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"What points of contact existed between these languages?": James Joyce, Albert Einstein, and Interdisciplinary Study
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we cannot attach any absolute signification to the concept of simultaneity, but that two events which, viewed from a system of coordinates, are simultaneous, can no longer be looked upon as simultaneous events when envisaged from a system which is in motion relatively to that system.

Albert Einstein

Consider the following two statements, the first from a talk by Valery Larbaud (7 December 1922), cited in Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, and the second from Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein:

1.   literary people were as accustomed to hearing [Joyce's] name as scientific people the names of Freud or Einstein. (JJII 522)

2.   Einstein's life and work reflected the disruption of societal certainties and moral absolutes in the modernist atmosphere of the early twentieth century. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso, Joyce, Freud, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others were breaking conventional bonds. Charging this atmosphere was a conception of the universe in which space and time and the properties of particles seemed based on the vagaries of observations. (3)

It is odd that two people who never met nor read each other's work and who were parts of two very different communities should come together in each other's biography—and especially interesting that Joyce should make an appearance on the third page of the Einstein text. The reason for this proximity has less to do with the lives of each man and more to do with the modernist experience in our notion of a cultural history. "To understand Einstein," an early biographer writes, "means to understand the world of the twentieth century." Many of us would say the same about Joyce, even though Ellmann might whisper in our ear that we are still learning. While it seems natural to assume that Einstein's theories and Joyce's "usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles" (FW 179.26-27) would go hand in hand, attempts to bring the two together have never quite come off. This is not due to individual failures but instead to the complicated demands of a broader theoretical framework that seeks to find common ground across disciplinary boundaries. In the end, such an interdisciplinary project might tell us not so much about Joyce or Einstein as about our own critical desire to read them as a historical moment.

For Michael H. Whitworth, the scientific-literary undertaking boils down to a question of metaphor. He writes, "[F]aced with two terms which are commonly understood as antithetical, we must explain in what sense we are comparing like with like," for "we are not so much examining relativity and modernism as examining certain metaphors in their textual and historical context." Einstein, who disappointed the Archbishop of Canterbury by telling him "[r]elativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion," would most likely frown upon such interdisciplinary endeavors, as Philipp Frank observes (190). While affirming that Einstein's statement to the Archbishop "was no doubt true," Isaacson acknowledges that there exists a "more complex relationship between Einstein's theories and the whole witch's brew of ideas and emotions in the early twentieth century that bubbled up from the highly charged cauldron of modernism" (279).

How we read Joyce alongside Einstein—and how we read or cannot read each alongside the other's disciplinary system—is the subject of this article. Like Isaacson, we often want to have it both ways—modern science is "true" and thus cannot be influenced by cultural fashion, yet its possibilities derive from the very same historical cauldron as that of literature. One discipline places things within a cultural history; the other avoids such a methodology because to do so would undermine its very epistemological foundation. One discipline willfully forgets its past, while the other continually and necessarily gets lost along the way. That historical mediation—whether understood as past events or the active force of current social climates—is not as significant for the sciences as it is for the humanities seems to go without saying, but let us say it. Looking specifically at college curricula (notwithstanding the history of science courses), we would be hard-pressed to find any semblance of history in...

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