It is said that between two human beings there can be a moment of bending down, of drawing strength from deep within, of holding breath- a moment of utmost inner tension under a surface of silence. It is, as it were, the shadow that coming passion casts ahead of it.
-Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless (59-60)
Oh, it is easy to be clever if one does not know all the questions… (130)
The Confusions of Young Törless, or Young Törless is another title I swiped off of Wuthering Expectations reading list. I will admit that I was a little frightened when I got a hold of it. A story, published in 1908 Germany, of boarding school boys brutalizing and shaming each other fills me with a quick dread. But I was very soon enraptured by this mesmerizing book.
“Törless was glad when the master stopped talking. Since he had heard that door slam it had seemed to him that the words were moving farther and farther away from him…towards that other, indifferent realm where all correct and yet utterly irrelevant explanations lie. (112)
I love that one of the catalysts of Törless’ confusions is the mathematical idea of imaginary numbers. Musil does such an exquisite job of detailing what must be a common experience when one encounters complex, abstract problems (mathematical or other). At least I can say that I have felt it- the coming and going of perfect clarity, the knowledge that the only way to understand it (whatever it may be at the moment) is to come at it obliquely, and then I have it! Bliss!- and then it’s gone. Damn! Like the sun, you can’t look right at it, the glare of understanding is in the periphery. That ever present light of comprehension shines but only intermittently sheds its warmth. For Törless, in the midst of a disturbing moral dilemma, the obsession with solving this mystery robs him of the ability or even desire to act or think clearly about the events that are occurring around him.
A sudden thought made his whole body grow tense. Are even older people like that? Is the world like that? Is it a universal law that there’s something in us stronger, bigger, more beautiful, more passionate and darker than ourselves? Something we have so little power over that all we can do is aimlessly strew thousands 0f seeds, until suddenly out of one seed it shoots up like a dark flame and grows out over our heads?…And every nerve in his body quivered with the impatient answer: Yes. (137)
There is a similarity between Musil’s description of the frustrations and yearnings that interpolate the lives of the introspective with D.H. Lawrence’s ideas and investigations. That passion of feeling that possesses, scares and exhilarates us all at one point or another, and that Lawrence advises us to cleave to without compromise, is shown in Musli’s book to become sentient, but often goes by the wayside, in youthful development. Musli also shows the danger and perversity that this feeling can become when realized in a disjointed and cold environment. The dark cloud of stupidity and cruelty fills the gaps.
There was no longer any trace of thought in him, only mute, inert repugnance. (186)
Perhaps the problem arises in that period of life called adolescents, when the burgeoning individual confronts the solitude of individuality. What had been a natural attribute of childhood, a passionate synergy, becomes a feeling that an emerging intellect strives to “make sense” of. For many people, it would seem, the effort to intellectually or scientifically understand their own natural passion for…the all-connecting everything – kills it.
All he felt was an impassioned longing to escape from this confused, whirling state of things, a longing for quietness, for books. (195)
Törless however, in this extraordinary novel, is determined to at least acknowledge it. That seems a good start.
Yes, there are dead and living thoughts. The process of thinking that takes place on the illuminated surface, and which can always be checked and tested by means of the thread of causality, is not necessarily the living one. (210)