‘Lights all askew in the heavens’: Einsteinian Relativity, Literary Modernism and the Lecture on Light in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney

Abstract

This essay offers new insights into Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) and in particular its celebrated ‘lecture on light.’ It illuminates the historical context of Stead’s first novel, via reactions to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as well as its literary historical context, via the responses of modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis to the new physics. Eliot and Lewis used relativity as a metaphor to describe the literary experimentation of the literary avant-garde, notably James Joyce, as well as their own work. Stead, keenly interested in science but also (as a woman, a political radical and an Australian) something of a literary outsider, interpreted the science quite differently. The essay draws on another important cultural use of Einsteinian relativity, Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of the chronotope (the unit of space-time in literary form). It argues that Stead’s understanding of the impact of relativity on literary structure when seen from the odd postcolonial space of Sydney, produces a polychronotopic text that radically deterritorialises national space and time. Stead’s use of relativity entails an eccentric critique of avant-garde modernism, but the new physics may also be reinterpreted by Stead as a distinct aesthetic strategy that speaks to an inter-war period of increasing global mobility and political strife.

How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants? (Seven Poor Men of Sydney 17)

Christina Stead’s critical engagement with the science of her time began at a young age. As a child she read Darwin, Huxley and Spencer. She also recalled being ‘dragged to […] weekly or monthly meetings […] of scientists’ by her ichthyologist father (Lidoff 182–83). While Stead had serious qualms about becoming a scientist, an early grounding in science fostered a keen interest in contemporary scientific debates and how such debates circulated in popular and literary discourse. Most importantly Stead, like many of the nineteenth-century writers that she admired often described aesthetics using scientific metaphors. In an interview with Rodney Wetherell, Stead claimed, ‘I was brought up by a naturalist, and I am a naturalist’ (Wetherell 439). While this often quoted comment sheds light on…

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Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Modernism, Modernity, Science, technology, engineering, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Matthews, Sam. ‘‘Lights all askew in the heavens’: Einsteinian Relativity, Literary Modernism and the Lecture on Light in Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.4055d6a109.