BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I believe literature should be useful. Let it be grand, beautiful, moving, sublime, or transformative if it can be, but I think the best literature should give also us some idea of how to do things better. Furthermore, I believe it is the job of literary critics to explain literature’s usefulness.
Take Kurt Vonnegut. Everything he wrote served to promote two moral ideas that he believed had a special home in America–(1) that everyone is equal and (2) no one should starve. It wasn’t that he thought the rest of the world was unworthy of these principles; he just thought we Americans should get our own house in order before we went poking our nose into other people’s lives. We had written a large check to ourselves, which still needed cashing. Vonnegut’s art was well and truly propaganda, just as Orwell believed all art to be.
Vonnegut wore his heart on his sleeve, so even an amateur critic like me could easily get his message. I read Vonnegut with the same open heart with which I used to read the Gospels. His novels ring out with a clear, compelling formula for a decent life that no one can miss. Let him who has ears hear.
And what did Vonnegut have to say about living? This: You should treat your fellow mammals kindly, attend to the balance of good and bad chemicals in your bodies, and take time to notice when you are happy. Much of the wrong that we do, such as massacres, could be avoided by following these rules of thumb.
Anyone who reads Vonnegut’s novels can feel these principles come exquisitely to life on the page, presenting new possibilities for living. It’s useful literature. Often Vonnegut conks you over the head with his ideas, which makes them easy to notice. So even if literature was never your thing, go read Vonnegut today. It will be as good for you as brisk exercise, and you’l feel the effects immediately.
Today I’d like to try a much harder case, Robert Musil’s unfinished, 1,000-page novel The Man Without Qualities, a book whose “action” is made up mostly of ruminations and polite dialogue. Musil doesn’t conk you over the head with anything. I’m spending about three hours a day reading his slow-moving behemoth, and I feel like someone other than myself should get something out of it.
If you Google The Man Without Qualities, you’ll see it proposed here and there that it is a great “novel of ideas” and one of the most “important” novels of the 20th century. Is this just hype? Trivial book chat? I hope not, but who knows.
Although reading Musil is not particularly tough sledding–his voice is far from Joycean–I can see why he is not widely read these days. He works structurally. A big part of his message in The Man Without Qualities is that Europeans had by the early 20th century meandered so far away from meaningful ideas they were, in their listlessness, creating a dangerous political vacuum in the heart of Europe’s governing class. They didn’t know what to want. The once-bracing intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment had talked itself out.
The elites were coming up palpably empty on ideas for good governance in 1913. What would the masses seize on to fill the void? We know. One of Musil’s characters comes rather sharply to the point. Surveying the blank tableau of 1913 European political thought, he remarks that “God, for reasons still unknown to us, seems to be leading us into an era of physical culture.”
That’s a terrifying prophecy. Society’s spirit of constructively and critically testing ideas was giving way to the brute assertion of will, thought Musil. Attitude was everything. You can’t get much more physical than humans shoveling other humans into pits for not being Aryans, which is what Europe would come to in three short decades.
If you think today’s Europeans, after all they’ve been through, are incapable of such reactionary wholesale murder, think again. The news from Russia this week tells us that goons are killing homosexuals in a state-sanctioned “gay purge.” The pestilence of homicidal hatred is merely sleeping in our breasts, as Camus warned in The Plague. It never leaves us entirely.
Gripping stuff, man’s latent tendency to evil, but Musil exerts more art in depicting it than today’s reader is prepared for, I think. He builds tension structurally, by letting his characters wander pointlessly through the myriad dead-end ideas floating around Vienna in 1913. One character thinks stamp collecting is an underappreciated avenue to world peace. Another works out statistically that people on the street feel subconsciously happier the closer the ratio of straight strokes to whole words on street signs approached two and a half to one. Ws and Ms were better than Os and Cs. The ratios worked out better.
A European reader in, say, the 1950s, would have read this arcana with a great intimation of suspense, knowing that Musil’s characters were sleepwalking toward apocalypse. The Viennese sensed, possibly through Freud, that society was feeling its way forward in the dark, but to what they did not know. Then came the two worst disasters in the history of mankind, one right after another. They would obliterate the life of the mind for a whole generation of Europeans.
The 21st-century American reader could be forgiven for missing all this. By halfway through The Man Without Qualities, she might just be wondering how many tinkling discussions of political esoterica in grand Hapsburg parlors she must digest before a plot or some kind of auctorial assertion takes hold. Where was Musil’s point? Or was it a book without qualities? Novelists sometimes make jokes like that.
If you bear with him, though, Musil makes some sturdy points very much worthy of our attention today. Although I have no idea whether he intended to do this, Musil develops a handful of increasingly challenging themes, one on top of and wrapped around another. If you can grasp on the most tractable one, you can unspool the heart of his message, I believe.
The first theme is specialization. One of the things Ulrich, Musil’s titular character, observes is that people in the professional classes know increasingly more and more about smaller and smaller domains of life. Ask them about their specialty and they can expound on it ad nausem, in fine detail. Ask them how it fits into human life as a whole, though, and they are lost at sea.
What we notice today in, say, network engineers–a specialist’s opaque knowledge of their trade, and the identity they derive from it–was just budding in Musil’s day. How far will it go? The extrapolations look dizzying. They may come to mirror Moore’s Law: labor specialization may end up climbing in lockstep with the increase of computing power. It is a fair guess that by the time you and I are old, professionals will specialize to such a great extent, they will not be able to understand anything of what their fellows and compatriots spend their lives doing. Humans will be increasingly alienated from one another, just from doing our jobs.
The reason our labor must become ever more specialized, Musil observes, is because of the advance of science into everyday life. In the 20th century science would climb to a position of uncontested cultural supremacy. The atom bomb and the moon landing alone must quiet anyone who would doubt the objective power and appeal of science. Ulrich grapples with an attitude spurred by this appeal, scientism. Scientism is roughly the idea that science should take the lead in all human enterprises given the reliability of its methods and the impact of its discoveries. I am sort attracted to this idea myself. Guesses, intuitions and articles of faith just don’t stand up to science when it comes to discovering important truths about the world and knitting them together into theories.
Incidentally, one of the earliest proponents of scientism was the turn-of-the century Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Musil’s. I keep waiting for Wittgenstein to make a cameo appearance in The Man Without Qualities, but he hasn’t shown up yet. In his first book, the imposingly named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued that everything that could be said about the world in natural languages like English or German could be said more precisely in a pristine logical language of pure symbols.
Fair enough, logicians had believed something like this since the Middle Ages. But what made Wittgenstein revolutionary was his follow up to this idea. Once you have, in theory, written out all such formulations, you have given a full and exhaustive description of the world. The world is made up of its constituent facts–sentences, really–not by the physical things that purportedly make the sentences true or false. Despite the objective nature of reality, man was at the center of the universe. His unique ability to designate facts through the use of language put him there.
It also meant the world depended for its sense primarily on structures and dynamics endogenous to the human mind, not “objective” entities that exhibited an unassailable primeval order. Furthermore, our ability to categorize and understand the world’s parts was radically dependent on a socially-mediated process–language.
You were still welcome to use any linguistic expressions that did’t appear in the master fact list (Wittgenstein would come to say later), but you must live with the acknowledgement that they are only poor cousins of hard facts. They could be poorly expressed facts that can be translated into pristine ones, or they might be mere nonsense.
Wittgenstein makes these claims with shocking brevity. In fact it takes him less space to lay out the main part of his argument than it took me to frame it. Here is literally what he said on the first page of the Tractatus:
1 The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2 The world divides into facts.
1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.
With these deductions Wittgenstein set off several chain reactions in philosophy that echoed down the entire 20th century. One of them was reductivism, a corollary of scientism, which says that our narrative explanations of the world as we “know” it are just illusory stand-ins for more basic structures and dynamics which only science can discover. You say you see a table, for instance, but what you really “see” is an array of atoms that in no way resembles a table. It is mostly made up of mind-bogglingly vast amounts of empty space. (Read the first half of Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize-winning The Problems of Philosophy for an astoundingly clear presentation of this tension.)
Reductivism is a theme that is laced throughout The Man Without Qualities. Characters note with rueful resignation how scientific authorities are replacing people’s stores of long-held, vague beliefs with harder, more precise, more mundane facts. And it’s a disquietingly democratic trend, affecting common folk and aristocrats alike. Everyone is having their facts changed, and with them, underlying assumptions and supervening attitudes.
It was only 70 years before the action opens in The Man Without Qualities that the Vienna obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the germ theory of disease. Before, people thought, for example, that colds were literally caused by the cold. Semmelweiss hypothesized that many diseases were caused instead by microbes, and he pressed this idea on his skeptical colleagues. Initial results indicated Semmelweiss was right. Doctors grudgingly had to acknowledge that the danger of infection posed by the germs on their unwashed hands required them to do something no gentlemen had ever been obliged to do before in highly stratified Hapsburg life–wash up before attending to their social inferiors. They did so (eventually), and lots of new social inferiors started surviving birth. Things are always changing.
People tend to dislike reductivist theories, powerful as they are, because they often explain away meaningful experiences that we find appealing or profound, like falling in love. Such things, says the reductivist mind, are the mere surface phenomena of chemical reactions, which are themselves the outcomes of even more basic physical events. The physics is real, “falling in love” just a story we superimpose on it. In one scene of The Man Without Qualities, Ulrich ruefully reminds himself that the appealing smile of a passing pretty girl is “really” just a certain distribution of adipose tissue in the face and neck.
In another place Ulrich muses that a human is “the meeting ground for inexorably interlocking natural processes.” I think this is a wonderful line. It admits that we are beasts ruled by natural laws but hints that you still never know what we will do next. Or have done to us.
Even at the core of our existence, where the most human thing of all–conscious subjectivity–seems to ground our experience, Musil entertains the idea that we are just atoms in the void. “If you escape into the darkest recesses of your being,” he intones, “where the uncontrolled impulses live, those sticky animal depths that save us from evaporating under the glare of reason, what do you find? Stimuli and strings of reflexes, entrenched habits and skills, reiteration, fixation, imprints, series, monotony!” Freud was writing his first books as Musil composed The Man Without Qualities, and those books enumerated the algorithms Musil had in mind. Algorithms–they were as invisible as Semmelweiss’s germs.
Reductivism indeed threatens to take the magic out of life, but for Musil its real challenge to the human experience is epistemological: it might prove our worldview entirely wrong. The gulf between scientific facts and our seemingly reliable intuitions means we could go our whole lives being wholly mistaken about what kind of thing the world is and what kind of things we humans are. Think The Matrix, but without a controlling intelligence behind it or the ability to take a red pill and see it for what it is. It is all just an indeterminate non-story constructed of elements that might only exist as fabrications of our mind. We’ll never know.
Here we approach the core theme of The Man Without Qualities, the hidden message to which all the other ones point. It is the doctrine of radical contingency. This is the idea that time and chance, not gods, cosmic laws or fixed stars, determine the shape of our lives. History just happens. It has no end point or origin story.
The thing to bear in mind about radical contingency: it says the world, including your experience of it, might have gone any which way. It just happened to go the way it did, and you never know how it’s going to go tomorrow. Radical contingency exposes what Camus called our blind faith in the existence of the near future, our animal expectations of continuity and stability.
In a way Musil is fashioning a bookend to a set of ideas opened up by Nietzsche in 1882 when he observed in The Gay Science that God was dead. Europeans had, according to Nietzsche, proven robustly they were done with God. Their rationalized, violent, selfish, materialistic lives and their institutionalization of antichristian values at all levels of society proved God’s death beyond a reasonable doubt. Laplace told Napoleon peremptorily that physics had no need of the God hypothesis, and Napoleon recognized a military victory when he saw one.
(American evangelicals, apparently not content with the murder of God, have taken to desecrating his body. They now act on a unified set of imperatives diametrically opposed to the actual doctrines of Christianity. Most now believe their God wants them to be rich, powerful, well-armed, in thrall to a military empire, and utterly without sympathy for their neighbors. So be it. Many people want those things, but it is a gaudily shameful thing to call such desires Christian.)
What Europeans weren’t prepared for, though, was that without God, life, the universe and everything were no longer the subjects of a meaningful story. There was no longer any preordained point to life. Man, as Nietzsche expounded in several of his books, made it all up as he went along and cleverly called it “eternal truth.” And the “truths” he made up, Freud would point out, conformed precisely to the wishes one would expect of a fearful child–that she would be loved, instructed, guarded, and protected from death. Angels and devils would contend for her very soul.
In his long book, Musil explores many various ways of rephrasing the idea of contingency, which is a big, unwieldy idea. One is open-endedness. This is the admission that we have no idea which way life will go or how things will turn out. Some of us will gain a sense or purpose or closure before we die; some of us will not. Open-endedness holds out an immense promise of achievement or fulfillment for some people who see a great blank canvas. But it also says life can come to nothing, or something pretty close to it. Ask the sick, the poor, the refugee, anyone cast off by society.
Another, closely related aspect of contingency is that it removes the narrative sense from life. Rather than thinking of our lives as having a plot, we must instead admit life consists of a set of possibly random waypoints leading nowhere in particular. This was the idea I think Gore Vidal had in mind when he chose the title of his memoir Point to Point Navigation. His book would simply describe where he had gone, leaving it up to the reader to determine what the course meant, if anything. Kurt Vonnegut puts our post-narrative situation thus: “I tell you, we are on this earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” Whereas Europeans used to try to locate themselves somewhere in the story line of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, now they just look for any story at all, knowledgeable that there they be none on offer.
Musil felt this free-floating uncertainty as a threat to the integrity of the human person, a kind of existential anxiety. Perched as Europeans were on the cusp of World War One, the precariousness of their self knowledge was taking on the proportions of a Zeitgeist. Science, even with its undeniable progress, failed to translate into a vision of human life that would replace God or other sources of narrative meaning. Humanity was dissipating its best ideas, and the elite were leading the way.
Musil has Ulrich observe:
Just think what’s happening today: As soon as some leading thinker comes up with an idea it is immediately pulled apart by the sympathies and antipathies generated: first its admirers rip large chunks out of it to suit themselves, wrenching their masters’ minds out of shape the way a fox savages his kill, and then his opponents destroy the weak links so that soon there’s nothing left but a stock of aphorisms from which friend and foe alike help themselves at will. The result is a general ambiguity. There’s no Yes without a No dangling from it.
Again, Musil provides an insight that is at least as relevant to our day as it was to his own. He was only worried about ambient ambiguity, the uncertainty that comes simply from not knowing if one has a purchase on the complexities of the real world. It can happen to anyone.
Today’s ambiguity is manufactured. We brought it on ourselves. We are not just at war with the natural uncertainty posed by the vast, unknowable cosmos, but with individual people who diddle with (what used to be) our subjective experience of it. In thrall to fantasy and magic, we lead these con men on. Zuckerberg and Co. have developed incalculably more ingenious ways than Mother Nature to invigilate themselves into the thoughts, perceptions and subconscious processes that make us who we are. But because their machinations affirm and flatter us, we surrender. We have escaped the gravitational pull of factuality.
It didn’t start with social media. We also empowered TV-age elites to bamboozle us like this. Although there is no logical starting point to the drama, our acceptance of Bill Clinton’s messianic advocacy of free trade is as good a reference point as any. With religious faith, he told America’s working class they would be better off allowing their corporate masters to offshore all their jobs to Mexico and Sri Lanka. Let the gears of a free market churn, he said, and we would all grow fat and rich. Well, say what you like of Clinton, but anyone who can persuade working people they’ll benefit by giving up their jobs possesses an admirably demonic power of mastering others’ minds.
(For a trenchant analysis of Americans’ promiscuous credulity, see Kurt Anderson’s Atlantic Monthly cover article of December 2017, “How America Lost Its Mind.”
Clinton’s economic liberalism was just one outstanding instance of the many fancy ideas to which the ruling class would callously subject the working class from the 1990s onward. In her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein profiled the sadistic arrogance of the economists and business leaders who increasingly saw themselves as entitled to immiserate the working class en masse for its own good, by running experiments that deprived people of their livelihoods. Hang tight, they said, and let laissez faire do its magic. In the meantime, remember: No pain, no gain.
What we face today is an increasingly intelligible populist response to the inhumanity of such ideas. And it’s no wonder that the people most alienated in this farce are the most reactionary. Like Musil’s Viennese middle class in 1913, and, like the good German citizens of Nürnberg in 1933, they’re fed up with the fecklessness of the ideas their betters have imposed on them. In fact they are so angry at the overweening elite, they despise ideas themselves. They want something tangible instead, a response to uncertainty that will make sense in their bones.
When Apollo, the god of order, loses his grip on humans, Dionysus, the god of chaos and debauchery steps up and seizes their souls. Offer the masses free markets, representative democracy, theories of human solidarity, whatever fine ideas you have, and this will be the sneering, murderous attitude they take up in response when they’ve had enough: “So far as could be gathered, theirs was not so much a philosophical stance as, rather, the craving of young bones and muscles to move freely, to leap and dance, unhampered by criticism.”