The Machinery of the Universe


Arts & Culture

Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.


Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975, oil on canvas, 7’2″ x 12’9″. Image via Pace Gallery

Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.”

Eureka is a strange, eruptive, delirious book: a cosmological treatise on the origin, expansion, and collapse of the material universe that takes the form at various points of a prose poem, a polemic, a scientific report, and a malicious joke. That the “machinery of the universe” could be, as Poe memorably put it, guessed—disclosed “through mere dint of intuition”—was as dubious a suggestion for readers in 1848 as it would be for most physicists today. But it’s also grounds for Poe’s inclusion in a deep, submerged strain of American visionary writing that also includes Emerson’s “Intellect” (1841) and Charles Sanders Peirce’s “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” (1908): essays set, like Poe’s, in open opposition to what Peirce called the attempts of most philosophers to “bar off one or another roadway to inquiry.” In the distinctly American picture these writers developed, thought was both a route to nature—“our thinking,” Emerson wrote, “is a pious reception”—and a natural phenomenon itself. To track its free and erratic movements was to watch the universe at work.


“Eureka,” installation view. Image via Pace Gallery

Wandering through “Eureka,” a group show at Pace centered on Poe’s book, you wonder what this unruly Southern Romantic would have made of the lineage in which the exhibit’s curators have placed him: call it the “artist as stargazer.” A massive, gracefully rotating wicker construction by Tim Hawkinson, modeled after a four-dimensional Klein bottle; a handful of drawings and sculptures by Alexander Calder, who once wrote that “the underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe”; a vast, roughshod Alfred Jensen canvas zigzagged by a network of arrows, equations, and curves; an elegant, monochromatic Ben Nicholson relief painting; a faded first edition of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland: the show is a delightful cabinet of curiosities that riffs playfully, if a little abstrusely, on Eureka’s atmosphere and tone.

What fascinates most of these artists about astronomy are the specific sets of visual, spatial, and geometric models it opens up to them. “The idea,” Calder wrote in 1951, “of detached bodies floating in space, of different sizes and densities, perhaps of different colors and temperatures, and surrounded and interlarded with wisps of gaseous condition, and some at rest, while others move in peculiar manners, seems to me the ideal source of form.”

But the universe, for Poe, was more than a formal template. It was an object of serious, if speculative, research—a subject about which he had definite, firm ideas. In Eureka, Poe claimed to have intuited, among other discoveries, that the universe is finite, that it came about by the “radiation” of atoms out from a single “primordial Particle,” that what Newton called gravity is nothing but the attraction of every atom to the other atoms with which it once shared an identity, that countervailing forces of repulsion keep matter as we know it “in that state of diffusion demanded for the fulfillment of its purposes,” and that, eventually, the universe will collapse back into its original, unitary state.


A diagram from Eureka

Poe’s verdicts, as Marilynne Robinson and many others have pointed out, sometimes eerily predicted developments in twentieth-century astrophysics. For Poe, however, all the imaginings contained in Eureka—the prescient as well as the flighty or far-fetched—had the weight of indisputable truths. Only two of the artists included in Pace’s show so dramatically conflate the work of artistic imagination with the business of scientific inquiry: Sun Ra, the multifariously gifted Alabama-born bandleader who developed an unprecedented form of free jazz after having set himself up as an ambassador from Saturn, and James Turrell, who draws on images from his Quaker upbringing to create immersive, site-specific sensory chambers in which patterns of light warp, shimmer, and bend. Both of these figures seriously considered the possibility that a poem, an artwork, or a song could make assertive, confident claims about the structure of the natural world. And each resembles Poe, you could argue, in more particular ways: Sun Ra inherited his sense of the creative life as a constant, half-ironic performance, Turrell his interest in extreme physical states and higher, more acute levels of consciousness.

If Poe resented science to the extent that its “dull realities” fettered his poetic impulse, it’s no less true that he eventually came to consider scientific discovery as the most rarified, exalted sort of work poetry could do: the “treasure in the jewelled skies” to which the speaker in that early sonnet hoped to soar. Poetic thinking, in Poe’s way of speaking, involves both observing and emulating the movements of the natural world. (“The source of all motion is thought,” insists one of the two cryptic speakers in “The Power of Words.”)

In its own way, so did fictional thinking. Writing in Eureka about the universe’s “complete mutuality of adaptation”—the notion that any given element in what he called a “Divine construction” could be taken either for an element of the original design or an adaptive consequence of that design—Poe proposed that

the pleasure which we derive from any display of human ingenuity is the ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity. In the construction of plot for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the incidents that we shall not be able to determine, of any one of them, whether it depends from any one other or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is really, or practically, unattainable—but only because it is a finite intelligence that constructs. The plots of God are perfect. The universe is a plot of God.


Jonathan Edwards’s Efficacious Grace manuscript, via Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Here Poe sounds like no one more than Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century theologian who copied out the manuscript for his treatise Efficacious Grace in a circular notebook whose pages resembled planetary orbits, and who wrote—in Concerning the End for Which God Created the World—that “what God aimed at in the creation of the world, as the end which he had ultimately in view, was that communication of himself which he intended through all eternity.”

Unlike Edwards, Poe was no theologian; nor was he a physicist, nor a scientific historian, nor—as Pace’s exhibition occasionally suggests—a fountainhead to generations of visual artists inspired by the shapes and curvatures of cosmic forms. What he became in Eureka is more singular: a fiction writer possessed by the thought that the known and unknown universe could be pounded, by sheer force of inspiration, into the shape of a book.

Eureka” is at Pace through August 28.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. He lives in New York.