A diagnosis of modern life: Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as a critical-utopian project

S. de Cauwer

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


Robert Musil wrote Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as a critical intervention in the intellectual debates of his time. There are three general questions which prevail in the Musil scholarship: 1. What exactly did he want to critique and how is this critique at work in the novel? 2. What were his aims with his critique or the utopian aspect of his work? 3. What is the function of all the pathological behavior in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften? I attempt to clarify these three general concerns in this dissertation. Moreover, instead of seeing them as three distinct topics, I argue that all three are inseparable from each other and can only be understood in relation to each other. In the first chapter I look at Musil’s work as a critical project. In Musil’s analysis of the mechanisms that were hampering people from facing the present and to form new epistemological and ethical models adequate for modern life, morality and ideology play a crucial role. In his view, people were profoundly shaped by the prevailing moral order, a bond which was strengthened, perpetuated and motivated by ideological apparatuses. Throughout Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Musil relentlessly exposes and problematizes the mechanisms that kept people in a state of rigidity, blocking them from transforming their ethical and conceptual guidelines according to the challenges and possibilities of the modern world. In the second chapter, I look at Musil’s work as a utopian project. If the first chapter presents what was hampering the capacity to form a new ethics, the second chapter explores how Musil was trying to overcome this state and what he was hoping to achieve. His utopianism does aim for one stable ideal state, but is inherently open-ended, aiming toward the constant reformation and readjustment of one’s approach and norms. In the third chapter I explore the different ways in which the pathological plays a role in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Rather than one homogenous theme, I argue that the role of the pathological, madness and the monstrous in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, works on different levels at the same time. From diverse writings, I distill a Musilian theory of pathology, which should be distinguished from the ways other artists adopted the theme of madness or pathology to critique society. At the same time, Musil never stops critiquing the rhetoric of pathology adopted by conservative, moralist groups. He exposes the rhetoric of those defending the old moral order and a naturalized view on humans, society and its values in clinical terms, as if everything which poses a threat to this order is a deviation of a “healthy”, “natural” order. And finally, I situate the prevalence of pathological, transgressive behavior in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as a technique to expose the inadequacy of the current moral models or norms and to increase the need and possibility for new ethical formations. Finally, in a postscript, I look at the relevance of Musil’s ideas for today, in the light of the recent stage adaptation by Toneelhuis.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Naaijkens, Ton, Primary supervisor
Award date23 May 2012
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2012


  • Specialized histories (international relations, law)
  • Literary theory, analysis and criticism
  • Culturele activiteiten
  • Overig maatschappelijk onderzoek


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