Skip over navigation

The Specter of Automation: The Organic and Its Limits
in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities

Adviser: Michael W. Jennings

Robert F. Madole


“The Princeton thesis is a boot camp in the exercise of ideas ...”


At my first meeting with Professor Michael Jennings, the adviser my department had assigned for my junior paper (JP), I remember being asked to explain why I was interested in Robert Musil, the Austrian author about whom I planned to write my first JP. My response was, in all probability, incomprehensible, but through the obfuscation of catch phrases one spews to sound smart when one has nothing to say (“I’m interested in the way that, you know…the story is unveiled in…the semantics of the text…”), Professor Jennings saw the answer to his question. “So,” he told me, “you’re interested in narratology.” Sure, I thought. Whatever that is.

But he was right, and the vocabulary I gleaned from the books that he recommended significantly altered the manner in which I approached works of literature. “Narratology” is, I learned, the study of a book’s perspective—the position an author takes with regard to his or her story. There are the perspectives you learn in high-school English—first-person, omniscience, limited third-person, stream of consciousness, etc.—but these only tell half the story. The history of the modern novel is, above all, a history of the proliferation of narrative perspectives, as writers found more and more inventive ways to render their stories and portray the minds of their characters. There are countless reasons one can pinpoint for why, exactly, the methods of rendering a story proliferated around the turn of the 20th century (one could, for example, point to the invention of the camera, whose purely external access to the human being engendered, in literature, a desire to achieve internal access to said human being); such arguments are the discipline of narratology’s raison d’Ítre. But it was, historical considerations aside, Musil’s very alien narrative position with regard to his epic novel, The Man Without Qualities, that interested me, before I could articulate exactly why; and it wasn’t until Professor Jennings gave me the tools to advance my half-formed thoughts that I became capable of thinking this through.

My thesis ended up being an elaboration of my JP, with Professor Jennings again serving as adviser. It sought to argue that the unique “narratological stance” of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities was a product of his scientific background as an experimental psychiatrist; that the novel was a kind of epistemological experiment on par with those experiments performed by Musil’s doctoral adviser, Carl Stumpf, designed to probe the limits of human perception by recording test subjects’ minute ocular responses to snatches of words displayed at lightning speeds in so-called “tachistoscopes.” That, in other words, the function of cultural history—which, when plotted on a chronological graph, yields books, literature, the general artistic detritus sifted through by humanities students—is codependent upon a function of material history. It is no revolutionary claim, but I had fun piecing together the historical argument, fusing arcane trivia regarding early 19th-century psychological research with my understanding of Musil’s text.

Princeton often boasts about the “access to professors” granted to undergraduates, and this is nowhere truer than in the German department, which, in my graduating year, numbered only six students. There were a number of things I disliked about attending Princeton, but I believe it offers its students two things that are difficult to beat: the leisure to spend a year combing through the open stacks of Firestone Library, retaining your books for months at a time; and the access to professors who, by virtue of the small graduate departments and a dedication to Princeton’s vision of the “thesis experience,” have the time to shape your experiences in that library. An idea, however original it might be, is useless if its terms are not clarified, if its premises are not sourced, if it fails to be contextualized within the ideas of other, more intelligent writers. The Princeton thesis is a boot camp in the exercise of ideas, and though a recent re-reading of my thesis yielded a number of grimaces, I am still grateful for having undergone the experience, which is, one must admit, “quintessentially Princeton.”

The Specter of Automation: The Organic and Its Limits
in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities

Robert F. Madole

Michael W. Jennings

Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages;
Professor of German

“Working with Rob on his thesis brought me not just the pleasure that comes from seeing a student’s remarkable intellectual progress, but a new sense of a novel I thought I knew well ...”

When I speak to groups of prospective students, I try to do two things. First, I try to reassure them that the admission process, for all its stresses, will have a good outcome: It is possible to get an outstanding undergraduate education at a very broad range of colleges and universities in America. And second, I try to suggest to them that, even amid its incredible resources and opportunities, it is the senior thesis that distinguishes a Princeton education and sets us apart from every other institution. The thesis is of course a unique—and often daunting—introduction to independent research and the challenge of scholarly originality. And it requires of every Princeton student advanced rhetorical skills: the ability to construct a convincing argument that extends over many pages and several chapters. But what truly sets Princeton’s thesis apart is the relationship that it can forge between a teacher and a student.

I have taught at Princeton for 30 years, and I remain in touch with a remarkable number of my thesis advisees. They include Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright fellows, and Supreme Court clerks; professors of literature, history, and art history; attorneys, artists, broadcasters, physicians, network executives, scientists, investment bankers, and entrepreneurs. We stay in touch because the relationship that develops between an adviser and a dedicated thesis writer forms a very different basis than the one that grows in the classroom.

Rob Madole is the third thesis writer in the last few years who has taken on the challenge of one of the 20th century’s great cultural achievements, the Austrian novelist Robert Musil’s masterwork, The Man Without Qualities. In a small department like mine, a tightly knit intellectual community ensures that a student’s interests and directions are the subject of intense discussion—and that a kind of cultural memory sees that certain key topics remain central. Benjamin Good ’05, Chris Schlegel ’09, and now Rob Madole ’10 all chose to address broad cultural problems while using Musil’s novel as a lens. Ben addressed a tradition of nihilism that ran down to the novel from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche; Chris tested the limits and possibilities of historically oriented literary criticism by applying them to Musil; and now Rob has used it as a limit case for the possibilities of narrative voice in the modern novel.

Rob’s essay provides a much better picture of the process of writing this thesis than I could ever produce. I can only say that working with Rob on his thesis brought me not just the pleasure that comes from seeing a student’s remarkable intellectual progress, but a new sense of a novel I thought I knew well, and a series of challenging new problems in the theory of narrative. This was not, in other words, a “one-way street”: I’m sure I learned nearly as much from Rob as he did from me. We spent many hours together in my office and over lunch or coffee. Some of them were of course given over to discussions of what he had just read—and of what he ought now to be reading. But many more of them were intense debates regarding interpretations of individual passages, evaluations of the novel’s overarching structures, and the usefulness of particular narratological approaches. The result was an exceptional thesis: full of original insight, brilliantly written and argued, in fact a kind of mini-dissertation of which many of our best graduate students would be proud. It thus came as absolutely no surprise to me that Rob won a Fulbright fellowship. And in this, too, he followed a path laid down by Ben Good and Chris Schlegel!