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Archive for May, 2012

I’ve just cut the below from my Flatland chapter because it doesn’t fit with where it’s going any more. There is plenty more to be said on Flatland’s evolutionary concerns beyond this narrow focus on Galton, but I really enjoyed writing this and watching the liberal theologian give the eugenicist a proper kicking. This also fleshes out a remark in the previous post.

One focused target of Flatland’s satire can be drawn out from the first part of the text. As a theologian, Abbott was likely to have become aware of Francis Galton during the ‘prayer-gauge debate’ of 1872 which Galton joined in the pages of the Contemporary Review: this debate over attempts to scientifically measure the effectiveness of prayer was, after all, the ‘sensation of the season’.[1]  As an educator, Abbott could scarcely have failed to have followed the prolific Galton’s pronouncements on nature over nurture throughout the 1870s when the statistician’s research privileged the hereditary transmission of mental and moral characteristics.

Galton was then, as now, most associated with the theory he would neologise in Inquiries into the Human Faculties (1883) as eugenics, ‘the science of improving stock’.[2] Rosemary Jann has noted ‘the voice of the eugenicist’ in Flatland and others have described the context for Flatland’s particular version of geometric evolution.[3] Listening closely for this voice and recording its utterances not only beds Flatland into contemporary social and intellectual concerns but also points to a direct identification of Galton.

A Square describes a society that is an evolutionary hierarchy. As he explains: ‘It is a Law of Nature with us that a male child shall have one more side than his father, so that each generation shall rise (as a rule) one step in the scale of development and nobility.’ (F, 7) At the lower echelons are female Flatlanders, straight lines, figures more one-dimensional than two-, with no interior angles to measure. The lower and middle classes are triangles: sharp isosceles are workmen and soldiers, the middle-class are equilaterals. The professional and gentlemanly classes are squares, such as the narrator, and pentagons. The nobility begin with hexagons and ascend through all polygons. At the very apex are the priestly class, circles, or at the very least figures with so many sides that they approximate circles.

A professional such as A Square feels pity and contempt for the ‘degraded condition’ (F, 8) of the Isosceles class who ‘can hardly be said to deserve the name of human figures, since they have not all their sides equal’ (F, 8). Fortunately for the Isosceles, a Lamarckian hereditary transmission of acquired characteristics means that focused self-improvement and careful selection of breeding partners combine to give a gradual increase in internal angles over the generations.

Lower even than Isosceles are Irregular figures who display no equality of sides. A Square informs us that ‘”Irregularity of Figure” means with us the same as, or more than, a combination of moral obliquity and criminality with you, and is treated accordingly’ (F, 24). This elision of moral and physical characteristics chimes directly with Galton’s study in Inquiries, in which he writes that ‘the innate moral and intellectual faculties are so closely bound up with the physical ones that these must be considered as well’ (IHF, 3). In Flatland, indeed, interior angle correlates directly with intellectual capacity: ‘the family brain was registered at only 58°.’ (F, 16)

Rosemary Jann has located the timbre of Galton’s arguments in A Square’s observation on ‘the extraordinary fecundity of the Criminal and Vagabond classes.’[4] In Inquiries Galton dealt with criminals and the insane in a brief chapter in which he gave his support to this popularly held Malthusian idea: ‘the criminal population […] is well-suited to flourish under half-savage conditions, being naturally both healthy and prolific’ (IHF, 43). It should be noted, though, that Galton diverged from Malthus’s conclusion that prudent men would check their fertility, arguing that the lower classes could not be relied upon to practice prudence.

Other eugenic motifs of Flatland appear remarkably prescient. The Sanitary and Social Board, responsible for certificating equilaterals, draws on the mid-century concern of social reformers with public hygiene and demographics to anticipate the concept of racial hygiene, coined by Alfred Ploetz in 1905, and taken up in eugenic discourse of the early twentieth century. The notion of eugenic certification itself anticipates with unerring accuracy the future trajectory of Galton’s thought: his unpublished utopian novel Kantsaywhere, discovered by Karl Pearson in his papers after his death, envisaged an even more advanced eugenic certification system in which those failing to achieve grading were segregated and prevented from reproducing.[5]

Most chilling are the stentorian tones of the eugenic principle in Flatland policy. Irregulars are frequently destroyed and ‘the diminution of the redundant Isosceles population [is] an object that every statesman in Flatland constantly keeps in view.’ (F, 17) For a reader familiar with Galton’s biography more personal attacks might have been discerned in Flatland’s text. Certainly, had Frances Galton been a Flatlander, his lot would have been unhappy. Galton had failed to gain a degree from Cambridge, having suffered a breakdown in the run-up to his exams. In Flatland

the condition of the unsuccessful minority is truly pitiable. Rejected from the higher class, they are also despised by the lower. They have neither the matured and systematically trained powers of the Polygonal Bachelors and Masters of Arts, nor yet the native precocity and mercurial versatility of the youthful Tradesman. The professions, the public services, are closed against them; and though in most States they are not actually debarred from marriage, yet they have the greatest difficulty in forming suitable alliances, as experience shews that the offspring of such unfortunate and ill-endowed parents is generally itself unfortunate, if not positively Irregular. It is from these specimens of the refuse of our Nobility that the great Tumults and Seditions of past ages have generally derived their leaders; and so great is the mischief thence arising that an increasing minority of our more progressive Statesmen are of opinion that true mercy would dictate their entire suppression, by enacting that all who fail to pass the Final Examination of the University should be either imprisoned for life, or extinguished by a painless death. (F, 22)


[1] The Prayer-Gauge Debate, ed. by John O’Means (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1876), p. 3.

[2] Inquiries, 17

[3] Rosemary Jann, ‘Introduction’ in Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. xvii.

[4] Jann, ‘Introduction’, p. xvii.

[5] See Karl Pearson, Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton (1930), vol IIIA, pp. 414-424.

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I’m going back into Flatland so I’m justifying procrastination by looking through Flatland adaptations. I’ve been trying to get my mitts on the below version for some time featuring, as it does, the inimitable Dudley Moore as A Square, an unsurpassable piece of casting. The animation was by John Hubley, who was blacklisted for refusing to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and is noticeably influenced by the geometric Modernist stylings of Russian animation. It is available on DVD from Documentary Educational Resources, but they charge an absurd $65, which for an 11-minute film seems a bit steep. I guess the Greek youtuber below felt the same, and shared a copy in the interests of unhindered education.

I post this first because it is charming and seems closer to the spirit of the novel than the 2007 film, Flatland: The Movie, which had a significantly larger budget: significantly large enough to cast Martin Sheen as A Square and Michael York as the Sphere. It’s an interesting proposition. The animation is whizzy and while the kind of scriptwriting that has a character declaring “Dude, you’re freaking me out!” makes me instinctively uncomfortable – for a start, it’ll age pretty badly – I wonder if its good intentions and intended audience don’t actually mirror those of Abbott. When it came out in 2007 I thought they’d missed the opportunity to do it in 3D, which would have made so much sense and brought alive the Spaceland sections, so I’m glad they’re remastering it for 3D Imax, no less. Dude! You really are freaking me out!

Despite claims from the producer that selling it directly made more money than he had made on other projects, I guess they ran out of budget for the website. Thomas Banchoff was involved as a consultant, so the geometry and Abbott scholarship are rock solid.

This production must have been enormously bad news for the producers of Flatland: The Film, which also came out in 2007, without the big names. I’m afraid I’m not able to feel too much pity for them, though, because it looks as if they’ve played rather loose with plot and while the animation shows a debt to Abbott’s original illustrations, I’m not sure there’s a lot to be gained from making Flatland a war movie (and the soundtrack?)

Flatland has clearly found a contemporary niche as an educational resource, a way of instructing dimensionality. This is interesting, and certainly part of the story, but as a cultural historian I would hate to leave it to the maths classroom, as valuable as it may be there. Flatland’s complexity and responsive immersion in late-Victorian intellectual life seem reduced by these later versions. Given the prominence of ideas related to Malthus, Lamarck and Galton it might just as well be a resource for teaching evolutionary narratives. Biologists! To the DVD player!

It is also worth observing that narrative is precisely its strength today: the fact that the geometry is embedded in a story is what makes it so attractive to teachers. I think this, too, leads is into more interesting avenues of thought, particularly relating to how and where Flatland fits into literary history. An intriguing essay by Mark McGurl observes that the critically commonplace descriptions of characters as flat and round, coined by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927) , surely owes to Flatland. (I’m uncertain about other claims McGurl makes, regarding Flatland’s position on class, but this is a great point). Flatland , I think, actively participates in and is aware of its place in the literary theory of the 1880s.

As I have argued before on this blog, higher space is also play, so it is appropriate that Flatland has inspired a number of recent computer game projects, which I’ll round up in my next post.

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