Mimesis, madness, and modernity: Robert Musil and the ethics of being without qualities

Submitted by James Miller on Tue, 02/14/2012 - 15:22
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TitleMimesis, madness, and modernity: Robert Musil and the ethics of being without qualities
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsErwin, A. F.
Corporate AuthorsWellbery, David E.
Academic DepartmentProQuest Dissertations and Theses
Date Published2011
PublisherThe University of Chicago
Place PublishedUnited States -- Illinois
ISBN Number9781124717609
KeywordsComparative literature, Germanic literature

This dissertation is a study of the novelistic aesthetics and ethics of Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities ; MwQ ). Whereas previous scholarship has tended to treat MwQ as an outlier in the history of the novel, reflecting the peculiar style and philosophy of the scientist-turned-author Musil, my study argues that the MwQ 's aesthetic and ethical unity coheres around a problem that is central to the history of the novel from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky and Proust. Following the critic René Girard, I call this problem "metaphysical" or "mimetic desire"--a specifically modern condition in which subjects desire and imitate an Other who appears to possess the authenticity and autonomy that are the normative ideals of modern identity. Developing Girard's notion further through an engagement with theories of modernity and the novel, I show how the concept of mimetic desire helps us understand the way Musil binds the diverse political, social, and psychological strands of his narrative into a coherent diagnosis of modernity's ills. Yet, as I show, Musil's novel contains not only a critical diagnosis of modernity but also a positive ethical project, which I read as a mystical response to the problem of mimetic desire. Challenging critics who have interpreted Musil's mysticism as a form of escapism that reinforces the social and psychic structures of modern political ideologies, I argue that the particular contours of Musil's mysticism (which I show is informed and illuminated by Daoism) make it both a compelling ethical response to the ills of his modernity and a powerful vision of what an ethical life might look like in a world that has abandoned some of the founding assumptions of modernity. This vision, I suggest, involves cultivating a way of being that abandons modernity's quest for radical autonomy (from nature and from others) and embraces a demystified scientific view of human beings as social animals for whom lack of an inherent, "authentic" identity--lack of qualities of one's own (the double meaning of ohne Eigenschaften )--is a natural condition that serves as the basis of ethical comportment in the world.