was missing. Now she is here.

Their encounter marks the beginning of a radical departure for Ulrich and for the novel itself. The narrator describes it in a rare address to the reader several chapters further on:

But whoever has not already picked up the clues to what was developing between this brother and sister, let him put aside this account, for it describes an adventure he will never be able to approve of: a voyage to the edge of the possible, leading past, and perhaps not always steering clear of, the dangers of the impossible and the unnatural, indeed of the repulsive; a “limit case,” as Ulrich later called it, of restricted and special validity, reminiscent of the freedom with which mathematics occasionally employs the absurd in order to arrive at truth. He and Agathe came upon a path that had much in common with the business of the God-possessed, but they walked it without piety, without believing in God or the soul, or even in a Beyond or a Once Again; they had come upon it as human beings belonging to this world and walked it as such: and just that was the remarkable thing about it.


Agathe and Ulrich withdraw from society, eventually retreating to Ulrich’s little rococo château in the middle of Vienna as if to an island. For a while, in obedience to social pressure, they attend elegant soirees with the idea of finding a new husband for Agathe (she intends to divorce the man she is married to), and Ulrich pays visits to various friends and acquaintances, including the luminaries of the Parallel Campaign. But before long, these worldly forays recede from the novel’s horizon, until the siblings’ retreat becomes near absolute. Their private adventure, both spiritual and erotic, becomes the central theme of the novel. That is the principal reason why it was possible for the editor of this book, without violating the novel’s integrity, to excerpt thirty-six chapters, all of them centered on Agathe and Ulrich, as a self-contained narrative, in effect a novel within the novel. A loss of complexity and illuminating contrast is unavoidably entailed in this experiment; but that loss, I believe, is offset by the gain of unbroken concentration on what Agathe calls “the last possible love story.”


The main part of the first volume, after a brief introductory section called, ironically, “A Sort of Beginning,” is titled “Seinesgleichen geschieht”—“The Like of It Happens.” This little gem of compressed bitterness expresses, with epigrammatic precision, a state of affairs in which the same thoughtless habits of speech and emotion, the same petrified rules and dogmas, inadequate moral systems, and ingrained patterns of behavior, repeat themselves ad nauseam under the guise of novelty and innovation. If one extends that observation beyond the span of personal existence to history itself and perceives its epochs and eras succeeding each other like the meaningless trends of fashion with little or no advance in moral intelligence, one can begin to appreciate, if not necessarily share, Ulrich’s revolt against the self-replicating ways of “reality.”

The second volume, where Agathe makes her entrance, bears a starkly contrasting title: “Into the Millennium,” followed by the parenthetical subtitle “(The Criminals).”

The millennium, in German, is das tausendjährige Reich, a term that, irrespective of Hitler’s use of it as a slogan for his twelve-year reign, carries a good deal more emotional charge and mythic resonance than the Latinate English word, which in our century most of us have come to associate with the turn of a page in the calendar. It is the name for the thousand-year kingdom of peace prophesied in the Bible and fervently awaited by millenarian sects through the centuries and still today. One does not expect Robert Musil to invoke such a reference without irony. He was as imbued with the ethos of the Enlightenment as any twentieth-century author, a merciless critic of all kinds of mystification, secular as well as religious. Nevertheless, it is the skeptical, scientifically trained Ulrich, in many ways Musil’s alter ego, who declares to his sister, only half jokingly, that together they will embark on a voyage to that fabled, improbable realm.

The source of his faith is not a belief founded in Scripture but a memory referred to by the title of an early chapter as “The long forgotten and supremely important affair with the major’s wife”—an unconsummated romance when he was a twenty-year-old recruit that ended with his fleeing the object of his love and withdrawing to a remote island. There he experienced “the very state described by those believers in God who have entered the state of mystic love, of whom the young cavalry lieutenant at that time knew nothing at all.” This condition is so different from ordinary consciousness that it constitutes a “second reality,” in which “love is not a desire for possession but a gentle self-unveiling of the world for which one would gladly forgo possession of the beloved.” Ever since then, at transient moments in the midst of his otherwise worldly and alienated existence, he has felt intimations of that same state of being, which he calls “the other condition.” The descriptions of this state in the writings of the mystics speak to him “in tones of intimate kinship; with a soft, dark inwardness” that is “the opposite of the imperious tone of mathematical and scientific language.” (The word translated above as “intimate kinship” is Geschwisterlichkeit. It is usually translated as “fraternity,” but the root of the German word is Schwester, meaning “sister.” In such subtle ways is Agathe prefigured—announced as it were—early on in the novel.)

Ulrich has no intention of renouncing science and mathematics. Their austere beauty is the passion of his intellect. But he rejects the rationalist prejudice against mystical experience, which has its own, necessarily poetic and metaphoric language, just as he rejects, with a good deal of revulsion, the sentimental cult of “spiritual” feeling pitted against the hard-won attainments of reason.


Is Ulrich unhappy or despairing? Not in the usual sense we give to these words. He is extremely lonely but is too tough-minded to indulge in self-pity, and he enjoys human company, though always at an ironic remove. Vaguely, he notices that he does not love himself as he once did, but it is in the nature of such lack that it largely occludes what was lost. It’s probably fairest to say that he has a genius for disillusionment. In any case, by the time he departs for the provincial city of —— to discharge himself of his filial obligations on the occasion of the death of his father, he has shed almost all of his attachments and ambitions and is open to whatever unforeseen possibilities life may have to offer him.


Joel Agee is a writer and translator. He has received several prizes, including the Berlin Prize of the American Academy in Berlin in 2008 and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea. He is the author of two memoirs—Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and, more recently, In the House of My Fear. His translation of Prometheus Bound was produced at the Getty Villa in 2013 and published in the NYRB Classics series in 2015. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The above is an abridged excerpt from the introduction to Agathe; or, The Forgotten Sister, by Robert Musil, translated from the German by Joel Agee, published by New York Review Books. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Joel Agee.