Matthew Wickman - Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment. Reviewed by Aaron Ottinger

Monday, May 8, 2017 - 10:39

Matthew Wickman. Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). 304 pp., 7 illus. (Hdbk., $69.95; ISBN 9780812247954; Ebook; $69.95; ISBN 9780812292534)

Aaron Ottinger
University of Washington

Matthew Wickman’s Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment (2016) is an investigation of the history of figures of history, as mediated through literary forms. The study asks: What is the shape of history in relationship to the shape of geometrical figures? And how has the development of geometrical figures impacted our image of history?

Instead of a straight (time)line, Wickman’s geometric figure of history resembles the line of Thomas Reid’s “geometry of visibles,” according to which space is spherical, and thus the course of history curves back upon itself. In a curved image of history, Modernism germinates in the 1700s, and Enlightenment “undead” encroach on the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries (24, 129). The claim is surprising because Wickman posits that this figure of history emerges in the Scottish Enlightenment and is far more complicated than Futurist declarations of a firm break with the past (37). To reinforce this figure, the book follows a backwards chronology, from Walter Scott to James Thomson, and then bends back from Thomson to Scottish Modernist Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978). While I found instructions to double-back throughout the text somewhat distracting (for example, in a chapter of thirty-five pages, I counted fifteen instances of “as we discussed in chapter 2,” “as stated above,” and the like), the book’s mimetic relationship to its subject matter undermines expectations of linearity that historical studies often reproduce.

The first step to account for this figure’s development is to understand one of the most important mathematical breakthroughs of the period: the calculus (230, note 97). Calculus charts the rate of change of an object as it moves through time. Two methods dominated the long eighteenth century: Leibniz’s differential calculus and Newton’s fluxional calculus. Leibniz measured the rate of change by dividing a curve into points and measuring the difference between those points. Newton’s fluxional calculus “foregrounded the element of time by conceptualizing a point in motion in the creation of a line” (48). The former reduces the rate of change to an algebraic formulation, whereas Newton’s method requires a set of conversions, from geometry to algebra and from algebra back to geometry. In the end, Scottish mathematicians favored Newton’s approach because it maintained contact with the past (geometrically) and because it was closer to home (geographically). Thus fluxional calculus became a sign of national identity (50, 58), as well as the groundwork for a figure of history.

The second step to account for this figure’s development is to understand literary adaptations of calculus. When Scott depicts Harry Bertram’s “return” in Guy Mannering (1815) to the family estate (thus entering a figure of history), and views the coastline “with all its varied curves, indentures, and embayments,” Wickman claims that Scott is actually “embed[ding] fluxional figures [of history] within his narrative” (60). Embedding figures is important to Wickman’s study because it demonstrates how the medium of literature can be “mathematical” while also maintaining its distinctly literary character (2). In fact, Scott’s figure of history goes above and beyond the mathematics, for it combines “the form of a ray in presenting the more or less straightforward flow of historical progress […], a fluxional curve as its agents enact that progress […], and a non-Euclidean design as that curve loops around and reflects on itself” (64). This historical and operational mixture characterizes what Wickman calls “the poetics of late Euclideanism,” in this case, synthesizing lessons from Euclid and calculus, an emphasis on movement, and the shape of a self-reflecting loop (37-40).

Later chapters follow a similar pattern of charting how mathematical concepts trafficked between eighteenth-century media and disciplines, revising in their migration mathematical as well as humanistic ideas. For instance, in chapter four, Wickman demonstrates how Robert Burns revises Adam Smith’s geometrical model of sympathy and argues that Burns creates a fractured/fractious image of the poet, which demands a more complicated figure of sympathy than a simple, geometrical conformity—or ratio—between subject and object.

But the mathematical-literary concepts of the eighteenth century also re-emerge in and intervene in modern areas of study. Wickman claims that Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” seems to offer the distance of a sublime prospect view, but it also requires the close reading of a picturesque engagement (124-26). And in the final chapter, Wickman examines David Hume’s influence on the recent speculative philosophy of Quentin Meillassoux. Like Hume, who was skeptical of any “law of necessity,” Meillassoux investigates the cosmos by removing an all-encompassing human view—grounded as it is in (Kantian) space and time—in favor of a strictly mathematical outlook (216). As a “late Euclidean” alternative, Wickman offers Thomas Reid’s common sense philosophy, which maintains the human dimension but stretches the perspective across space and time (200-3). These interventions emphasize the “fusion” of background and foreground, past and present. Yet, Wickman stresses that this fusion—recalling Reid’s line turning upon itself—remains a case of “self-differentiation” (218). To illustrate, he compares the self-reflecting line to MacDiarmid’s return to the stones in “On a Raised Beach.” In the “late Euclidean” view of history, humans follow, belong, and return to stone, and thus the “poet unites the motions and shapes of his own thoughts with those of nature” (219).

For some critics, Wickman’s term for the long eighteenth century of the Scottish Enlightenment—“late Euclidean”—may be defined too loosely to clarify a period of history or a form of literature. And yet, the culture and poetics of the late Euclidean age are by definition a mixture of mathematical and literary approaches that are not fully formed nor ever seem to die (38). I believe that “late Euclidean,” as a characterization of a historical period and a set of literary conventions ought to be viewed as an invitation for additional inquiry. It imaginatively reprocesses a historical narrative largely dominated by revolution, and thus by a metrics of displacement. Instead, Wickman uncovers a figure of history that is curved, not straight; incremental, not disjunctive; and existential, not typical. Thereby, Wickman’s characterization of the long eighteenth century and its literature as “late Euclidean” is a welcomed addition to a far from settled debate regarding periodization, as well as figures of history and literary form.