Friday, 10 December 2010
Mathematising 'News from Nowhere'
We should surely be grateful that in News from Nowhere Bob the weaver has ‘taken to mathematics’ – to the point indeed where it has ‘muddled his brain’, according to Dick Hammond. For the inclusion of a mathematician in Morris’s utopia may allow us, in turn, to ‘mathematise’ that text. Morris’s close friend, Charles Faulkner, was a mathematics tutor at Oxford, and it is possible, even likely, that he would have come across Edwin Abbott’s wonderful geometrical fantasy Flatland when it was published in 1884. He may even have drawn it to Morris’s attention, so can we then ‘flatlandise’ Morris’s utopia too?
Well, it certainly is a very flat utopia! Set in the Thames valley, it has none of the dramatic verticality of its author’s late romances; there are no formidable peaks to scale or precipices to cross. Moreover, if there is a southward gravitational pull in Flatland, so too have we ended up thoroughly in the south in News from Nowhere, despite the occasional mention of Hadrian’s wall or snakes in Iceland. And if the geometrical entities of Abbott’s fantasy have to make out each other’s shapes and status by ‘feeling’, I wonder if this doesn’t bear upon the remarkably tactile nature of relationships in Morris’s utopia, where everybody is very rapidly holding hands or kissing or patting each other on the head.
Mathematically speaking, is not William Guest’s bafflement in Nowhere due to the fact that he is a two-dimensional product of capitalism adrift in an unsettlingly three-dimensional socialist world? And may not Ellen’s radical difference from all the other characters in the book in its later chapters be because she hails from Abbott’s mysterious Fourth Dimension, and is thus far beyond both two- and three-dimensional understanding?
I like to think that if Bob the mathematician attempted to interpret the book in which he himself features, this is how his geometricising reading of News from Nowhere might proceed!