Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Relativity in "Innocent Traveller"

As we have discovered, Ethel Wilson is actually using assumed chronology in Innocent Traveller as a device by which to represent in fiction the real effects that past and future have on present. The "Innumerable Laughter" chapter, for example, has Topaz Edgeworth's present experience of a sleep-out in the veranda materially transformed by one particular girlhood experience with her private teacher, Mrs. Porter. Or the following from "'By our First Strange and Fatal Interview'": "Mary was hardly prepared to see the future leap out into the open and transform her past into something which was not enough. But this was now achieved by the young man in black walking by her side."

The idea used by Ethel Wilson -- of Time as an efficient cause -- is not simply a fictional conceit. In contemporary Western society, Time is assumed thoughtlessly to be what a clock does: a rigid linear series of equal units. This was not the experience or understanding of time, certainly, in the pre-modern West, and likely not either in non-Western cultures.

The lecture thesis on Ethel Wilson is that she is the first post-modern writer. Innocent Traveller certainly, as I read it, is in sympathy with Albert Einstein's relativity theory (again, as far as this layman understands it!)

e = mc2 (energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light) is an equation that represents matter as being energy at a particular speed. For students of fiction this has as one important implication that the thoughts and actions of characters -- i.e. forms of energy -- have real and significant effects on the material world and on the movement of history, making the writing, reading and academic study of fictional representations of life a worthy enterprise.

Of interest to our understanding of Wilson's fiction is the fact that Einstein's famous equation also defines Time as being Matter and Energy in a certain relation. Reformulate e = mc2 as c = [root] e/m.

Reading this formula in a fictional way, then: if we read Wilson's novel as representing the human spirit as energy (Topaz is obviously a personification of energy) and the circumstances of the world (marriages, emigrations, etc.) as matter (using "matter" in the colloquial British sense) then the depictions of Time that Wilson has woven throughout her narrative are to be read by us as having the same reality as matter and energy do in our ordinary understanding

By the way, with these formula, we're just having fun here: definitely no Math for the final exam!

But to continue with the exercise, to help understand how the "c" - speed of light - in Einstein's relativity equation relates to Time, just look at it this way.

Think of distance ("D") as being a change in place ("ΔP"). And Speed in general is represented as velocity ("V"). And of course Time is "T". You'll remember from High-School that the formula for velocity is V = ΔP / T. (Recall that we're saying that "D" is the same as "ΔP"). If we recast this equation for Time "T", then T = ΔP / V

So, if our velocity "V" is a particular value - using Einstein's speed of light "c" - then c = ΔP / T and T = ΔP /c.

Let's return to fiction! This last formulation lets us read Innocent Traveller (the traveller is the one ΔP'ing!) as showing us that Topaz's travels - to Vancouver, then to ... where? - and her velocity (Wilson depicts Topaz explictly as being nothing more than non-stop rapidity of speech!) are a form of Time. Or in other words, Topaz did have an effect on Time-with-a-capital-T: or, in the word the text uses at important points, on Eternity.

This, then, is what Rose/Ethel sets out to achieve through her narrative fiction - an eternal life for her Aunt Topaz/Eliza.

Physics, Mathematics, &c. experts more than encouraged to correct the forumlae.


Anonymous said...

Why are we doing a unit on poetry? There is a separate English class called intro to Poetry for the people that want to read poetry. I took this class hoping for something exciting (and no poetry), but i guess that is something that i cant have. I am dissapointed that you choose a poetry book. :(

audacity said...

can anybody elaborate more on the fictional themes tackled on the lecture please? coz it'll be very helpful if we do tackle it in terms of chapters in "the innocent traveller" or the previous text. it will come in handy for mid-terms...

Adam Nowek said...

I stopped taking business courses for a reason, you know. I thought I'd never have to see another formula again!

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Well, you have to see them all over the place: good thing is, you can just laught at them now ;--)

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Dear "Anonymous"
Thank-you for your question about the poetry: I appreciate the honesty. And you took an English course looking for something exciting? You made my day! I'll tell you what: in return for that kindness I'll make sure that you can hate the small amount of poetry we are doing and still do really well on the Final & without stress. OK?

(I'll also try hard to make you love the Avison readings even if you are a poetry-hater ;--)