In Which The Sensuality Of Robert Musil Reaches A Great Height

His Qualities

I consider it more important to write a book than to rule an empire.

After discarding his early career as an engineer, the mercurial Austrian writer Robert Musil turned inwards. He was always a selfish only child, quick to anger. Nothing changed in adulthood. His overlong, overly serious novel The Man Without Qualities can be difficult to read today, and his accompanying diaries come across as frighteningly lacking in self-awareness at times. They offer a tantalizing glimpse of a creature consistently on the verge of himself. The following excerpts were written during the early part of the twentieth century, and were translated by Philip Payne.

A sign of the times. So many diaries are published. It is the most convenient, the least disciplined form.

Good. Perhaps diaries will become the only kind of writing since everything else seems unbearable. By the way, why generalize?

It is pure analysis – no more, no less. It isn’t art. It’s not intended to be. Why waste many words on it?


We have now almost completely forgotten something that former novelists were good at: creating tension!

We merely capture our listeners. That is we try to write with wit and to avoid boring passages. Wherever we go, we pull the listener along with us.

Creating tension, on the other hand, means making the listener anticipate what is coming. Making him think along with us, allowing him to go on his own down the way we point out for him. A certain cozy feeling of being there with us. The comic novel lives off this feeling. One points toward a situation that is about to arise and the thought emerges: what will good old X do now then?

This requires a good deal of miniature painting with the various types. But, however antiquated it seems, it is still an instance of artistic effect in contrast to the effects produced by philosophers and essayists.

“What have I done then?” This motif, which would be sentimental if it were not lapidary, is H’s motif. H. is quite innocent, i.e., touching and yet often ordinary. Precisely her weaknesses must be emphasized. But wherever she appears a simple melody and a breadth of substance must dominate. Her fateful liaison with R. gives symbolical form to the fact that, from a certain perspective, one cannot place faith in the understanding. This is what relates to the basic idea. At the beginning and end of the story stands death. That also has something lapidary about it and thereby provides a symbolical framework. This is the way to depict death: great when out of reach; within reach, simply banal. And the way in which, at the end, the beginning seems to be repeated provides an opportunity to sum up all the changes that have taken place in the intervening span.


I have never finished reading Kant but I don’t let that keep me awake at night, nor do I feel that I shall die with shame because another man has already grasped the world in its entirety.

Another species is made up of those who loved greatly – Christ, Buddha, Goethe – myself, in those days of autumn when I was in love with Valerie.

These do not seek after any truth, but they feel that something within them is coming together into some kind of whole.

This has something purely human about it – a natural process.

And such people can balance one idea 10 against the other, for that new thing which grows within them has fastidious roots.


“Art is a form of sickness. Or rather it would be possible to treat art as a kind of sickness” – this was roughly how I put it in my Paraphrases.

And today, one year later, this idea is reborn within me – so I can see that it really did die in me – just like the whole of that beautiful period.

This sensation of dying– that once led to the abrupt break with Valerie – is evil.

We cannot hold fast to a wonderful insight within us, it withers away, petrifies and then we find that all that is left in our hands is the impoverished logical framework of the idea.


What impressed me in earlier times about Schiller’s moralizing aesthetics was that one sensed it was completely adequate for all one’s needs.

And as far as “the sensual” is concerned, the fiasco can barely be concealed. It is associated with a certain barrenness. What was the harvest that this method brought me in a full year? How few of the hours brought fulfillment. And the price paid for all of this was sloppiness of thought!

It is characteristic of this barrenness that the “great work” seemed to me attainable only via all the stimulants that loneliness, suggestion, and positively hallucinogenic isolation could provide.


Nietzsche says that it might come about that wars are waged for the sake of an insight. He repeats this too often for it to be possible to take him figuratively, to see it as just a mental process.

How we sometimes seem to be moral: Envy, greed, etc., are not bad in themselves, they are not unconditionally bad. But in each case we have to be persuaded by our understanding which reminds us that this holds true.

Nietzsche is like a park given over to public use – but no one goes in!


At the age of thirty, in terms of high culture, one is a beginner, a child. One has to learn to see, one has to learn to think, one has to learn to speak and to write: the goal of all these is an aristocratic culture. To learn to see – to accustom the eye to be calm, patient, to be practiced in “waiting-for-things-to-approach-one”; to defer judgment, to learn to examine, to comprehend the individual case from all sides. This is the first schooling in spirituality: not to react immediately to a stimulus but to get a hold on those instincts that stall and inhibit. To learn to see, as I understand it, is almost the same as what is called – in non-philosophical terminology -“strength of will.” The essential thing here is, precisely, not “wanting,” suspending the decision. All lack of spirituality, all baseness, rests on the inability to resist a stimulus: one is compelled to react, one follows each and every impulse. In many cases such a necessity is, in itself, a susceptibility to illness, decline, a symptom of exhaustion. Almost everything that is crudely and unphilosophically branded with the name “vice” is nothing but the physiological inability not to react. One use to which one can put “having learned-to-see”: as a learner one becomes slow, suspicious, reluctant in all things. Anything alien or new one first, with hostile composure, allows to approach-one pulls back one’s hand from them. Doesn’t this image vaguely remind one of the little dog whose hair stands on end and that puffs itself up when it faces a big one?


A monstrous storm came. For the first time, his sensuality wore the red, gold-embroidered mantle of love. His whole being was changed. A mood of benevolence and generosity swept over him. Far-reaching thoughts, interweaving their way artistically through each other, took clear shape. In a few weeks he acquired a maturity far beyond his years. {His thoughts and feelings set themselves in order; the philosophy of tranquillity and maturity takes shape.} Then came disillusionment. Simple, brief, necessary. They had finished with each other. “It is immoral to stay together for any longer, unless every single hour brings growth to the soul,” he said. “Farewell.”

He had seen her the day before in a role in which she had seemed tasteless, inauthentic and banal. There were moments when he woke as if from a dream; like a breath of fresh air, like a new unfamiliar vista.

The following night their sensuality reached greater heights than usual.


While I’m in bed with a cold my inner self is at times frenetically active, at other times it’s not active at all. I had dreamt during the night. A kind of Christmas scene with snowflakes and people walking in pairs – the way that midnight masses in winter are represented in the theater, that kind of thing. I was arm-in-arm with H. But details are of almost no consequence. It was simply one of those dreams I dream two or three times a year that, each time, fill me for several days with an intangible, indefinite yearning for love.

With this yearning I woke up.

Before my windows there is an inexpressibly clear winter sky and the windows are like white sails in its bright blue – ? – No. A quite normal waking without any mood. Blunted nerves, everyday feeling of ease. My dream was not intensified – the indefinite, dull yearning remained.

After breakfast I began to reflect – in the way that one might pick up any kind of activity at all.


It is said that a thing is the sum of its qualities, or some such statement. But there are instances of relationships that contradict this. Perhaps in all things that pertain to sympathy.

I have had an old armchair for years. I cut a notch into its armrest, or I rip one of its cushions. In other words I take something away from it. And yet it doesn’t seem new to me at all; rather it only really becomes that which I feel my old armchair to be, when I take something away from it.

This often happens with love as well.


It is said that feelings are the only evident things in us. This is partly right, for feeling is evident. That I “feel” “something” when I’m jealous, for example, is evident, but that I feel “jealousy” is not evident at all. That is based on ideas and accordingly all the uncertainties of ideas attach to it and these can reach as far as dream-idealism. Each feeling points toward a single fixed spot within me (which I can never get any closer to) and shows, moreover, how we hover over space.

It is distressing to reflect that we hurry like little hunted dots along the line that is our life and finally disappear down some unforeseen hole. And that, in front of us and behind, at intervals that nothing can reduce, other similar dots go racing along, which have some kind of temporary link with us, like the next links in the chain of a paternoster lift that goes racing on round. Anniversaries, birthdays, etc., are a cruel refinement. You have now lived a third, a half, two thirds, of your life. Finally chronology as a whole, if one assumes it to be a product of mankind, is something terribly shortsighted.

This is the backdrop of the empty hours.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s