Warp of a Field
Hercules Constellation engraved by Sidney Hall, 1824
by Jessica Sequeira
A star sends its light through space, and this passes through the strong gravitational field of the sun. The field bends the light, so the position of the star changes. During a total solar eclipse, the difference is visible if you’re located in the right place, as Arthur Eddington was for instance in May 1919. He’d traveled to the Island of Principe to record the disparity and prove Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was more than the fantasy of an imaginative German. In Science and the Unseen World, which he wrote that same year, Eddington took the long view, describing how “centres of condensation” can build up over time:
The years rolled by, million after million. Slight aggregations occurring casually in one place and another drew to themselves more and more particles. They warred for sovereignty, won and lost their spoil, until the matter was collected round centres of condensation, leaving vast empty spaces from which it had ebbed away. Thus gravitation slowly parted the primeval chaos. These first divisions were not the stars, but what we should call ‘island universes’, each ultimately to be a system of some thousands of millions of stars.
Can moments in human time operate like these “centres of condensation”? Are changes in emphasis capable of altering the conceptual plane? Can a group of eccentrics with certain ideas warp human history, in the same way that stars and particles of matter can warp space?
… Take a deep breath, Richard Pearse tells himself. He’s about to fly over New Zealand, the first in the world to operate a heavier-than-air machine. He’s only invented it recently, and to this point has used it exclusively for short-distance maneuvers. Today things will change. There he is now, up in the air, moving along the flightpath. He notes differences in the terrain. Heading southwest, Wellington to Christchurch, he follows the great spine of the Southern Alps, hits Ashburton and continues on. To the west is Queenstown, with The Remarkables on Devils Staircase. Below is his intended destination, Oamaru on the South Island.
His airplane crosses overlapping tectonic plates, moving from regions of dryness to those of rain. With great care he follows the plan mapped out before leaving, not risking a single deviation or veering off course one iota. This is necessary, for were he to do so, he’d be flying blind. With the plan, he fears nothing. Maneuvering his plane through the sky, he follows the set path.
Gradual shifts are evident. The trees start to become a bit more or less yellow, mountains clump together with increasing or decreasing frequency, lakes and clouds rise or fall in number. Nor are the changes simply a matter of quantity. There are also changes in quality, i.e. curvature or intensity of blueness; relations with neighboring objects, i.e. hugging or looking askance; attitude, i.e. rest or attack position; and curvature, i.e. the way water bends around islands, so it looks like an embrace or gawping amoeboid mouth. In general these changes in category adhere quite closely to the Aristotelian praedicamenta, and the thought occurs to Pearse that if Aristotle were an aviator today, he’d be quite the flying ace.
Peering down at Earth in this way is fascinating, but Pearse also realizes that the way he sees depends on his position in the aerial survey. Kilometer after kilometer he moves along, but were he to shift either horizontally or vertically, the attributes noted would be distinct. So he faithfully continues to follow his flight path, better not to risk a crash. After landing his plane with care in an open field, Richard Pearse steps down, brushes the dust from his high-waisted trousers and makes his way to the center of Oamaru, a little town with colonial buildings in the neoclassical style, fronted by a gorgeous blue harbour.
An innocent bystander glances at him as he approaches. From the way he stares Richard Pearse suspects he must look like a monster in his pilot’s cap, fitted jacket, dark smoky goggles. But he’s not a monster, just an aviator, one not yet known. His brown hair curls more than usual in the humidity and his cheeks shine. He looks like he needs a nice cool refreshment, a Foxton Fizz. That’s what the innocent bystander thinks, as his feet carry him ever closer to the man. One wouldn’t be amiss for him either, to cool his feverish brains. The innocent bystander knows a man dressed like this in modern New Zealand isn’t necessarily a real aviator, but more likely an eccentric and harmless aficionado of the growing steampunk presence the town has seen in recent years.
Modernized Victorian dress complete with suspenders, Inverness jackets, leather spats and aviator goggles, is longer an outlandish sight in the streets. The innocent bystander slaps the man on the shoulder. Do you know, for a minute I thought you were Richard Pearse! he says, laughing. I am Richard Pearse, squeaks the man, disturbed, but the innocent bystander has already gone on, toward the town’s central square. When he gets there he sees a group of people gathered, all dressed like the man he’s just passed. Ah, so I was right then, the innocent bystander thinks. What strikes him first about these people is their attitude, defiant, sly, but also amused, as if at any moment something might happen and they’ll go with it, without feelign flustered. Oamaru, they say, is steampunk capital of the world.
Notebook in hand, the innocent bystander approaches a woman with a monocle, flaring dress and umbrella, and asks about the spectacle. “Is it ever possible to explain a mystery without destroying its allure?” the woman shoots back, half coquetting, half irritated. Then she shrugs. “We like heaviness.” “But why?” the innocent bystander asks, insistent. “Isn’t that a negative quality?” He thinks of lethargy, dreamless sleep, an anchor on the soul, rigid system, shackles clamped tight.
The woman looks at the innocent bystander, hands on her hips. “Well, Sir, to most of the world, it probably does. But don’t you think lightness has its downside too? It’s true most technologies in our modern world promise it, and in general we experience this as a liberation—” “Yes, a liberation! That’s the very word,” the innocent bystander cuts in. “An intangibility of data, an invisibility that seems to approach some definition of the spiritual…”
The woman holds up her hand, looks at the innocent bystander coldly. “Don’t interrupt,” she says, lowering her palm and using it to smooth the lace frills of her skirt. “That very likeness of which you speak so highly can easily begin to seem oppressive. All of us came here in part because of this. Our bones started to feel brittle and light, and a creeping fear afflicted us that we’d drift away, bodiless. We felt we were becoming air dissolved in air, so we took steps… but sit down and let me explain.” Somewhat overwhelmed, the innocent bystander finds a place on a bench to listen, as the woman takes a long cool sip of her Foxton Fizz, and begins to speak.
The future, they say, is the upload of the self onto a cloud, but do we really desire a life so mental? Esprit, lightness, was the basis for Talleyrand’s ideas of dispensability, in which humans, bits of debris, float helpless down the stream of history. Heaviness, in contrast, is density, solidity, continuity, reliability, loyalty and tradition, all of which feel so very much more real. How conservative, one might moan; but no, not at all.
This heaviness requires a certain courage, the assumption of a stand, just as a stick planted in the mud of a stream must hold strong as water rushes round it. In the same way a stick can alter the flow of the water, so a revaluation of heaviness can begin to warp values. Think of the fin-de-siècle appreciation of stasis, with its description of dead flowers, Japanese vases and corpses, occasionally even arriving at the level of necrophilia. We don’t want to go that far, but we do see value in the solidity of objects.
The woman sticks her hand in a fold of her skirts and comes up with something metallic: not a brooch, but a pair of goggles.
History is an exquisitely thin fabric, receptive to the slightest touch. Any symbol dropped on it will carry weight, just as a heavy brooch pulls down the conceptual fabric. The fabric of time is itself a fabrication, and those of us here, deliberately or not, are creating an alternate history, pulling the cloth our way. What is required is the introduction of a subtle change, moving past into present, or present into past, to create a new conceptual flight path.
This might seem very abstract, but in practice it is not at all. Changing ideas comes down to objects, dress-up, works of art, writing. Sometimes all this play remains just play. But sometimes new topologies of knowledge are created, vivid enough to affect the ‘real’. The brooch falls on the cloth, the cloth falls on the ground in folds, a warp is created. The flight path changes. Even if the narrative of progress still pilots the craft, the path is no longer linear.
With a cool gesture, the woman slips on the goggles.
Imagine the new air routes that will exist. Will the planes crash? Will they collide? Will they go up in flames? We do not know. What we do know is that when history is tinkered with in this way, strange things can occur. The unhappened can happen, the flat fabric of history can warp, the strange can transpire. Glitches can result from the interior of the new folds, the brushing together of cloth from disparate parts of the topography.
Given this, two attitudes appear as options. Lightness can be taken seriously, in a sacred and deliberate abandonment of the past. Or, heaviness can be worn with high spirits, drawing from the archive of history in a whimsical way. Those of us here have chosen the second option. We love history and are not prepared to dispose of it. That would simply be too great a loss to bear.
As I said, a heavy mantle can provide greater freedom than an unmoored weightlessness, for without it, we are reduced to what we do right now. Those of us here believe in ideas and interiors, we believe in history, we believe in the mind, we believe in those dear to us, we believe in stories.
The woman pours out the rest of her Foxton Fizz and walks away, holding the glass bottle.
Brief aside—Far away, at the Université Paris Diderot, the Italian mathematician Olivia Caramello updates her website. At the start of her career, she writes, she “had the intuition Grothendieck toposes could serve as sorts of ‘bridges’ for effectively transferring information between distinct mathematical theories”. Her work on Topos-Theoretic Bridges serves as an attempt toward a unified theory of the universe, and it is controversial, although not so much for the content itself, as for its authorship: her previous professors stake a claim to the work.
Since I, the one writing this, don’t understand the mathematics behind the theory at a deep level, I imagine the bridges she describes perhaps too literally, in colors. Midnight blue, dusty rose, marigold yellow, forest green. The bridges are abstract, I know, but even the abstract can take on a visual quality. I wonder if bridges this beautiful can really exist, or if they’re simply another kind of poetry, one with a particular appeal for the logical mind.
Still flying over New Zealand, Richard Pearse imagines he is moving not just through air, but over the shifting terrain of history. He drops his hat, and when he reaches to pick it up, he sees a note.
Dear RP,— it begins, and continues:
My friend, first I’d like to say: Don’t be alarmed. I am Richard Pearse, writing to you. Richard Pearse, that is, you. At this moment you are flying a plane over Wellington in the early 20th century. Of course you know this already. (Don’t crash while reading, please!) At this very moment, however, you are also in the 21st century, and close to you are some people dressed like they’re from your time. Are you confused? The discoveries of Einstein, whom you can’t have heard of yet, go some way toward explaining things, but the phenomena themselves preceded the German. To make a long story short, the activities of these people from your future, these people so interested in heaviness, have changed the topos. A new doxa reigns; the conceptual field has warped.
The group in Oamaru, one of many, has created a new topology of knowledge so vivid that it is capable of affecting the ‘real’. By bringing past into present with such intensity, not just through silly costumes (though these are marvelous) but through a new way of thinking, they have changed contemporary values, altering the conceptual plane from light to heavy. This has created a glitch. Past has entered present and vice versa, so that Richard Pearse, that is, you, that is, me, has turned up here. At first I was as confused as you must be. Then, after a while, I got used to it.
You are a writer of speculative fictions, they told me, looking at my biography on Wikipedia (a sort of synopsis of who you are available to everyone, though most are highly unreliable.) But if you are there in the 21st century, who is flying this plane? you must be asking. That I can’t say. A writer of speculative fictions, perhaps. Or someone else entirely. A Maori. Arthur Eddington. How can we know?
The conceptual topos has warped, and people have begun to value heavy over light. Victorian outfits and heavy flying machines draw everything toward them, so that even when we imagine, our thoughts center round their weight. This is simply an exaggeration of previous tendencies. The lightest data fragments and letters have always been capable of holding news of weighty things. Even the fine and delicate cloth of a flag can bear symbols dense with significance, effecting even more ponderous changes…
Mulberry flag, 1872
It’s time for us Maoris to take action. The Brits are attacking. We’re surrounded by big colonial buildings and men with guns and we’re losing, we’re losing. All we have are our pā, our hill forts with defensive terraces, our walls made of pointy sticks, and these are no good against those men with their big guns. I’ve thought things through hard and know we need a symbol. But what? These are land wars and we cannot fight a long campaign. There have been epidemics of illness, food supplies cut off. The Brits come as full-time soldiers, but we must spend our time planting, growing. This weight in the earth, this earth we feel between our fingers, makes things hard for us.
We came together and said amongst ourselves, And what if precisely this, our shame, ought to be the source of our pride? What if this planting in the ground of our kūmara (sweet potatoes), our taro, yam and gourd, our tī pore (Pacific cabbage tree), what if this farming is in fact what should satisfy us most? We are a peaceful people, let us not forget. Can we make this thing that weighs us down into a strength? We have to embrace our heaviness instead of feeling it a burden.
At first we were ashamed by our disadvantage. They laughed and called us farmer boys, not soldiers, and it’s true we are not in pay of the Crown. But we are proud. And so we made a big splendid flag, with a picture of our vegetables. Our root vegetables in the earth, the ones we rely on. Now I’m waving our flag like mad, and those poor Brits, they’re stopped dead there just seeing it. The beauty of it, the craziness. The heaviness of our symbol.
The flag, she’s light as silk, made from the fibers used in the roofs of our pā. We wove her out of aute (paper mulberry), but it’s our symbol, our vegetables, that means so much, that means everything. Those Brits look like they want to run away now. At the end of the day, they are shy like us, not fighters. Some take steps our way. But instead of lifting their Enfields, they embrace us. They cry.
Our history has been a long and strange one, but still we can laugh together, still we can live side-by-side. All of us are jumbled up here on the very same land, and now I watch us make peace and weep with relief and with joy. But I want to make sure everything will be okay. My skinny arms haven’t stopped waving that flag. I wave and wave it, as the sky gets darker and the first torches come out, wave and wave it as the fires are lit and the meal is cooked. I’m going to wave and wave it like this, not stopping, to ripple the silk and the fabric of time, wave it and wave it, like this, to see through the great transformation.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.