Michael H. Whitworth is Professor of Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford and a Tutorial Fellow in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is the author of Einstein’s Wake: Relativity, Metaphor and Modernist Literature (2001) and many articles and chapters on literature and science. He is the editor of Modernism (Blackwell Guides to Criticism) (2007) and author of “When Was Modernism?” (in Late Victorian into Modern, 1880-1920, ed. Marcus, Mendelssohn, and Shepherd-Barr (2016)).
“Popular Astronomy Writing and at the Edges of «Modernism»”
What conceptions of “modernism” and of modernist cultures might be most valuable for understanding the relation between popular science writing and modernist writing in Britain? On the one hand, scientific writing about space — particularly abstract non-Euclidean space — involved concepts that were innovative and challenging to accepted intellectual traditions and to intuitive, human-scale comprehension. To convey those ideas required a high degree of intellectual inventiveness, similar to T. S. Eliot’s demand that the modern poet “force” or “dislocate” language into his meaning (“The Metaphysical Poets” (1921)). Modern conceptions of space informed modernist understanding of the real. Although sometimes (as Henderson, Throesch and others have noted), modernist concepts of the “fourth dimension” were derived from theosophical discourse, in places they seem closer to contemporary science: in 1919 Eliot invoked non-Euclidean geometry in relation to ideas of character. It is also the case that writing about modern science appeared in print venues that hosted modernist writers: e.g., The New Quarterly and The Athenaeum. One of the science writers I will consider — J. W. N. Sullivan — was also personally known to modernist writers, though others, like A. S. Eddington, were not. However, modernist writers themselves were ambivalent about popular astronomy writing. While some reviewers of popular science writing in the 1920s and 1930s praised it for its “literary” value, modernist critics were more cautious, implying that it was a middlebrow substitute for real philosophy. They praised scientists and mathematicians working in their proper role, but were dismissive of their popular presentations. This paper will not be able to resolve the many contradictions that comprise this problem, but it will attempt to map the territory. One route is to understand the distinct modernities that scientific and literary modernisms were responding to; each have their own distinct disciplinary and institutional pressures.