Matthew Wickman, Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment

Matthew Wickman, Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) viii + 293 pp. 7 Illustrations. £54.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780812247954

Is the eighteenth-century cultural heritage of Euclid in the Scottish Enlightenment a question for foxes of hedgehogs? For Matthew Wickman, Professor of English at Brigham Young University, it is definitely the former. In his Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment, Wickman gives a fresh take on the complex intellectual landscape of eighteenth-century Scotland by exploring how the elusive concept of ‘geometric imagination’ inspired writers as diverse as James Thomson (1700–1748), Robert Burns (1759–1796) and Walter Scott (1771–1832).

Far from considering the Scottish experience as simply ‘one Enlightenment among others’, Wickman claims that the particularity of Scotland Enlightenment was its self-reflexivity. Building on critical re-appraisals of this key historical event—most prominently Cairns Craig’s Intending Scotland: Explorations in Scottish Culture Since the Enlightenment (2009)—Wickman conceives of the Scottish Enlightenment as a ‘belated, discontinuous, and altogether mode modern phenomenon’ that throws ‘something of a wrench into the grand narratives about modernity into which the Enlightenment often figures’ (23). Geometry plays a crucial role in this destabilisation of teleological narratives about progress. Through Scottish interpreters of Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) like David Gregory (1661–1708) and Colin Maclaurin (1698–1746), Wickman argues that the structures of the modern world of eighteenth-century Scotland began to be thought of geometrically, not only practically but, in the author’s fascinating contention, aesthetically as well (98).

By aesthetics, Wickman seems to mean something akin to the aesthetics of the sublime of Peter De Bolla (1957–): a network of discourses that articulates the real at a given historical juncture. In Literature After Euclid, Scottish geometry is indeed portrayed as a ‘deeply humanistic science’ that entails ‘the formal engagement of modes of perception and understanding, experience and being, reading and writing’ (31). This is where the concept of ‘imagination’ comes into play, in the sense codified in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) as ‘the power of forming ideal pictures’. The daring argument made by Wickman is that imagination operates as the ‘cognitive agent mediating mind and world’ (118), not only at the level of the single person but at that of the Scottish intellectual sphere. Indeed, as Wickman skilfully documents, Scottish thinkers ‘continued to invoke geometry as a kind of ur-discipline, or critical ground of thought uniting diverse branch of enquiry’, up to the point that it became for them nothing less than a ‘poetic or creative language’ (46). Crucial to this process are thinkers such as Robert Simson, professor of mathematics in Glasgow from 1711 to 1761, whose intellectual legacy uncovered the knowledge-making possibilities offered by thinking in geometrical terms (70).

The geometry of reference was Euclidean, but Wickman—despite the geometric-heavy lexical choices in his prose—is not that interested in theorems, corollaries, and axioms. What he investigates is rather how Scottish thinkers made use of Euclid-inspired geometrical tropes to reflect about history and nationhood; and, on a further level of complexity, how these questions were problematized with non-Euclidean conceptions of space and time that anticipate some of the breakthroughs in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century. The ‘after’ in the title of Wickman’s book, Literature After Euclid, therefore indicates not a conflict between Euclidean and non-Euclidean approaches, but a post-Euclideanism that looks very similar to the ‘post-’ in the conception of Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) of postmodernism as a continuation of modernity that bends upon itself and, in the process, rewrites both past history and the practices of present-day historiography. This ‘Elongated Eighteenth-Century’, the subject of the first and final chapters, conceptually spans from the 1707 Act of Union to the European avant-garde movements of Futurism and Modernism.

Evidently, this post-Euclidean (but also post-Enlightenment) inquiry requires a view of history that conflates, for instance, the provocative assertion of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) that ‘Time and Space died yesterday’ with the refusal of the classical Enlightenment ideals of Newtonian space-time and Kantian categories (21). Wickman’s sophisticated exploration of the Scottish Enlightenment is attainable only through a methodological approach that is in turn scattered, fragmentary and non-linear. This is not to say that Wickman altogether suggests a paradigm shift. The linear history of the Scottish Enlightenment doesn’t need to be replaced by a plastic space where parallel lines meet; rather, the reader, prompted by the self-reflexivity of the Scottish Enlightenment, is compelled to oscillate, with Wickman, between perspectives that are apparently at odds with each other. Following the thought experiment devised by Thomas Reid (1710–1796) (10, 45), Wickman brings the beginning and the end of this long Enlightenment history closer than they would be in their linear fashion. This conceptual curvature allows Wickman’s peregrinations in two centuries and a half of history.

In practice, the result is intriguing, though at times controversial. There are moments when the sheer quantity of names mentioned reminds of a post-modernist bric-à-brac. In the space of two pages, for instance, one finds Walter Scott, Colin Maclaurin, Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Laurence Sterne (1713–1768), Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachesky (1792–1856), Henri Poincaré (1854–1912), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Édouard Manet (1832–1883), and Paul De Man (1919–1983) (60-61). To be sure, some readers might find it distracting. However, some leniency can be gained by considering that this is a consequence (evitable perhaps) of the ‘logic of linear distortion’ that Wickman seeks to uncover, for example, in Scott’s novels (particularly Guy Mannering [1815]) and that reflects back as the very method of composition of Literature After Euclid.

Eventually, one suspects that the author of Literature After Euclid would be perplexed and disappointed, perhaps offended, by a reviewer praising the rigour of this study. After all, this is a work played out in a bended geometrical space where the author tries to subtly dissuade the reader from discrete historiographical measurements. A more fitting compliment would be that Literature After Euclid is a book for post-Euclidean foxes, where flexibility of thought in hermeneutic action is the highest strategic quality that could be possibly attained in the reading of complex historical phenomena.

Alessio Mattana, University of Leeds