Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Quantum Pickwick

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Quantum Pickwick

Article excerpt

   'I was ruminating' said Mr Pickwick, 'on the
   strange mutability of human affairs.'
   'Ah! I see -- in at the palace door one day,
   out at the window the next. Philosopher, sir?'
   'An observer of human nature, sir', said Mr
   Pickwick'.[1]

According to Allen Samuels, 'It is always foolhardy to invoke contemporary social and political concerns to describe works of literature which belong to older and different times'.[2] It is then at the risk of appearing foolhardy that I will invoke a very contemporary concern, the philosophy of quantum physics, to illuminate an early Victorian narrative, The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

In point of anachronistic fact, the philosophy of quantum physics and The Pickwick Papers have more in common than what meets the eye and the eye is all-important in this reading of The Pickwick Papers because the text, despite its historical moorings, provides what could be described as a copybook narrative example of quantum tenets concerning ways of seeing. The philosophy of quantum physics has just as much relevance to Victorian society as to contemporary society (the only difference is that Victorian society didn't know about it) and this is perhaps why The Pickwick Papers contains one of the most telling and paradigmatic dramatic renderings of quantum theory, because it is entirely unaware of its quantum sensibility and therefore entirely unselfconscious in its exposition of quantum exempla.

There are many who feel the need to pin down notions of time and narrative in air-tight containers. As a result historical periods and books languish in boring, antiquated, hermetic voids. But times and narratives must be allowed to breathe and travel because both constructions are essentially nomadic. Accordingly, only if granted the freedom they require, may times and narratives establish different, interesting points of connection. Certainly, some of these points of connection may at first appear incongruous but they can prove serendipitous.

The strange mutability of human affairs is decidedly what The Pickwick Papers hinges on. Perhaps more than any other Dickensian text, it concerns itself with the various forms of uncertainty, unpredictability, and chaos that may beset the human subject. As an amateur scientist of some repute (that is, within his immediate circle) Pickwick sanguinely expects to find and explicate order through a process of empirical observation and reductive reasoning. What he gets, however, is the antithesis of order as the novel repeatedly presents him with radical indeterminacy and sudden disruptive change. In truth, were it not for the fact that the text was written in the nineteenth century, long before the advent of the 'New Science', one could be forgiven for thinking that The Pickwick Papers was at base informed by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle stands in complete opposition to the beliefs of Dickens's day. Under the fixed, determined perspective of Newtonian physics, particles or atoms were privileged over wave motions (such as light waves). Particles were believed to be more fundamental owing to their solidity. Consequently, it was deemed that particles constituted matter. By contrast, contemporary quantum physics posits no privileged entity. Both waves and particles are equally fundamental and both work together to constitute matter. Reality then must be viewed as a tandem affair and this is where Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle enters the picture. According to this principle, while waves and particles are both necessary to give us a complete picture of reality, we can never focus on both at once. At any given time only one state is available for measuring.

The famous 'two-slit experiment' clearly demonstrates this conundrum. In this experiment, the type of observation that may be used to measure the bits of light called photons determines what a viewer will see. …

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