The Confusions of Young Törless
by Robert Musil
“The feeling of not being understood and of not understanding the world is no mere accompaniment of first passion, but its sole non-accidental cause. And the passion itself is a panic-stricken flight in which being together with the other means only a doubled solitude.” ― Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless
Robert Musil is one of my favorite authors and his story of Young Torless, published in 1906, is one reason. The novel reflects an obsession in this period with educational institutions and the oppressive impact they exert on personal development. While it is in the tradition of the German Bildungsroman, the novel of education, it is critical of educational system and the institutionalized coercion portrayed in the novel. In my reading experience I compared it with the experience of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage or other traditional British school novels (see Tom Brown). In the American tradition, one thinks of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as representing a protest against a social disciplining that is also a disciplining of sexuality. Sexual disciplining can often become the standard for other forms of discipline.
The novel tells the story of three students at an Austrian boarding school, Reiting, Beineberg and the titular young Törless. The three catch their classmate Basini stealing money from one of them and decide to punish him themselves instead of turning him in to the school authorities. They start an abusive process, first physically and then psychologically and sexually, while also blackmailing him by threatening to denounce him. While the treatment of Basini becomes openly sexual and increasingly sadistic, he nevertheless masochistically endures it all.
It is the moral and sexual confusion of young Torless that leads him to join Beineberg's and Reiting's degradation of Basini; he is both sexually attracted to Basini and Beineberg and repelled by them. Even though he is a willing participant he tells himself that he is merely trying to understand the gap between his rational self and his obscure irrational self. In a modern way he is both a disturbed and despairing observer of his own states of consciousness. Basini professes love for Törless and Törless begins to reciprocate, but he is ultimately repelled by Basini's unwillingness to stand up for himself. His disgust with Basini's passivity ultimately leads him in a curious way to stand up to Beineberg and Reiting. When the torment becomes unbearable, Törless secretly advises Basini alleviate his situation by confessing to the headmaster.
While an investigation is made, the only party to be found guilty is Basini. Törless makes a strange existential speech to the school authorities about the gap between the rational and irrational: "I said it seemed to me that at these points we couldn't get across merely by the aid of thought, and we needed another and more inward sort of certainty to get us to the other side, as you might say. We can't manage solely by means of thinking, I felt that in the case of Basini too." (p 208)
After he had finished, "When he had left the room, the masters looked at each other with baffled expressions." (p 212)
They decide he is of too refined an intellect for the institute, and suggest to his parents that he be privately educated, a conclusion that he comes to on his own.
Other subplots include Törless's experience with the local prostitute Božena, his encounter with his mathematics teacher, and his analysis of his parents' attitudes toward the world. The severity of the conditions makes one wonder about Musil's own experience. One important theme Musil also takes up is the Nietzschean idea of the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. This can be seen in the "two worlds" (p 45) in which light is contrasted with dark, the controlled and disciplined intellect with more spontaneous sensuality.
Young Torless is an impressive short novel with a depth of meaning and character that often is not achieved in much longer works. It is a worthy introduction to an author who is one of the first modernists of the twentieth century. If you are a reader who is daunted by the size of The Man Without Qualities, his unfinished masterpiece, this would be a good place to start reading Musil.