The Mathematics of Literature

Matt Wickman’s new book explores the impact of Euclidean geometry on 18th- and 19th-century literature.

front_coverPROVO, Utah (August 12, 2016)—Though they can’t put a name to it, almost everyone has had some experience with Euclidean geometry. Many of us first encountered it in elementary school, and our ongoing interactions with it vary in depth. It’s found in solving for the hypotenuse of a triangle or the circumference of a circle. It’s found in folding a paper into parallel lines and cutting a cake into equal portions. And according to Matt Wickman’s new book, Literature After Euclid, it’s found in the humanities.

Until the 18th and 19th centuries, universities traditionally considered mathematics as a part of the humanities, especially as a branch of philosophical thought. Wickman explains, “The idea was that geometry, Euclidean geometry, allowed the mind to create very cogent, rational pictures of the world. Of how the mind operates in arriving at conclusions. Of how we connect what we think to the world as it appears to us. So mathematics was a way to connect mind and world.”

However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Euclidean geometry began to dwindle in prominence. The period, termed the “Late Euclidean” by Wickman, was tumultuous in three respects. Intellectually, scholars began to realize the limitations of Euclidean geometry. For example, the image of parallel lines as never intersecting became problematic as new concepts emerged of space as curved. Though these theories would not be fully fleshed out until the 20th century and Einstein’s theories of relativity, this period saw the beginning of questions that challenged Euclidean sovereignty in the sciences.

These mathematical tensions had political repercussions. As the rest of Europe began to search for non-Euclidean solutions, Britain held out as an adherent of the traditional mathematics. Scotland was especially loyal; now citizens of the recently-formed Kingdom of Great Britain, Scottish universities were eager to prove their status. Wickman explains, “The universities became defenders of Isaac Newton, defending a certain kind of mathematics at a moment when it was being attacked on the continent.”

The intellectual and political aspects of the period both had an effect on the era’s literary sphere, which the majority of Wickman’s book addresses. Even though very few writers of the time studied it or even consciously referred to it, geometry had become influential enough that they had had casual, if unconscious, contact with it. “Geometry,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “was not only a rigorous discipline but also a cultural medium, a trope.”

Almost instinctively, mathematics functioned as a set of literary tools in the novels, poetry and other writing of the time. In Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, a character stands aboard a ship, observing the coastline while memories begin to surge back to him. The moment is a reproduction of the coastal surveillance projects of the mid-18th century: just as surveyors worked to accurately remap the British coastline by measuring the curves of the shore, the character remapped his history by observing the geography.

Writers were just as sensitive to the changes taking place during the Late-Euclidean era. One of the greatest philosophical puzzles of the time were irrational numbers: numbers that, like pi, cannot be written as fractions and, when written as decimals, neither end nor repeat. These numbers were therefore difficult for philosophers to relate to the real world.

The poet Robert Burns in particular was fascinated by this concept and applied irrationality to human beings. “Human beings who desire each other and want better lives for themselves are not driven by things that are rational,” Wickman explains. “We ourselves are irrational; therefore we question our own existence on that basis in the same way that mathematicians question the existence of irrational numbers in the real world.”

Just as Burns used his poetry to tease out the answers of irrationality, Wickman believes that literature at large intervenes in intellectual questions. “These questions can be human questions about the meaning of life, meaning of relationships, meaning of history,” he says. “But they can also be questions about the meaning of ideas, the meaning of what irrational numbers mean. Or the meaning of perspective.” And by reading, we are able to take part in that discussion. “Literature is a means for us to intervene in the questions of intellectual history.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Samuel covers events for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.