In The Analysis of Sensations, physicist Ernst Mach at once shatters the realist’s conception of the world and the self. Polemicizing against Rene Descartes’ dualism, and classical rationalism in general, Mach reduces all of reality to localized, yet fully relativized complexes of sense data. His universe is one in which the permanent is illusory and “facts” are mere descriptions of the relations between dynamic connections of sensations. There is no “I”, no ego, no Truth—at least not in any tangible sense.
Robert Musil and his Austrian contemporaries warily absorbed Mach’s theory. It ripped the stable metaphysical rug from beneath their feet. Equipped with a background in engineering, mathematics, and psychology, Musil retaliated against Mach in the form of an academic dissertation. Yet, Musil never fully reconciled Mach’s seemingly airtight argument with his own convictions about Truth, reality, and the individual. Musil’s “Blackbird” reflects this struggle, providing a foray into the void Mach fashioned with his logic. At times, Musil’s story brims with the colorful language of sensations, yet behind these lucid descriptions, in the silence and darkness of night and death, lies a deeper truth for Musil. It is the suspense of sensations, an affirmation of the true individual, which grounds Atwo’s “religious” experiences. Allegedly isolated in meaning—if meaningful at all—Atwo’s three fragmented stories relate coherent transcendental individualist concepts that seek to undermine the ego-less world of Ernst Mach. Through the telling of stories with dubious truth values, Atwo attempts to glean knowledge of his past, present, and future selves. Whether his stories succeed to ground this knowledge in the end eludes closure.
Musil lays out a narrative in “Blackbird” that formalizes the debate between the self and its negation. An unnamed narrator frames the story’s opening, relating information about the history of two men, stating, “let’s call them Aone and Atwo.” What proceeds is the conversation between the two, in which Atwo tells three stories, a dynamic the narrator defines, saying, “it matters little what Aone replied, and their conversation can be related almost as if it were a monologue.” Assuming a mere statistical identity in name, Musil’s characters appear to lack any meaningful individuation. Through telling stories, however, Atwo seeks to discover a truth—particularly that of his own identity.
Prefacing the story of his first encounter with the blackbird, Atwo describes an urban courtyard in Berlin surrounded by “stone mountains” of housing units. A faceless middle-class suffers its oppressive capitalist system, which is matched in nature only by an equally suffocating architectural structure. Bedrooms stack on top of monotonous bedrooms, assuming an air of nihilistic sterility. Moreover, Musil’s character is not at a loss of words to describe the claustrophobic complex of sensations that comprise the scene. One may determine how loudly the copper utensils clatter simply by looking at their red hue. A man’s voice echoes against the walls of the courtyard as he verbally molests his neighbor. Wooden shoes relentlessly “clomp back and forth on the hard brick pavement.” This orgy of sensations—comprising all of reality for Mach—is devoid of morality and meaning for Musil. Atwo resorts to climbing on top of a wardrobe “merely to exploit the vertical dimension,” and exert his individuality in a sea of homogeneity.
Each of the three stories contains an epiphany that emerges from the suspending of Atwo’s senses and an affirmation of his individuality. The first occurs early in the morning when Atwo “no longer knew if I was awake or asleep.” He “drowsily perceived” the sounds of the blackbird, at first confusing it with those of a nightingale. His body undergoes an experience that is “very hard to describe” and “a substance that doesn’t exist in the daytime, darkly transparent and darkly transpalpable” permeates the universe. This dreamlike state, a kind of transcendent experience of the self, is akin to death, and Atwo claims he “felt like the figure on its coffin lid.” Moreover, the fact that the blackbird “had flown to me from afar. ‘To me!’” instills within him a sense of meaning and identity distinct from the other city dwellers. Again in the second story, Atwo alone hears the whirring of the air dart, which “was directed at me.” It is almost as if he is flattered to be the sole potential victim of a statistically improbable event. Fully conscious, yet feeling like he “was coming to from a delirium and didn’t know how long I’d been out,” Atwo’s brush with death and his experience of some version of the divine again occurs in a dreamlike state. Finally, in connecting the blackbird to his mother, Atwo semi-consciously imagines her saying, “I am your blackbird … I am your mother” (stress is my own). The deep, unconditional love of his mother reaffirms his sense of self and connects him with his childhood. Love works to define the recipient, Atwo, as a continuous and solid individual ego from childhood to adulthood.
Atwo’s stories relate a real continuity of the self and a Truth—albeit elusive—that lurks in a sensationless realm. Picked out of the crowd, Atwo experiences liberation from the moral vacuum of modern life. Through the telling of several stories, different, yet remarkably similar in the aforementioned respect, Atwo confronts the apparent void through different perspectives of experience. Death and darkness, life and light—neither set bares the ultimate reality, but gleaning multiple perspectives the individual inches closer to the Truth. For Musil, the stories we tell ourselves help to shed light on the inexplicable moments when something beyond Mach’s complex of sensations reaches out to us and grips our being.
Mach, Ernst. The Analysis of Sensations. Open Court Publishing, 1914.
Musil, Robert. “Blackbird.” In Austrian Identities: Twentieth-Century Short Fiction, ed. Craig Decker:231. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 2004.
Thiher, Allen. Understanding Robert Musil. Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.
 Mach, The Analysis of Sensations, 3.
 Thiher, Understanding Robert Musil, 29.
 Ibid., 18-19.
 Musil, “Blackbird,” 74.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 86.