The Poetics of Deniable Plausibility in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Die Turnstunde” DARREN ILETT
ie Turnstunde”1 opens abruptly: “In der Militärschule zu Sankt Severin. Turnsaal” (W 435).2 Provided with only
these two terse phrases of orientation — which replicate
the harsh, clipped commands of the military3 — the reader is already located in the space of action. The narrative begins immediately and relates Cadet Karl Gruber’s atypical athletic performance and consequent death. The brevity, scarcity, and seeming objectivity one finds in these introductory words also characterize the story generally, for it comprises only a few pages and seems to have remained a fragment. In addition, one might describe the narrative voice in terms of limitation or constraint, for the narrator reports only visual and auditory information, those concrete details that one might perceive if present at the narrated events. Yet this apparent objectivity makes for an inscrutable text resistant to interpretation and in which we have no unambiguous access to characters’ thoughts or motivations. The tension inherent in this ostensibly and self-consciously objective narrative that nonetheless evades a univocal interpretation is the result, at least partially, of anxiety regarding the possibility of homosexuality, which was often depicted by literary and professional discourses as a constant danger in same-sex institutions like the military boarding school. This tension finds expression in the narrative peculiarities of Rilke’s text. The events of “Die Turnstunde” are easily recounted. After the curt introductory phrases, the gym teacher commands the cadets to go to various pieces of gymnastics equipment. Cadet Karl Gruber, the worst athlete, goes uncharacteristically quickly to the climbing pole and is already partway up when the others arrive. The teacher orders him either to come down or to finish the climb. He continues, eventually reaching the ceiling, and all eyes in the gymnasium follow him up. Karl then slides down the pole and inspects his injured hands. After failing to respond to the cadets’ jeering remarks, he retreats into a recess in the wall. Cadet Jerome, who seems to be Karl’s only friend, comes to him and offers solace and advice. Karl sinks deeper into the recess in the wall until his head hits the seat, apparently unconscious. Four cadets carry Karl’s body to an adjacent room and soon return, yet they have no answers for the others’ questions about Karl’s condition. On command, 70 THE POETICS OF DENIABLE PLAUSIBILITY IN RAINER MARIA RILKE’S “DIE TURNSTUNDE” the cadets continue their exercises. Krix, another cadet, listens at the door of the room where Karl has been taken and then spreads the news among the cadets that the doctor has arrived. Everyone eventually stops their exercises to stare at the door that conceals Karl’s body. An officer commands the cadets to line up, but they remain still. Another officer reemerges from the room to announce that Karl has died of a heart attack and then immediately orders the cadets to march out of the gymnasium. As the cadets exit, Krix jumps to Jerome’s side and whispers that he has seen Karl’s naked body and then bites Jerome’s sleeve. With that peculiar action, the story ends as abruptly as it begins. Much of the scholarship on “Die Turnstunde” focuses on the relationship between Rilke’s works and his experiences as a student at the Austro-Hungarian military academies in St. Pölten and Mährisch- Weißkirchen.4 Other research considers the structure of the text and its language and situates “Die Turnstunde” in Rilke’s oeuvre generally and in relationship to his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge specifically.5 The crucial topic of sexuality remains, however, relatively unexamined. The intention of an analysis of the depiction of sexuality in the text is not to resolve its ambiguity; rather, it is to illustrate how sexuality serves as a point of convergence for...