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


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 some aspects of Stead’s work, in particular her odd species of Zolaesque attention to local circumstances and their impacts on characters’ lives, Stead’s novels are by no means nineteenth-century fossils. This paper identifies Stead’s interest in the science of her day through a reading of the celebrated lecture on light from her first novel Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934). By noting the way in which this lecture addresses Einsteinian relativity, the momentous scientific theory of her age, we can identify Stead’s interrogation of the cultural meanings ascribed to relativity, which by the 1930s included its adoption as aesthetic metaphor among the avant-garde of high modernism. Stead’s use of relativity is quite different to European modernist writers and critics, who frequently employed Einstein to explain their aesthetic exploration of relativised space-time. Thus, the lessons of the lecture on light play out in the novelistic form of Seven Poor Men, a novel which explores how literary modernism might take root (or do something else entirely) in Sydney, Australia. I argue that Stead’s interest in relativity speaks not only to Seven Poor Men’s radical deterritorialising of national space and time, but that it is also indicative of this novel’s bold and ‘eccentric’ vision of modernism from the other side.

The lecture on light, the first of ‘A Course of FIVE LECTURES’ (95) to be held at the ‘Physics Lecture Theatre’ at the University of Sydney appears in chapter six of Seven Poor Men. It is attended by Joseph Baguenault, a lowly printer, Baruch Mendelssohn, a printer and Marxist intellectual, and Catherine Baguenault, Joseph’s cousin, who works at the offices of a local socialist newspaper. Stead, who worked imaginatively with first-hand material, supplemented with a great deal of research, was alluding to a real series of lectures that took place at the University of Sydney on Einsteinian relativity. Considering her connection with the University of Sydney, her interest in science and that she was known to attend W.E.A. lectures, it is even possible that she was in the audience. 1 The series was advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 November 1923 as ‘Astronomical Lectures’:

Professor W. E. Cooke and Mr. W. F. Gale, who were engaged in observing the eclipse phenomena last year, and endeavouring to test Einstein’s theory of relativity, will this evening commence a series of five lectures, under the auspices of the Workers’ Educational Association. The lectures will be given in the Geology Theatre, University of Sydney, on succeeding Wednesdays, at 8 p.m.2

Lectures like Cooke and Gale’s were quite common in the years after the news of relativity first broke and are evidence of the significant public interest in Einstein’s theory. Interest first peaked in November 1919 when news of the first apparent proof of relativity was simultaneously cabled across the globe and filtered through local newspapers.3 The London Times quite soberly drew distinctions between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics, while noting that ‘The Einstein doctrine is that the qualities of space, hitherto believed absolute, are relative to their circumstances’.4 The New York Times framed the discovery as a debate between obscure science and ordinary people and was a little more sensational, with its headline, ‘Lights all askew in the heavens’, to which was added the subhead: ‘Stars Not Where They Seemed […] but Nobody Need Worry’.5 In Australia, relativity was presented to local readers via a ‘Mr. E. M. Wellish, lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Sydney University’ who had ‘recently studied at Cambridge and in America’.6 In noting that news of Einstein’s momentous discovery was framed differently in different contexts we arrive at the odd realisation that in an age of global interconnection, the particular presentation of the news that ‘the qualities of space […] are relative to […] circumstance’ was itself relative to circumstance.7 We need only imagine the confusion of transplanting the New York Times headline directly to Australia, a nation which had only recently chosen a flag representing the Southern Cross (lights all askew) shining comfortingly beneath the Union Jack (nobody need worry).8

What is at stake here is not so much the scientific theory itself, but rather the cultural transmission and meaning ascribed to relativity. The fact that relativity was the talk of the town (which ever one you were in) made even more pressing the question of what this obtuse theory actually meant. And questions were almost immediately posed. For example, on the 12th of November 1919, two days after the announcement of the findings in Sydney, a reader of the Sun wrote in with concerns that ‘Einstein’s theory […] may destroy Euclid’s definition of a straight line.’ If ‘this definition goes overboard,’ the writer notes, ‘nothing in the world can be straight. How can we ever trust our politicians again?’9 Another reader, a ‘Mr. I. Will Soak’ claimed that he had independently discovered relativity years previously in a Sydney bar, but that his theorisations had only fallen on the deaf ears of one ‘Professor von Cosmos.’ Nevertheless, Mr. Soak held Einstein’s violation of Newtonian physics as responsible for ‘Bolshevism and the new art, and the way women dress’ as well as the recent ‘wave of blue-bottle flies’.10 In his comments about the ‘new art’, Mr. Soak appears to have been oddly perceptive, for shortly after (or perhaps at that very moment), in Bloomsbury, J. W. N. Sullivan a journalist and editor of the Athenaeum was crafting a new career as a popular science writer, and eagerly explaining Einstein to the modernist avant-garde. Sullivan’s first and intimate audience included, among others, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Ezra Pound. These luminaries saw in relativity – with its relativising of time scales, its sense of presenting a radically new way of seeing the world, and perhaps the interesting combination of its popularity and obtuseness – a perfect metaphor to capture the new art they were promoting.11 In Time and Western Man (1927), Lewis claimed the metaphor for the new high art, by dismissing popular, ‘meaningless’ misunderstandings of relativity and proclaiming himself ‘critic’ of the school of ‘time doctrine’ (86). Lewis claimed: ‘Mr. Joyce is very strictly in the school of Bergson-Einstein, Stein-Proust. He is of the great time-school they represent. His book is a time-book’ (86–87). Even more famous perhaps is T.S. Eliot’s 1923 review of Joyce’s novel, ‘Ulysses, Order, Myth’ in which Einsteinian relativity makes a notable appearance:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. (177)

In turning to Stead’s lecture on light, it may not be a stretch to suggest that its allusion to Einsteinian physics is also an allusion to one of its established cultural meanings in the Anglophone avant-garde (Seven Poor Men was published in 1934), so that it works as a kind of short hand for literary modernism.12 But in framing the arrival of relativity though a WEA lecture at the University of Sydney, Stead is not only able to return to one of the points at which relativity began to acquire its broader cultural meanings (beyond its narrower technical uses), but also to the question (to which we might add a Marxist inflection) of the newspapers: what does the news of relativity mean to the ordinary man in the Imperial and literary provinces? Joseph Baguenault – physically, intellectually and monetarily poor – is Stead’s ordinary man. When Baruch first proposes that he and Joseph attend the lectures, Joseph is immediately reluctant: ‘It’s too much [money], and I wouldn’t understand’ (96). On the unfamiliar ground of the University, Joseph initially feels uneasy in the hubbub of students who are far more educated than him. But the lecturer explains with a ‘clear dry passion’:

“What you see is the action of light waves: light is emitted in waves from a radiant object, as from this globe, and in waves passes through space and matter…”

[…] He described the chemical constituents of light, showed them the prismatic distribution of light into elements, made the blacks in the prism significant, described the composition of the atom, the electronic universe, the weighing of the stars, the blasting of an atom, chemical affinities: enough in an evening to send them home in a stupor, drunk with learning. (185)

In the dark of the lecture theatre, lights flashing on the ceiling, soothed by the sound of the lecturer’s voice, Joseph experiences a profound epiphany as he perceives ‘through a great door in his mind’s eye’:

a sort of internal cathedral in which the five senses were as five ogival windows […] He saw thousands of concentric cubes, kingdoms of crystals ascending from needle-tufts to Dolomites, hierarchies and hosts of peaks like the hosts of the empyrean, orderly dissolutions and reformation, like armies in battle, […] the universe of the electron resembling the solar system […] He breathed quietly and joyfully, the world fell into order and the furniture of his mind moved mysteriously into the proper places – like the marshalled benches of a class-room, like the austere reading-desk of the lecturer. (185–86)

Joseph’s reaction, the perception of a great harmonious structure, might be seen not so much as a glowing report on the benefit of cheap and available education, but rather as a critique of the way in which a link between education and power can result in the experience of power as revelation. The lecture theatre, is, after all, not so dissimilar from a church: a sermon is delivered in an unfamiliar language and white light is broken into brilliant colours (stained-glass windows) all in an ambience of hushed awe: ‘The class applauded faintly, not sure if it was correct in a lecture on physics’ (187).13 In short, Joseph’s reaction might be seen as being elicited more by the form (and forum) than the content of the lecture, a meaning suggested in the extract above as well as in the line, ‘the universe seemed more perfect and orderly [to Joseph] that it did to the lecturer’ (186).

The lecture on light has often been read as part of the novel’s dramatisation of Joseph’s journey, in part under Baruch’s tutelage, out of the darkness of poverty and superstition towards enlightenment. Baruch notes: ‘The quietest and simplest man can develop endlessly: even the lifelong sleeper can be awakened’ (153). In this sense, Joseph’s reaction is entirely intelligible as a scientific revelation, which speaks to Einstein’s discovery of a new way of seeing a far more disordered world, captured through breathtakingly simple equations: E = mc2 and Gμν = 8π Tμν.14 While not discounting Joseph’s creative misuse of the material entirely, it is important to notice that the lecturer does warn against the possibility of a mystical interpretation of the new physics:

Not to mislead you, I am rubbing out these diagrams, which are symbols and do not represent any existing thing. They are a convention for something not understood … these things have never been seen […] The newest is not necessarily the best … I am not dogmatic, do not you be […] Our course will not be dramatic as to-night’s lecture has been. It is for sober students. (187)

Here the lecturer is trying to communicate, amidst a global hype surrounding relativity, the scientific fact that Newtonian physics still describes day-to-day life which even the somewhat sensationalist reporting in the New York Times made clear to readers:

Asked if recent discoveries meant a reversal of the laws of gravity as determined by Newton, Sir Joseph said they held good for ordinary purposes […] One of the speakers at the Royal Society’s meeting suggested that Euclid was knocked out. Schoolboys should not rejoice prematurely, for it is pointed out that Euclid laid down the axiom that parallel straight lines, if produced ever so far, would not meet. He said nothing about light lines.15

As a manual worker in a print shop, Joseph’s immediate world is particularly Euclidean. But even Euclid does not come easily to him. In an earlier scene of the novel (the very scene in which Baruch suggests they attend the lecture series) we learn what is at stake in his attempts to grasp mathematics. Joseph looks down at examples in his algebra book and ‘shyly show[s] the examples, hoping that Baruch would do them for him’ (93). Baruch instead chooses to instruct Joseph, at first ‘choosing his words simply’ (93). The theme of tutelage, also appearing in Times article quoted above, is suggestive of the way in which Euclidean geometry is vital to the institutions of the nation-state. Baruch notes: ‘Grasp this and this, and you have invaded the whole question. More than that, you are on the road to the capital city, you can take down the kingdom, you border on all that is known in science. Not so much is known, don’t think it, that you can’t make your way’ (93). To put this another way, if Joseph is to escape from his status as a second-class citizen he must learn to speak the language of the state, which is Euclidean mathematics. This is not as abstract as it may sound. We pay our taxes, work, and when we vote, we tick the box inside a small Euclidean square. Stead (or perhaps Baruch) is eager to remind us that this is the world in which we live and work and in which we may take political action. This sense of Euclidean space given cultural form is at the heart of Benedict Anderson’s conception of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation-state. Anderson compares a medieval conception of ‘simultaneity-along time’ with the nation-state’s ‘empty time, in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not by prefiguring and fulfilment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar’ (25). Anderson also argues that this ‘empty-time’ is given cultural form through two key cultural artefacts: the newspaper and the realist novel (25).16

To frame the lecture in terms of aesthetics, then, the lecturer’s comments that his diagrams do not speak to everyday experience and that ‘the newest is not necessarily the best’ might be read as a rejection of the new physics (and the new aesthetics, what might aesthetically look like a form of Social or even Socialist Realism). However, such a reading would require that when we return from epiphany to the Euclidean world of everyday existence, we witness a return to order. At the end of the lecture we see the opposite. The students

paddled round getting their cloaks and umbrellas, and left in a sort of scrimmage, a shameful collection of dilly-dallies. Compared with the universe, they were in a disheartening disorder. (187, my emphasis)

In fact, what relativity produces, in strictly scientific terms, is a situation where the old and the new physics both apply. While the new physics destabilises the total-truth claims of the old, the old continues to speak to experience on all kinds of levels. Through this recognition we can see already, in a sense, how Stead’s use of relativity might be somewhat different from avant-garde modernists like Lewis who dismissed popular attempts to understand Einstein’s theory and whole heartedly embraced relativity alone in his reading of Joyce. Rather than containing anarchy (à la Eliot), in Stead’s hands, the conflict between these models is vital for producing the kind of spatio-temporal strife which characterises this novel as a whole. Even the scene in which Baruch and Joseph walk to the Physics lecture theatre appears to invoke powerful spatio-temporal frames which are, in some respects, incongruous. Joseph and Baruch’s short walk takes them from the howling wind of subtropical Sydney, past (faux) medieval hearths and into a new building that is not only the location of the lecture, but also appears to be the very symbol of the new physics:17

Joseph tramped along in silence. They squelched through the fat clay ruts and grass […] Out here the wind raged, the rain ran down into their socks and their necks, and streaked their uncut hair. The trees lashed about and the few lamps tossed on their stalks […] Faint lights gleamed, as in castles over the bog, in the Methodist and Presbyterian Colleges. They fought their way over the cinder-paths and marsh leaning against the wind, towards the new Physics Building. (181)

We might describe such scenes as ‘polychronotopic’ and I’m alluding (via Bart Keunen) here to Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential concept of the chronotope (Keunen 421).18 Bakhtin writes:

We will give the name chronotope […] to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature. This term [space-time] is employed in mathematics, and was introduced as part of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The special meaning it has in relativity theory is not important for our purposes; we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor (almost, but not entirely). What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time (time as the fourth dimension of space). (84)

Bakhtin’s argument adopts the Einsteinian relativity metaphor as a critical tool for looking at the way in which genre or style is linked to a conception of space-time. A ‘polychronotopic’ text would thus be one in which multiple spatio-temporal frames appear to be in operation with no one particular frame clearly emerging on top; in Bakhtin’s terms, functioning to ‘fuse’ the ‘spatio-temporal coordinates’ into ‘one carefully thought-out, concrete whole’ (84). One of the remarkable things about Bakhtin’s theorisation of these spatio-temporal frames (perhaps because he mostly worked on nineteenth-century novels) is his assumption that texts must have an ultimate order, rising to the top to contain the chaos of other spatio-temporal frames. Seven Poor Men is polychronotopic in the sense that it varies between styles. It might be described to some extent as a kind of naturalistic rendering of Sydney, but such a frame is often broken by moments of psychic rupture (for example in the narratives of Catherine and of Kol Blount), or the long political exegeses of Baruch. The novel might also take its coordinates from a strange realist narrative (via Michael, Catherine and Joseph), a historical frame (the Seaman’s Strike); a story of psychic awakening (Kol Blount), but none of these appear to offer a comprehensive way of reading the narrative as a whole. In other words, the various narratives of Stead’s novel do not, as in Balzac for example, coalesce around one frame, but sit askew and multiple.

In as much as the chronotope links space-time with form, a recognition of polychronotopia speaks to the consistent criticism that Stead’s novels are deformed or even formless. Wilson, Schlueter and Schlueter note of Seven Poor Men of Sydney: ‘Different effects of poverty give the novel its unity, imperfect because of other important characters and because of romantic and grotesque passages not directly integrated with the theme’ (651, my emphasis).19 Stead’s own commentary on the novel, however, suggests not only an apparent carelessness with novelistic form, ‘Seven Poor Men of Sydney is not so much a novel, I suppose, as a cast of characters battling through daily life,’ but even formlessness as a deliberate choice (Williamson 14). In her notes for The Workshop on the Novel that Stead taught at New York University in the 1940s, we find evidence of her scepticism about novels or novel sequences that function via ‘total inclusion system’ (Lever 89). She spoke of both the realist novel sequence (such as Balzac’s Human Comedy or Zola’s Rougon-Macquart), as well as the modernist novel, as falling into the trap of this totalising vision:

Some modern writers include everything that is supposed to pass through a person’s mind and the smallest things are supposed to have great meaning […] It shows a lack of firmness, of experience and a fear in a changing world (Joyce, Proust, even Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos) […] The writer can’t work satisfactorily without the power and desire to select. (qtd in Lever 89)20

Stead’s solution to this problem is to ground her novels (as her comments on Seven Poor Men above suggest) in characters that share a relatively defined space and time (‘a cast of characters battling through daily life’). Her advice to students, to ‘collect your characters round you, live with them, not only in your heart and mind but actually in life’, speaks in particular to this novel set in the Sydney which the young Stead knew so well (Lever 87). But in choosing this frame of the city, which again recalls realist and modernist novels functioning at this scale, Stead is also recognising that each character is differently entangled in a vast mesh of local, national and transnational forces. As Stead wrote in ‘Uses of the Many-Charactered Novel’: ‘There is little need for [the writer] to become prosy and hand down the tables of the law, for the characters provide all morals and checks by their many-sidedness’ (197). It is this vision of characters entangled in the mesh of a polychronotopic fabric which appears in the beautiful Endpiece of Seven Poor Men:

Now between Joseph, this traveller hurrying on with head thrust forward, and the nearest star something moves which may be a silk mesh such as conjurers used […] The threads of the mesh appear and are woven of the bodies of flying men and women with the gestures interlocked in thousands of attitudes of passion. […] Now the web trembles, now the threads are free and they swing out into space, feeling their way in universal shade and bearing their own light like the rayed bottom-fishes. They sit on saturnic moons, they sway far out in the interstellar spaces. Suns brighten and flash! […] What were those creatures? Men, or dreams, or magellanic clouds? (318)

The cosmic imagery of this passage recalls the lecture on light, as well as employing some of its lessons in detailing its cosmic vision. Of particular importance is the part of Joseph’s epiphany in which he views ‘chemical affinities resembling human love, the universe in the electron resembling that of the solar system’ (186). In the Endpiece, the universe is envisaged on such a scale that men and women are as small as atoms. But also, because atoms are just miniature versions of the solar system (as we learn in the lecture on light), they refract the threads of light that bind them into a vast universal web. These atoms interact with each other (within the space and time of Stead’s narrative) and in doing so exert a degree of gravity (or influence, via ‘passion’) on each other. Yet these creatures are all, of course, part of a wider universe to which they are bound by the great ‘mesh’ of space-time: the great, global web in which we all live and which itself is full of ripples and distortions.

Stead’s image of lumpy interstellar fabric not only conjures scientific models of the shape of the relativised universe, it also chimes with Michel Serres’s metaphor of the crumpled handkerchief which he uses to describe the odd space-time of modernity. As Lynda Nead explains:

The image of pleated time is literally visualised by Serres in the metaphor of the handkerchief. Spread out and ironed, the handkerchief represents a metrical, geometric concept of time, in which distance and proximity are stable and clearly defined; but crumpled in the pocket, the handkerchief evokes a ‘topological’ concept of time, in which previously distant points ‘become close, or even superimposed’ […] Modernity … can be imagined as pleated or crumpled time, drawing together past, present and future into constant and unexpected relations and the product of a multiplicity of historical eras. (8)

One of the remarkable things about Nead’s explanation of Serres’s metaphor is that despite the fact that the metaphor is clearly interested in space and time, Nead (who is working on Victorian Literature in London) glosses over the metaphor’s spatial dimension.21 Yet for Stead, seeing the world from the ‘eccentric’ view of Sydney, space is very much an issue, not least for the way in which, as postcolonial city, Sydney is composed of a mashup of historical styles. Stead’s atom-to-the-universe metaphor is a scalar model that runs threads from the local to the universal and back again and in many ways it recalls Joyce, who had published Ulysses only a decade or so earlier: ‘I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal’ (conversation with Arthur Power, qtd in Ellman 505). Keeping in mind that Joyce’s Dublin does not carry the same kind of clout as Paris or London (although it was starting to accumulate such force by the time Stead was writing), there is a significant difference between Joyce’s Dublin (certainly Eliot’s version), and Stead’s Sydney. If we dig down into the strata of Sydney we find no medieval wall framing the old city-limits, and we do not (at bottom or top) come across a great unifying Western European myth. Rather, as in Kol Blount’s ‘In Memorium’, we encounter a bloody history of dispossession – ‘mountain bluffs were climbed, the blackfellow destroyed’ – that tears through the fabric of the nation state in moments of crisis (308). This moment of rupture also allows through other voices, of ‘Malays’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Kanakas’ and sailors from numerous colonial powers, suggesting a richer history of global connection than that afforded by orthodox colonial history (308). Moreover, Sydney itself is in the process of change. The Harbour Bridge is being built, new suburbs are springing up, and Stead’s descriptions of older villages like Fisherman’s (Watsons) Bay give the place a kind of exaggerated provincial authority (2). In Joseph’s epiphany during the lecture on light (which as we have seen is framed as a kind of misreading) the scalar world never appears organic (circular). Joseph sees, instead, ‘thousands of concentric cubes’ (186). The product, perhaps, of seeing a vision of a relativised firmament, doubly awry, as it flashes off the white-caps at South Head where Stead grew up: ‘Underneath is a giant gulf in which rushes the sea: the stars appear therein with intermittent flashes’ (317). As Robert Dixon has neatly put it in a recent essay: ‘At world scale – all the world is like America or Paris or Berlin, but never like Sydney’ (177).

The ‘formlessness’ of Stead’s novel thus appears to be something of a product, if Bakhtin is right, of the odd space-time of Sydney: ‘I am rubbing out these diagrams, which are symbols and do not represent any existing thing’ (187). Framing this more closely still in relation to the lecture on light, Stead seems to have drawn an interesting conclusion from the 1922 observations of the solar eclipse which, as noted earlier, formed the historical background of the Astronomy lectures. Such a connection might even, speculatively, be framed as a newspaper headline: ‘Empirical proof in Australia confirms relativity!’ In other words, partly because of an awareness of the oddness of Australian space which could not be cascaded into a neat hierarchy, and partly due to an interest in how Newtonian conceptions of space and time still defined the world of everyday people (and notably workers), relativity in Seven Poor Men of Sydney functions not so much as mythic formula (Eliotian, Joycean or even Einsteinian) but rather as kind of scientific method. Stead, who often described herself as a scientific writer is not a nineteenth-century naturalist, but a twentieth-century one, a ‘sober student’ of the new science (187). As Michael H. Whitworth writes in Einstein’s Wake:

As we shall see, many [twentieth-century] scientists preferred to think in terms of ‘description’ rather than ‘explanation’. The second law of thermodynamics, though pre-Einsteinian, represents the beginnings of this tendency: we can produce a formal statistical description of the behaviour of a group of atoms without understanding the mechanical ‘law’ they are individually obeying. Later, Einstein was to describe gravitation as a formal distortion of space rather than explain it as a mechanical force transmitted by an all-pervading ether (42, my emphasis).

In Stead’s hands this descriptive model is always drawn back to character (in a way that chimes suggestively with Whitworth’s comment about the difficulty in understanding the behaviour of an individual ‘atom’). As Kol Blount puts it, in a phrase that might be the novel’s epigraph: ‘What is as unfathomable as a simple man?’ (62). Stead adopts the methodology of the new science, rather than the beautiful ordered conclusions of its formulae to create a new realism which is ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘explanatory’ (Whitworth 42). This might be described as a Balzacian realism (which as Stead’s husband Bill Blake put it in a letter to Stead on 14 June 1942, ‘operat[es] by potency of setting to evolve a crisis for the biological machine’) but unhinged from Euclidean limits (Harris 219). Stead’s approach to the novel is thus not dissimilar from the lesson that Bakhtin draws from relativity. Bakhtin’s conception of the chronotope (as a unit of space-time) appears at the moment at which the national frame is de-essentialised. In other words, what seemed to be essential (the spatio-temporal frame of the nation) was in fact, relative. At this moment, there were a number of possible reactions.22 While Joyce (perhaps) was interested in reconstructing a kind of space in which a now homeless, atom-sized, individual might live, Bakhtin saw in this de-essentialised national frame a chance to interrogate space-time in narrative. And as a critic he goes on to perform a kind of study of how genre relates to space-time in a number of texts. In a similar (but not identical) way, Stead might be seen as describing, or studying how these various frames interact from a certain point in space-time which in Seven Poor Men is Sydney.

Such a view aligns with recent critical readings of Joyce. For example, Franco Moretti suggests something like polychronotopia when he argues that ‘Ulysses is a mad clearance-sale of literary styles […] the systematic refusal to assume one style as the privileged vehicle of expression’ (206). This change from the older Eliotian Joyce criticism has, in general, resulted in seeing the text less as a redemptive epic attempting to pull together the pieces of the nation-state (and its space-time) shattered to pieces by, among other things, the First World War, and more, though its polyphony of styles and spatio-temporal frames, as a radical (and local) disruption to world-wide standardised time, a key marker of which in the Anglophone world is the commencement of the BBC world service in 1932.23 While such a reading may seem slightly a-temporal, the BBC had begun in 1920 and by 1922 clearly promised even greater global integration than even the telegraph. In short, such a reading stresses the way in which Joyce, listening to a universal, simultaneous, imperial time (perhaps on the radio or at the cinema) said 'no' by constructing a polyphony of relative frames: medieval, local, national, etc., all of which refuse standard conceptions of (now global) space-time. In effect, polychronotopia represents a radical spatio-temporal strategy for refusing capture by the centre.

That such a universalist reading (as Eliot’s) was even possible for Ulysses (it seems that no one has imagined it for Seven Poor Men) points to one of the central ironies of modernism: that, as it becomes institutionalised, it increasingly aligns itself with a sense of global, standard time. To put this another way, if Ulysses is indeed a text that relativises time, decentring it, the conditions of its critical response as well as its publication also mean that it gets held up as an exemplar of the new art. And, in as much as modernism fetishises the new, works like Ulysses become, at least in the view of some, a kind of world standard of modern thought. It should be clear that this is a move that places this standard in a particular location at the start of the twentieth century, essentially letting a Newtonian world standard in, at the convenient moment, through the back door. This manoeuvre serves to buttress the operations of power in a literary market in which to not explore relativism meant that you were late.24 So it is ironic that lateness assumes a standard, privileged point of view that the theory of relativity appears explicitly to rule out. One of the ways in which Stead skirts this issue is not only via the temporal displacement of her narrative (back to 1923 and even before), but also by grounding her reading of Einsteinian relativity through a lecture presented by those who had seen the empirical proof, and against the background of the hype surrounding the theory. In other words, in Stead’s novel, news of relativity is filtered through a local context. This trope of filtering appears throughout the novel: in Joseph’s vision of light through cathedral windows; in Michael’s unsuccessful adoption of a romantic nationalism; in odd local manifestations of international workers’ movements; and in the attempts of customs officials to quarantine incoming vessels and their cargo.

While these images are suggestive of the way in which things arrive in a Sydney of increasing global interconnectivity, the threads of the mesh run both ways. If an awareness of the particular space in which Stead’s narrative takes place highlights the novel’s ‘eccentric’ spatial view of modernism, an awareness of time is equally important for understanding Stead’s temporal critique. Joyce and Stead did not grow up in the same (temporal) world. Rather, it is illuminating to place her in an international context of writers engaged with the radical left like John Dos Passos, who wondered what the relevance of James Joyce might be for the ordinary man.25 This generation of writers faced the full storm of economic collapse and rising political turmoil. During the 1930s, they turned towards politics as the boots of war in Europe seemed to be on the march again. Indeed, Seven Poor Men was published in 1934, one year after books (notably Einstein’s) were being burnt at fascist rallies. Stead’s radical form (which, in part, involves a critique of modernism’s form-as-religion) might also be understood in this context. In her 1939 Congress of the League of American Writers, for example, Stead argued for the ‘many-charactered novel’ of ‘strife.’ Rather than privileging form as a given, Stead’s aesthetic might be seen as disruptive, descriptive and empirically experimental, projecting the question of form towards futurity, or potentiality:

Possibly the first thing of all to the writer, though, is the temptation [the many-charactered novel] offers, to a greater and greater synthesis […] The great story, the writer may think, would be this – a sea of many lives, the world of today, from which rises a greater life, drawing sustenance from, acting, sinking back into them. (‘Uses’ 198–99)

There is a noticeably Marxist angle to this too, especially given the question that follows directly on from the sentence above: ‘Dimitrov, Lenin, the section organiser?’ (‘Uses’ 199). The way that this is framed, however, as a rhetorical question, distances Stead from a strictly orthodox Marxist understanding of history. In the same way that the great synthetic novel (one capable of preserving all the idiosyncrasies and strife of its characters) is displaced, so too is the vision of a collective socio-economic future – both are deferred to the point on the horizon where numerous parallel lines (appear to) meet.

Such an aesthetic methodology speaks to the way in which the highly mobile outsider (a woman, an Australian, a political radical) might be able cast a cold eye on world affairs, wherever she may find herself to be. A transnational movement from Sydney to London and Paris, concomitant with Stead’s own departure from Sydney in 1928, is also part of the novel’s fabric in as much as Seven Poor Men dramatises local material; the novel itself was previewed, moreover, by none less than Sylvia Beach in Paris and eventually published in London. Stead’s disruptive narratives which attempt to describe how different, and often uneven spatio-temporal scales shift around in different contexts, and through the lives of characters, makes her work highly relevant to current debates about world literature. In the sense Seven Poor Men never crystallises around a certain form or fixed perspective, because of its global, but double-refracting view, this and other early novels might be used, as Nirvana Tanhouki suggests, to ‘hasten the literary critique of scale by making cracks in the geography of world literature’ (600). Moreover, in the sense that Seven Poor Men constantly shifts, taking account of the different views from the various perspectives of its multiple characters, it appears to be a more scientifically accurate appropriation of Einstein than that of the avant-garde modernists. Stead was indeed a sober student of the new science. Stead’s is a Sydney of the world, as well as a way of looking at that world. A city in which ‘schoolboys’ yell ‘insults at […] blackshirt[s]’ (70), public houses are peopled with ‘negro pugilist[s]’ (312), ‘poor Chinese, sailors and loafers’ (140), and the papers report (tellingly prematurely) on German ‘armed forces disguised as sporting clubs’ (94) and bring news of ripples in the fabric of space-time itself.


  1. At the time of Cooke’s first lecture the twenty-year-old Stead was on a week of unpaid sick leave from teaching at Darlinghurst Girl’s School. Stead’s association with the University of Sydney goes back at least to 1920 when she was enrolled at the Sydney Teacher’s College, on the grounds of the University of Sydney and opposite the new physics building, then in construction. In 1922 Dr. Gilbert Phillips arranged a one-year scholarship for Stead and she became a research assistant in psychology and also attended lectures and ‘union debates.’ (Rowley 51–54)

  2. ‘Astronomical Lectures.’ Sydney Morning Herald 21 Feb. 1923: 15.

  3. While the 1919 results offered strong proof that Einstein was correct, corroboration was required. The period from 1919-1922 was marked by continued doubts about Einstein’s equations which had, after all, challenged two hundred years of stability in physics. Another spike in publicity concerning relativity came after the observations in Australia in 1922, when the next eclipse observations occurred. Cooke was in charge of a number of East coast observation sites, the most significant of which was at Goondiwindi.

  4. ‘Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe; Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.’ Times 7 Nov. 1919: 1.

  5. ‘Lights all askew in the heavens.’ New York Times 10 Nov. 1919: 1. Lewis Elton provides a neat summary of similarities and differences between British and American reporting of the discovery: ‘Both newspapers couched their reports in terms of a fight – in Britain between Newton and Einstein, in America between the common folk and the scientists – and both indicated that the theory was incomprehensible’ (Elton 95).

  6. ‘Einstein’s Theory.’ Sydney Morning Herald 11 November 1919: 7. Amazingly, the other key Sydney newspaper that broke the news of the staggering results of the solar observations was named the Sun!

  7. ‘Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe; Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.’ Times 7 Nov. 1919: 1.

  8. Cooke, or perhaps a perceptive lecture attendee, may also have noticed the irony of presenting the theory of relativity at the University of Sydney. The University motto Sidere mens eadem mutato, loosely translated as ‘the same mind under different stars’ and suggestive of a northern-hemispherically grounded universal Enlightenment humanism sits oddly with the discovery that space is different when perceived from different perspectives. As noted in the Dictionary of Sydney: ‘The growing maturity of Sydney as a colonial city was indicated by the establishment of the University of Sydney, in 1852. The university boasted the motto Sidere mens eadem mutato which means ‘the same minds under different stars.’ The implication of this motto was that the only differences between the new colonial society and that of Britain were geographic, and not cultural. The architecture of the original buildings of the university reflects this notion of entire transplantation. The Edmund Blacket-designed main buildings and St. Paul’s College were constructed between 1854 and 1860 in the Gothic Revival style, with little regard to difference in climate’ (Turnbull).

  9. ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ Sun 12 Nov. 1919: 6.

  10. ‘Bent Rays and Elbows.’ Sun 11 Nov. 1919: 6.

  11. Although it should be stressed that not all members of this group were totally sold on Sullivan’s ideas. In a letter to John Quinn, Pound recalled meeting Sullivan in Paris in 1922. According to Pound, Sullivan had given him a ‘lucid explanation’ of relativity or at least, mused Pound, ‘something he says is Einstein’ (Pound 216).

  12. Stead had certainly read Ulysses before Seven Poor Men was published. Moreover, Stead’s description of Joyce’s ‘musicality’ in a letter to a friend (Geering 5) resonates with Lewis’s description of the ‘musical society’ of ‘highly-intellectualised High-Bohemia’ in Time and Western Man: a group which includes Joyce, Stein and other prominent members of the modernist avant-garde (Lewis 47).

  13. The scene strongly recalls Joseph’s visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in chapter four: ‘The Cathedral, in yellow sandstone. Joseph thought of the cool inside the padded doors […] of the light which always blazed through the stained windows’ (110).

  14. I am referring to one of Einstein’s lesser known field equations which is of particular significance to general relativity. Written in geometrised units: G~µν~ = 8πT~µν~.

  15. ‘Lights all askew in the heavens.’ New York Times 10 Nov. 1919: 1.

  16. The newspaper is held up to a radical Euclidean reading, as series of pluses and minuses, by Baruch in a previous scene: ‘If you read the paper, you see (and you get bored with it), France has so many submarines, England has less, Germany has armed forces disguised as sporting clubs, Switzerland is swollen with the world’s gold deposits, Russia is spending millions on foreign propaganda, and whether they’ll go to war or not, with whom, for what, where, when, it’s only a question of plus or minus […] Pray don’t think mathematics is a mystery, Jo, it’s the bunk that’s obscure’. (94) Baruch’s reading might be seen as demythologising the form of the nation in that it reveals the organic connection we feel for our imagined communities, for what they are (in Baruch’s internationalist-Marxist view): a series of bureaucratic numbers, borders and clocks.

  17. The building was newly completed in 1924 (actually a year after the Cooke lectures), when Stead was a junior lecturer at the university.

  18. ‘Polychronotopia’ appears to be Bart Keunen’s coinage. He writes: ‘It is clear that any work of literature evokes several chronotopic images. Bakhtin points out that they usually appear in large numbers, which gives rise to the phenomenon of what we might call, in analogy with his notion of polyphony, polychronotopia’ (Keunen 421). Although Keunen also directs our attention to the work of Lynn Pearce (Pearce 174).

  19. In a similar vein, Louise Yelin notes that House of All Nations (1938]) is ‘shapeless, almost plotless, satiric in mode and encyclopaedic in scope.’ (71-72). Jonathan Franzen notes of The Man Who Loved Children (1940) that despite the novel’s brilliance it is ‘rather long, sometimes repetitious and undeniably slow in the middle’ (1).

  20. Due to difficulty in accessing Stead’s papers, I rely on Susan Lever’s excellent exegesis with its several extracts from Stead’s work.

  21. Paul Giles has suggested that one of the challenges of modernism’s transnational turn has been to think of modernism, primarily understood as a temporal category, in spatial terms.

  22. And here we think of Eliot in his more generous mode suggesting that no one that followed Joyce would be imitating him. Rather, Joyce, had opened a new field of inquiry, much in the same way as Einstein had opened the new physics.

  23. I have developed some of the ideas explored here, particularly in relation to contemporary Joyce criticism, based on an English Department Seminar conducted by Paul Giles at the University of Sydney in 2016. See Giles, ‘Ulysses’.

  24. The treatment of literary power is explored in Seven Poor Men, primarily through an interesting reading of Balzac’s classic exposé of the French Restoration literary field, Lost Illusions.

  25. See for example Dos Passos’s ‘Introduction’ to Three Soldiers in which he wonders how Joyce might exert an influence on popular culture but also perhaps be used in a political way during ‘years of confusion.’ Dos Passos writes: ‘You answer that Joyce is esoteric, only read by a few literary snobs, a luxury product like limited editions, without influence on the mass of ordinary newspaper readers. Well give him time. The power of writing is more likely to be exercised vertically through a century than horizontally over a year's sales.’ (Dos Passos 148).

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, doi: 10.20314/als.4055d6a109.