Posts Tagged ‘fourth dimension’

Suicide while of unsound mind

Suicide while of unsound mind

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Diagram of original catalogue cube from A New Era of Thought (1888)

Most visitors to this blog – and, indeed, to my academia.edu profile – come seeking Charles Howard Hinton and his system of cubes. No surprises there. Hinton’s biography is quite something and his work on visualising – or, perhaps more accurately, imagining – the fourth dimension of space was innovative, influential and almost completely out of its time.

The purpose of this post is to update a project I began almost four years ago and am only really now in a position to continue: the construction of a set of Hinton’s cubes, the material demonstration models that anchored his pedagogical enterprise.


Inside front fold-out plate of The Fourth Dimension (1904)

Hinton began working with cubes early in his career. The essay ‘On the Education of the Imagination’ (1888) may well have been written before ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ was first published in 1880. In this he describes working with a system of cubes with his school students, and he began teaching in 1876. The system is also based on what he termed ‘poiographs’ in a paper presented before the Physical Society in 1878, so it seems likely to have been a foundation stone for his project. Certainly, his proficiency with it was advanced by 1887, when he was able to claim that he’d memorised a cubic foot of his named cubes.

He refined the system of cubes over the course of his career. The system described in A New Era of Thought (1888), taking up the entire second-half of that remarkable, visionary text, described cubes with a different colour and name for each vertex, line and face. Relying on description and line drawings it is, unsurprisingly, fiendishly complicated. By 1904’s The Fourth Dimension he had developed a system of ‘catalogue’ cubes and plates to enable a more step-by-step working through of cubic training. There are also many more and far clearer illustrations in this text, so this is the version I’ve followed.

The first task is to paint the correct number of one inch cubes the correct colours, which are as follows:

Null 16
White 8
Yellow 8
Light yellow 4
Red 8
Pink 4
Orange 4
Ochre 2
Blue 8
Light blue 4
Green 4
Light green 2
Purple 4
Light purple 2
Brown 2
Light brown 1

I used model paints of the kind you use to paint Airfix aeroplanes. As a newbie to this game this process caused me more problems than you might imagine. For example, metallic paints sound exciting in the shop – wooh-hooh, electric pink! – but they are more liquid, don’t necessarily look all that great on wood, and can even look largely indistinguishable from lighter, non-metallic shades. Also, on which side do you rest a painted cube to dry? I never discovered the answer to this gnomic poser so my cubes are slightly messy. But hey! They’re my cubes – and they don’t need to be perfect.

Home-made wooden cubes

Home-made wooden cubes

After the set of 81 coloured cubes there are the catalogue cubes. These are coloured to distinguish vertices, lines and faces and the fold-out colour-plate at the front of The Fourth Dimension shows how they should look.

As you can see, painting lines a fifth of an inch proved beyond me, either freehand or using tape to mask off. In the end I decided to print out coloured nets of the cubes onto card and cut these out and tape them together. Again, slightly imperfect, but I think they do the job nicely.

Printed onto nets and sellotaped together

Printed onto nets and sellotaped together

There are also coloured slabs, to aid you in thinking like a plane being, as you will be asked to do in the first chapter of exercises, ‘Nomenclature and Analogies Preliminary to the Study of Fourdimensional Figures’ (pp.136-156). These I printed out on card aswell.

I’m going to break these posts up into a series in case anyone wants to join in so I’ll begin with the exercises in the next post sometime in the next week or so. In the meantime, an observation (owing entirely to Dr. Caroline Bassett who pointed it out to me at Weird Council, the China Mieville conference) that will be useful in understanding what’s to come. If, like me, you have about 50 pairs of 3d glasses sitting around the house because you have to buy a new pair every time you go to the cinema to watch Matt Damon Running Really Fast! 3D!, break a set out and take a squizz at the coloured plate above. Your colour-coded anaglyph glasses will be doing all kinds of funky things to the projection diagrams of cubes. Hinton intuitively recruited a colour-coding system to suggest the qualium of an extra dimension of space, which is kind of how we trick out puny brains into registering three dimensions when we drool at a FLAT screen for 90 minutes watching Matt Damon running really fast.

So, ponder that then get thee to a modelling shop (where the staff will be perfectly used to people using the archaic form of the vocative in that way and will possibly be dressed like hobbits).

Bon chance!

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I’m going to spray wildly some thoughts about Weird Council in the hope that some of them cohere, or even more optimistically, attract comments…

We closed with China reading and fielding questions. The story he read condensed a number of the features of his work that make it so rich for research. Dialogue-heavy, it was perfect piece to read: sharp cracks whipped between its two protagonists. Dense and infolded like the chrysalis at its core, it welded commodity fetish to US neo-imperialism, presenting the idea of a deep black-market in numinous dark artefacts of a very contemporary nature: insects used in instruction 9) of the US torture manual for interrogating suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

At the end of the Q&A China remarked that he was surprised not to have been asked any questions about Speculative Realism (heretoforward SR), noting that as an audience we were either too cool or not cool enough. I’d kind of wafted at some of these ideas in my talk so felt as if I’d bottled it a bit: in truth, it hadn’t occurred to ask anything at all; by that stage in proceedings my thinking gubbins had gummed up. With twenty-four hours’ distance it is once again slithering.

On the SR front, then, his story was highly intriguing. Imagined non-human objects had interior lives, biographies, even, and affected the humans between whom they passed with much more than their exchange value: they had agency. This agency had originally been conferred onto them by what humans did (or had done to them by other humans in their presence) but ultimately the insect inserted into a box as a torture weapon reverted to chrysalis form and did not re-emerge: became unknowable, unusable, except, perhaps, as a commodity; yet pregnant with futurity.

I’m wary of any kind of direct reading: this story seems freighted with object ambiguity. One is tempted to correlate numinosity with the noumenal, and I guess this is where my understanding of SR falls short (I suggest that this means I am on-point cool). Because if these objects are perceived as having noumenal lives, inaccessible to human thought, we’re recapitulating Kant and we aren’t doing the work of SR, letting the objects be objects and removing human thought from the centre of the process. Yet granting objects the kind of pregnant form of becoming that is the nature of the chrysalis – not to mention a chrysalis in which the insect pupating is powerfully, darkly magical – is to give them a kind of quasi-knowability perhaps appropriate for what might be quasi-objects. Their agency remains, indeed, their potential agency is metaphorically increased.

Glancing back to Graham Harman’s essay on Lovecraft in Collapse, which is available on his site here (while ‘fessing that I haven’t read his Zer0 book on Lovecraft) he argues that Lovecraft’s unrepresentables and unknowables are exemplars of a ‘weird realism’ that undermines Kant’s noumenal. There’s a lot more to say here. China’s remark that he was interested in totalities and in particular in competing totalities indicates that there would be fruitful research to be done in After Finitude, Badiou etc. There is certainly much for me to ponder about how n-dimensional geometry fits into a philosophy that argues for mathematics as providing us with the tools for escaping correlationism. At the moment my thoughts around this are folding in on themselves like the hypercube animation doing its perpetual rounds below so I’ll not push any further at this right now.

Instead, there’s something I want to add to the discussions on genre theory revolving around Suvin’s definition of sf as a literature of ‘cognitive estrangement’, a discussion very fruitfully engaged by Jon Rieder, Rhy Williams, Sheryl Vint and commented on by Roger Luckhurst and China. I want to push a bit at the idea of cognition and – surprise surprise! – I’d like to use n-dimensional geometry as the lever with which to do it. (Suvin, by the way, is highly approving of Flatland, whose ‘novum’ he deems a lot more radical than it actually was – the ‘novum’ aspect of Suvin’s definition was pretty neatly challenged by Jon Rieder’s more fluid account of genre as something socially and culturally imposed on a text, rather than internally expressed).

The cognitive logic that leads us to n-dimensional space is solid enough in logical terms – we reason it by analogy, as from two dimensions to three, so from three dimensions to four. Just because it is produced through the privileged discipline of geometry, or by analogy, a process of reasoning sanctioned since Aristotle, that doesn’t mean that we find ourselves in a situation any different from a fairyland. Geometry is a model of space governed by a set of axiomatic rules, but we can tweak those rules and produce new geometries. We can then read back from the tweaked model and speculate spaces that conform to the tweaked versions. The process has been led by reason, but a form of reason no different to metaphor, because geometry is a metaphor for space and can be abreal. We’ve just been quite merrily translating backwards and forwards between metaphors and the thing they express.

This insistence on cognition does not seem to distinguish between the types of reasoning employed by supposedly materialist science, even when those forms of reasoning are metaphorical. I’ve had a look at Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Lenin’s Empirio-criticism and in their focus on tracking down idealism, these foundational materialist theories of science go all the way in the other direction. This definitely wants some nuancing and I’m sure Rhys could clarify or correct this and it’s something I’ll try to develop in greater detail, but wanted to post while the conference was still pretty fresh.

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The below is the text of a paper I gave at Weird Council, a conference on the work of China Miéville that took place at Senate House last weekend. I post it here because it is essentially a higher spatial reading of a selection of his novels – I will post some further thoughts and responses to the conference at my other blog hopefully later today but in the meantime would like to offer the most enormous thanks to organisers Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia.

The introduction and one or two lines in it respond to Roger Luckhurst’s plenary, which will hopefully find its way online at some point in the future. Apologies to those readers to whom these bits make no sense. The accompanying slides are on scribd here but the tesseract won’t be animated. That’s here:

Ladies and Gentlemen. I feel compelled to warn you that since Professor Luckhurst’s presentation yesterday of the revelatory findings of his inter-disciplinary working group, I have entertained the gravest doubts about this paper. It contains research passed on to me by my colleague Talbot, a thaumato-lexicographer working on Miéville’s novels who is aware of my research interest in n-dimensional space. Talbot is officially on research leave in Alexandria, although I am certain I saw him on the Kilburn High Road earlier this week. Given recent discoveries, I don’t think that the possibility of bi-location can be entirely ruled out. I have suppressed some of the more outré annotations below for fear that they might later crop up in konvolut n+1. Talbot presents this as a primer, but I am not altogether sure that it is not in fact a grimoire…


Worldweave (IC, PSS)n. A ‘concatenation of threads in impossible spiral symmetry’ (Iron Council 233) that binds together ‘unmundane dimensions’ with the mundane.

The text immediately hands over to Yagharek, to describe what he sees after journeying on the back of the Weaver, the transdimensional spider-like creature that he describes as a ‘dancing mad god’:


The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry […] each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces. (PSS, 400)

I start with the worldweave because it includes a number of ideas that will resonate through this primer, higher dimensionality, first and foremost. It gives a perfect indication of the way in which our mundane space is entangled in higher dimensional space in complex and knotted ways.

The reference to the aether is also highly suggestive and routes us directly to the end of the nineteenth century, the period in which ‘unmundane’ dimensions were theorised in mathematics. In the late nineteenth century the aether was supposed to be a space-filling perfect medium through which waves of light propagated.


William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, proposed that atoms might in fact be vortex motions in the ether: that matter was formed from knots, or spirals, in the perfect medium, proposing, in essence, something very like the worldweave.

It’s also intriguing to read all those objects listed in a novel published in 2000 in the kind of paratactic pile-up that is the favoured rhetorical device of the very current Object Oriented Philosophy movement. Here, a quotation of similar style from Bruno Latour, has been excised. The worldweave is, for all sorts of reasons, a phenomenal space, a world in which human intelligence is no longer central. And, indeed Isaac struggles with it more than Yagharek. This would also be continuous with a Kelvinian atomic universe in which everything was composed of wee swirls in not a great deal…

But it is the idea of unmundane dimensions that I want to develop in the first half of this primer.

Take for example…


Planurgy (K) – n. Trans-dimensional origami.

In The Kraken, Anders, a practitioner of this cutting edge knack with which objects can be topologically manipulated explains:


‘What you’re really trying to do with planurgy is get things into other space, you know?’ ‘Abmaths’ has led to a revolution in origami, he explains, before demonstrating the practice by folding a digital cash register into a hand-sized Japanese crane.


‘The bulky thing collapsed on itself in fold-lines, different aspects of unbroken planes slipping behind each other as if seen from several directions at once.’

Seeing something, or at least depicting something, from several directions at once was a stated aim of both futurist and cubist visual artists.


In this they were led by ideas of higher dimensioned space, typically encountered in works by theosophists – primarily C.W. Leadbeater – or in Paris, through the works of Poincare, Princet and Jouffret. Lynda Dalrymple Henderson’s book remains the motherlode for the influence of n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries on Modernist artists.

The reason a speculated four-dimensional space would allow this multiple perspective is that we can demonstrate by analogy that access to a higher dimensioned space allows an intelligence to see the interior and aspects of lower-dimensioned objects that observers in the lower space would not be able to see.

It has other features. You can move in and out of a lower dimensioned space at will. Closed three dimensional spaces are open to you and with access to the interior of objects you can achieve co-presence. You can also bi-locate, move into the lower space at different points at the same time – albeit with different bits of you. Perhaps most weirdly, you can achieve the kind of folding – or flexure – of solid objects described in planurgy. This was demonstrated using the methods of projective geometry by Felix Klein and Simon Newcomb in the 1870s and 1880s.


This projection of the animated section of the four-dimensional analogue of the cube gives an indication of the kind of enfoldedness of our own space within higher space.

As an aside, something very like planurgy occurs in Ian MacEwan’s first ever short story, Solid Geometry, in which the husband in an unhappy marriage discovers the secrets of nineteenth century higher dimensional thought in his great grandfather’s papers and folds his wife into the space. This was made into a film starring the young Ewan Macgregor and features nudity. Talbot seems to think this will be exciting for someone who spends most of their time reading about nineteenth century maths.

The challenging features of this new kind of space pose problems for language, as is demonstrated by the definition of the immer given early in Embassytown…


Immer (E)n. ‘The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.’

Let’s hop straight on while we’re there and address the manchmal.

This coinage stresses the contingency of the everyday experience when it comes to space.

This is an excellent description of the relationship between a higher dimensioned space and the space of n-1, or one fewer, dimensions. It highlights the prepositional problem caused by higher space, as evidenced in the confusion over what to call it when it was first theorised

– suggestions in the 1880s included pro-space, meta-space, hyper-space, throughth, even. The problem is that many prepositions are spatial – to, from, above, below, up, down, through, beyond – and that many adverbial prefixes are prepositional: ad, ab, pro, meta, per. All spatial prepositions are derived from the experience of lived space and prove insufficient for describing relationships or movements in higher space. What is the meaning of ‘above’ or ‘behind’ for a four-dimensional being?

An entire semantic category is rendered inaccurate when we are dealing with higher space. Some gestural use might be made of through, beyond or other atelic directional prepositions but in serving to remind us of three-dimensional space – and the reader will always constitute this space when she reads these words – they fail in signification.

The only way out, I would suggest, is the creation of new language. Charles Howard Hinton, a leading theorist of higher space in the fin de siècle, borrowed the Greek words ana and kata to describe directions in the fourth dimension and in so doing came the closest to addressing this problem.

Pretty rapidly, fiction responded to the emergence of these new types of space, and those responses served to underline the insufficiency of three-dimensional language and the distress at the idea of non-mundane spaces. In 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland took the ingenious approach of launching its narrative from the lower dimensionality of the plane. In this otherwise very playful novel, the narrator, A Square, finds the experience of being raised into the third dimension extremely disturbing:


An unspeakable horror seized me. There was a darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw a Line that was no Line; Space that was not Space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”

There’s a brief allusion to Flatland in Embassytown, about which maybe we could impose upon the author to comment later. Madness was a persistent threat of higher space. There’s a lot of attention being heaped on Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End right now, but I prefer his fin de siècle hackwork as Joseph Conrad’s amanuensis. In The Inheritors, a novel co-written with Conrad and published in 1901, the fourth dimensionists send their victims mad. The narrator Grainger is given a glimpse of the fourth dimension:


I felt a kind of unholy emotion […] What had happened? I don’t know. It all looked contemptible. One seemed to see something beyond, something vaster – vaster than cathedrals, vaster than the conception of the gods to whom cathedrals were raised. The tower reeled out of the perpendicular. One saw beyond it, not roofs, or smoke, or hills, but an unrealized, an unrealizable infinity of space. (8-9)

Again, the stress was on the impossibility of representation. It is notable that it was popular genre fiction that tended to address this space head on. We encounter higher space in the work of Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, George McDonald, George Griffith, Mary Wilkins Freeman and it is typically represented as a site of threat.

You might have guessed where this is heading. The writer who brought these kinds of spaces most forcefully into play was H.P. Lovecraft. I think you’ll recognise the tone of some of these earlier quotations in this selection from Lovecraft. Here, from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, the account of second-mate Johansen of R’lyeh:


he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth […] I mention this talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. (165-166)

Lovecraft merrily mixes together non-Euclidean and n-dimensional spaces, but this was common in all kinds of cultural accounts of the new geometries. The story ‘Dreams of the Witch House’ is the richest source for Lovecraft on higher dimensional and non-Euclidean space. Indeed, its central character, Walter Gilman is studying ‘non-Euclidean calculus’ at Miskatonic university.

He rents a room of ‘”queerly irregular shape’ that was previously inhabited by the witch Keziah Mason, who during her trial “had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.’ He begins to dream of ‘prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings’.

Lovecraft’s fascination with ‘unplumbed space’ was a key element in his creation of the sense of the weird, his cosmic horror. I may not win myself any fans by saying that I think Lovecraft represents the pinnacle of the crisis of representation set in chain by non-Euclidean and n-dimensional geometries. In fact I think it’s the crisis itself that he deploys and mines for all its worth. He has some of the jargon – but, interestingly, not even a smattering compared to his impressive geological vocabulary – but he deploys this jargon in a gestural way. For an example of representational crisis cunningly deployed, take this passage from At The Mountains of Madness:


There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars (10)

Graham Harman writes of this passage:

The near-incoherence of such descriptions undercuts any attempt to render them in visual form. The very point of the descriptions is that they fail, hinting only obliquely at some unspeakable substratum of reality.

I think Harman is being generous with the first sentence here. You could have a bash at drawing these structures – and indeed many people have – but the objects are described in entirely Euclidean language – indeed, in the very language Euclid himself invented: cones, cylinders, rectangles, cubes, pyramids. Truncation, terracing or fluting don’t make them non-Euclidean: these are familiar architectural motifs. Lovecraft’s move is, as Harman observes, to deny them coherence: you can’t surmount a truncated cone with a cylindrical shaft because a shaft is an inversion of an architectural feature, a lack of matter.

So I agree entirely with Harman’s second sentence. The descriptions do fail: I’d like to qualify this statement, though, by saying that what they’re failing to do is to represent the ‘monstrous perversions of known geometrical laws’ that they claim to be showing. They’re a nifty dodge, a swerve.

Talbot then returns to Miéville and I think he bounds somewhat carelessly over nearly a century of genre fiction. He lines up the Weaver and the Slake Moths with Cthulhu and Azathoth, trans-dimensional monsters all. In early Miéville, the trope of higher dimensionality owes a fundamental debt to Lovecraft, but builds from there.

Miéville’s work responds to the crisis of representation posed by ‘non-mundane’ space by recognising the need for the invention of new vocabularies and that this becomes increasingly evident in the more recent novels.

In fact, new spaces, in Miéville, generate new language. Think of the Weaver’s cubist utterances, like something out of Gertrude Stein, who was well aware of the fourth dimension and its influence on cubism, and who likewise wanted to depict objects from multiple angles.

Think of the changes on language wrought by the colonists who come from beyond the immer, that liminal ‘langue’ from which immersers return changed. Or how about…


Orciny (C +C)n. A mythical interstitial City that exists only in words, particularly in cacographic marginal scribbling.

Orciny is nothing but language – rumour, Bowden’s illegitimate research presented in Between the City and the City, generating the field of discourse entered by Sherman, Rosen, Vijnic, researched and annotated in the margins by Mahalia. Orciny, ‘this fool’s conspiracy’ as Ashil calls it, is generated by the hybridity of…


Breach (C +C) n. 1) The crime committed by a citizen of either Besz or Ul Quoma who transgresses directly into the other territory. 2) The authority that polices such crimes. 3) The interstitial and abstracted location occupied by this authority.

v. To commit the crime of 1), to transgress from Besz into Ul Qoma or vice versa.

Breach. There’s a note here referring to Andrew Butler: ‘Breach denies hybridity’. It aks: does Bowden reintroduce it? It continues, breach is neither one nor the other but both, at the same time. Overlaid, underlying. Underwritten, over-writing? Breach is polysemous, a word that refers to a number of different concepts. It is introduced to the reader slyly: we read of Borlu unseeing an old woman before we encounter breach; we read of the Dopplircafe, a real-world analogue of a shared space used by Jews and Muslims side-by-side, that primes us for this idea of two cities that are not just beside, but through each other, densely interwoven in areas of…

Cross-hatch (C +C)n. Areas where Besz and Ul Quoma occupy the same space simultaneously and two distinct idioms of architecture abutt each other. Citizens of either City will be required to ‘unsee’ or ‘unnotice’ each other in such areas.

The crosshatch produces the bravura closing scene in The City and The City’s main narrative, the arrest of a transgressively – and here ‘trans-‘ is crossed out and replaced with hyper, before settling on schizogressively pimpwalking Bowden, a kind of blasphemous bodypopper. Here, quantum physics is indicated, rather than higher dimensionality. Bowden is ‘Schrodinger’s pedestrian’, in both spaces at the same time. His ‘strange, impossible’ gait is a new thing: it demands new vocabulary; it is ‘not properly describable’. Here Miéville briefly recapitulates the linguistic crisis of representation in a text that otherwise brims with linguistic creation. This is the exception that proves the rule, claims Tablot. This scene creates from the hybrid space a new embodiment, a new way of being in space, a way of being so new it’s yet to be named…

Unlike, Embassytown, which is renamed…


‘By Embassytown I mean the city. Even the new Ariekei have started to call the city by that name.’ So says Avice Benner Cho, using the new language, Ariekei embracing the possibilities of polysemy built into their polyvocality.

It’s to Spanish Dancer, the most gifted linguist in all of Miéville’s novels – the most gifted story-teller, too, because that’s what we’re dealing with – that Talbot gives the closing words.

As he addresses the Ariekei on their return to the city, Spanish eloquently, and in that slightly stilted alien voice, speaks of the generative connections between language and space that Miéville’s work both enacts and hopes for:

‘When the humans came they had no names, and we made new words so they would have places in the world.’

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For the past two days I’ve been at W.T. Stead: A Centenary Conference for a Newspaper Revolutionary. I find processing the intellectual grist of conferences takes more than 24 hours, so I’ll hold back on trying to put down any synthetic thoughts and will note, instead, what a joy it was to participate in and to thank the organisers, Laurel Brake, Jim Mussell (@jimmussell), Roger Luckhurst (@TheProfRog) and the British Library’s Ed King. Highlights included: being part of an occult-themed panel with Kate Cambell, Sarah Crofton and Will Tattersdill (@faceometer), in which the papers proved remarkably complementary (I guess we were all working in the shadowland sketched out by Roger Luckhurst’s account of Stead in The Invention of Telepathy) and after which I came away with avenues of research prompted by each of my co-panellists; meeting again Clare Gill and Beth Rodgers from Queens in Belfast,organisers of the first academic conference I ever attended and brilliant company; all the plenaries, but particularly John Durham Peters’s ‘Discourse Network 1912’, a Kittlerian take on Titanorackery; and also Gavin Weightman’s take-no-prisoners re-appraisal of ‘The Maiden Voyage’ and subsequent court case, a rare example of a paper critical of Stead that was all the more laudable for coming from a non-academic surrounded by tutting scholars. I blagged a copy of Gavin’s POD book and will respond to it in a  future post.

I post the text of my paper below and will add a link to the slides when I get those up somewhere.

“Throughth”: W.T. Stead’s Higher Spatial Holiday

I’d like to open by going straight to the source. Buckle up and allow William Stead, in full visionary mode, to take you on a voyage to another dimension. This is from the Review of Reviews, April 1893, an essay entitled Throughth: Or, On the Eve of the Fourth Dimension:

We are now living in space of three dimensions. But there is evidently more beyond. We are now in the stage in which our second dimension ancestors were to be found when the light began to stream in upon them from above and below the narrow plan of two dimensions in which they lived. As the two dimensional creatures had to open their minds and recognise that there was a space of three dimensions full of immense possibilities but hitherto invisible, so we now have to open our eyes and admit that beyond the space of three dimensions in which we live there exists a space of four dimensions of which we catch glimpses now and then in those phenomena which are entirely unaccountable for by any law of three dimensional space.

An admirable little book, entitled “I Awoke,” written automatically and published by Simpkin and Co. Last month, defines the fourth dimension as that of motion through, or interpenetration. Clairvoyance, by which a man can see in London what is passing in New York; telepathy, by which the mind of a man in Edinburgh can impress itself upon the mind of a percipient in Dublin; telepathic automatic handwriting, by which the mind of a person whose body is in Germany can use the hand of a writer who is in England; crystal vision, by which events past, present and to come are portrayed before the eye of the gazer; psychometry, whereby the character of an individual can be divined from a touch of a hair of his head,-

all these things are so many rifts in the limits of our three dimensional space through which the light of four dimensional space is pouring in upon us. It is becoming more and more evident to those who observe and note the signs of the times that we are in very deed and truth on the eve of the fourth dimension […]

In the new world which opens up before life becomes infinitely more divine and miraculous than it has ever been conceived by the wildest flights of imagination of the poet. Many attributes which have hitherto been regarded as the exclusive possession of the Deity will be shared with His creatures. The past mingles with the present, and the future unfolds its secrets. Death loses its sting, and parting its sadness. The limitations of time and space – three-dimensional space, that is – furl up and disappear. Spirit is manifested through matter, and we enter into a new heaven and a new earth. This and much more than this is involved in the statement, “We are on the eve of the fourth dimension.”

This extract contains much to analyse. Most obviously, we have Stead’s interest in occult and psychical phenomena such as telepathy and automatic writing. By the time he wrote this Stead had been interested in psychical research for over a decade; he attended his first séance in 1881 and in 1884 he had hosted the thought-reader Stuart Cumberland at the offices of the Pall Mall Gazette. By 1893 he had been editing and publishing the Review of Reviews for three years and his absorption in spiritualism was increasingly evident to his readers, who encountered frequent articles and editorials on thought-reading, ghosts and the after-life. He had published Real Ghost Stories in November 1892, in which he aimed, in Roger Luckhurst’s phrase, to ‘democratise psychical research by appropriating the sober SPR ‘Census of Hallucinations’ Project’. He had become increasingly interested in automatic writing following the death of American journalist Julia Ames, and had in 1892 suggested that the readers of the Review of Reviews investigate the phenomenon, by which stage he was already collecting the automatic scripts which would later be published as Letters from Julia (1897). The following pages of Throughth gave an account of some of these experiments.

It also gives a sense of various aspects of Stead’s journalistic style. The synoptic function of Review of Reviews is indicated by that reference to ‘an admirable little book’, to which I’ll return. The visionary tone is a wee bit febrile in sections of this but it extends from the affective sensationalism Stead practiced in his journalism. We also have an indication of his internationalism – all those people in New York, Edinburgh, Germany, Dublin. And, of course, his focus on communication and mediation.

What has drawn me to this essay, though, is Stead’s engagement with the idea of the fourth dimension, which is the focus of my research. As far as I can discover this was Stead’s only sortie into higher space – if there are any Stead scholars in the audience who can direct me to other fourth dimensional references I’d be thrilled to hear from you. The section I’ve just read comes from the second page of the essay. In the first, he outlines some of the arguments current in 1893 for the existence of a fourth dimension.

What I would like to do with this paper is to describe the shape of Stead’s engagement with higher space. We won’t be staying in the lowly fourth dimension for long, but will be ascending to the fifth, sixth, seventh and beyond. In describing this background we’ll probe the aspects of Stead’s method I’ve just outlined before tarrying a while with automatism, and communication more broadly, in its spatial aspect.

Stead’s higher spatial holiday began, as far as I can tell, only a month earlier. In the Review of Reviews for March 1893, he recommended a cluster of books of interest to psychic researchers. These books were ‘the signs of the times’ to which he would refer.


Frederick Myers’s essay on the Subliminal Consciousness in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, was commended for explaining ‘so clearly and exhaustively the method by which the psychologist is learning to evolve a new science of the hitherto invisible and unknown world’. Myers’s essay will be known to scholars of both psychology and psychic research. It was a source for Freud, who was just about to begin publishing. We should note Stead’s description of the subliminal consciousness as the ‘invisible and unknown world’. Under this banner the workings of mind fall into the same category as electromagnetism and assorted physical phenomena.


A brief paragraph went on to suggest as complementary Arthur Willink’s The World of the Unseen: ‘Mr. Willink holds that the unseen world is of four dimensions, and into this space of four dimensions or Higher Space, as he calls it, the dead pass, and from which they can communicate with us.’

Willink’s book was the latest contribution to a canon that had dragged the ideas of n-dimensional geometry into occultist discourse. These texts used analogical arguments first rehearsed in a mathematical context to claim that there was by necessity a fourth dimension of space, that it too was in the invisible and unknown world by dint of the fact that it could not be accessed by sense perception, but claimed that evidence of it could be discerned in séance phenomena. These arguments hinged around the fact that projective geometry had suggested a key feature of a four dimensional space. That intelligences of a higher dimensionality would be able to access the interior of closed objects in a lower dimensionality – just as we three dimensional intelligences can access the inside of a two-dimensional square or circle.


Stead went on to review Do the Dead Return? A Record of Experience of Spiritualism by a Clergyman of the Church of England; Mr Carlyle Petersilea’s Discovered Country, ‘which is said to have been written automatically, describing life on the other side’; and Dreams of the Dead by Edward Stanton, of which he wrote:

‘It is very curious and more theosophical than Christian. The writer holds that we are on the advent of the sixth race. A new physical sense is developing in the nerve constitution of man. The time is at hand when a new civilisation will be founded by a select amalgam.’

It’s clear from this brief selection that Stead had synthesized the arguments of these books for his essay: Myers’s theorisation and early mapping of a psychological basis for psychic phenomena, Willink’s accessible description of the spiritualist hypothesis of the fourth dimension, the automatism of Petersilea’s book, the millennial sentiments of Stanton’s.


As far as I’m concerned these are all but mere morcels compared to I Awoke! Conditions of Life on the Other Side Communicated by Automatic Writing (1893), the final piece of the occult jigsaw Stead assembled in his essay.

I Awoke! sold at one shilling net and was popular enough to be reprinted and extended two years later. It offered a first-hand account of the conditions of the kind of higher dimensional afterlife argued for by Willink. It referred throughout to ‘the Master’, a Christ, of ‘a form which is in four dimensions, and which cannot be seen by ordinary earthly vision.’ An appendix described the conditions of the various dimensions in which the dead lived, and is notable for its embrace of a full range of higher dimensionalities.


The Appendix, ‘received’ in 1891, claimed that ‘there is a fourth dimension […] which represents what you might call the inter-penetrative sphere’. It continued: ‘This fourth dimension, only guessed at by you, is our first, the other three fall from us as crude and imperfect.’ The inhabitants of this dimension were capable of improbable feats of transportation:

This power, when perfected, would give man absolute power of progression in every direction and in every part of the universe. He could pass through the heart of mountains, or could rise into the atmosphere to any height by altering, as it were, his own density, and the density of his path; nothing would prove a hindrance.

Perhaps unnecessarily, the fifth dimension extended these capabilities to cosmic space:


‘Let us call the fourth dimension inter-progression, then the fifth might be called trans-progression. From sphere to sphere, from star to star, and from star to sun shall the children of men wander at free will.’ The less than complete understanding of astronomy demonstrated by the dictating intelligence did not deter further revelations. ‘As men rise from dimension to dimension their powers are changed and increased in many ways.’ The sixth dimension was the first ‘time-dimension’ in which linear time was infinitely malleable. In the seventh ‘time may be said to have no existence’: the past was as accessible as the present; only the future remained hidden. The powers of those who had access to dimensions beyond the seventh were vague: ‘After the time-dimensions come those that belong more directly to the human will, its powers and its limitations.’

Heady stuff, and tremendous fun. Okay. But what to make of it? And how to treat it? Any text that purports to be transmitted through automatic writing occupies a curious cultural position. To proponents of the practice the text’s very existence offers evidence of the phenomenon of automatism and legitimates content offering mediated access to the mysterious unseen. A more distanced analysis might observe merely that such texts reflect the conditions of their composition; regardless of their origin, the ‘medium’ through which they are channelled is inevitably embedded in an occult network. Such texts tend to synoptically appropriate (or confirm) current occultist or scientistic thought – certainly, this was true in the case of HP Blavatsky, whose Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled were both written automatically.

In terms of content, in I Awoke! we re-encounter the conceptual hinge of Stead’s essay, that horrible neologism – throughth. We should forgive Stead this, however. Higher dimensioned space is prepositionally confusing – in the period it was called variously hyper-space, meta-space and pro-space. In fact, it causes problems for language at a basic level by disturbing standard spatiality. We realise, as soon as directions such as up, down, above, below are taken away from us, how much of our romantic language is spatially grounded.


What I think is interesting is that Stead’s synthesis focused on inter-penetration – Stead wrote of the fourth dimension:

We however get glimpses of it in clairvoyance, in the phenomena of hypnotism, and in all the experiments which are known as telepathy, crystal-gazing, thought-reading, and all things in which we see, hear or communicate through things, which according to the known laws of third dimensional space, would render communication impossible.

Here was also recalling a section quoted from Myers the previous month: ‘The possible law of which I speak is that of the Interpenetration of Worlds.’ Stead was binding together different forms of interpenetration and his original contribution, appropriately enough for a radical journalist, was to focus on the communicative nature of the medium, the subjectivity through whom. Employing the speculated interpenetrative qualities of higher space Stead’s throughth was unhindered communication.


I would like to note here the parallel between automatism and creative writing. After Surrealism’s appropriation of automatic technique for artistic production, it’s perhaps an obvious link for us to make to compare automatic writing with any kind of creative artistic production, but while this is a parallel that 19th century practitioners would have rejected, it surely holds. We can’t quite read these texts directly as fiction but we can certainly apply the same critical armature we do with fiction. I’d like to say there now follows an analysis of the use of indirect free discourse in automatic texts, but I’m going to spare you that in favour of the rather more diffuse observation that this urge towards communicating through, a spatial elision of first and third person, is mirrored in Henry James’s fiction and theoretical writing of the same period. James spilt much ink over his concern with achieving the optimal perspective. He even used the idea of possession.


This is from the preface to the New York edition of The American:

For the interest of everything is all that it is his vision, his conception, his interpretation: at the window of his wide, quite sufficiently wide consciousness we are seated, from that admirable position we “assist”. He therefore supremely matters; all the rest matters only as he feels it, treats it, meets it. A beautiful infatuation this, always, I think, the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature; the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest – and with the high enhancement, ever, that it is, by the same stroke, the effort of the artist to preserve for his subject that unity, and for his use of it (in other words for the interest he desires to excite) that effect of a centre, which most economise its value.

What I hope to suggest by highlighting this parallel is that the spatial imaginary of the late nineteenth century had been altered by the ideas of higher space, that co-presence, the co-habitation of the same space by two different consciousnesses was very much in the air, and that this altered imaginary can be discerned in both the theorisation of fiction-writing technique and Stead’s utopian vision of technologised communication: ‘the human telephone’, as he called it elsewhere in his essay. The aim of affecting the reader is also continuous between James and Stead. Where Stead departs from that old snob James is in his democracy. Roger Luckhurst probes Stead’s ‘affective journalism’ in the context of his urge to democratise knowledge, his obsession with electrical technologies and the way these came together in his internationalism and vision of a technologically connected empire. We read all these in Throughth. Stead disagreed with Stanton that it would only be a select amalgam of spiritual artistocrats who would be able to communicate in this way. In Stead’s account, the new world was available to all.

Stead’s democratised fourth dimension did not last long, however. In the May issue of Review of Reviews he noted a paper by Professor Hermann Schubert published in The Monist, ‘The Fourth Dimension: Mathematical and Spiritualistic’. Prof Schubert was ‘very hostile to spiritualism’ and stressed the need for ‘slow, unceasing research’ rather than ‘the thoughtless employment of fanciful ideas’. Stead retreated from his previous enthusiasm in the fourth dimension with an unconvincing objection to an ‘unscientific’ line of argument. And poof! That was it.

This is something I encounter again and again in researching higher space: no sooner does a supernaturalist account of the dimensionality of ‘the other side’ appear to offer a millenarian vision of the future, than a hard-headed philosopher cuts down speculations. Little wonder that the general public frequently expressed confusion at the idea. Yet as is evidenced by Stead’s reading list, millennial visions were enjoying some currency in 1893,


and although many drew directly from Revelations, they managed to maintain optimism about the changes in store in the new century. Stead’s engagement with the fourth dimension constitutes a fascinating case study of the oscillatory cultural operation of higher space, bouncing between high and low culture, and its vagaries even within the field of psychical research. It gives some indication of the seemingly limitless properties of such a fugitive space and the difficulties and risks inherent in trying to contain it, particularly in a form accessible to a mass readership. Stead introduced the idea in a sensational mode typical of his journalistic practice, and accented its potential with the same obsessions and interests he brought to thought transference: technology, affective reach, empire.

Thank you for your time.

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A New Year’s Resolution: to post at least once a month. This is made all the more urgent by having pointed people to this blog in a three-line biog published in the essay collection Utopian Spaces of Modernism: British Literature and Culture, 1885-1945, and then sitting on my hands. Any visitors from that source may be underwhelmed by inactivity.

Please get in touch if you’d like pdfs of that essay (copyright Palgrave Macmillan and the author, who exerts his moral rights, which probably don’t include posting a copy of his essay online, but who hopes the publisher might see this as wondrous advertisement). I can only recommend readers to the book itself. It came out of a conference at Oxford in Autumn of 2010. There were only five people in the room for my paper so it’s a pleasure to be able to share it more broadly in publication. I hesitated at first to submit because I wondered if it wouldn’t be better for journal publication but when the editors mentioned that Iain Sinclair, who had given a bravura closing session talk, would be contributing, I snapped at the possibility of being read by a Sinclair-following audience beyond the typical academic circles. I’m very glad I did: my essay sits between Matthew Beaumont, who gave the opening keynote, and David Trotter; between hard boards and with a colour cover; and nestled among Professors aplenty. Kudos to the editors Benjamin and Rosalind and the publishers at Palgrave Macmillan.

That book arrived in the post a week before xmas; a week after I received from Holland a bundle I’d won in an auction. I’ve had a Google alert set up for a couple of years for all things Hinton and it hit pay-dirt late last year when it threw up a listing for a lot in an auction at Bubb Kuyper including a pamphlet edition of Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ This was published in 1884 as the first of his series of Scientific Romances with Swan Sonnenschein. It’s as rare as hen’s teeth. The British Library does not hold a pamphlet edition and I’ve yet to encounter one anywhere else. It is also very fragile and would probably benefit from some maintenance. It’s certainly an item to be filed away.

Also in the lot was this Dutch language book, Nothing ALL: Inzicht in de Vierde Dimensie, which appears not to assign authorship to any individual. Indeed, Nothing ALL may in fact be the authoring identity. My lack of Dutch is hampering any attempts to decipher exactly what is going on here and if there are, by freak chance, any Dutch readers of this blog, your help would be most warmly received. It does, however, contain some excellent original illustrations of 4d ideas, and I particularly enjoy the set below which attempt to depict visions of 4d objects in 3-space.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Figure 1 illustrates the passage of a tesseract through 3-space leading with a tetrahedral apex – the equivalent of a point becoming a triangle for the 3d-2d analogue. I’m unsure what’s happening in Figure 2, but it sure looks cool. And Figure 3 is an always doomed attempt to show the perspective of the rather sad-looking 3-space observer in relation to this passage, indicating a direction for the fourth dimension perpendicular to the other three (already projected down onto the plane). It’s a bit wonky, I’m sure you’ll agree, but winning nonetheless.

Fig. 3

And finally, on the 4d book front, my wife bought me a 1900 edition of Hinton’s A New Era of Thought for Xmas. This was a real treat – I’d been planning to buy a facsimile edition because it’s a core reference text for me: the only place in London with a copy is The British Library and photocopying costs there are prohibitive. There are digital versions but I’m never entirely confident with anyone else’s pagination and/or scanning, so it’s a boon to have this in excellent condition.

This is all a bit dusty tome/archivally concerned but I have a post on spissitude already partly written so I can promise some historical spatial theory soonest. May all your 2012s be para-extensive!

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Jumpstart time: this blog has been dormant for five long months, so I’ve decided to do something a bit more engaging (hopefully) to relaunch it.

I’ve been busy on the newly retooled and refangled 19: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, which is now live in an OJS template, with essays available in html and integrated with Nines. We’re all rather proud of it.

Since finishing my contract there at the end of October, I’ve been catching up with my own research, long overdue (I’m sure my supervisor would agree). I’m still working on a second draft chapter, and should be doing so right now. BUT…

The catalogue cube Nala as detailed in A New Era of Thought

A section of this chapter is going to be devoted to Charles Howard Hinton’s system of cubes. The cubes are the foundation blocks – pretty much literally – of Hinton’s approach to thinking higher space and I am keen to meet them head on, because I’m convinced that they’re highly significant with regard to the writers who follow him. But they’re a wee bit daunting. The second half of A New Era of Thought is devoted to describing the construction of the cubes, a system for naming them, and various exercises for conducting with them.

It was written by Alicia Boole Stott, Hinton’s sister-in-law, who is the best advert for the effectiveness of the system, as demonstrated by her intuitive work with higher dimensional mathematics, published in a series of three papers 1900, 1908 and 1910, and discussed by HSM Coxeter, among others. But what mght have come readily to Alicia is not necessarily straightforward. The lists of names for the cubes alone deflect casual attention.

A table of Latin names for identifying the different sides of cubes in a 36-cube system

A few lines printed in A New Era urged readers to contact the publisher to buy readymade sets of the cubes, but this didn’t quite work out as smoothly as planned. Correspondence from Swan Sonnenschein to Howard’s friend and editor John Falk shows the rocky ride. On 21st September 1888, some months after publication, SS received an inquiry about the cubes. Sonnenschein wrote: “It would perhaps be as well, should this gentleman give an order for a set, to have two sets made, as it looks rather bad to have to admit that inquiries for them are unusual.” Another inquiry was received in January of 1889, but it wasn’t until February that Falk provided the first sets to the publisher, who returned them, writing: “The workmanship of the cubes is so rough it would affect sales very badly.” It took Falk until November to source improved sets, with the price set at 17/6 for trade plus 20% for public sales.

The models seem to have been more trouble than they were worth as a commercial venture, particularly when Charles resumed correspondence with his publishers upon his arrival in the USA in 1892: a alrge proportion of the correspondence mentions them. They sold very slowly but continued to pique interest. In 1903, SS wrote: “Can you send me one set of your models which a lady resident in Nice is very anxious to purchase?” In 1904 a Mr Dyson returned his set. Mr Dyson had possibly bought a copy of The Fourth Dimension, published in that year, in which a refined version of the system was presented, and clearer instructions provided for DIY cubesters. The naming system had been done away with as unworkable, and colour-coding was now the way forward. The colour plates presented in this book can be seen by clicking through the banubula and Greylodge links below.

'Kindergarten cubes': suggested activities do not include mind-destruction

It’s been helpful for me to review Hinton’s work and to reconstruct his bibliography. The sixth of the Romances, ‘On the Education of the Imagination’, issued as a pamphlet in 1888 with a brief endnote by Falk, also deals with the cubes, and was probably composed sometime in the early 1880s, despite its later publication. The endnote states that it was written ‘some years ago’ and ‘contains the germ of the work, which is more fully illustrated in his more recent writings, and thus in some respects forms a good introduction to them’. It describes the development of the cube system and its use in the classroom. It underlines Hinton’s role as a professional educator, and his approach to the aquisition of knowledge that comes from this job. And of course the cubes are in some way a game: an educational game, certainly, but a game none the less. I want to disinter the ‘ludic’ aspect of the cubes so I’ve decided to make a set for myself. I’ll blog about my progress (doubtlessly slow), here.

First step was to buy a set of ‘kindergarten cubes’, as recommended by the authors. They’re a natural wood colour so I can colour-code them myself.

Not quite Farrow and Ball

I had initially thought I’d go with Farrow and Ball colours, because being a good middle-class, South-West London homeowner, I have a stack of Farrow and Ball sample pots, so I figured I could reproduce some faux-authentic period colours, like Bourgeois Blue, Nostalgia Rouge and Opium Ochre. Sadly, this collection of samples has been loaned to a neighbour’s sister, so I’ve gone with what I had in the house – children’s paints.

If these end up being washed out, I’ll retrieve the F&B house paints and use those (decorators assure me that Dulux are better quality paints and that anyway, you can reproduce any colour with Dulux colour match, but I’m sure the inferior F&B should suffice for this).

There has been some interest in Hinton’s cubes online in recent years. There were a couple of posts on the now defunct blog banubula, showing scans of the coloured plates from The Fourth Dimension. Greylodge onlined a tidied-up  [pdf] instruction sheet, which is very useful – I would have used this, but getting my colours to match would be too tricky.

This took me back to airfix days, when the parts would become glued to the paper

I think a contemporary legacy for the cubes has been assured by a letter received by Martin Gardner, a popular science writer of the mid-century who wrote about higher space puzzles in the Scientific American. The letter from Hiram Barton, “a consulting engineer of Etchingham, Sussex, England” responded to an account of Hinton’s cubes, and was published by Gardner on p.52 his book Mathematical Carnival (and reposted by Banubula, and cited also by Rucker).

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.
As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Frances Sedlak probably used old copies of The Theosophist instead of The Guardian

The sensational tone of this letter falls in line with a current of response to higher dimensional thinking that is seeded with the anti-Zollner propaganda in the early 1880s and emerges more consistently at the fin-de-siecle: the idea that  thinking higher space results inevitably in madness. What Barton doesn’t mention is that Sedlak was also, unsurprisingly, a Theosophist, contributing frequent articles to The Theosophical Review from 1906-1908 and to The Theosophist in 1911-1912. He later also contributed an article to Orage’s The New Age disputing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the grounds that Einstein was insensible to the dictates of “Pure Reason”. His partner in a “free union”, Nellie Shaw, wrote an account of their life together in the Whiteway Colony in A Czech philosopher on the Cotswolds; being an account of the life and work of Francis Sedlak. Shaw’s account of Sedlak’s interest in the cubes gives it an altogether more positive spin, and beds into the utopian Theosophical verison of higher spatial thinking:

Some readers may be acquainted with a book by C. Howard Hinton, entitled The Fourth Dimension, which contains a coloured diagram representing twenty-seven cubes of various colours. This idea was [108] seized upon by Francis, who adapted it to his own ideas.

A box of children’s playing blocks was obtained and each one painted a different ad nameable shade. So far as I am able to understand, the idea was to build up from the whole twenty-seven cubes one cube, each separate colour being in a particular relation to the next one, and then to gaze fixedly at it until the whole was mentally visualised. This accomplished, the cube was unbuilt and then rebuilt with a different combination of colour, and visualised mentally as before.

This amazing performance required hours of time at first, but gradually the speed quickened, until eventually it became focused upon the mind, and Francis was able to review the blocks in all their twenty-seven positions so swiftly, that it became almost like seeing the cube from all sides at once.

It will be realised that the changes of position were almost innumerable. At first a very hard laborious task, it became an absorbing occupation, to which was given every spare moment. Many persons, not understanding, looked on it as a most unproductive way of spending time. Others admired the wonderful patience, but could see no useful result.

Just as the would-be athlete twists and turns on the parallel bars, using time and energy to develop his muscles and gain strength which can be used later in any direction which he may desire, so Francis assumed that this power gained by practice in visualisation, seeing mentally the block of cubes on all sides simultaneously, could also be used in any sphere and on any subject; in fact, it was ability to see through anything, and must eventually lead to clairvoyance.

This study of the cubes was followed intermittently, [109] since it was not a mental exercise calling for philosophic reasoning or mental effort whatever. So, after devoting many months to the cubes and having an urge in another direction, Francis would drop them again for several years.

The extraordinary thing was that afterwards he could resume the practice without difficulty. He did not lose the power; indeed, he seemed to have a positive affection for these bits of wood, which he would tenderly dust and preserve.

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.

So I’m hoping, really, to achieve a new mental power before I get bored. But not to go mad. That wouldn’t further the research, I don’t think. My next post will probably look more closely at the theory presented in A New Era, which makes clear an interesting nexus in Hinton’s thought that is also significant. I’m hoping in future posts to develop the varied and playful cultural legacy of Hinton’s cubes, and pledge to make sure there are no more five month lapses.

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