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What makes a Man a Man?

What makes a Man a Man?

What makes a Man a Man?

Once again, philosopher Peter Natter reads a book against the backdrop of the Bregenzerwald. This time he tackles "The Man Without Qualities" by Robert Musil.

Recently, I read an article about Bregenzerwald virtues in the sports section of our local daily newspaper. The story concerned an itinerant Finnish trainer, the coach of the Bregenzerwald ice hockey team, who expected Bregenzerwald virtues from all of his players regardless of their background. These were so-called legionnaires or cooperation players borrowed from the club’s big brother, i.e. players from various parts of the world. Instilling such values, according to the trainer, would invariably lead to victory against their next opponent in the Alps Hockey League. As it so happened, the coach’s team won this particular game, which in turn made me curious about which virtues in particular could possibly have made a difference?

Let’s skip past discussing whether such a thing as Bregenzerwald virtues even exists. It is beyond dispute that there are virtuous men and women in the Bregenzerwald. In fact it can be argued that all Bregenzerwald residents have virtues, even if they may not be Bregenzerwald virtues at all but human virtues in general. At face value, this should suffice as a foundation for our discussion. The question of whether, for example, being a Bregenzerwald resident is in itself a virtue, is certainly an onion with layers worth unpeeling. Virtues themselves are in fact not wholly unrelated from the concept of “spirit,” a quality often embodied by a sports club, a company or even an autochthonous region. Now we are indeed approaching the heart of the matter, which, like a stiff wind, blows through the Bregenzerwald kicking up dust again and again. So there we have it: the age-old dispute between the spiritual and the material. If perhaps not a dispute than perhaps a dialectic, which is a somewhat confusing distinction indeed.

The time has come to get philosophical, if not literary. Once again, I’ve headed to Großdorf in the Bregenzerwald to read. In wintertime, the tranquillity of my refuge from city life truly comes into its own. The snow that falls silently (famed conductor Claudio Abbado is said to have raved about the sound of snow falling on snow) fits wonderfully with the topic: is this after all a phenomenon at the limits of the material and spiritual? The magic of snow, regardless of whether it’s the first snow of the season or light powder flakes glittering like those falling today, cannot be explained physically or tangibly. What’s the point? For several weeks now (in reality decades), I have found myself captivated by a book that ranks among the truly outstanding giants of German-language literature. Written by an author who can justifiably be described as a spiritual being, though he was also an engineer, an officer and a technician as well.

He incorporated the actions of his humanity into his immense life’s work: a book written in an extremely spiritless time. It was agonizingly penned, word for word across ten thousand handwritten and three thousand book pages.  It’s contents are also remarkable for the time in which it was written: Europe was plagued by rampant evil spirits, between the First and Second World Wars, between the collapse of the old and the implosion of the new. Thus the work, which was never actually finished, has survived as a giant fragment. It deals precisely with the struggle between spirit and anti-spirit, between soul and economy, between feeling and mind, between life and profession, between being and doing, or: between ritual and process, passion and ratio, between suspicions and hard data, between professionals and herbalists.

“The Man without Qualities” by Robert Musil (1880-1942) is widely regarded as unreadable. But this is merely a cliché, an excuse. In truth, it is merely a question of spirit that inspires one to come to terms with this great work. German speaking readers these days can even profit from a recently published six-volume edition from Jung und Jung publishing house that is both beautiful and extremely reader-friendly. The edition is even supported by an almost inexhaustible and digitally accessible treasure trove of commentary and annotation. What gives Musil’s novel its contemporary validity is the author’s timeless modernity, the topicality of the world of Kakania, and the downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy. Some things must end so that others can begin. “Honouring the tried and tested while also being open to the new” is a difficult balancing act. Small wonder that Bregenzerwald residents so embody and identify with this often-quoted sentiment from Gebhard Wölfle.

Musil explores this delicate balancing act in his novel. The plot hits close to home: One of the most powerful figures, the prostitute murderer Moosbrugger, is named after a Bregenzerwald family. What’s more, the strands of Musil’s thinking are in tune with the region and often make reference to Vorarlberg and its people, albeit in a manner that is rather unlike conventional social and economic discourse. It is highly exciting to explore the concrete meaning of that which the author discuses in abstract form: What is the difference between a “man without qualities” and “qualities without man”?

When the book was written, Musil knew nothing of the trend we call digitalisation. But as one of the sharpest, most unprejudiced, most clear-sighted, most thorough and most incorruptible personalities of all time, he wrestled with an incredible amount of what poses as progress, and has laid out his findings in subtly considered language. Thus, Ulrich, ‘the man without qualities,’ fights an inescapable battle against all the newfangled, brilliant, dazzling qualities which men jealously pursue. Such men lack spirit, vitality, humanity and soul: “Scientists… are characters inebriated with facts, yet they couldn’t care less whether anything at all comes of their observations to the benefit of understanding the big picture, humanity, or the absolute. They are suffering creatures rife with contradictions, yet full of energy!” (vol. 1, p. 343f) Once again the values of Bregenzerwald have come full circle: Is the spirit in fact merely a “powerless spectator” (ibid., p. 440)? Where do we draw the line between traditions and attractions that can be exploited for tourism? Such questions, among others are raised during a reading of “The Man Without Qualities.” Not to mention the effects of marriages that last many years.

Author: Peter Natter
Issue: Winter 2019-20 Travel Magazine