Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I have a liking for these mass movements - Young Törless and fascism

There have been plenty of novels about fascism; that is clear enough.

The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s 1906 debut novel, is one of them.   Except, hold it, in 1906 there was no fascism.  I assume that Musil was such a keen observer of some of the psychology of the proto-fascist movements of his time, like the anti-Semitic political parties that were governing Vienna, that he was able to tease out the direction of events.  Or else the fascist bullies in Young Törless are exact portraits of boys Musil knew in school who just happen to prefigure the future.  Could be.  Either way, it is weird.

Young Törless lives at an isolated boarding school on the Hungarian plains.  The covers of the Penguin Classics edition and the older Pantheon I read include helpful photos that remind me that the students are always in military uniform, at least when they are not naked.

Törless has fallen in with “the boys who counted as the worst of his year,” a bad set, the brutal Reiting and the mystical Beineberg.  Reiting discovers that another boy, Basini, has been stealing, and the trio begin to blackmail Basini.  What Reiting wants from Basini is power; Beineberg wants a specimen on which to test his esoteric theories; Törless, passive, but cruel in his own way, want answers to metaphysical questions.  And sex, they all want sex, which they extract from Basini in one way or another:

“You know that sort of thing, it happens every few years.  But they went a bit too far.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well – how!  Don’t ask such silly questions!  And that’s what Reiting’s doing with Basini!”

Törless suddenly understood what he meant, and he felt a choking in his throat as if it were full of sand.  (75)

This is almost the limit of the novel’s explicitness, in other words wild stuff for 1906, plus it is not quite the limit.  Törless’s response to Beineberg’s news is actually pretty explicit.  One of Törless’s confusions is that he is homosexual, or so I see it, although that is an interpretive question.  Perhaps it is a just a phase in Törless’s development.

It is for Reiting, by contrast, who is simply a monster, with sex as another form of humiliation for when he tires of beating and insulting Basini.  Reiting in his later life will marry a women of his class and chase women below him; he will enter politics, eventually joining the Austrian Nazi Party and rising to a high position after the Anschluss.  Obviously this is not in the novel.  But it is Reiting who says things like “And anyway, I have a liking for these mass movements” (175) while planning a violent public humiliation of Basini.

Reiting is really just a charismatic thug, while Beineberg’s evil is ideological.  He is under the influence of Eastern mysticism and perhaps some form of degenerate Nietzschean thought:

“First of all, as far as Basini goes, it’s me view he’s no loss in any case.  It makes no difference whether we go and report him, or give him a beating, or even if we torture him to death, just for the fun of it.  Personally. I can’t imagine that a creature like that can have any meaning in the wonderful mechanism of the universe.”  (77)

Beineberg calls Basini a worm – step around him or on him, what difference does it make.  At this early point in the novel, it is likely a reader takes this all as adolescent bluster, which it is in part.  But Musil’s novel is also about the other part, the part that acts.

Also, there is the stuff about math.


  1. Musil isn’t seeing into the future, he’s actually looking at his present and recent past. And there is a lot to see. The 1890’s were the real advent of we know today as fascism. That was when ideas like social Darwinism, Nietzshe’s critique of herd mentality, Arthur de Gobineau's concept of master race and a general fear and mistrust of modern urban culture and materialism (the reaction against what the Impressionists were embracing) were combined into a systematic ideology. Examples include: Max Nordau-Degeneration (1892), Gustave Le Bon’s The Psychology of Peoples (1894) and The Crowd (1895), Gaetano Mosca’s The Ruling Class (1896), Maurice Barrès’ Novel of National Energy (1897) and Charles Maurras’ newspaper Action Française (1899-1908). Musil’s Zöglings Törleß is quickly followed by Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908), Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1908) and Michels’ Sociology of Political Parties (1911). Eventually these names would pale in comparison to those that would soon follow, but these were big ideas at the time.

  2. If only I had the right references at hand, Musil's diaries or something like that, so I could see what he was reading. He was the kind of theorizing fellow who was likely to have your entire list. But I do not know that.

    My point is more that Musil gets so many things right that I kept having the uncanny feeling that he was seeing the future. Your list of books that "quickly followed" only reinforces that feeling.

  3. What I find most peculiar is that in the out of the same bubbling cauldron of nationalism, racism, social Darwinism, ubanization, mechanization, materialism and socialism that creates proto-fascism in Europe, the US develops Pragmatism and Progressivism. While Europe is writing books called Reflections on Violence (1908) the US is publishing The Life of Reason (Santayana, 1905-06), Studies in Humanism (Shiller, 1907), A Pluralistic Universe (James, 1909) and Moral Principles in Education (Dewey, 1909). Even the Klu Klux Klan has all but disappeared in this era.

  4. A Kipling story I read, As Easy As ABC (it's sci-fi!), about 1912 I think, is all about mass movements and crowds (crowds have been banned).

  5. Now that claim about the different paths in the US and Europe sounds highly arguable, but 1) I only know literature, and hardly that, and 2) every example I can think of supports the case: William James, Booker T. Washington, Thorstein Veblen, Jane Addams, Jacob Riis.

    obooki - thanks, I had no idea. How odd, how interesting.

  6. Yes, it does seem odd. But it could just be semantics. The Racial Integrity Act and the Sterilization Act were both considered Progressive initiatives--examples of modern scientific social policy. They were upheld in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell with noted Pragmatist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. providing the majority opinion.

  7. We are revisiting a part of the old American Exceptionalism debate.

    I suppose part of the issue as far as the books go is that whatever proto-fascist books Americans might have written did not turn out to be too important and thus leave less trace on the intellectual or literary history.

  8. Very interesting anaysis on the roots of Fascism. I just finished up The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. In it he contends that Napoleonic France was actually the first Fascist State. I do not completely accept such a concept, but the roots of this type of totalitarianism idea go far back and run deep.

  9. Napoleon was a pioneer in the field, at the very least.

  10. I latched onto the math thing as well.

  11. The math is so full of meaning, as philosophy, as metaphor.

    Jessica's post is here. I like the way you move through Törless’s thinking, which is really the bulk of the novel.

  12. Severalfourmany's post at the top correctly lists many protofascist intellectual elements of the 1880s and 1890s. Even more importantly for Musil, Vienna was itself governed during that time, by a protofascist mass movement led by Georg Ritter von Schoenerer.

  13. My "play dumb" rhetorical move was apparently a little bit too convincing. But thanks for the note.