World War 1: The Quality of No Quality

In the realm of the aesthetic … even imperfection and lack of completion have their value.

— Robert Musil, “Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin” (1927)

In the previous post, I suggested that World War I signaled the “the beginning of the end.” An elementary-school child can open the history textbook and point to 1914 and 1918 as the start and finish dates. The high-school student can point to the map and indicate the geographical changes and discuss institutional changes. A university student’s research paper can discuss the end of the Belle Époque or, in Heidegger’s view, the age in which Europe’s classical cultural heritage tempered the rise of the scientific and the technical; but once that heritage was gone after The Great War, the scientific and technical would return with unchecked ferocity, with advanced weaponry and genocide in World War II. The difference in subsequent violence after The Great War is that it became very efficient, extremely organized, planned, and systematic.

What does literature of the period say began and ended?

Seekers of World War I literature face several difficulties. The literature that they are likely to find first is the War Poets: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Isaac Rosenberg – often in that order in most anthologies or, tending to the more obscure, for American readers at least, the poets David Jones and Edward Thomas. The other finding is literature as memoir, Robert Graves’s Good-Bye to All That (1929). Then there is the matter of first-hand accounts from journalists and nurses, popular for a moment, but now out of print. Hardly anyone remembers the combat veterans who wrote novels from their experiences in the field. Richard Aldington, A.P. Herbert, and Ralph H. Mottram are not names that come immediately to mind. Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology Parade’s End (1924-1928) is another forgotten ‘classic’ of the era. The enduring World War I novel, so it would seem, is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which recounts relentless violence and humanizes the German soldier; it also helps that the novel was made into a film (1930 and remade in 1979).

Then there are the ‘novels of ideas’ after the war: Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1932), or Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1943). The most vexing problem, however, is that none of this literature provides any incisive insight into what began and ended, fell away and rose up in its place. I propose that there are two novels that describe the cultural change, the before and after The Great War, although the two works are very different from each other.

Czech humorist and political activist Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Švejk offers levity. His simpleton soldier is the equivalent of Forrest Gump, although there is something of a wink of an eye between author and reader that Švejk is not as stupid as he looks. This is a man, after all, who makes his living selling ugly dogs with fake pedigrees. The novel begins with Švejk receiving news of the Archduke’s assassination. His response reads like a script for a Marx Brothers’ movie, as does his misadventures in the military. The rest of the novel is laugh-out-loud satire and while it does lampoon the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Švejk says little else.

Readers coming to Czech writers, like Hasek or Kundera, need to understand that bitter humor is a feature of Czech culture. A sense of inevitableness and uselessness permeates Czech culture because the Czechs had no independence for centuries. This ‘despair’ is sometimes called “The White Mountain Complex,” as an allusion to the Battle of White Mountain, an early battle in the Thirty Years’ War in 1620. The Czechs would recover their independence at the end of World War I, but at a prohibitive cost: forced cohabitation with the Slovaks within Czechoslovakia and the loss of the cosmopolitan air of Hapsburg Bohemia, especially the German component. It is also worth noting that Bohemian Jews contributed to this bitter humor.

Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften) may offer deeper insight into the ‘good-bye.’ The ‘man without qualities’ in the novel is Ulrich, a mathematician in his early thirties. He finds himself on a committee for the seventieth jubilee celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna in August 1913. The celebration is planned for 1918. Musil stresses 1918 because the reader knows that there will be no jubilee in 1918 because the Empire will be kaputt. So, again, uselessness and meaningless informs the humor and the joke is that we all have planned for things that had a sense of vitality and urgency, but in hindsight, were useless and meaningless. The novel has twenty characters from all walks of Austrian society, including a nymphomaniac and a murderer; there is even incest, but across the thousand-plus pages and three volumes Ulrich remains indifferent and apathetic to life around him, overwhelmed by too many possibilities and choosing none. In short the man with no qualities is a modern ‘slacker.’

The novel experienced a minor revival in 1996 when Picador reissued it with a new translation by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, which replaced the earlier Picador translation from Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, published between 1954 and 1960. The older edition is supposedly archaic and translated for British readers. The recent translation uses new material. Musil died in 1942, leaving his wife to publish the incomplete third volume. Musil was a literary perfectionist. He had penned numerous drafts and alternate endings to his chapters. They are now available on CD. Given Musil’s incessant revisions and his untimely death from a stroke, I’m not convinced that anyone, including Musil himself or his wife, knew the ending he wanted, which is what makes the novel fascinating.

By ‘quality’ Musil points at the absurdity that modern man has to be ‘something.’ Musil himself was a mechanical engineer; he also understood theoretical physics and experimental psychology as well. He maintained a strong interest in philosophy throughout his life. He read Nietzsche (what educated German-speaker didn’t?), but he was particularly drawn to the philosopher Max Scheler. To be ‘without qualities’ is preferable.

To be ‘With qualities’ is to become an automaton, a human being out of balance, without character or self-possession, who is nothing more than a gear in the machine. The ‘social value’ of this person is not his humanity, but his ‘function,’ or what he can do. Think of the factory worker in Chaplin’s Modern Times and the society depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Musil’s ‘man without qualities’ is years before Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Musil’s critique of modernity is that it is next to impossible to avoid labels, avoid ‘qualities’ and all their associations. Ulrich’s indolence is his defiant refusal to have a label. The ‘you are what you do’ mentality anticipates all of Kafka’s literature and the ultimate bureaucrat on trial, Adolph Eichmann. The modern world negates the human and sells the utilitarian myth of ‘service to an ideal.’

While The Man Without Qualities has been hailed as a classic in world literature, it is not without its critics. The novel languished into the Fifties. The criticism levied at the novel is the same set of accusations that had been hurled at other modernist writers, such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf; and that is that the writing is abstract, obscure, self-conscious, non-linear in plot, and unconventional in narrative due to interior monologue, shifting points of view, and stream-of-consciousness. One critic wrote that Musil’s novel was “a rather bumbling mass of Teutonic metaphysics.” Some readers have faulted the novel for its incompleteness, for its lack of movement.

The ‘novel of ideas’ is more than literary modernity’s fascination with conveying reality. In wiping the slate clean after World War I, incompleteness is modern existence, since we have lost any parameter, any shared boundary, to decide when existence is complete. A literature of ideas simply cannot be complete because ideas are infinite by definition.

The idea that people need to add ‘qualities’ is another way of saying that people cannot tolerate Art for Art’s sake. What I mean here is that Art is one person talking to another person about being human. Musil, and especially Hermann Broch or their heir, Milan Kundera, believes that ‘adding qualities’ is to create kitsch, or inferior art, a false reality; it is inferior art because it does not talk to everyone. Dante’s Comedy speaks to everyone; it is universal. Kitsch, as Broch and Musil understood it, was nineteenth-century bourgeois society. The Viennese and the Victorians were kitsch. Kitsch is plus royal que le roi, more royal than the king.

The aesthetic question, therefore, is: Did Art end after the War? If Art is elitist then it is not art. Art is ‘real art’ when it speaks universally. Ulrich’s slacker passivity arises in him because nothing speaks to him in his surroundings. He is a mathematician, a man capable of reasoning according to principles. Musil’s ‘art’ is an invitation to overhear the ongoing conversation between characters and the world they inhabit, and for the reader to form his own meaning. In the final analysis, Musil and his contemporaries were saying that after World War I the individual alone remains because there is no more culture; there is civilization, but no culture. The idea of Germans as bearers of Kultur versus the decadent and Romantic Zivilisation, in Spengler’s sense, is one of the cornerstones of Hitler’s nationalism and racism. Musil would go so far as to write an essay “On Stupidity” (Über die Dummheit) and state that stupidity was the “real disease of culture.”

This conclusion, however, raises very interesting problems. A reader today can approach The Man Without Qualities or any of the other ‘novels of ideas’ and say that they are elitist; they don’t speak to them or about the human condition. Musil may respond that the world he knew had come and gone, but his great ‘theme’ in the novel is Nietzschean nothingness. The charge of elitism is much more complex because it is essentially asking whether literature since The Great War should be nothing more than entertainment. Literature is high and entertainment is low.

Herein is the cumulative horror of both world wars: the new Art. ‘Entertainment’ is a contemporary concept. We need to ‘escape’ because we cannot ‘explain’ reality. Shakespeare was entertaining, but his plays were not entertainment. The Greek tragedies mesmerized, if not terrorized, their audiences, but they were not entertainment. In Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Is the measure of art in its capacity to remove us from reality, entertain us through escapism, or does it engage us in a continuous conversation through the centuries, across cultures and languages?

For those who doubt that the last of the post-Enlightenment world had been swept away at the end of The Great War or simply see it all as another redrawing of the map, as most students in class would, then take this into consideration. It is accepted as fact that the punitive nature of the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I paved the way for World War 2. The too hasty liquidation of the Hapsburg Empire unleashed the ethnic tensions in the same way as the dissolution of Yugoslavia did in the 1990s. The Hapsburg Empire has become a positive myth in today’s Europe. The people who were once part of the Empire, and who had fought it at times, from the Czechs to the northeastern Italians, now see that history as a badge of honor. Moreover, reducing Austria to a small, homogeneously German-speaking alpine country turned into a huge, gross mistake: while the subjects of the Hapsburg Empire used to perceive themselves as distinct from the Germans and took pride in the Empire’s multicultural melting pot, the new Austrians after Versailles did not have a past of their own as a single nation; they started to perceive themselves again as part of a bigger Germanic nation, as it had been back in the Middle Ages, along with their cousins in Bavaria, who were very similar (namely, Catholic, for example, while Prussia was Lutheran). Lest we forget: Hitler was Austrian and Catholic. These factors may explain why there was no resistance to the 1938 Anschluss.

Milan Kundera called Musil’s The Man Without Qualities an “unfinished expanse” because it faithfully reflects its object, the Hapsburg Empire as a metaphor of reality: millennial, supposedly never-ending, multifaceted, logical but absurd, free but dictatorial, old but modern, rich but poor…


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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