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LITERATURE & POLITICS, Contra Mundum, 2022

Literature and Politics presents Robert Musil’s writings on the relationship between literature and politics from World War I through World War II and elucidates his personal struggle to bear witness during the Age of Totalitarianism. In essays, addresses, aphorisms, and unpublished notes on contemporary events, Musil charts the increasing dangers to artists and ethical thinkers of extreme ideological conscription, the subtle and not so subtle changes in public and political discourse, the epoch-making events and dire existential threats of his times. Musil acts as a cultural seismographer, interrogating causes and symptoms in himself and his world, as he moves between Nazi Germany and pre- and post-Anschluß Austria, ultimately escaping to Switzerland where he and his Jewish wife, Martha, lived in exile until his death in 1942. The writings question concepts of race, identity, and nation, and untangle the complex relationship between nation and artist and between the individual and the collective, celebrating the rich and irreducible nature of individual creative work as the bulwark of a free, ethical, and pluralistic society.

Klaus Amann provides an invaluable introduction to Musil’s political thought and his struggle, during the war years, to come to terms, to survive, and to find some way to bear witness. Amann recounts Musil’s political trajectory, from fairly indifferent aesthete to socially-engaged supporter of the Weimar Republic and its liberal reforms, to critic of Nazi and Communist Totalitarianisms, and as prescient sceptic about the “cultural optimism” of the Soviet experiment. Musil’s ultimate stance — as a thinker who radically resists taking final stances — is that politics endangers culture and humanity by dictating to artists how they should write, think, paint, compose, and by instrumentalizing art in the interest of ideology. This is not merely an aesthetic position, but a committed belief in the essential ethical nature of art and in art’s fundamental role as a timeless, supra-national force.

THEATER SYMPTOMS, Contra Mundum, 2020

Although known principally for his modernist masterpiece, The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil (1880–1942) was also a playwright and drama critic. Musil’s plays and theatrical investigations, written between 1921–1929, are inseparable form his later literary work and from his life-long commitment to art as a social and cultural activity. His brilliant plays and critical writings are not minor aspects of his artistic life, bu essential works, preparing the way for and intrinsically connected to his great, unfinished novel.

In the theater of the fraught period between the two world wars, Musil recognized a crisis that was symptomatic of larger social, political, and aesthetic problems. In seeing Art as a social and cultural stimulus, he leveled piercing critiques at the commodification and conformism of the Culture Industry of his time and pointed the way toward a living, transformative theater.

As an observer and researcher of the psychology of aesthetic experience, a student of anthropology and mysticism, and a writer who sometimes practiced the art of literature like an essayist and scientific experimenter, Musil saw in theater the ideal testing ground for questions about perception, reality, and the effects of ritual practices like formal variation, repetition, and the suspension of normal consciousness.

In contrast to the mostly shallow entertainment on offer, Musil saw the potential of theater — and all of art — as a force that could incite existential shattering of received ideas and a renewal of “motivated” existence.

Theater Symptoms constitutes not only the first volume in English of Musil’s finished plays and a selection of play fragments with a large body of previously untranslated work, including manifestoes of his utopian theatrical vision. His theoretical essays and reviews elucidate the symptoms of and possible cures for the dangerous decline, not only of theater or art, but also, in Musil’s view, of social relations: a descent from an ethico-aesthetic and “motivated” conduct of life to that of an uncritical, ethically lazy, aesthetically insensitive, and consumer-driven society. Musil’s reviews of Stanislavski’s Moscow Troupe, cabaret performances of Yvette Guilbert, the Yiddish theater, Expressionist stage innovations, productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, Schnitzler, Chekhov, and others, reveal Musil as a perceptive and visionary analyst of what theater was and what it could be.

Reviews here and here.

UNIONS, Contra Mundum, 2019

​Robert Musil

In 1911, following his 1906 debut, The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil published the two experimental stories that make up Unions. “The Completion of Love” and “The Temptation of Quiet Veronica” were some of Musil’s earliest forays into what would become a life-long exploration of the life, adventures, and psychological processes of his fiancé, Martha Marcovaldi — the future Martha Musil.​

When Musil later wrote of the “two authors” of his great unfinished work, The Man without Qualities, the co-author referred to was no other than Martha. The stories in Unions, drawn from Martha’s life, explode conventional morality; explore questions of self, union, and dissolution of self; and approximate exceptional sensations of erotic and intellectual perception in a shimmering and exceedingly dense proliferation of metaphors.

The images, Musil tells us in a note, are the bone, not just the skin, of these carefully crafted stories. Each word is as motivated as the internal and external moments it attempts to embody in language. Although Musil did not continue to work in this experimental style in his later writing, in a late note he affirmed that Unions, the fruit of much artistic struggle and deep personal engagement, was the only one of his books that he sometimes still read from.

This is a new English-language translation of the two stories and the first one to appear — in the form of Musil’s original publication — as Unions. A scholarly introduction by the translator, Genese Grill, explains the provenance of the stories and the need for a new approach to this book so central to his oeuvre.


Robert Musil’s Thought Flights vividly evokes the secrets, challenges, and mundanities of interwar life in cosmopolitan Vienna & Berlin. The texts presented here have been selected by translator Genese Grill from Musil’s Nachlass and collected for the first time under the title Thought Flights. They include material originally published in journals, newspapers, and magazines — but not included in Musil’s Posthumous Papers of a Living Author — as well as literary fragments & heretofore unpublished texts. Despite the temporal, geographical, and cultural distance between Musil’s world & ours, our own time & troubles are all too recognizable in Musil’s portrayals of the “age of money,” simulation, and standardization. Thought Flights is a lament of contemporary complacency, optimism, and homogenization as well as a celebration of living words and original thought by one of the great Modernists of the 20th century. As an astonishing master of metaphor & self-described “Monsieur le Vivisecteur,” Musil explores the psyches and lives of himself & his contemporaries with illuminating insight.

The lucid, striking prose of his stories and vignettes, and the wise and witty commentary of his glosses, show Musil’s response to innovations in technology, art, and politics, and his efforts to enact a strategy for both illuminating and ameliorating the crisis of language that haunted his contemporaries. Moving effortlessly from discussion of fashion to Kant’s categorical imperative, le vivisecteur writes with humor, lyricism, and fervor in an open genre availing itself of poetic prose, philosophical essay, fictional narrative, and feuilletonistic lightness. Through unlikely combinations and metaphoric syntheses, Musil brings “beauty and excitement” into the world, and when things that are usually separate unite, thoughts “fly.” With this publication, the now growing English-language corpus of the author of The Confusions of Young Torless, Five Women, and The Man without Qualities is expanded further. Other volumes of Musil’s writings will be forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press over the next decade.