263. The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil

If one seeks to satisfy his desire diligently and ambitiously, and if he goes a step farther anytime it is attained, one could lose himself. This seems to be the message of Robert Musil's The Confusions of Young Torless (Penguin Classics, 2001 (FP: 1906) translation by Shaun Whiteside; 160). Musil's story is about sexual repression, oppression and its covert expression. It is the sexual expression of power and the depression that results when it is repressed. Though published in the early twentieth century, Musil discusses several of today's sexual roles and identities: gender trap, homosexuality, and sadism. The latter is talked about with regards to the power it affords the oppressor.

Torless is in a boarding house for boys. He is developing sexually and is bothered by thoughts of sex and his sexuality. As these ideas and thoughts inundate him, he is forced to seek refuge from every possible source but her parents, whose faces he could no longer conjure no matter how hard he tried. His first source, in his quest for an answer, is mathematics, which leads him to philosophy. Torless is afraid to think about his own feelings for what he will discover. For he finds himself attracted to Beineberg, his schoolmate, and indifferent to the whore they have both sneaked out to patronise. This feeling repels and scares him in equal measure. It confuses him. He is unable to explain it and does not know the implication. But he shies away from interrogating it and is therefore unable to understand what it is. 
You'll only ever be half-way there! Finding something a bit strange, shaking your head a bit, being a shit shocked - that's your way; you don't dare go beyond it. [92]
Torless seems to suggest that for one to live a normal life, one must regulate the depth to which one wants to explore one's desires or the extent to which one wants to obey them. Yet, the more he refuses to interrogate that feelings, that emotion drawing him closer to his friend, the deeper the torments. The torment increases with the clear lack of means to discuss his feelings and, in the process, learn about himself. First, he is trapped by a society that expects him to be a man and behave in a certain way; second, he is trapped by a body he feels unconnected with; and third, expressing his feelings within the broader laws of the society will mean living on the peripherals of society.
In his skin, all over his body, a feeling awoke that suddenly turned into a remembered image. When he had been very small - yes, yes that was it - when he had still worn little dresses and before he went to school, there were times when he felt a quite inexpressible longing to be a girl. And that longing wasn't in his head - oh no - and it wasn't in his heart - it tingled throughout his whole body and ran all over his skin. Yes, there were times when he felt so vividly like a girl that he thought he must really be one. [96]
This furtive feeling, which Torless has been afraid of interrogating, of confronting, bursts out from him when, in his presence, his two friends - Reiting and Beineberg - sexually molest Basini, as payment for keeping a secret they have come to posses. This is where Musil merges abuse and absolute power. The three friends have identified Basini as the person behind the numerous theft cases the students have been experiencing. He is living beyond his means and needs the money to pay off debts and free himself from harassment.

Armed with this secret, the the three friends became powerful and exercised complete control over Basini, who, afraid of being sacked, allowed them to do to him as they wished. The sadistic abuse, expressed through their secret knowledge of his affairs, became a constant event in Basini's evenings. Whereas Reiting sexually abused him, Beineberg used him for every metaphysical experiment his warped mind could conjure. It was at Torless's first appearance at this esoteric performances, especially of Reiting's sexual abuse, that his sexual craving for a male body began to manifest itself. Torless felt his manhood respond to the sounds emanating from the abuse, and it dawned on him that he had been gay all along. All he had done had been to repress that feeling; not look beyond what is allowable. Trapped in this confusion - his inability to fully express his gayness, for fear of society, and his inability to fully control it - Torless became depressed. 

Reiting's sexual abuse and Beineberg's warped experiments show the depth of human wickedness, especially by those who possess absolute power. Our quest to express what we might not be - for it was the quest to be manly that set each of the four (including Basini) on this destructive path - could have disastrous effects on us. Here the similarity between Torless's clique and the Nazis who came to power, almost a decade after the book's publication, is striking.

Musil also explored that which makes people succumb to such treatments, as Basini did. Torless having now softened towards Basini, from his newly discovered yet unfulfiled affection, was worried about Basini's inability to prevent his daily tortures. He was disturbed by Basini's ability to normalised something as grievous as what he was going through.
'But the first time with Reiting? When he demanded things of you for the first time? Do you understand...?'
'Oh, it was certainly unpleasant, because everything was an order. And then...just imagine how many people do that kind of thing for fun, and no one knows anything about it. It's not so bad in comparison.'
'But you carried out the order. You humiliated yourself. As if you would be willing to crawl in the mud because someone else wanted you to.'
'I admit it. But I had to.'
'No, you didn't have to.'
'They'd have beaten me, they'd have reported me; all kinds of scandals would have landed on my head.' [116]
However, Torless realised that had he found himself in the same situation, he would not have reasoned any differently from Basini. And this realisation and conclusion of the matter worried him the more. 
No, what matters isn't how I would act, but the fact that if I really did act like Basini, I'd feel it was every bit as normal as he does. That's the important thing: my sense of myself would be just as straightforward, just as unambiguous as his... [118]
Later, Basini independently responded to Torless's repressed affection towards him. However, this response came from a person whose mind had been rewired and who wanted to move into the realms of depravity. Basini had seen through the cloak of manliness that shrouded Beineberg and Reiting. He saw that they were not as evil as they pretended to be and all that they did to him, though abusive and grave, were mere expressions of their weaknesses. His response to Torless was therefore an attempt to elicit more grievous treatments from him - he wanted someone who would despised him more.
But Basini pleaded. 'Oh, don't be like that again! There isn't anyone like you. They [Reiting and Beineberg] don't despise me like you do; they only pretend to, so they can be different again afterwards. And you? You of all people...? ... You're even younger than I am, although you're stronger. We're both younger than the others... I love you...!' .... 'Oh... do... please... oh, it would be a pleasure to serve you.' [121]
Not only did Basini normalised his position as an abused person, he accepted it and was prepared to do more. He was prepared to add whatever Torless was ready to do to what the others were already doing. Basini was, thus, changed. However, as stated, Basini himself set on this path towards his own destruction because he wanted to prove a manliness he did not have. He perhaps also suppressing his homosexual tendencies.
'Listen, I know you've spent a lot of money at Bozna's. You opened up to her, you bragged to her, you boasted of your manliness. So you want to be a man? Not just with your mouth and your... but with the whole of your soul? Look all of a sudden someone asks you to perform a humiliating service like that, and the same moment you feel you're too cowardly to say no: didn't your whole being feel torn asunder? Wasn't there some vague terror, as though something unspeakable had happened inside you?' [116-7]
The ending to the story is fascinating and indicates how perceptions, values, and learning affects the decoding and interpretation of information and, therefore, the understanding of issues. In the end, the abused Basini was dismissed, the oppressors won, and Torless became the genius. But for him, he had looked deeper enough. He was not prepared to look farther than he had done. That is, Torless could not resolve the two sides of his feelings - the reasonableness of society and his own contra-feelings; he chose not to compare, in order to remain sane but rather learnt to live with both.
'Now that is past. I know that I was 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 and 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...' [157]
Musil wrote the story from the point of view of Torless; he completely captured the thought processes that converged into and determined his actions. He captures, absolutely, the helplessness that results from a young boy's inability to understand himself and see himself different from the masses. The book is filled with philosophical discourse on sex and sexuality and also on power.


  1. There are not nearly enough novels about math are there?

    Good piece on this tricky book.

    1. No there aren't. I cannot recall one where math is the subject. Not Mark Haddon's.

      Thanks. Yes. this is a tricky book and I hope I got the gist.

  2. Indigo by Clemens Setz might be one.


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