The Unapproachable Face: Difference in The Sacred Fount

  • Hazel Hutchison


The Sacred Fount (1901) and Albert Einstein’s special-relativity paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (1905), both begin at a railway station. This is no coincidence. The railway was a potent symbol of the values of the Victorian age. It stood for speed, progress, industrialization, capitalism, and globalization; it subjugated time, distance, and natural resources to human ends. It represented the terrible, civilized, absolute future, roaring down the track toward the observer, as it does in J. M. W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speedthe Great Western Railway. Einstein introduces relativity with a discussion of the phrase “the train arrives here at 7 o’clock,” in which he analyses the reliance of empirical science on linguistic tropes to convey the illusion of absolute value.1 His choice of vehicle is calculated. The railway train was responsible for the standardization of local time in the mid-nineteenth century. Before railways, individual towns and cities formed isolated time zones. Cities with observatories, such as London and Glasgow, set their clocks to the measurement of the noonday sun. Time was increasingly standardized throughout the second half of the century. With the growth of the telegraph system, time signals could be transmitted across longer distances. Greenwich Mean Time became British “legal time” in 1880 and was adopted as the worldwide standard in 1884. The champions of standardized mechanical time proudly presented the new regime with a “universal and objective character in the shadow of which personal and local cultures of time seemed powerless.”2 Ironically, however, it was the drive to synchronize worldwide time that convinced Einstein of the impossibility of Newton’s concept of absolute time and showed the reliance of synchronicity on conventions and arbitrary frames of reference.3 As Marsden and Smith show, the need for a workable railway timetable and a system of reliable clocks to run it lay at the heart of this whole project.


Religious Experience Railway Station Spiritual World Spiritual Significance Railway Train 
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© Hazel Hutchison 2006

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  • Hazel Hutchison

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