The ideal of a liberal arts education involves taking courses over a wide and varied curriculum, especially when that means taking some risks. Kina Viola ’14, a creative writing major, is embodying that ideal by pursuing a research project that combines writing and math, a subject she’s always been interested in despite a proclaimed lack of familiarity.
In her Emerson Foundation project, “Mapping the Labyrinth: A Study of Infinity through Mixed-Genre Creative Writing,” she’ll explore the connections between mathematical theories about infinity and the ways different genres of fiction approach infinity and abstraction. Her project appears to be equally brave and ambitious, attempting to analyze infinity from a variety of angles. Viola remarked, “Just as infinity is unbounded, I’m thinking of this as an unbounded literary project.”
Viola explained that math is far out of her comfort zone, as the last time she studied it was in a high school calculus class. However, during that class she took on a lasting interest in abstract math. She commented, “Once you take the numbers out of math, I think it gets really fascinating.” This summer Viola is studying theoretical concepts that walk the line between math and philosophy, working with advisor Assistant Professor of Philosophy Russell Marcus to shed more light on the ideas.
She began the summer by reading early theories on infinity by philosophers such as Aristotle, Zeno of Elea and Thomas Aquinas. As the summer goes on, she’ll move toward more modern concepts such as Georg Cantor’s set theory. Viola hopes to look at math as a kind of language itself and to benefit from the different viewpoint, stating, “It’s good to do things that are totally different for you . . . I think [math] will help me formulate a new perspective for writing.”
Viola is also exploring ideas of infinity in different forms of writing, hoping to examine “what parallels there are if you take infinity out of its mathematical context and look at in fiction.” She is reading a combination of novels, short stories and poetry, including a selection of romantic poetry from Wordsworth, Blake and Keats. She has found that the romantic poets express theories of infinity as related to the poetic self and the concept of infinite possibilities. Other writers, such as Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, approach the idea of infinity in terms of abstraction and a lack of limits.
In her readings Viola has found a contrast between the uneasiness we can feel about the concept of infinity and the feeling of freedom it can give. She explained, “There’s a balance between the uncomfortable feeling we have when thinking about abstraction and the idea of possibilities and openness when we think about infinity.”
As she reads, Viola is producing her own writing, in which she is exploring the ideas about infinity she encounters. She has found writing poetry to be a flexible way to express abstract concepts from different angles. She might take a mathematical concept, such as the repeating decimal, and use poetry to explore what the theory makes her think of in a more literary sense. She commented that “poetry is a great way to explore these topics. It’s not limited the way that analytical prose is.” Viola is particularly interested in hybrid forms of writing such as prose poems and flash fiction. She hopes to “explore what happens when you don’t limit yourself to one form” and may continue experimentation with hybrid forms in her senior project in creative writing next year.
At the end of her project Viola hopes to produce a chapbook containing a selection of her writing and perhaps to incorporate visual elements into a presentation. For example, she may create Mobius strips, which resemble the symbol for infinity, with poems written on them. By including a variety of genres and mediums, Viola plans to approach infinity from multiple perspectives. Because infinity is such a vast and challenging concept, she believes that having different outlets will make it easier to understand. With a combination of mathematical theories, fiction and poetry, Viola will provide an intriguing and multi-dimensional look at infinity.
Viola is a graduate of White Plains Senior High School in White Plains, N.Y.