The Rise of Modernism: Joyce, Einstein, and Picasso- Maverick Science, Defiant Art

Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake using sixty languages. Picasso had his great epiphany when we understood the straight edges of primitive art were Euclidean geometry with non-Euclidean possibilities. Both were pan-nationalists. Einstein lived his life across half of Europe, then halfway around the globe. These three untied nationalist and imperial borders, mathematical myths, and the shackles of spacetime. They were also beyond the human bonds of love, affinity, or social conventions. Nietzsche’s superman were stepping down from the still speeding train.

All three, despite their internationalism, were most influenced by European childhoods and by Western thought. Think for a moment about the factors that shaped European attitudes in the Twentieth Century. Roman expansion, decline, and collapse left the roads and ports that stretched the continent’s boundaries. Christianity filled the vacuum left by Rome’s evaporation with the temporal power of Western religions. The Black Death purged some weaknesses. Guilds made cities necessary and prosperous, sometimes as powerful as nations. Wealth flooded and evaporated in the cisterns of Iberian colonialism. Imperialism hunkered, then balkanized. Near the middle of those trends came a series of events that shaped everything to follow. That series of events was the French Revolution. The great rebellion and the lesser ones that followed brought political, social, cartographical, and economic change. It also created an atmosphere of hopefulness about the future of humanity through civilization. The strict enforcement of rules monitored scientific advancement, mathematical quantification, centrally deployed standards (even of behavior, language, and art). What has any of this to do with Einstein, Picasso, or Joyce? Precisely nothing, but it has everything to do with Auguste Comte.

Comte (1798–1857), theorized Positivism, a powerful 19th Century philosophy of science. He developed philosophies and dependencies among the sciences– mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology– searching for primary and end causes. This philosopher-scientist predicted that ultimately humanity would stop looking for causes and limit itself to controlling phenomena. His work arranged principles from basic to complex and broad to the finite. Positivism provided an order in which the sciences develop. Astronomy requires mathematics; chemistry requires physics, etc. These priorities were bound to create contention among grey areas between the sciences. There was a need for strict control to prevent incursions from one discipline into another, so Comte established a systematic difference between method and doctrine. The methodology was unchangeable. The doctrine would rule the realm where progress occurs though a phenomenon might still be unproven. To satisfy the methodology’s requirements, visible proof, which might include mathematical calculations, was mandatory.

Comte’s three philosophical stages rose like smoke from French history. His Theological Stage sprung from the Age of Enlightenment. Thinkers of this stage believed God revealed all necessary information. The Metaphysical Stage sprung from the Universal Rights of Man. Independent thinkers reasoned and speculated during this stage but sometimes without observation or evidence. Finally, Comte defined a Scientific Age that began with the defeat of Napolean. After this development, independent thinkers solved society’s problems under strict guidelines. The “positivity” of a phenomenon calculated the degree by which it could be proven or measured. Mathematics, not itself a concrete science, was the gauge by which every science was determined. This was the assessment of Lester F. Ward in The Outlines of Sociology in 1898.

French bureaucracies had already assumed the roles of controlling the introduction of changes. The Académie Francaise, established in 1635, had responsibility for changes to the French language. Since 1666, the Académie Sciences supervised scientific advancements. The French monarchy in 1667 began promoting exhibits in and near the Salon Carré (thus called The Salon). Comte’s Positivism held sway over these agencies for science, language, and art as well as other disciplines. France led the world in academic sciences, although the British were highly regarded in industrial matters. But beginning in the latter half of the 19th Century, a flood of scientific developments emerged that exposed the limitations of Euclidean Geometry. The realities of telephone, telegraph, and x-rays, not to mention atoms, were invisible to Euclid and therefore invisible to Positivism and its mathematical metrics. Comte’s Positivism was losing its grip on emerging scientific developments.

If Comte, who lived over the first half of the 19th Century, dominated the second fifty years of that Century, Poincare, who lived over the second half, dominated scientific philosophy into the 20th Century. Poincare revolutionized mathematical thinking by questioning the long-accepted concept that mathematics existed outside of human thought. He proposed, intuition as a proper tool in mathematical thinking since mathematics was a mere human invention. “He believed that logic was a system of analytic truths, whereas arithmetic was synthetic and a priori,…Mathematicians can use the methods of logic to check a proof, but they must use intuition to create a proof” (The Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Poincare argued in favor of non-Euclidean geometries constructed from translations of Euclidean “syntax.” Einstein later used a non-Euclidean geometry to develop General Relativity. Like Comte, Poincare’s science was a tool not to explain but to predict (or control). The theoretical nature of mathematics led Poincare to conclude there is a difference between verification and proof. Verification, he saw, was mechanical reasoning or proof inference. Algebraic formulas could not be proven but could only indirectly support theories. Only by substituting values can x be shown to equal y, and there might be an infinite number of possibilities to test. Poincare also proposed that any rule that would result in an infinite number of results would remain unprovable, but he allowed the use of intuition to draw conclusions about these sets.

Poincare’s thinking shook the scientific world, and seismic tremors would radiate from science to art and literature. Euclidean Geometry no longer blocked the free-play of scientific and mathematical intuition. Philosophy and Christian Theology, like science and mathematics, also began to stray from the protection of Aristotle and Aquinas. This occurred under the influence of Nietzsche and Darwin. All that was needed were practitioners of science, art, and literature of independent and bold spirit to put Poincare’s ideas into play. These pioneers would be capable of enduring solitude and criticism. For them, personal relationships might have to be considered disposable. They needed to have mastered the old forms and skills but might be bored with them. They would welcome playful experimentation with new concepts feared by others. They needed vision and stubbornness. They would need a willingness to be impoverished while waiting for their geniuses to be recognized.

Nietzsche had announced the ancient sin of hubris was irrelevant, and the superbeing would create a new purpose for life (Miller 11). In 1904, Joyce dared to abandon his faith and country. By 1914, he published a revolutionary collection of short stories with a unified theme and geometric connections. He followed with and an equally revolutionary fictionalized biography. In 1905, Einstein challenged Newtonian dogma in a miracle year of four papers upending human certainty about light, Gravity, time, and space. By 1907, Picasso and Braque began reflecting spacetime and perspective by decomposing rennaisance perspective into geometric shapes. Brash supermen.

Joyce explored creative and ethical epiphanies crucial to his literature. Miller says,”The flash of revelation is not a what but a how.” Other flashes blossomed “after Einstein’s walk with Besso and Picasso’s viewing of primitive art at the Trocadero” (Miller 249). Although Albert’s imagination fed upon the intellectual fellowships of the Olympia Academy with Habicht, Solovine, and Besso, solitude became increasingly important to him. When in Prague, Brod modeled his fictional Kepler after Einstein. Of him, he has a character say: “There is something incomprehensive in his absence of emotion, like a breath from a distant region of ice.” At Le Zut and Bateau Lavoir with Max Jacob et al., Pablo was lively and social after recovering from the shock of Carlos Casagemas’ death, but once he began work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he began to isolate, perhaps because Matisse and Braque, respectively his great rival and closest colleague, rejected his work (Miller 6). Picasso offered no help when Max Jacob was to be sent to a concentration camp (Miller 242). Sunny Jim chose friends like Gogarty, Cosgrove, and Byrne, whom he found easy to dismiss. Others, like Leopoldo Popper, could be betrayed. Joyce toyed with Prezioso’ infatuation for Nora, then berated him in public (Ellmann 316). Joyce sustained a few friendships, Frank Budgen and Ettore Schmitz among them.

All three supermen were indifferent fathers. Although Joyce was affectionate, he was inattentive. As lovers and husbands, they were even worse. The author could never utter LOVE the “word known to all men” to Nora. Picasso paraded women through his life. Fernanda Olivier, whom Pablo seems to have loved, he tormented as repayment for her devotion. Both Joyce and Picasso were afraid of syphilis. Einstein, detached enough to study through an infant’s crying, left Mileva and remarried his cousin who cared for him like a mother. A larger apartment was an insuperable issue for Alfred. He was desperate enough to escape his first marriage that he negotiated away his future Nobel Prize stipend for his wife’s signature on the divorce papers.

The three suffered financially for their prideful persistence in breaking old rules. Joyce labored for ten years to get Dubliners into print. He suffered actual and de facto censorship. His pain was less than that of those around him. Neither Berlitz, private tutoring, nor his short-lived bank position covered his bills. Stanislaus and Nora suffered, and Nora threatened to baptize the children in response (Clarke). Picasso might have sold paintings with Rennaisance perspective, but he refused to bend. He fared worse than the Impressionists whom the Salon shunned. Picasso could sell nothing for several years until the Steins took pity on him in 1905 and bought some of his paintings. That wasn’t the end of his financial woes, but by 1907, Picasso was in better financial straits.

Refutation from Walter Kaufmann “proved” that local time was absolute and not relative as Einstein claimed. Albert stood firm even in the face of traditional proof against his theory. Rather than retreat, he questioned Newton’s sacrosanct laws of gravity. West, through spacetime, Joyce introduced gnomons, syllogisms, and the quincunx into his literature. Even further west, Picasso designed a passage through space and time with the sharp edges of primitive masks.

Jung declared both Joyce and Picasso schizophrenic. Einstein, beyond the grasp of psychoanalytic comprehension, could only be called “emotionless” in the dialog of Max Brod. The supermen had disembarked.


Works Cited

Bourdeau, Michel. “Auguste Comte,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8MAY2018. 3DEC 2021.

Clarke, Frances, “Celebrating Bloomsday: Nora Barnacle in the DIB,” The Royal Irish Academy, 15JUN2019 5 DEC 2021.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, p. 316.

“L’histoire,” Académie Française. 2Dec21.

Paris Salons,” Art Institute of Chicago. 2DEC21.

 Power, Hanriette Lazaridis.“‘Shahrazade, Turko the Terrible, and Shem: The Reader as Voyeur in Finnegans Wake,’” Coping with Joyce: 10th International James Joyce Symposium: Papers, Editors Morris Beja and Shari Benstock. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 1989, pp. 248–261. 

Miller, Arthur I. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. BasicBooks, 2002. 

Murzi, Mario. “Jules Henri Poincaré,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer Reviewed Academic Resource, James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, editors. 4DEC2021. 

Rice, Thomas Jackson. Joyce, Chaos, and Complexity. University of Illinois Press, 1997. 



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