Nervous romanticism: Robert Musil, Young Törless

Robert Musil, Young Törless. Translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, ed. Burton Pike. Part 1 of Selected Writings in the series The German Library, vol. 72 (The Continuum Publishing Co., New York, 1995).

 Robert Musil was born in Austria in 1880 and died in Switzerland in 1942. He’d been living in Germany, but left with his Jewish wife to escape the monstrosities of the Nazis and their dictators. There are ominous foreshadowings of this regime in his novel Young Törless.

Musil began working on it when he was in his early twenties. There is a plot of sorts – an adolescent boy is caught stealing from his fellow pupils at a swanky, stuffy military academy for boys (the setting is evidently based on Musil’s own unhappy education). A small group of them begin a campaign of sadistic, increasingly sexual torment and bullying of their victim, Basini.

Robert Musil, Young Törless coverTörless has become a member of this group, but he’s always something of an outsider. He joins in with some of the homoerotic torture and sexual violence, but finds himself curiously aroused but simultaneously repelled by his reactions – and those of the other boys involved.

This is where the prediction of what arose in post-war Germany emerges. Two of the boys who persecute Basini anticipate the lust for power of the Nazis, and their contempt for those they consider lesser beings. One of them, Beineberg, says to Törless, when he’d shown half-hearted signs of concern about their cruel treatment of Basini:

People like Basini…signify nothing – they are empty, accidental forms. True human beings are only those who can penetrate into themselves.

A page or two later (there are some very long conversations in this narrative) he goes on:

The very fact that I find it hard to torture Basini – I mean to humiliate him, debase him, and cast him away from me – is good. It requires a sacrifice. It will have a purifying effect. I owe it to myself to learn daily, with him as my material, that merely being human means nothing – it’s a mockery, a mere external semblance.

Along with a whiff of Nietzshe’s ubermensch here, there’s also the vaguely oriental Buddhism which Beineberg learned from his father. His pose of strutting, heartless supremacy is validated by his spurious, self-justifying mysticism. So much for the master race.

Törless is sensitive and intelligent enough to see through this egomaniacal tosh. His quest for enlightenment takes him in the direction of metaphysics and science, and, in particular, mathematics (and its sister, philosophy). In a scene of bathetic comic brilliance he’s disillusioned by his lacklustre, intellectually limited maths teacher. Infinity and ‘imaginary numbers’ remain another unsolved mystery.

The novel has been translated in some editions as The Confusions of Young Törless; this sums up quite well its theme. The protagonist is a searcher, looking for some kind of cosmic solution to the problems of the soul and the world.

So far he’s not so different from most precocious, intelligent young men. What’s fascinating about this strange, unsettling novel is that he’s not quite smart or mature enough to recognise his own shortcomings. He tries reading Kant, and gives up. His ‘confusions’ torment him, he feels, more than his friends torment the hapless Basini. But he’s too callow and complacent to make the effort required to transcend them.

There’s something of the aesthete and decadent about him. He tends to wallow in his darkling state. Time and again our narrator, with a touch perhaps of irony, describes the existential void into which Törless gazes, like a post-Romantic poet on opium: he feels ‘the horror of emptiness’ on confronting ‘some insoluble enigma and some inexplicable kinship for which he could never quite produce any evidence.’

His uneasiness resides ultimately in the failure of language: ‘words meant nothing.’ He recalls marvelling as a child at a landscape and exclaiming to his father how beautiful it was, then being overcome with embarrassment at his emotional outburst:

It was the failure of language that caused him anguish, a half-awareness that the words were merely accidental, mere evasions, and never the feeling itself.

‘Anguish’ is a word that is often used of Törless in these musings. His confusions might begin to seem ‘tangibly comprehensible’, but he could never  entirely

resolve them into words and ideas. Between events and himself, indeed between his own feelings and some inmost self that craved understanding of them, there always remained a dividing-line, which receded before his desire, like a horizon, the closer he tried to come to it.

Young Törless is no embryonic TS Eliot. I don’t know if the translators deliberately alluded to ‘The Hollow Men’ in this passage. Whatever, our young decadent is clearly relishing his spiritual dilemma like a connoisseur. He dabbles in morality and ethics, but there’s always something of the dilettante about these dabblings.

I’m not sure how far Musil wanted us to side with his young intellectual aesthete. My own feeling is that he’s intrigued by him, shares much of his philosophical ‘anguish’, but also sees the pretentiousness.

I haven’t yet read what’s said to be Musil’s masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities; a fellow blogger recommended I start with Young Törless. I presume because it contains in embryo what I’ve read about it… whatever it is, that huge, unfinished expressionist-modernist novel. Törless struggles and ultimately fails to connect feelings and actions to his ultra-sharp intellect. The narrator hints that he succeeded later in life, when he’d outgrown these immature indulgences.

Meanwhile he wallows in the pleasure derived from dismissing values, moral and ethical constraints as irrelevant for someone as exquisitely sensitive as him.

Herman Bahr, writing about the literary-artistic scene in Vienna in 1891, declared the ‘bondage’ and ‘pain’ of reality had to be escaped, that ‘the supremacy of naturalism is over…its spell is broken’. He summed up classicism and its view of humanity as ‘reason and feeling’; romanticism was ‘passion and the senses’; out of these emerged modernism, which is nerves. Young Törless is a prototype of what Bahr called ‘nervous romanticism.’ Or is it nervous mysticism? When ‘nervousness’ becomes completely liberated, humans, especially artists, become ‘subordinate to the nerves, without regard for the rational and sensuous’, and then ‘the lost joy will return to art.’ Törless would surely endorse that strange view, which sounds a bit hysterical.

‘Nervioso’ in Spanish doesn’t really mean ‘nervous’ – it’s edgier than that. I presume it’s the same in German. Not so hysterical.

Herman Bahr, ‘The overcoming of naturalism’ HERE

Melissa at Bookbinder’s Daughter blog May 2019 HERE

Volker Schlöndorff directed a film of the novel in 1966.

A Chamfort Florilegium

Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote

[Image of Chamfort from Wikiquote]

Florilegium, n. (OED)

…modern Latin, < flōrilegus   flower-culling, < flōr(i)-  , flōs   flower + legĕre   to gather; a literal rendering of Greek ἀνθολόγιον  anthology n., after the analogy of spīcilegium; spiciˈlegium   n.

b. A collection of the flowers of literature, an anthology.  First OED citation: 1647.

Spicilegium; † spicilegy   n.  [Latin spīcilegium] Obs. a gleaning; a collection or anthology.

1656   T. Blount Glossographia,   Spicilegy, gathering ears of corn, gleaning or leising corn.

Latin spīca ear of corn, spike n., occurring in a few words, as Mayne Expos. Lex. (1859) also gives spiciferous, spiciflorous, spicigerous as renderings of modern Latin formations.

David Crystal is our most eminent and readable linguist; his Words on Words is packed full of quotations of linguistic interest – a veritable spicilegium.  A random example sparked off today’s blog post:

I am tempted to say of metaphysicians what Scaliger used to say of the Basques: they are said to understand one another, but I don’t believe a word of it.

(Nicolas-Sebastien Chamfort, 1796, Maximes et Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, et petits Dialogues philosophiques, ch. 7.)

[Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609): French scholar born Agen, specialist in classics but spoke 13 languages.  A Calvinist, he was Professor at the University of Leiden and is said to have inspired Dutch scholarship.  This maxim is surely a little harsh on both metaphysicians and the linguistically challenging Basques.]

N. Sebastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-94): French writer, born illegitimately in the Auvergne; his wit, intelligence and charm took him to the upper heights of pre-Revolutionary France, and friendship with Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert and other eminent figures of the period; he caught the admiring attention of Louis XV and was elected to the French Academy – though he claimed, with typical contrariness, that he never attended its sessions. He also wrote tales and drama, as well as these maxims (published posthumously).  In a Guardian essay back in 2003 Julian Barnes * had this to say about him (all subsequent quotations are from his article):

Camus thought him the most instructive of moralists, and far greater than La Rochefoucauld; Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill revered him; Pushkin read him and allowed Eugene Onegin to do the same; he is an admired presence in the diaries of Stendhal and the Goncourts; Cyril Connolly, another melancholy epicurean with a taste for aphorism, quoted him at length in The Unquiet Grave. Yet Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort (1741-1794) remains virtually unknown in this country.

He began compiling his maxims in the mid-1780s, noting down on small pieces of paper his thoughts, epigrams and repartees on all manner of aspects of human existence, with ‘anecdotes, quotations and scraps of dialogue’, but after his death, before the first publication of his Maximes, some 2000 items were removed and lost.  What remains of this florilegium shows how he differs from La Rochefoucauld, who exempted himself from his own charge that mankind is motivated by self-interest; Chamfort’s  ‘condemnation of humanity includes himself, very specifically: “If I am anything to go by, man is a foolish animal.”’

His maxims often retain their resonance today: here he is on politics –

You imagine ministers and other high officials have principles because you’ve heard them say so. As a result, you avoid asking them to do anything that might cause them to break those principles. However, you soon discover you’ve been hoodwinked when you see ministers doing things which prove that they’re quite unprincipled: it’s nothing but a habit they’ve got into, an automatic reflex.

Chamfort has been criticised for airing misogynistic views, but he has this to say about love and women: “In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd.”

He’s capable, among these dicta, of self-deprecating wit, too: “Having lots of ideas doesn’t mean you’re clever, any more than having lots of soldiers means you’re a good general.”

When the Revolution broke out in 1789 he espoused the Jacobin cause, was among the first to storm the Bastille, spoke in public support of the revolutionaries, and coined slogans: “War upon the chateaux, peace upon the cottages”.  When, as often happens with those who are early supporters of insurrection (especially when they have circulated in the privileged circles of the overthrown regime), he was denounced and imprisoned, and made botched and messy attempts at suicide, succeeding only in blowing out an eye with his pistol, and losing pints of blood when he attempted to slash his wrists, throat and ankles.

Chamfort was ‘various, contradictory, but always stimulating, never one to flatter the reader’s complacency’.  Camus described the Maximes as ‘a kind of disorganised novel’, which leads me to think of them as an extreme precursor of what has recently been called the ‘polyphonic novel’ (Michael David Lukas, ‘A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel’ in The Millions, 15 Feb., 2013; Ted Gioia, ‘The Rise of the Fragmented Novel’, Fractious Fiction website, 17 July, 2013).  I intend to return to these two fascinating essays on modern narrative structure in another blog.

*Barnes was reviewing a new edition of selections from the Maximes: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society, edited by Douglas Parmee, published in 2003 by Short Books, 224pp.

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

The Parmee selection reviewed by Barnes (photo from Amazon website)

I see on the Amazon website there’s a ridiculously cheap 2012 Kindle edition of Complete Maxims and Thoughts (The Works of Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort) translated by Tim Siniscalchi.

English translation of 'Maximes', Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

English translation of ‘Maximes’, Kindle edition, illustrated on Amazon website

 

I haven’t checked to see if this is indeed ‘complete’ –  Amazon state that this edition’s print length is 145 pages, which doesn’t sound long enough for completeness; they also have a Kindle edition in French which is free.

An English translation by Deke Dusinberre of Claude Arnaud’s biography (in French) was published in 1992 (second edition) by the University of Chicago press.  It was reviewed in an essay by P.N. Furbank in the New York Review of Books on 25 June, 1992 under the title ‘A Double Life’, who said of the Maximes‘ author that he was

a man fêted and pampered by the grand monde of the ancien régime—the very prototype of pensioned idleness and frivolous salon display—who all the time had been taking secret notes on this monde and bestowing drops of acid upon it. Here, moreover, was a parasite of the “great” who had welcomed the Revolution with open arms, with a euphoria as intense as his fate under it was to be horrific.

Another review, by Neil Ascherson, was published 5 November, 1992 in The London Review of Books; some interesting comments from readers (reproduced on the website) add nuance.

The blurb on the Amazon page for the English Kindle edition has this: “Chamfort”, wrote Balzac in a letter, “put whole volumes in a single biting phrase, while nowadays it’s a marvel to find a biting phrase in a volume” –  a neat chiasmus to end on.