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This article is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 1979.

On Stupidity Robert Musil

This is the first English translation of a lecture delivered by Robert Musil, the Austrian novelist, in Vienna in March 1937. The lecture opens with a quotation from his great unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities, and various themes from that work are discernible here. Indeed, one recalls that it is said of the book's hero, Ulrich, that 'he took his revenge on his time by treating the mysterious changes that constituted its disease, consuming its genius, as plain stupidity'.

Though Musil was hardly a political animal, one may perhaps also detect in this essay the occasional veiled reference to the political developments of the time. At any rate, the following year Musil left Vienna for exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1942.


Anyone who takes it upon himself to speak on the subject of stupidity nowadays is liable to land himself in a number of difficulties: he may be condemned as arrogant and condescending; he may even be accused of seeking to interfere with the natural development of modern life. As I wrote some years ago: 'If stupidity were not confusingly similar to progress, ability, hope and improvement, then no-one would want to be stupid'. That was in 1931: and no-one, surely, would go so far as to doubt that the world has seen a great deal of improvement since then! And so we are brought face to face with the truly inescapable question: what is true stupidity? ...

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