Genese Grill

Musil’s Possibility

June 05, 2019

The spaces he lived in, at least in his adult life, were small, possibly cramped, certainly they were so during the war years and exile in Switzerland; provisional, unsatisfactory, uncomfortable. Perhaps like the confines of a mortal head—no matter how broad and high the brow of genius—within which a seeming infinity of ideas and impressions teems and churns. A poltergeist-brain still somehow alive, just barely succeeding at the legerdemain of living off nothing, knocking against the walls of hunger, need, an unappreciative public, horrific political realities and the confusion as to how and when to take a stand against them, knocking against the mortality of the body itself. Robert Musil worked on and on and on in a series of stifling rooms,  filling pages and pages with markings, words, abbreviations, symbols; paragraphs transposed, revised, crossed out, destroyed, recovered, lost, with markings in different coloured inks, in pencil too, pages and pages, some typed—mostly by Martha, his wife and imaginary twin—new and different versions of scenes written decades before, old words and old worlds made new, new words and new worlds put into relation with the old ideas and the still-unanswered, probably unanswerable questions, pages and pages, seemingly ad infinitum, unfinished, unfinishable, yes—as  unfinishable as a life force that could continue to self-generate even after the untimely death of its Prime Mover, the Author.

These pages, including letters and diary entries and drafts of chapters for the great unfinished novel, The Man without Qualities, as well as for stories and essays and plays and for projects never even rightly begun, but conceived and put aside for later, for “after the novel would be finished”—as if that time could ever come—are collected as Der Nachlass, “the remains” in German. They constitute about 9000 pages of words, now rendered as non-linear as Musil’s brain itself, in the Klagenfurter Ausgabe, which started as a CD-Rom and is being refashioned into a searchable online database. One may search for any word or name, for any phrase or passage, the way a living mind gropes for something forgotten but, unlike a living brain, this artificial intelligence retrieves what is sought after instantly, along with every other instance in which Musil wrote it down—as if the amassing of all of these words had been spontaneously conjured. But how might such time be more rightly reckoned or measured? Surely not by word or page-count: it seems impossible, when we consider, in mortal measure, how many there are.

We might measure the time spent writing by the number of cigarettes he consumed, tobacco burnt into ashes and smoke, immeasurable and inchoate thoughts burned into the laser-sharp focus of crystal-clear sentences—he wrote the words down, smoked the cigarette down to his fingertips, but still he was not satisfied, he wanted yet another smoke, and then another. “I live to smoke,” he wrote. But he might just as easily have said, “I smoke to write”.

There are photographs of him at his desk—a vast desk, to be sure—with enough space for reams of paper, steeples of pages, towers of books, folders and boxes cluttered with leaves. We know some were lost. Though much of the Nachlass was kept safe during the war in an abandoned Viennese apartment, it was then moved and stored elsewhere and subsequently destroyed. Luckily, the Musils took the most important papers with them. Others were stolen away, like the folded-up page referring to an adultery carefully sewn into Martha’s coat lining—the sexual secrets of a happy, complex marriage. For a page can be folded up almost as tightly as the snaking membranes of a brain, taking up little space until it is released, unfolded. When read, the expansion exponentially unfurls, as each word is a portal to a much larger room, an estate, a city, a country, a cosmos. Musil knew this, and called the moments when one suddenly, temporarily, stepped through such portals—and out of normal consciousness into a heightened sense of spacetimeless significance — “the other condition” of experiencing.

Still, he called the last rooms he and Martha occupied on Chemin des Clochettes 1, in Geneva, “Puppenzimmer,” or dolls’ rooms. We can imagine him as an overgrown Alice in Wonderland, with arms and legs ranging awkwardly out of the open windows, trying, painfully, to write; a humiliating set-up for such an upright man. This difficulty notwithstanding, he appreciated the artistic uses of such spatial incongruities. In The Man without Qualities, he wrote of the toy horse Ulrich admired as a child, noting that its magic emanated from its distance from reality, a distance effected by its diminutive size and tawdry material. In a theatre review of the Russian Cabaret—one of the few theatrical experiments he unreservedly praised in his many reviews—he is thinking, again, of this horse, and hearkening to the powerful effect afforded by the strange juxtaposition of near and far, real and unreal, small and large:

“Remove, for example, the life-sized quality of a horse, its ability to move, and the undefinable essence of its realness, and it remains a small brown papier mâché pony, with a swan’s neck, tiny black hooves, gracious little leather straps; it stands behind the magic window of a pastry shop and it penetrates, along unreal passageways, into the soul of a child, shining with a glittering splendor that is never again attainable. Perhaps the strange magic of primitive sculptures and drawings, the enjoyment of sketches or extreme stylizations, the overwrought ornamentation of our fashions, yes, the whole essence of human art and artificiality, is based on nothing more than such internal amalgams of the under- and the over-real.

Now do the same thing with a cabaret song; let go entirely of the little bit of sense that it may have. And, instead of that, sing nothing for many minutes except, “Ach, that is the little hunter,” or “Occarina-Macaroni,” and you will arrive at the same borderland. On the far side of this border lies idiocy; on the nearer side, however, the little hunter spins—blond, merry, round, and as green as an illuminated billiard table—around three singing farm girls, who prod it in circles with a melody that shimmies from their hands and their hips; and right there on that border, exactly in the middle, you are sitting, and you are as happily sad as if you were sitting in water and wanted to make puppets out of it.” [1]

Transport, transubstantiation, from real to unreal, to under(sub-) and over (hyper-) real, through metaphor and imagination, arrived at through portals opening onto timelessness and sidereal space, to land into a sort of puddle, glad to be there.

All in good time, one grows old and one’s bones ache, and such fancies may fail to fully console. Although time is not always experienced as linear, as we creep on towards death we know that there will be a telos, a final ending, and though the world may continue, we, at least, will no longer be here to experience those mystical moments that once compensated for the unmystic, dull, persistent forward march of linear time.

Musilian MS01 @ Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe

If one is a writer or artist of any kind—or perhaps an inventor, a scientist pursuing some impossibly far-off quest, or any other manner of utopian feat—one despairs of ever having Time enough in which to fill up the minute Space of the page of mortal life that one is granted.  The quest is “utopian” because that which one wants to create or to discover seems to be no-where; at least it has not yet been found. Any new creation—the real embodiment of an idea—is as unlikely as the instantiation of its alternate ideal. This is not a refutation or denial of reality, for the new thing will not be seen if it cannot bind itself to what is already real, if it does not find purchase in the physical and material nature of the world or in the real human dreams and desires that throw themselves against the stony walls that bind us until someone brave and insistent enough finds a new way through, around, or deeper in. The “new” something was always there, a part of the real, but it had not been adequately seen and described before. It had been waiting to be revealed and explained from out of the complexity of all there is.

It is important to realise that Musil’s skepticism about our ability to come to a final version of our co-created picture of the Real was not a nihilistic denial of meaning(s), nor a despairing denial of truth(s). He was engaged in a serious experiment, impelled by a search for right conduct of life, which seemed to have something crucial to do with possibility and the spaces it opens up in what we mistakenly assume to be a limited status quo. He was not escaping life, engagement, reality, but earnestly attempting to confront them and become an agent—a creative subject, to use Nietzsche’s phrase—of its continual transformation. Unlike some of his pseudo-mystical contemporaries, who doubted the efficacy of words and preached silence and stupor—and even more unlike postmodern thinkers who deny the possibility of meaning or of shared communication whatsoever—Musil fostered an efflorescence of words, of more and more possibilities, to mock, by overfilling, the purported voids of Nihilism with his polysemics. Like Nietzsche before him, he knew that the artist’s role is to create—even if something had to be destroyed before starting to build again. He knew the world contained an infinite amount of material to build with.

But any new creation is an insult to the status quo and to linearity. It constitutes a rebellion against preconceived limitations of space. It stops time by expanding and elevating a moment into a shimmering, hovering pause. It dilates space by opening up a new portal, a new possibility, in what had just moments before appeared to be complete, inviolable, solid. If, moreover, one, like Musil (writer, physicist, engineer, behavioural psychologist, philosopher, mathematician, mystic, mortal), resists completion to an almost pathological degree, this suspension of time will be spun out, like the Arabian Nights, to a nearly impossible extent, into oceans of paper and decades of space.

Musilian MS02 @ Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe

As a scientist, Musil was committed to the experimental method and fascinated by the workings of probability and possibility. This commitment manifested itself in a writing practice obsessed by alternate and non-linear versions, each with different outcomes and admixtures. What if this character instead of that one were in this or that situation? What if we added some more of this chemical? Or this? Like an autopoietic version of Goethe’s Wahlverwandschaften (Elective Affinities), the scientist Musil poured elements into alembics and observed the explosions and failures. He resisted coming to conclusions, though he would write down—and even, reluctantly, publish—some approximations, some attempts at suggestions of possible answers to his ethical and aesthetic quandary: how should one live?

Thinking is non-linear; but one thinks, rightly or wrongly, of writing as if it were moving in one direction, from beginning to end: on the page, from left to right and top to bottom; in the book, from front to back. Nietzsche, ever the contrarian, wrote that good writing was rücksichtig and vorsichtig, a pun on two German words that mean careful, but also backwards– and forwards-looking, always aware of how whatever is being written relates to what came before and what will come after. When looked at this way, “before” and “after” are no longer such stern mistresses of spacetime. The manuscript starts to skew circular, like a reverberating star whose centre shines light on its edges even as its edges shed light on its centre. Or, again, like a sky replete with many such reverberating stars—all of them possible spaces circling in and out of our normalised, temporal experience.

I have written about all of this before, perhaps more eloquently. I wrote a whole book about it, called The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften: Possibility as Reality when I was a real scholar, with all the references and examples at my fingertips. But I see myself returning to these questions now while in a different mood, looking backwards and forwards again, wondering how a writer like Musil could struggle and somehow succeeded—according to the ethics and aesthetics of his failure to conclude—in creating such perennial work within the strictures of spacetime, especially given the impossibility of the task he had taken on.

He was committed to an artistic and philosophical practice of the “motivated” moment, a practice which demanded that all actions (and the writing of a sentence is surely a kind of action) be fiercely compelled, that they be motivated by a burning need, a heightened, energetic intensity. This sort of artistic practice may be pursued if, like Nietzsche, one is willing to publish the fragments of the expanding and retracting star in pieces, in books of aphorisms even, with each fragment existing as a new comet that penetrates and excavates the heavens, but without the luxury of perfection. The complexity and contradictions that accrue over that work’s life can only be incorporated to it. Nietzsche wrote by flashes of intermittent lightning, in the rare moments when he was well enough to use his tormented eyes and when his head did not ache too much to think (or too much from thinking). His relationship with time and space and filling up the page with the rush of non-linear words was necessarily different from Musil’s—for Musil was a man with what seemed at the time to be plenty of time, if only he had not been a perfectionist or a writer committed to the architecture of possibility. As it turned out, he miscalculated (though he surely could not have done differently, had he known), since he died very young, at 62, in the midst of revising a beautiful passage from “Breaths of a Summer’s Day” he had written years before about timelessness and “the other condition” and a garden that seems magically able to hold the moment—that moment which Faust was forbidden to linger in—. He was returning to the centre of the star as if no time had passed at all.

Musilian MSO3 @ Die Klagenfurter Ausgabe

Had Musil lived another ten years or twenty, I do not believe his task could have been finished. It couldn’t have been even if he were immortal. His great work was inveterately inconclusive, containing its infinity in its mortality. He could not and would not come to closure.

He also probably could not have felt at home anywhere, even had he not been forced, by poverty first, then by war and even worse poverty, to move about and then go into exile with his Jewish wife. He wrote of the Jew and the Intellectual (Geist is the word he used, which also means Spirit or Mind) as extraterritorial. Only as an outsider could he see and comment upon what he saw. Only as an outsider could he dare to open space and time, invent a new language and describe new vistas within the given; to see what had always been there, but had never been revealed before.

In an early literary fragment, Musil imagines asking those he dubs the “2 X 2 = 4 people” to tell him “what is a street”. Their answer, which he translates to mean, “Something straight, day-bright, serves as something to move forward on,” does not satisfy him in the least. For a street, he muses, “can just as easily be many-branching, mysterious, and beset with riddles, with ditches and underground passageways, hidden dungeons and buried churches.” [2] As a scientist of possible space—indeed, as a physicist in the early days of relativity science—and an outsider, he knows reality itself is stranger and more complex than any linear or habitual description could offer.

Musil’s commitment to experiment was grounded in an evaluation of all things and events based upon a concept he called “The Utopia of the Next Step”: nothing, no written draft, no criminal or allegedly good action could be judged at the moment of its becoming, but only by the next step it engendered. (Shades of Nietzsche’s judgement of Bizet, who made him, he said, “fruitful”; and who thus was deemed good). For Musil—who had read Nicolas of Cusa and was thus aware that one might think of every point as part of a line, though a line must not be thought of as straight, but as something that stretched around until it came full circle—the next step was not conceived of as a marching forward, but as an enriched returning-back to the beginning, to a reverberating central presence in the “other condition” of infinite spacetime. The next step after that might be a firm footfall on the solid sidewalks of a metropolitan city, onto the street as seen by the young Musil, without any mystical over-reaching or descent into fantasy. And yet this street is “many-branching, mysterious,” replete with portals and bridges and pathways and tunnels, with houses and apartment buildings, with hallways and basements and attics and drawing rooms and studies, especially studies, with vast writing desks stacked with pages and staggering under the weight of words; with pages shuffled and reshuffled, resisting their bindings, exploding their margins, again and again, ad infinitum, for as long as people care to read and to consider the as yet unsounded mysteries of space and time.


[1] Translation mine, from the forthcoming Theater Symptoms: Robert Musil’s Plays and Writings on Theater. New York / London / Melbourne: Contra Mundum Press, 2020).
[2] “From Out of the Stylized Century (The Street)”. In Thought Flights, translated by myself. New York / London / Melbourne: Contra Mundum Press, 2015.


Genese Grill is a German scholar, essayist, translator, and visual artist living in rural Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s Der Man ohne Eigenschaften: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), and translator of a collection of Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015), Unions: Two Stories (also by Musil; Contra Mundum Press, 2019), and Theater Symptoms: Robert Musil’s Plays and Writings on Theater (forthcoming, Contra Mundum Press, 2020). She has written a collection of essays on the fruitful confluence of spirit and matter, a celebration and defence of the meaning to be found in the material world, many of which have been published in various journals.