Tomas Tranströmer and many-worlds interpretation

6 minute read


Finding science in literature

I wrote about how a verse in William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence illustrates ergodicity <William Blake and the ergodic hypothesis>. Rereading it, in retrospect, my tone was playful and irreverent.

I hereby want to clarify that I have great respect for literary works and it is such a wonder (for me) that as remote as it may seem, they can reflect some truth about the physical reality.

And I am hardly alone in this wonderment. To wit, Ed Yong’s recent book title I Contain Multitudes is an allusion to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Without context, would one have guessed that the book is about microbiome, a multitude indeed, contained within us? I for one would have not.

Do you see how brilliant this parallel is? Whitman’s intended ‘multitudes’ are about mental constructions, while the microbiome, as much multitudinous, are tiny critters in our guts. But they are not Euclidean parallel that never the twain shall meet. Both induce the philosophical question “What is self?” albeit one psychological and the other physiological. In other words, they converge.

Now I would like to mention another verse, which is Tomas Tranströmer’s The Blue House. I learned about this poem from Cheryl Strayed, who quoted it in advising a reader of her advice column about a big life decision (whether or not to have a child).

Interestingly, I went to live in Sweden not long after that, and knowing a little bit of Swedish language and culture gives a different flavour to my reading. Let’s dissect the poem a little before drawing the parallel to a physical reality concept.

The poem opens with a surprising sentence:

It is night with glaring sunshine.
|| Det är en natt med strålande sol.

As a person who spent most of my life near the equator, the night sunshine felt like a distant fantasy. To readers in Northern hemisphere though, this conjures a certain place and time. The reader is immediately transported to a certain geography, up North around the Arctic circle, and a certain season, summertime when days are long.

It is also notable that the translator, Göran Malmqvist, chose to translate strålande as glaring, probably because it suits the overall sombre mood, but strålande also has a positive connotation (brilliant, glorious: There is a song called Jul, jul, strålande jul || Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas). Note also that Malmqvist preserves the present participle form of strålande, so glaring not glary.

The poem closes parenthetically:

While the sun burns behind the islands.
|| Medan solen brinner bakom öarna.

Another Swedish context might be useful: The Swedes customarily retreat with family to summer cottages in the summer, usually located in some island (for isolation and the view), thus the mentions of “islands” and “a motor far out on the water”. These cottages are usually passed down in the family (Thus the line It has stood for more than eighty summers. || Det har stått mer än åtti somrar.). The narrator is most likely is in the middle of his summer retreat and the blue house is his summer cottage.

Why is he alone and why is mood so sombre? We know a little: he is about to make a big decision, …before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices || …det är före vägskälen, före de oåterkalleliga valen, although we do not know what it is. Why is the garden overgrown? Summer is a liberation from long Swedish winter and cottage stay is a joyful time with family. It is customary to take care of the cottage and the garden since they will need some maintenance from not being stayed in.

The structure of the poem is noteworthy: it is not liberal with line breaks as traditional verses are. Although the wording at times is poem-like terse, and one can imagine inserting line breaks to make it more poem-like, Tranströmer chose not to. Superficially then, it looks like a prose, and it suits the narration thread. Overall, it feels like the cadence is rushed, like a poetic stream-of-consciousness.

Speaking of rushing, the setting transitions hastily from outside to inside the house:

Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls.
|| Öppna dörren, stig in! Här inne är oro i taket och fred i väggarna.

And we get a glimpse of the pearl of this poem (the ship painting) after getting through the oyster (the house):

Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.
|| Över sängen hänger en amatörtavla, föreställande ett skepp med sjutton segel, fräsande vågkammar och en vind som den förgyllda ramen inte kan hejda.

What is this ship? It is a foreshadowing for that which will come in several more sentences. We are subsequently shifted from the poetic metaphorical plane back to reality plane, with a little flitting back to the painting:

It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.
|| Det är alltid så tidigt här inne, det är före vägskälen, före de oåterkalleliga valen. Tack för det här livet! Ändå saknar jag alternativen. Alla skisser vill bli verkliga.

Then a literary pause to ponder all that, before the thesis comes:

A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew.
|| En motor på vattnet långt borta tänjer ut sommarnattens horisont. Både glädje och sorg sväller i daggens förstorings-glas.

Finally, we come to the penultimate sentence, which is the pearl of this poem:

We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.
|| Vi vet det egentligen inte, men anar det: det finns ett systerfartyg till vårt liv, som går en helt annan trad.

Doesn’t it remind you of the notion of the multiverse and many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? That there might be sister branches of parallel worlds that we do not tread? But it is perhaps impossible to know them, precisely because we do not tread them. Let me end the physics just there, for I want you ponder more about the poem.

See also:
Emma Tranströmer (Tomas Tranströmer’s daughter) recites The Blue House (in Swedish)

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