Robert Musil World Literature Analysis
Musil is a major modernist writer. Modernism was the literary response to the type of modernity that emerged from roughly 1890 to 1910. As mass communication and transportation, such as telephones and cars, revolutionized daily life, people shared the widespread realization that their world had become complex in an unprecedented way, which they experienced as a loss—that is, the loss of their moral “center,” or faith in once agreed-upon values. The modernists responded with complex art to represent the complex world and a search for a new center, typically a new style or a new myth (or, as in Musil’s case, both).
Musil’s work is prototypically modernist in its complexity, style, and exploration of myth. The complexity is a matter not just of Musil’s style but also of his worldview: He saw life as a fusion of opposites—such as reason and emotion, the real and the unreal, the material and the spiritual—that had been typically treated separately prior to modernism. Young Törless takes a glimpse at this “two-world” condition, which takes center stage in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities in the conflict between the senses of reality and of possibility.
Musil’s style closely traces his complex worldview. This is evident from Young Törless, whose protagonist struggles to comprehend his confusing experiences, as well as from the essayistic style of The Man Without Qualities. Taking its name from the French verb for “to attempt” (essayer), a literary essay tries to approach the world tentatively without any preconceptions. Musil fictionalizes his essayism so that it appears as a literary character’s reaction to events or as part of a dialogue. “Essayism” even describes the lifestyle of Musil’s alter ego Ulrich.
At the same time, essayism leads to an ironic style because nothing ever can be said with certainty; consequently, as so many modern novels do, The Man Without Qualities narrates and reflects upon its own difficulties of narrating. The result is not a crisis, as often claimed, but instead a triumph of the novel as a form. After all, modernist novels proved that they were still able to narrate the world at a time when storytelling was considered difficult, although they may no longer follow conventional plots. What is more, these novels incorporated this very difficulty into their form. Musil’s contribution to the novel genre was his essayistic and tentative style.
Musil’s tentative style matched his search for a myth, to which his teleological and erotic themes added subtle ironies. Musil’s term for the goal for the search was “the other condition” (“der andere Zustand”), which he understood as the experience of mystical oneness. These elements work in Musil’s novels because it is more important that the search, rather than the myth, resonate with the readers. While Törless glimpses the existence of the “other condition,” Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities experiments with his version of the brother/sister myth to achieve “the other condition.”
In addition, Musil’s work had a political component. Young Törless looks at sadism as a force that turns some individuals into oppressors and others into victims; this has been understood as an uncanny foreshadowing of the rise of Nazism as such a sadistic political force. The Man Without Qualities presents people who are absorbed either in their own private desires or in grandiose, yet irrelevant, political dreams; that is, the novel evokes a “spiritual vacancy” (Kimball) that was readily filled in real life by Nazism.
First published: Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless, 1906 (English translation, 1955)
Type of work: Novel
An adolescent boy develops an adult sense of self by confronting the sadistic treatment of a fellow student in a military boarding school.
The German title, translated more literally as “the confusions of the schoolboy Törless,” both situates the story in a school setting and introduces the novel’s main theme. The school is a military boarding school, similar to those of Musil’s own experience; however, rather than realistically described, the novel’s setting and atmosphere reflect the confusions of young Törless’s adolescent growing pains.
The surface plot focuses on a small group of four students. As money is stolen from Beineberg and other students, the student Reiting figures out that only Basini, one of their fellow students, could be the thief. Reiting and Beineberg take it upon themselves to punish Basini during secret and sadistic nighttime meetings. Törless is drawn into these meetings but tries to keep his distance. His dual attraction to and repulsion from the sadism, as well as homosexual acts in which Basini engages separately with his punishers, show Törless struggling with his confusions.
Over just a few weeks, Törless matures and learns to form his own opinion and stand up for it. As Reiting and Beineberg increase their mental torture by planning to expose Basini in front of the school, Törless convinces Basini to turn himself in to the headmaster. The school officials attempt to keep the ensuing scandal as small as possible; however, although Törless succeeds in obscuring the full extent of his involvement, he is implicated in the events and, at the close of the investigation, is told to leave the school—a decision that is imposed on him but, at the same time, reflects his inner growth: He is ready to leave this school.
This novel—Musil’s only great success during his lifetime—touches upon several major themes. First, the sadistic and sexual elements take on a symbolic function representing power and its abuse in general. Because the school’s rigid structure reproduces the rigid structure of Austrian society at the end of the nineteenth century, the school metonymically stands for that society. The group dynamic among the students not only copies social structures but also warns of the dangers of unchecked power as Reiting’s and Beineberg’s sadism ignores Basini’s humanity. Later critics have praised this aspect as...
(The entire section is 2574 words.)