Wednesday, February 6, 2013

One thing he did not understand, and that was how anyone could approach this matter in such a long-winded way. - in which I identify with young Törless

The title of The Confusions of Young Törless suggests a relationship with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774), and it would not be too hard to pull together some parallels.  There is a trick, though.  Musil’s actual title is Die Verwirrungen des Zoglings Törless.  My German does not have to be very advanced to note that “Zoglings” is capitalized and is therefore not an adjective but a noun.  The Confusions of the Student Törless is closer, or “cadet” maybe.  Now people who actually know German can get to work on alternatives to “confusions” and additional associations of “Zoglings.”

To add to the confusion, the 1966 Volker Schlöndorff film adaptation is called Der junge Törless, or Young Törless.  I cannot just blame the English translators.

Goethe will reappear in a minute.

When I left Törless, he was passively watching his supposed friends bully and torture another student, meanwhile having sex with the victim.  When I left Törless before that, he was being taunted with an unspecified book by Immanuel Kant.  This was supposed to calm his anxiety, but instead it put him “in a state of inward upheaval” (114).  Törless has never read Kant yet knows him well:

Now, in Törless’s hearing the name Kant had never been uttered except in passing and then in the tone in which one refers to some awe-inspiring holy man.  And Törless could not think anything but that with Kant the problems of philosophy had been finally solved, so that since then it had become futile for anyone to concern himself with the subject, just as he also believed there was no longer any point in writing poetry since Schiller and Goethe.  (115)

It gets worse:

At home these men’s works were kept in the bookcase with the green glass panes in Papa’s study, and Törless knew this book-case was never opened except to display its contents to a visitor.  It was like the shrine of some divinity to which one does not readily draw nigh and which one venerates only because one is glad that thanks to its existence there are certain things one need no longer bother about.

Part of the story of Musil’s novel, however circuitously he goes about it, is how Törless gets out from under the crushing weight of German culture, how he cultivates “a longing for quietness, for books” (195).  Even his failures are helpful, as when, stung by the math teacher, he tries to read Kant:

But with all its parentheses and footnotes it was incomprehensible to him, and when he conscientiously went along the sentences with his eyes, it was as if some aged, bony hand were twisting and screwing his brain out of his head.  (118)

He makes it through three pages, with teeth clenched and “sweat on his forehead.”

I do not usually write about how I identify with this or that imaginary bundle of words, but at this point I strongly identified with poor Törless.  I have felt that hand.

I still need a title for my post.  This is appropriate:

One thing he did not understand, and that was how anyone could approach this matter in such a long-winded way.  (78)

Invent your own context, please.


  1. Zögling whiffs of institution, academy, asylum. There is no "Zögling" outside of an institution but students can live outside. The word Erziehung (linked to Zögling) - education in English - has more meaning in German, is more disciplinary.
    Just some random thoughts. Young Törless is decidedly not the same as Zögling. Cadet would be apt.

  2. Thanks - that reinforces that "young" is a deliberate attempt by others (translators, film directors), not Musil, to invoke Goethe. The disciplinary or institutional connotation of "Zögling" is central to the novel.

  3. That attempt was very successful. Whenever I have heard people talk about the novel, they refer to Junge Törleß, which I thought was the actual title and is how I remember it. Having read the novel in English only reinforced that idea. When you started this series I was shocked to realize the actual title was Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß.

  4. It is a surprising and unusual cross-language hijacking of the title.