Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is a wonderful depiction of a year-long journey through both her conscious and unconscious mind. Kalman employs a stream of consciousness style as she jumps from thoughts of plastic surgery to a daydream about visiting Japan with some strangers to the impending explosion of the sun to simply seeing some trees, all within a few pages and a stroll around New York City (201-216). This style can be overwhelming at times, specifically when she jumps between allusions that are somewhat obscure. However, these references can also be spot on, such as when she describes her friend Molly Bloom: “(YES)” in an apt nod to James Joyce (19). After all, Ulysses is the paramount example of a narrative written in a stream of consciousness. Kalman uses these allusions to demonstrate the rapid, tenuous pathways that our minds travel down.
Kalman somehow finds a way to notice and reflect upon everything, especially that which is mundane and miniscule. She writes about how Ludwig Wittgenstein built a house for his sister that was carefully designed down to the last detail, noting that “to say he found god in the details would be an understatement” (253). I believe that Kalman’s writing and illustrations demonstrate the same level of commitment to detail, such as when she narrows her experiences in Paris down to glimpses of two specific “superlative” tassels or when her illustration of a person includes a tiny mole on her cheek (138-153, 265).
The title of this book is reminiscent of the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a concept in quantum mechanics, which is (if I understand correctly, as quantum mechanics is obviously not my strong suit) a limitation on the measurement of a particle’s location and momentum. In other words, when looking at an object at its smallest and most basic level, the behavior of the object becomes difficult to discern because the accuracy of one must be sacrificed for the accuracy of the other. Phillip F. Herring actually applied this principle to Ulysses and other works of James Joyce in Joyce’s Uncertainty Principle, and, according to Robert D. Newman, is manifested through themes of “absence” and is used to “unsettle...attempts at interpretation” (141). Absence is a prominent theme throughout The Principles of Uncertainty, both explicitly and implicitly, and Kalman’s carefully disjointed writing style lends itself to interpretation in broad strokes. In Kalman’s case specifically, the uncertainty principle is represented by her attention to small details such as the curtain tassels or her “collection of sponges around the world,” which is juxtaposed with deep, virtually unanswerable questions about life such as “What will happen to us all?” (106-107, 81). Much like her description of February, it becomes impossible to focus on measuring the small and the large, and for Kalman, this means pondering the heady questions and choosing to appreciate the minutiae.