Flatland in VAS
Steve Tomasula’s work, VAS: An Opera in Flatland, an imagetext developed with graphic artist and typographer Stephen Farrell, considers the role of eugenics, its history, and its impact on the body and biotechnology in a novel that serves as a visual digression of how such topics as genetics, reproduction, and body modification are culturally represented through text and image. The plot follows the thoughts of a writer named Square as he deliberates over whether to get a vasectomy (the VAS of the title) as his wife, Circle, wishes. All the while, Square’s mother-in-law, hoping for another grandchild, believes that if they would just go to the opera, the couple’s romance would reignite. Interspersed within the narrative layers are passages from nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts on genetics and heredity (including 25 pages of a human DNA genome sequence set squarely in the middle of the book) and references to the American eugenic laws based on widely accepted pseudoscience that supported institutionalized racism, forced sterilization, and such abuses as the Tuckegee untreated syphilis experiment. Amongst the many cited sources - mostly names from the history of heredity and intelligence testing, such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Binet, Cyril Burt, and Francis Crick - keyed onto the pages like alphabetic dictionary tabs is the frequently quoted ABBO, referring to a late nineteenth-century novella, Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. The allusions to Flatland work on several levels. There are the direct citations to the work, the naming of the main characters, and the play with visual elements on the flat page, an essentially two-dimensional space much like the world of Abbott’s creation. These allusions connect Abbott’s 1884 work to twentieth-century practices and the postmodern view of the body as a controllable biological code subject to manipulation.
Abbott’s Flatland is something of a cult work, long unacknowledged in literary studies and, until fairly recently, nearly owned by the mathematics community where it is prized for its elegant use of analogy to introduce students to the concept of unperceivable dimensions beyond the familiar directly measurable three. Based on discussions with fans of the book, it seems that many young students in middle school mathematics classes beginning in the late 1970s-1980s were introduced to the work as part of the class curriculum. Others came across the Dover thrift edition or possibly heard a reference to it in a church sermon, since ministers have used the work as an analogy to help parishioners come to grips with the idea of an unseen presence. The art community has also made a sort of claim to Flatland as its readers are trained to see what the world would look like if one was confined to two-dimensions and had no sense of depth. Indeed, as Linda Dalrymple’s The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art has documented, the history of the development of abstract art has been inspired and shaped by the conceptual challenges raised in the study of different types of non-Euclidean geometry.
Abbott’s novella is a first-person account by “a Square,” the supposed author and protagonist, a lawyer who lives in a world, Flatland, limited to two-dimensional space on a xy-plane. An expansion on Plato’s parable of the cave from The Republic, Flatland is a foggy table-top world whose the inhabitants move around, with limited vision, apparently skimming the surface, with no awareness of the concept of height or depth. All the inhabitants are geometric figures whose social status is determined by the number of angles they have in their linear exoskeleton. Regularity in shape provides access to social advancement. The working class consists of Isosceles triangles, who hope for the birth of an Equilateral Triangle child despite the personal accompanying sorrow:
The birth of a True Equilateral Triangle from Isosceles parents is the subject of rejoicing in our country for many furlongs round. After a strict examination conducted by the Sanitary and Social Board, the infant, if certified as Regular, is with solemn ceremonial admitted into the class Equilaterals. He is then immediately taken from his proud yet sorrowing parents and adopted by some childless Equilateral, who is bound by oath never to permit the child henceforth to enter his former home or so much as to look upon his relations again, for fear least the freshly developed organism may, by force of unconscious imitation, fall back again into his hereditary level (Abbott 82).
These lines from Flatland, quoted in VAS (82) alongside digressions on salt crystals, pattern making, and scientific progress, indicate the role the government has in this social structure in measuring its population to determine social status and the overriding fear of lower class contamination, as “toleration of Irregularity is incompatible with the safety of the State” (Abbott 94).
Configuration, that is, one’s shape, being everything in this Flatland world, artificial manipulation is a common way of achieving regular geometric shapes or in the case of the highest social ranks, the appearance of a circle, which designates the priests. In an effort to obtain the socially denoted level of regularity, which is determined by the state and cannot be accurately measured, children after birth are commonly surgically manipulated. [Abbott uses such ancient surgical terms as “trepanning” and "colligations” to describe the procedures (94)]. In the case of those families hoping for Circle status, the newborns’ delicate bones are broken to increase the number of sides, and thus, achieve the desired appearance of roundness. In Abbott’s Flatland, the women, having no status, are straight lines, dangerous in their sharpness and ability to dispatch a male but purposefully kept in ignorance through a social complex of religious and linguistic traditions that constrain their movements.
What has often been overlooked in the academic community but is apparent to the many readers who stumble across this unique work is that Abbott is critiquing the late Victorian limitations of class, gender, and social structure, while also sending a prophetic warning about the dangers of the normalization and, indeed, standardization of the human body inherent in the concept of eugenics. Since Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883; Flatland, published in 1884, may have been the first literary work to address the social impact of eugenics, and thus a fitting starting point for VAS’s postmodern meditation on what it means to live in a world where biological and reproductive manipulation is made more and more accessible.Some sense of the strong influence eugenic ideas had on later American literature and culture can be found in the collection Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity, edited by Lois A. Cuddy and Claire M. Roche (Lewisville: Bucknell, 2003).
During the time Abbott wrote Flatland, he was the headmaster of the City of London School, an unusually progressive public school that accepted students without regard to their religious background (Douglas-Smith 96) and made it possible for middle class children to study the classics in preparation for university studies, while still offering more applied classes such as science and modern languages that prepared students for careers in business. The students of the City of London School did not isolate themselves from the life of the city but used the city itself as sort of an extension of their courses, taking advantage of the school’s location on the edge of the Thames to visit museums, libraries, and government buildings. The history of the founding of the City of London School, its students, and its pioneering approach to education can be found in A. E. Douglas-Smith’s institutional history,The City of London School, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965). This was at a time when major figures in nineteenth-century science were giving public lectures and demonstrations.
It is noteworthy that Francis Galton, who wrote Hereditary Genius in 1869, coined the term eugenics in order to advocate for the regulation of marriage based on the hereditary traits of the parents in the belief that this would increase the general intelligence of the population. Galton pioneered biometric techniques, testing, measuring and determining the norms of the human body by running individuals through a battery of tests. During the London International Health Exhibition, which ran from May to August of 1884, Galton set up a laboratory as an exhibit hall where people could pay a threepence and take a series of tests in order to get an intelligence assessment (Gould 75-76). It is estimated that some 9,000 people were evaluated at the exhibit, after which the laboratory was moved to the Science Museum in South Kensington where it operated for another six years (Gould 76). The event was well advertised: the London Times printed the schedule of events and the Illustrated London News reported on the various exhibits, which included free lectures on health, cooking, gardening, and education. It is likely that if Abbott himself did not attend the exhibit, at least some of his students would have and the exhibits would have been discussed at Abbott’s school. I believe that Galton’s establishment of the concept of eugenics and his public laboratory, while not directly mentioned in Flatland, is a major influence in the novel and its themes are both recognized and developed in Tomasula’s work.
While Adam Jones assumes in his review that the name of VAS’s protagonist, Square, merely indicates he is not with it or “not hip to the times,” the name also refers to Abbott’s narrator. Other reviewers, such as Eugene Thacker, recognize and acknowledge the interrelationship of Abbott’s work and VAS. Reflecting the improved social status of women since the Victorian period, the wife and daughter are named Circle and Oval, suggesting a higher social status in contrast to that of Tomasula’s narrator. The novel opens on the right hand page with “A basic story”: Square hiding the consent form for the vasectomy beneath a story he is trying to write. He is having problems figuring out how to end the story, and the two, husband and wife, Square and Circle, sit together both “flipping print,” while on the left side, we are given lines from the opening section of Abbott’s novel, “On the Nature of Flatland” that direct us to imagine “a vast sheet of paper” as analogous to the world in which the inhabitants of Flatland live “without the power to rise above or sink below” that paper surface. Abbott’s two-dimensional world is essentially the physical world of the book itself and in reading of VAS, we become enmeshed in a history of the graphic display of information, the coding and the sequencing of life as visually represented in textbooks and government and medical forms, while at the same time we become alert to both the limitations of the page and the limitations and unexamined cultural assumptions that are linked with contemporary eugenics. The parallels to Abbott’s analogy are thus continued and developed through the Farrell’s graphics, which visually represent the constraints on the individual; the print, often tightly right justified, bumped up against a straight line, suggests the narrow and constricting tyranny of imposed measurements on the body.
Both Abbott and Tomasula seem to ask, where are we going with this desire for biomedical control? Abbott saw the beginnings of the eugenic movement, which was later used to justify Nazi mass killings in WWII, but also continued to justify involuntary sterilization and harsh immigration restrictions, while Tomasula looks ahead to a new genetics that may control reproduction and limit human diversity and potential.
Abbott, Edwin. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. 1884. Ed. Lila Marz Harper. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2009.
Cuddy, Lois A. and Claire M. Roche. Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture. 1880-1940. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2003.
Douglas-Smith, A. E. The City of London School. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1965.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.
Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.
Jones, Adam. Review of VAS: An Opera in Flatland, by Steve Tomasula. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23.3(2003): 121. Ebsco. Web. 21 June 2010.
Thacker, Eugene. Review of VAS: An Opera in Flatland, by Steve Tomasula. Ebsco. Web. 21 June 2010.
Tomasula, Steve. VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.