Mathematics in literature : modernist interrelations in novels by Thomas Pynchon, Hermann Broch, and Robert Musil
Engelhardt, Nina Malaika
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The focus of this thesis is on four novels’ illustrations of the parallels and interrelations between the foundational crisis of mathematics and the political, linguistic, and epistemological crises around the turn to the twentieth century. While the latter crises with their climax in the First World War are commonly agreed to define modern culture and literature, this thesis concentrates on their relations with the ‘modernist transformation’ of mathematics as illustrated in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1930-1932), and Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (1930/32). In the revaluation of mathematics during its foundational crisis, the certainty and rationality of this most certain science is challenged, and the novels accordingly employ mathematics as an example for the dramatic transformation of the modern West, the wider loss of absolute truth, and the increasing scepticism towards Enlightenment values. Crisis, however, also implied some freedoms and opportunities for literature and criticism. When the developing modern notion of mathematics is defined by autonomy and independence from the natural world, it bears traits more commonly associated with literary fiction, and the novels examine the possible convergence of mathematics and literature in the freedom of imaginary existence. The novels thus highlight the unique position of the structural science mathematics in the relation of the (natural) sciences and the humanities and suggest it to escape or straddle the perceived divide between the disciplines. The examination and historicising of relations between fiction and mathematical conceptualisations of the world as introduced in the major works by Pynchon, Broch, and Musil thus also contributes to distinguishing the specific conditions of studying mathematics in fiction in the wider field of literature and science.