Modernism in Midair

Modernism in Midair

A keynote lecture given at the fifth Modernist Studies Association conference , Birmingham UK, 25 September 2003.

The Drugged Balloonist

Let us suppose that a drug is administered to you which makes you temporarily unconscious, and that when you wake you have lost your memory but not your reasoning powers. Let us suppose further that while you were unconscious you were carried into a balloon, which, when you come to, is sailing with the wind on a dark night – the night of the fifth of November if you are in England, or of the fourth of July if you are in America. You can see fireworks which are being sent off from the ground, from trains, and from aeroplanes travelling in all directions, but you cannot see the ground or the trains or the aeroplanes because of the darkness. You will think that nothing is permanent: there are only brief flashes of light, which, during their short existence, travel through the void in the most various and bizarre curves. You cannot touch these flashes of light, you can only see them. Obviously your geometry and your physics and your metaphysics will be quite different from those of ordinary mortals. If an ordinary mortal were with you in the balloon, you would find his speech unintelligible. But if Einstein were with you, you would understand him more easily than the ordinary mortal would, because you would be free from a host of preconceptions which prevent most people from understanding him. (Russell 1997, 10-11)Russell launches his parable of the drugged balloonist at the beginning of his ABC of Relativity in order to try to dissolve some of his readers’ assumptions about the nature of space and matter, assumptions which, according to Russell, far from being simple registrations of the facts of experience, are rather the results of ‘audacious metaphysical theorizing’ (Russell 1993, 107).

Modernism responded in a number of different ways to the condition of being up in the air brought about by the new physics. We are accustomed to tying this to the appearance of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which appeared in 1905, as though up until that point the simple billiard ball notions of classical physics were completely dominant. But for at least a decade before Einstein, general audiences had been becoming familiar with the large and surprising claims about the nature of time, space and matter being made by physicists. In his Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1904, Arthur Balfour reflected upon the ways in which science had demonstrated that ‘the beliefs of all mankind about the material surroundings in which it dwells are not only imperfect but fundamentally wrong’ (Balfour 1904, 21). In the new physical theories, said Balfour, matter was ‘not merely explained, but is explained away’ (Balfour 1904, 18).

Conservative writers such as G. K. Chesterton saw the velleities of the new physics as proof that, having abandoned its traditional foothold in the objective world, science had thus lost its warrant to bully and browbeat. Chesterton reassured his readers in 1919 that

the world which has come to an end is a world which only very recently had a beginning. It is not the objective world of trees and lamp-posts, but their own [i.e. scientists’] theoretic world of abstractions about life and light. It is the world of atoms and not of earth; of ether and not of air….It may be that science, having long tried to bully us with reason, is now trying to bully us with unreason. But it will make some difference that even science is only trying to be unreasonable about things we already felt as unreal. They may tell us that the Snark is now hopelessly incompatible with the Boojum, or that the Snark both is a Boojum and is not a Boojum. But those of us who have never joined in the Hunting of the Snark may possibly remain cold. (Chesterton 1986, 578)A writer of a very different temper like A.N. Whitehead could nevertheless agree about the seeming anti-rationalism of new science: ‘The note of the present epoch is that so many complexities have developed regarding material, space, time, and energy, that the simple security of the old orthodox assumptions has vanished…Heaven knows what seeming nonsense may not to-morrow be demonstrated truth.’ (Whitehead 1925, 142-3).

Where, for some, the abandonment of objectivity by science left ‘the object’ for art and aesthetic theory to reclaim, as Gillian Beer observes, the immaterialism of the new sciences gave a warrant to a new realism, now founded upon uncertainty and indeterminacy:

The questioning of substance in twentieth-century physics, and the formulation of wave-particle theory, gave realism a new lease of life… It is harder to deny an ‘out there’ that is undifferentiated, or irresolute, or composed of ‘ondes fictives’ than it is to challenge substantive phenomena. (Beer 1996, 315).As Lisa A. Steinman (among many others) observes, ‘the new physics was popularly associated with an aesthetic of process and motion’ (Steinman 1987, 7). Bergson saw clear analogies between his philosophy of duration and Einstein’s relativity, and sought to work them through systematically in his Duration and Simultaneity (1922). By the time Wyndham Lewis bracketed Bergson and Einstein together as exponents of the universal ‘time-philosophy’ against which he set his face in Time and Western Man (1927), the association between the new science and modernist principles of indeterminacy and flux was already strongly established. Where Lewis arrogantly swept aside Einsteinian physics, others saw it as giving a scientific warrant to a kind of modernist immaterialism. As Lisa M. Steinman observes, ‘Physics did away with solid matters of fact, and thus gave poetic knowledge a new respectability; we know this because science, which we respect, tells us it is a fact. To put it another way, the objectivity of science was called on to validate the apparent subjectivity with which poetry seemed to be concerned’ (Steinman 1987, 62).

My concern in this lecture will not in fact be with the reception and response within modernism to the discoveries of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physics. Rather, I will be focussed more narrowly with what, following Gaston Bachelard, I will call the material imagination of modernism, attempting to see how some of modernism’s ways of imagining matter respond to these new atmospheric conditions in scientific thought. I want to attempt a kind of aesthetic physics of the figurations whereby modernist writers and artists formed images of their own image-making power. I will be asking, of what kind of matter, out of what imaginary material, what theory or dream of the nature of the material world, were modernist artists able to form conceptions of the new kinds of thing a work of art might be. In this, I am following a path that has been marked out by writers like Gillian Beer, who has pointed to the irradiation of early modernism by the wave theory developed in the late nineteenth century, Benjamin Lockerd, who has conducted a reading of the physics and poetics of Eliot’s writing, and Daniel Albright who has brilliantly analysed aesthetic arguments within modernism in terms of the particle/wave duality. I will be saying that ideas about literary and artistic form could not but be subject to the tugs and torsions represented by new ideas about the indefiniteness of matter, ideas that were not only in the air, but also, in a literal sense (though it may not always be easy to be quite sure what the literal means here) of it.

Why the air? The air has a special aptness for thought-experiment with the idea of matter, because it is at once so palpable and so omnipresent – ‘that’s fairly mixed/With, riddles, and is rife/In every least thing’s life’, as Hopkins has it (Hopkins 1970, 93) and yet also so seemingly and enigmatically empty of substance, as though it were a thing only of properties with no proper being of its own. It is for this reason that the air has traditionally been thought apt to furnish a bridge between the world of sense and the world of knowledge or higher truth – whether magical, religious, or scientific. More than any other element, the air is necessarily suffused with and formed from the idea of air. By the early twentieth century, before Einstein had formulated the special theory of relativity, the problem for the philosophy of science was that the ordinary sense experience that for so long had disciplined and underpinned scientific enquiry was now being discredited by that very same scientific enquiry. As so often in other periods and contexts, the thought of air was deeply drawn on to assist in the material imagination of the immaterial. It was the matter of air that often rushed in to fill the yawning, ever-expanding spaces between things and theories.

Because there is a great deal more air above us than about us, the element of air has always represented aspiration and eminence. As Gaston Bachelard insists throughout his study of the poetics of air, it is the element of yearning and dreaming. Russell’s drugged balloonist seems a rather sedate and suburban figure compared with some of the more thrusting, aristocratic forms of aviator imagined in modernism. The airman was of course the harbinger and hero of the new age for Auden, Day Lewis and other 30s poets. Powered flight becomes a tougher, more assertive form of the fragile, feathered ascent imagined by Stephen Dedalus. Nowhere was the ecstatic inhabitation, not to say colonisation, of the air more emphatic than in Italian Futurism. Marinetti had represented the second manifesto of Futurism as dictated to him by the roaring propeller of a plane. In the ‘Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture’ published in 1934, Marinetti and his cowriters evoked the new city in the air which would be brought about by a new architecture, nourished in ‘aeropoetry, aeropainting, aerosculpture’.

We Futurist poets, architects and journalists have conceived the large single City with continuous lines to admire in flight, parallel thrust of Aeroways and Aerocanals fifty metres wide, separated from one another by slender habitation/suppliers (spiritual and material) which will feed into all the different and distinct never intersecting speeds. The aeroways and the aerocanals (which will link the rivers straightened in harmony with the air lines) will change the shape of plains hills and mountains. For aesthetic reasons and to harmonize ever more pathetically the life on the earth with life in the sky, ports and seaplane stops will no longer have rooted cliffs, but mobile steel jetties to offer an embrace in every sense to seaplanes and organise plastically the long ranks of waves cut by the white flights of gulls, the iridescent aureolas of the foam of take-offs and the cascades of diamonds which deck the moorings on the intense green of the depths of the sea. (Marinetti et. al. 1934)The coincidence of modernism and powered flight has generated interesting attempts to map aerial seeing on to the conditions of the new art. The characteristic flattenings and torsions of cubism have regularly been related to the views of the landscape of war obtained by reconnaissance pilots. And yet, though what seemed to matter most for many was command offered over a shrunken landscape spread out for the gunsight eye, the aeropaintings of Futurism show something different. For Marinetti, the ascent into the air means an expansion into a multidimensional space, in which movement in all directions is possible, as compared with the creeping two-dimensional flatness of landbased lifeforms, or the boxed-out space derivable from Cartesian coordinates. In the aeropaintings produced by Italian Futurists such as Leandra Angelucci-Cominazzini, Tullio Crali, Tato and Alessandro Bruschetti, the free movement through previously neutral, homogeneous space produces deformation in that space. Cities, buildings and fields, are not loftily surveyed, but bent, buckled and sucked up in the cyclonic updrafts generated by the air-man-machine chimeras.

In considering the ways in which modernism may seem to involve the impulse to inhabit or make accommodation to the airy, the airborne and the midair, much more might be said than I will be saying about the questions of space, position and perspective. My concern will be not so much on the vantage point and transparent field of visibility afforded by the midair, as on a notion of thickened, and fluctuant space which air can come to represent: a tactile rather than an optical air, then, with modernism in the midst of the air rather than hanging aloft in it. My focus will be rather on the airborne vehicle of Russell’s metaphor of the drugged balloonist, than on its tenor. If, as Bachelard suggests, air has always a characteristically vertical dimension of aspiration and eminence in it, it also has a role as medium, and as substance – as, so to speak, solid space – that will also be in question in what follows.

Yeats’s Irish Airman seems to embody a very different complexion of the air from this. Unlike Futurism’s zooming loop-the-loopers, Yeats finds a possibility of concentration or composure in the upper air – or rather, since the airman anticipates finding his fate at an even higher altitude (‘Somewhere among the clouds above’), in the middle passage of air. Everything evokes and enacts balance and suspension, the level antitheses – ‘Nor law, nor duty…Nor public men, nor cheering crowds’ (Yeats 1979, 152) – seeming to cancel each other out in a moment (a word that is a condensation of movement) of classical mechanics. But I have always been puzzled by the word ‘tumult’ in the poem: ‘A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds’ (Yeats 1979, 152). Or, rather, to the deictic word ‘this’ which so flatly modifies it. Is the airman contemplating an engagement in the upper air, where he thinks he will meet his fate? If so, where or what is the present ‘tumult’, ‘this tumult’? For all his perspectival command over ‘the life before’ and ‘the life behind’, the airman appears to be in the midst of some tumult, some combat, which does not seem to have ruffled his words at all up to this moment (we know that he is in the midst of cloud, rather in clear air, with only more cloud above him). If so, his balance is a turbulent balance (clouds are often turbulent, though the word ‘turba’, a crowd, may draw up an acoustic wisp of the poem’s ‘cheering crowds’ into their rhyme word, while ‘tumult’ also has in it a hint of the word ‘cumulus’.) The airman’s is an ambivalent stability, whirling, a vortical or gyroscopic poise, that is made of movement, like the hourglass ‘at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion’ in Hopkins’s great poem of whirl and hurl, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ (Hopkins 1970, 52). The airman is lifted on a twister, a narrowing rather than a widening gyre, like the tornado that plucks Dorothy out of Kansas in The Wizard of Oz , or for that matter, like the ‘aerial commotion’ of the whirligig which confirms the feasibility of rising to the moon in an anti-gravitational bubble in H.G. Wells’s nearly contemporary The First Men In The Moon (Wells 2001, 18). If this is meteorological rather than cosmological, then the weather of modernism is responsive to some of the larger disturbances of intellectual climate regarding the thinking of matter in motion.

Idées Fixes

I will reurn, to reap some more of modernism’s whirlwinds later in this essay. But I want to begin with a different,more earthbound aspect of modernist thinking about the matter of art. If, as Michel Serres has suggested, every epoch has a physics to carry and bear out its metaphysics, then it might easily seem that one important strain of modernism is characterised, at least in terms of its aesthetic aspirations, by a fixation upon the values of solidity and density and definition, Imagists and others, Pound, Hulme, HD, Eliot, Williams sought, or convinced themselves and others that they should be seeking, precision, hardness, dryness, definition, ‘concreteness’.

T.E. Hulme defined the classicism to which he was attracted as a clinging to the solidity and finitude of the ground. The classical poet ‘remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas’ (Hulme 1994, 62). The romantic sensibility, by contrast, ‘is always flying, flying up into the eternal gases. The word infinite is in every other line’ (Hulme 1994, 62-3) Although Hulme says, somewhat oddly, that romanticism seems to ‘crystallise’ in the idea of flight, it is clear that, not only are Romantics drawn to the air, but Romanticism itself is, as we say, a gas. Hulme’s ‘Lecture on Modern Poetry’, probably given in 1908, begins with a reference to what he described as the detestable assumption that poetry is ‘the means by which the soul soared into higher regions and … by which it became merged into a higher reality’. Hulme proposed instead to speak of verse ‘in a plain way as I would of pigs’ (Hulme 1994, 140).

In some of his earliest writings, Hulme developed his arguments about the contrast between abstract language and concepts and the concreteness of things. Abstract language is, he says ‘a kind of gossamer web, woven between the real things… this language, used to excess, becomes a disease, and we get the curious phenomena of men explaining themselves by means of the gossamer web that connects them (Hulme 1994, 8). This image of the airy web recurs modified into a more technological form, in a discussion of R.B. Haldane in 1909:

I picture … a number of telegraph poles connected by a network of wires, the poles being concrete men, the wires being the abstract, thin concepts of the intellect, the forms in which we think and communicate…The success of the mechanism leads us on to think that it alone is real. The poles come to imagine themselves as built up on some subtle complication of wires. (Hulme 1994, 98)One of the features of the modern airscape was that it was becoming crowded and crisscrossed, with telegraph wires, aerials and electricity cables, the visible witnesses of the thickening of the airwaves by signals and impulses that would form the data fog which for us has displaced the more palpable peasoupers of the recent past. In this sense, the web of wires that both hangs in and slices through the air becomes a metonym for the permeated, palimpsested air itself.

Hulme’s influential aesthetics of the definite and the concrete had to undergo an interesting torsion as a result of his admiration of Bergson, of whose work he became one of the most important champions in England. In the fourth of a series of five ‘Notes on Bergson’ he published in The New Age during 1911 Hulme represented his subject’s greatest contribution as effecting an escape from the nightmare of scientific mechanism. Hulme has an extremely conventional conception of scientific materialism, which he characterises swiftly in a series of quotations from Spinoza, Laplace and Huxley. The last of these makes the idea of vapour do some interesting work. Hulme quotes from T.H. Huxley’s essay 1869 essay ‘The Genealogy of Animals’, in which Huxley declares that, with a sufficiently exact understanding of the laws obtaining in the physical world, all of the conditions of the universe, organic and nonorganic, might be understood as the regular unfolding of ‘the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed’. Hulme seems appalled by Huxley’s confidence that ‘the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic vapour, and… a sufficient intellect could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of the Fauna of Great Britain in 1869 with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on a cold winter’s day’ (Huxley 1894, 110; quoted Hulme 1994, 140, transcription corrected). Here scientific certainty is expressed in terms of its arrogant assertion of command over the processes of condensation and evaporation – as though a certain authority attached to the vaporous condition, which Hulme wishes to protect from reifying mechanism.

The nebular hypothesis of the origin of the universe, first proposed by Kant in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens of 1775 and formalised by Laplace in his Exposition du système du monde of 1796, often appears in popular scientific writing and debate during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Huxley’s claim is echoed by John Tyndall in his ‘The Scientific Uses of the Imagination’ of 1870, who urged his readers to face up to that notion that

not alone the more ignoble forms of animalcular or animal life, not alone the nobler forms of the horse and lion, not alone the exquisite and wonderful mechanism of the human body, but that human mind itself – emotion, intellect, will, and all their phenomena – were once latent in a fiery cloud. (Tyndall 1871, 163)In one sense, the logic of his argument required Hulme to embrace the indefiniteness and latency of the primal cloud, over the mechanistic science that fixes and finitises it. On the other hand, he suggests that Bergson’s work is to be understood as a philosophy that achieves its shape as a result of its struggle against materialism. As in his ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ essay, Hulme reverts to metaphors of grounding and flight to express this warping into distinctness:

It is not by ignoring mechanism that you that you will arrive at anything worth having, but by struggling with it. I know this sentence has an uncomfortably ethical flavour, but I hasten to add that it is not intended; it is merely a plain statement of a universal law. The bird attained whatever grace its shape possesses not as a result of the mere desire for flight, but because it had to fly in air against gravitation . (Hulme 1994, 150)So now the midair position is regarded, not as foaming or effervescent, but as muscular: the Romantic opium-eater become modern aerobat. The bird’s or philsopher’s shape is achieved through the grace of air resisting the pull of clay. Hulme contrasts the midair muscularity of a Bergson with those who merely assert human values in the teeth of materialist objections. This may be called sentimentalism since, Hulme tells us ‘it clouds over the real outlines of its own position’ (152). It is this which seems to allow Hulme to find the ‘state of security and fixity’ he claims to in Bergson’s philosophy – even as he records the experience of revulsion from that philosophy when he takes his seat in a hall surrounded by several hundred people all of whom apparently feel the same security, which instantly fills him with the desire to prove ‘that Bergson was not the “truth”, but a bubble soon to be burst’ (Hulme 1994, 156).

It was unnecessary for Wyndham Lewis to enact the kind of midair convolutions that Hulme had to in trying to warp Bergsonian flux into his feet-on-the-ground, foursquare aesthetic fixity. By the time he came to write his Time and Western Man (1927), Lewis had baked hard his contempt for the philosophy of flux and indefiniteness typified in the work of Bergson, Einstein and the latter’s explicators, such as A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. ‘[T]he whole of this movement from Bergson to the philosophers who are interpreting Relativity,’ he thundered, ‘is romantic, with all that that word conveys in its most florid, unreal, inflated, self-deceiving connotation’ (Lewis 1993, 176).

We have already had a glimpse of Bertrand Russell’s fondness for gaseous metaphors when it came to characterising the new perspectives enjoined by the physics of relativity. Lewis seems to have been stung into one of his characteristic spasms of scorn by one such passage from Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World, which he quotes in his own text (I have corrected his slapdash transcription):

Then there are other things, which seem material, and yet present almost no permanence or rigidity, Breath, smoke, clouds, are examples of such things – so, in a lesser degree, are ice and snow; and rivers and seas, though fairly permanent, are not in any degree rigid. Breath, smoke, clouds, and generally things that can be seen but not touched, were thought to be hardly real; to this day the usual mark of a ghost is that it can be seen but not touched.’ (Russell 1993, 107; quoted Lewis 1993, 395).Russell’s point is to show that a physical thing is not, as we might say in a more contemporary idiom, fully self-present, but rather ‘consists, at each instant, of the whole set of its aspects, at that instant, in all the different worlds; thus a momentary state of a thing is a whole set of aspects.’ (Russell 1993, 117) Thus Russell can define ‘a piece of matter as a set of events’ (Russell 1993,129).

Lewis sees this breaking up of the ‘ordered picture of the classic world’ as the expression of ‘a romantic and fanatic impulse’ (Lewis 1993, 400) and argues that the apparent temporal shimmering to which Russell draws attention is in fact an illusion: we are simply seeing successive stages or phases of the same entity and, like the primitive, failing to see that it is one thing (Lewis 1993, 404). (Interestingly, he argues against Russell largely in terms of the relations between water and ice, which we can easily see are variant states of one entity, rather than in terms of the breath or smoke evoked by Russell, which are not so easily related to some invariant substrate.)

Lewis offers a contrast between the time philosophy of Bergson and his own spatial philosophy in terms of two states or understandings of air. On the one hand, there is air as dissolver of form, or air seen as ambiguously invasive substance; on the other, there is air as void space, its transpicuity the buffeting confirmer of contour:

As much as he enjoys the sight of things “penetrating” and “merging,” do we enjoy the opposite picture of them standing apart – the wind blowing between them, and the air circulating freely in and out of them: much as he enjoys the “indistinct,” the “qualitative,” the misty, sensational and ecstatic, very much more do we value the distinct, the geometric, the universal, non-qualitied – the clear and the light, the unsensational. (Lewis 1993, 416)It is important for Lewis that his space philosophy should have spaces or airpockets in it. In a sense, it is the time-philosophy which, closing the gaps between things, leaves no room to breathe.

The real issue for Lewis, more pressing even than the rescue of space from time, is the securing of the difference between matter and mind. In the same year as Time and Western Man appeared, Russell was setting out to show in his The Analysis of Matter that ‘matter is less material, and mind less mental, than is commonly supposed’ (Russell 1927, 7). Where a previous generation of anti-scientific thinkers had been appalled by the degradation of mind into mere material process, Lewis sees the danger of a conflation of mind and matter in terms of an inflation of temporised, or time-suffused matter into a vaporous quasi-mentality

It is “matter,” always, that gains by these transactions, though it gains by way of the maxim that there is no matter. It gains in one sense, that is, but it at the same time ceases to be “matter.” It loses its alien and concrete integrity, so useful, and indeed necessary, to mind. If this is visualized as a war between “matter” and “mind” – and this is the aspect it has been given in much philosophy – you will see that indeed by appearing to deny itself, it escapes the stigma of “materialism,” and at the same time diminishes mind by overrunning it, invading it with its mechanism. On the other hand, it confers a material quality upon Time and floats it as a sort of bastard “mind.” (Lewis 1993, 340)As has often been noted, the still-life, objectivist aesthetics of modernism were answered or opposed by a subjectivist aesthetics, which emphasised flux and instability, that preferred dynamic blur to static definition, aura to contour. In a crude sort of way, we might say that this difference maps on to the generic difference between poetry and fiction, since to be modernist meant opposed things in those two areas. Where the hardboiled modernist poet sought to avoid the runniness and cloudiness associated with poetry, writers of fiction like Proust, James, Conrad, Woolf and Joyce, sought to animate and evaporate the inherited materialism of the novel.

Governed perhaps by the ascendancy of metaphors of streaming and flowing, most of the accounts of the physics of modernist poetics has been content with the approximation represented by the dichotomy of static earth and fluid water. What did modernism mean by the concrete, and its solvent opposites? Behind the alternatives of matter versus movement – the stationary rock and the Heraclitean stream, or Mr Ramsay’s post fixed against the tide, perhaps – I think we can make out a concern with two different kinds of motion or tendency in matter. The nebular hypothesis I have already mentioned suggested a universe that came into being through the condensation of matter, as the effect of gravitation and the centripetal effects of rotation. In 1927, Edwin Hubble made the discovery that would transform cosmology, that the universe was expanding, and at a rate proportional to its distance from the earth, so that the further away things were, the faster they were receding. On the one hand, there are the modes of condensation – concentration, compression, intorsion. On the other there are the modes of diffusion: extension, expansion, radiation. Big Bang, we might say, and Big Crunch. Modernism oscillates, we might say, between these two prospects.


There are two aspects of a wave to which modernism was sensitive; there is the wave itself, running through its medium, and then there is the medium through which it runs. Attention to what happens in the medium reveals a kind of agitation on the spot. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is full of these tremulous oscillations, full of quivers, tremors and flickers. For Woolf, these agitations are linked to a sense of thickening or gathering, sometimes the globing of space into time – as in the ‘drop’ of time that forms itself at moments in The Waves. Contrasting with this is what might be called the radiant or propulsive aspect of the wave. Waves, like gases, expand outwards, and in all dimensions.

Modernist culture deserves to be characterised as a ‘radioactive culture’ quite as much as an undulatory one. Much of the thinking about radiation had been prepared for modernists during the late nineteenth century, for example in the work of John Tyndall. In 1887 Heinrich Hertz had produced the first radio wave, verifying the predictions made by James Clerk Maxwell regarding electromagnetic radiations. Marconi’s study of Hertzian wave theory led him to his first successful broadcast of a signal over 2 kilometres in the summer of 1895. He filed his patent for a system of wireless telegraphy using Hertzian waves on 2 June 1896, and was able to send his first transatlantic signal in December 1901. He spent a considerable amount of time experimenting in Britain, in particular in the Isle of Wight, a fact which seems to have suggested to Kipling the English Channel as a setting for his story ‘Wireless’ of 1902, which concerns the possession of a young tubercular pharmacist by the spirit of Keats as a result of fall-out from radio transmissions across Poole harbour. The first advertised broadcast took place from Marconi’s factory in Chelmsford in 1920.

But the radiatory condition was given its principal impetus by the discovery of X-rays, when on November 8th 1895, Roentgen detected in a cathode ray tube covered by a piece of black paper, rays that penetrated the paper and caused a barium platinocyanide screen some distance away to fluoresce. The discovery was reported in Roentgen’s paper ‘On a New Kind of Ray’, on December 28th 1895 and was reported and reacted to worldwide within a matter of weeks of the discovery (thereby exhibiting a phenomenon of informational radiation that matched the discovery being reported). The following year saw the appearance of a paper by Henri Becquerel, ‘On Visible Radiations Emitted By Phosphorescent Bodies’ of 1896, in which he reported the existence of nonfluorescent, or invisible radiation. Becquerel joined with Marie and Pierre Curie in the investigations that would lead to the discovery of radium and polonium.

A radioactive culture quickly grew up. Gustave le Bon, the social psychologist best known for his study The Crowd (1895), had turned his attention to physical science at the same moment as radioactivity began to be explored. His researches led him to the development of an extraordinary theory, set out in his book L’Evolution de la matière of 1905, that in fact all matter is radioactive in some degree, and that radioactivity is part of a larger process whereby the matter of the universe, which le Bon regarded as having been generated from a modification of the ether similar to that proposed by Laplace, was in the process of dematerializing, or passing back into the ether. Atoms represent the same kind of congelation as stars and planets. Like them, they are gradually giving up all the energy that holds them together:

Once they have radiated away all their store of energy in the form of luminous, calorific, or other vibrations, they return by the very fact of these consecutive radiations, to their dissociation – to the primitive ether whence they came. This last, therefore, represents the final nirvana to which all things return after a more or less ephemeral existence. (Le Bon 1907, 315)Le Bon’s theory represented both a scandalous challenge to the scientific principle of the indestructibility of matter and an invigorating kind of anti-materialism. Le Bon may have been influenced in the formation of his cosmogony by his early immersion in the literature and religion of the East. Of course, he was not the only one to be so influenced in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Spiritualists, Theosophists and occultists of all castes, attuned by works such as Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled to the esoteric uses to which contemporary physics could be turned, seized on the phenomenon of radioactivity. ‘Radium is just the thing which the mind most weary of materialism wants’, wrote one such popular synthesiser of physics and occultism. ‘Radioactivity is the science of the present hour and of the impending future. Invisible and inaudible vibrations of the mysterious ether are just now agitating the intellectual minds of all. (Goswami 1909, 19, 39-40) Nor did the influence go only in one direction, from science to magic; when, in 1899, Ernest Rutherford discovered a radioactive gas emitted by thorium oxide, he gave it the occultist name ‘emanation’.

Radiations, actual and imaginary, multiplied in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1901, Nikola Tesla was granted patents for a radiant energy system that beamed electricity through the ground and the air. During the 1930s, Tesla moved on, trying to develop devices for capturing the energy in cosmic rays. Building upon atomic theory, and the ideas of Thomson, Lodge and others concerning the structure of the atom, Dr Alfred Abrams developed a successful quack theory of diagnosis and therapy based upon the alleged radiations from pathological electrons which, when it was revived in the 1970s, came to be called ‘radionics’.

Rays and radiations were both beneficent and menacing. The medical applications of X-rays were immediately apparent, but it did not take long for the dangers of exposure to them to reveal themselves. A kind of logic associated uncentred rays, waves and emanations with peaceful and desirable heightening of sensitivity, while rays and radiations that were centred, directed or vectored were regarded as full of power and unnatural menace. In his 1898 War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells suggested the military superiority of his invading Martians by equipping them with two emanative weapons, an asphyxiating vapour and a incinerating Heat Ray. Daniel Paul Schreber responded quickly to the radiating influences of the idea of radiation, recording in his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness of 1903 his elaborate delusions regarding the rays sent from God which he believed had destroyed the world and his inhabitants and reformed him as a being of exquisite sensitivity through nerves of voluptuousness.

One can see repeated in this contrast the two aspects of the idea of undulatory form, namely its power of diffusion, and its power of concentration, its power to subtilize and its power to isolate and concentrate. The human body subjected to these two processes was both vaporised – made as permeable as air and water – and penetrated to its essence. It was both dissolved and concentrated; broadcast and anatomised. The typical X-ray image showed a flashreduced to spectral mistiness enclosing mineralised bones, this highlighted by the convention that hands were shown wearing rings.

Radiations, like the other wave-forms that had been under investigation since the beginning of the nineteenth century, could in principle be transmitted through any material. But in the imagination of the period, it is the air that is the privileged carrier of radiations. Air is in fact, not only the literal carrier of radiation, but also the carrier of the idea of radiation, even as the idea and experience of radiation transform the idea of the air.

The importance of air for modernism was that it was the carrier of these two contrary ideas: thin air and thick air. The idea of modern air was formed and reformed, we might say, out of the turbulence of these two propulsions – radiation and condensation. The air of modernism was the place of interchange, between light and heavy, space and time, radiation and condensation. The importance of air for modernism was that it allowed thin and thick ideas of matter to be brought and thought together.

Knots of Air

The convolutions undergone by the phantasm of air in the modern period derive have to do with its privileged relation to one of the strangest, most shifting, but tenacious scientific conceptions of the period, namely the ether. Poetic conceptions of the ether derive very largely from the classical notion of the quintessence, the fifth element out of which all the other elements were formed. For classical authors, the aether was the upper air. It was a purer, more refined kind of air, though not so much immaterial as infinitesimally attenuated. Unlike the ordinary air of the lower atmosphere, the ether was thought to be creative or dynamic: it was identified with the Heraclitean fire, which united and connected all things, as well as with Stoics’ principle of pneuma, or vital force. And yet the ether is more like air than any of the other elements. The ether is a kind of evaporated air.

The modern history of the ether begins with Newton’s formalisation of the laws of gravitation. Universal gravitation seemed to contradict the mechanist principle, to which Newton and his followers wished to adhere, that there can be no action at a distance. Some kind of omnipresent, interconnecting medium, through which gravitational force could exert itself, seemed to Newton to be required. Descartes and Leibniz too developed complex postulations about the action of the interstellar ether. The theory that light propagated as waves, which had become established by 1830, gave the ether a new purpose, for the undulatory theory required the existence of a ‘luminiferous ether’ through which the waves might travel.

The physics of the late nineteenth century was saturated with the idea of the ether. Scarcely a physicist was to be found who doubted its existence, or could explain how the universe might function without it, even though a note of apology or reluctance can sometimes be detected in those who acknowledged its necessity. After all, nobody had ever seen the ether – but then nobody had ever seen an atom either. The official line is that thinking about the ether quickly declined after Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity appeared in 1905. At just the same moment that William James was proposing that the world ought to be seen as a mosaic held together by its edges rather than bedded into some common, underlying ground, Einstein’s explanations of the interrelations between matter, light and gravity, notions seemed to propose a universe that held itself together in interlocking ‘fields’ without the need for any base or background substance. There was no longer any need for anything for the universe to be ‘in’, or any fundamental substance out of which everything else could be made. It is from such notions that more recent ideas such as that of the ‘bootstrap’ universe could emerge. Bertrand Russell was glad to see the back of the ether in 1927

[T]he aether was never so comfortably material as “gross” matter. It could vibrate, but did not seem to consist of little bits each with its own individuality, or to be subject to any discoverable molar motions. No one knew whether it was a jelly or a gas. Its properties could not be inferred from those of billiard balls, but were merely those demanded by its functions. In fact, like a painfully good boy, it only did what it was told, and might therefore be expected to die young. (Russell 1927, 19-20)Gillian Beer agrees that the ether, ‘that crucial explanatory substance… ebbed quietly out of the universe early in the twentieth century’ (Beer 1996, 298). But the ether did not dissipate as easily or uniformly as is conventionally suggested. The very years during which the idea of the ether passed out of favour in official physics saw its passing into supernaturalism and marginal science, areas to which many modernist writers were at least as responsive as they were to mainstream science. It was not just mediums and theosophists who continued to speak of the ether, for the term became quite early on the favoured metaphor for conceiving of the electromagnetic crowding of the air. Where, for centuries, the ether had been the medium of communication only for a small number of forces, principally light, heat and gravity, the development of radio and the extension of the electro-magnetic spectrum made the existence of a universal medium of transmission seem more and more irresistible to many during the first decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is often forgotten that Einstein himself continued to see a place for the idea of the ether, simply because, as he put it in a lecture of 1920, according to the general theory of relativity, space is endowed with physical qualities.

The survival and transformation of ideas of the ether in a period in which physics was replacing it with the idea of mutually constitutive ‘fields’ is another example of the temporal puckering which Gillian Beer has observed in modernism’s way of taking up with science (Beer 1996, 314). The ether was a kind of necessary mediator. A pure midair world of absolute relativity, the world of the drugged balloonist, in which the universe was all correlation, without objective correlative, seems to be hard to conceive. Furthermore, this is a period in which the simultaneous permeability and substantiality of space had to be made actual and thinkable, and some notion of the ether continues to assist that process, even where the word itself is not employed. Just as air was denatured by the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum, so the radioactive world was renatured partly through the idea of the air.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the ether appears as the allegory of its own process, an image, as it were of the projection of the idea of the ether. In the course of her discussion of the sources of wave-consciousness in modernism, Gillian Beer quotes some memorable words of John Tyndall about the ‘incessant dissolution of limits’ at work in radiation. But in fact, in its original position, at the beginning of his lecture ‘The Constitution of Nature’, this phrase does not refer directly to the phenomena of physical radiation. Tyndall is in fact here referring to the action of the mind going beyond the idea of limit, not of nature itself. It is the scientific imagination, not the world it imagines, which Tyndall says undergoes this ‘incessant dissolution of limits’

Indeed, the conception of the ether itself is an effect of this extrapolation, or radiation of the mind:

Men’s minds, indeed, rose to a conception of the celestial and universal atmosphere through the study of the terrestrial and local one. From the phenomena of sound as displayed in the air, they ascended to the phenomena of light as displayed in the aether. (Tyndall 1871, 3-4)Tyndall recurs to this idea in his lecture ‘On The Scientific Use of the Imagination’, of 1870, again in reference to the extrapolation from sound to light and deduction of the existence of the luminiferous ether: ‘There is in the human intellect a power of expansion – I might almost call it a power of creation – which is brought into play by the simple brooding upon facts’ (Tyndall 1871, 133) How can we explain the rapid velocity of light, compared with the slowness of sound, Tyndall asks. Again, it is in a mimicking of the process of radiation itself: ‘By boldly diffusing in space a medium of the requisite tenuity and elasticity’ (Tyndall 1871, 134)

The idea of the ether is therefore the proof of the power of the imagination of going from sensual to supersensual fact. The idea of the ether is itself a phenomenon of radiation:

‘In forming it that composite and creative unity in which reason and imagination are together blent, has, we believe, led us into a world not less real than that of the senses, and of which the world of sense itself is the suggestion and justification’ (Tyndall 1871, 134)In one sense, the ether might be said to have a conservative function: just like the crystal spheres of the Aristotelian model, it served to hold the universe together by cementing its gaps. In fact, nineteenth-century physicists insisted that though almost unimaginably attenuated, the ether could not be thought of as a gas, since it would need rigidity in order to be able to transmit vibrations and impulses undeformed. The compromise seemed to be some sort of cosmic foam or jelly. And yet the closing of all gaps in the universe, along with the extreme attenuation of the ether, allowing it to interpose no resistance to the waves it transmitted, which could travel from any part of the universe to any other, retarded only by the speed of light, suggested a disturbance in conceptions of cosmic space. Herbert Spencer put the following reflections into the mouth of an imaginary materialist he conjured for the purposes of dialogue in his Principles of Psychology :

The discovery that matter, seemingly so simple, is in its ultimate structure so amazingly involved, the discovery that, while it appears to be inert, it is the seat of activities immense in quantity and complication; and the discovery that its molecules, pulsating with almost infinite rapidity, propagate their pulses into the all-surrounding ether which carries them through inconceivable distances in infinitesimal times; serve to introduce us to the yet more marvellous discovery that molecules of each kind are specially affected by molecules of the same kind existing in the farthest regions of space. Units of sodium on which sunlight falls, beat in unison with their kindred units more than ninety millions of miles off, by which the yellow rays of the sun are produced. Nay, even this is a totally inadequate illustration of the sympathy displayed by the matter composing the visible Universe. The elements of our Earth are thus connected by bonds of interdependent activity with the elements of stars so remote that the diameter of the Earth’s orbit scarcely serves as a unit of measure to express their distances. (Spencer 1897, 619-20)If everything was in touch with everything else, then nothing stood wholly apart.This conception of the ether allows the sense of the universe both as radiantly dispersive, and, for that very reason, maximally interfused, in a revival of the principle of Anaxagoras (500-428 BC), a pre-Socratic follower of Anaximenes, for whom the air was the primary element, that every part of the cosmos has every other part inside it.

Although the ether was thought of as almost immaterial, a number of nineteenth-century theories represented it as the origin of matter, by a sort of thickening, or doubling on itself. Descartes’s theory that the universe was held together by a system of vortices in the ether anticipates this notion and rivalled the Newtonian account of gravitation in France for a century. Much better known and attracting considerable respect and imitation at the beginning of the twentieth century was J.J. Thomson’s theory that the atom might be thought of not as a lump of mass, but as a hard clot of ether whirling on itself like a smoke ring. A well known attempt to marry physics and evolutionary theory, Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe of 1899, expressed support for a similar theory put forward in 1891 by J.C. Vogt, that the universe was a struggle between the condensed matter and the negative, imponderable matter represented by the ether. (Haeckel 1900, 222-3). Haeckel seems to have been drawn to unifying explanations of matter in terms of varying degrees of density. Like many others in the 1890s, he suspected that popular conceptions of the windy or vaporous nature of the soul could mean that the soul was made of ether. Since he believed, like some ancient Greek philosophers, that matter was ranged in a continuous series, ranging from its most attentuated and dynamic form in ‘etheric matter’, through gaseous, liquid, viscous states to its greatest consistency in solid matter (Haeckel 1900, 233), and that it was possible to change one state of matter into another, it might be possible to condense the vaporous soul into some more visible and permanent conditionl:

Experimental physics has succeeded, during the last decade of the century, in reducing all gaseous bodies to a liquid – most of them, also, to a solid – condition. Nothing more is needed than special apparatus, which exerts a violent pressure on the gases at a very low temperature… With this transformation the mystic nimbus which formerly veiled the character of the gas in popular estimation – as an invisible body that wrought visible effects – has entirely disappeared. If, then, the substance of the soul were really gaseous, it should be possible to liquefy it by the application of a high pressure at a low temperature. We could then catch the soul as it is “breathed out” at the moment of death, condense it, and exhibit it in a bottle as “immortal fluid” (Fluidum animae immortale ). By a further lowering of temperature and increase of pressure it might be possible to solidify it – to produce “soul-snow.” The experiment has not yet succeeded. (Haeckel 1900, 204-5).John Wills Cloud had a somewhat different conception of the interlocking of ponderable and eherial matter. In a series of books published in the 1920s, he argued that the ether consisted of tiny particles he called ‘Ethrons’, packed tightly together, like lead shot. Matter existed in the interstices between these ethrons. ‘All matter is therefore in the ether, and the ether is in all matter, so that every material form is an image of the ether within it, in the sense of having the same outlines’ (Cloud 1928, 9). Cloud went further to suggest that the ether was ‘the sole source of all evinced mechanical energy and…provides the material for the genesis of matter’ (Cloud 1928, 20).

The idea that the ether was capable of change of density carries across into popular conceptions. In 1946 the American comic writer Samuel Hoffenstein published a series of poetic parodies called ‘The Mimic Muse’, which included a celebration of the invention of radio in the style of Vachel Lindsay. In it radio is imagined both as a dissolution of limits, the breaking through of the barrier of space and distance represented by the ether, and as a binding together in ‘knots of air’ that are not so far away from the contusions of ether imagined by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physics:

In nineteen hundred and twenty-two
A son of Italy,
A short, swart son-of-a-gun from Italy
Broke right through
Broke through the ether with a bang and a crash,
Broke through the ether with a flip and a flash…
Crashed into the ether and broke right through
From Kennenbunkport to Kalamazoo;
From Kalamazoo to San Francisco;
Broke right through
And invented radio;
Crashed through the air
Like a zim-zam Zbysco,
From Kennenbunkport to San Francisco;
Tied up Cohen and Shultz and Harrigan,
From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon –
Tied them up in knots of air –
Hey, you, Marconi, are you there? (Hoffenstein 1946, 137-8)
Nowhere is the conception of the power of thickened air stronger than in the idea of the vortex. Daniel Albright has done a fine job of showing the analogies between Pound’s and Lewis’s ideas of the vortex and some of these theories. For all the famed hardness of the image, Pound was also interested, suggested Albright, in a kind of art ‘which strove literally to reproduce the texture of gas’ (Albright 1997, 172). He quotes Gaudier Brzeska on the historical dematerialisation of energies: ‘VORTEX IS ENERGY! And it gave forth SOLID EXCREMENTS in the quattro é cinque cento LIQUID until the seventeenth century, GASES whistle till now’ (Blast [1914], 156). Essential to vorticism, according to Albright, is the characterisation of impressionism as cloudy or slackly gaseous: thus ‘a vortex is a kind of perturbation that occurs within the dematerialized fields generated by Impressionism. Within the Impressionistic clouds, the particles start to range themselves according to their charge – start to whirl’ (Albright 1997, 173). Impressionism and symbolism were both strongly associated for the first generation of modernists with the swirling fogs of the occult. Lewis would still be associating the ‘surging ecstatic featureless chaos’ of contemporary art with the ‘misty incertainty…the cloudy phantasies of the spiritist’ in Time and Western Man (Lewis 1927, 109). These same spiritists had their own version of the vortex, though, in the magic substance of the ectoplasm, which was regularly accounted for as the materialisation of the ether. Modernism was also attracted to the contemporary account of matter as the infolding of energy upon itself, but sought to distinguish its turbine-like whorls from the flabby, phlegmy amorphousness of the spiritualist ectoplasm. But the modern world was full of these powerful helixes: turbines, tanktracks, electric coils, propellers, moving staircases. Most of the technologies for recording and replaying real-time events relied upon the narrowing gyre, suggesting the vortical piling of thin-air upon itself, the congelation of time into matter: the cylinder-recording, the piano roll, the gramophone record, the cine-reel. The nebular hypothesis that seemed to warp the sky space of Van Gogh’s Starry Night of 1889 remained powerfully at work in Futurist aeropainting, in which the thin air is thickened into coils and spoolings. To fly is not to aspire to the heights, or to attain to serenity of ethereal blue. It is to be caught up in turbulent funnels and cylinders.

This notion of energetic matter focussed on the thickening or contusion of airy material can be found in some surprising places. It could hardly be said that Virginia Woolf was very responsive to new thinking about such questions as time and matter, the levitating table of To the Lighthouse aside. Although she moved in circles in which the new physics was discussed with energy, she seems never to have been very informed or enthusiatic about science, and at least in her early writing was inclined to contrast it with art and literature in a very conventional way. She wrote in the draft of A Room of One’s Own that ‘Fiction, imaginative work that is, is not like the pebble dropped single & solitary upon the ground, as science is perhaps; fiction is like a spiders web attached ever so slightly it may be to life at all’ (Woolf 1992, 77). She wrote on 6 December 1931 to Ethel Smyth of her resolve to undertake reading of science, ‘as the least like to my own ideas’ (Woolf 1978, 4. 409). She was not much taken with Gerald Beard, one of the popular science writers she planned to read in 1931, when she met him a little later:

He is a lean starting eyed lobster man: a man of the future, without senses. In with Wells, Plunket &c: but essentially a nobody. Duncan feels this strongly. Science running thin as magnesia or quinine in his veins. Story telling about Thrings &c began & feeling his irrelevancy, for he knows all facts & no feelings, has no humour, no richness, only advanced ideas, he left. So the air became riper. (1 February 1932; Woolf 1982, 4.68)Nor did she seem very engaged by theories of the influence of science on contemporary literature:

Miss Nielson came; a daneish bee haunted American lit. prof, entirely distracted by Einstein, & his extra mundane influence upon fiction. L. threaded the maze to the muddle in the centre. I gave up on the outskirts. (28 May 1938; Woolf 1982, 5.146)There are signs of a thawing of attitude in Woolf’s later work. Eddington, Darwin and Jeans seem to be on the bookshelves in Pointz Hall (Woolf 1978b, 19), and, among the fragments of conversation picked up from the audience at the pageant, is the remark that ‘It’s odd that science, so they tell me, is making things (so to speak) more spiritual … The very latest notion, so I’m told is, nothing’s solid’ (Woolf 1978b, 144). Nevertheless, we can find in her work, and, more particularly in her efforts to characterise that work, the same kind of attention to the paradoxes of solid and aerial matter as is to be found among vorticists and Futurists.

As one might expect, Woolf regularly invokes the process of writing, not as lifting and dashing and midair manoeuvrings, but as painful digging and descent. But it is striking how strong the upward pressure is in these excavations. Even the famous announcement of her discovery in writing Mrs Dalloway – ‘how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters’ (Aug 30 1923, 65) suggests a kind of high-level excavation, honeycombing the face of a cliff perhaps, rather than boring a mineshaft. Woolf offers an interpretation of her own metaphor, which emphasises, not the digging out but the escape into the air: ‘The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment’ (Aug 30 1923, 65). So although it is possible to read this metaphor as suggesting the sense of a sumptuous or gorgeous depth behind an unbecoming surface, read more closely, its details suggest that the present moment is made up of interconnecting apertures, or niches, like a foam or honeycomb. The potholing is intended to give the sense of a coming not only to light, but also to lightness, rather than the penetration to the glittering hoard guarded by the dragon.

It may not ultimately be possible to chart consistently the movement of Woolf’s ideas about the nature of her writing and the way it relates to the books that it produces. But a temporal diagram of the process might show a confidence in dissipation – of looseness, lightness, fluency and dash – which grows steadily from 1919 onwards, through the writing of Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse . One high point in this process might be her announcement in 1926, in an entry which she begins by saying she feels ‘blown like an old flag by my novel’, that ‘fertility and fluency are the things': I used to plead for a kind of close, terse effort…I feel that I can float everything off now’ (February 23 1926, Woolf 1978c, 89). But throughout this period, there are recurrent eddies of apprehension about the loss of grounds and foundations, a fear that with the increase in fluency and lift will come vacuity, lack of focus or concentration. Although she can congratulate herself during the writing of To The Lighthouse that ‘I am I so flown with words, and apparently free to do exactly what I like’ (April 30 1926, Woolf 1978c, 92), and that her improvisations have shown her ‘one or two more dodges for catching my flies’ (July 30 1925, Woolf 1978c, 85), she will often reel herself back cautiously: ‘I want to learn greater quiet and force’ (July 30 1925, Woolf 1978c, 85).

The writing of The Waves between 1929 and 1931 produced a kind of convolution of these two impulses, towards lightness and dissipation, and concentration and density. Much of Woolf’s ‘parawriting’, or writing about the writing ofThe Waves between 1929 and 1920 emphasises her need to compact, to bring things together under high pressure. ‘I press to my centre’. (Dec 26 1929, Woolf 1978c, 149); ‘How to pull it together, how to comport it – press it into one – I do not know’ (Jan 26, 1930, Woolf 1978c, 151). On the other hand, there is always the feeling that the book must be in some way kept alive, which is to say, expansive, pliant, elastic: ‘this morning I could say what Rhoda said. This proves that the book itself is alive: because it has not crushed the thing I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration’ (March 17, 1930, Woolf 1978c, 154). When she reads Shakespeare, she finds in it a kind of ease and speed and buoyant pliancy which she longs to emulate, but cannot imagine, ‘in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind’ (April 13 1930, Woolf 1978c, 155)

The first draft of the book was finished, with ‘the greatest stretch of mind I ever knew’ on April 29th 1930. As often before, Woolf seeks to decrease rather than increase the pressure at the end of the writing. ‘I have never written a book so full of holes and patches’, she says; although she will need to mend it, the airiness of the structure seems to help make it, as she hopes, ‘easy and fluent’. A couple of days later, she is recording the desire to begin a process she describes as ‘cutting out masses of irrelevance and clearing, sharpening and making the good phrases shine’ (May 1 1930, Woolf 1978c, 156).

But, by the end of the year, the ambition of excision and burnishing had given way to a desire for ‘a saturated unchopped completeness; changes of scene, of mind, of person, done without spilling a drop’ (December 30 1930, Woolf 1978c, 161). But this is a saturation that must be compatible with ‘heat and currency’. The book must be saturated, it seems, without ever becoming clogged or waterlogged – saturated perhaps in the chemical sense. Saturation presents itself in an unpleasant light elsewhere in her diary – for example in her ill-tempered account of peace celebrations in July 1919, which centres on ‘the usual sticky stodgy conglomerations of people, sleepy and torpid as a cluster of drenched bees’ (July 19 1919, Woolf 1978c, 26). Her eye and memory seek relief in the lifting of wind: ‘The one pleasant sight I saw was due rather to the little breath of wind than to decorative skill; some long tongue-shaped streamers attached to the top of the Nelson column licked the air, furled and unfurled’ (July 19 1919, Woolf 1978c, 26).

The most well-known discussion of saturation occurs in a diary entry written on November 28, 1928, as she is brooding on the book she thinks will be called The Moths: ‘The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes’ (November 28 1928, Woolf 1978c, 138). Saturation here suggests the filling of every nook, creating a structure that is supersolid. And yet, it is also something different from simple all-inclusiveness. ‘Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry?Is that not my grudge against novelists? That they select nothing?’ Filling up the spaces with rubble is what produces waste and deadness. ‘The poets succeed by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate’ (November 28 1928, Woolf 1978c, 138). The fact that novelists create deadness through their excess of unselective material circumstance, means that only that which is selected can be put in. But poetry achieves concentration only through leaving things out, which Woolf equally does not want to do. The ideal is a structure saturated with poetry, which is to say, perhaps, crammed with omission. This may explain that odd word ‘yet’ in the sentence ‘ I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate’ (my emphasis). To saturate means to cram in the immaterial. ‘It must include nonsense, fact, sordidity: but made transparent’ (November 28 1928, Woolf 1978c, 138). A twentieth-century person who is able to think of atoms, not as the smallest, densest and most incompressible beads of matter, but as tautly fluctuant, energetic space, is well-placed to develop such a notion of saturation.

Woolf’s image for her work is therefore a kind of air-compacted matter, which is strong and internally cohesive, but without weight. The paradoxical aerial solid of ether is not a strict parallel here, but there is a parallel process of imagining paradoxical conditions of matter.

Having established her saturating mode, Woolf felt strongly impelled to write a more grounded and external book, or a book in which earth and air would interpenetrate. Her diary entries record a ceaseless succession of swings and swerves, between what she calls the ‘upper air scenes’ (February 26 1935, Woolf 1978c, 230; June 13 1935, Woolf 1978c, 241). The stress headaches began to come regularly – though one entry of September 12 1935 gives an interesting explication of what this headache might mean: ‘Never have I had such a hot balloon in my head as re-writing The Years ‘ (September 12 1935, Woolf 1978c, 244). She holds herself back on one particularly headachy day from writing the ‘last spurt’, since this ‘should be much like a breeze in the heavy elms… yes, a wind blowing in the trees that are thick with green leaves. For there must be movement as well as some weight, something for the breeze to lift.’ (July 19 1935, Woolf 1978c, 242). But she found the writing of The Years a desperate struggle, and often thought of it as a formless, lifeless mass: an ‘odious rice pudding of a book’ (April 2 1937, Woolf 1978c, 268). Correcting the proofs drove her to despair and to the resolution that ‘I must carry the proofs, like a dead cat, to L. and tell him to burn them unread.’ (November 3 1936, Woolf 1978c, 259).

Woolf spent a great deal of time in her diaries attempting to characterise her work. In one sense, the diaries hover above or to the side of the work. Wolf often characterises them as a kind of parachute, allowing her to decompress and make her appearance at tea or dinner in a more civilised, less ravelled condition. But inevitably, they also at times mingle their substance with the writing, borrowing or imparting energy from and to it. She made a point of redoubling in her diary the pleasure of writing the final sentences of her books: ‘Then I have just finished, with this very nib-ful of ink, the last sentence of The Waves‘ (April 29 1930, Woolf 1978c, 155-6). The diaries, that is to say, join, sometimes helpfully, and sometimes not, in the process of self-shaping and self-imaging which absorbs her in the writing itself. Sometimes the diaries assist her to draw back from the swirl or mist, opening up a gap to see the shape it composes. At other times, they help her to imagine a kind of ventilation, which would fill out and break a writing which had become too compacted. The breathing space opened up between the work and its reworking can be used to insufflate the work itself.

Modernism is in fact full of these parawritings, whether in the form of letters, diaries, or more public evocations of work yet to be done, in the form of projections, promises and manifestos. We have come to think of these works as virtual. In a sense, the air, that newly ambiguous element, so intimately familiar and yet so estranged, provides a perfect locale for that ambivalent space of parawriting in which the matter of the modernist work is worked through.

The Death of Air

Woolf’s final years see a kind of closing of the air around her. A few days away from finishing her revision of The Waves, she recorded the sight of a crashed aeroplane.

A hot sun; walked over Caburn; home by Horley, and saw three men dash from a blue car and race without hats across a field. We saw a silver and blue aeroplane in the middle of a field, apparently unhurt, among trees and cows. This morning the paper says three men were killed – the aeroplane dashing to the earth. But we went on, reminding me of that epitaph in the Greek anthology: when I sank, the other ships sailed on. (January 26 th 1930, Woolf 1978c, 163)The years of tension and terror from 1938 to 1940 saw Woolf’s eyes raised anxiously skyward, whether registering the searchlights which gridded the skyline of London, or following the path of the planes engaged in combat over Southern England during the Battle of Britain. It is hard to recapture the certainty felt during the final years of the 1930s that the coming war would be a war in the air, in which the use of poison gas poured on civilian populations by aircraft, would be central. The use of gas during the First World War transformed it from a war of territory to a more complex meteorological war, fought in many dimensions, including the air (Connor 2003). H.G. Wells seems to have articulated many of the apprehensions attaching to such a conflict in his novel The War in the Air of 1908. As he wrote in the preface to a 1921 reissue of the book:

with the flying-machine war alters in its character; it ceases to be an affair of ‘fronts’ and becomes an affair of ‘areas’; neither side, victor or loser, remains immune from the gravest injuries, and while there is a vast increase in the destructiveness of war, there is also an increased indecisiveness. (Wells 2002, i-ii)Indeed, Wells’s novel ends, not with any decisive victory, but rather with air war established as a permanent background condition, as evoked in the conversation between an old man and his nephew :

‘But why did they start the War?’
‘They couldn’t stop themselves. ’Aving them airships made ’em.’
‘And ’ow did the War end?’
‘Lord knows if it’s ended, boy’, said old Tom. ‘Lord knows if it’s ended.’ (Wells 2002, 340)
The threat of generalised air war seems to have brought about a simultaneous exposure and saturation: exposure to the threat of a death that could at any moment fall from the air, and saturation, because the air was permeated not just with the palpable (and audible) facts of war, but also with the radiating reports of it. Jane Lewty has shown how sensitive Woolf became to the broadcasts from the BBC which monopolised the ether as thickly as the invading planes threatened to blot out the sky. Others too responded to this condition in which the air bulged as much with bulletins as with bulletins. ‘Let streams of sweetest air dissolve the blight/And poison of the News, which every hour/Contaminates the ether’, wrote David Gascoyne in his apprehensive poem of 1940, ‘Walking at Whitsun’. (Gascoyne 1994, 135). It was as though the exhausted air were finally collapsing in on itself.

At the most uncertain moment of her poetic Trilogy, in the final poem of The Walls Do Not Fall, HD reads the effect of the aerial bombardment that Woolf did not live to see as a disorientating denaturing of the air. The bursts of explosions have both thickened the free air into a ponderous fog, as though the bombs dropped through the air were the lowering of air itself, and made the riddled ground as unstable as air. The poem gives the experience of being in midair at ground level:

we walk continuallyon thin air
that thickens to a blind fog

then step swiftly aside,
for even the air

is independable
thick where it should be fine

and tenuous
where wings separate and open

and the ether
is heavier than the floor

and the floor sags
like a ship foundering
(HD 1973, 58-9)

Eliot’s evocation of the bombing in Little Gidding in 1942 similarly stresses the suffocation of air, seeming to image the horror of and to anticipate the nausea experienced by the witnesses of the destruction of the World Trade Center of a solid structure reduced to an impalpable but asphyxiating smell:

Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house—
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air. (Eliot 1969, 192)
The meeting with the ‘familiar compound ghost’ takes place in the usual Eliot landscape of dead leaves rattling in the ‘urban dawn wind’ (Eliot 1969, 193) after the air raid. Eliot’s hope for a pentecostal ‘refining fire’ is an attempt to strike a light by turning the exhausted, inturned air further in on itself, forming a kind of vortex of fire: ‘When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire’ (Eliot 1969, 18)

The war would be ended in the image of the mushroom cloud which seemed to be an inversion of the vortex. Rather than a radiant centre and an image of charged air, the Hiroshima cloud is an image of the the implosion of space, with the violent conflation of the physics of the infinitesimally small and power on a global scale.

Since then, the world has more and more trafficked in midair, with the expansion into the upper reaches of space extending our atmospheric commerce. As a result, our world seems to many to have become light. Michel Serres has spoken of the change of phase which seems to make contemporary culture lighter and more gaseous than earlier epochs: ‘The system’s “matter” has changed “phase,” at least since Bergson. It’s more liquid than solid, more airlike than liquid, more informational than material. The global is fleeing towards the fragile, the weightless, the living, the breathing’ (Serres and Latour 1995, 121). In his Angels, Serres evokes a world that seems to have actualised the city in the air of the 1934 Futurist manifesto. Perhaps the most telling fictional accommodation to the air is to be found in the condition of metamorphic free-fall evoked after the midair explosion at the beginning of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses:

Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, – because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible (Rushdie 1988, 5)If it is true that, as has famously been said, all that is solid melts into air in modernism, then it is also perhaps important to understand the ways in which modernism represents a transition towards our contemporary, much more thoroughly weightless condition. The modern period is a period in which air was still responsive to a material imagination, and was thus still able to embody dreams of form, before it became taken up into information.

Eliot’s and HD’s evocations of the broken air of the bombing raid are written within a year or so of the appearance of Gaston Bachelard’s study of the poetics of air, L’Air et les songes (1943) the second in his sequence of books dealing with the material imagination of the elements. The association is astonishing. Bachelard’s book is an unapologetic rhapsody on the power of air to stimulate reverie. Bachelard insists on the participative dynamism which always accompanies the imaginative entering into air, but the air is always for Bachelard infinitude. The air is treated most of all, not as a nutritive substance, or even as a medium, but as a space for expansion, stimulating the desire for flight. The air is all space – or, rather, we should say, room – and is evoked in terms that express the easy overcoming of air, or unobstructed passage through it – in effusion, ascension, radiation, outpouring, burgeoning, poetic becoming. The dynamism on which Bachelard insists is all unconstrained, meeting with no drag or resistance. Air is the highest of the elements, and therefore, for the alchemist whom Bachelard takes as his model, the purest. This is very different from the modernist imagination of air, for which it is the nature of air never to be pure.

One might borrow Luce Irigaray’s more recent formulation and say that Bachelard’s arguments represent a ‘forgetting of air’ (1999), were it not for the air-conditioning effected by Irigaray’s own account of air. Her argument is directed towards the metaphysics of Heidegger in particular, but in reality concerns the tendency of male thought to precipitate itself in ‘a solid crust from which to raise a construction…a physics that gives privilege to, or at least would have constituted, the solid plane’, along with ‘the forgetting of those elements that do not have the same density’ (Irigaray 1999, 2). As our necessary atmosphere, ‘the whole of our habitation as mortals’ (Irigaray 1999, 8) air is that which exceeds us, for there is ‘always more of it than its consumption by living beings requires’ (Irigaray 1999, 40). It is the very fact that there is no dwelling ‘more vast, more spacious, or even more generally peaceful than that of air’ (Irigaray 1999, 8) that makes it so liable to remain overlooked and unthought. For this reason, says Irigaray ‘there has never been – unless among the pre-Socratics … – thinking about air’ (Irigaray 1999, 40). One never comes up against air, can never get it in front of one, and so air cannot form part of the Heideggerean Gestell. Air is not substance; its matter is mediation. It is in fact ‘the arch-mediation: of the logos, of thinking, of the world -whether physical or psychical’ (Irigaray 1999, 12). As such, as boundless expanse, as dwelling, as ‘the substance of the copula’ (Irigaray 1999, 12), as space itself, air is female, and the forgetting of air represents the forgetting of the female.

But perhaps Irigaray herself forgets too much of the air in purifying or rarefying it into these principles. In seeing the air only as abundance, only as that which can never fail, since it is never wholly there, she radically and risibly omits the materiality of air. For us indeed, where the air is nothing but a space to be traversed, nothing but the speed of that traversal, air is in the process of being re-etherialised, becoming viewless, wholly transparent. But air can never quite be null and void, entirely evaporated into techno-etherial dream. It is of the nature of air, which is not an element but a mixture of elements, to mingle and to be mingled, and to resist its sublimation into absolute principle. Modernism, which undergoes and in part undertakes the final part of the transition from the heavy, populous and demonic air of the early modern world, swarming with stinks and spirits, and the buffeting shove of the age of sails and pistons, to the vacant, abstract, buzzing air of the age of information, attempts to stay in touch with a palpable air, and with its qualities of elasticity, speed, heat, pressure, tang, tonus and turbulence. In imagining air’s own resistance to imagining, modernism helps retard our own amnesia of air.


Albright, Daniel (1997). Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pond, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bachelard, Gaston (1943). L’air et les songes: essai sur l’imagination du mouvement. Paris: Librairie José Corti.

Balfour, Arthur (1904). Reflections Suggested By the New Theory of Matter. London: Longman’s Green and Co.

Beer, Gillian (1996). ‘Wave Theory and the Rise of Literary Modernism’. Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 295-318.

Bergson, Henri (1922). Durée et simultanéité: à propos de la théorie d’Einstein . Paris: Félix Alcan.

Chesterton, G.K. (1986). ‘Relativity Against Reason’, Illustrated London News, Dec 13 1919, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986 – ), Vol 31.

John Wills Cloud The Ether and Growth: A Theoretical Study. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Ltd.

Connor, Steven (2003). ‘An Air That Kills: A Familiar History of Poison Gas.’ <>

Davies, Paul (2001). ‘Liquid Space’. New Scientist, 2315 (3 November, 2001), 30-4

Eliot, T.S. (1969). The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot. London: Faber and Faber

Gascoyne, David. Selected Poems. London: Enitharmon Press.

Goswami, Surendra Nath (1909). The Science of Ether: Eastern Thoughts With Western Annotations. Calcutta: Suhrit Press.

Haeckel, Ernst (1900). The Riddle of the Universe. Trans. Joseph McCabe. London: Wats and Co.

HD (1973) Trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall; Tribute to the Angels; The Flowering of the Rod. Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet.

Hoffenstein, Samuel (1946). A Treasury of Humorous Verse. New York: Liveright.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1970). The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th edn. Ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. Mackenzie. London: Oxford University Press.

Hulme, T.E. (1994). The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme. Ed. Karen Csengeri. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Huxley, T.H. ‘The Genealogy of Animals’ (1869) Collected Essays: Vol. 2: Darwiniana (New York: Appleton, 1894-8), 107-19.

Irigaray, Luce (1999). The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Trans. Mary Beth Mader. London: Athlone Press.

Le Bon, Gustave (1907). The Evolution of Matter. Trans. F. Legge. London and Felling-on-Tyne: Walter Scott Publishing Co.

Lewis, Wyndham, ed. (1914, 1915) Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. 1 and 2. London: John Lane.
————————- (1993). Time and Western Man. Ed. Paul Edwards. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press.

Lockerd, Benjamin G. (1998) Aethereal Rumours: T.S. Eliot’s Physics and Poetics. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press/London; Cranbury, NJ : Associated University Presses.

Marinetti, F.T., Angiolo Mazzoni and Mino Somenzi (1934). ‘Futurist Manifesto of Aerial Architecture’. Sant’Elia 1 February 1934. <>

Numbers, Ronald L. (1977). Creation By Natural Law: Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Rushdie, Salman (1989). The Satanic Verses . London: Viking.

Russell, Bertrand (1927). The Analysis of Matter. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.
——————— (1993; first published 1914). Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy (Lowell Institute Lectures, 1914). London and New York: Routledge.
——————— (1997; first published 1925). The ABC of Relativity . London: Routledge.

Serres, Michel (1995). Angels: A Modern Myth. Trans. Francis Cowper. Paris and New York Flammarion.

Serres, Michel and Latour, Bruno (1995). Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Trans. Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Spencer, Herbert (1897). The Principles of Psychology. 3rd edn. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Steinman, Lisa M. (1987). Made in America: Science, Technology and American Modernist Poets. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tyndall, John (1871). Fragments of Science for Unscientific People. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Wells, H.G. (2001). The First Men In The Moon. London: Gollancz.
————– (2002). The War In The Air: And Particularly How Mr Bert Smallways Fared While It Lasted. Thirsk: House of Stratus.

Woolf Virginia (1978). The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 Vols. Eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
——————- (1978b). Between the Acts. London: TriadGrafton.
——————- (1978c). A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts rom the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Triad Granada.
——————- (1982). The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 Vols. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co.
——————- (1992). Women and Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. Ed. S.P. Rosenbaum. Oxford: Shakespeare Head/Blackwell.

Whitehead, A.N. (1925). Science and the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.