Rachel Crossland, Modernist Physics: Waves, Particles, and Relativities in the Writings of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence

Rachel Crossland, Modernist Physics: Waves, Particles, and Relativities in the Writings of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) 208 pp. $81.00 ISBN: 9780198815976.

Rachel Crossland’s debut monograph, Modernist Physics is a concise and timely examination of the resonances of Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) seminal papers of 1905 in the writings of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930). Taking as her starting point three of the four annus mirabilis papers, Crossland invites us to consider the presence of ideas of complementarity, relativity, and Brownian motion as they appear in Woolf and Lawrence’s work both before and after their exposure to Einstein’s physics. This allows for a tightly structured study that combs through the multivalent currents of scientific discourse within modernist culture. Responding to Gillian Beer’s ‘model of shared discourse’ and conceptual ‘coalescence’, N. Katherine Hayles’ ‘cultural matrix’ model, Crossland situates her argument in ‘the discourse of the moment’ (13), as distinct from direct influence, allowing her freedom to discuss Woolf and Lawrence’s literary output from both sides of her chronological divide.

Crossland approaches complementarity as a linguistic question; both scientists and writers alike were faced with a challenge to established dualist language practices. The first section of Modernist Physics examines the development of duality and complementarity in the context of Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect, untangling the linguistic approaches to depicting wave-particle duality, such as those of James Jeans (1877-1946) and Einstein himself, as a means of understanding Virginia Woolf’s career-long interest in duality and multiplicity. Particularly fascinating here is Crossland’s focus on Woolf’s use of correlative conjunctions such as the ‘both/and’ formulation; her reading homes in on Woolf’s desire to ‘write an inclusive and’, which can maintain the validity of both sides of contradictory statements at the same time. Crossland convincingly argues for a cultural shift evidenced in physics and literature toward a shared discourse that wrestles with the complementarity of opposites. The ‘either/or’ construction of nineteenth century dualism gives way to the modern ‘both/and’ model for managing oppositions a prevalent strategy in Woolf’s later works, whose fluid and all-encompassing approaches to gender and self-identity Crossland explores with an equally astute analysis of Woolf’s shifting pronoun usage and punctuation.

The second section turns to D. H. Lawrence’s call to refashion special relativity and develop a ‘theory of human relativity’ in Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). Crossland carefully navigates the controversial subject of Lawrence’s ambivalent attitude to science, negotiating the relatives and absolutes of Lawrence’s texts by drawing on the work of Bruce Clark and Michael Bell, both of whom emphasise the slipperiness and shifting ambiguity of Lawrence’s embrace of these terms. Particularly, she notes that Lawrence is less interested in the hard physics than in the ways it might be appropriated for his own purposes, such as applied to communication and the difference of meaning between individuals. Taking this appropriation seriously on its own terms,Crossland asks what form this ‘living’ or ‘organic’ relativity could take, and what value a model of relationships based on relative frames of reference has for the re-evaluation of Lawrence’s writings. The result is Lawrence’s stress on balance between the ‘absolute’ individual and their ‘relative’ interaction with the community. Crossland emphasises the creative aspect of this appropriation, whereby Lawrence was ‘stimulated to reimagine his own laws’, developing a theory of absolute selves which she concludes ‘owe[s] at least as much to Einstein as it does to William James’ (121, 109).

An expansion of the themes handled in Crossland’s prize-winning essay of 2013, “[M]ultitudinous and Minute”: Early Twentieth-Century Scientific, Literary and Psychological Representations of the Mass’, the final section turns to Einstein’s work on Brownian motion to explore a shared language between molecular physics, the social sciences, and modernist depictions of urban crowds. Here, Crossland draws upon contemporary socio-psychological theories of the crowd from Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939), and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) to present a comparative model for the flow of analogy in urban discourses and physics writing allied to Theodore Porter’s image of ‘an interdisciplinary matrix’ (148). Again, this chapter hinges on issues of individuality in an increasingly populated landscape, examining the concerns of and strategies used by Woolf and Lawrence to experiment with the ambivalent role of the individual within the increasingly important ‘human mass’. The random fluctuations of particles in Brownian motion are allied with the movements of the turn-of-the-century flâneur drifting, seemingly independently, through the urban environment. Crossland questions the free agency of the flâneur, whose movements are invariably influenced, like Einstein’s particles, by their contact with the fluctuating medium through which they move. Characteristically, however, she remains attentive to the limitations of scientific-literary analogy, highlighting the fundamental similarity of Woolf and Lawrence’s urbanites with the other human individuals around them. The writings of both Woolf and Lawrence, Crossland argues, reflect a dual movement in modernist culture, which recognises the growing importance of the mass without reducing the value of the individual; instead, both are retained, perhaps as another example of complementarity.

The focus placed on the centrality of ideas of individual and mass identity that shape the cultural response to Einstein’s work makes for a coherent and engaging study of the Modernists’ application and interrogation of the conceptual consequences of modern physics. In the hands of Woolf and Lawrence, and the social and scientific commentators around them, images from physics are manipulated and experimented with as vibrant tools for the exploration of the urban self and society, complex modern identities, and the nature of human relationships.

Modernist Physics is framed by thought-provoking examinations of the function and concerns of literature and science as a field of study, in which Crossland painstakingly examines a variety of critical models around the issues of chronology, influence, shared discourse, and the challenges posed by the inherent interdisciplinarity of modernism itself. She navigates these complex questions with aplomb, and indeed, one of the monograph’s strengths is the transparency and care with which Crossland attends to the maelstrom of issues, whether formal, practical, conceptual, scientific or literary, at play in the works discussed.

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham

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