Monday, December 04, 2006

A Nasty Little German Love Story

I don't know what to make of Robert Musil's short story Tonka. I just finished reading it and I now feel intensely annoyed.

A young student of science from a well-to-do family starts a love affair with a Czech servant girl Tonka who is attending to his ailing grandmother. After the death of the grandmother he takes her off to Berlin and starts living with her (without marrying her). She soon becomes pregnant. But the problem is, according to the calender it couldn't be he who could have made her pregnant. And worse, he learns that she has contracted a venereal infection. So far the story is told in a boring, flat and conventional style but as soon as the student learns about it, the story plunges deep into his consciousness and it becomes fiendishly complex as he struggles with trying to come to terms with the reality and can't make up his mind about anything, whether anything is true or false, real or imaginary. Doctors rule out the possibility that he might have infected her and the girl persists with her story that she has not slept with any man. He can't decide between the either of the two. He spends the time with her until she gradually withers away and finally dies. All written in a disturbingly objective style, specially a couple of paragraphs where Musil describes her decaying body made for some deeply unpleasant reading. And in the end neither he nor us, the readers, get the know the "exact" truth. He just feels relieved after a sudden flash of memory passes him by and he thinks everything is over.

I am not much familiar with Musil's fellow Viennese authors Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schnitzler but I think the story covers the same territory as explored by those two writers. Here Musil is describing the dreams that the student has about Tonka (he even uses the word "transference" which has some Freudian connotation, I am not sure what that is, I just remember reading about it somewhere):

These ambiguous images made him feel a seemingly undefined, disembodied affection and more than human intensity of emotion, and it was hard to say whether these feelings were gradually detaching themselves from Tonka or only now beginning to be associated with her. When he reflected on this he guessed that this enigmatic capacity for transference and independence that love had must also manifest itself in waking life. It is not that the woman loved is the origin of emotions apparently aroused by her; they are merely set behind her like a light. But whereas in dreams there is still a hair'-breadth margin, a crack, separating the love from the beloved, in waking life this split is not apparent; one is merely the victim of doppelganger-trickery and cannot help seeing a human being as wonderful who is not so at all. He could not bring himself to set the light behind Tonka.

May be I am just a cold-blooded prude (though I prefer the word "stoic") but I have never really understood these ideas about diseased and morbid sexuality and all this obsession with sex that Freud and Co. think is so common and are part of normal human condition. May be the story says something general about human consciousness or sexuality but the only thing I am trying now is to forget whatever I just finished reading. I am now not going to pick up The Man Without Qualities anytime soon.

17 comments:

anurag said...

I think Bunuel could have made a very keen film out of this story !

Alok said...

yeah that makes sense. I hadn't thought about that. May be Bunuel could have added a sense of humour and absurd to the story too and it could have become more interesting..

Antonia said...

I agree this is a disturbing story in some sense and very gloomy. We had to write a class test on this at school. These repressive deranged - morbid, alok, is exactly the right word obsession with sex I can only explain myself with the restrictive society of these days...But I remember it was a book that contained three stories, Tonka and two others - Tonka themost depressive one - and I remember to have heard that this Tonka one is almost somewhat autobiographically...gloomy.
But Man without Qualities is not so dark in general...

Alok said...

Actually the book I read this story from is called Five Women. It is a collection of all major "love stories" (or so the book jacket claims, though I think they are anti-love stories!) that Musil wrote before his masterpiece... Also the introduction says that, as you say, it is based on actual events of Musil's life. He was also a student of science and engineering before he turned to literature.

You are right about the repressive society bit. It must have been an extremely unhealthy time and place to be in...the turn of the century Vienna. Even Freud's books are so filled with stories of insanity, hysteria, infidelity, sexual abuse...

I don't have anything against these subjects, Proust also writes about sexuality and obsession but with him it is nicer and "healthier"!

Antonia said...

it gets with Musil also nicer and healthier in Man without qualities and funnier, too, yet depicts society's ugly & repressive ideas and taboes very well I would say.

Antonia said...

oh yes. it is not a german story, austrian it is...not that I want to nitpick, yet...there are differences...that's specific austrian, that temper....germany was a little different in these respects

jyothsnay said...

umm,
"Stoic" sounds too familiar~~
well, it explains itself quite well...
a bit weird love story, in which the protagonist appears to be clueless about defining his love to the hapless woman....that's the most wretched condition any man could find self ever... therefore, may I be allowed to conclude that the man is not intelligent enough to express whether or not he nurtures some feelings or emoticons for her!

affection,love - a higher level emotion and other paraphernalia are intelligent emotions. That means there's a sense of recognition around the emotions being nurtured by X for the other person, that's what we call being conscious.."so I am conscious of my emotions for him and I am conscious of those feelings or emotions being communicated to him or being displayed to him.thats leads to some kind of inference and then followed by reciprocation..can also be a delayed response"
if this affection is disembodied, it's a dead emotion I am carrying it around and what I exhibit towards the other person is purely an animal instinct and carnal There was a man who could not suppress his carnal desire. ...dark, gloomy and interestingly it's purely a rational in nature but the whole state of not being able to articulate..that defines the gloomy part!...then ensues the battle of guilt and justification devoid of any kind of emotions. It's like running my fingers over the inanimated structure and expectin it to respond..n then mutter to self "stoic" (suppressing a giggle}
..the constant inner dialogue tends to inch closer the rational mind to its object of desire, yet
it's a slow burner
I like this bit a lot ..."It is not that the woman loved is the origin of emotions apparently aroused by her; they are merely set behind her like a light..."
there's a lack of connect between the origin and the generated species...
I wonder sometimes, the whole process of knowing a person surges past the desired pace largely due to the magnetism quotient surrounding the other person..its her laughter, her smile, her conversations draw him towards her, whether or not he likes it...if that does not happen, it's just a pair of bodies burning with carnal desire come together to experience a few moments of intimacy...it's not human experience , but just a process!...
ye, I lost my way again!
I love
love stories to be brighter n fuelling over the fences, brimming with vibrancy, running with a sense of abandonment through the dark alleys of fears n insecurities, heady and edgy in its flavour, they brighten all those glmooy windows ....

Alok said...

antonia: I am planning to take Man without qualities next time I go on a long vacation...:) You are right about Austrian/German bit. I even club Kafka as a German writer. It is a mistake...

jyothsna: actually in the story the man is shown to be very sharp, refined and intelligent and little too self-aware for his own good. In fact he is so self-aware that he can't decide what is true or what is false. at one point he even thinks that immaculate conception might be possible. the more he thinks the more he is surrounded by doubts and the more disembodied and confused his emotions become.

the girl on the other hand is shown to be uneducated, unrefined and completely inarticulate. she is not aware of what love is or what feelings are or at least it is not as complex as the man's. I think the story tries to contrast between the two and also tries to show how similar both of these situations are. Or may be. I don't really know... i was confused.

neha said...

strange story, reminds me of the maori one of kanitoki & pania.

how void existence can feel sometimes

tis 5.59am und i just got back about an hr ago...spent some quality time in a coupla bars downtown
conducted an experiment
discussin the male psyche prior to committin a rape with quite an interested audience
it was something else for one of them? has a rape on his record
he knew the girl, she wouldn't date him..so for him it was a revenge factor; drugged her with ghb

reason for this seemingly lunatic behaviour?
around 9ish this evening on rideau st near dalhousie - i was walkin nearby to get to maxsys, a company
it was snowing quite heavily all this evening (now too - yay) and i happened to spot a black trenchcoat tucked behind a fire hydrant
i went near und saw a lady, native american, middle aged, crinkled face with a purplish frost-bitten nose on red pavement - untouched by snow
looked like fresh paint or something
i nudged her, asked if she could get up, if i could call for help [funny how i decided to deactivate my cell on the wrong fukin day]
so i told her assuringly while rubbing her face for more blood flow that i was going to get help and come back
as i was leavin i heard her faintly sayin no and then she pointed to what i thought was her abdomen
i rolled her lifeless and cold body over a little and saw clumps of gooey opaque red chunks. realized that the pavement wasn't red, it was her blood
she was bleeding profusely from her vagina :(
i started to yell for help but there was no one around
so i removed my scarf and wrapped it tightly around her pubic area, gave her my mitts and rolled over to her left side to lessen the blood flow
then ran to the nearest gas station and called for help
help came in abt 10 min or so...in the meantime i was able to give her a throat losenger (that was all i had), as if wetting her mouth would remove the dryness inside
she didn't want anything
i held her hand...she told me she was beaten by a former pimp, and gang raped earlier on in vanier ['the bronx of ottawa]
they then drove her and dropped her off on dalhousie, all the way down towards hull [quebec/ontario border]
from there she was walkin towards rideau st where she fell near the hydrant and didn't budge
:(

after seeing her safely to parademics, i walked...and walked and walked...
wondering how someone could do something like that
why do people hurt each other? rape? kill? why is the selfish gain/satisfaction so important even if it is to someone else's demise?
how can someone so enraged at the moment of a rape, not realize what they just did as soon as he/she steps away from the unwilling, corpse like body? HOW? WHY?
how is it possible? where does rational thinking und ethics run away too?

at the bars, i got some answers
power determination, revenge, the unwillingness of the situation turns some on (twisted fuckers), male dominatrix rights (pat mentality), no one else will fuck them willingly...

i walked all the way to my apt from hull
wanted to see if someone would follow, and then i would interview him
ask him why he lurks behind me so
exactly what sort of assurance of his existence would i provide by hating him
but that didn't happen

everytime i breathe, i feel nausea
i cant help but think that there is no escape from human psychotic insomnia
it is everywhere, it has permeated everything
i thought i had left behind all the blind savagery in the SLUMS of africa, impoverished dog eat dog world regions where each man is out for himself, where there is no rule of law
boy am i wrong
it is everywhere...occurring right under our nose
just have to sniff it out & do something about this bloody evil
but why steal something that makes a human a human? a rape robs one of sexuality, emotional & physical control, will power...and sometimes the desire to live

so i come back home, unnerved a little
shaken, not stirred
i will tuck this story with other graphic and similar ones that i cannot figure out why in my brain

justice will be dispensed to those fuckers deluded from reality with hearts as black as coal and the mindset of a cold blooded killer
i hold no respect for anyone disrespectful to someone's entity, their essence, their wishes...to someone's life

adrift in the air
i am a questioning molecule
oops, sorry didn't realize i just wrote all this...guess i feel better writing it hmm

jyothsnay said...

Alok..
thus I react! this is purely a discussion free of certain genres of philosophies meant to be consumed
you said, ...the boy is so self-aware that he can't decide what is true or what is false.... I contest this!
when one has such high levels of saliency, he or she cant afford to be indecisive. Then i certainly question the cognitive ability of the person. An individual who is equipped wth knowledge and high levels of saliency, is given a situation, for which he fails to respond, then what's the use of garnered saliency? tell me
I have no problem with people think about themselves, but when they think about themselves excessively...not required,especially whe the human is a worldly matter, he coexists!I need not tell you too much excession self-reflection leads one nowhere, but to unhappiness and state of gloom. too much self-consciousness/ awareness makes one so dependent on his or her fears n insecurities that human stops responding to the external world..he always witnesses a battle between his world that exists in his mind and the external one. Then I see no point in considering the person as intelligent at all! I am sorry
as a well aware and sharp intelligent, I expect one to respond, adapt and evolve with his closer world, to think about others, to think like them. This is how human evolve. the advantage of self awareness is to reciprocate to the external world, an attempt to understad its needs, its expectations and to respond...if this does not happen, the latter part of what u said holds water...
But I found this hard to digest-inability of a self aware person to react to a given situation, brooding over self n it in the corner and wait for the things to gather their own momentum, with no contribution from him ....wholly inexplicable!
..sorry, I went uncontrollable! - Jyo

Alok said...

Jyothsna: I agree with what you say, though I am a little confused by your use of the word "saliency" ;)

There are aspects of our personality which can't be understood by rational thought. If one tries to do it, one will only end up in more confusion and indecision. The emotion that the man feels for Tonka is one such irrational aspect of his being. On the other hand a certain level of self-awareness is essential if you want to engage with the external world and other people in any meaningful or non-shallow manner.

Neha: err, that's a strange story you have recounted. Hope you are doing okay...

Vidya said...

Alok,
You summarized Musil perfectly when you made this statement..

I think the story tries to contrast between the two and also tries to show how similar both of these situations are..

Was'nt Musil the one who said, "When you reach the end of the trampoline of science, jump off" or some such thing.As for the Fredu references it is also said that Musil's realm is medical psychiatry (as opposed to the Freudian one).I know neither but I think Freud relies on hypnosis, subconscious and other such concepts which are not quite "proven " in the medical realm..

Antonia said...

if i remember correctly, one of the stories in this five women book describes the woman as the smarter, better person as the man actually and without the studpi idealization of women, so it is not so black and white. And in man without qualities he is not at all this black and whie...maybe this was a bad beginning in order to get acquainted with Musil to read this story...

Alok said...

vidya: I haven't read much on Musil, but even his brief biographical sketches mention his scientific and technical background prominently. Even in this story the tone was so "scientific" and objective, in fact that was what I found a little disturbing... and also he seems to say that these scientific methods can't capture the complexity of psyche and there is a vast gulf of irrationality there... not really different from Freud but yes his approach as an empirical scientist must have been different from Freud.

Antonia: Actually there is something with disease that disturbs. I can withstand mental anguish, insanity (in fact I love those) but physical disease somehow I want to avoid reading about. In the story the way he connects disease to love and sex, I found it very disturbing. Otherwise it is a very complex and well written story.

Man Without Qualities is on my list. May be I will try to read the first volume and postpone the rest for a little later. Don't have too much time right now :)

Antonia said...

oh ok I understand that with the disease, Tonka indeed is somewhat ugly in this respect....but that's not in Man without qualities...there are some strange characters, but disease is not mentioned in this ugly way.....yet there is a muderer ;)

Alok said...

now i realize i didnt read it like a mature intelligent reader :) what i wrote was just an emotional reaction based on a shallow reading!

Antonia said...

but that's perfectly ok, that emotional response, you are not in collge anymore....and when you don't like this aspect like diseases or so then why not ditch the story...one shouldn't force oneself to read books that one doesn't like...