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Prof Oliver Simons Florine Cleary

Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

A Response to Aspects of The Confusion of Young Torless

That which struck me most about Young Torless is how well Musil was able to

create a chronicle of a virtually indescribable philosophical crisis. It is as if Torless has

found himself treading water, no longer able to function and view the world as he had

before (only looking to the sky) he feels compelled to try to reach further out into its vast

lonesome expanse. Torless does not remain in a state of fevered inertia at the end of the

book and yet nothing easily definable has happened, he has changed perhaps even just in

adapting to the inertia. We never see what exactly tempered Torless such that he is able to

float and no longer passionately struggle with what is going on in and around him.

Torless himself does not know how he has come to feel so distant from and dispassionate

about his previous state just as those who supposedly have gone through a similar if

muted crisis cannot say anything meaningful to guide him or perhaps even recognize with

what he is dealing.

Torless is in inertia at experiencing the absurd, that which seems to have no

grounding in the world as he has hitherto known it. The dark and surreal thoughts and

impulses in his own mind and the manifestations of such in the outer world, confuse his

childhood inner compass and open his eyes to another dimension within himself and

another crude but complex side of the world. It is not that the absurdity was not there

before but rather that now for one reason or another it is flaming up within his mind. He

is compelled and almost lusts to become enveloped in that feeling of absurdity and yet it

is frightening and painful for him to endure.


Imaginary numbers, the concept of infinity and such are so disturbing and yet

fascinating to Torless because they find their origin in ordinary sensible things like real

numbers and measurements but through manipulation of thought lead to things beyond

the worldly manifestations of man. It is fascinating to Torless and he likens it to a

“bridge where the piles are there only at the begging and at the end, with none in the

middle, and yet one crosses it just as surely and as safely as if the whole of it were there”.

Torless wonders at how such transcendent concepts can still function and have use in the

practical world. Perhaps it is as an indication of hope for him that causes him to find it so

fascinating that even when making such leaps of faith into the absurd that there is a

“force that lies in a problem like that, which keeps such a firm hold on you that in the end

you land safely on the other side”1.

Torless’s interest in imaginary numbers and infinity can be taken as allegorical for

his battle to reconcile the idealism and simplicity of childhood with the murky and

complex world he is becoming ever more aware of in his dealings at school. This is not a

merely external discovery but more and more Torless is becoming aware of himself as an

individual particularly as it concerns his ability for a hidden purely mental life. The

confusion is not just Torless’s nor even just that of his classmates but also indicative of

the society they are members of. Finding just as Torless does that the orthodoxy idealism

“highly civilized” attitude they have inherited is like operating with imaginary numbers

jumping over an mysterious turbulent abyss of both the good, the bad and the irrational

natures inherent in humanity.

The crisis of language is blown up to its greater implications about how futile it is

to convey one’s mental experience. He finds he cannot adequately put his thoughts into
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words or find relevance to his plight in the words of others. Neither his parents nor his

mathematics professor can give him the help he naively desires of them, though it may be

presumed they had some version of this crisis in their own time. Their attempts further

isolate Torless because he feels “that the words (of their advice) were moving farther and

farther away from him…towards that other, indifferent realm where all correct and yet

utterly irrelevant explanations lie”. He understands that the explanations are well

intentioned perhaps even proper but they cannot apply to him who is still undergoing the

change, they have already come out the other side and have in a sense lost the acuteness

of feeling he is experiencing. The Kant volume likewise cannot relate to his experience,

though in all of these are seeds that may grow once the conditions are less volatile.

Torless seeks to envelop himself in this feeling and tries to evoke it to study it. He

uses his “intellectual quest” as an excuse for cruelty and as an exploration into the

objectionable to better observe how he and others operate when under extreme forces. He

however is not as confident as his classmates Beineberg (who is impulsive and spiritual

and maintains “the soul has changed” making all possible for their generation) and

Reiting (who is methodical and orthodox in terms of the discipline and harsh chauvinism

of the day) for in Torless the doubt has already risen. In his consideration for Basini near

the end we have evidence that he has sifted through the rubble of the crumbling old ways

to find what good or truth there is to be found. It is after he has run away and is before the

authorities of the school that he acquires the confidence – not that he has solved or even

understands the inertia he was in before but that he is not mad that the experiences he has

gone through were a forge, tempering his mind and character.


Torless does not excuse himself or his actions before the inquiry. He tries at first

to explain, to impart, but gives up. They are the old generation what they have accepted

to allow them to float prevents them from understanding him and makes them quick to

misinterpret according to their own outlooks. Torless in a sense gives up trying to interact

meaningfully. By the time Torless is on his way home with his mother he has determined

that “I was just thinking”2 is the innocuous solitary stance he will take. He is no longer

impassioned or on a quest and we are left feeling uneasy that perhaps something bright

was lost.

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