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.
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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 […]