English 101

Notes for Robert Musil

Young Torless (1906)


Musil’s Life:

1880: b. Klagenfurt, Austria; father a professor of engineering & aristocrat; mother Czech. Ménage-à-trois with Heinrich Reiter (possible Musil’s father).

1892-97: attends military boarding schools at Eisenstadt & Hranice.

1898-1901: degree in engineering.

1901-2: military service, contracts syphilis. Meets Herma Dietz (dies 1907 of syphilis).

1902-3: assistant to the professor of engineering, Stuttgart. Begins Torless.

1903-08: grad student in philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology; completes Torless 1905; Ph.D. 1908. Writes "Electric Motors for Small Business" and "Domestic Heating"

1906: Publishes Young Torless.

1910-14: Librarian, Technological University, Vienna.

1911: marries Martha Marcovaldi; 6 yrs. older, Jewish, widowed & divorced, 2 children.

1914-18: officer in Austrian army, decorated.

1930-33: The Man Without Qualities, vols. I and II.

1938: Anschluss; moves to Switzerland. Man Without Qualities banned by Nazis.

1942: Dies in Geneva.




The Confusions of Young Torless

Title: classic bildungsroman: adolescent search for values and identity, which are still in flux.

Confusion is productive — contrast with the complacency of adults, such as the math teacher, or the practical outlook of people like Bozena.

Contrast also between Torless’s uncertainty and Beineberg & Reiting, who know what they want from the future (i.e. power).

For Torless himself, the world is a dark wood in which he is lost (childhood experience with the trees (p. 26). Musil, ("Old Torless") and his readers, have more maturity and a clearer perspective on events — but this comes at the cost of choosing a particular framework for understanding the book.

Four ways of reading Young Torless:

  1. As bildungsroman: a realistic account of the social and personal uncertainties of adolescence.


Bildungsroman must be an ironic form, because "it’s just a phase" — we look back at ourselves with feelings of superiority; or, if we are grown up, we look "down" at teenagers.

But also expresses the arrogance and purity of teen-agers — their sense of being superior to us, distaste for lies and compromise.

Parallel with Hemingway: generally, the theme of innocence and experience (Nick Adams); specifically, stories like "The End of Something" — mistrust of the female, negative aspects of male bonding.

Bildungsroman ends in the middle: hero has achieved insight, but hasn’t yet reached mature success in relationships or work. Ready to take flight, after removal of the main obstacle to self-realisation (e.g. "the nets" Joyce; devouring mother, Lawrence).

Torless’s "confrontation with power, magic, and sexuality is portrayed as a creative moment of vulnerability, which has potential for destruction, humiliation, or self-knowledge. The adult, bourgeois world of light, order, and reason is challenged by a world that is associated with lower or fallen status, with childhood solitude and fantasies, with the whore Bozena, and with the irregular activities of his friends."


Perhaps also a kunstlerroman


Myth of Philoctetes, "the wound and the bow."

P is bequeathed the bow of Hercules, with which he will kill Paris & win the Trojan war — but Hera has him stung by a viper, which gives him a stinking wound. The skill and the wound go together.

That which is "unhappy," different" about the young person is precisely that which will make him a writer, or at least a modernist one — "the pearl is a disease of the oyster."

Torless’s moral passivity can be explained as artistic detachment — you can’t observe properly if you intervene. Alternatively, it is part of the artist’s journey to the underworld, discovery of his unconscious.

but it’s left open whether T. will resolve his confusion in that way — as, in real life, Musil was still uncertain about whether he could become a writer.


The divided self:

Musil: "the incommensurability of the world of feelings and that of the understanding."

"My father was very clear; my mother was characteristically confused. Like messy hair on a pretty face." [Similarity to Mann]

M. "did not believe that expressionism’s cult of personality, feeling, intuitionism, and willfulness was the correct response. Expressionism’s invocation of great ideas ‘such as suffering, love, eternity, goodness, inordinate desire, whore, blood, chaos, etc.’ turned out to be ‘no more valuable than the lyrical activity of a dog barking at the moon.’" (Luft 167)

  1. Apollonian side of Musil is made wary by expressionism’s emotional turbulence.
  2. Torless "stands back" from his emotions and judgements, seeks to find a comprehensible framework to put them in. In this respect, not a fully "existential" novel.

  4. Expressionists wrote "school novels" from a "voice of our generation" perspective: sensitive youth, corrupt school and elders. Musil too "cool" a mind to fall for this. Not very interested in adult power structures, which tend to be merely weak, ignorant and incompetent. Emphasis on "horizontal" power relations between members of the same generation.

Luft: "there is no attempt to blame the episode on the school or to idealize the values and experience of the students. The real threat comes from Beineberg and Reiting, whose sadism and cynical manipulation point explicitly to the world outside the academy."


"the move toward Schopenhauer’s novel of inner events is apparent in the use of inner monolog and psychological analysis, but the conventions of nineteenth-century narrative realism are still largely intact."


"Musil was offended by the notion that his book was a confession or a reformist tract, and it was only late that he appreciated the extent to which he had portrayed something typical." (57)



  1. As fictionalised philosophy: what is real in the world? How do emotion and reason interact?
  2. Musil: critique of impressionism — opposition to intellect, emphasizing the need to speak to "the heart or to some similar organ." Impressionist epistemology ignored "the fact that there is no report of experience which does not presume a spiritual system with the help of which the report is ‘created’ out of the facts."

    "The Critique of Pure Reason is an attack on the idea that by reason alone we can discover the nature of reality. Kant’s conclusion is that knowledge requires both sensory experience and concepts contributed by the perceiver."

    "The transcendental deduction: to prove that any experience whatever must conform to the categories [substance, cause, effect, etc.] and that the experience that is thus produced is of an objective world, not a merely personal subjective creation of each individual." (Warburton)

    Luft: "Nietzsche led the way for Musil by identifying science as dead art, psychology as the queen of philosophy, grammar as the key to modern riddles. Nietzsche, rather than Freud, served as Musil’s mentor in the realm of the unconscious, examining the relationships between drives and values. Still more importantly, Nietzsche offered a view of art, not as an escape, but as the fundamental human activity."

    "Imaginary numbers suggest the possibility of bridging two apparently disconnected realities, the possibility of calculating with unknown, irrational, and irreducible quantities." (56)

  3. As a sexual drama: the formation of sexual identity, homosexuality and heterosexuality (Weininger).
  4. Luft: "Freud, Weininger and Musil all reflect a cultural preoccupation with sexuality and the meaning of masculinity and femininity."

    Two sexual interpretations of the novel: Oedipal (Freudian) or in terms of gender roles. One explains through the family, the other through society.


    Musil himself critical of psychoanalysis:

    Closed circle of argument (disagreement=resistance=proof that the complex exists).

    "with such treatment the human being, even when softly and magnetically stroked, learns again to feel himself the measure of all things" (i.e. treatment is self-indulgent, everything that happens to you is important).

    Psychoanalysis describes a particular cultural moment — "women no longer have laps — how can you return to it when she’s wearing ski-togs?"


    Musil belongs to the same cultural milieu as Freud, hence the relevance of "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love."

    "Psychic impotence"

    "Two currents–the affectionate and the sensual–whose union is necessary to ensure a completely normal attitude in love have, in the cases we are considering, failed to combine."

    "Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love" (251)

    "People in whom there has not been a proper confluence of the affectionate and the sensual currents . . . have retained perverse sexual aims . . . whose fulfilment seems possible only with a debased and despised sexual object."

    "psychical impotence is much more widespread than is supposed, and a certain amount of this behavior does in fact characterise the love of civilised man [and woman]"

    "there are only a very few educated people in whom the two currents of affection and sensuality have become properly fused . . . . the man is assured of complete sexual pleasure only when he can devote himself unreservedly to obtaining satisfaction, which with his well-brought-up wife, for instance, he does not dare to do." (254)

    "the final object of the sexual instinct is never any longer the original object but only a surrogate for it. Psychoanalysis has shown us that when the original object of a wishful impulse has been lost as a result of repression, it is frequently represented by an endless series of substitutive objects none of which, however, brings full satisfaction." (258)

    Bozena and "the whiff of the cowshed" (34)

    Bozena undermines Torless’s idealism about his mother (40-41)

    Basini, sex & mother (156)

    "how to treat women if you’re a sensualist"

    "little sons" and "young gentlemen"


    Gender Roles

    Freud only touches on adolescent homosexuality indirectly, through the concept of perverse object choice — i.e. one that satisfies sadistic or "pre-genital" impulses. Cf. Torless p. 37.

    Gender roles satisfy society’s need to impose order on sexual desire — cf. Torless’ desire to be a little girl, p. 128.

    [Show transparencies of gender roles]

    In a single-sex school (or prison), inmates reproduce gender polarity within a single sex. [For women, see Maedchen in Uniform]

    Negative aspects of this:

    Roles become rigid, are treated as if they were "real" or biological — no room for playfulness.

    Roles are used as channels for the expression of [sadistic] power.

    The "male" and "female" roles reproduce the system of sexual domination in the external society, but in an exaggerated form because the roles are arbitrary, and therefore need to be policed more strictly.

    Cf. p. 152: "if [Reiting] didn’t beat me, he wouldn’t be able to help thinking I was a man, and then he couldn’t let himself be so soft and affectionate to me."

    Beineberg’s motives, same p.: antinomianism plus apprenticeship in domination (sex & sadism both ways of "breaking down" the Other).

    Masculine "hardness" is reinforced by homosexuality — logical extreme of the homosociality of military, sports teams, fascism.

    Torless’ path to homosexuality:

    Discovery of beauty (148) — makes up for lack of aesthetic education.

    Bisexuality of the artist (Coleridge)

  5. As a moral and political allegory: the nature of total institutions; a prophecy of the rise of Nazism.

(M’s journal, late 30s: "Relation to politics. Reiting & Beineberg: the dictators of today in nucleo. Also the idea of the mass as object of constraint."

"Would we then have thought that the putsch-officer would become the leading type in the world?!")

Reiting is "practising" for power: 51-52.

Reiting’s liking for mass-movements, 175.

Reiting prefigures the power-worshipping side of fascism, Beineberg the esoteric.