Robert Musil’s ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ and David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ are two of the most meaningful and comprehensive works of the 20th century. Robert Musil’s ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ [The Man without Qualities], originally intended as a three-part novel, appeared in 1930 (1st book) and 1932 (2nd book, 1st part). In 1978, the German language original to which I will refer, containing a total of 1040 pages, was newly reviewed, worked up and published. ‘Aus dem Nachlass’ [Out of the Estate], a 1114 page collection of Musil’s notes on the novel appeared in the same year along with a continuation of the 2nd book (both published by Arnold Friesé, Rowohlt, Reinbeck near Hamburg). Musil never completed the novel although he worked on it for 21 years until his death in 1942. Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ is no less bulky with 1104 pages, and includes a whopping 388 footnotes.
At a first glance, the novels display many similarities with their immense size and the convoluted form of their plots. Although many differences between the works also exist, I support the thesis that they come into contact with each other in their utopian moments. As I use no secondary literature for the development of my ideas, everything which follows is my subjective interpretation.
‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ is interspersed with all kinds of utopian reflections. The main character, Ulrich, creates and experiences a multitude of utopian positions in the course of the novel, which he, however, almost always rejects. He develops his ideas alone or in discussion with other figures in the novel, until the second book where he finds an equal discussion partner in his long lost sister Agathe, and creates the last and most radical idea of the book, the utopia of the ‘other state’. Parallel to the discussions and ideas of Ulrich, a diverse range of utopian positions is formulated in the novel through other characters. However, these too also always fail or are anti-social and therefore written as a dystopia.
The development and planning of the ‘Parallel Campaign’, which is motivated by the idea of utopia, run throughout the plot. The novel is written in Vienna during the Imperial and Royal Monarchy shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. The fragmented and convoluted plot line outlines the preparations of noble personalities, amongst them – more by chance than anything else – Ulrich, for the honouring of the 70-year jubilee of Kaiser Franz Joseph in 1918. Because festivities for the 30-year jubilee of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II are being prepared at the same time in the neighbouring country, the preparatory committee calls itself ‘Parallel Campaign’. During the planning, which mostly remains very vague, several interests collide, which are constantly shifting between national, political, social, personal and spiritual motivations. The Parallel Campaign becomes a farce and a reversal of every utopian idea because it is a focus of nationalist and capitalist interests, which are always viewed critically by Ulrich. At the end of the first section of the second book, the conflicts of interest are deliberately intensified through individual characters, such that the preparations for the Parallel Campaign lead to the outbreak of the First World War and the planning of social utopia therefore reverses into a state of dystopia.
At the same time, Ulrich and Agathe begin their private attempt to live in the utopia of the ‘other state’ which they have designed. The development of the ‘other state’ is based on Ulrich’s study of the writings of mystics and on the idea which he refers to earlier as the ‘sense of possibility’ which implies that everything which exists could just as well be different, and so presents an opposite to the ‘sense of reality’. In the ‘other state’, man finds himself in a constant state of ecstasy, in which there is no longer any definite, purposeful love but rather everything is done ‘out of love’. At the same time, however, the ideas at any point are quite clear and can reflect this state. The ‘other state’ promotes feeling as the equal partner of rational thinking and – intended as a permanent state – extends beyond the power of human imagination. Therefore, the attempts of the siblings to live in the ‘other state’ remain in the balance and no literary completion is given by Musil.
Wallace’s novel, which emerged two generations later, is set in a state of dystopia. The plot is played out in a parody of the near future in North America. The dramatic composition is fragmented and convoluted to an even greater extent than in ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’. Although many plot lines also run parallel to each other, meet each other and separate in ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ and numerous different characters appear, these elements are taken to extremes in ‘Infinite Jest’. This impression is intensified by the aforementioned presence of 388 footnotes which explain and add to expressions or events. The plot is held together in all its complexity by central themes such as drug addiction, child abuse, competitive sport (tennis), family structures, the entertainment and advertisement industry, political tensions, oppression and struggles for independency and psychological illness. Wallace creates a strong realism and the possibility of empathy with the respective protagonists and situations by his use of enormous linguistic variety and diversity. This makes the confrontation with the many cases of violence and abuse in the novel in parts hard to bear.
At the central point stands a family, not in the least its father, James Incandenza, a film director who committed suicide. His ghost later appears to another main character, the ex-junkie Don Gately. Don Gately and James Incandenza are connected by Joelle van Dyke who is at first infinitely beautiful and later ‘deformed’ by an accident. She finds herself an inmate in the same rehabilitation clinic as Gately and used to work as an actress for Incandenza. Before his death, Incandenza made a film with the title ‘Infinite Jest’. The work is allegedly so perfect that everyone who sees it lapses into an infantile state of full satisfaction, can no longer think rationally and is seized by the urge just to watch the film over and over again. Joelle van Dyke was the main character in the film and different political interests are concentrated on the master tape of ‘Infinite Jest’. However, it is still unclear until the end whether the film really has the effect it is claimed to have.
In all the endeavours of the characters of the novel, the search for ecstasy seems to be of key significance. The endeavours are, to the greatest extent, perverted and manifest themselves in slight to excessive drug abuse, rape, torture, addiction to entertainment, success and sex, cruelty to animals, power and violence. The quest for ecstasy culminates in the film ‘Infinite Jest’ which links the plot lines to each other as regards both content and dramatic composition, and – in its alleged effect – presents the highest form of intoxication in the novel. Despite all this, the novel also displays scenes of humanity and charity and so creates small utopian moments in a society of dystopia.
Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ and Musil’s ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ link the idea of oscillation between utopia and dystopia. This parallelism is particularly interesting if one considers that ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ emerged around sixty years before ‘Infinite Jest’. From this one could infer that the literary classification of modernism does not fully apply to ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’. Rather, the work – as well as Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ – seems to connect modern and post-modern concepts and so, in a complex manner, to break these perceptions.
In ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’, a strong moment of hope prevails, which manifests itself in particular in Ulrich’s far-reaching reflections. Hope is broken again and again by reality but this doesn’t lead to stopping or giving up. Ulrich tirelessly creates utopian states although they never last. However, it is left open at the end, whether or not the utopian states can ever be realised. On a personal level, the originally cold Ulrich succeeds in finding a strong love for his sister. The novel doesn’t allow the siblings to live out their incestuous love and in this way a tension is allowed to arise between the possibility of love and its failure in real life. This question also remains unanswered and so creates a moment of tension on many levels between vision and reality. As far as politics is concerned, the novel ends in catastrophe and reflects the social situation at the beginning of the ‘30s in Berlin, where Musil completed the first part of the novel before he left Germany in 1933.
Wallace’s novel also makes despair about social circumstances into a theme. However, in Musil’s novel, Dystopia arises as the logical result of the events while in Wallace’s novel it exists as a lasting state of society. The search for ecstasy always becomes clear in the many hopeless individual fates in ‘Infinite Jest’. The state of ecstasy is not seen as a utopian moment as in Musil, rather it is presented as a delusion through varied forms of addiction and exercise of power. The search always fails. However, in doing so a reversal occurs in which, in a complete sense of forlornness, a strong longing for naturalness and love develops. This materialises again and again in the novel in small plotlines and, here too, allows the question to arise of how one can ‘become a human differently and better’ (Robert Musil, ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’).