Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Confusions of Young Torless

Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless begins with this epigraph from French writer Marice Maeterlinck:

"As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way. We think we have plunged into the depths of the abyss, and when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it comes. We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered."

It captures the central subject of the book very well - a deep and fundamental incommensurability between the external, objective world captured by the words and the inner world of subjective experience. This is precisly the source of the "confusions" of the adolescent hero of the novel too. Torless is studying a military boarding school somewhere on the eastern outskirts of Austro-Hungarian empire. He feels terribly homesick, specially missing his mother and spends all his time brooding about philosophical problems - mostly related to his inability to understand or make sense of his experience in purely rationalistic and analytical terms. He visits the local friendly prostitute Bozena but finds that his sexuality (he is probably homosexual) is much too deeper, darker and unsettling than that of his friends and peers. For one thing, he can't understand why he has to remain a boy forever - again pointing to the same incommensurability between Gender as an objective construct and the gender that is rooted in subjectivity.

When poor Torless is confused in all these matters he finds himself embroiled in some strange and disturbing situations with two of his friends Reiting and Beineberg who have been physically and sexually torturing and abusing one of their classmates Basini who they caught stealing and who is under their debt. Torless, as is his temperament, gets into the role of the scientific observer trying to understand and analyse what is really happening inside him as he watches Basini's degradation and thinks about what it all means. Most readings of the book actually only focus on this section, even though it doesn't really cover all the book. It is true, it is a remarkably prescient and indeed very disturbing and frightening portrait of the origins of Fascism. Both Reiting and Beineberg justify their actions in very distortred-Nietzschean and proto-Nazi theories. Like many other Central European and German intellectuals of his time Musil was also deeply aware of the impending crisis of European civilization which was soon to manifest into war, destruction and barbarism. His analysis also makes it clear that it was not just an abrupt historical accident but rather there was a historical continuity - this time the whole civilization was in moral confusion, not just an adolescent in a remote boarding school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is where Torless broods about mathematical problems and the questions they raise about the nature and perception of reality. I think philosophers of mathematics or actually even those who have a basic knowledge of mathematics will find some of his ideas a little perplexing. For example he thinks that imaginary and irrational numbers have no referent in the "real" world - which is definitely not true. In fact the first exercise when one is introduced to the concept of irrational numbers in junior high school is to represent them on a number line! The concept of Infinity and imaginary numbers are confounding only because of their naming. Still the basic idea of those passages is clear enough - that the relationship between mathematical abstractions and the external world of "things" is not quite straightforward. I don't really understand these things myself but it is not hard to get to what Musil is trying to say - again the same incommensurability between thought and experience. (The whole Mathematics and reality thing reminded me of Wittgenstein, which I did try my best to read but couldn't get past even the basics.)

All in all, a very deep and profound work. It is very short, just around 150 pages, but packed with some really dense passages and convoluted thoughts and analysis. Like Ulrich, Torless is also a partial self-portrait. In fact one very interesting part of my experience of reading it was to compare both the characters side by side. In the end after suffering an emotional crisis of his own, Torless breaks into a monologue in front of his teachers who have assembled together to question him about the whole affair. He calmly accepts the fact that, "there is something dark in me, something among all my thoughts, something that I cannot measure with thoughts, a life that can't be expressed in words and which is none the less my life..." And then he says this about his future:

"Now that is past. I know that I was indeed mistaken. I'm indeed mistaken. I'm not afraid of anything any more. I know: things are things, and will remain so for ever; and no doubt I will see them now one way, now another. Now with the eyes of reason, now with those other eyes... And I will no longer try to compare the two..."

It comes as something abrupt - this sudden determination on his part to see "things as things" when all the time he has been brooding like a maniac and indeed if one sees Ulrich, who is actually nothing but a grown-up version of Torless, he is grappling with the same problems. Unlike Torless though, he is much too self-conscious and aware and has access to that powerful tool called Irony, as a result he is much more stable psychologically than Torless. (Though he goes through crises of his own as well, resulting from similar causes.) Reading these two books I have felt so close to both these characters, I only wish I had even half of such interesting and deep thoughts in my head.


A few words about the Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of the book, Der Junge Torless, which I saw quite a while back. It is considered a classic of new German cinema and is indeed an excellent film on its own. Of course all the intellectual and philosophical analysis is absent but it makes up for it by creating a powerful sense of atmosphere and mood. So even though we don't hear Torless' brooding thoughts, we can still feel his anguish. The wonderful casting of all the four young characters, who are all great, helps a lot too. Horror-queen Barbara Steele (The Mask of Satan) turns in a magnificent cameo as the prostitute. The music by Hans Werner Henze is very memorable as well. Here is the trailer

Two articles about the film here and here.


Szerelem said...

Nice post Alok. I really like the book you said it is very dense and its amazing how much the book actually makes you think. And it covers so many topics! I though the bits where he ponders the nature of infinity were quite interesting. Also, the parts of torture were quite savage no?

That Armchair Philosopher said...

Excellent recommendation - what really interests me is the author's view with respect to fascism here..

"His analysis also makes it clear that it was not just an abrupt historical accident but rather there was a historical continuity - this time the whole civilization was in moral confusion, not just an adolescent in a remote boarding school"

Relating mathematical abstractions to real life seems very Russell'esque. I don't know if you've read Godel or perhaps Whitehead; but they're far more readable than Wittgenstein, who's far too arcane for me!

Alok said...

szerlem: yes those passages are really disturbing. It wouldn't have been effective if he had just described what happened vividly, but he goes into philosophical and psychological analysis and that's what makes it so disturbing. I was fascinated by all the mathematics and philosophy, even though I didn't understand everything, and whatever I understood confused and perplexed me a little.

TAP: I haven't read any philosophy of mathematics. While trying to read Wittgenstein I did come across Russell and Frege too but couldn't quite make head or tail of it. And I didn't feel like spending too much time and effort either.

I have read the incompleteness theorem but then again I don't fully understand its wider philosophical implications.

Madhuri said...

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way...
I loved those words. Would like to pick this one up if I get through the backlog that I am carrying currently!

Alok said...

It is a bit heavy but certainly worth the effort, specially if one can't find time for his mammoth masterpiece The Man Without Qualities.