Narrating an unnarratable present: Musil, schematism, and the writing of modernity

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Robert Musil characterizes the moment of modernity that is the historical setting of his novel The Man without Qualities with the expression “Seinesgleichen geschieht,” which he glosses by explaining that the present lacks determinacy and as a result remains unsurveyable (unübersichtlich). This characterization raises the question of how the novel is able to give rise to an understanding of the historical moment that is one object of its narration. Literature attempting to represent the un-representable is the fundamental form of the problematic called Romanticism, which offers conceptual resources for understanding how Musil goes about narrating an unnarratable present. One of the pivots on which early German Romanticism turns away from transcendental philosophy involves assimilating the Kantian notion of “schematism” to the particular functioning of language Novalis and Schlegel call “Poesie.” Schematism is also found working in the narrative technique of Musil's novel. In the sense that schematism names the inscription of relations by which, in the absence of any representable object, the world becomes the world-for-us and therefore intelligible, this inscription—this schematism—is the “writing” of modernity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)278-291
Number of pages14
JournalOrbis Litterarum
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Man Without Qualities
  • Robert Musil
  • modernism
  • narrative technique
  • romanticism
  • schematism


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