Not enough novels are about math; that is clear enough.
The Confusions of Young Törless, Robert Musil’s 1906 debut novel, has some math.
“I say, did you really understand all that stuff?”
“All that about imaginary numbers.”
“Yes. It’s not particularly difficult, is it? All you have to do is remember that the square root of minus one is the basic unit you work with.”
“But that’s just it. I mean, there’s no such thing.” (105)
Young Törless is having an intellectual and emotional crisis, in part caused by a simple yet deep linguistic confusion. He is having difficulty relating the name of a mathematical concept to the thing-itself. Imaginary numbers are no more imaginary than real numbers are real; both are identically real and imaginary. René Descartes is endlessly smarter than either Törless or me, but this particular confusion is apparently his fault. If someone had at some point given the concept a less imaginative name – if imaginary numbers were called “Euler numbers” or “Cardano numbers” – Törless would have to go back to worrying about infinity, which he works on a bit earlier in the novel.
I remember – this is an aside – all of the confusion caused twenty or twenty-five years ago by so-called “chaos theory.” Mathematicians have proven the world is chaotic, certain hasty non-mathematicians declared, which was as wrong as could be, since the “theory” suggested that certain processes that looked random were in fact perfectly orderly and predictable. I suppose the great example of this kind of confusion is Einstein’s theory of relativity proving that all things – moral values, for example – are relative. But that is history; I lived through the chaos confusion.
If only mathematicians would restrain their poetic impulses.
Törless, who attends a boarding school, visits his math teacher’s office, hoping for enlightenment. He has apparently never been to the teacher’s office before. It is “permeated with the smell of cheap tobacco-smoke,” and the teacher’s long underwear (“rubbed black by the blacking of his boots”) is visible over his socks. Törless
could not help feeling further repelled by these little observations; he scarcely found it in him to go on hoping that this man was really in possession of significant knowledge… The ordinariness of what he saw affronted him; he projected this on to mathematics, and his respect began to give way before a mistrustful reluctance. (110)
Törless is in search of transcendent, not ordinary knowledge, beyond the scope of the teacher who urges Törless to trust math and be patient – “for the present: believe!”
But then the teacher makes a terrible error:
On a little table lay a volume of Kant, the sort of volume that lies about for the sake of appearances. This the master took up and held out to Törless.
“You see this book. Here is philosophy… For the present I think it would still be a little beyond you.” (112-3)
Which is not the right thing to say to this particular kid, although it might be good advice for me. Nevertheless, we will see how far I can get this week with Robert Musil’s little book.
Page numbers refer to the 1955 Pantheon edition, titled Young Törless. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser were the translators.