Katherine Ebury, Modernism and Cosmology: Absurd Lights,

Katherine Ebury, Modernism & Cosmology: Absurd Lights, (Palgrave 2014). 224pp. Hb £55.00. EPUB. PDF. ISBN 9781137393746

In her 2014 monograph Modernism and Cosmology, Katherine Ebury presents three case studies from Irish modernism to analyse the influence of cosmology on modernist writing. The engagingly written work offers a close reading that focuses on references to the new physics in these selected writings, contextualising them through an analysis of the contemporary popular science writing that equipped the writers with the knowledge of these developments. In her research, she builds on earlier work that focused on physics in literature from the first decades of the twentieth century, tracing the influence of popular science writing on literature later in the century. She contends that many of these allusions have been missed by earlier critics, and that the field of cosmology has not been given any in-depth treatment in literary criticism of modernism. Ebury’s work makes a preliminary attempt to address this gap, the fruitfulness of which approach is show by her in-depth treatment of the case studies.

Ebury offers a detailed analysis of selected works of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Given this selection of primary texts, she can be seen to be operating with a broadly defined concept of modernism, as a period spanning over seventy years (1880s-1950s), an approach which contrasts with critics such as Whitworth, for example, who argued in Einstein’s Wake that the canonical works of high modernism were already written by the time the important quantum theories of the 1920s appeared. Through looking at modernist writers from different generations, she is able to trace influences from one writer to another: she points out, for example, that both Joyce and Beckett responded directly to Yeats’s ambivalent attitude to the new physics in his works, and that the shared interest in astronomy between Joyce and Beckett may well have had a long-term influence upon the latter.

Ebury opens her work by claiming that “in 1887 […] literary modernism and its practitioners were in their infancy.” She devotes her second chapter to Yeats (1865-1939), paying special attention to his early work (1889-1907). She points out that in this early period, as well as his late one (from 1921 onwards), stars were an important trope in Yeats’s work, but less so in his realist middle period, arguing that Yeats criticism has not previously addressed the destabilising function stars can have in his early poetry: their subversiveness supports Yeats’s antimaterialism and antirationalism.

As the title suggests, Ebury draws a sharp distinction between astronomy and cosmology. Whereas the former is the scientific study of individual celestial objects, cosmology studies the universe as a whole. Still, Ebury’s work encompasses both fields where necessary: the chapter on Yeats in particular is centred around his use of star imagery in his poetry and short stories, and the ‘absurd lights’ referred to in the subtitle of the monograph refer to Beckett’s description of the stars in ‘The Trilogy’. The cosmological component lies in the mystery of light as a whole, which was proven to be unknowable when the wave-particle duality was discovered, even as new technologies such as spectroscopy made it possible to analyse light in greater detail than ever before.

After her chapter on Yeats, Ebury moves on to discuss James Joyce and Samuel Beckett in greater detail, devoting two chapters to each author. In her third and fourth chapter, Ebury discusses Joyce’s understanding of the new physics. The contrasting chapter titles – ‘Yeats’s Cosmology’ for the second chapter versus ‘Joyce’s Cosmologies’ for the third – indicate Joyce’s multivalent attitude toward the new physics. She shows how Joyce uses the new physics to historicise the now superseded Newtonian physics: whereas the old physics was English, the latest developments come from the European mainland.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Finnegan’s Wake and its use of spectroscopy. This new branch of science proved vital for cosmology in the early twentieth century as starlight could be broken down into its individual components and the chemical composition of stars could be determined. Ebury connects spectroscopy to rainbow imagery, revealing its omnipresence throughout Finnegan’s Wake.

The next two chapters are similarly paired; both are devoted to Samuel Beckett. Chapter 5, ‘The Beckettian Cosmos’, is an introduction to the physics that influenced Beckett’s writing. As much of Beckett’s reading of (popular) science works can only be guessed at, Ebury focuses on the science he mentioned in those notes of his that remain to us, which includes a lengthy transcription of a passage from Poincaré. She analyses Murphy (1938) in this chapter, paying particular attention to the role of chaos and chance in this novel, which she connects to the idea of a relativistic universe, rather than to quantum physics as might be more commonly expected.

As with the two chapters on Joyce, the second chapter on Beckett scrutinises a selection of works more closely: Beckett’s ‘Trilogy’ (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable). She discusses Beckett’s use of light, especially of what she terms “difficult light.” Light, and starlight in particular, was associated with complexity and absurdity through the discovery of wave-particle duality, to which Beckett refers directly in Molloy.

In the short ‘Epilogue’ to her book, Ebury briefly connects her analysis of the three Irishmen she has worked with in her book to non-Anglophone modernism. In brief case studies, she discusses the influence of the new physics on authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Valéry and Kenji Miyazawa (the latter of whom she refers to as ‘Kenji’ rather than ‘Miyazawa’ throughout the chapter). In this discussion, she concludes that C.P. Snow, by disregarding modernism’s use of science, presented a view on literature and science that was already long outdated by the time he wrote his ‘Two Cultures’ essay – and, interestingly, that F.R. Leavis’s reply to Snow was equally ignorant of the interdisciplinarity of modernism. This is a valuable insight, and one which may have been worth a discussion of more than one page.

Modernism and Cosmology offers an in-depth analysis of several of the key texts of Irish modernism in its broadest sense. A similar scrutiny of other modernist authors worldwide and the extent of their knowledge of modern cosmology may indeed provide fruitful insights concerning the intersections of literature and science in the decades leading up to C.P. Snow’s mistaken claim that these two cultures did not intersect.


Kanta Dihal, St Anne's College, Oxford