The Confusions of Young Torless
The Confusions of Young Törless as a Response to Wilhelmine Politics and Ideals
The book The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil illustrates the change in societal values during the Wilhelmine Period of 1890-1914. Under Wilhelm the second, the German Empire was reined on ideals that were found on economic liberalism and social conservatism. These ideals led to highly aggressive militaristic and imperialist actions. Musil can be seen as prophesizing the changes of attitudes, beliefs, and practices of those growing up in the Wilhelmine Era. Two particular adolescents, Beineberg and Reiting, represent the shift to fascist attitudes. This is shown through the way they value courage and strength. Their cruel treatment of Basini resembles fascist militaristic practices of obedience and discipline; indeed, Beineberg and Reiting represent the ideals during the rein of Wilhelm II, which can be directly correlated to World War I and postwar fascist dictatorships.
The Wilhelmine Era resulted in an evolving focus on aggression and strength, which resulted in World War I and later became the core principles of the fascist rule. Musil first demonstrates this through Reiting who seems to be putting emphasis on these same values. One specific example can be shown when the author describes Reiting’s actions: “another kind of practice he indulged in was to punch something in an out-of-the-way place…to strengthen his arms and harden his hands with calluses”. In this example and throughout the novel, Reiting felt the need to become stronger and prove his power. Reiting represents the German Empire at the time, a country that focused on imperialistic foreign policy and building a Naval League to show its power. The contemporary interpretation regarding the origins of World War I, states that Germany shares the primary blame for the war’s occurrence, due to its aggressiveness under Wilhelm II; these aggressive actions led to the outbreak of World War I.
In the novel, Reiting and Beineberg assert their power in various types of aggressions, which include sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of another character, Basini. One specific example is when they attacked Basani: “Beineberg and Reiting leapt after him…and were whipping him with something [and Basini] begging them to spare him”. This quote illustrates the aggressions of the two adolescents on to someone else, similarly to Germany’s imperialistic aggressions towards Africa at the time. It is also important to mention the reasons behind the actions of Beineberg and Reiting and how it can represent the rise in fascism during this time. These characters justified their cruel treatment of others by saying it was discipline as a response to disobedience. Obedience was an important aspect of the fascist party and unwillingness to comply with the party often led to punishment.
Beineberg and Reiting say they punish Basani for disrespecting them or doing something against their wishes. An example of this is when Beineberg and Reiting are talking to another student that Basani tried to get turn against them: “Basini’s coming to the hideout tonight; we are going to punish him for stirring you up against us.” Throughout the entire novel Beineberg and Reiting’s reason for punishing Basani was due to his disobedience to them, which they felt was an act against his superiors. Essentially, the fascist party felt the need to eliminate any person or faction of people who didn’t corporate with their regime. This specific ideal can be shown developing during the reign of Wilhelm II through the characters of Beineberg and Reiting. When a friend of these two in the novel refused to do something they asked, Beineberg and Reiting threatened him. They said: “My dear Törless, if you rebel against us and do not come, the same will happen to you as Basini.” It is important to see the correlation between Beineberg and Reiting’s idea’s of corporation and obedience under their power and that of the fascist dictatorships in the following decades.
The Confusions of Young Törless should be taken as a purposeful and coherent reflection of the attitudes, beliefs, and practices of those growing up in the Wilhelmine Era. In the novel, the characters Beineberg and Reiting represent the shift in culture and attitude that led to World War I and ultimately the fascist dictatorships. Beineberg and Reiting show numerous similarities to fascist ideals and policies. This is demonstrated in the novel through their cruel treatment of Basani, which resembles fascist practices of obedience and discipline and their emphasis on strength.
 Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2014) 41  Ibid., 76  Ibid., 148  Ibid., 149
Dark Math and The Labyrinth: Inner and Outer Chaos in The Confusions of Young Torless
Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless stresses the synchronicity between inner and outer chaos. Mystery and enigmatic disorder overshadow the narrative as the young adolescent, Torless, struggles with his identity and the world around him. In symbolism, school and sexuality, other irrational unknowns appear which confound his efforts at clarity.
At school, Torless is bewildered in mathematics class as he grapples with advanced theories such as imaginary numbers, irrational numbers and infinity. “Captivated by the problem of infinity, his interest turns to the mathematics class where he is even more puzzled by the problem of ‘imaginaren Zahlen or imaginary numbers’ (Goldgar 126). Convoluted formulas and riddling concepts plague his mind as he attempts to calculate and solve these coded puzzles. Even when he approaches his mathematics instructor, seeking answers, he obtains none. In his math text, the “parentheses and footnotes (are) incomprehensible to him, … it was as if some aged, bony hand were twisting and screwing his brain out of his head.” (Musil 50). In the subconscious, his futile strivings in arithmetic run parallel to his personal psychology as he attempts to solve his own identity. Goldgar expresses that the imaginary numbers which he encounters become synonymous with the stormy internal forces that rages, and symbolising the unconscious.
Another symbol equating to Torless’ wonder is the infinity sign. This sign captures the mystery of divinity – an incomprehensible element. In one instance, Torless says to himself, ‘it just keeps going on and on forever into infinity’ keeping his eyes fixed on the sky. Torless’ utter amazement at God and the spiritual world equals to man’s historic pursuit of meaning through religion even stargazing. Another commentator mentions that “Torless speculates about the bewildering, contradictory nature of infinity as a working formula and as a general numerical concept. He is also concerned with the double aspect and the seemingly irrational nature of negative numbers” (Stopp 101). In sum, the infinity sign stand for the transcendent unknown to which man, in his own fallibility and finite understanding, is powerless to penetrate. It is incalculable, irrational and surpasses the bounds of the mind.
Musil employs the labyrinth as an imagery confirming the dark and ominous distortions of Torless’ mind. As one of his friends, Beineberg, speaks to him, his communication resemble “words …. trailing on and on, like an endless road of a thousand meanderings, leading no one knew where” (Musil 68). He can hardly understand that thought pattern of his friend. The labyrinth holds a predominant position in Greco-Roman lore replete with bleak, serpentine passageways, blind turns and narrow, perilous alleys. Fittingly, Torless enters a dark bar and climbs a wooden staircase, narrow and twisting leading up to the first floor (Musil 22). Later on, as he discovers his friend’s criminal escapades, he imagines the confused outcasts of the world “debauched and filthy, … wandering in labyrinthine passages full of roaring voices” (Musil 34). The labyrinth structure attests to mental chaos, perpetual wanderings and hopelessness.
Even as Torless becomes sexually conscious, the concept of the labyrinth absorbs his experience, connoting his agonising conflict in identity. He grows used to hoping for extraordinary, hidden discoveries and in the process, he had been led into the narrow, twisting chambers of sensuality” (Musil 129). His sexual innocence becomes tarnished as he explores in prostitution and even homosexuality. His curiosity misleads him to further degradation as demonstrated in ‘twisted’ practices such as sadism. The all-male environment at military school combined with a decadent urbanity initiates Torless into an unorthodox sexuality. Gendered lines of distinction become blurred and as literary critic Elizabeth Stopp proposes, “Torless’ confusions are partly in the erotic sphere and partly in the intellect (Stopp 101). His sexual fantasies and trysts eventually erode at the fabric of his mind. He feels “torn between two worlds, one that was solidly respectable in which everything took place in regular and rational ways, …and a world of adventure, full of darkness, mystery, blood and unimagined surprises (Musil 44).
The dark and cryptic labyrinth and inexplicable unknown numbers cloud Torless’ mind to the point that his “written words remained dead, a series of sullen, long-familiar question marks” (Musil 138). His dismal ponderings, solitude, and explorations in the underworld take him on a clandestine journey which defeats any valid explanation. In his quest for answers and even self-discovery, “there always remained a dividing line which retreated like a horizon from his yearning the closer he came to it,” pointing to the elusiveness of the answers to the questions burning in his soul.
Goldgar, Harry. The Square Root of minus One: Freud and Robert Musil’s Törless – Harry Goldgar, “Comparative Literature, Vol. 17, No. 2. pp. 117-132.
Musil, Robert. The Confusions of Young Torless, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Stopp, Elizabeth. Musil’s Törless: Content and Form. “The Modern Language Review, Vol. 63, No. 1. pp. 94-118.