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...
(The entire section is 807 words.)