Flatland Revisited: A Lovely New Edition of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Classic 1884 Allegory of Expanding Our Perspective
On the absurdity of truth by consensus, and a gentle invitation to consider how our way of looking at the world limits our view of it.
By Maria Popova
This is how the world changes: We loosen the stranglehold of our givens, bend and stretch our minds to imagine what was once unimaginable, test our theories against reality, and emerge with vision expanded into new dimensions of truth. “What we see, we see,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her beautiful ode to women’s unheralded heroism in science and to science itself as a supreme tool of changing our seeing and understanding what we cannot see. Nearly a century earlier, the Victorian schoolmaster and theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott (December 20, 1838–October 12, 1926) explored this subject from a different angle in his brilliant 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, newly issued in a lovely slip-case edition. In this classic masterwork of perspective, Abbott examines the science of multiple spatial dimensions while satirizing the absurdity of truth by consensus and extending a subtle invitation to consider how what we take as our givens limits our grasp of reality, presenting us with a false view of the world warped by our way of looking at it.
The story is narrated by a protagonist named A. Square, a native of Flatland — a world whose geometric denizens only live and see in two dimensions. But the square has a transformative experience that renders him “the sole possessor of the truths of Space.” On the eve of a new year, he has a hallucinatory vision of journeying to a faraway place called Lineland, populated by “lustrous points” who see him not as a shape but merely as a scattering of points along a line. Frustrated, he tries to demonstrate his squareness to their king by moving from left to right. The king, ignorant of directions, fails to perceive the motion and clings to his view of the square as points on a line.
But then the square himself is visited by a creature from another world — a sphere from the three-dimensional Spaceland. The very notion of three dimensions is at first utterly unimaginable to our hero — he sees the visitor merely as a circle. And yet when the sphere floats up and down, thus contracting and expanding the radius of the perceived circle based on its distance from our grounded observer, the square begins to suspect that he, like the inhabitants of Lineland, might be congenitally blind to the existence of another dimension.
When he returns to Flatland and tries to awaken his compatriots to the revelatory existence of a third dimension, he is met only with obtuse denial and declared mad. Decrees are passed to make illegal any suggestion of a third dimension and all who make such claims are to be imprisoned or executed. (Only two centuries earlier, in the very unimaginary world of the Inquisition, Galileo was imprisoned for asserting that the Earth moves.)
The square himself is eventually thrown in jail, where he spends seven years and composes Flatland as a cautionary memoir he hopes will inspire posterity to see beyond the limit of two dimensions. (In that selfsame era, in the nonfictional obtuseness of Victorian reality, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for loving another man and composed his own stirring prison memoir of sorts as cautionary commentary on a society whose blind adherence to dogma bleeds into inhumanity.)
Complement the delicious new edition of Flatland with these stunning Victorian illustrations of Euclid’s Elements and the 1963 Norton Juster gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, inspired by the Abbott classic, then stretch your mind into the science of multiple dimensions.
Published December 20, 2017