Here’s a song for you.
The song is ‘Bros’ by Panda Bear, maybe you’ve heard of it. Anyway, have a wee listen to it now, a minute or so (or it'll make good background music while you read this review!) Okay, fine, it’s a breezy summery song, nothing too special. But did you hear the screaming, sobbing, racecar, owl hoots, or anything else that makes up the dense collection of samples? It’s blurry, messy, no two listens are alike. You pick up on different things each time. To me at least, listening to the song is like listening to life. I have no doubt it was written by a really clever guy.
It’s this same effect that The Man Without Qualities gave me, written by a clever guy, and like reading life. Like ‘Bros’, it doesn’t really begin or end, and everything between those non-existent boundaries is a dense mess. So, quite a difficult thing to review, essentially. So you have to pick out the parts that speak to you. Back to the song for a bit, maybe you start to hear the wails, screams, animals, but then you think… is that the hiss of a snake, a match being lit, a fuse? Are those children laughing or crying? Probably depending on who you are, you catch some parts, not others, and think of them one way, and not another. This brings me on to the meaning that I applied to TMWQ. It’s about the only thing I can offer by way of a review:
Pg. 188 (maybe my favourite sentence) “Arnheim had written that a man who inspects his suit is incapable of fearless conduct, because the mirror, originally created to give pleasure-as Arnheim explained it- had become an instrument of anxiety, like the clock, which is a substitute for the fact that our activities no longer follow a logical sequence”
What I love about this is how it makes you seriously reevaluate two everyday objects and consider the influence they have upon you. Try covering up anything that wants to tell you the time (there’s a bloody lot of them), stop looking in mirrors. See what happens.
Pg 328 “We can begin at once with the peculiar predilection of scientific thinking for mechanical, statistical and physical explanations that have, as it were, the heart cut out of them. The scientific mind sees kindness only as a special form of egotism; brings emotions into line with glandular secretions; notes that eight or nine tenths of a human being consists of water; explains our celebrated moral freedom as an automatic mental by-product of free trade; reduces beauty to good digestion and the proper distribution of fatty tissue; graphs the annual statistical curves of births and suicides to show that our intimate personal decisions are programmed behaviour; sees a connection between ecstasy and mental disease; equates the anus and the mouth as the rectal and the oral openings at either end of the same tube- such ideas, which expose the trick, as it were, behind the magic of human illusions, can always count on a kind of prejudice in their favour as being impeccably scientific. Certainly they demonstrate love of truth. But surrounding this clear, shining love is a predilection for disillusionment, compulsiveness, ruthlessness, cold intimidation, and dry rebuke, a spiteful predilection, or at least an involuntary emanation of such kind.”
Here we have the dichotomy of science as a reasoning tool, demonstrating how little it actually helps us just to live. Man cannot live by science alone.
Pg. 409 “Science is possible only where situations repeat themselves, or where you have some control over them… A cube would not be a cube if it were not just as rectangular at nine o’clock as seven…. if you had never seen the moon before you’d think it was a flashlight. Incidentally, the reason God is such an embarrassment to science is that he was seen only once, at the Creation, before there were any trained observers around.”
This quote best shows where Musil tries to blend mysticism with science, which I think is a brilliant idea, and something that is considered quite a contemporary movement ([a:David Foster Wallace|4339|David Foster Wallace|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1358332401p2/4339.jpg] stating that ‘You get to choose what to worship’, or [a:Alain de Botton|13199|Alain de Botton|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1189753902p2/13199.jpg]’s [b:Religion for Atheists|12576334|Religion for Atheists A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion |Alain de Botton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327225900s/12576334.jpg|16644915], all three of them are on to something).
And two instances of him referencing awesome things other people said:
Pg 386 “You know what Nietzsche says? Wanting to know for sure is like wanting to know where the ground is for your next step, mere cowardice. One has to start somewhere to act on one’s intentions, not just talk about it.”
I love this because “wanting to know where the ground is” is introduced as preposterous, not generally how it is thought of, but it is. We take for granted when we walk that there’s something there. But maybe we all live with more risk than we think. It’s correcting the attitude. Back to [a:de Botton|13199|Alain de Botton|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1189753902p2/13199.jpg], this time [b:How Proust Can Change Your Life|23420|How Proust Can Change Your Life|Alain de Botton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320528867s/23420.jpg|14280396], he argues that when you read classics, you are collecting pairs of glasses through which you see the world with different eyes. In this case, albeit not a direct Musil quote, I think you see a world with an accelerated risk all around, in every action, which makes you feel brave, since you’ve been being brave all along, just by living. I find that empowering.
Pg 1030 “The English writer Surway… distinguishes five [steps] in the process of successful reasoning: (a) close observation of an event, in which the observation immediately reveals problems of interpretation; (b) establishing such problems and defining them more narrowly; (c) hypothesis of a possible solution; (d) logically developing the consequences of this hypothesis; and (e) further observations, leading to an acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis and thereby to a successful outcome of the thinking process.”
Often all skipped.
I had no idea that this book was in part an analysis of ‘living scientifically’, but that part was clearly the most important to me. For obvious reasons, there’s not a lot of it in literature, at least that I’ve found. I think I’m supposed to be reading science fiction, but I find a lot of it- even the serious stuff- a bit cheesy and obvious, and as for how we’re supposed to live with science, unhelpful (yeah that is too much- and I still read science fiction, but mostly just for pleasure). I’m about to embark on a career in chemical engineering, and strongly believe it’s what I was meant to do. People were always born writers, singers, artists, never chemical engineers, although I went to a really interesting lecture where professors of the Medieval Studies department described us as modern day alchemists, so yes, chemical engineering is an innate calling, but up until recently we’ve just been untrained observers. I think that was my argument all along, or maybe Musil just helped me see it. But science and mysticism are knit together, you need not choose one or the other, and both may well be necessary for life satisfaction. This is what I got from The Man Without Qualities, but you can see the slant it has towards my opinion or attitude. The book is massive, perhaps you don’t agree with me or my interpretation, but you can at least see that intellectual exercise and depth that the book offers, and that’s still there for you to enjoy.
What will you see when you put on Musil’s glasses?