Robert Musil’s Posthumous Papers of a Living Author

The Austrian author Robert Musil is best known for The Man Without Qualities, a sprawling, 1,700-page opus regularly ranked alongside Ulysses and In Search Of Lost Time among the 20th century’s greatest novels, but it remained incomplete until his death in 1942 – in Switzerland, where he had exiled himself after the Nazi annexation of his homeland. The Posthumous Papers of a Living Author was published in 1936, when he could already discern the dark currents that would sweep away Germany and much of Europe with it. “Can a poet still speak of being alive?” he asks in his Foreword. “Has not the poet of the German nation long since outlived himself?” What follows, then, are the traditional scrapings cobbled together by publicists, typically after a famous author has passed away, with two notable differences: first, these pieces were given the go-ahead by Musil himself, and second, even his literary leftovers are sumptuous enough to feast on.

The pieces, encompassing short stories, scenic descriptions, character sketches, observations and philosophical musings, were all originally written between 1920 and 1929, but the most vivid of them have taken on a prophetic quality in the aftermath of Hitler and the Holocaust. “[S]uch prophecies are likely to occur,” Musil tells us with ample modesty, “to every man who observes human life in the tiny traits by which it carelessly reveals itself, to every man who pays attention to the ‘loitering’ sensibilities, which, apparently, up until a certain hour that stirs them, ‘have nothing to say’ and harmlessly express themselves in our actions and our choice of surroundings.” The opening vignette, “Flypaper,” ranks among the most disturbing short fiction I have ever read. It describes the experience of a helpless fly stuck to a sheet of flypaper, first inconvenienced, then futilely resisting his fate, and finally sinking to the common doom of his predecessors.

Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers, holds us tight.

In the second half of the 1940s and beyond, many a German man and woman awoke to the fact that they had been led “out of convention,” at first, “because so many others are already there,” to a fate no less frightening than that of the fly.

A nothing, an it draws them in: so slowly that one can hardly follow, and usually with an abrupt acceleration at the very end, when the last inner breakdown overcomes them. Then, all of a sudden, they let themselves fall, forward on their face, head over heels; or sideways with all legs collapsed; frequently also rolled on their side with their legs rowing to the rear. This is how they lie there. Like crashed planes with one wing reaching out into the air. Or like dead horses. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers.

“Flypaper” is just three pages long, but the plight of the fly seduces and horrifies us, first at the level of language – Musil’s observations are chillingly accurate, and his imagery – crashed plans, dead horses – add metaphorical depths whose resonances have only increased with time. The last image we are left with is of the fly’s eye, the last vestige of life left in him: “It opens and closes, you can’t describe it without a magnifying glass, it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.” A good writer can resurrect the past or capture the present, but only the very great writers approach prophecy.

In “Threatened Oedipus,” Musil takes aim at psychoanalysis, then very much in vogue. He likens it to a game adolescents played, taking turns to trade insults until one poor boy, the loser, was left only with “yourself!” as a rejoinder, the early 20th century equivalent of “I know you are, but what am I?”

And I was very pleased to discover in my study of psychoanalytical literature that all those who do not believe in the infallibility of Psychoanalysis are immediately shown to have their reasons for disbelieving, reasons which can naturally only be of a psychoanalytic nature. This is splendid proof of the fact that even scientific methods were acquired before puberty.

Musil anticipates Karl Popper‘s famous falsifiability criterion: that any scientific theory that doesn’t admit of a means of invalidating it cannot be considered a scientific theory. But Musil shows himself to be more concerned, not with the validity of the theory, but its utility:

For more important than any particulars, and clearly the most important object of such treatment, is that the individual, softly hypnotically coaxed, should learn once again to feel himself to be the measure of all things. For centuries he has been told that his behavior is beholden to a culture that is much more important than he himself; and since in the last generation we finally all but rid ourselves of this culture, it was henceforth the rampant spread of innovations and inventions beside which the individual felt like a nothing: but now Psychoanalysis takes this stunted individual by the hand and shows him that all he needs is courage and healthy gonads. May this noble science never end! This is my wish as a lay amateur: but I believe this wish is consistent with that of the experts.

Don’t mistake his tone: there is no sincerity in his “may this noble science never end!”

This is a short and odd collection, but the power of expression and observation on display transcend the small form factor and showcase Musil’s prodigious talents splendidly. In his lifetime, as a former socialist alienated by its practice and a refugee from the Nazis, he was fated to be caught between the extremes of right and left. Finding no honourable alternative, he made another wise choice and retreated into art. Though his brilliance was widely recognized by artists, he struggled to find a readership. This reprinting, orchestrated by Archipelago Books, has already done a great deal to rectify that injustice.