Black mystic in hyperspace

As a teenager I learned that the mathematics and philosophical exploitation of four-dimensional geometry (hyperspace) became a fad in the late 19th century. Following the development of the mathematics of the fourth dimension, the popularization of the concept manifested itself in literature, most notably in the works of Charles Howard Hinton and Edwin Abbott Abbott (Flatland). It also made its way into spiritualism (more specifically spiritism), expounded notoriously by Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner (who was mocked for this by no less than Friedrich Engels).

The new concept of space also made is way into the realm of visual art. (See also The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern.)  The fourth dimension was also conceived as time, in science fiction, associated with time travel, and ultimately in physics.  But let us now return to the popularization of four-dimensional space (hyperspace).

A gateway to this world for me was the venerable Martin Gardner, whose 1969 book The Unexpected Hanging (his 5th book of mathematical diversions from Scientific American) contained the essay “The Church of the Fourth Dimension” (which can be found here).

I’ve known all about this for decades. With many subjects, no matter how obscure, my orientation leads me to ask ‘Where are the Black people?’.  It did not occur to me to ask that question in this case, but guess what I just learned? Voilà:

Robert T. Browne, The Mystery of Space: A Study of the Hyperspace Movement in the Light of the Evolution of New Psychic Faculties and an Inquiry into the Genesis and Essential Nature of Space. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1919.

I discovered Mr. Browne through . . .

Robert Fikes, Jr., “The Triumph of Robert T. Brown: The Mystery of Space” & “Postscript to ‘The Triumph of Robert T. Brown: The Mystery of Space’”, APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, Vol.6 no.2 (Spring 2007), pp. 10-13.

I became acquainted with Mr. Fikes some time ago via his indispensable research on Black scholars’ work on non-Black subjects and the historical connection of Black Americans and German culture. Here you will find information about Browne you won’t be able to find anywhere else. Browne is completely invisible in the annals of (African) American intellectual history, he might be the most neglected of unsung figures. Certainly the conjunction of four-dimensional mathematics and esoterism shows Browne a unique figure and deserving of documentation. Browne’s book received favorable reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere. His work was unprecedented for a Black writer, and its highly arcane nature guaranteed its obscurity, though Browne was acquainted with Black bibliophile and scholar Arthur Schomburg.

Given the material that needed to be mastered and the uniqueness of this work, Browne should definitely be given a place in (Black American) intellectual history, but I draw back when it comes to Fikes’s concluding proposal to place Browne “in the pantheon of African American intellectual heroes.” This is a crank work after all, and by the way, it received at least one unfavorable review where it counts:

Dowling, L. Wayland. Review: Robert T. Browne, The Mystery of Space; Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 26 (1920), no. 10, 460-462.

 

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