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MANY WORLDS: THE NEW PHYSICS IN FLANN O’BRIEN’S THE THIRD POLICEMAN ANDREW SPENCER in a letter to his publisher, Flann O’Brien wrote “time is a great Xat motionless sea. Time does not pass; it is we who pass. With this concept taken as basic, fantastic but coherent situations can easily be devised, and in eVect the whole universe be torn up in a monstrous comic debauch.”1 This statement compounds a claim made in “Cruiskeen Lawn,” copying a similar claim by the English physicist Eddington, that because there are fewer than a thousand people in the world who really understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, then most or all physics professors must necessarily be teaching theories of the universe which are based on inadmissible premises.2 At the time when O’Brien was making these claims, scientiWc theory was, indeed , undergoing a revolution following work by Einstein, Planck, and others in the Welds of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. For an author fascinated by paradox and the counterintuitive, it is clear that the new Wndings were to provide a fruitful basis for humor. This is the basic concept mentioned by O’Brien above. In fact, O’Brien was remarkably upto -date on the state of research. He explains, This, em, pulse known as time—‘the experience of duration’—is still very baZing, notwithstanding the expositions and expostulations of men such as Minkowski, Einstein, Eddington. A horse has one-third the life expectation of a man. If a man is riding a horse, what sort of time informs this association? One reads that Newton distinguished two kinds of interval distinguishing events—distance in space and lapse in time. But what is it that lapses? The space-time men confute Newton and say there is in fact one interval. Do you know it would put years on a man.3 THE NEW PHYSICS IN FLANN O’BRIEN’S THE THIRD POLICEMAN 145 1 Letter from Brian O’Nolan to Timothy O’KeeVe, September 22, 1940, in A Flann O’Brien Reader, ed. T. O’KeeVe (London, 1974), p. 374. 2 “Cruiskeen Lawn” column, August 8, 1942, quoted in A. Clissmann, Flann O’Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writings (Dublin, 1975), p. 133. 3 F. O’Brien, Hair of the Dogma (London, 1986), p. 65. O’Brien’s penchant for playing with our common Newtonian view of time enabled him to reincarnate St. Augustine and James Joyce in The Dalkey Archive, and it is also in evidence in The Third Policeman, where the narrator returns home after an apparent sojourn of three days in the world of the policemen, to discover that in the “real” world sixteen years have passed. The idea of diVerent time planes is common to many Celtic folk tales of the Otherworld. When Bran, for instance, returns from his voyage in the ancient saga, he is confronted with a generation of hundreds of years hence and crumbles in a heap of ashes upon setting foot in Ireland, as though he had been dead for years. But this is not the sole source of O’Brien’s time games. In fact, he was not only fascinated by what he read on the subject of modern physics in Dunne’s The Serial Universe and An Experiment With Time, for example, he also had personal contact with one of its luminaries. Erwin Schrödinger, Austrian physicist and philosopher, winner of the Nobel prize for physics, took refuge from Nazi tyranny in Dublin through the war years up till 1956. Partly responsible for providing the equation for Einstein’s theory of relativity, Schrödinger was an active member of the literary life of Dublin, talking at gatherings in Desmond MacNamara’s studio, along with such of O’Brien’s closest friends as Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin, and Patrick Kavanagh.4 O’Brien was not unaware of Schrödinger’s lectures at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and, indeed, his newspaper column “Cruiskeen Lawn” is sprinkled with references to Schrödinger’s ideas. The speciWc relevance of Schrödinger’s inXuence can be seen Wrstly in the radical shift in our understanding of the nature of time in which his...


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