Review: The Confusions of Young Törless

'A thought—it may have passed through our brain long ago—comes to life only at the moment when it is joined by something that is no longer thought, no longer logical, so that we feel its truth beyond all justification, like an anchor tearing from it into blood-filled, living flesh...'

The Confusions of Young Törless is one of those rare, incendiary books that reframes remarkably diverse avenues of thought without sacrificing an inner-cohesion: here we can find winding, tortured examinations of subjects as diverse as social anxiety, epistemology, mysticism, morality, sexuality, sadism, classism; if the novel succeeds, though, at weaving such disparate threads into a symmetrical whole, it is because the titular Törless' journey from naïveté to young adulthood remains isolated as a single point in both time and experience—The Confusions of Young Törless is, expressly, a life examined: but it is a life as difficult to dissect in circumstance as in totality. That it is simultaneously an eerily prophetic cautionary tale (to a point) capable of deftly illustrating the wanton cruelty and corrupting influence of power upon the youth of a pre-Fascist Europe and also a haunting profile of adolescent homosexuality is a testament to Robert Musil's unique talents for subtlety, depth, and hypnotically inward-peering honesty.

Törless, a thoughtful boy, is sent away to a prestigious boarding school, where he finds himself in the company of two other young men (proto-Fascists, both), Reiting and Beineberg; the former idolizes Napoleon and aspires to high authority while the latter possesses a noxiously parochial mystic strain (a remarkable bit of precognition on Musil's part, given the obsession with Occultism that the Nazis, decades later, would fixate upon). Törless, meanwhile, spends much of his time consumed by a kind of inner anarchy, ruminating at length upon the paradoxes and slippery formlessness of his own philosophical, near-existential, obsessions—namely, highly contentious questions surrounding the 'what' and the 'why' of the confusing dualities of the rational and irrational (particularly well-illustrated by a meditation on imaginary numbers). A relatively trivial crime—a theft—committed by a further adolescent, the lithe and attractive Basini, sets in motion a series of shockingly debauched episodes in which the three young men—Törless chiefly (though hardly exclusively) in the role of observer—brutally rape, defile, and lambaste the meek, effete, and troubled Basini. Over the course of these debasements, Törless' confusion over his mingled attractions and repulsions regarding the vicitimzed youth, as both an object of disdain and almost transcendent beauty, forces Törless to confront more openly both the anomie of his peers and his own curiously all-encompassing weltschmerz, all the while professing an ultimate indifference towards the fate of the long-suffering Basini.

It is within this last that much of the novel's complexity develops: Törless is concerned with his own development and self-understanding, without exception; and while impulse forces upon him a more magnanimous view of Basini's plight (inasmuch as it amounts to torture), when the dust clears, his repudiation of the barbarism of his peers is more a byproduct of his dismissal of petty arrogance, 'mysticism,' and incongruities of logic than a defense of the abused. He loathes the idea of Basini as much as he finds cause for ridicule in the credos of Reiting or Beineberg, which effectively neutralizes the situation, amid his exhaustive meditation; the highly-immoral persecution of Basini is only disturbing to Törless inasmuch as it distracts him from concrete direction within his own life. Törless never fully disavows or approves of the crimes central to the novel's plot: though it can be argued that by reducing the aggressors to the same feeble folly as the victim, Musil illustrates the hypocrisy and inanity of authoritarianism through the omnipresence of narration.

Robert Musil is chiefly noted for his unfinished The Man Without Qualities, an influential text of Modernism; but it is in The Confusions of Young Törless, his first novel—penned at a mere twenty-six-years-old and highly influenced by his own years in boarding school—that Musil bridges the gap between the Symbolist and Decadent modes contemporaneous with his youth and the Postmodernism that was to evolve in the aftermath of the political and social movements (only in their infancies at the time of publication) that the novel, arguably, presages. Reiting and Beineberg have their analogues in various political figures of the coming decades and it takes little imagination to see these remarkably human characters—here described in their youth with all its folly, naïveté, arrogance, and pretension—as the seeds of later Hitlers, Francos, and Mussolinis. Given the themes, accents, and dubious moralities of The Confusions of Young Törless, then, it is hardly surprising that the Nazi government that came to power in the latter years of Musil's life saw fit to burn it: a circumstance as decidedly bereft of justice as the conclusion of the novel itself.

Very seldom are novels written from places of personal experience without collapsing, even if only briefly, into the motions of maudlin nostalgia or self-defense. This is not one of those novels—from first page to last, this affecting and disturbing account of anxiety, decadence, and the liberation of the intellect is almost clinically concerned with the candor of its narrative. Lacking heavy-handed leitmotif or obvious allegory, indifferent to the attractive glimmer of intellectual or emotional trifles, The Confusions of Young Törless—a century onwards—remains both a classic of Expressionist literature and a strikingly effective indictment of subjugation and violence, even if only through the lens of its protagonist's detached and highly-abstract inquisitions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a strange familiarity to this. I'm fairly sure I haven't read it - I'm wondering if a film version was made. Just can't dig it out from the deeps of my memory.

February 6, 2016 at 4:57 AM  

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