Winter 1997, Volume 14.1
Paul H. Lorenz
Quantum Mechanics and the Shape of Fiction: "Non-Locality" in the Avignon Quincunx
Paul H. Lorenz (Ph.D., U of Houston) is Associate Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. His essays have appeared in Modern Fiction Studies and Twentieth Century Literature, among others. He has published widely on Durrell and is the Secretary/Treasurer of the International Lawrence Durrell Society.
Serious readers of Lawrence Durrell are well aware of the "Note" in the American edition of Balthazar in which Durrell announces his intention to shape The Alexandria Quartet according the principles of the Relativity proposition. He chooses Relativity, he tells us, because "modern literature offers us no Unities," and he is seeking a "morphological form one might appropriately call 'classical'—for our time," even if the result proves "to be 'science fiction' in the true sense" (5). The Avignon Quincunx,1 perhaps more so than the Quartet, can be read as true "science fiction." It is as much an experiment in applied Quantum Mechanics as the Alexandria Quartet was an experiment in applied Relativity Theory, for Durrell is one of many writers working on the assumption that the theory of the field is, in fact, the cultural religion of the twentieth century (Hayles 46; Durrell, Interview). In the Quincunx, Durrell creates a world which is structured on the spatial/temporal principles of the Theory of Relativity and governed by the laws and logic of quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics came into existence only after the Theory of Relativity demonstrated that Newtonian mechanics was unable to accurately describe a variety of observable events because it assumed, incorrectly, that time and space were independent variables and that the universe was structured on the principles of Euclidean geometry. While Einstein intended his theory of relativity to be a correction of the assumptions which underlie Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics demonstrates that Einstein did not go far enough. Einstein refused to let go of the Aristotelian assumption which stood at the heart of Newtonian mechanics: that any valid description of the world should be based on the primacy of matter (Heisenberg 82). Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, describes events, not objects. Thus, as Werner Heisenberg argues, quantum mechanics describes a world of Heraclitean Becoming rather than a world of Aristotelian Being (63). Because the Theory of Relativity considers "mass" and "energy" to be essentially identical, it is possible to say that all elementary particles are energy and that energy is the primary substance of the world. If the Heraclitean element of "fire" is interpreted as "energy," it is easy to see that the views of modern physics are very close to those of Heraclitus. "Energy," which can be translated into matter or heat or light, is that which moves and thus it is the primary cause of all change. The strife between opposites which forms the basis of the Heraclitean view of the universe can be seen in the strife which exists between two different forms of energy (Heisenberg 71).
In Physics and Philosophy (1958), Heisenberg devotes an entire chapter to the problems associated with developing a satisfactory language to describe the insights of quantum mechanics to non-specialists. In the Quincunx, Durrell discusses these same issues in the brainstorming sessions in which the writers Blanford and Sutcliffe discuss the problems associated with the presentation of new and complex ideas in fiction (e.g. Quinx 2232, or Livia 726). The danger, as Sutcliffe expresses it, is the creation of "a work weighed down with theoretical considerations" (Livia 11) leading to a failure to communicate. In many ways, the quantum physicist and the Heraclitean author face the same problem. They must both develop a language to explain the insights of their perception to an audience which assumes that the language and logic of classical Western materialistic thought, the language and logic of "common sense," provide the only true description of the world as it is. Each must create a description of the world which can, to quote from the motto of Quinx, "itself create the taste by which it is to be judged" (7).
The space/time continuum which encompasses this essay is too comprehensive to permit me to discuss Durrell's use of quantum mechanics in detail, but I think if we get a taste from the pot Durrell is cooking in, you will be prepared to assess the quality of the cuisine. Late in Sebastian, Schwarz attempts to describe his hopes for the new Israel to be established after the war. He tells Constance:
I am hoping that something like the Principle of Indeterminacy as posited by our physicists for reality will find its way into the religious values of the new state; I see you don't understand me so I won't labour the point. But I'm hoping for a materialism which is profoundly qualified by mysticism—a link between Epicurus and Pythagoras, so to speak. It would be a marvelous contribution to the future, for we can't continue this worn-out materialism of ours, it leads us nowhere. And while we are eroding the Indian vision, drowning it in our technology, India is eroding ours, drowning Europe in vast meekness of pure insight! (17475)
This is one of several places in the Quincunx where Durrell explicitly talks about the reason why these novels are structured as they are. Let me try to explain Schwarz's comment by looking at Durrell's use of the Principle of Indeterminacy in shaping the Quincunx.
The Principle of Indeterminacy is introduced in Monsieur, the novel Blanford uses to provide a cluster of themes to be reworked in the other novels of his quincunx (Livia 11). After the initiation into Gnosti cism at Macabru, Piers, the character most deeply influenced by Akkad's teachings, goes to the barbershop for a haircut. There, he picks up a magazine which contains an article claiming that there is a criminal industry taking advantage of gullible tourists after initiating them into sham religious cults. The article contains not only a detailed description of the initiation ceremony Piers and the others have experienced, but also a photograph of a "fraudulent" initiation taken at the same Abu Manouf mosque at Macabru in which Piers was initiated. In his distress, Piers tries unsuccessfully to call Akkad, then borrows the magazine so that he can order a copy for himself. When he confronts Akkad, he thrusts the magazine into his face only to discover that the incriminating article is no longer in the magazine. Piers is enraged and exasperated. In a choked voice he accuses Akkad, "It was there and you know it." Akkad nods and admits:
Yes, my dear Piers. It was there. I know it was there. I put it there, you see; and I put it there specially. Some time ago I asked Sutcliffe to write it for me for use on such an occasion. And I left the magazine with Fahem, who produces it for clients when I tell him to. (151)
Then Akkad asks Piers the pertinent question: "Do you realize, my dear friend, that you were able to go on believing something which you knew to be untrue? Your belief was not shaken, was it?" Piers admits that even though he was angry with Akkad for apparently deceiving him, he had never considered renouncing the insights he had obtained at Macabru. Akkad seems to be presenting Piers with the Liar's Paradox when he takes the next step and suggests that the article was in fact true, but Piers does not take the bait. He only laughs and explains his insight: "Good and evil, are a question of blood group, not angelic disposition unless we make a special effort we can only see the truth indistinctly—as we see the sun, through smoked glass" (152).
This puzzling scene is actually a reproduction of a famous thought experiment which Heisenberg often used to explain the Principle of Indeterminacy. In this experiment, a closed box is divided into two equal parts (fig. 1). The partition has a small hole which is just large enough to let an atom pass through. It may be closed with a shutter, if desired. According to classical logic, the atom must be in either the left or the right side of the box. No third possibility exists. In the logic of quantum physics, however, if the door is open, it is possible for the same single atom to be in both the left and the right sides of the box at the same time. D. S. Kothari, of the University of Delhi, has noted that the logic of quantum physics is in accordance with the principles of Syãdvãda. This experiment demonstrates the validity of Durrell's observation that "great truths are not necessarily Facts—Facts are dreams" (Smile 93).
Because we never observe Nature itself, but Nature exposed to our method of questioning, we must, as Niels Bohr observed, always be aware that we are at the same time players and spectators in our search for harmony in life (Heisenberg 58). As a result, any concepts or words which were formulated in the materialistic terms of Newtonian mechanics and Aristotelian logic, Heisenberg argues,
are not really sharply defined with respect to their meaning; that is to say, we do not know exactly how far they will help us in finding our way in the world. We often know that they can be applied to a wide range of inner and outer experience, but we practically never know precisely the limits of their applicability. This is true even of the simplest and most general concepts like "existence" and "space and time." Therefore, it will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth. The concepts may, however, be sharply defined with regard to their connections. (92)
Thus, the logic of science and the logic of Heraclitus and the East come together. Just as Western cosmology is one skandah short in the Eastern mind (Smile 60), our logic is also deficient if the world is viewed through non-materialistic eyes (Kothari 325). The truth of a magazine article is as ill-defined as the position of the atom in Heisenberg's thought experiment, but as Akkad demonstrates, the relationship between Piers and the truth is so sharply defined it is beyond question. Or is it? Our materialistic terminology serves us so well in ordinary situations that, even though the logic and language of quantum mechanics provides an equally successful explanatory model (Heisenberg 18485), scientists of the stature of Einstein and Schrödinger would characterize the insights of Piers and Heisenberg as "irrational mysticism."
Schrödinger objected to the logic of Heisenberg's thought experiment by an appeal to "common sense." He devised a "hellish contraption" (his words) in an attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of the logic of quantum mechanics. In this illustration (fig.2), R is a radioactive source, G is a Geiger counter, A is an amplifier, S is a solenoid relay, and C is a bottle of cyanide. The device is designed in such a way that after one hour, there is a 50% chance that the Geiger counter will have been tripped by a particle of radiation from the radioactive source. When the Geiger counter is tripped, cyanide gas is released and the cat dies instantly. Schrödinger argued, along the lines of classical logic, that after one hour, the cat was either alive or dead. He claimed that it was impossible for the cat to be both alive and dead at the same time. Schrödinger believed, and Einstein was inclined to agree with him, that the uncertainty as to the cat's fate existed only in the mind of the observer who, after one hour, had not yet opened the box to determine the fate of the cat.
Interestingly, the arguments and experiments designed by Einstein and Schrödinger have not only failed to disprove the logic of quantum mechanics, they have helped to establish and experimentally verify the meaninglessness of the concept of a discrete personal identity—one of Durrell's principal themes in the Quincunx—and have even introduced the possibility that a multiplicity of worlds may coexist simultaneously. Schrödinger, who introduced the wave theory of quantum mechanics, argued that the concepts of "indeterminacy" and "complementarity" were ridiculous, for they existed only in the mind of the observer and had no significance in the description of actual events. In his experiment, the cat is either dead or alive, there is no intermediate [half-dead, half-alive] state of existence (Penrose 29093). This seemingly straightforward thought experiment, when interpreted by quantum physicists, has led to interesting speculations concerning the nature of reality.
One of the problems with Schrödinger's experiment is that the cat, presumably, knows whether it is alive or dead long before any human observer opens the box to collapse the uncertainty of the cat's fate into a well-defined reality. Eugene Wigner suggested replacing the cat with a human volunteer (known in the physics community as "Wigner's friend"). If the volunteer is alive when the box is opened, the experimenter could ask the volunteer to describe the condition of uncertainty, of being both dead and alive at the same time. Wigner had no doubt the volunteer would insist that he had been fully alive throughout the experiment. Paul Davies describes the significance of this variation of Schrödinger's experiment in the following way:
In Wigner's interpretation of quantum theory, the minds of sentient beings occupy a central role in the laws of nature and in the organization of the universe, for it is precisely when the information about an observation enters the consciousness of an observer that the superposition of waves actually collapses into reality. Thus, in a sense, the whole cosmic panorama is generated by its own inhabitants! (Other 13233)
Wigner's interpretation has been widely criticized, not the least because of its extreme solipsism and its strong hint of level-confusion. Though Wigner argued that quantum theory cannot be correct under all circumstances, his argument does suggest that the solution to the mind-body problem may be related to the solution of the quantum measurement problem (Davies, God 115). Wigner used this experiment to argue that if indeterminacy exists, it is because there are overlapping waves of reality, and it is only the presence of a sentient observer who collapses the undetermined state of the cat into a single clearly-defined reality.
In the Quincunx, Durrell likewise explores the extent to which the observer shapes the events being observed. Two of these experiments are described in Livia. The first occurs when Felix accompanies Blanford to Riquiqui's whorehouse in search of Livia. When their pounding on the door with a brick is ignored, they decide to observe the events inside Riquiqui's establishment, the box, by looking through a window. Their observation does not seem to have any effect on the action inside the whorehouse, but when they get too close to the action, when the observed are aware they are being observed, they become involved in the antics of the Prince and Quatrefages (14456). Later in the novel, when Blanford and Constance "walk out into the sky" to observe the Prince's spree from the Pont du Gard, their observation from a distance has absolutely no effect on the festivities being observed (25261).
These two experiments in observation confirm the observations of Bohr and Heisenberg and argue that no distant sentient observer can cause the world of potential states to collapse into a single actuality. Rather, actuality is shaped by those involved in the action. Reality may be undetermined, but it does not require an outside observer before it snaps into existence as Wigner contends. Wigner's interpretation emphasizes the active nature of observation in the formation of worlds but it leads logically to solipsism, a philosophical position which Durrell rejects as ultimately destructive. Quinx ends with everyone trooping into the caves under the Pont du Gard, with the dangerous uncertainty that one of the visitors might touch off the booby traps and destroy everything. Yet Durrell sees "reality prime" in that uncertainty; not the end of the world, but the possibility for the "totally unpredictable" to begin to take place (20001). As Blanford tells Constance, the "world ends not with a bang, but a Werther" (Quinx 48), not in uncertainty, but in the misguided solipsism of a Werther that leads to self destruction. Durrell has clearly rejected Wigner's description of the quantum world.
While Wigner's analysis resolves indeterminacy into a single actual world, when there is no observer, the universe exists, in the words of Paul Davies, as "a mere collection of ghosts, a multi-hybrid superposition of overlapping alternative realities, none of them the actual reality" (God 116). Of course, if God is doing the job defined by Wigner, all of these ghosts collapse into a single concrete reality. Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt have argued that overlapping waves of reality exist simultaneously, and it is the observer who simply chooses which of the possible worlds is to be accepted as "real" (Davies, God 11518). Their theory proposes that all potential quantum worlds are equally real and co-exist in parallel worlds in which each set of inhabitants perceives only its own branch of the universe. As Davies explains:
Common sense may rebel against the extraordinary concept of the universe branching into two as the result of the antics of a single electron, but the theory stands up well to closer scrutiny. When the universe splits, our minds split with it, one copy going off to populate each world. Each copy thinks it is unique. Those who object that they don't feel themselves being split should reflect on the fact that they do not feel the motion of the earth around the sun either. The splitting is repeated again and again as every atom, and all the subatomic particles, cavort about. Countless times each second, the universe is replicated. Nor is it necessary for an actual measurement to occur in order that the replication occur. It suffices that a single microscopic particle merely interacts in some way with a macroscopic system. (11617)
Here is schizophrenia with a vengeance, for the price paid for the elimination of Wigner's solipsism in the restoration of reality "is a multiplicity of realities—a stupendous and growing number of parallel universes, diverging along their separate branches of evolution" (117). This splitting of reality is reflected in Durrell's Quincunx in the replication of authors and characters who are essentially variations of each other existing in different realities.
Thus, Everett and DeWitt's vision, which DeWitt himself characterizes as schizophrenic, is very close to Durrell's. As the character Sylvie illustrates, great brilliance and schizophrenia can not only be found together, together they can lead us, as Sylvie led Constance, into the discovery of new aspects of our own worlds (Sebastian 19096). Blanford is jealous of Sylvie, not merely because she is sleeping with Constance, but because she understands physics: she knows that a perpetual spontaneity is constantly recreating the world (Quinx 38). Blanford later adopts Sylvie's insight as his own when he writes in his commonplace book:
Ah! blessed principle of Indeterminacy which renders every eventual second of time miraculous: because all creation is arbitrary, capricious, spontaneous. Without forethought or afterthought. (Quinx 53)
In Everett and DeWitt's description of quantum reality, this capricious, spontaneous creation results in a multiplicity of closely interrelated worlds in simultaneous existence. This explains the reality of the coexistence of Durrell's, Blanford's, Sutcliffe's, and all the other fictional worlds described or presented in the Quincunx, as well as the actual worlds which Durrell and you and I inhabit. The Bruce and Sylvie of Sutcliffe's Monsieur exist simultaneously with the Blanford and Constance of the later novels; each is the other in a coexisting reality. Sutcliffe too is a version of Blanford; they are "versions of one another set upon differing time tracks" (Constance 340).
Early in Quinx Blanford asks Sutcliffe to relay a message to Einstein. "Tell him from me," he says, "that man only has a tendency towards existing. I can't go further towards unqualified certainty" (23). Blanford has accepted the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, by contrast, believed quantum mechanics only described a partial truth:
Probably never before has a theory been evolved which has given a key to the interpretation and calculation of such a heterogeneous group of phenomena of experience as quantum theory. In spite of this, however, I believe that the theory is apt to beguile us into error in our search for a uniform basis for physics, because, in my belief, it is an incomplete representation of real things, although it is the only one which can be built out of the fundamental concepts of force and material points (quantum corrections to classical mechanics). The Incompleteness of the representation leads necessarily to the statistical nature (incompleteness) of the laws. ("Physics" 31516)
Einstein's dissatisfaction with the implications of quantum theory led him, along with Podolsky and Rosen, to develop an experiment which he hoped would reestablish certainty in physics. To his dismay, his experiment demonstrated the validity of some of the more bizarre implications of quantum physics: the necessity of considering non-local interrelationships in the descriptions of events. Quantum mechanics was designed specifically for this purpose, to describe non-locality, the effect distant events (sometimes impossibly distant in space and time) can have in shaping the world which can be objectively discovered.
Einstein devised the EPR (Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen) experiments in 1935 because the non-locality of quantum mechanics seemed to be in conflict with his own theory of relativity. To a physicist, locality refers to a situation where what happens at any given point in space and time depends only on events in its immediate vicinity. Newtonian or classical mechanics, and all simple descriptions of cause and effect, are said to be local. Because quantum mechanics was developed to explain situations where relatively distant events affect outcomes, such as the presence of macroscopic devices to measure microscopic events, quantum mechanics is said to be non-local. Einstein wanted to reestablish the independent reality of the actual world by checking the spin of particles after a collision. Following a certain period of time, the particles are essentially in separate worlds because no signal can travel faster than the speed of light. He found, however, that it is possible for the quantum state of the combined system to be such that independent measurements of widely separated particles yield correlated results, an effect he characterized as "spooky action at a distance." Though it is not surprising that two colliding particles should retain an imprint of their encounter, the degree of correlation was astounding. John Bell demonstrated that there is "a significantly greater degree of correlation than can possibly be accounted for by any theory that treats the particles as independently real and subject to locality" (Davies, Cosmic 176).
Niels Bohr responded to the EPR results by arguing that the findings did not contradict the Theory of Relativity if the particles were still a part of a unitary quantum system operating with a single wave function. It is not enough to physically separate two particles in order to give them independent existence. The particles remain connected, even though they may be separated by such great distances that all forces acting between them are negligible (Cosmic 177). The most widely-accepted theory to explain the origin of the universe, the Big Bang, assumes just such a situation: every particle of the universe was once in intimate contact with every other particle. Thus the fate of all is intimately connected. It is not surprising that some, such as R. V. Jones, should see this universal complementarity as the basis for a system of ethics, an idea which underlies Durrell's thematic plotting of the Quincunx.
The implications of Einstein's experiment are startling, for they seem to support Heraclitus' description of the world. The fate of any given particle in existence is "inseparably linked to the fate of the cosmos as a whole, not in the trivial sense that it may experience forces from its environment, but because its very reality is interwoven with that of the rest of the universe" (Cosmic 177). In the words of Heraclitus, "the world of the waking is one and shared" (Kahn 31). In the Quincunx, not only is every character, every theme, every event interrelated; they merge into each other to form one extremely complex world of interrelationships. "All writers are the same one," we are told, "Blake scribbles Nietzsche's notes on the same experience" (Quinx 28). As Heraclitus observed, "thinking is shared by all" (Kahn 43). The characters illustrate a trend which is echoed in the thematic concerns of the Quincunx. Each character slowly becomes the same character, each theme slowly becomes the same theme, each world is really the same world seen through different eyes in different space and time (Quinx 26).
Durrell's purpose in experimenting with the application of the principles of quantum mechanics is closely related to the lesson Heisenberg and Bohr were attempting to communicate to the followers of Einstein. By the twentieth century, Western culture had produced what Wilson Harris has called an age of "progressive realism" based on Aristotelian principles and saturated with a profound "linear bias" (71). We are goal oriented: we like to travel in straight lines and prefer simple explanations and plots based on locality, choosing to ignore the complex non-local interrelationships which exist all around us, including the possibility that the flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil could cause or prevent a tornado in Texas (Lorenz 18184). In fiction, in place of the linear predictability of Freudian psychology and the Modernist dependence on the locality of the poetic image as the medium of aesthetic communication, Durrell, like his contemporaries John Fowles and Margaret Drabble, uses his fiction to investigate the possibility that the world we live in is only one of many possible worlds. The hope is that we could formulate another world and rehumanize the implications of both scientific and literary experimentation. Quantum mechanics, with its principle of non-locality, has demonstrated that the simple answer to the question of how the world is structured is that it is more complicated than our Aristotelian conceptions and linear bias might desire. It has also demonstrated that nothing, not even the Romantic values, which the literary Modernists rejected, nor the chaos of the Modernists' own atomistic impressions can be left unconsidered in our analysis of the world as it is. In Durrell's exploration, the values of the past, no matter how distasteful to our own palates, cannot be ignored, for every element which has ever had an impact on our development as a species can still be measured in each of our individual responses to daily events. Thus, in the Quincunx, there is something of the drunken Bloshford, the madman Mnemides, the Vestal traitor Livia, the foolish Prince, the Nazi general Von Esslin, Nancy Quiminal, of Constance the psychiatrist, of Sebastian's mystical beliefs which exists in all human beings in all situations, in the trajectory of every kiss. Durrell's Quincunx, like his Alexandria Quartet, is an attempt to use the findings of contemporary science to overcome the linear bias of his readers, to show that progressive realism lies about the nature of people and events through oversimplification, to force his readers to see the physical and psychical complexity of themselves and the world around them, to see the truly multi-dimensional nature of human experience.
In a letter to Henry Miller dated March 5, 1971, Durrell mentions all of the principal ingredients he hoped to combine in the Quincunx, and he discusses the marriage of ideas he projected. He says, "Alexandria was the source of our science, and if the great library hadn't been burned down we'd surely find that Niels Bohr and Heisenberg had been anticipated by them. Even the prose of the Quartet was intended to have the indeterminacy of quanta movements" (44647). About materialistic philosophy, he complains, "Everyone wants to talk about Mao, nobody wants to talk about Tao. What a BORE the world has become" (447). Fortunately Durrell did not abandon the project which was to become the Quincunx, as he had considered doing in February of 1971 (Letters 446). Instead, in five novels, he described the primordial soup—the chaos which, when stirred, gives birth to the universe.
1The five novels of the Avignon Quincunx, also referred to as the Avignon Quintet, include Monsieur (1975), Livia (1978), Constance (1982), Sebastian (1983), and Quinx (1985).
Davies, Paul. Other Worlds: Space, Superspace, and the Quantum Universe. New York: Touchstone, 1980.
---. God and the New Physics. New York: Touchstone, 1983.
---. The Cosmic Blueprint: New Directions in Nature's Ability to Order the Universe. New York: Touchstone, 1988.
Durrell, Lawrence. Balthazar. New York: Dutton, 1958.
---. Monsieur. New York: Viking, 1975.
---. Livia: Or Buried Alive. New York: Viking, 1978.
---. Constance: Or Solitary Practices. New York: Viking, 1982.
---. Sebastian: Or Ruling Passions. New York: Viking, 1983
---. Quinx: Or The Ripper's Tale. New York: Viking, 1985.
---. A Smile in the Mind's Eye. New York: Universe, 1982.
---. The Durrell-Miller Letters. Ed. Ian MacNiven. New York: New Directions, 1988.
---. Interview with E. Blishen. Meridian. BBC World Service. 9 November 1990.
Einstein, Albert. "Physics and Reality." Ideas and Opinions. Trans. Sonja Bargmann. New York: Bonanza, 1954.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1951. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Bollingen 74. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.