I have begun to reread Robert Musil’s “A Man without Qualities,” a huge Austrian novel written between 1930-43. It is considered by literary scholars as one of the greatest novels of last hundred years and is easily compared to the best works of Joyce, Proust, or Mann. I was inspired to re-read it when I encountered a piece last summer by David Auerbach in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he argues that Trump is not comparable to any of the other populist demagogues in the 20th century because he does not hue to an ideology. Instead, he only seeks to dominate others and not be dominated by anyone. In searching for a personality that accurately prefigures Trump, Auerbach lights on the character of Christian Moosbrugger in Musil’s novel. Moosbrugger is an uneducated carpenter who is also a serial rapist and murderer of women. Brought to account for his crimes, his trial becomes the talk of Vienna because of his eccentric behavior as a defendant. He applauds testimony in court that is damaging to him and basks in the fame and attention the trial affords him, frustrating his lawyers by commenting on the proceedings to the press. He contradicts himself frequently in giving testimony, and does so without a care, as if the truth is only what he chooses to believe in that moment. He is clearly insane, but in the way that people can be insane and still appear to be perfectly rational. This is the quality that fascinates the other characters in the novel, as they read about the case in the newspapers.
I read the first part of the novel when I was an undergraduate. As with many of the works I read in that period of my life, I remember only the vaguest outlines of the plot and a few images. I even forgot about Moosbrugger. So I dove into this 1800 page monster looking to see what other gems Musil had offered that deserve to be better known as we start the 21st century in earnest.
I was not disappointed. Only 130 pages into the book, Musil offers a biting critique of the aspirational language of organizations, political platforms included, in the form of a fake logical principle: the Principle of Insufficient Cause. Here is the passage in which Ulrich, the main character, explains the principle to Fischel, a bank manager who had been asked by Count Leinsdorf, a powerful aristocrat in the Austrian Emperor’s inner circle, to join Ulrich and several other notables in organizing a celebration of the Emperor’s 70th year of reign, the same year the German Emperor will be celebrating his 30th year in office, thus demonstrating Austria’s cultural, political and philosophical superiority to its Germanophone neighbor. The bank manager is trying to understand what the Count has written in the letter of invitation that describes what the project is about. That description includes the phrase “the true patriotism, the true Austria and the true progress,” which Fischel finds totally confounding. Ulrich, by the way, is quite cynical about the whole endeavor, but must remain guarded in offering his true opinions so as not to undermine his public reputation as a diplomat and a scholar, a reputation based not on actual accomplishment, but on, yes, the P.I.C.
“The P.I.C.?” Director Fischel repeated the letters in all innocence, this time not thinking that it was a joke, for although such abbreviations were then not yet as numerous as today, they were familiar from cartels and trusts, and they were very confidence-inspiring. Then, however, he said: “Look, please don’t make jokes. I’m in a hurry, I have a conference.” “The Principle of the Insufficient Cause!” Ulrich explained. “Being a philosopher yourself, you know of course what the principle of the sufficient cause is. Only, people make an exception where they themselves are concerned. In real life, by which I mean our personal and also our public-historical life, what happens is always what has no good cause.” Leo Fischel wavered, undecided whether to contradict him or not. Director Leo Fischel of Lloyd’s Bank enjoyed philosophising (there are still such people in practical occupations), but he was really in a hurry. So he replied: “Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean. I know what progress is, I know what Austria is, and I dare say I know what patriotism is too. But I don’t know that I can quite imagine what true patriotism, true Austria and true progress are. And that’s what I’m asking you!” “All right. Do you know what an enzyme is? Or a catalyst?” Leo Fischel lifted one hand in a defensive gesture. “It’s something,” Ulrich went on, “that contributes nothing materially, but sets events going. You ought to know from history that there has never been such a thing as the true faith, true morality, and true philosophy. And yet the wars, and all the vileness and viciousness, that have been let loose in their name have fruitfully transformed the world.” “Another time!” Fischel implored, and tried to adopt an air of frankness. “Look, it’s like this, I’ve got to deal with all this on the Stock Exchange and would really like to know what Count Leinsdorf’s actual intentions are. What is he getting at with this supplementary ‘true’ of his?” “I give you my solemn word,” Ulrich replied gravely, “that neither I nor anyone else knows what ‘the true’ is. But I can assure you it is on the point of realisation.”
The Principle of Insufficient Causes is a jewel of an idea because it is about the catalytic quality of words, the casual force of speech to bring things into the world and set events in motion that are truly transformative. In the case that Ulrich is dealing with, it’s a silly political celebration that will become as all consuming culture event and change people’s lives. In our case, it’s the formulas of populism, the “Make America Great / Put America First” slogans that mean nothing, but catalyze actions that transform lives. And, I can assure you, it is on the point of realisation.
I can’t wait to see what Musil has in store for the next 1700 pages.