Innovations in Astronomy and Modernism
The early 1900s were marked by a wave of exciting discoveries in the field of physics. According to Katherine Ebury, these discoveries trace back to Einstein’s publication of his Theory of Relativity, the first part of which was published in 1905. She explains:
The new physics had an immense impact on astronomy, as it led to a new understanding of the universe from the macrocosmic scale of new cosmological models (such as the expanding universe) to the microcosmic scale of the behaviour of stellar atoms and the intricate nature of matter itself. At the same time, the new physics rendered the cosmos more mysterious and elusive (“Introduction” 9-10).
Scientific innovations in the early 20th century forced people to change their ways of thinking and altered their perceptions of the universe. Ebury identifies many early 20th century artists who have a demonstrated interest in—or explicit aversion to—innovations in astronomy, and research suggests that modernists were more open to the digesting the implications of Einstein’s new theories. She states that “while some modernist authors found this cosmos inspiring, others found it irritating, confusing or even traumatic—and some modernists combined all of these reactions” (17). Authors she references as influenced by cosmology include James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and W.B. Yeats. What’s more, this interest wasn’t restricted to the literature. Susan Rosenbaum adds Georges Méliès to this list, citing his 1902 Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) as an example of the cinematic world’s interest in the cosmos, and Stephen Kern adds groups of visual artists like the Cubists.
Loy and Astronomy
The most extensive examination of Loy’s relationship with astronomy comes from Poetic Salvage: Reading Mina Loy by scholar Tara Prescott. In her section on “Lunar Baedeker,” Prescott examines Loy’s friendship with the artist Joseph Cornell, explaining that their relationship stimulated their shared fascination with astronomy. Prescott describes the two artists a “kindred spirits” with mutual interests in collage, astronomy, science, and Christian Science (106).
Loy’s relationship with Christian Science provides the clearest explanation for why she was so fascinated with astronomy. Loy became fascinated with Christian Science when her daughter Joella became ill from polio a decade before she published Lunar Baedecker (Prescott 105). Loy was interested in Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, who preached about the power of the human advertence to overcome the physical limits that bedevil the material world (106). According to Prescott, Loy and Cornell bonded over and were enthralled by Christian Science’s use of astronomy as a metaphor for the divine (106). (You can see our attempt to work out some of our Christian Science hypotheses in our computerized textual analysis section.)
Loy, although drawing influence from Cornell and Christian Science, developed had her own artistic derivations with regards to astronomy, especially in Lunar Baedecker. Not just using astronomy as a muse to explore the divine, Loy often employed astronomical imagery to examine the female body and gender roles. The most striking example of this play between astronomy and femininity can be found in the closing poem in the collection “Parturition.” Conflating astronomy with childbirth by using phrases like “cosmos of agony,” “the bland sun,” “cosmic initiation,” and “cosmic reproductivity,” Loy imagines the female body to be as reproductively capable as the universe. The female body has the capability to span and creates its own imaginative and physical universes. Even further, working within these metaphors, “Parturition” presents childbirth as a scientific phenomenon worthy of scientific inquiry.
The astronomical imagery can also be linked to a masculine notion of control through knowledge. Astronomy and science comprised a masculine episteme in the early 20th century. In “Parturition,” the first stanza indicates a need for the speaker to “exceed boundaries in every direction.” We would like then to use these lines to challenge our own research and ask further scholarship to study Loy’s doubts regarding astronomy, her muse, and her recognition of working within male-dominated poetic metaphors in Lunar Baedecker.
This timeline integrates the creation of The Lunar Baedecker with innovations in the field of astronomy. Our sources for innovations in astronomy are Ebury and Russell.
- 1783: Pilatre De Rozier, a scientist, launches the first hot air balloon called ‘Aerostat Reveillon.’
- 1882: Mina Loy is born in Britain.
- 1887: The Michelson-Morley experiment—the “most famous failed experiment in history” (Ebury 1)—fails to prove the existence of the ether.
- This “led to the emphasis that modern physics came to place upon the speed of light as a physical constant,” “undermined the concept of the ether,” and “pointed the way towards relativity” (Ebury 1-2).
- 1903: Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first successful flight in the history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft.
- 1905: German physicist Albert Einstein publishes Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, introducing his Special Theory of Relativity.
- 1910: Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell create the Hertzsprung-Russell (H-R) diagram, which plots stars’ luminosities against their temperatures.
- 1914-1915: Mina Loy writes the poems contained in the second half of Lunar Baedecker.
- 1914: Robert Goddard starts to study the possibility of building rockets.
- 1916: Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity.
- 1919: English scientist Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expeditions provide support for Einstein’s theory, and it begins to be popularized. Until his work, the events of World War I made the public hesitant to appreciate the work of a German scientist.
- 1921-1922: Mina Loy writes the poems contained in the first half of Lunar Baedecker.
- 1923: Mina Loy publishes Lunar Baedecker. Edwin Hubble proposes the idea of an expanding universe.