A View of Infinity by Idris Parry

German Literature scholar Idris Parry explores the snapping and unnameable infinity, in the work of Musil and Kafka, focussing on sexuality and its uncomfortable but intoxicating awakening in boys through adolescent interactions, specifically in the first book of Musil’s, Young Törless.

This article is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May – June 1983

THROUGH writing, the writer makes sense, or thinks he does. If he makes sense of himself, that is enough. Kafka wrote to his fiancée Felice Bauer about his novel Amerika: ‘The novel is me, the stories are me . . .’; and later in the same letter he told her his writing was his means of clinging to life.

Robert Musil’s first publication was a novel, Young Törless (1906). This book begins and ends at a railway station, the same railway station. There’s something both reassuring and ambiguous about railway stations. They are fixed points dedicated to movement, and movement is something which cannot always be controlled. Today, for instance, when the book opens, the train is late. Perhaps things are not as definite as they seem. But those whose lives are based on form continue to keep up appearances. The station master is a clockwork figure. He comes out at regular intervals, turns his head, always in the same way, to see if the train is signalled, pulls out his watch with an identical gesture each time, and disappears. He comes and goes, says Musil, ‘like the figures which emerge from old clock-towers when the hour strikes’.

Törless is at the station to see his parents off after their visit to him at the nearby military school where he is a cadet. Eventually the train does come, his parents depart, he and his friends plod along in the steps of the boy in front of them, looking neither to the right nor to the left. Is life always to be like this, compressed into a prescribed line? He is in the habit of writing letters home, almost every day, ‘and he lived only in these letters’. Writing is the only activity which gives him significance as a separate being. While writing, ‘something arose in him like an island of wonderful spheres and colours from the ocean of grey sensations’. All other events are meaningless shadows. This plodding in line is another grey sensation.

The boys come to a crossroad. The rotted signpost points at an angle into the air, and ‘this line at such contradiction to its surroundings affected Törless like a despairing scream’. Edvard Munch painted this scream in his famous picture: the lonely figure on the bridge, isolated, nameless, faceless, an object in a swirl of movement. The lines of earth and sky whip round it in fields of force. There seems as much fluidity in air and ground as in the water. Is this really a bridge? The figure seems to be immersed in a flood, and it is a flood of sensations.

The boys come to the outskirts of the town and pass the first low houses. Törless is suddenly awakened from his indifference. He is drawn despite himself to something which corresponds in a mysterious way to his own dark yearnings. The houses are cramped, dark, dirty. Women standing in the doorways have ‘broad, dirty feet and naked brown arms’. This patch of filth and promiscuity repels and attracts Törless. Nothing could be more remote from the polite world of his parents. Should he not reject this utterly? ‘As if all this were taking place in a quite different, animal, oppressive atmosphere, there streamed out of the house a sluggish, heavy air which Törless breathed greedily.’

This foul air exists too in those strange law-courts under the roof in The Trial. This is where Kafka’s Joseph K. looks for salvation. He too is irresistibly attracted to these unlikely places with their rotten floors and dusty files and implications of sexual excitement. What these writers are talking about, and summoning in their talk, is the strange world outside social definition, the vital experience which cannot be avoided but must exist as a chaotic inner state until it is defined; that is, related to the logical world, brought into the light, given form.

Throughout Musil’s novel the relationship between his hero’s guilty inner life and the life accepted by polite society is represented by the contrast between dark and light, animal and civilized, between the sexually forbidden and the sexually permitted. It is not merely the contrast that puzzles Törless. He experiences events, people, things, even the many layers in himself, in such a way that they seem insolubly enigmatic yet also related. The darkness of everything that cannot be explained conceals connections which he knows are there. He wants to express them in words.

The other boys return to school. Törless and his friend Beineberg decide to visit the prostitute Bozena who lives outside the town in a country inn. To reach it they must cross a river and go through woods. This short journey is a descent into the marsh which is Törless’s inner self. It has been raining. The air is damp and heavy. A faint mist trembles round the lamps. The firm ground of society is left behind. ‘After a while they had soft earth under their feet; they left the inner town and were striding through wide village streets towards the river.’

Nothing is so expressive of our uncertain because apparently unrelated sensations as water. It is immense, seemingly infinite, a threat to our existence but also vital to our existence. We live in our experience, which can be terrifying in its vagueness yet is for us the only source of meaning: we have no other material. Perhaps the unknown and the fearful is the only home of the gods. When Törless and Beineberg approach the river, it becomes an image of that experience which is threatening, mysterious, fluid. It must be faced, but it’s obvious what a disturbing stream it can be.

Törless is now descending into the depths on his way to the prostitute Bozena, this opposite pole to his mother. But is she an opposite pole? Can there be such things as opposites if everything is secretly connected. From this point, their journey is a matter of stumbling and staring and cowering behind bushes in the dark. What for? To visit Bozena, this coarse image of sexuality and licence, who embodies everything their training has taught them to abhor.

As a girl Bozena was in domestic service in the capital, working as a lady’s maid; she is a link between the dark world in which she now lives and the polite world of Törless’s parents.

The connection is impossible yet inevitable, for there must be a gate which leads from the world of his parents to this pit of immorality.

 When Musil comes to write his big novel The Man Without Qualities, he introduces two parallel actions. One unfolds in the bright atmosphere of Austrian high society; the other concerns Moosbrugger, a maniac who is now awaiting trial for butchering a prostitute. What can these two worlds have in common? This question is answered by Ulrich, the protagonist of the novel. The sinister world of Moosbrugger is a distorted pattern of society’s own existence, steeped in darkness. Ulrich cannot help thinking that, if mankind could dream collectively, it would dream Moosbrugger.

In this meeting with Bozena, the name of Basini is heard for the first time. Basini is a boy in the same class as Törless and Beineberg. His name fits naturally into these sordid surroundings. Basini and Bozena are obviously linked in sound; it also happens that the boy is for Törless an even more immediate representative than the prostitute of the connection between vice and virtue. Törless is now obsessed by the feeling that there must be some secret connection between light and dark, reason and instinct, morality and immorality, discipline and licence. The thought is repulsive and at the same time fascinating, like those blowzy women and foetid hovels seen on the way to town. In Basini the thought becomes event. Like Törless and his companions, he is a boy of excellent family, destined to be an army officer or an important state official. But Basini is a thief.

Törless has a strange experience one day in the park which surrounds the school. He is lying on his back in the grass, when he sees a small blue hole in the clouds, and he looks through this hole, up and up and up . . . ‘Of course, there is no end,’ he says to himself, ‘it just keeps going on and on for ever, into infinity.’ The term ‘infinity’ is something he has heard in his mathematics lessons. He has learned to use it in calculations as if it were a real and solid quantity. It has been invented, a word, a comforting integer. But now something terrible happens. It’s as if this concept which he has been using daily as a kind of tamed animal to be put through circus tricks has broken loose. It is no longer solid, it is uncertain. Some wild and destructive being has been lulled to sleep in that mathematical term but has now awakened, and it threatens him.

Thought becomes alive only when intellect is joined to instinctive awareness. His long opposition of light and dark is now presented as a synthesis and source of creation. ‘Supreme knowledge,’ says Törless, ‘is only half-accomplished in the brilliantly lit circle of the brain, the other half is achieved in the dark ground of the innermost self, and it is above all a condition of the soul on whose outermost periphery thought is perched like a blossom.’

This peculiar boy obviously has no business to be at this academy for officers and gentlemen. His mother comes to take him home. She is surprised to find him so calm. ‘As they drove to the station, the little wood with Bozena’s house was to their right. It looked so insignificant and harmless, a dusty thicket of willow and alders.’ He looked obliquely at his mother. ‘What is it, my dear child?’ ‘Nothing, Mama. I was just thinking of something.’ Of what? Is it the same remarkable thought that occurred to him at Bozena’s and made him blush? He had associated the prostitute with his own mother. His mother is a woman too. We are not told what he is thinking. Only one more sentence of the novel remains: ‘And he sniffed at the faintly perfumed aroma which rose from his mother’s bodice.’

This is an end but not a conclusion. The accepted line of conduct and relationship swims before our eyes. Is he her son or is he her lover? The secret life of Törless will not be suppressed, and what we call a conclusion is, like that railway station, fixed but ambiguous.

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