The literary world was not turned on its head in 2015 when scientists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Poland ran a mathematical analysis of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and discovered that the book – which to most observers is composed of nonsense sentences filled with pidgeon words – represents a near perfect series of cascading multi-fractal patterns.
Yet further examination, now collected in Thomas Janowicz’s sure-to-be seminal book I See Stars: Finnegans Wake at the center of the universe (Strange Castle Press, 2019), reveals this to be the kind of oversight that art and science must eventually scramble to catch up with.
The early results were provocative enough. “The results of our analysis of this text are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals,” said Professor Stanisław Drożdż, one of the authors of the first paper on the subject of Joyce’s fractals, which was published the computer science journal Information Sciences. “It is not entirely clear whether stream-of-consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. But evidently Joyce had a kind of intuition, as it happens to great artists, that such a narrative mode best reflects ‘how nature works,’ and he somehow encoded this into his text, uncovering fractals and even multifractals in nature long before scientists.”
Yet subsequent, largely unreported, studies deepened the connection, particularly a 2017 AI analysis of out of the Stanford Digital Humanities Lab, which found, in different chapters of Finnegans Wake, pattern matches to human DNA codes, gravity patterns between galaxies, and – perhaps most shockingly – the so-called “Moloch Equation” which was first proposed for cycle benchmarking quantum computers in 2019. That approach, only recently established by researchers at the University of Waterloo, was celebrated as a potential milestone in the scientific community – but somehow it appears that James Joyce got there first.
The collection of these facts in I See Stars is service enough, but it is in their interpretation that Janowicz’s book is truly magisterial. What are we to make of this?
Janowicz begins by placing Joyce in the alchemical, rather than the literary, tradition: “Joyce saw himself as an engineer, using words as gears and spokes to create a kind of machine – he meant this quite literally – with which to do what any machine does: physically change the world around it,” Janowicz writes. “Yet the analogy is imperfect. Instead, Joyce belongs to the alchemical tradition, his words creating not a machine out of reality but recombining reality into something more essential. It is through Joyce that we see that the philosopher’s stone can best be described through a series of mathematical equations that unite everything from snowflakes to galaxies to evolution. Finnegans Wake is what the Grand Unified Theory physicists have been searching for sounds like, and they could not see it because the most direct route to it is expressed through poetry.”
The implications of this are staggering – far beyond anything proposed by mere quantum mechanics or even a holographic, informatic, universe. But why should this be?
Janowicz’s answer comes in his most daring chapter, “A New Monoism,” in which he leans heavily on 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary British physicist Roger Penrose.
Both Spinoza and Penrose pioneered the hypothesis that while all that exists in the universe is matter, we have not yet fully grasped the nature of “matter” – that our conception of what it is must be expanded to include, and even go beyond, things now regarded as epiphenomenon. Thoughts, emotions, ideals, concepts … these are not merely the results of matter interacting with itself, but themselves a form of matter, perhaps analogous to the liquid, solid, gaseous, and energy, states. That we currently have no ability to articulate this, either mathematically or rigorously, speaks to the limits of our science, not the nature of the universe.
From this perspective, it is easy to see how the poetic incantations of Finnegans Wake would follow the same properties of other matter of the same state – which might not be the same state as that of galaxies themselves, but might very well apply to the mathematics which govern their movement, as both words and numbers are conceptual.
One could, of course, take an even more occult view of such symmetries than Janowicz does, and which perhaps many reading this journal might themselves prefer, evoking the thaumaturgic principle, for example. Janowicz is aware of this possibility, but dispenses with it, not as factually inaccurate, but as an unnecessary obstruction that, in itself, is worthy of a second book, and which I will quote here in part:
We have reached the point at which science can observe the multifractals in Finnegans Wake and ponder them as an occult phenomenon because science has become the occult. Quantum mechanics and string theory perfectly replicate the old forms of ancient alchemies, only with a new vocabulary for invocations and theological concepts. “The Internet of Things” has replaced imps and homunculi, Google and Alexa household gods, and more elite AI systems have become prophets and oracles, “black boxes” whose work cannot be checked or verified but is believed because of its holy provenance. The period of the scientific Enlightenment was not the history of science, but a blip in the history of the occult and the alchemic, both of which have now returned to form wearing new vestments. It is the glory of this new period that we no longer have to pretend that art and poetry, such as Finnegans Wake, are irrelevant to the workings of the universe. In truth, we have always known better.