Tag Archives: Robert Musil

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

In the introduction to Shaun Whitehead’s translation of The Confusions of Young Törless, J.M. Coetzee writes about Musil, “The education of the senses through a refining of erotic life seemed to him to hold the most immediate promise of lifting society to a higher ethical plane. He deplored the rigid sexual roles that bourgeois mores laid down for women and men. ‘Whole countries of the soul have been lost and submerged as a consequence,’ he wrote.”

When, as an adolescent, Törless is dropped off at one of Austria’s most prestigious boarding schools, he feels alone, untethered and confused. No longer under the constant guidance and moral direction of his parents, he must find own way—emotionally, morally and physically—among other boys struggling with the same issues. Törless’s loneliness and solitude weigh heavily on him throughout the narrative. At times his isolation seems to crush him. Musil oftentimes weaves natural images into his description of Törless’s emotional isolation:

Then a pleasant memory came to him. The house in the country where they had spent the previous summer. Nights in the silent park. A velvet-dark firmament quivering with starts. His mother’s voice from the depths of the garden, where she was walking with Papa on the faintly shimmering gravel paths. Songs that she sang quietly to herself. But again…a cold shiver ran through him…there was that painful comparison. What might the two of them have been feeling? Love? No, the idea was now occurring to him for the first time. Love was something quite different. Not something for grown-ups and adults; let alone for his parents. Sitting by the open window at night and feeling abandoned, feeling different from the grown-ups, feeling misunderstood by every laugh and every mocking look, being unable to explain to anyone what one meant, and longing for for someone who might understand…that is love! But you have to be young and lonely for that.

Törless’s mother and his conflicted emotions about her are also prominent in the book which is not surprising since, as Coetzee points out, Musil himself wrote about his own maternal confusions in his diaries. Torless begins to explore his own ideas of morality by exploring his sexuality. He visits a local prostitute, which is a common pastime of many of the boys at the school. He tries to explore mathematics and the philosophy of Kant in order to cast off his feelings of loneliness.

But his life takes a sinister and confusing turn at the school when he witnesses two of his classmates mentally, physically and sexually tormenting a boy that they catch stealing money. Basini has several debts which he can’t pay–his mother is a widower on a fixed income—and resorts to stealing from the other boys. Even among the upper classes there is a pecking order based on wealth.

The passages in the book that describe the boys tormenting and torturing Basini are difficult to read. Musil’s casual comment that such things are common among all male boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th century was sad and horrifying. But in the end Torless rejects the mores of these bourgeois boys and makes the decision to leave the school. But, as his mother comes to the school to take him away, the book ends on an interesting note, reminding us of Törless’s continuing struggle with sex, morality and emotions: “And he breathed in the faintly perfumed fragrance rising from his mother’s waist.”

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Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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