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'Absurd Lights: Early Twentieth Century Cosmology and the Modernist Universe

Ebury, Katherine (2012) 'Absurd Lights: Early Twentieth Century Cosmology and the Modernist Universe. PhD thesis, University of York.

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Abstract

This thesis examines the impact of early twentieth century physics, particularly the sciences of astronomy and cosmology, on the work of W. B. Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. I seek to find and make critical use of the traces of Einstein’s cosmic revolution in the aesthetic and philosophical trajectory of modernism. In the chapters that follow, I examine Yeats, Joyce and Beckett as test-cases for modernist aesthetic responses to a universe that had been newly imagined by scientists. In different ways the new cosmology offers a rich source of imaginative as well as narrative and poetic possibilities for these writers. Moreover, although I discuss their work in separate chapters, I have found many connections between their responses, particularly in terms of the new idealist philosophy that came out of popularisations of the new physics. In this sense my approach also offers new ways of talking about Yeats, Joyce and Beckett in relation to each other. The opening chapter begins with a history of relativistic science and its popularisation, then moves on to discuss the reception of relativistic science both within modernism and in the wider contemporary culture, reframing modernism in relation to scientific ideas and discourses. I explore aesthetic responses to this science by authors as different as Thomas Hardy and Ezra Pound, with a view to situating Yeats, Joyce and Beckett within this culture and highlighting their greater receptivity to such ideas. The chapter then moves to a specific consideration of the specialised fields of astronomy and cosmology, explaining the major changes wrought by the Einsteinian revolution and preparing the ground for a discussion of their effect on the works of my authors. The second chapter addresses Yeats’s complex engagement with the new physics and its cosmology, reading against naive critical portrayals of him as entirely anti-scientific. The chapter also offers an account of science in relation to a narrative of Yeats’s whole poetic career, moving from discussions of his longing for an alternative to Newtonian physics in his portrayal of the unpredictable stars in the poems of The Wind Among the Reeds to the strange cosmic, astronomical and occult shapes of A Vision and the later poetry. The third and fourth chapters discuss Joyce’s interest in astronomy and cosmology; in chapter three, I focus on the inspirational power of cosmology in relation to the development of his oeuvre from Portrait to Finnegans Wake. The fourth chapter offers an extended close-reading of a passage from II.1 of the Wake, in which the sudden appearance of the cosmic science of spectroscopy transforms the children’s game of riddles depicted in the chapter into a much more complex problem. In both these chapters, I suggest the salutary aesthetic potential of the difficulty of the new physics when juxtaposed with the difficulty of Joyce texts; the more complex, contested and puzzling universe of contemporary physics suited Joyce much better than the Newtonian science which he sometimes parodied as imperial and monological. Finally, I turn to Beckett’s late modernism in the fifth and sixth chapters. The fifth chapter addresses his novel Murphy in relation to his portrayal of cosmic connections between chaos and absurdity. Beckett’s novel seems increasingly unlike a Newtonian world, as realist frameworks are deliberately undermined by a far more relativistic and chaotic narrative technique. By ‘The Trilogy’, the subject of my sixth and final chapter, which focuses on cosmic and astronomical light in these three novels, Beckett has created a semi-relativistic cosmos in which realist narrative and Newtonian causality are, at first, in Molloy, radically compromised, and finally, in The Unnameable, proved untenable.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Depositing User: Dr Katherine Ebury
Date Deposited: 04 Oct 2012 13:44
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2013 08:50
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/2790

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