In August, 1913—just one year before the assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, which prompts the beginning of World War I—thirty-two-year-old Ulrich, exhausted by the seeming meaningless that underlies most of his life, chooses to take a yearlong sabbatical from his everyday life. He wants to search for the emotional intensity and spiritual depth that he knows must lie beneath the quotidian. As a mathematician, he has sought much of the order of life in rigorous formulas that defy easy reduction to the vagaries of spirituality and mysticism.
Ulrich has been reflecting for some time on society’s negative view of mathematics and science. He observes that many people continue to testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics. However, he believes that mathematics and science can change people’s lives for the better, that mathematics can turn the world around. His youthful ardor for science remains with him even as he trudges through his military and political careers. Still, Ulrich is ultimately uncertain that mathematics and science represent the only way to discover deep meaning in the world. The stability that other people demonstrate because of their deeply held political or religious positions eludes Ulrich, for his lack of qualities makes him uncertain about holding any position dogmatically.
Ulrich’s father as well as his cousin Diotima suggest another method for finding meaning and order in life; they recommend that Ulrich become the secretary of Parallel Action, a group of intelligent and patriotic minds, which is charged with planning and organizing the celebration, in December, 1918, of the seventieth anniversary of the reign of Austrian emperor Francis Joseph I. (Such efforts become futile, however, because the emperor dies in 1916 and the Habsburg Empire collapses in 1918.) Diotima’s salon becomes the gathering place for supporters of the Parallel Campaign, and at the salon Ulrich encounters everyone from diplomats and generals to novelists, poets, and scientists who support this campaign. The Parallel Action, however, embodies just the sort of empty, sterile, and superficial approach to life that Ulrich finds lacking in meaning and spiritual intensity.
In a separate series of events, a day laborer-carpenter named Moosbrugger kills a prostitute, and Ulrich follows his trial, as do many of Ulrich’s friends, with curiosity and horrified fascination. Taught as a child that women want nothing but sex, Moosbrugger pathologically avoids them, thinking that any contact with them will taint his soul. When a young prostitute begins to follow him, mainly for protection, he viciously kills her. A number of questions arise. Is Moosbrugger guilty of murder, or is he insane? Should he be executed if he is convicted? Can Moosbrugger, in his madness, grasp the precision of the soul for which Ulrich is searching? In one of his delirious states, Moosbrugger senses the oneness of the external world and the internal world; he becomes one with all the objects around him. This state of madness is a manifestation of the order that Moosbrugger tries to impose on reality.
Ulrich’s childhood friends, Walter and Clarisse, also follow Moosbrugger’s trial with fascination. These friends, now married, possess their own manner of establishing meaning in life. An accomplished pianist, Walter finds that he is suddenly blocked creatively, and that he lacks the inspiration to compose as he did before he married Clarisse. Clarisse, who believes fervently in Walter’s artistic genius, decides to withhold sex from him until he regains his artistic vision and composes his masterpiece. An artist herself, Clarisse calls Walter her prince of light who brings her a new gospel of the power of art. Clarisse’s fantasies of Walter’s artistic powers, and her fantasies about...
(This entire section contains 807 words.)
her own attempts to will genius into her life through her own art, bear a strong resemblance to Ulrich’s desires for a mystical union with the world. The two characters who are most able to discover some measure of spiritual intensity are Moosbrugger and Clarisse, and Ulrich uncomfortably recognizes these individuals’ abilities to transcend their respective cultures to find the spiritual order that lies beyond those cultures.
After his father’s death, Ulrich withdraws from the world almost completely. During this period, he meets his sister, Agathe, as if for the first time, as they are settling their father’s estate. Their spiritual and physical attraction to each other is so great that she divorces her husband, and the two siblings withdraw from society and live together. The two achieve a kind of mystical union that allows them to understand the secret of living in this world differently. It appears that Ulrich finally has found a way to balance scientific rigor with spiritual intensity and has discovered meaning and order in the world. As with Ulrich’s other attempts to find spiritual meaning, however, no one knows if this mystical union with his sister will succeed as hoped.