Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Trying to answer the question, "What is a Quality?"

At the heart of the question, "What do you think it means to be a Man Without Qualities?" is the question of how to identify a quality when you see one in a person. Up through Chapter 10, only two characters other than Ulrich have been named and described in any real detail: Leona and Ulrich's father. In particular, Ulrich's father was identified as a man with qualities (page 8, title of Chapter 3). Although Leona presumably also had qualities, it's hard to know whether the differences between her and Ulrich were due primarily to having or lacking qualities or whether the differences between them were due to differences in the gender roles of that place and time.

The most striking difference between Ulrich and his father is that his father's life and experiences were very linear and predictable, almost as though they were taken directly from a how-to book on how to become a successful personality in the world of law. Ulrich himself, by contrast, always seemed paralyzed by his own intellect and had reinvented himself on many occasions during his lifespan: he had been a mathematician, he spent many years of his life away from his native country, and he had regularly switched projects as soon as he tired of the (pg. 14). Ulrich's main difference from his father, then, appears to be his complete detachment from a sense of loyalty to someone or something external to himself. Whereas his father set out to network his way into the world of academics and lawyers from the start, Ulrich had even questioned the notion of unconditional love for one's country as a youth. This attitude was presumably then nurtured by the response of his father, which was an abandonment of the unconditional and complete loyalty he had for Ulrich.

Ulrich's detachment from devotion to a person or cause outside of himself is evident throughout the description of his character and his life. He never committed himself to a particular occupational path for any great length of time, and he failed even to decorate his home in a way that was consistent with itself: there were stylistic elements drawn from at least three different centuries' fashions, and this did not seem to bother Ulrich much. He watched the world and people around him with a sense of objective detachment, more interested in observing them than in involving himself with them. Even in the midst of the attack he experienced in a bar (page 21), he maintained this sense of detachment from his own existence and contemplated whether the thugs in the bar were truly any different than himself as a citizen. Even in Ulrich's romantic life he proceeded in such a way that preserved his independence: instead of the more conventional, monogamous system of dating and marriage in a "respectable" way (such as his father experienced, page 9), Ulrich found a mistress who was a cabaret singer and a prostitute (chapter 7). So it seems that Ulrich had cast away any attempts to define himself by loyalties to the customs of his time; perhaps this is what is meant when he is described as a "man without qualities".

This lack of qualities gives Ulrich an unusual perspective on the world surrounding him. By not devoting himself to the same customs that defined those people he lived around, he was often able to view the normal day-to-day existence of his society through the detached eyes of an outside observer. As is made evident in the bar and in his extensive reflections on the world around him, Ulrich sometimes lets this detachment work against him by occupying his thoughts to the point of paralyzing his actions. Other times it prompts him to abandon everything he is doing in pursuit of a completely and radically different path in his life (as is the case in his attempts at greatness, chapters 9-11), simply because he makes some equally detached observation about great men of the past and decides he wants to imitate them. Of course, if my definition of a quality -- a long-lasting devotion and subservience to some set of ideals -- is to hold true, the motivation to imitate greatness stems from a desire to be great for his own satisfaction and not an ulterior motive designed as an answer to customs imposed by someone else. And for Ulrich as a man without qualities, this seems reasonable for now.

1 comment:

Whitney said...

In response to your observation about Leona and Ulrich, I think that at this point in the novel, Leona seems quite similar to Ulrich in one way that they fit into society. You mentioned that Ulrich is detached or distanced in a way from his society and from others' and his own expectations for what he should be doing. Leona too is described as detached from society, both in her scandalous trade as a sexually-promiscuous cabaret singer of sorts and her presence; her beauty and her songs seem anachronistic. Both she and Ulrich also aspire to be great in some way--Leona desires to move up in society and Ulrich wants to secure his proper place, even if he isn't terribly tenacious in his attempts.
I like your thorough discussion of Ulrich, and I am excited to see how your proposed reading of Ulrich and his lack of "qualities" play out over the rest of the novel.