Thursday, February 7, 2013

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish - the linguistic turn of young Törless

Do I have any grad student readers left?  The Confusions of Young Törless was published  while Robert Musil was working on his PhD at the University of Berlin.  Psychology and philosophy; he finished in 1908, two years after the novel came out.  Just a little something extra he knocked out while working on a philosophy PhD.  So there is some inspiration for the grad students, my little gift to them.

Has any literature been more concerned with the failures of language than Austrian literature?  Hofmannsthal and Broch had crises that led them to abandon this or that form; a Peter Handke novel ends with the narrator abandoning words for abstract symbols; Wittgenstein did whatever it was that he did (I must remain silent).

And young Musil makes young Törless’s crisis of meaning in part a linguistic crisis:

It occurred to him that once, when he had been standing with his father, looking at one of those landscapes, he had suddenly cried out: ‘Oh, how beautiful it is!’ – and then been embarrassed when his father was glad.  For he might just as easily have said: ‘How terribly sad it is.  It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.  (91)

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of Törless’s thought.  Sometimes he is directly working on an idea; sometimes an experience leads to the idea, as when staring into the sky leads him to question his  received notion of infinity (“now it flashed through him, with startling clarity, that there was something terribly disturbing about this word,” 88).  The process of thinking is more important than the content, and both are believably adolescent, often shallow and unfocused, frequently tangling themselves with Törless’s sexual frustration.  Törless is confused – it says so right in the title!

When he turned round, Basini was standing there naked.

Involuntarily Törless fell back a step.  The sudden sight of this naked snow-white body, with the red of the walls dark as blood behind it, dazzled and bewildered him…  He could not shake off the spell of this beauty.  He had never known before what beauty was. (148)

Unlike his experience with his father, Törless knows that “beauty” is the right word.  Arthur Schopenhauer argued that aesthetic perception was one of the few ways for us to transcend the endless suffering of our existence, however imperfectly.  In this scene and many others, I detect hints of Schopenhauer.  Törless often seems to be working towards Schopenhauer’s ideas without knowing it.

The sex has to wait another fifteen pages (“Then Törless abandoned his search for words,” 163).  If Törless is searching for freedom from his own thoughts, in this scene he finds it, at least temporarily.

The novel ends with a mix of thought and experience:

“What is it, my dear boy?”

“Nothing, Mamma.  I was just thinking.”

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother’s corseted waist.  (217)

That is a strange word, isn’t it, “considered”?  But after the experiences of the novel, Törless has developed, as characters in Bildungsromanen do, so he is calmer, self-controlled, able to direct his thoughts to a single detail of the objective world, one that just happens to have sexual connotations and involve his mother.  I guess.

What business to I have venturing into philosophy?  Tomorrow, style, literary style, finally, thank goodness.


  1. Nice. I like the parenthetical note on silence, as you tip your hat to Witters. Years ago I lamented the failure of language, too. It seemed a shame that a word was never the feeling itself. Then the happy thought occurred to me that if a word was the feeling itself - such that when my paramour said, "chocolate" I had the numerically same feeling as her - we'd be none the wiser. How could we? There's no vantage point from which to compare the feeling(s). Passing over something in silence is like ignoring it, and eventually many philosophical problems are ignored, as they should be.

  2. Poor Törless is right in the middle of that earlier stage you describe. by the end of the book he seems to be moving out of it.

    The climax of the novel is a scene in which Törless explains himself. "'Perhaps I don't know enough yet to find the right words for it, but I think I can describe it.'" And once he is done "[h]e fell silent."

  3. Your posts have whetted my appetite for this novel. For a 1906 novel it seems quite ahead of its time, like most great novels of that time usually seem to me.

  4. Ahead of its time - yes, I believe so. That was a good, good time for fiction.