Friday, February 8, 2013

As though by lecherous women in high-necked long robes - Musil's metaphors, or revisiting the limits of language

This has been my third time through The Confusions of Young Törless.  I have read it at ten year intervals.  The book is rich, so of course I make new discoveries every time, although I am not sure if that is because I read it better or because I have just read more – more relevant texts, more Goethe or philosophy or German novellas.

I have certainly not solved the puzzle of the novel, which is how its different pieces work together, how the political parable meshes with the philosophical novel and the Bildungsroman and the homosexuality.  This week I have deliberately fragmented the pieces, in part because I am not sure that they all fit together so well.

But they do work to form a novel, because they are all pulled together by Robert Musil’s style.  He is not, at this point, a first-rate stylist – I mean, he is not Flaubert or Proust – but he has some good tricks.

Musil’s physical world in Törless is plain and functional.  He is good with space.  That tradition of 19th century novellas was always good at placing its characters in space.  But the main feature of the novel is a constant swing between the outside world and Törless’s jumbled interior.   Similarly the narrator sometimes shares that interior with the character and sometimes is commenting on it like a trained analyst:

Törless’s taste for certain moods was the first hint of a psychological development that was later to manifest itself as a strong sense of wonder…  Indeed, the more accurately he circumscribed his feelings with thoughts, and the more familiar they became to him, the stranger and more incomprehensible did they seem to become, in equal measure…  (etc. etc., 28-9, ellipses mine)

The narrator is more confident in his judgment than Törless but has as much trouble describing the state and process of the boy’s thoughts.  Which is, let’s face it, a challenging task.  The narrator might actually be Törless (as an adult).  Never mind that.

The tool that moves Musil from the analytic to the artistic is his use of metaphor:

And Törless felt that under that immovable, dumb vault he was quite alone, a tiny speck of life under that vast, transparent corpse. (i.e., the sky, 92)

It [T.’s “sense of urgency”] was something that was encircled by a whirling throng of emotions, as though by lecherous women in high-necked long robes, with masks over their faces.  (168)

One phase of development was at an end; the soul had formed another annual ring, as a young tree does.  (202)

Metaphorical language of this sort is not common in the novel but is reserved for moments of unusual tension, whether Törless is at an impasse or making a breakthrough.  Musil, like Törless, finds language inadequate to directly describe how Törless feels, but as an artist he has another path: he can show what the feelings are like.  By moving away from the thing itself, the writer moves his reader closer to it.  Language is inherently imperfect; the writer makes art out of the imperfections.


  1. I've enjoyed reading through this week's worth of posts, Tom. I didn't know much (anything) about The Confusions of Young Törless, but am now intrigued and adding it to 'someday' list.

    1. I too didn't know much about this book; I had this misguided idea that it was a dull book, but from Tom's fragments the novel must be quite good.

  2. Hi. Suppose language is perfect. What does that look like?

    1. Like Esperanto, and no one would speak it ;)

    2. Or you go the Wittgensteinian route: perfect language only allows tautologies, which express meaningless truths.

    3. If language is perfect then it expresses nothing except itself and it is useless.

  3. Yes, a good "someday" candidate, not dull. Not particularly dull. Dull only in limited spots. Dull with Törless.

    Those are good responses to the "perfection" question. Musil is a highly philosophical novelist, a systematist, but he is also an artist. The imperfections of language are his tools.