More Musil, mathematics and machines

PrecisionSoulLet’s continue looking at Robert Musil and his references to mathematics.

‘The Mathematical Man’ is an essay from 1913 (first published as ‘Der mathematische Mensch’ in ‘Der lose Vogel’, no 10-12, April-June 1913);

We may say that we live almost entirely from the results of mathematics, although these themselves, have become a matter of indifference to mathematics. Thanks to mathematics we bake our bread, build our houses, and drive our vehicles. With the exception of a few handmade pieces of furniture, of clothing, shoes, and children, everything comes to us through the intervention of mathematical calculations. All the life that whirls about us, runs, and stops is not only dependent on mathematics for its comprehensibility, but has effectively come into being through it and depends on it for its existence, defined in such and such a way. For the pioneers of mathematics formulated usable notions of certain principles that yielded conclusions, methods of calculation, and results, and these were applied by the physicists to obtain new results; and finally came the technicians, who often took only the results and added new calculations to them, and thus the machines arose. And suddenly, after everything had been brought into the most beautiful kind of existence, the mathematicians – the ones who brood entirely within themselves – cam upon something wrong in the fundamentals of the whole thing that absolutely could not be put right. They actually looked all the way to the bottom and found that the whole building was standing in mid-air. But the machines worked! We must assume from this that our existence is a pale ghost; we live it, but actually only on the basis of an error without which it would not have arisen. Today there is no other possibility of having such fantastic, visionary feelings as mathematicians do.

The essay appears in the collection ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft) and covers a lot more territory including generals on battlefields, the passion of mathematicians, economics and even the plight of German literature.  

The rise of the mechanical age and the decline of religious beliefs also features in Musil’s work, the connection between machines and mathematics highlighted in a number of texts.

Let’s look at ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ (my edition the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Mike Mitchell), Musil’s first novel, published in 1906, a novel which explores a young boy’s coming of age in a boarding school. The opening paragraphs highlight a move from innocence (and home) into the harsh reality of the present and a world polluted and corrupted by machinery.

A little station on the line going to Russia.
Four parallel iron rails on the yellow gravel of the wide embankment running endlessly straight in both directions, with the dark line burnt into the ground by the exhaust steam like a dirty shadow alongside each one.
Behind the low, oil-painted station building, a wide, rutted road led up to the loading bay, its edges indistinguishable in the trampled earth everywhere around; they could only be made out from the two rows of sad acacias whose withered leaves, choked with dust and soot, lined it on either side.
Whether it was these sad colours, whether it was the pale, watery light of the afternoon sun wearied by the haze, there was something apathetic, lifeless, mechanical about objects and people, as if they had been taken from the scene in a puppet theatre. From time to time, at the same intervals, the stationmaster would come out of his office, look with the same turn of his head up the long stretch of track at the little signal-box that still refused to announce the approach of the express, which had been subject to a long delay at the border; with the same movement of his arm he would then take out his pocket-watch, shake his head, and disappear again, in the same way that figures come and go when the hour strikes in old clock towers. (page 5)

As we can see in this vivid opening, we have the desecration of machines (trains) on the beauty of nature (acacias), a dark line is burned into the grass, trampled earth and dirty shadows. This is a gloomy picture indeed. This is then peppered with the mechanical behavior of the stationmaster, (lifeless, apathetic, mechanical), who repeats his looking for the train and checking of his watch (a machine) at regular intervals, he is compared to a figure in an old clock tower (a machine)!!

From these four paragraphs we can picture the foreboding of the mechanical world, a world where a young Törless is to venture, a place where he will come-of-age, psychologically develop and struggle with his emotions and sexuality.

A wonderful novel that predated the outbreak of the First World War and the rise of fascism, looking at it through the lens of a mechanical (mathematical) structure the riches are too great to share.

Given the popularity of my previous Musil post (the most popular post I have shared in the last two years!!) I will share more thoughts on his writing over the coming weeks, possibly a longer piece on his least accessible works, maybe not…


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