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  • Writing the Fourth Dimension
  • Willard Bohn

That the concept of 'the fourth dimension' played an important role in the development of modern art has become clear over the past twenty-five years.1 Although scholars have studied how selected artists responded to this revolutionary concept, the literary response has received relatively little attention. Since the artists and the writers were closely allied, however, one suspects the fourth dimension exerted a similar effect on modern literature. To date we have only a limited idea of the extent of this phenomenon, the forms that it assumed, and its ultimate significance. With this in mind, the following study examines some of the ways in which writers appropriated the concept of the fourth dimension as they sought to apprehend contemporary reality and to translate their impressions into words. More precisely, it focuses on a series of avant-garde authors who were situated at strategic points throughout the western hemisphere. While one or two major figures make a brief appearance, the remainder occupy a more modest place in the history of twentieth-century culture. With one or two exceptions, they wrote for ephemeral publications whose names, like their own, are largely forgotten today. The material itself was originally published in French, English, German, and Spanish. As will become apparent, certain texts confirm what we have learned about the fourth dimension from artistic sources. Others introduce variations on familiar themes and provide additional insights into both the temporal and spatial interpretations of the fourth dimension.

The competition between these two principles, and the confusion that occasionally resulted, is illustrated by Marcel Proust, who identified the fourth dimension with time while simultaneously conceiving it as a spatial phenomenon. Evoking his protagonist's childhood in the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, published in 1913, he described the village church in Combray in terms that recall H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895).2 Above all, he wrote, this venerable structure provided an important link with the past: '[C'était] un édifice occupant, si l'on peut dire, un espace à quatre dimensions – la quatrième étant celle du Temps [End Page 121] – déployant à travers les siècles son vaisseau qui […] semblait vaincre et franchir […] des époques successives'.3 Constructed in the eleventh century, the church was portrayed as a primitive (but highly effective) time machine that managed to connect the present with the past. This impression was reinforced by an implicit pun: déployer un vaisseau, which means both 'to extend the nave of a church' and 'to dispatch a ship' – in this case back through time. These two actions are depicted as operations that are not only interchangeable but structurally congruent.

Proust himself was haunted by the spectre of temporal loss, which assured that most of what was experienced would be forgotten before long. The failure of the conscious memory to resurrect the past assumes tragic proportions in the novel, whose title underlines his obsession with time. Unfortunately, the most influential English translation Remembrance of Things Past obscures Proust's itinerary and implies that the work is basically a memoir, an exercise in nostalgia. On the contrary, the author conducts a meticulous investigation into the possibility of recuperating past experience. Proust's discovery that precious memories can be triggered by any one of the five senses eventually provides an answer to his dilemma. The ultimate time machine, he discovers, is involuntary memory which obliterates previous obstacles and transports us to the distant past. Like the famous morsel of madeleine, which provokes his initial epiphany, the church at Combray symbolizes this magic operation. Unlike the first object, which is related to involuntary memory metonymically, the church serves as a monumental metaphor. The situation is complicated by the reference to four-dimensional space, quoted above, which implies that time travel is a kind of spatial exploration. In this case, the pattern of interference points to the presence of two conflicting intertexts.

That certain authors perceived the fourth dimension as a temporal principle prior to the publication of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (1916) is clear from the preceding example. Before this date, however, the dominant mathematical model equated the concept with space...


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pp. 121-138
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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