Literary Math @ MLA

, Kristin Theresa Jaroma, Leave a comment

While it is undoubtedly good to reflect upon great literature and works of art, applying mathematical equations to them might be a bit much.

“[Wordsworth’s] apostrophe to the Imagination exemplifies ‘consciousness of self raised to apocalyptic pitch.’”  Or at least, so claimed Joshua Wilner of City College and The Graduate Center in his presentation, “The Mathematical Sublime and Chaos Theory in Kant and Wordsworth,” at the 129th Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention this week.

Joining thousands of English professors in the Windy City, on January 9, 2014, Wilner presented his ideas on how chaos theory is an essential component of the philosophical concept of the sublime.

The CUNY Graduate Center professor of Comparative Literature makes two major points of comparison in his paper: Hartman and Wordsworth to Kant; and Kant to Malthus and Verhulst.

In the first of these, Wilner connects Hartman’s commentary on Wordsworth to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime. Geoffrey H. Hartman, German-born American literary theorist, claims that Wordsworth’s account of that consciousness of self necessitates a ‘moment of arrest,’ that is to say, a moment in which the self is ‘raised’ to the pinnacle of its ‘apocalyptic pitch.’  Self-consciousness overwhelms itself in broken, exponentially ascending intervals. The notion of “raising” mentioned here hints at mathematical form, Wilner posits.

The exponential pattern of Hartman’s account of the moment of arrest, or apocalyptic pitch, in which the consciousness of self is exponentially raised, is congruent with Kant’s theory of the mathematical sublime.

In the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant states that the mathematical sublime is accompanied by geometrical expansion. “For there is nothing in the goal of measurement per se, ‘that would necessitate pushing the magnitude of the measure…to the boundaries of the faculty of the imagination,’” says Wilner.

Secondly, Wilner connects Kant’s analysis of geometrical expansion with the model of population growth in Malthus. These two are akin, according to Wilner, who goes on to say that “it is not entirely coincidental that Malthus should base his argument, not on the flaws of fallen human nature, but on the claim that ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio…,’ while ‘Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’”

In a geometrically expanding ratio, there will supposedly be a factor of uncertainty, even in relatively simple system. Chaos theory accounts for the potential for variability in these systems. And so, chaos is a defining characteristic of the sublime, these scholars argue.