25 January, 2006

Sylvie and Bruno: tangent II

"They run their railway-trains without any engines—nothing is needed but machinery but machinery to stop them with. Is that wonderful enough, Miladi?"

Mein Herr turned quickly round, to look at the new speaker. Then he took off his spectacles, and polished them, and looked at me again, in evident bewilderment. I could see he was thinking—as indeed I was also—that we must have met before.

"They use the force of gravity," he said. "It is a force known also in your country, I believe?"

"But that would need a railway going down-hill," the Earl remarked. "You ca'n't have all your railways going down-hill?"

"They all do," said Mein Herr.

"Not from both ends?"

"From both ends."

"Then I give it up!" said the Earl. "Can you explain the process?" said Lady Muriel. "Without using that language, that I ca'n't speak fluently?"

"Easily," said Mein Herr." Each railway is in a long tunnel, perfectly straight: so of course the middle of it is nearer the centre of the globe than the two ends: so every train runs half-way down-hill, and that gives it force enough to run the other half up-hill."
There are plenty of unusual technological conceits in Sylvie and Bruno. Carroll must have been fascinated, like many other Victorians, with steam and the possibilities of power. The problem of gravity caught his imagination, too: another conversation in the book features a Galilean thought-experiment involving a falling house which, some have argued, anticipates Einstein. The present quotation is a variant on that parlour-conundrum popular throughout the ages: what would happen if we fell into a straight shaft which extended right through the earth's diameter? A mathematical description of the rather obvious answer can be found here, from where this diagram is taken:

An annotation to Alice's rabbit-hole fall by Martin Gardner directed me to a 1909 article by Camille Flammarion, the popular astronomer who piqued scholarly controversy with an image known as the Flammarion Woodcut. The article offers a picturesque reconstruction of the earth-shaft problem, as well as calculating the time-spans involved:
The entire journey from one side of the earth to the other, going and coming, would last eighty-four minutes, allowing twenty-one minutes to arrive at the centre, twenty-one minutes more to arrive at the antipodes, and forty-two minutes more to return to the starting point.

If this shaft had its starting-point on one of the mountain plateaux of South America at an elevation of seven thousand feet, and if it issued at the sea-level at the other side, a man who had fallen into the shaft would arrive at the antipodes still travelling at such a speed that the spectators would see this strange projectile shot to a height of seven thousand feet into the air. If, on the other hand, both sides of the shaft started on the level with the sea, it would be possible to shake hands with the traveller on his arrival at the surface, as for a moment he would be stationary in space, before falling again into the surface.

Such a shaft, of course, is beyond the bounds of possibilities.

— Camille Flammarion, 'A Hole Through the Earth', in The Strand Magazine, Vol. 38 (1909), p. 355.
The last line quoted here carries, "of course," the faint trace of mockery. This article, like his fantastical engravings and Theosophist fiction, evidences Flammarion's delight in quasi-scientific fancy. For today's reader, a brush with the heady technological enthusiasm of this period is thoroughly enjoyable. We see it not only in the quiet charm of Sylvie and Bruno, but also in the burgeoning science-fiction literature of the period—Jules Verne, J.-H. Rosny, H. G. Wells—the Decadent narratives of Lautréamont and Alfred Jarry; The Education of Henry Adams, Freud's steam-pressure metaphors, Duchamp, the Futurist Manifesto (1909), and other such artefacts.

But in Carroll, still, there is that all-pervading innocence, completely missing in the Continental celebration of energy. Trains are pleasant devices for conveying gentlemen through the English countryside. Physical power is manifested in eccentric inventions and thought-experiments of the drawing-room. Fashionable science appears in offhand references to the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, in this case twisted into a very typical Victorian parody of misunderstood academic jargonspeak:
"Talking of Herbert Spencer," he began, "do you really find no logical difficulty in regarding Nature as a process of involution, passing from definite coherent homogeneity to indefinite incoherent heterogeneity?"

Amused as I was at the ingenious jumble he had made of Spencer's words, I kept as grave a face as I could.
It is in fact this phenomenon which interests me, far more than the typical avant-garde techno-worship mentioned above; I would read it in parallel to that emotional stance described in yesterday's post, keenly ambivalent to encroaching modernism. Technology is not, as might have been expected, an aggressor excluded from the pastoral idyll of the novel's setting; rather, Carroll has constructed a world which is friendly to progress, but which also reduces it to a condition of inoffensive amiability.

No comments: