Walter Benjamin and the multiverse
by Andrew Crumey
Talk given at "Literature and Mathematics: figures, topoi and transferences across the disciplines", Aberdeen University Centre for Modern Thought, June 11, 2010
In May 2003 the front cover of Scientific American proclaimed, “Infinite earths in parallel universes really exist”. Inside, physicist Max Tegmark wrote:
“Is there a copy of you reading this article? A person who is not you but who lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields and sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets?... The idea of such an alter ego seems strange and implausible, but it looks as if we will just have to live with it, because it is supported by astronomical observations… In infinite space, even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere. There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices.”
For many readers the idea would not have appeared at all “strange and implausible”, given the extent to which parallel worlds, alternative universes (terms we can treat as interchangeable) and the multiverse (the ensemble of such universes) have moved from the speculative to the mainstream, for example in the 1998 romance movie Sliding Doors or the TV series Lost. Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory (which resolves the famous Schrodinger Cat paradox by supposing the animal to be alive in one universe and dead in another) has been explained in numerous popular science books, and in 2007 the theory’s fiftieth anniversary was marked by a special edition of Nature, and a television programme presented by Everett’s rock-musician son Mark.
This talk is not about the physics of the multiverse, but rather about its striking level of acceptance, both by physicists and by the public. In his popular book the Universe In A Nutshell (2001), Stephen Hawking explains the “consistent histories” approach to quantum field theory by comparing the universe to a casino, writing:
“Because the universe keeps on rolling the dice to see what happens next, it doesn’t just have a single history, as one might have thought. Instead, the universe must have every possible history, each with its own probability. There must be a history of the universe in which Belize won every gold medal at the Olympic Games, though maybe the probability is low. The idea that the universe has multiple histories may sound like science fiction, but it is now accepted as science fact. It was formulated by Richard Feynman, who was both a great physicist and quite a character.”
A 1997 New Scientist article by Marcus Chown struck the same strange-but-familiar note:
“Imagine an infinite number of realities. In one, you never opened this copy of New Scientist. In another your parents never met so you weren't born. In yet another, the Sun did not congeal out of a cold cloud of gas so there was no Earth. It sounds strange, but multiple realities can explain some of the most baffling aspects of our Universe like how an electron can be in two places at once.”
The purpose of the article was to explain Max Tegmark’s idea of “quantum suicide”, a variation of Schrodinger’s Cat in which the experimenter takes the place of the animal.
“The bold experimenter stands in front of a quantum machine gun. The gun is controlled by a particle whose "quantum spin" can point either up or down, each with a 50 per cent probability… [If] the Many Worlds idea is correct, the particle is not forced to choose between up and down. All possible outcomes happen, each in a parallel reality. After one measurement, the experimenter is dead in one parallel reality, but alive in another. After a second measurement, and a third, the same principle applies. In all of the parallel realities where the experimenter died, that is the end of the story… But in one reality the experimenter survives, and so continues to perceive the world with 100 per cent certainty. "If the Many Worlds idea is correct, the experimenter will discover that she is immortal," says Tegmark.”
How has the multiverse fixed itself so firmly in public imagination, and why at this particular historical moment? Has mass culture followed the lead of science, or has the influence been in the opposite direction? Let us not forget, after all, that Borges’s celebrated story of multiple realities, The Garden of Forking Paths, pre-dated Everett’s theory.
In fact parallel universes have a much older history. The distinguished physicist Sir Oliver Lodge was quoted in a 1904 Daily News article as referring to a universe of “random chance and capricious disorder, not a cosmos or universe at all, but rather a ‘multiverse’.” The word had already been used by William James nine years previously.
And another two decades before that, we find a precursor of Tegmark’s vision in the final work of the French insurrectionist Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81), who spent most of his adult life in prison, and whom Walter Benjamin (writing in the 1930s) judged the most famous revolutionary before Lenin. Blanqui was elected as leader in absentia by the Paris Communards who offered to release hostages in exchange for him, but were refused, and it was in the wake of the Commune’s failure that Blanqui wrote his cosmological treatise L’Eternite par les astres (1873). In an infinite universe made from atoms of a finite number of types, Blanqui argues, the same combinations must arise again and again.
“The entire universe is composed of stellar systems. In order to create them nature has only one hundred simple bodies at its disposal… Every star, whatever it might be, thus exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects, but as it is found in every second of its duration, from birth until death… What I write now in a cell in the fort of Taureau I wrote and will write under the same circumstances for all of eternity, on a table, with a pen, wearing clothing… The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space… These aren’t phantoms: they are the now eternalized.”
Whereas Tegmark emphasises spatial repetition and variation (the idea that there is another “you” reading this article right now), Blanqui additionally highlights temporal repetition, leading him to conclude that progress is illusory; everything that can possibly happen has already occurred. It was this aspect that led Benjamin to see Blanqui’s cosmology as a precursor to the doctrine of eternal recurrence in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5).
In The Arcades Project, Benjamin considers Blanqui’s significance as both revolutionary conspirator and pseudo-scientist, concluding that Blanqui’s cosmology is a capitulation to the principles of bourgeois capitalism that Blanqui had spent all his life fighting against. Blanqui’s multiverse is, says Benjamin, “the phantasmagoria of history”, a nightmare projection of capitalism itself.
This talk aims to consider the significance of the multiverse in our own time, in the light of Benjamin’s ideas. This will entail three stages of argument. First, the “pre-history” of the multiverse will be outlined, leading to an informal typology that can be compared with Tegmark’s classification of modern multiverse theories (from which we shall see that Benjamin was actually mistaken in equating Blanqui with Nietzsche). Secondly, Benjamin’s analysis of Blanqui will be reviewed (in the wider context of The Arcades Project), in order to draw out key themes of significance: chance, myth, allegory. These ideas will then be applied to the contemporary multiverse, revealing that Benjamin’s “error” was a fruitful one; for although the Nietzsche comparison is not strictly accurate, Benjamin’s wider conclusions retain their force.
The multiverse could be interpreted from the standpoint of postmodernism, however the position taken here will be that the contemporary multiverse reflects anxieties already present within modernism, and understood by Benjamin in relation to nineteenth-century capitalism. This is much like the position taken by Susan Buck-Morss in her study of The Arcades Project, the Dialectics of Seeing:
“The Passagen-Werk suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism” and historically eclectic “post-modernism”, as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew. Modernism and postmodernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the reconciliation of social function and aesthetic form, postmodernism acknowledges their non-identity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will occur “anew”, so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.”
Where I shall differ from Buck-Morss is in her characterisation of the modernism-postmodernism dialectic as a struggle between art and technology. Instead we shall see the extent to which technical and philosophical ideas intersect and interact, manifesting themselves within distinct scientific, artistic or philosophical domains, yet reflecting common underlying concerns.
The multiverse in history
Eudemus of Rhodes was a pupil of Aristotle and is considered the first major historian of mathematics. In his Physics we find the following:
“One might wonder whether or not the same time recurs, as some say it does. Now we call things ‘the same’ in different ways: things the same in kind plainly recur – for example summer and winter… But if we are to believe the Pythagoreans and hold that things the same in number recur – that you will be sitting here and I shall talk to you, holding this stick, and so on for everything else – then it is plausible that the same time too recurs”.
This refers to the Pythaogrean doctrine of eternal recurrence (known only from such secondary sources), later revived by Nietzsche. In fact, in the view of Karl Lowith, it was the central doctrine of Nietzsche’s philosophy, though for the Pythagoreans it appears to have been a consequence of their own central doctrine that “all is number”.
Compare this with two passages from Cicero’s Academics:
“Why indeed, you will say, should it be that in this world of ours, great as it is, a second Catulus cannot be produced, though out of all those atoms whence Democritus declares the universe to be constructed countless copies of Quintus Lutatius Catulus not only may be formed but are in existence in the other worlds, which are countless in number?”
“And whereas in our one world this order is found to be so marvellous, would you believe that there exist innumerable worlds above, below, on the right and on the left, in front and behind, some unlike this, some exactly like it, and that just as we are at this moment close to Bauli and are looking towards Puteoli, so there are countless persons in exactly similar spots with our names, our honours, our achievements, our minds, our shapes, our ages, discussing the very same subject?”
Here what is referred to is the atomistic doctrine of Democritus and Leucippus: there are no gods or supernatural forces, no spirit or free will; everything is to be explained through the motion and collision of solid atoms falling through an infinite void. In the later version due to Epicurus, atoms are allowed a random “swerve”, making free will possible (the distinction between the Democritean and Epicurean theories was the subject of Karl Marx’s doctoral thesis). In either case, though, a necessary consequence is the kind of multiverse envisaged by both Blanqui and Tegmark, in which all that is possible must actually occur.
There is a clear distinction to be made between the Pythagorean and Democritean doctrines. The former is periodic: all that occurs will re-occur, but some things may never occur. The latter is complete: everything occurs (even if it only happens once). In 1933 Arthur Lovejoy coined the term “principle of plenitude” to describe the idea that nature is “full”, considering it in relation to the Neoplatonist “chain of being” and its property of “continuity”, or lack of gaps, manifested in the belief that every possible animal species must arise. So, for example, there must be a species corresponding to the mid-point between human and fish (sixteenth-century naturalists classified mermaids as homo marinus). This urge for completeness persisted in the nineteenth century: according to Lovejoy, “one of the things that the public wanted in the early eighteen-forties – that is, nearly two decades before the publication of The Origin of Species – was missing links.” He notes that in 1842 P.T. Barnum advertised exhibits including, “the connecting link between the seal and the duck; two distinct species of flying fish… the Siren, or Mud Iguana, a connecting link between the reptiles and the fish,… with other animals forming connecting links in the great chain of Animated Nature.”
The principle of plenitude becomes particularly important in the Baroque period in the work of Leibniz, who repeatedly refers to the “fullness” of nature, connecting it with a sophisticated form of teleology. In his Discourse on Metaphysics (1686) he writes:
“I find that many natural effects can be demonstrated twice over, firstly by reference to efficient causes, and again by reference to final causes – for example, by appealing to God’s decision to produce his effect always in the easiest and the most determinate ways (as I have shown elsewhere in explaining the rules of reflection and refraction…)”
It was not known at the time whether light was a wave or a particle, but it was known that light always takes the quickest path through space (Fermat’s Principle). Using this “final cause” one could then deduce the observed law of refraction (Snell’s Law). Light beams follow optimal paths, and to Leibniz this implied intelligent design. Therefore physics should proceed by considering the most perfect and economical design. The fact that bodies possess a conatus or urge that impels them to move at a constant speed in a straight line unless acted on by a force (what we now call Newton’s First Law) was an illustration of nature’s optimal simplicity, a straight line being the shortest path through space. Leibniz applied similar theological arguments in his debate with Cartesians about the “quantity of motion”, and was led to the concept of kinetic energy.
He further argued that mind is more perfect than substance, because it occupies less space. Rejecting the revived Democritean doctrine of material atoms, he instead conceived a theory of atomic minds, or monads, which collectively create an image of the world projected through them by God, the reality of the vision (unlike its modern counterpart in The Matrix) being guaranteed by God’s goodness. In Principles of Nature and Grace, based on Reason (1714) he writes:
“In nature, everything is full… Because of the plenitude of the world everything is linked… It therefore follows that every monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with internal activity, representing the universe in accordance with its own point of view…”
This plenitude prompts a stirring passage in the Discourse on Metaphysics:
“And, moreover, if we consider carefully the interconnectedness of things, we can say that in the soul of Alexander there are for all time remnants of everything that has happened to him, and marks of everything that will happen to him - and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, although it is only God who can recognize them all.”
Leibniz’s physics-inspired philosophy of optimisation became known as optimism, and is described most fully in his book Theodicy (1710) with its famous notion of the “best of all possible worlds”. The book ends with a parable that is like an extension of his image of Alexander the Great, though now the classical figure is Sextus Tarquinius, whose rape of Lucretia precipitated the founding of the Roman republic. Leibniz describes a traveller who is shown a great temple in the form of a pyramid. The pyramid is infinite, and each of its rooms is a possible world. There are versions of Sextus’s life in which there is no rape, Sextus himself becomes king and is adored by his subjects. But at the very top is the room containing the one true world, where Sextus must commit the crime that leads to great things for humanity.
We nowadays mostly know Theodicy from Voltaire’s Candide, subtitled Optimism, though the figure of Dr Pangloss bears no relation to Leibniz. Optimism was a well known philosophy throughout the eighteenth century, and Leibniz was long dead when Voltaire wrote his book. If someone were to write a novel nowadays containing a French post-structuralist philosopher we would not immediately assume it was a portrait of Derrida. In fact Pangloss bears more similarity to Pierre de Maupertuis, the physicist who refined Leibniz’s optimisation idea as the principle of least action. Voltaire had reason to dislike Maupertuis since both were rival lovers of Emilie du Chatelet, and Voltaire mocked him in his novel Micromegas. In a priority dispute between Maupertuis and supporters of the deceased Leibniz, Voltaire took the side of Leibniz. As for the principle of least action, it was given its definitive form by Lagrange, and forms the basis for modern-day field theories such as general relativity, quantum electrodynamics and superstrings.
Leibniz’s Theodicy provides us with a further kind of multiverse, because its multiple realities are ideas, not physically reachable, unlike the other worlds of Democritus or Blanqui (which we could reach in a spaceship). This suggests a simple typology:
Reachable Unreachable Full Democritus Leibniz Periodic ? Pythagoras
I place Pythagoras (and Nietzsche) in the “unreachable” category because although the assertion is that we will die and be reborn trillions of years from now in an identical universe (i.e. that time itself will recur), it is not possible for us to go and see this world and meet our re-born selves, unless we have a time machine. I know of no classical multiverse that allows for such a possibility. On the other hand, instead of periodicity in time we could consider a universe that is periodic (though not full) in space; in other words a “hall of mirrors” universe, having finite volume and periodic boundary conditions. Such situations have been considered by modern physicists, but again, I do not know of any classical precursors.
Having classified the precursors, we should now look at the typology of modern-day multiverses proposed by Tegmark.
Level 1: Regions beyond our cosmic horizon (predicted by inflationary theory)
Level 2: Universes with the same physics as ours, but different fundamental constants (predicted by chaotic inflation)
Level 3: Many worlds (predicted by Everett’s version of quantum mechanics)
Level 4: Universes with different physics from ours (prompted by the question, why should the laws of nature be what they are, and not something else?). Possibly predicted by superstring theory.
As I said at the beginning, my aim is not to discuss physics, and I shall say no more about the details of these levels. I would however point out that they all take the classical multiverse to new forms of unreachability. The level that most resembles the Democritean mutliverse is the first, but cosmic expansion means that although there may be a copy of you roughly one googolplex metres away, you can never get there, even given infinite time, because space is expanding faster than your spaceship can hope to traverse it. Level 3, on the other hand, which most resembles the Leibnizian multiverse, nevertheless allows for interference between parallel worlds, which is how David Deutsch interprets quantum computation. It should also be added that alongside modern-day universes with periodic spatial boundary conditions, there have been cosmological models involving periodic temporal boundary conditions, and also other multiverses of a Leibnizian kind, such as the Feynman multiple-history model advocated by Hawking, and various models in which instead of the “universal wave function” we have “universal computation”.
What we have seen, though, is that although the physics has changed, the underlying drive remains the same. The classical full multiverse was motivated by the idea that everything that can happen should happen. The modern multiverse is driven by the idea that everything that is mathematically possible should physically exist. What has changed is the range of mathematical possibilities, such that we can now consider universes not only with different histories, but with different physics.
Walter Benjamin and the multiverse
In 1923 Benjamin wrote to Florens Christian Rang:
“Leibniz’s entire way of thinking, his idea of the monad, which I adopt for my definition of ideas… seems to me to comprise the summa of a theory of ideas… The need now is for a theory of different kinds of texts.”
Struck by the Leibnizian notion of complete interconnectedness (which he had also encountered in his doctoral study of Friedrich Schlegel’s “reflection” theory of knowledge), Benjamin was undertaking a study of Trauerspiel (mourning-play), a form of Baroque drama. His thesis on the subject, intended as a Habilitationsschrift (qualification for academic teaching) was completed in 1925, rejected by Frankfurt University, and published in 1928 as Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, (translated as The Origin Of German Tragic Drama). In it we read:
“The idea is a monad. The being that enters into it, with its past and subsequent history, brings – concealed in its own form – an indistinct abbreviation of the rest of the world of ideas, just as, according to Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics (1686) , every single monad contains, in an indistinct way, all the others… The idea is a monad – that means briefly: every idea contains the image of the world. The purpose of the representation of the idea is nothing less than an abbreviated outline of this image of the world.”
Benjamin encapsulates his monadological theory in a famous astronomical metaphor: “Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars”. The constellation becomes Benjamin’s term for the configuration or network of ideas that create, so to speak, a holographic image (an “abbreviation”) of the world in its entirety. His subsequent career was to be devoted to mapping such constellations.
To complete the Trauerspiel book, Benjamin left his estranged wife and son in Berlin and went to Capri, where he met and fell in love with Asja Lacis, a Lithuanian actress and Bolshevik who did not return his feelings. Benjamin followed her briefly to Moscow, and the Marxist turn in his thinking has been attributed by some to this romantic connection, as well as to Benjamin’s connection with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which became one of financial dependency. In 1932, after the failure of his affair with Lacis, and of another subsequent affair, he considered suicide.
Of more significance to us is the way in which Marxism gave a new inflection to Benjamin’s monadology. The constellation became the “dialectical image”, a view of history reachable only from a particular perspective, in much the same way that a stellar constellation such as Orion can take the form we see, only when viewed from our own planet at this particular time (since its stars are actually unrelated, lying at very different distances from Earth, and are all in motion with respect to each other). The image is “dialectical” in the sense of our engagement with it: we actively bring it into being, and the knowledge it produces can bring about change. Despite the apparent idealism of Benjamin’s theory, the constellation or dialectical image remains an abbreviation of objective fact and historical truth. Leibniz had already expressed something like this in Monadology (1714):
"And just as the same town when seen from different sides will seem quite different, and as it were multiplied perspectivally, the same thing happens here: because of the infinite multitude of simple substances it is as if there were as many different universes; but they are all perspectives on the same one, according to the different point of view of each monad."
The Marxist turn also prompted a reinterpretation of a fundamental concept from the Trauerspiel book: that of allegory. Benjamin’s studies of Baroque imagery had led him to observe the way in which an allegorical symbol, such as a skull, can signify both itself and its opposite: final death and eternal life. More generally, he noted the arbitrary and often contradictory nature of allegory. Whereas symbolism involves a fixed association between image and meaning, allegory is fluid and combinatorial. The perfect example of this, for Benjamin, was the princely courts that feature in Trauerspiel. There are fixed positions - king, courtier, etc – but the people who occupy them are interchangeable. Benjamin summarises the situation as follows:
“Any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else. With this possibility a destructive, but just verdict is passed on the profane world: it is characterized as a world in which the detail is of no importance… the profane world is both elevated and devalued.”
While on Capri, Benjamin read Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which elaborates Marx’s commodity fetishism into the theory of reification. This clarified for him an idea he had written about as early as 1921: capitalism as a religion. Capitalism, he wrote, is “a religion of pure cult, without dogma”, in which “things have a meaning only in their relationship to the cult” and in which “there are no “weekdays”, since every day is devoted to worship. It is, moreover, “a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.”
As Susan Buck-Morss has argued in her book The Dialectics Of Seeing, Benjamin transformed his theory of Baroque allegory into a theory of commodities. The commodity, according to Marx and Lukacs, is fetishised in that it assumes, in effect, a life of its own, independent of use- or exchange-value, existing only as something to be worshipped and aspired to. The allegorical nature of commodities lies in their arbitrariness. A sports car is the emblem of success in the same way that a skull is the emblem of mortality; and like the skull, the car is an inherently contradictory emblem, embodying the anxiety of its loss. In his fragment on capitalism as religion, Benjamin invokes Nietzsche’s nihilism.
“God’s transcendence is at an end. But he is not dead; he has been incorporated into human existence… [Modern] man is the superman, the first to recognize the religion of capitalism and begin to bring it to fulfilment.”
The Messianic religion has been replaced by one of eternal recurrence: capitalism perpetuates itself by producing endless need, done by creating the appearance of endless novelty, which is actually repetition of the same. Benjamin’s younger friend Theodor Adorno would lament this false novelty as manifested in Hollywood films, popular music and consumer goods, while Benjamin considered its nineteenth-century manifestations. In a 1935 introduction to the proposed work he wrote:
“From this epoch derive the arcades and intérieurs, the exhibition halls and panoramas. They are residues of a dream world. The realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking. Thus, dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.”
The phantasmagoria, an early precursor of cinema dating originally from the 1790s, in which a mobile magic lantern was used to project moving images, provided Benjamin with a metaphor for the narcotised condition of bourgeois existence, the way in which we become haunted by fetishised commodities, and more generally, for the ability of ideas to take on autonomous existence, becoming in effect more real than their creators. Lukacs had described the way in which the market economy comes to be regarded as a natural system, like the weather, with its own laws beyond human control, a “second nature”. The metaphor of the phantasmagoria highlights the spectral, hallucinatory quality of this second nature, and the state of helpless passivity it induces.
Benjamin’s researches were immense. Like Leibniz’s project to create a secret encyclopaedia of all knowledge, Benjamin’s Arcades Project was, for all its modernism, a Baroque undertaking. “The Renaissance explores the universe,” he had written in The Origin Of German Tragic Drama, “the baroque explores libraries”. Benjamin’s declared technique, literary montage, the piecing together of citations without quotation marks to create a dialectical image of the past, is fundamentally combinatorial, which is to say allegorical. Just as the personalities of princely courts can be rearranged at will, so can the entries of an encyclopaedia, or the quotations in what survives of The Arcades Project.
Among the many figures who inhabit its pages is Blanqui, shown to us from numerous perspectives, as revolutionary activist, emaciated martyr. Blanqui whose portrait Baudelaire drew, leader of secret sects whose members have only code-names, unaware who their co-conspirators are. It was while researching Blanqui that Benjamin discovered the forgotten final work, L’Eternité par les astres, with its conjecture that there is another planet on which Napoleon won Waterloo, another where he is winning it right now, or a second later. In January 1938, Benjamin wrote to Max Horkheimer:
“Blanqui’s last work, written during his last imprisonment, has remained entirely unnoticed up to now, so far as I can see. It is a cosmological speculation. Granted, it appears, in its opening pages, tasteless and banal… In fact, the cosmic vision of the world which Blanqui lays out… is an infernal vision… What is so unsettling is that the presentation is entirely lacking in irony. It is an unconditional surrender, but it is simultaneously the most terrible indictment of a society that projects this image of the cosmos – understood as an image of itself – across the heavens. With its trenchant style, this work displays the most remarkable similarities both to Baudelaire and to Nietzsche.”
In a final summary-introduction (the Exposé of 1939), Benjamin makes explicit this triple-point. Under the title “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century”, he surveys various topics and the historical figures who embody them: the utopian Fourier; fantasy artist Grandville; King Louis Philippe and the cult of the interior; Baudelaire the flâneur; Haussmann the demolition artist. He ends with Blanqui, the revolutionary whose multiverse is a capitulation to bourgeois capitalism and the modernity it creates. Nietzschean recurrence and mechanical reproduction come together in Baudelaire’s poem Les sept vieillards (The seven old men), in which the wandering poet encounters a hideous old man, then moments later another identical man, and another, and another. Blanqui’s multiverse, says Benjamin, is the phantasmagoria of history. After quoting at length the “essential passage” from L’Eternite par les astres, Blanqui’s realisation that multiple reality makes progress an illusion, Benjamin writes:
“This resignation without hope is the last word of the great revolutionary. The century was incapable of responding to the new technological possibilities with a new social order. That is why the last word was left to the errant negotiators between old and new who are at the heart of these phantasmagorias. The world dominated by its phantasmagorias – this, to make use of Baudelaire’s term, is “modernity”. Blanqui’s vision has the entire universe entering the modernity of which Baudelaire’s seven old men are the heralds. In the end, Blanqui views novelty as an attribute of all that is under sentence of damnation.”
The multiverse as phantasmagoria: this is how Benjamin saw it. Every age dreams its successor, and the errant negotiators of the nineteenth-century dreamed the phantasmagoria of history that in our own time presents itself as “scientific fact”. We have seen that Benjamin was, strictly speaking, mistaken in equating the full Democritean multiverse, revived by Blanqui, with the Pythagorean periodic multiverse revived by Nietzsche; yet both are a return to archaic myth, arising in response to the quasi-religion of capitalism. Both are an acknowledgement that the new religion is an illusion, that life without a transcendent God is meaningless. Nietzsche’s answer is the superman who acknowledges the eternal recurrence, embraces and wills it, while Blanqui bitterly contemplates the struggles that his doubles must repeat on other planets, some winning, some losing, but all ultimately getting nowhere.
None of this, however, adequately explains how physicists have come to endorse the multiverse so enthusiastically, even in the absence of empirical evidence; nor the way in which the multiverse has become as familiar and typical a fictional genre as the detective story. We shall look further into topics that Benjamin highlighted, in order to try and understand this more fully.
In a satellite work of The Arcades Project, the essay On Some Motifs In Baudelaire, Benjamin notes: “Gambling became a stock diversion of the bourgeoisie only in the nineteenth century; in the eighteenth, only the aristocracy gambled.” While historically questionable, this is nevertheless enlightening. Benjamin is acknowledging the singular importance acquired in the nineteenth century by chance; or to give it its more scientific name, statistics. The collection and analysis of mass data reached new levels during this period, eventually leading to tremendous progress in areas such as epidemiology. In science, the most well-known example of the new statistical thinking is Darwin’s theory of natural selection; in economics, we see it in the rise of stock-market speculation. Engels, in his pseudo-scientific work Dialectics of Nature, writes, “Darwin in his epoch-making work, set out from the widest existing basis of chance.” He also notes: “the whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to organic nature… of the bourgeois economic theory of competition… [It] is very easy to transfer these theories back again from natural history to the history of society”. In Blanqui, Benjamin saw a transference of bourgeois anxiety to inorganic nature; the scene is then set for the same re-transference that occurs with Darwin.
Benjamin does not appear to have recognised this explicitly (he lived within the historical moment when the re-transference was taking place), however we find it implicitly in On Some Motifs In Baudelaire, and in the original longer version of the essay, published in the book Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet In The Era Of High Capitalism.
Chance and statistics arises in crowds. One of the earliest fictional depictions of the modern urban crowd, Benjamin notes, is in Poe’s story “the Man of the Crowd”, where a man contemplates a London street. The range of types and faces, the press of strangers against one another, the confluence of lives, is dizzying. “For [Poe]”, Benjamin writes, “as for Engels, there was something menacing in the spectacle [crowds] presented.” It was an epoch of crowds, when history was made on streets and barricades rather than in palaces, so instead of the princely courts there was a new allegorical arena, the crowd in which every person is an interchangeable atom. The bourgeois interior was a response to the sublime terror of the crowd; the Paris Arcades are street and interior combined.
The crowd creates its opposite, isolation, a “state of savagery”. Individualism and collectivism, civilisation and barbarity, are dialectical opposites. The crowd is chance: Benjamin quotes Baudelaire’s comment on “giant cities and the web of their numberless interconnecting relationships”, a network of possibilities by means of which the individual’s wishes may be fulfilled. In a village you don’t bump into the stranger who changes your life; in a city you might. Yet the crowd is also fate, necessity, the monotonous rhythm of the production line.
Benjamin appreciated the way in which crowd dynamics influenced the creative and recreational thought of his own time. “That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of reception in the film”; “What the fun fair achieves with its dodgem cars and other similar amusements is nothing but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled labourer is subjected in the factory”. He was not in a position to analyse its role in scientific thought, but we can see the movement of crowds in the nineteenth-century statistical thermodynamics of Maxwell and Boltzmann, the attempt to describe the bulk behaviour of gases in terms of atoms too numerous to consider individually. Heat is the total energy of those atoms, temperature is the mean, and so on.
It was this statistical physics that led to the founding of quantum theory, when Max Planck sought to explain radiation as a crowd of oscillating elements, and found that those elements – subsequently named photons – behaved discontinuously. The quantum revolution was a realisation that the behaviour of individual particles is not smooth, predictable and classical, but instead follows laws quite unlike those perceived in the crowd as a whole. What physicists retreated to was the reassuring interiority of mathematics.
The crisis is already prophesied in nineteenth-century attempts to provide a physical explanation of Faraday’s “lines of force” which we see in iron filings around a magnet. Whereas in the eighteenth century, electricity and magnetism had been thought of as fluids (hence terms such as “current”, “capacitance” and “flow”), Thomson in 1847 proposed a “mechanical representation”, describing electric and magnetic forces in terms of the linear and rotational strain of a solid. It was a mathematical fit, but did it depict reality? Maxwell took up the problem, writing to Thomson for more information, saying, “you published a fragment of your speculations in the form of an allegory about incompressible elastic solids”. By allegory, Maxwell meant that although the mathematics worked, the physical picture could not be literally true.
This set the scene for subsequent physics, in which mathematical theories arose for which there appeared to be no adequate physical picture. The first was Maxwell’s own equations for the electromagnetic field, showing how light waves propagate, yet without saying anything about the supposed medium – the ether –assumed to support those waves. The equations themselves were the fixed truth; physical interpretation passed into the realm of allegorical interchangeability.
Thus we find the rise of the parable, or “thought experiment”, as rhetorical tool. The method is ancient and can be found in Galileo; but in Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger it assumes new stature. Just as Origen once defined three levels of Scriptural interpretation – literal, moral and allegorical – so in physics there has come to be three levels of understanding: popular, technical and mathematical, with the popular being the allegorical, and only the mathematical being true. Einstein and Schrodinger, both masters of the form, nevertheless struggled against this new kind of allegory; for them the thought-experiment was supposed to express a literal truth which was also the most important. What Schrodinger sought in quantum theory, as Maxwell had done with electromagnetism, was Anschaulichkeit, visualisability, a word that also takes on special importance in the pictorially-oriented Benjamin. Schrodinger’s cat paradox was supposed to be a reductio ad absurdum, proving that Bohr’s interpretation of the quantum wave function was merely a retreat to naïve idealism. The less well-known Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, presented in a paper that defines physical reality as the ability to predict the value of a corresponding physical quantity with probability one, was a similarly failed attempt, the result of both having been to reinforce the view that reality is mathematical, all else being appearance and interpretation. Lacking the supreme being that underpins all previous non-trivial idealist philosophies, some theorists have meanwhile found themselves drawn towards the Nietzschean superman. It is this figure who stands before the gun in the “quantum suicide” thought experiment, a parable which, like Blanqui’s L’Eternite par les astres, is presented without irony, and signifies a remarkable surrender.
The contradictory nature of Nietzsche’s vision, and the significance of suicide as its dramatisation, was recognised by Lowith (in Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same):
“Just as in the eternal recurrence in the parable of Zarathustra is a reversed nihilism, so in Nietzsche’s own existence, too, the search for self-eternalization is in a perverse way at one with the temptation to self-destruction. The will to eternalization is itself ambiguous, therefore: it can stem from gratitude for existence, but on the other hand it can be the tyrannical and vengeful will of one who despairs over existence.”
Lowith then quotes Nietzsche:
“The will to eternalization… can also be the tyrannic will of one who… would like even to turn what is most personal, singular, and narrow, the real idiosyncrasy of his suffering, into a binding law and compulsion; one who, as it were, takes his revenge on all things by stamping them with his image, the image of his torture, forcing that image on all things, branding them with it.”
We have moved from Leibnizian optimism, the multiverse in which one world alone is made real by God, to the romantic pessimism of Blanqui, stamping his misfortune across the cosmos. For Nietzsche, it was Schopenhauer and Wagner who represented “romantic pessimism in its most expressive form”, but Blanqui’s combinatorial multiverse is its most prophetic manifestation. Benjamin wrote that baroque allegory “is not convention of expression, but expression of convention”. Blanqui’s cosmology is a modern-day Trauerspiel of which he is hero, and its theme – the plurality of physical worlds and the multiplication of history – becomes a convention of subsequent thought.
In 1916 the young Benjamin wrote, “In tragedy the hero dies… of immortality… The tragic death is overdetermined… Death in the mourning play [Trauerspiel] is not based on the extreme determinacy that individual time confers on the action… The law governing a higher life prevails in the restricted space of an earthly existence, and all play, until death puts an end to the game, so as to repeat the same game, albeit on a grander scale, in another world. It is this repetition on which the law of the mourning play is founded. Its events are allegorical schemata, symbolic mirror images of a different game. We are transported into that game by death.”
The intimate relationship between romantic pessimism and Fascism is well appreciated. Yet we should also note the historical coincidence that Benjamin discovered Blanqui’s cosmology in 1938, when he was exiled in France, and would soon be forced to make the failed escape attempt that would lead him to commit suicide rather than be handed over to the Gestapo. More striking still, is that on the other side of the world, in Argentina, two writers who knew nothing at all about Benjamin – Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares – were taking an interest in Blanqui. As Lisa Block de Behar has observed (in Borges: the Passion of an Endless Quotation), “Borges makes numerous allusions to Blanqui”, while Bioy Casares’s story The Celestial Plot (published in 1948) depicts an airman who crashes, is arrested as a spy, and gradually discovers he is in a parallel universe. The plot hinges on a copy of Blanqui’s collected works, differently paginated in the respective worlds.
Moreover, it is not only in these isolated and rarefied contexts that the multiverse begins to make itself felt. In 1943, at the height of the Second World War, Philip Van Doren Stern self-published a story called The Greatest Gift. At Christmas time a suicidal man wishes he had never been born, and a "little stranger" fulfils his wish, making him a brush salesman who goes home to find the whole world changed, his wife married to a different man. The wish is undone and he returns gratefully to the real world: the story was adapted and filmed by Frank Capra as It’s A Wonderful Life, released in 1946.
We can see these multiverses in relation to romantic pessimism: simultaneously product and reaction. In January 1943, the year of the Greatest Gift, Germany’s Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrended at Stalingrad; Hitler made it clear to Paulus that he should commit suicide rather than be taken captive, yet Paulus refused. A furious Hitler commented, “He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.” Hitler concluded nihilistically, “What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway.”
The eternity Hitler spoke of is not that of a transcendent God, but rather the projection of his own political regime across all of space and time. The romantic pessimism within Fascism was a revival of ancient cosmological doctrine, filling a gap left by Christianity. Van Doren’s Christmas story is an attempt to reassert Christian values in the light of Fascism, yet is equivocal. When the man is no longer a brush salesman but is instead returned to his former world, he goes home to his wife and finds she has the brush he sold her. The twist-in-the-tale may be corny, but it is also significant. The vision of another life presented to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is no more than a vision, like the lives of Sextus Tarquinius portrayed in Leibniz’s Theodicy. Van Doren’s world, however, is one of mechanical production and consumer goods, of technological progress and mass warfare. The other universe is now something that can be touched, its elements bought and sold. Previously, religion ensured the non-reality of other worlds that were only possible; now traditional religion is erected as a barricade against the nihilism of capitalist religion, but the barricade feels insecure.
In his 1940 story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Borges writes of an attempt to create the encyclopaedia of another world, an alternative universe. The encyclopaedia appears to exist, and so, by implication, does the world itself, an idealist one where “metaphysics is a branch of literary fantasy”. Though baroque in formulation, Tlon is collective in construction, “since the hypothesis of a single inventor – some infinite Leibniz working in obscurity and self-effacement – has been unanimously discarded.” Like Rosicruciansim, it is a secret conspiracy that has become real simply by virtue of positing its own existence; the story’s apparatus of elusive grand-masters and a reclusive millionaire could have come from one of Borges’s favourite authors, Chesterton, whose novel The Man Who Was Thursday was inspired by Blanqui’s Society Of The Seasons. Chesterton resorts to Christianity as a way of reimposing transcendent order on his own narrative chaos; Borges has no such recourse. Yet that his purpose, like Chesterton’s, is satirical, appears clear by the end of the story, set some years in the future, when the real world has become infected by Tlonian objects.
“Almost immediately, reality “caved in” at more than one point. The truth is, it wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – could spellbind and hypnotize mankind. How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlon, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet?”
Another celebrated Borges story, The Library Of Babel, presents an even more orderly universe; one in which the permutable atoms of Blanqui are replaced by the letters of the alphabet, creating a universe that is an infinite library. It appears to be a Leibnizian heaven, yet the title implies what it is left for the reader to calculate: at any point in the library, the chances of finding anything except random nonsense is effectively zero. Estimating how much distance separates Shakespeare’s Hamlet from another version in which a single word is altered is much the same sort of calculation that Tegmark has performed in order to find the separation of parallel worlds in a Democritean multiverse. The distances are so great as to be meaningless: far larger than the observable universe. The librarian’s heaven is actually hell; a new version of Blanqui’s infernal vision.
Literary contemplations of the multiverse dwell on this contradiction, supplying the irony that Blanqui omitted. Instead of the superman who embraces multiplicity and consciously wills it, there are figures such as the narrator in Borges who express a new kind of separation between subjectivity and objectivity, the former shrunk even further in relation to the latter, so that romantic disillusionment, the quality identified by Lukacs in nineteenth-century fiction, reaches a new level of helplessness that could be compared with another Lukacsian concept, contemplation. In the multiverse, all we can do is watch how things unfold in the version we happen to have been born into.
In popular imaginings, however, the multiverse places an authoritative stamp on subjectivity, creating false optimism, a condition that could be summarised: “all is chance, and I shall always win”. A single example will suffice (chosen simply because of the level of public attention it received). In the 1985 movie Back To The Future, teenager Marty McFly comes from a dysfunctional family in which his father is a loser and his mother is a neurotic. He travels back in time and realises he must engineer their first date in order that he will be born. Like many time-travel stories, the movie invokes multiple reality as a way of avoiding the familiar paradoxes of causality (killing one’s own grandmother), and when Marty returns to his own time he is in a parallel world where his parents are successful and happy. Since the film operates entirely through the subjectivity of Marty, now in a new and happier world, we are never asked to consider the one he left, in which there is a still a dysfunctional family that moreover has lost a son who mysteriously disappeared.
Such solipsism is typical of popular multiverse stories, whose narratives make sense only from the hero’s perspective. These dramatisations of individual wish-fulfilment invert romantic pessimism: not the hero’s torture and sufferings, but rather his personal triumph becomes the fantasised law of nature, the organising principle of both narrative and cosmos. Tegmark’s quantum suicide experiment, renamed “quantum immortality” in many accounts, is a ready-made screenplay. The theory on which it depends, Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation, was published in 1957, eleven years after It’s A Wonderful Life and nearly two decades after Borges’s most celebrated multiple-reality story, The Garden Of Forking Paths.
The physicist Seth Lloyd (in his book Programming the Universe) has described meeting Borges in 1983, and asking him about the story that appears so uncannily to predict Everett’s work.
“Dr. Borges” I said, “when you wrote your story, were you aware that it mirrors the so-called Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? In this interpretation, whenever anyone makes a measurement that reveals information about the world being one way or another, the world splits in two and takes both paths. In the conventional interpretation of quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation, if I ask a nuclear particle whether it is spinning clockwise or counterclockwise, it picks one spin or the other with equal probability. But in the Many Worlds interpretation, at the moment of measurement the world’s path forks and it takes not one fork or the other but both at once.
Borges asked me to repeat the question in a more comprehensible fashion. When he understood that I was asking whether or not the foundations of quantum mechanics had influenced his writing, he answered, “No.” He went on to say that although he had not been influenced by work on quantum mechanics, he was not surprised that the laws of physics mirrored ideas from literature. After all, physicists were readers too.”
This charming comment can be extended: physicists are not only readers, but part of history, and the multiverse, as we have seen, has a history far older than that of quantum theory. Benjamin’s concept of history helps us see the physics and culture of his time within a broader dialectical image, revealing how the multiverse emerged from a crisis linked not only to objective questions of nuclear physics, but also to the rise of authoritarianism. In our time, there are voices of authority proclaiming the necessity of the existing socio-economic order, and that the universe has multiple histories. Though apparently disparate, they are not independent, their worlds are not disjoint. Blanqui, errant negotiator between old and new, not only gave the last word on his own era, but passed sentence on ours.