"Of Tangled Webs and Busted Sets: Tropologies of Number and Shape in the Fiction of John Galt"
In a provocative passage in his novel Annals of the Parish, John Galt figures the massive social and economic transformations in late eighteenth-century Scotland by way of an image of a “great web of commercial reciprocities,” each part acting on every other. A prescient and, today, fairly standard illustration of global connectivity, Galt’s “great web” also corresponds with the idea of a set of all sets whose paradox Bertrand Russell would expose in the early twentieth century. While Galt’s novel proposes no formal solution to this paradox, it does attest to ways in which literary texts, and literary form itself, negotiated complexities associated with the idea of modernity during Scotland’s Romantic period. This becomes more evident when we compare Galt’s narrative with a short story he wrote more than a decade later. There, Galt once again implicitly takes up the figure of spinning (or, here, stitching) and mathematics, but this time with the effect of evoking an idea of geometry as a more seamless connection between the world as we theorize it and as we actually experience it. Galt’s work thus opens a window onto the relationship between mathematical and literary form in the long eighteenth century, and onto the diverse ways in which each domain modifies our understanding of the implications of the other.