AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

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John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

AFTER MIDNIGHT: When Hate Becomes Normalized

After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun

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          Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, written in 1937 when she was in exile from Nazi Germany, shows the impact of the normalization of hate on young people who yearn for what all young people do: love, passion, and joy. The protagonist, Sanna, tries to live a normal life as the world around her crumbles. Her friends must hide their racial backgrounds and/or their relationships with “radicals.” She must watch what she says and writes for fear of being the victim of informants, who can spread malicious lies at will. She must navigate a perilous social scene that includes Stormtroopers and party members, some of whom have romantic notions for Sanna and her friends. As a result, the things that we might take for granted — from an evening out to dinner with friends to a simple stroll down the street — could turn dangerous very quickly, and sometimes do.

          Throughout all this insanity, Sanna’s voice provides a subversive commentary on Germany under the Nazis, from their bizarre insistence on a (disordered) social order to the insecurity of their own position in society as they bicker among themselves and take out their aggression on others. Keun’s novel shows pretty clearly why her previous works were burned by the Nazis and why she had to flee into exile. (Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and changed her name to return to live in Germany for many years after the publication of After Midnight.)

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Irmgard Keun

          As a result, Keun provides the perspective of both an insider and an exile, one who lives with the constant anxiety of having no settled home, where at any time friends or lovers might disappear, never to be seen again. One passage in particular, spoken by a friend of Sanna’s who will soon succumb to the pressure of persecution, offers a striking illustration of this point:


There have been too many atrocities. One dreadful day revenge will come, and it won’t be divine revenge, it will be even more atrocious, more human, more inhuman. And that atrocious revenge which I both desire and fear will necessarily be followed by another atrocious revenge, because the thing that has begun in Germany looks like going on without any hope for an end. Germany is turning on her own axis, a great wheel dripping blood, Germany will go on turning and turning through the years to come — it hardly makes any difference which part of the wheel is uppermost ay any given time. Over a hundred years ago, Platen complained of being sick unto death of his fatherland. Well, in those days you could still live in exile all right. It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden to others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

–Irmgard Keun


          Those words describe not only the life of the exile, but also the life of all of those who are forced to live and try to survive in a country that is no longer their own — one in which citizens are ostracized, alienated, and persecuted for no other reason than being themselves. Sanna will remember and repeat those last lines as she faces a final decision on her own fate — and that of her lover, Franz — at the end of the novel. It is a choice that too many young people had to make at the time, only if they were lucky enough to survive the Gestapo sweeps. After Midnight is a short and harrowing glimpse into a time when the abnormal became the new norm for those who had to put on a brave face in the daily struggle just to survive.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

WE ARE NOT ALONE: Shared Human Experiences Connecting a Divided World

We Are Not Alone (1937) by James Hilton

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          Fear of the Other, nativism, a militarized nation on the warpath against a cagey enemy, a crackdown on civil liberties, a culture of surveillance: it’s an old formula that makes for the easy persecution of immigrants and refugees. It was in this political climate in England, so similar to the one we now face in the United States in 2017, that James Hilton published We Are Not Alone in 1937, a novel about a small town British doctor and his relationship with a poor German immigrant, set against the backdrop of a xenophobic town that rushes to judgment to determine their guilt when a terrible accident occurs. The plot revolves around Dr. David Newcombe, a quiet family man in a small British town leading up to World War I, who treats a suicidal German immigrant dancer named Leni. After forming a bond with her — perhaps romantic — Newcombe hires her as the family governess. As the war jitters intensify, Newcombe’s wife dies mysteriously, and the town immediately condemns Leni without any evidence. The witch hunt soon turns dangerous for both Leni and Newcombe.

Although his name is not as well known as it was seventy years ago — and even then he suffered from the dreaded “middlebrow” label — Hilton was one of the great British novelists of the 20th century. While Virginia Woolf’s genius and stylistic innovations strike my intellectual fancy and E.M Forster’s search for human connectivity appeals to my personal struggle with empathy and identity, only Hilton’s storytelling can hold me entranced, as if drifting in the rapture of an hallucination. He is a Storyteller of the type that Walter Benjamin claimed the modern world had all-but-lost: one who transcends the trauma of an isolated, mechanized post-WWI society to celebrate communal memory.

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Jane Bryan and Paul Muni in We Are Not Alone (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1939)

          At a time when artists were expressing the impossibility of communication (“They walk incommunicado,” as American poet William Carlos Williams laments in Paterson), Hilton succeeds in imparting the shared experiences of simple human contact. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster writes in Howards End. And Hilton does so, not by avoiding modernity or escaping the present through pure nostalgia, but instead by seeking those pockets of universal humanity that unite us with each other and with our natural world. After seeing a boy with a fatal infection (and in light of the upcoming Great War) Newcombe muses on the power of renewal inherent in human connection with our surroundings, and with each other. The lack of empathetic communion leading up to both World Wars– which is a personal struggle for myself on a daily basis, not to mention for a large segment of Americans — is for Hilton an existential question.


It was a lovely night, warm from earth; and he felt, as he always did when he had seen recent death, a mystic communion with all things living and dead, as well as a perception of their own communion; so that, through such a prism of consciousness, he could sense life in a dead stone and death in a living tree.

— James Hilton


His characters might be alienated, lost, doomed to fate, or even facing certain death, but Hilton’s message is clear: we are not alone. It is not a pat, saccharine declaration meant to provide easy comfort (although his fiction most certainly offered solace for weary readers between the wars). Instead, his message is one that resonates as the purest form of storytelling: the expression of shared experiences that lead us to greater wisdom in times of trouble. Hilton does not flee from the Storyteller’s responsibility nor claim that such communication is impossible. He meets the challenge head-on and finds the images to convey truth where speech might otherwise fail: “He had never found it possible to put everything he meant into speech; indeed, he had sometimes felt that words offered merely surface exactness that was both an illusion and a danger.” In the words of Benjamin, Hilton offers not the cold immediacy of information and fact, but the connectivity of wisdom through shared experience.

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James Hilton

          We Are Not Alone, like the best of Hilton’s fiction, constructs memory as a landscape that we yearn to traverse, even as we see it fading from our senses. It bridges the divisions of modern man, revealing the distances that separate us to be spaces where we might one day connect, if only we have the courage to reach out to each other. As Hilton concludes, “Their worlds were different, their ages were different, their lives and language were different; yet all those differences became themselves absurd when measured against the flash of recognition that sprang between them at every nearness.” Hilton stands out from his contemporaries because he strove to express our “every nearness” in his fiction during an era when literature was defined by alienation, isolation, and separation. That his words continue to ring true is a testament to his success as a Storyteller in a new century bereft of communal memory.

TRANSIT: Writing as a Place to Live for Refugees

Transit (1944) by Anna Seghers

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“For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

          In the past two years, the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe (and now across the world) has been the most widespread since World War II. It has challenged the ability of free nations to balance compassion with security and has changed the political climate to the extent that xenophobia and populist dissent are now threatening to overrun the free world. In reading the fiction of the mid-twentieth century, we find that these issues are nothing new. Indeed, in this fiction we can learn important lessons and gain new perspectives on the challenges that continue to face us today.

          Anna Seghers’ novel draws on her own experiences as a refugee from Germany in the 30s, when simply existing as a person was a crime and crossing borders for freedom (and basic survival) was a Herculean task that could lead to capture, murder, or suicide. Transit is narrated by a man who has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and is seeking to live a life of peace in France. He soon discovers that this is impossible, as he becomes part of a group of refugees trying to escape France before the arrival of the German army.

          The resulting bureaucratic nightmare requires refugees to have an endless amount of papers and visas, which are nearly impossible to attain. One must have a resident visa merely to reside temporarily in France, and only on the condition that one is looking to leave. In order to leave, one must have a visa to enter the country of refuge. However, one cannot simply travel to that country without first stopping at other countries in-between, either by land, air, or sea. Therefore, one also needs transit visas for each stop in-between. By the time a person can obtain the proper entry visas, their transit visas become out-of-date, and vice versa. Since it takes so long to obtain these myriad visas, one risks out-staying a resident visa, for which one must continually re-apply, but which are perhaps the most difficult to obtain.

          It is a Kafkaesque nightmare that leads the narrator to adopt the persona of a fellow refugee — a writer who has recently committed suicide (possibly a reference to Seghers’ acquaintance Walter Benjamin?). As the narrator goes in circles trying to either stay in France or obtain the proper visas to flee to Mexico, he runs into the girlfriend of the deceased writer, who is currently searching for her lover, whom she doesn’t realize is dead.


And yet although all this transit whispering made me feel quite miserable, it was amazing to think that even though thousands, no, hundreds of thousands, had died in the flames of the air raids and the furious attacks of the Blitzkrieg, there were many more who were born quite without being noticed by the consuls. They hadn’t asked for letters of transit, hadn’t applied for visas; they were not under the jurisdiction of this place. And what if some of these poor souls, still bleeding physically and spiritually, had fled to this house, what harm could it do to a giant nation if a few of these saved souls, worthy, half-worthy, or un-worthy, were to join them in their country — how could it possibly harm such a big country?

–Anna Seghers


          Lost in all this paperwork is the humanity of the refugees, who are shuffled around like so many cattle, often rounded up for little or no reason and sent back to concentration camps. Our narrator gives us an idea of the constant fear and despair felt by these men and women who discover that their only crimes are being alive and trying to cross borders to survive. The novel is written as a narrative told by the unnamed narrator at a cafe, which suggests that he is not only adopting the persona of a writer, but also has become a storyteller himself, spinning his tale for those of us who have never experienced this kind of madness. In that sense, to paraphrase Adorno, writing has become a homeland for both Seghers and the narrator, who slowly comes to embrace a revolutionary point-of-view as he lives the life of the dead writer seeking asylum.

Internationaler Schriftstellerkongress 1935 in Paris - Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers, 1935, at the International Congress of Writers. Photographer Gisèle Freund said Seghers had “the eyes of a dreamer.”

          We readers understand, too, that fiction is more than the communication of facts, but a place of refuge for the weary — a point of contact where disparate (and desperate) people might embrace a humanity denied to them by certain social or political restrictions, might cross boundaries and barriers that are impossible to cross otherwise, and might build a community of shared experiences that reflect the values of men and women who are so often lost in the system. In short, fiction gives voice to the voiceless, and puts a human face on complex geopolitical issues such as the current refugee crisis.

          Seghers’ novel remains just as relevant today as it was when first published in 1944. As Peter Conrad writes in his introduction: “It is sobering and alarming to rediscover this book: what Seghers saw as an emergency has now become what we call normality.” In reading this novel, we come to value not only the importance of providing refugees with comfort and compassion, but also of the essential need for nations to work together to maintain free and open borders, especially in the face of forces (sometimes violent) that might threaten to destroy that international ideal.

THE CONFUSIONS OF YOUNG TÖRLESS: A Psychosexual Study of Fascism

The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musiltorless

          One of the complex issues the Left has been trying to understand in the last month is not why so many hate groups lined up in support of Donald Trump (that explanation is relatively straight-forward), but instead how it was possible for so many regular, law-abiding, “moral” Americans, who don’t appear on the surface to hold prejudicial views, to cast their ballots for a man who is not only the antithesis of ethical leadership, but who is also, admittedly even to some Trump voters, morally repulsive.

          Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless gets to the crux of this question. It is a brilliant novel of ideas that examines the duality of man, the nature of authoritarianism, the connections between sexuality and aggression, and the psychological development of modern (post-Enlightenment) man. In short, Törless is a young boy at a military boarding school who faces his own inner struggle to understand man’s darker side, including his confused sexuality, while going along with the bullying, physical torture, psychological abuse, and sexual violence perpetrated by older classmates (Reiting and Beineberg) against a student named Basini, to whom all three are repulsed and sexually attracted in equal measure. Törless begins to take part in the abuse more and more, even as he begins to identify with Basini. (Indeed, precisely because he begins to identify with Basini, the abuse becomes a type of lashing out against the emerging feelings that Törless denies to accept within himself.) For these reasons, the novel is justly famous for its examination of the psychosexual causes behind the authoritarian mentality that gave rise to fascism in Europe decades after the novel’s publication.

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The Confusions of Young Törless (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1966)

          But on another level, Musil’s novel is about the unknown and unknowable spaces that constitute the connective tissues of our reality — from the struggle to understand our sexuality to the mystery of our dreamworld and subconscious desires. In one central section (which happens to occur exactly in the middle of the text) Törless ponders the impossible contradictions of imaginary numbers in mathematics. They don’t really exist, but simply by accepting the possibility that they might exist — and by going about our mathematical calculations as if they did — we can get useful results that impact real numbers and calculations. The metaphor Törless uses is that of two piers connected by an unknown empty space that we must somehow traverse. And this is the impossibility of existence: of knowing ourselves, our world, and each other, as well as how we integrate these unknowns into our daily lives. It is also the impossibility of communication, or even of literature. In each case, we must step into the void and assume that the impossible must exist if we to are function in the real world. The irony is that this knowledge neither comforts nor reassures Törless (or us), but only adds to the anxiety of his existence. Young Törless is about what happens when insecurity leads us to fill those empty spaces with fear, violence, and self-loathing, giving us a false sense of security that we can somehow safely traverse the void between perceptions that constitute our outer world and our unknown or unknowable inner world. And so what we accept as “reality” hangs in the balance between those two states. (As Dylan sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand….”)

          There are certainly parallels to what Jung would term (years later) the “Shadow” and man’s attempt at individuation, as well as a Freudian framework of reason/instinct; however, incredibly, Musil wrote this novel before reading any of Freud’s work (according to scholar Ritchie Robinson’s introduction to the Oxford edition). Adding to Törless’s own struggle to understand this duality is his realization that he actually enjoys witnessing Basini’s torture, even as it repulses him. Although he tells himself that his attraction is merely due to his own desire to study this dark side of his psyche, he knows that in studying it, he is necessarily feeding into it. Whereas Reiting gets his kicks from physically dominating Basini, and Beineberg rattles off some half-cocked (pardon the pun) plan to study Basini’s soul, it is Törless who becomes the worst torturer because he sees himself in Basini’s submission — and Basini knows it. As Törless’ “observes” the torture to understand the underlying why of it all, he acknowledges his own complicity, accepts that he (Törless) could just as easily be in Basini’s place, and realizes that all the boys go along with the torture because they are trapped in a psychological order of domination/submission that cannot be escaped — an order that exists beyond moral precepts, becoming manifest when the authoritarian lashes out at those with whom he most identifies.


So Törless stopped looking for words. Sensuality, which had stolen into him bit by bit from the separate moments of despair, now rose to its full height. It was lying naked beside him, covering his head with its soft black cloak. And it was whispering sweet words of resignation in his ear and with its warm fingers pushing away all questions and obligations as futile. And it was whispering: in solitude everything is allowed.

Only at that moment when he was swept away did he wake for a second and cling desperately to the one thought: “This isn’t me! … isn’t me!… Only in the morning will it be me again… in the morning…”

–Robert Musil


          By the end of the novel, neither religion nor science/philosophy (as represented by the two schoolmasters who teach those subjects to the boys) can help or understand Törless. And the headmaster is only concerned with what’s right for the school, not for the boys themselves. In a way, these three authority figures who sit in judgement of Törless are not unlike the three boys themselves who assert their authority over Basini. The cycle continues and, as Musil reveals near the end of the novel, Törless will end up becoming a civil, law-abiding, morally detached adult, repressing his own dark desires to dominate others while labeling the oppressed as “weak” and simultaneously condemning anyone who resists oppression rather than addressing that same weakness within himself.

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Robert Musil

          And so Musil, at the age of 25, charts the development of the amoral ascetic (Beineberg, who rejects all perceived moral flaws in himself by ruthlessly and obsessively studying and condemning them in others), the fascist (Reiting, who demands obedience and desires to lead his classmates to attack, torture, and punish their weaker peers), and, to borrow a concept from Adorno, the “authoritarian personality” (Törless, who recognizes these impulses in others, but nonetheless goes about his life in a type of moral detachment so as to live a civil life).

          By the end of the novel, Törless has developed a strictly-structured super-ego that will guide his detached morality for the rest of his life. And here, somewhere between Beineberg and Törless, we find the ideal subject for a dictatorial regime (an interpretation Musil himself advanced in the 1930s): average, law-abiding, “moral” citizens who join the local PTA, who ritualistically mow their lawns, and who, in the words of songwriter P.F Sloan, “hate (their) next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

          Musil’s novel is required reading not only for us to examine the defining social, psychological, and political structures of 20th century modernity, but also to get a glimpse into the gestation of 21st century American Trumpism and its acolytes who rationalize their own subjugation.