Anna Dijkstra (Huygens Instituut)


Anna Dijkstra is a researcher in computational literary studies at the Huygens Instituut. She recently graduated from the research MA in Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and serves as editor-in-chief of Soapbox Journal of Cultural Analysis. Her research interests include twentieth century literary forms, and the role of rationality and irrationality in this period. Her writing has appeared in The Modernist Review.

“Aesthetics of Rationality in The Man Without Qualities: The Novel of Ideas and the Contemporary Far-Right”

The online far-right, and the alt-right in particular, have relied heavily on instrumentalising an aesthetic of rationality for their rhetoric. However, because of the manner in which Enlightenment thought has neutralised rationality and made it invisible as a consequence, it has become difficult to spot this aesthetic choice for what it is, and understand it as a response to a broader sense of crisis. Arguably, though, modernist literature responds to these same crises, doing so in a way that is particularly significant in the context of rising fascism. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities provides an especially productive insight into rationality, that shows how it can function as an aesthetic choice in the face of a decentred universe, a choice that serves as a catalyst for fascist thought. In particular, it presents this aesthetic as a form of epistemological self-fashioning that reifies it on an epistemological level, and on a level of selfhood. Drawing on Susan Sontag’s description of intelligence as a taste in ideas, this paper investigates rationality through the role that ideas play in Musil’s novel, exploring their aesthetic function through Greenblatt’s notion of self-fashioning, and theorisations of the genre of the Novel of Ideas. By understanding how such an epistemological self-fashioning functions on the intersection of crises of epistemology and selfhood, the novel denaturalises rationality, instead presenting rationality’s transcendental status as a logical response to the crises following from the Death of God. As such, The Man Without Qualities can prove useful in elucidating the manner in which the online far-right has instrumentalised rationality, and show how this is an epistemological consequence that emerges from a post-Nietzschean world, but one that simultaneously allows fascist trends to emerge and flourish.