The Joyce of Science: New Physics in Finnegans Wake
Index    Introduction    Background    Physics    Philosophy    Relativity    Quanta    Conclusion
Introduction: James Joyce and Science
Sketch of Joyce by Scott Ingersoll
Well, we have frankly enjoyed more than anything these secret workings of natures.

Finnegans Wake (615)

Joyce and science? Even a cursory look at the writer's biography suggests that his inclinations were humanistic rather than scientific. Joyce displayed literary talents since earliest childhood. He wrote his first poem at the age of nine and by his forties he reached literary fame. Joyce's scientific training was scarce and not always easy. As a teenager at Belvedere College he had difficulties with mathematics, but with an extra effort he managed to overcome them. A few years later, as a newly enrolled medical student, he attended some lectures on physics, chemistry and biology but "his faculty of application to disagreeable subjects, which had sustained him at Belvedere, had diminished" by then and, partly in response to these difficulties, Joyce ended his plans for a medical career (Ellmann 104).

Joyce's presumed lack of interest in science is further supported by a few frequently quoted passages from his correspondence and from his remarks on the subject of science. In one such passage, for example, Joyce admits to his patronness Harriet Weaver that he could never "understand in the least what [chemistry] is about" (Letters I 37). In another he plainly contends that he "do[es] not believe in any science" (Ellmann 693). An interesting exposition of Joyce's relationship to science is contained in a letter to him from H. G. Wells, who wrote in 1928:

Your training has been Catholic, Irish, insurrectionary; mine, such as it was, was scientific, constructive and, I suppose, English. The frame of my mind is a world where a big unifying and concentrating process is possible. . . . You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality. Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. (Joyce, Letters I 274-75).

Ironically, Wells's last phrase also aptly describes the state of theoretical physics at the time of his writing. In the first three decades of the twentieth century physicists came to a realization that they had been mistaken in their most fundamental assumptions about the nature of the universe. The world turned out to be not a smoothly running, intelligible machine but "a monstrous system of contradictions." These contradictions could not be resolved within the framework of logic and common sense on which classical science was based. They forced physicists to renounce the accepted scientific standards and adjust them to the requirements of the new research. The result of that adjustment was the development of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and one of its essential characteristics was a pronounced shift in physics toward the methods of the humanities, particularly philosophy.

Joyce found the new physics appealing, for the direction of the change brought the scientific outlook closer to his own. The world concept of new physics paralleled numerous aspects of Joyce's own vision of the universe. Responding to the scientific revolution, he incorporated new physics into Finnegans Wake, drawing on it whenever the scientific ideas matched his own. As a result, the book displays both motifs and structural elements related to contemporary developments in physics. And if the word "scientific" can be taken to imply accordance with the current view of science, Joyce, who resisted the study of science in his youth, could even be called a scientific writer by the time he completed Finnegans Wake.

Index    Introduction    Background    Physics    Philosophy    Relativity    Quanta    Conclusion  

Copyright © 1997 Andrzej Duszenko