6 December 2009

Fictional Ontologies: Musil

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:40 pm

Two days ago I posted an excerpt from an early section of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, in which appeared the phrase “the phenomenology of the universe, the specific and independent existence of separate objects and events.” Later, Ballard assigns to one of his paragraphs the title “a unique ontology of violence and disaster.”

Back in March 2007 I wrote a couple of posts that included most of the second paragraph and all of the third of Robert Musil’s monumental 1930 modernist novel The Man Without Qualities. I’m reprising those paragraphs here in the context of what might be called fictional ontologies:

Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark clusters of pedestrians formed cloudlike strings. Where more powerful lines of speed cut across their casual haste they clotted up, then trickled on faster and, after a few oscillations, resumed their hasty rhythm. Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. Cities, like people, can be recognized by their walk…

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.



  1. Well, in absence of other comment I’ll just give you Musil points and thanks. My grad advisor, David Luft, wrote one of the first and best historical monographs on Musil and his times; I loved The Man Without Qualities as a brilliant obscure classic in a similar vein as Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, which I recommend if you haven’t gotten to it.


    Comment by Carl — 9 December 2009 @ 9:41 pm

  2. Yes, I really liked Man Without Qualities too. While I was reading it the book sprouted a whole array of colored post-it notes that I used to mark particularly excellent sentences. I’d never heard of Svevo or his book, so I’ll have to look into it — thanks for the tip, Carl.

    The beginning of Man Without Qualities presents a process-based ontology in which weather, autos, people, buildings, laws, and traditions merge and diverge, generating emergent qualities like the distinctive walk of Vienna. If the movement stops, the distinctive quality disappears. It’s Latourian before Latour you might say. The eponymous Man of Musil’s book has no qualities because he’s insulated and stagnant — like the pre-war Austro-Hungarian Empire in which this insular “story” takes shape. The withdrawn and eternal European essence is an illusion. Or something like that.


    Comment by john doyle — 10 December 2009 @ 9:50 am

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