R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Eng 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

Lecture Notes: Robert Musil, Young Torless

I. Transition: Death in Venice > Young Torless in the Context of Freud's Civilization

  1. In Civilization Freud addresses several new issues:
    1. Whereas the early Freud concentrated on intrapersonal conflict, the struggle between different psychic agencies that determine the ambivalent, conflicted character of the individual, the later Freud displaces this conflict increasingly in the direction of a struggle between the individual and her/his social context, between the instincts (pleasure principle) and the resistance of the outside world (reality principle). This transformation culminates in Freudís hypothesis of the super-ego as a psychic manifestation (internalization) of the demands of the outside, social world. In Death in Venice we witness the parallel between societal repression of the "contagion" in Venice and Aschenbachís personal, psychic repression of his erotic "contagion," as well as the "return" of this repressed material into conscious life. Venice's "evil secret" about the spread of the cholera epidemic parallels Aschenbach's own "evil secret" about his love for Tadzio.
    2. Parallel to this, the early Freud concentrated almost exclusively on the libidinal economy, on the predominance of erotic drives in the psychic economy. The later Freud, by contrast, admits the existence of an aggressive or death instinct. In Death in Venice we see the marriage of these 2 instincts in the movement of Aschenbachís demise: repressed eroticism and self-aggression join to bring about his "death." This intertwining of Eros and Thanatos also characterizes the actions of the boys at the boarding school in Young Torless; but in this instance they are directed at an external object. These are the conditions of sadism.
      For a diagram of the "economy" of the Freudian drives, their capacity to be directed either internally or externally, click here.
    3. Freud hypothesizes 2 distinct aspects or directions of "Thanatos," the death or aggressive instinct:
      a. Death drive = inwardly directed = tendency to promote oneís own demise and destruction. Like overbearing "courage" that threatens the individualís existence. The thrill of danger, enticement of "decline," of "degradation," self-degradation. In Aschenbach we see this enticement in both its physical and moral aspects. Death exemplifies this inward-directed, masochistic aspect of the death drive. Death drive as a kind of will toward dissolution, the force of entropy. Aschenbach gives into the pleasure of finally letting himself go, of decline, relaxation of the struggle for self-definition (like the metaphor of the relaxed fist).
      b. Aggressive instinct = outwardly directed = aggression against others = hatred, violence, bestiality, brutality. The sadistic aspect of Thanatos. Musil's Young Torless exemplifies this dimension of the aggressive instinct. The plot surrounding the merciless torture of Basini by the 3 conspirators Beineberg, Reiting, and Torless plays out 3 variants of this sadistic impulse. Note how in their conspiracy against Basini, Eros and Thanatos, erotic and aggressive impulses, operate in conjunction with one another. We are reminded of Freud's theory of the how civilization emerges from the primal horde: the brothers band together (suppresses their natural aggression against one another) to form a compact against the power of the primal father. Their "erotic" union is grounded in the desire to vent their aggressions against a common enemy.
    4. Freud's thesis in Civilization = civilization attempts to check or repress our aggressive instinct; the trajectory of social development is toward the sublimation of this aggression, its internalization as the super-ego and with the result of persistent guilt. Torless presents this social problematic, juxtaposing the "normal" development of its protagonist with the social and psychic "perversions" of counterparts Beineberg and Reiting.

II. General Background to Young Torless

  1. Robert Musil (1880-1942). A contemporary of Freud's, lived in Freud's Vienna. Best known for his monumental novel fragment The Man Without Qualities.
  2. Published Torless in 1906. It reflects an obsession in this period with educational institutions and the oppressive impact they exert on personal development. These works reflect critically on the tradition of the German Bildungsroman, the novel of education, exposing this educational impulse as institutionalized coercion, Educational institutions come to be seen as the primary site of social disciplining; they are primary agencies of repression that seek to break the individual, stamp her/him into the mold of societal expectations. Educational institutions can be viewed as the primary disciplinary organizations (in the terminology of the French Marxist Louis Althusser: "Ideological State Apparatuses") that "encourage" the individual to develop a uniformly structured super-ego, and internal control mechanism that does society's bidding. Examples:
    1. Heinrich Mann, Professor Unrat; made famous in the film version starring Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel.
    2. Friedrich Torberg, The Pupil Gerber; the pressure of examinations and the fear of failure lead a student to commit suicide.
    3. In the American tradition, one thinks of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as representing a protest against a social disciplining that is also a disciplining of sexuality. Sexual disciplining tends often to become the standard for other forms of discipline. Note how the social revolts of the 1960s were tied to the loosening of sexual mores. This confirms Freud's thesis about the centrality of sexuality and erotic impulses for our psychic (and social) lives.

III. Textual Analysis

  1. Modernism: Rational Human Being Versus Psychological Human Being
    1. In Torless we come to understand that the breach between Enlightenment and Modernism is not one in which psychology supplants reason, but rather in which reason is supplemented by the inviolability of instinct. If the Enlightenment saw the telos of history as the ultimate transformation of all instinct into rationality, Freud (as prototypical representative of Modernism) argues that instinct cannot be overcome. Humanity is more complex than the Enlightenment model allows.
    2. Modern human beings = 2-sided; instinct and reason coexist side by side, they run on parallel tracks. See the opening image of Torless, the parallel railroad lines with their dingy traces (p. 3), which provides an image for this problematic. Enlightenment seeks the repression of instinct; Freud demonstrates the non-feasibility of this repressive, disciplinary project. His alternative = productive sublimation of the instincts. This is what we find modeled in the development of Musilís protagonist Torless.
    3. The experience of this generation of intellectuals in Europe was one of disillusionment with the rationality of Enlightenment ideals and their recognition of the inadequacy of these constructs when dealing with the reality of life in the modern metropolis. This sense of disillusionment is exemplified in a statement by the Austrian writer Hermann Bahr (1863-1934), who in the essay "Inventory of the Age" (1912) wrote: "This was the basic experience that this generation [of young men] had in common: armed solely with beautifying opinions aimed at covering things over and portraying the world as a petty bourgeois idyll, this youth suddenly found itself confronted with the reality of the modern metropolis. On the very first day everything in which we had previously believed collapsed, everything on which we had planted our feet crumbled, our entire way of thinking was shattered. And in view of the unbridled greed with which all people, driven by envy and hate, attack each other in the crowded metropolis, we found ourselves betrayed and deceived. [. . .] This generation's basic experience was that of an irresolvable contradiction between our innate and cultivated inner life and the external existence imposed upon us by reality."

B. Theme of the "Two Worlds" in Torless: see Torless p. 45:

    The Two Worlds in Torless





    controlled, disciplined

    spontaneous, immediate





    conscious (ego?)

    unconscious (id?)



    representative figure = mother

    representative figure = Bozena

    class: bourgeoisie and aristocracy

    class: proletariat, lower classes





      1) Torless canít comprehend the relationship between these 2 worlds; they seem to him to be wholly disconnected, mutually exclusive.
      a. This is reflected in his incomprehension of Basini's "fall"; Basini seems to drop mysteriously out of the "bright" world and enter the "dark" world. See Torless pp. 50-51.
      b. Torless perceives an abyss separating Bozena, the representative of sensuality, from his mother, the representative of bourgeois values (reason, moral goodness, etc.) See Torless pp. 33-34.
      c. Theme of the "dividing line," p. 25: Torless feels cut off from his own feelings, his own emotional being.

      2) Torless's Fata Morgana experiences: Like Tantalus, Torless tries to reach out and grasp (intellectually) the nature of the dark world, of the instinctual life. Whenever he tries to take hold of it, it recedes from him, evaporates.
      a. See p. 62, the Fata Morgana described. It is related to the irrational, to the "ungraspable"; it can never be adequately described or articulated in the language of logic and reason.
      b. Torlessís epiphany and the inability to express certain things in language. This gives way to a process of integration = by making things everyday and common, one appropriates them into one's being. See p. 74.
      c. This is related to the epigraph of the novel: the impossibility of returning from the "depths" back to the state of reason and language with the "pearls" one has retrieved.

      3) Torless as a novel of development; it charts Torless's acceptance of the dark, bestial, instinctual, demeaning side of existence as a necessary part of life and of human development. See p. 6: Torless develops the forces of his internal life (in Freudian terms: his instincts). Instinct can never be "translated" into the language of rationality. These 2 remain mutually exclusive. Torless must learn how they supplement one another.

C. How does the novel portray this problem?

      1) Torless's childhood memory, left alone in the woods: p. 23; 24. This experience instills in him a sense of insecurity and loneliness, absolute solitude; it is associated with woman (the care-giver), degradation, a monstrous, perverted lust. This memory is tied by means of leitmotiv to other episodes; cf. p. 72. Note that for Freud the psychic problems of adults are often tied to traumatic childhood experiences!

      2) The scenic portrayal of Bozena's tavern (pp. 27-28). This scene recapitulates many of the motifs from the childhood memory. More important, perhaps, is the way empirical reality in the fictional world reflects the psychic landscape of the protagonist. Here we see a microcosmic reflection of the technique Kafka would master for his short stories.

      3) This scenic portrayal of the inward movement into the psyche is manifest most clearly in the topography of the "lair" at the school into which the boys retreat to conduct their experiments on Basini. See. p. 41.

D. The theme of Torless's joining of these 2 worlds.
Torless must learn to see these 2 worlds as different sides of the same phenomenon, as part and parcel of what humans call "life." Life is both rational and irrational, reasonable and instinctual. The instincts must be integrated into human existence. This is developed above all through the theme of Torless's epiphanies, his experiences of what is inexplicable and irrational, but is nonetheless an integral part of a pragmatic function.

    1. Torless's "hole in the sky" experience: p. 71
      a. ladder needed to reach this hole = theme of connection
      b. Fata Morgana = the hole and its comprehension recedes from Torless's grasp
      c. experience of infinity = the endless, unfathomable (in the literal sense)
      d. but in mathematics infinity can be a useful concept; even the irrational, the non-logical can have a pragmatic function.
    2. Imaginary numbers: pp. 84-85
      a. The square root of Ė1 is an imaginary number, a pure fiction; it relates to nothing concrete in the universe. But in certain mathematical equations this imaginary number can have a real function:

      ordinate number >

      imaginary number >

      ordinate number

      "normal" experience >

      dark world >

      "normal" experience

    3. There is a "path" that leads into and out of the dark world, the world of instincts, and returns to the world of light, of everyday existence. Basini exemplifies for Torless the possibility of this movement. It receives its ultimate parabolic or metaphoric expression in the use of imaginary numbers in mathematics.
    4. Torless's ultimate recognition: rationality must combine with the irrational to become life; logic plus mystery, mind plus soul. The dark world of the senses underlies the world of rational order. See p. 170.
      > Torless's statement to his teachers: all things have a second, secret life that underlies their first, obvious existence (p. 171).
      > Torless's bi-vision = he learns to see things on the basis of this duality, this dualistic thinking. He learns to integrate the sensual, the life of the instincts, into the rational existence demanded by the forces of civilization.
    5. The concluding lines of the novel reinforce this insight (p. 175). Torless gets a whiff of scent from his mother's corseted waist. The mother has until now not been associated with the animality of smell; this was reserved for the sensuality of Bozena (see. p. 29) and Basini (pp. 129; 133). The olfactory sensations, in short, are aligned with the domain of sensuality. The conclusion underscores Torless's new ability to see the rational and sensual worlds as one, his mother becomes for him a being that partakes of both of these worlds, just as T., based on his experience at the school and with Basini, recognizes that he himself partakes of these 2 worlds. Bozena and Basini: what they represent for Beineberg, Reiting, and Torless.

E. Bozena and Basini: What they represent for Beineberg, Reiting, and Torless

      1) Bozena (the name means: happy" or "blessed by the gods"):
      -- the thrill of degradation
      -- sensuality, sexuality
      -- "filth"
      -- besmirching of the self
      -- danger, disgust, arousal
      -- breaking constraints of school and society
      -- transgressing rules, laws, ethics, social boundaries

      2) Basini:
      -- He replaces Bozena in Torless's consciousness; he comes to represent all those things Bozena previously represented.
      -- But Basini is one of Torless's colleagues, his friend, fellow student, etc. not a sexual, social, class, racial "other" as is Bozena.
      -- Basini demonstrates to Torless that degradation can happen to anyone and everyone; that it can (must?) happen to Torless himself.

F. What motivates the fascination of the 3 boys with Basini?

      1) Experience of power and control over others.

      2) Basiniís humiliation, a fascination with the humiliation of others.

      3) Pleasure in torture, aggression, brutality against others = sadism.

G. Basini as experimental object for each of the three boys:
-- Each seeks to establish his own kind of authority over Basini, to use him as a guinea pig for testing his own "deflective strategies" (as Freud called them) for dealing with the hostility of civilization. For a diagram of this relationship, click here.

-- In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud outlined 6 strategies for avoiding displeasure; they represent basic approaches to the world and reflect personality types:
a) Retreat, asceticism; the life of the "monk":
b) Attack, man of action; reformer, politician;
c) Displacement: substitute satisfaction in scientific work, scholarship;
d) Escape into illusions; the "dreamer";
e) Aesthetic attitude; cultivating love of beauty (art);
f) Embracing the world; philanthropy charitable work, caritative activity.

Beineberg, Reiting, and Torless represent the first three alternatives.

    1. Reiting = goes on the attack against the world. His aim = to become a political demagogue.
      -- He demands obedience and servitude of Basini, makes him grovel like a dog.
      -- He venerates Napoleon = his ideal of political mastery.
      -- He becomes the leader of a mass revolt; he orchestrates the punishment of Basini by the entire class.
      -- He is a political populist and propagandist, the forerunner of Hitler and Goebbels; he anticipates a fascist ideology of political manipulation. He exploits psychology on the level of the masses to motivate people to action.
    2. Beineberg = retreats from the world; he takes the path of asceticism, the path of the religious mystic.
      -- He seeks to kill off instinctual drives by means of physical torture.
      -- He torments Basini so as to learn from him (p. 66).
      -- He experiments with Basini, tries to hypnotize him as a way of finding the "gateway to the soul." See p. 148, where this pursuit is mercilessly ironized by the narrator.
    3. Torless = fascinated with the psychological workings of Basiniís psyche.
      -- T. as Basiniís worst torturer; he applies psychological terror.
      -- T. wants to find out what makes Basini tick, explore his psyche, just as Freud used dreams to explore the psyche of his patients.
      -- P. 125: Torless's interrogation of Basini; he wants to know how it is possible for someone to debase himself this way, he wants to know what this feels like, without having to experience it himself. How can one debase oneself and then go on living a "normal" life on the outside?
      -- Torless torments Basini to satisfy his own need for a certain kind of knowledge; this motivation shared by all three tormenters.
    4. Torless's discovery: he is just like Basini; he would act in the exact same way Basini acted if confronted with the same circumstances, and then still go on leading a "normal" life, as if nothing had happened.
    5. Torless represents the paradigmatic overcoming of the sensual, its sublimation in the productive life of the well adjusted individual.
      -- Torless succeeds in turning his aggressions against himself, constructing a viable and authoritarian super-ego, and entering the "balanced" world of civilization. He represents a case of successful sublimation. See pp. 137-38 on the building of Torless's super-ego; p. 128 on his recognition of the Freudian structure of the psyche.