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He was called the Einstein of modern fiction after Ulysses appeared. The name for the quark, an elementary particle in quantum physics, was taken by Murray Gell-Man from Finnegans Wake. The uncertainty principle in Heisenberg’s quantum theory may have been the source for intentional indeterminacy in his literary metastructures. Now, in Joyce, Chaos, and Complexity, Thomas Jackson Rice explores and refines these familiar claims, opening important new critical ground by arguing that James Joyce texts and criticisms must be understood in the context of twentieth-century science and mathematics, particularly in the light of recent cosmologies of chaos and complexity.
Rice’s book develops two separate arguments: first, that non-Euclidian geometry influenced the composition of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and second, that readings of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake move in the same direction as contemporary scientific theories of chaos and complexity. The goal of both parts of the book, which tend to explore the periods before and after modernism more than modernism itself, is to rehistoricize Joyce, to help us to become Joyce’s contemporaries by restoring for us what was once common knowledge in the fields of science and mathematics for any university student at the turn of the century. It is a painful reminder of the changing curriculum in higher education to realize that even though Joyce was an average student in these subjects, his scientific and mathematical literacy a century ago may have reached a higher level than those of many Joyce scholars writing today. Our obligation, Rice argues, is to reconsider Joyce in the light of complex systems theory, an approach [End Page 444] now increasingly accepted in the contemporary physical and social sciences.
For the young Joyce, as Rice convincingly demonstrates, the new non-Euclidian geometry challenged the traditional Euclidian and Cartesian world view and its accompanying common sense approach to representation, resulting in changes that preceded modernism in their impact on cubism and new notions of space, time, and entropy. In the second part of his work, Rice explores the influence of Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, the Copenhagen interpretation, and quantum physics on such subjects as Mandelbrot fractals, artificial intelligence, and postmodern theories of chaos and complexity. Here Rice relies heavily on the writings of Paul Churchland, James Gleick, Henry Poincaré, Heinz Pagels, and John von Neumann, providing a refresher course in mathematical and scientific literacy from which many literary scholars could well benefit. The result is an important theoretical scaffolding that cannot be ignored in future Joyce studies.
Rice’s pioneering exploration of the territory between literary history and the history of science uses Joyce as a connecting bridge. Since there is no common framework yet for the several subjects Rice opens for discussion, a given reader may find some things more convincing than others. I wished that Rice had found space to examine Joyce’s keen interest in such pseudoscientific areas as numerology, word counting, and Pythagoreanism. Was scientific theory really more important to Joyce than scientific technology? In breaking down the old linear conventions of narrator, plot, and character, Joyce went further perhaps than any other author of his time in experimenting with nonlinear arrangements. Although Rice mentions Claude Shannon and reviews the subject of artificial intelligence, he might have supported his case by discussing the role of Alan Turing, developments in information and communication theory, and particularly the treatment of Joyce in the work on literary hypertext by J. David Bolter and George P. Landow. At times I found Rice’s discussion of linear versus parallel computer processing to be somewhat oversimplified, as in presenting von Neumann’s views on computer architecture or in classifying our “new-fangled desktop computers” as serial machines. Elsewhere, referring to a character identified as “Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein,” Rice echoes the additional honorific of movie adaptations, not the novel, [End Page 445] where Victor must face life doctorateless. Even though some of Rice’s arguments and evidence battle to a standstill, and others left me bristling at details, nevertheless I was convinced in...