Tom Hedley is a PhD Candidate in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies at Trinity College Dublin. His PhD project is entitled “Spatial Reckonings: Mapping the Problem of Space in Modern Mathematics and German Modernism, 1890-1933”, which is fully funded by the Irish Research Council. He holds a BA in German literature and Mathematics from Trinity College Dublin (2017) and an MA in Comparative Literature from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (2019). In 2021, he was a Junior Fellow at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Utrecht University (jointly with the Mathematical Institute). Recent publications include an article on autofiction and transfinite set theory for Germanistik in Ireland 16 (2021) and an article on spectrality and docufictional film for Imaginaires 23 (2021).
“Transforming Empty Spaces: Modern Mathematics, Metamorphosis and «die neue Frau» in Mela Hartwig’s Bin ich ein über flüssiger Mensch? (1931)”
In 1923, the trailblazing mathematician Emmy Noether was granted a paid position in Göttingen — a recognition previously denied due to her gender and Jewish heritage. Now acknowledged as a figurehead of mathematical “modernism”, Noether and some other radical colleagues, believed mathematicians were artists and not scientists. Can modern mathematics, therefore, be included in our discussions of modernism? Casting a wider net than mathematically-trained writers like Musil and Broch, I suggest isolating central concerns in modern mathematics, such as spatial transformation, in order to “re-read” corresponding manifestations in artistic modernism. In this paper I foreground Viennese modernist Mela Hartwig’s Bin ich ein überflüssiger Mensch? [Am I a Redundant Human Being?] of 1931, a probing self-analysis of a young secretary in 1920s Vienna who casts herself (physically and psychologically) as an “empty space” that is continually re-sculpted by her various male love interests. This reflects the overarching sense of “transformation” associated with the modernist epoch, both in terms of the narrator herself and in the status of professional women in the early 20th century, often evoked by the tricky term “die neue Frau”.
One of the legacies of Noether and her contemporaries is the rethinking of transformation with an eye to its own opposite, namely invariance. In this new light, transformation becomes a tool to reveal its own counterweight. I argue in this paper that a more mathematically-aware perspective helps to uncover underlying continuities throughout the metamorphoses in Hartwig’s novel: The supposedly amorphous nature of the protagonist exposes an invariant feminine agency, and the overarching paradigm-shift of “die neue Frau” ultimately reveals that which is not so “neu” after all — a continuity of gendered oppression in a new guise. In short, by zooming in on this theoretical overlap, this paper calls for a more mathematically inclusive understanding of modernism as a whole.