Modernism and Cosmology: Absurd Lights
by Katherine Ebury

Reviewed by Rick de Villiers


Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2014   |   224 pages

Within a year of founding what he hoped would become the most influential and austere literary journal in England, T.S. Eliot solicited an unusual potential contributor for the Criterion. Writing in May 1923 to the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (who had observationally confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1919), Eliot wanted to secure an article by a ‘distinguished scholar and man of science’ that should be intelligible to members of the ‘cultivated public’ with ‘ordinary mathematical training’, but should certainly not descend into ‘popular science’.  (Eliot himself places the term in inverted commas as if the very genre is to be handled with gloved hands).  Representative as the letter is of the Criterion’s elitism (and, more broadly, high modernism’s), it also suggests something of the receptive attitude many modernist writers adopted towards the ‘new science’.

The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed two scientific developments arguably as revolutionary as Copernicus’s heliocentric model: Einstein’s special, and then general, relativities, and quantum mechanics. Both, in their own ways, introduced uncertainties into the model of the universe, and challenged comfortable interpretations of Newtonian mechanics as giving evidence of a Creator.  As an answer to the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, Einstein postulated that time and space cannot be experienced objectively; rather, scientific objectivity was only possible through the combination of time and space in a four-dimensional continuum.  In his famous equation, E = mc2, he conceived of a revolutionary relationship between mass and energy.  Limiting the assumptions of Newtonian physics, he also concluded that gravity is a consequence of curved space-time and not a force in itself.  The movement of astronomical objects is determined by geodesics rather than external forces (such as Newtonian gravity).  Quantum mechanics, in its turn, undid strict determinism and ushered in an era of extreme epistemological instability.

Katherine Ebury’s Modernism & Cosmology examines selected works of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), James Joyce (1882 – 1941) and Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) to shed light on the modernist response to the revolutions in science then underway, principally that of Einstein’s general relativity as mediated through popularised works by Eddington, Bertrand Russell, James Jeans and others. It is likely that quantum mechanics was less influential on the period as its theory and implications were not yet fully understood, but when news of Eddington’s confirmation of Einstein’s theory broke, he became a household name across the world. The Times of London’s front page headline is representative: ‘Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe – Newtonian Ideas Overthrown’. Einstein’s theories of relativity also possessed a certain avant-garde currency for members of the English and Irish intelligentsia: the overthrow of Newtonian order coincided, after all, with and fed into the modernist drive to render the fragmentary nature of reality.

Against the backdrop of Victorian materialism – the last outpost of the classical Newtonian worldview – Yeats’s early poetry seems to foretell cosmological indeterminacy.  The cosmos, and in particular stars, in Ebury’s (sometimes fanciful) reading of the poetry, are invested with doubt and mystery: ‘Yeats usually places the stars at the centre of the poetic line…rarely rhyming on them, implicitly suggesting that stars are the difficult, mysterious heart of these poems’.  When the theories and discoveries of modern science caught up to Yeats’s own creative imaginings, the eerie meeting results in a sense of unease: ‘perhaps in these early poems Yeats does not demand an apocalypse, but rather what he would later imagine as the opening of a new gyre, the death of the Newtonian worldview and the birth of a difficult, absurd and desiring cosmos which would be more congenial to his aesthetic.  To Yeats’s anxiety, the new physics would eventually fulfil some of his expectations’. For Yeats, the correspondence between his early apocalyptic poetry and the eventual uncertainty inaugurated by relativity resulted in a shudder at the uncanny.

If Yeats viewed the Einsteinian revolution with a mix of excitement and apprehension, Joyce’s response appears unequivocally enthusiastic.  The eagerness with which Joyce latched onto the new science is due, in part, to his propensity for absorption and assimilation. From his first writings, though to increasingly radical degree over the course of his career, Joyce’s writings acted as sites upon which he could unload the cultural detritus of the world. (The Stephen of Stephen Hero becomes, after all, a ‘poet with malice aforethought’ by ‘[rescuing]…words and phrases amenable’ to his practice).  But seen from a historical perspective, Joyce’s buoyant interest appears typical of a generation that recognized the possibilities engendered by scientific discovery.  Notorious note-snatcher though he was, Joyce ransacked popular interpretations of the new science in a determined and systematic way.  The influence of contemporary cosmology is particularly marked in the ‘chaosmos of alle’ that is Finnegans Wake.  Ebury touches on Joyce’s handling of geodesics, four-dimensional space, and the expanding universe, but her most sustained attention is given to spectroscopy.  Spectroscopes are devices that separate white light into the rainbow, as in a prism. As it happens, certain portions of the full spectrum may be absent from this spread out light: these are called ‘spectral lines’ and derive from previous interactions of the light with atoms in the air, in space, anywhere.  One use of the spectroscope is to determine the composition of stars or any objects the light of stars may encounter on its way to the spectroscope. But these lines can also be used to gauge stellar distances and detect previously unobservable phenomena (Edwin Hubble (1889 – 1953), for example, used them to confirm Lemaître’s conjecture of the big bang).  In Ebury’s reading, ‘spectracular’ forces at work within Finnegans Wake intimate that behind newly visible networks there are still deeper and undiscovered entanglements.  The methods of the novel – its inexpungable punning, its impossible heaping of ‘Plurabilities’, its infinite refraction of meaning – Ebury argues, evince certain spectroscopic qualities.

Beckett, too, acknowledged indeterminacy both in art and science.  But where Joyce wove new scientific knowledge into his ever-expanding creative cosmos, Beckett flooded his own writing with the new science as a way of drowning meaning.  Dirk van Hulle calls this method a ‘dispropriation’ through appropriation; Ebury’s term, ‘astronomical claustrophobia’, is just as apt. Beckett’s works are not in thrall to the ‘absurd  lights’ (Beckett’s term) of the new science.  In Murphy, the narrator remarks that the ‘nature of outer reality remained obscure.  The men, women and children of science would seem to have as many ways of kneeling to their facts as any other body of illuminati’.  Molloy, in his turn, notes with a resigned awareness of Bohrian complementarity that reality oscillates between ‘waves and particles’.  For him, the world consists of ‘nameless things’ and ‘thingless names’; the futility of science and language are on a par.  As heir to the daedal operations of modernism and the non-Euclidean lines of relativistic cosmology, Beckett would see the two disciplines as somehow analogous: ‘art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear, any more than the light of day (or night) makes the subsolar, -lunar and –stellar excrement.  Art is the sun, moon and stars of the mind, the whole mind.’  Considering the characterisation of the mind in Molloy (‘Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea’) and Malone Dies (‘seat of all the shit and misery’), art hardly seems to have an illuminating effect upon understanding.  And so, the cosmological metaphors Beckett employs in the disservice of art return upon themselves to gesture at an impenetrable nebula surrounding the new science.

Whatever else may underlie their individual attitudes towards the new science, the generational difference between the three men must certainly play a part. A significant portion of Yeats’s adulthood was lived before these ideas arose, whereas they broke just as Joyce was just entering early middle-age. For Beckett they were likely perceived as already part of the established worldview, and thus subject to deeper criticism.  The discrepant artistic responses are perhaps more interesting than any correspondences. Understandably, Modernism and Cosmology attempts to provide a rationale for considering the particular ‘case studies’ of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett.  But one is left feeling that ‘Irishness’ and three comparably dog-eared copies of George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Understanding (Ebury suggests that all had a pre-existing interest in Berkeleian idealism, which made them more likely to be deeply influenced by the new science) are tenuous and underdeveloped.  The latter is a criticism only insofar as the book makes undeveloped claims for common ground that wouldn’t be missed if left out.  Not unlike Olbers’ paradox, the interstices between great works point to an expanding universe.  To vary Beckett varying Pascal: it’s in the huge black pauses that we connect the unfathomable chasms of silence.

RICK DE VILLIERS is a South African PhD student at Durham University.  His thesis is on humility and humiliation in T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.  He has published articles on T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and J.M. Coetzee.

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