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Algebraic ArtMathematical Formalism and Victorian Culture$
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Andrea Henderson

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198809982

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198809982.001.0001

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Math for Math’s Sake: Non-Euclidean Geometry and Aestheticism

(p.35) 1 Geometry
Algebraic Art

Andrea Henderson

Oxford University Press

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland dramatizes the implications of dethroning what Victorians regarded as the preeminent representational system: Euclidean geometry. The displacement of the singular Euclidean account of space with a multiplicity of non-referential spatial regimes did more than introduce the possibility of varying perspectives on the world; the challenge to the “sacredness” of Euclid met with resistance partly because it suggested the ideal of a transparent representational system was inherently untenable. Flatland explores the repercussions of this problem for the novel, shifting emphasis from the revelation of the content of character to focus on the vagaries of point of view. The characters are Euclidean figures shown the limitations of their constructions of the world, and epistemic certainty is unavailable because all representational systems are contingent. Abbott finds consolation for this loss of certainty in the formalist, aesthetic character of projective geometry, insisting on the beauty of signs in and of themselves.

Keywords:   Flatland, non-Euclidean geometry, aestheticism, James McNeil Whistler, William Kingdon Clifford, Edwin Abbott, literary characterization, point of view

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