At our recent meeting of the Who Killed D’Arcy McGee History Club in the hospitable surroundings of the Russian Tea Room in downtown Edmonton we were discussing the early thrillers of Graham Greene, including his short novel The Third Man. Greene had written it after a journey to a bombed and shattered Vienna shortly after the war.
After our meeting, I thought back to my trip to Vienna a number of years ago, taking with me as my guidebook the first volume of Robert Musil’s encyclopedic novel, The Man Without Qualities. Musil might be considered an odd choice for my guide, but in fact, his novel surely captured some of the beauty and contradiction and instability of pre-WWI Vienna. The Vienna of today lends itself to thoughts and imaginings of the glittering imperial capital that once existed, precisely at the point the novel captures so splendidly and insightfully – the eve of the cataclysm that was the First World War. Musil’s never-completed work, stretching to three volumes, is multifaceted, leisurely and, like many other modernist novels, barely concerned with plot. Perhaps, it makes sense to refer to Musil’s “pseudo-plot”, which depicts the efforts of some of Vienna’s political and cultural elite to plan a gigantic celebration of the pending 70th anniversary of The Hapsburg Emperor’s ascension to the throne and rule over the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. This Collateral Campaign leading up to the jubilee is set in the fateful year of 1913 – readers know that the following year will destroy all hope for a Moosbrugger’s speeches might be brilliant and unconventional defences of his actions or the weird logic of a madman. The answer lies on a knife edge.celebration, and indeed, will by the end of the brutal four-year struggle of World War I, result in the total collapse of the Empire.
Ulrich, the main character, is our “man without qualities” – a brilliant but unfocussed member of the upper class: trained as a mathematician but taking a lengthy sabbatical from all practical concerns. He serves as the vital connection to another of the central themes of the novel, the role of the criminal defendant Moosbrugger. By de-emphasizing plot and revealing the characters and their thoughts, ruminations and absorption in the cause celebre of the Moosbrugger Affair, Musil offers penetrating insights with wit, irony and erudition. Vienna becomes a key location in which many of the themes of modernity are studied. The narrator takes us from the upper class salons of Diotima, Ulrich’s name for his cousin (after the female Greek philosopher of love) who is a leader of the Collateral Campaign, together with her husband, a high-ranking civil servant, to the homes of friends of Ulrich’s who comment regularly on the news reports about the conviction of Moosbrugger for the rape and murder of a prostitute. This turns out to be one in a long line of such murders. Ulrich and his friends Walter and Clarisse exchange various ideas and positions on the possible motivations for these crimes. They speculate on whether Moosbrugger possessed a “guilty mind” or instead was lacking mens rea (or a guilty mind) due to serious mental illness. They consider the arguments advanced by Moosbrugger’s lawyer to challenge his conviction and the penalty of execution, or alternatively, a lengthy term of imprisonment. There are fascinating commentaries showered on the reader on Austrian legal procedures and also, more importantly, basic universal principles underlying criminal law and the proper punishment for serious violations of law and morality.
Musil might be considered an odd choice for my guide, but in fact, his novel surely captured some of the beauty and contradiction and instability of pre-WWI Vienna. The author employs the character of Christian Moosbrugger, a large, powerful, poorly educated carpenter who drifts from town to town seeking casual work, as a provocative contrast to the other central characters. They belong to either political, legal, business or artistic circles that have an understood function in the seemingly plush and elegant world of imperial Vienna. The criminal who so fascinates Ulrich and the others has become an enigmatic outcast and a possessor of a rebellious will to power that impresses them even as it troubles them. Indeed, in the case of Clarisse, married to the musician Walter, fascination gives way to an unhealthy obsession with Moosbrugger. Perversely, he becomes for her some kind of “new man” prophesized by the influential philosopher Nietzsche, a living presence in the novel as he was for Austria and Germany generally in that era. Nietzsche, who went mad and resided in a mental asylum prior to his death in 1900, challenged the prevailing liberal humanist world-view and considered that a new great man (ubermensch) or a class of superior persons was bound to seize power at some point to usher in a new era. The German philosopher would not have been a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi Party that was to, in fact, wrest power from the old elites and wreak havoc on the entire world. However, it is remarkable that Musil’s novel, published initially in the first part of the 1930s, offers a convincing sense of the premonitions of Ulrich, Clarisse and others that their world was bound to change utterly. It is the criminal Moosbrugger whom they sense represents the dark forces at work under the smooth veneer of modern civilization. At one point the narrator tells us that all Europe dreamed Moosbrugger. His fate is symbolically tied to the political and legal structures of the Austrian Empire and suggests both the key role of sexuality in modern-day Vienna and the way in which unhealthy thoughts as well as sexual acts can lead to disintegration. After all, Vienna was the birthplace of psychoanalysis. Not only Freud, but the playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, and Gustav Klimt, the painter of sensuous, erotic and at times frightening female figures, all lived and worked in Vienna in this era.
Musil is most adept at bringing Moosbrugger to life as a charismatic and oddly persuasive speaker in his own defence, both in the courtroom and later in recounting the vain criminal’s overweening sense of himself in the interviewing room at the police station. The carpenter’s vanity might suggest that he is a rather ridiculous man, but in fact, his fearlessness in the face of potential death marks him as a man to respect and to endeavour to understand. Moosbrugger’s speeches might be brilliant and unconventional defences of his actions or the weird logic of a madman. The answer lies on a knife edge.
Near the end of Book One, the narrator, in summing up the case for and against treating Moosbrugger as insane, offers this gem:
“Law courts are like cellars where the wisdom of our forefathers are bottled. Opening these bottles, one could weep at how unpalatable the human striving for exactitude is at its highest degree of fermentation before reaching perfection. Yet it does seem to intoxicate those who are not hardened.”
This address, which is an example of the essay style of narrating the novel, is a good example of the controlled irony employed in Musil’s investigation. The case of Moosbrugger, in offering no easy answers to the question of guilt and responsibility, opens out into a wider portrayal of a society on the edge of an abyss.