and Distorting . . . continued
|Section Four. Author: Elizabeth
Marilynne Robinson and Topology
|While Morrison probes the inner
voices of characters haunted by a tragedy of national and historical scope,
Marilynne Robinson stretches her characters' perceptions outward to transcend
domestic tragedy. Contemporary mathematicians also work in both directions;
fractal geometry explores increasingly smaller dimensions, and the speciality
of topology investigates the stretching of limits. This math of distortion
illuminates Ruthie's choice of transience over stability in the novel Housekeeping.
|The current mathematical fascination
with topology examines geometric figures which remain fundamentally unchanged
when distorted until reaching a particular rupture point. Carl Boyer offers
a technical definition of topology: "the study of intrinsic qualitative
aspects of spatial configurations that remain invariant under continuous
one-to-one transformations" (603). At the simplest level, topology studies
mathematical proportions in the blowing up a balloon, stretching
of latex, or contorting of a circle
into an ellipse -- earning the nickname rubber-sheet geometry. Topology
also measures more complex distortions, such as the stretching of a doughnut
shape into a coffee cup with the hole preserved in the handle. But ultimately
as Stephen Barr explains, no matter what the geographic shape, topologists
focus on "the most permanent" properties of an object, "the ones that will
survive distortion and stretching" (3).
|The dysfunctional history of the
Foster family demonstrates opposing perspectives on spatial distortion.
The saga begins with the grandfather Edmund Foster who paints expansive
mountains and boards a train to new territory to escape Midwest landscapes
of "perfect horizontality" that "foreshortened the view so severely" (3).
He arrives in Fingerbone, a realm of "puzzling margins" between "modified"
dimensions (4). A legendary derailment ends the grandfather's life, and
while the widowed grandmother hopes that death will change his essence,
she "distrusted the idea of transfiguration" (10). Her clinging to the
safe restrictions of proper widowhood inverts Edmund's need for expansion.
These spatial dichotomies continue into the next generation: daughter Molly
expands boundaries as a missionary in China, daughter Helen leaves the
home in an "out-of-state marriage" (10), and daughter Sylvie adopts a life
of transiency. Helen returns home first, but only long enough to leave
her own daughters on the porch before committing suicide by "swerving and
sailing off the edge of the cliff" over Fingerbone Lake (23). Those odd
margins noted by the grandfather allow this swift distortion from live
to dead. For five years, the grandmother cares for the orphaned girls,
but remains off-balanced because "this disaster had taken shape" from among
the "familiar" comforts. The grandmother's
death brings great-aunts Lily and Nona as caretakers who continue striving
for "habit and familiarity" (32). But Ruth and Lucille exhibit tendencies
to align with the dangerous, expansive side of the family by skating to
the "farthest edge" of the "swept ice" and examining the "comfortable yellow
lights" of Fingerbone from a distance (34, 35). A legacy of family death
and alternating guardians leaves the girls distorted, awkward, and insular,
yet still courageous.
|The arrival of flamboyant Aunt Sylvie
as the latest caretaker forces the sisters along divergent paths, distorting
the cocoon which envelopes them as a pair until they stretch and break
in opposing directions. Sylvie's housekeeping consists of wildness and
randomness, symbolized by the flood which dissolves boundaries between
lake and home, nature and civilization. Sylvie welcomes this rupture of
spatial distinctions; she sweeps leaves into corner piles rich in "cold
brown liquors of decay and regeneration" and opens windows to welcome "wasps
and bats and barn swallows" flying in with the cleansing air (85). Critic
Sonia Gernes describes how Lucille "rejects the instability of Sylvie's
household, longing for order, solidity, well-planned menus and sturdy shoes"
while Ruth becomes "enticed by Sylvie's world of transience, ephemeral
beauty, and a quasi-mystical quality that defies the body's demands and
limits . . ." (155).
|Exhausted by the changing shape
of their family, by the leaving and the dying, Lucille seeks to recover
solidity; topologists might say her tolerance for distortion has reached
the breaking point. Paulos illuminates two crucial topological properties:
"the number of holes" a figure contains and "the maximum number of
cuts passing all the way through" before
an object breaks "into two pieces" (247). More sensitive to small humiliations
and more concerned with public approval, Lucille begins to resent sequined
slippers and dime-store treasures. Ruthie realizes that "Lucille's loyalties
were with the other world" and notices her sister's "tense and passionate
campaign to naturalize herself" to a stable state of being (95). Lucille
suffers more from the holes in her psyche, the cuts left by abandonment
-- and these vulnerabilities lead her to turn on lights, seek outside friends,
and finally escapes to a home economics teacher as the paragon of convention.
|Ruth proves to be the more adaptable
sister, able to thrive under distortion and expand possibilities. When
night encroaches after a fishing excursion, Ruth "simply let the darkness
in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels
and bones" (116). By allowing the spiritual and natural domains to fill
the holes within, Ruth's topological capacity inflates until the liberation
of darkness seems "perfect and permanent" (116). In language resembling
the transcendentalists admired by Robinson, topologist Barr mediates on
his chosen field: "One might almost say it is a state of mind . . . . beginning
with the continuity of space, or shapes . . . leads into other kinds of
continuity -- and space as we usually understand it is left far behind"
(2). Ruth discovers the correlation between hole and whole: "For need can
blossom into all the compensation it requires" (152). The ache of abandonment
verifies the capacity for love, so that the powers of nature, spirit, and
self can enlarge to fill up this capacity. And, in the process of recognizing
desires and welcoming fulfillment, the dimensions of inner capacity expand
further. Ruth's expansion becomes so "gigantic and multiple" that she may
either "fill the whole house"
or completely dissolve through "the membranes that separate dream from
|Freed from spatial restrictions,
Ruth no longer needs the sanctity of home and can follow Sylvie across
the railroad bridge into the freedom of transiency. Ruth uses an analogy
to describe the expansiveness felt as she ventured across that bridge:
"if you dive under water and stay down till your breath gives out, when
you come up into the air again, you hear space and distance" (211). Spatial
dimensions merge (Inward = Upward = Outward) as sensory perceptions merge
(Sound = Sight = Knowing). Abandoning, even destroying, a four-walled house
allows Ruth to carry the essence of home within herself. As literary critic
Marcia Aldrich assesses, "In setting fire to what has served as a female
house of mourning, they set free what has been suppressed and regulated
. . ." (138). And this liberation of the spirit allows transcendence of
|From Ruth's expansive quest to fill
empty space and Sethe's longing to merge with dismembered rememories to
Oedipa's search for patterns beyond symmetry, each heroine of these three
postmodern novels must seek new definitions of reality before finding resolution.
Overcoming constraints of conventional reality in order to find deeper
truths also characterizes the postmodern challenge. N. Katherine Hayles,
a pioneer in the application of science to literature, explains that pre-WWII
"many disciplines were preoccupied by attempts to develop totalizing theories
that could establish unambiguous connections between theory and observation,
articulation and reality," but by the "mid-century, virtually all of these
attempts had been defeated or had undergone substantial modification" (xii).
While scholars of literature
recognize the emergence of new narrative strategies for capturing the fragmentation
of contemporary life, mathematicians pursue increasingly complex models
for representing a fluid, baffling universe. And these theoretical challenges
become complicated by threats of technology. Novelists must overcome the
exhaustion of literary topics and maintain the vitality of language despite
mass media numbing. Mathematicians must find new territory for analysis
despite predictions that all major equations have already been solved while
also protecting their "calculations" from mis-use by the Defense Department.
But as these forces guide academics into the further unknowns of the twenty-first
century, the desire for meaning preserves a link with antiquity.