Looking at the beginning of A Man Without Qualities yesterday, we saw Musil establish the subjective uniqueness of place. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk. In the next paragraph, though, Musil takes away the difference he’s just established. We overestimate the importance of knowing where we are because in nomadic times it was essential to recognize the tribal feeding grounds. He’s embedding the subjective uniqueness of place in a primal genetic commonality — like migrating birds that instinctively and eternally return every year to the place they were born.
So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its controlling rhythms. All in all, it was like a boiling bubble inside a pot made of the durable stuff of buildings, laws, regulations, and historical traditions.
The characters who populate Musil’s story — if you can call it a story — act as if Vienna is the center of civilization, with a benevolent and wise Emperor as its god. But right from the beginning Musil distances himself from the place and its people, which are of course also his place, his people. The seemingly monumental concerns that motivate his characters are, Musil tells us, reducible to impersonal force fields bubbling away inside a closed space. But even here, in speaking of the “durable stuff” of a city, he’s being ironic. He’s looking back on a Vienna that is no more, its institutions shattered by a Great War that would begin with the assassination of the Austrian Emperor.
The sense Musil introduces of a multiplicity of impersonal, uncontrollable forces by turns creating stability and destroying it, belying any sense of purpose or progress moving through history — it’s characteristic of late modernism. Old Vienna with its familiar rhythms and its high culture and its distinctiveness — all of it can be swept away in an irresistible surge of mindless violence. Once there was Rome, then there was Vienna, then New York, next maybe Shanghai — every unique time and place rises and falls by the grace of chance and momentum and force fields. Ultimately they reduce to sameness.
We tend to think about modernity in terms of stable structures and scientific progress, of the heroic individual and the high culture. In contrast, postmodernity occupies a world in which structures are unstable,science is alienating, progress is uncertain, individualism is replaced by a herd of narcissists, and culture is co-opted by the marketplace. What you see in a book like The Man Without Qualities is a look back at modernity from the other side of the abyss. Sure he’s nostalgic, but he can also see the preciousness, the insularity, the futility of what has been destroyed. Musil wrote during the time of America’s “Lost Generation” of Hemingway, Eliot, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The Europeans were Mann, Joyce, Proust, Kafka. They all portray a sense of irretrievable loss, of alienation, of purposelessness. And they’re all modernists.
When you think about this post-WWI set of writers, you wonder whether postmodernism isn’t best seen as a continuation rather than a radical departure. I suppose the main difference might be that the postmoderns have no personal memory of the good old days and no illusions that they’ll ever come back, no regret or nostalgia about a utopia lost on the ever-receding frontiers of the past and the future.