Literature after Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment

Literature after Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment

Literature after Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment

Literature after Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment


What if historical fiction were understood as a disfiguring of calculus? Or poems enacting the formation and breakdown of community as expositions of irrational numbers? What if, in other words, literary texts possessed a kind of mathematical unconscious?

The persistence of the rhetoric of "two cultures," one scientific, the other humanities-based, obscures the porous border and productive relationship that has long existed between literature and mathematics. In eighteenth-century Scottish universities, geometry in particular was considered one of the humanities; anchored in philosophy, it inculcated what we call critical thinking. But challenges to classical geometry within the realm of mathematics obligated Scottish geometers to become more creative in their defense of the traditional discipline; and when literary writers and philosophers incorporated these mathematical problems into their own work, the results were not only ingenious but in some cases pioneering.

Literature After Euclid tells the story of the creative adaptation of geometry in Scotland during and after the long eighteenth century. It argues that diverse attempts in literature and philosophy to explain or even emulate the geometric achievements of Isaac Newton and others resulted in innovations that modify our understanding of descriptive and bardic poetry, the aesthetics of the picturesque, and the historical novel. Matthew Wickman's analyses of these innovations in the work of Walter Scott, Robert Burns, James Thomson, David Hume, Thomas Reid, and other literati change how we perceive the Scottish Enlightenment and the later, modernist ethos that purportedly relegated the "classical" Enlightenment to the dustbin of history. Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment's geometric imagination changes how we see literary history itself.


Always visualize! Increasingly, this revision of Fredric Jameson’s famous opening salvo in his 1981 study The Political Unconscious—“Always historicize!”— seems to be acquiring the status of an imperative in an age of big data, when traditional distinctions of canon and period seem ever less satisfying, ever more the product of historiographical accident. Visualization, the graphical display of information, accompanies a new method of historicist engagement: distant reading. As Franco Moretti puts it in his collection bearing that title, “The trouble with close reading,” the method of much of the “new”—that is, old—historicism, “is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon…. [Y]ou invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.” And in an era when digital archives make vast corpuses available online, a diminishing number of scholars, it seems, find close reading sensible. “Close reading is not only impractical as a means of gathering evidence in the digital library,” Matthew Jockers argues, “but big data render it totally inappropriate as a method of studying literary history.” In part, this is because the exponential increase in the amount of information at our disposal and the capacity to scale that information to sizes ranging from the virtually infinite to the infinitesimal will inexorably exert an influence on the kinds of historical questions we are able to pose. These are stories we must show as much as tell. And so, digital humanists make the case that scholars of literary history “have increasingly become involved in what is often referred to as the ‘visual turn’ … sometimes correlated with the ‘spatial turn’ that has favored mapping.”

If we ask the question, as digital humanists often do, of how our tools for engaging the past reflect the tools of that past, then we may find ourselves considering “models of statistical expression, such as bar and pie charts, [that] came from the world of 18th century ‘political arithmetic’ and provided a rich and much developed legacy that extended the vocabulary of much older visual forms of diagrams, grids, and trees.” Or, we may undertake a more . . .

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