David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2011

Books of the Year 2011

Here is a quick rundown of new books, reissues, and assorted other things that I especially enjoyed this year which also happened to be published this year. They aren’t in any particular order, though fiction is more toward the top and nonfiction toward the bottom. Imre Kertesz’ Fiasco stands out as perhaps the most significant to me of the lot.

I’m using Amazon integration not because of any strong desire to do so, but because I could not find another tool that allowed me to list a collection easily and had access to the covers and data for most of the books on the list. I’m not making any affiliate money whatsoever from this. The links are there for convenience only.

Even still, there are missing books. One is Wendy Walker’s mysterious, uncanny My Man and Other Critical Fictions.

Correr el tupido velo
Pilar Donoso Alfaguara

Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy
The Cowherds Oxford University Press

Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism
Paul Forster Cambridge University Press

Shakespeare Studies Today: Romanticism Lost
E. Pechter Palgrave Macmillan

The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized
Owen Flanagan A Bradford Book

Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion
Jeanne Fahnestock Oxford University Press

Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
Ralph Ellison Modern Library

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956
Samuel Beckett Cambridge University Press

Age of Fracture
Daniel T. Rodgers Belknap Press

Gender City
Lisa Samuels Shearsman Books

Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry
Louis Zukofsky New Directions

The Guinea Pigs
Ludvík Vaculík Open Letter

Ice Trilogy (New York Review Books Classics)
Vladimir Sorokin NYRB Classics

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Barbara Comyns Dorothy, a publishing project

Black Paths
David B. SelfMadeHero

The Armed Garden And Other Stories
David B. Fantagraphics Books

The Lizard's Tale: A Novel
José Donoso Northwestern University Press

Thésée universel
Laszlo Krasznahorkai Vagabonde Editions

AnimalInside (The Cahiers)
László Krasznahorkai New Directions

Adam Mars-Jones Faber & Faber

War Diary (The German List)
Ingeborg Bachmann Seagull Books

Imre Kertész Melville House

Godfrey Harold Hardy: A Mathematician’s Apology

G.H. Hardy is one of the very few mathematicians who’s been immortalized in song, by the Embarrassment no less:

Hardy’s little book, A Mathematician’s Apology (that’s apology in the sense of defense, not regret), written in 1940 near the end of his career, is an eloquent and concise statement of the mathematician’s, theoretician’s, and Platonist’s worldview. It is worth reading especially by anyone who is not a member of those clubs. It is the memoir of a person who has spent so much time discovering theorems of numbers, formulae, and equations that they have come to seem far more real than the discovery of a new species of plant or a new planet, which after all is just one more instance of a form that was already known.

I am not exaggerating on the Platonist front. Hardy states it plainly:

I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we describe grandiloquently as our ‘creations’, are simply our notes of our observations. This view has been held, in one form or another, by many philosophers of high reputation from Plato onwards, and I shall use the language which is natural to a man who holds it. A reader who does not the philosophy can alter the language: it will make very little difference to my conclusions.

This is the key point, never to be forgotten. This mathematical reality is more real to him than the world we appear to inhabit. Hardy witnessed connection to this reality in an even stronger form in his friend Ramanujan, the great mystic mathematician, who had sent him a sample his unpolished but noetically brilliant work. Two other mathematicians had dismissed Ramanujan’s work, but on seeing the unknown Ramanujan’s work, Hardy recognized him for what he was and brought him to Cambridge. I have no doubt that Ramanujan cemented Hardy’s Platonism: Hardy rated Ramanujan as the most talented mathematician he had ever known.

Correspondingly, the prose is a mixture of plainspoken simplicity and blatant elitism, cosmic humility and human arrogance, as though Moses had come down from the mountain without desiring to convince anyone that he was right…or not even being sure that he could. His very opening suggests he has only come down from the mountain because his powers have faded and failed him:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

Yet in the human world, mathematics seems a talent of marginal utility (at least to Hardy), and he defends his mortal life by saying only that he did mathematics because he was good at it.

Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.

As W. J. Turner has said so truly, it is only the ‘highbrows’ (in the unpleasant sense) who do not admire the ‘real swells’.

But in terms of the greater pageant of time, the mathematician has the greatest chance at immortality. He doesn’t compare his field to the empirical sciences (though he looks down on applied mathematics), but I gather that he is more confident of mathematical achievements because their results cannot be overturned by things like as-yet-undiscovered evidence. As for language and literature, they are merely human creations and even more evanescent.

If intellectual curiosity, professional pride, and ambition are the dominant incentives to research, then assuredly no one has a fairer chance of satisfying them than a mathematician. His subject is the most curious of all—there is none in which truth plays such odd pranks. It has the most elaborate and the most fascinating technique, and gives unrivalled openings for the display of sheer professional skill. Finally, as history proves abundantly, mathematical achievement, whatever its intrinsic worth, is the most enduring of all. Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

Indeed, the entire world of the contingent, the observed, the evidentiary, seems instilled with a frailness that makes it ephemeral and far less meaningful. Any connection to the everyday nominal world is something that endangers the solid rock of eternal truths which Descartes described as the sole object of posthumous contemplation. (Our memories do not exist after death, for Descartes, so the only things our souls can contemplate are a priori truths: mathematical and logical ones.)

It is quite common, for example, for an astronomer or a physicist to claim that he has found a ‘mathematical proof’ that the physical universe must behave in a particular way. All such claim, if interpreted literally, are strictly nonsense. It cannot be possible to prove mathematically that there will be an eclipse to-morrow, because eclipses, and other physical phenomena, do not form part of the abstract world of mathematics.

We can describe, sometimes fairly accurately, sometimes very roughly, the relations which hold between some of its constituents, and compare them with the exact relations holding between constituents of some system of pure geometry. We may be able to trace a certain resemblance between the two sets of relations, and then the pure geometry will become interesting to physicists; it will give us, to that extent, a map which ‘fits the facts’ of the physical world. The geometer offers to the physicist a whole set of maps from which to choose. One map, perhaps, will fit the facts better than others, and then the geometry which provides that particular map will be the geometry most important for applied mathematics. I may add that even a pure mathematician may find his appreciation of this geometry quickened, since there is no mathematician so pure that he feels no interest at all in the physical world; but, in so far as he succumbs to this temptations, he will be abandoning his purely mathematical position.

And so applied mathematics is inferior to pure mathematics because it is hamstrung by contingent particulars. Airborne truth is brought down to earth by the accumulated weight of midges and gnats:

One rather curious conclusion emerges, that pure mathematics is one the whole distinctly more useful than applied. A pure mathematician seems to have the advantage on the practical as well as on the aesthetic side. For what is useful above all is technique, and mathematical technique is taught mainly through pure mathematics. I hope that I need not say that I am trying to decry mathematical physics, a splendid subject with tremendous problems where the finest imaginations have run riot.

But is not the position of an ordinary applied mathematician in some ways a little pathetic? If he wants to be useful, he must work in a humdrum way, and he cannot give full play to his fancy even when he wishes to rise to the heights. ‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one; and most of the finest products of an applied mathematician’s fancy must be rejected, as soon as they have been created, for the brutal but sufficient reason that they do not fit the facts.

“Fancy” and “facts” being somewhat self-effacing language, since by this point it is clear that for Hardy, fancy is more enduring than fact. And for anyone who works in these fields long enough, it is hard to imagine how a mathematician could not end up a Platonist after working so dutifully with non-material, abstract entities that constantly produce new, surprising, emergent properties.

This is not a new attitude; the Pythagorean cult is only one of the oldest known manifestations of this tendency. And it exists today in hardly a different form: the “quant” of finance describes being sucked into the world of mathematical reality in a similar though less eloquent way. And the insistence with which string theorists proclaim that their equations are so perfect that they simply must describe the ultimate truth of reality is more or less just a variation on Hardy’s ideas of theoretical elegance and beauty.

C.P. Snow knew Hardy and Hardy thanks Snow in the book, but the book belies Snow’s famous generalization about the two cultures of humanities and science. To hear Hardy tell it, the real divide is not between the humanities and the sciences but between the theoreticians and the engineers, idea and praxis, rationalists and empiricists, philosophers and storytellers, gnostics and skeptics.

It is more a continuum than it is a dichotomy, but each pole is a strong attractor and tends to draw in those who already lean toward it. As someone who by temperament or talents has always tended to fall closer to the engineer’s side, I always hope for the theorists to remember that suffering is as real as any theorem. Hardy refers to the anodyne of escape provided by theory, but not only can it also be a dereliction of human duty, but it is also ultimately an unreliable respite for mere particulars such as ourselves:

There is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, “one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world.” It is a pity that it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.


Robert Musil: from the Diaries

13 August 1910. Before I went to sleep, one or two other things occurred to me about my way of working (in the novellas). What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective [gedanklich] element of art there is a dissipative momentum — here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation.

In art, this process of selection is missing. Its place is taken by the selection of the images, the style, the mood of the whole.

I was annoyed because it is often the case with me that the rhetorical precedes the reflective. I am forced to continue the inventive process after the style of images that are already there and this is often not possible without some amputation of the core of what one would like to say — as, for instance, with The Enchanted House or The Perfection of a Love. I am only able at first to develop the thought-material for a piece of work to a point that is relatively close by, then it dissolves in my hands. Then the moment arrives when the work in hand is receiving the final polish, the style has reached maturity, etc. It is only now that, both gripped and constrained by what is now in a finished state, I am able to “think” on further.

There are two opposing forces that one has to set in balance — the dissipating, formless one from the realm of the idea and the restrictive, somewhat empty and formal one relating to the rhetorical invention.

One only says what one can say within the frame of what is available; since the point of departure is arbitrary there is an element of chance about it. But the point of departure is not absolutely arbitrary, for the first images are after all products of a tendency that, hovering before one’s eyes, sets the direction for the whole work.

Tying this together to achieve the greatest degree of intellectual compression, this final stepping beyond the work in accordance with the needs of the intellectual who abjures everything that is mere words, this intellectual activity comes only after these two stages. Here the effect of the understanding is astringent, but here it is directed toward the unity of form and content that is already present whereas, whenever it is merely a question of thinking out the content, it dissipates. (Even in cases where one already has the basic idea around which everything is to be grouped, as long as the capacity for creating images is missing it will not work; if one restricts oneself in the extensive mode one goes too far in the intensive mode and one becomes amorphous.)

Robert Musil, Diaries, Notebook 5 (tr. Payne)

The Pale, Quiet, Episcopalian Breast: On a Phrase of Jeffrey Eugenides

The title phrase comes from Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book The Marriage Plot. I probably won’t read it. I read a bit of The Virign Suicides and didn’t care for it. My interest in Eugenides now is because this phrase is a perfect example of a style of “literary” writing that holds a lot of sway in contemporary fiction.

The TLS reviewer Edmund Gordon singled it out for praise:

Eugenides tells this story in a voice of careful anonymity and untroubled omniscience, moving between the perspectives of several of his characters and sometimes getting away from all of them together. The opening paragraph takes the form of an impersonal inventory of Madeleine’s bookshelves; later, we are told (though he himself is apparently unaware of the fact) that Mitchell’s letters to his parents are “documents of utter strangeness”, and (while Madeleine is lying hungover in bed one morning “with a pillow over her head”) that the sun is “shining on every brass doorknob, insect wing, and blade of grass” outside. For a work that employs such a majestic narrative standpoint, though, the touch is light, the tone unusually sweet. Here, for example, is Mitchell, remembering the occasion – as they were taking refuge from a toga party in the laundry room of her dorm – on which he caught a lucky, life-haunting glimpse of Madeleine’s half-exposed nipple:

It was amazing how an image like that – of nothing, really, just a few inches of epidermis – could persist in the mind with undiminished clarity. The moment had lasted no more than three seconds. Mitchell hadn’t been entirely sober at the time. And yet now, almost four years later, he could return to the moment at will (and it was surprising how often he wanted to do this), summoning all of its sensory details, the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music next door, the linty smell of the dank basement laundry room. He remembered exactly where he’d been standing and how Madeleine had stooped forward, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, as the sheet slipped and, for a few exhilarating moments, her pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast exposed itself to his sight.

She quickly covered herself, glancing up and smiling, possibly with embarrassment.

The prose here is relaxed – almost indecently so in comparison to Eugenides’s first two books, and sometimes by any standards to the point of laziness (“the rumbling of the dryers, the pounding music”) – but fuelled by just enough hard-working detail to keep it buoyant; take the brilliance of that “pale, quiet, Episcopalian breast”, the last two adjectives of which are so unexpected, yet which fit so intimately to religious, callow Mitchell’s perspective.

The trivial objection would be to say that a breast is almost always quiet and almost never Episcopalian, but I have no problem with synecdoche. And in fact “quiet” is not particularly problematic: it may be superfluous or slightly trite (it doesn’t seem so unexpected), but it does not seem to be a distinctive artistic move.

“Episcopalian” is another matter. Superficially, it makes sense in the context of the scene, as Mitchell is apparently interested in theology and comes from a Greek Orthodox background. Yet what work is “Episcopalian” being asked to do? Here are some of the attributions that we could make from that adjective, in rough order from most plausible to least plausible in the context of the scene:

  • Merely a reminder Madeleine’s religion, a salient characteristic to Mitchell
  • Foreign, alien, not of Mitchell’s religion
  • Religious, theistic
  • Forbidden, taboo
  • Sacred, pure
  • Anglo-American, non-Greek, comfortably at home
  • Uptight or upright, proper stiff
  • Parochial, lacking central authority

These are not all entirely compatible, and some are downright unlikely in context. The word “Episcopalalian” could be taken to mean some of these, but not all of them simultaneously. The word is too overloaded. Now, as William Empson tells us, ambiguity can be a passport to richness, but not at the expense of precision. Which attributions did Edmund Gordon make that caused him to praise the choice of adjective?

(I note that “Episcopalian” is not used anywhere else in the novel. “Anglican” is used twice, but both times literally.)

I have read the surrounding text and know what sort of character Madeleine is, and that knowledge does not resolve the matter. If “Episcopalian” is merely meant to show that Madeleine is Episcopalian in Mitchell’s eyes at that moment, then the synecdoche falls apart, because there is no greater whole for which the naked breast can stand: there is no evident reason why Madeleine’s naked body should be more Episcopal than her clothed body. But if the word is meant to suggest any of the other associations, then the matter is terminally ambiguous. Why use such a word then?

“It sounded good,” may be the most obvious answer, and perhaps it is sufficient. But the use of such a word also poses a challenge to readers, forcing them to stop and assess the significance of the word, then derive the intended meaning of it. Normally, the implied meaning is fairly obvious, but Eugenides picked a word that relied on specific cultural knowledge while also being detached from any particular adjectives he might have been intending to imply, making it paradoxically more parochial and more unclear. Yet the reviewer gives praise to the use of the term, taking it as a given that even out of context, the brilliance of the term’s use shines through.

What I want to suggest is that it is exactly this additional indirection, the use of concepts once-removed from the concrete adjectival properties, is taken to be good writing. I am not sure that it is. The ambiguity we should be seeking in writing is that which opens up fissures in the relations of the characters and the progressions of their thoughts. This, however, opens up a fissure between what the writer is trying to say (whatever that may be) and what is actually being communicated.

A challenge is given to a reader by using a word like “Episcopalian,” but the solution is purely formal: figure out what more direct, concrete adjective the word could be substituting for. There is the satisfaction of having done work in reading and trying to understand the sentence, but nothing is learned. Rather, something is taken away; a word was invoked with only part of its meaning having any significance to the matter at hand. Most likely, the superficial sense is all that was intended.

Such an approach to language robs words of their power by invoking them with only a partial, vague sense of their full significance. The result is a narrowing of meaning and a celebration of cleverness over insight. Yet the additional work required may make the work seem more “literary,” all the more so if no definite answer is forthcoming.

It is not a matter of style per se. Both ornamented and unornamented prose can be free of such hollow prestidigitation. Craig Raine highlighted this passage from Adam Mars-Jones’ Cedilla that does not lose clarity in its baroque language:

A Mars bar does indeed have veins, chocolate tubes breaking the surface of the bar, as if caramel was circulating through them, supplying the nougat core with vital nutrients and access to unthinkable sensations. The whole ridiculously penile confection was alive. It was a soft hard-on. It was Cadbury’s Flake that had the fast reputation, and its adverts always portrayed Flake-eaters as oral nymphomaniacs, but the Mars bar was every bit as concupiscent.

On the other hand, the sparse, precise prose of Agnes Owens does not lose evocative power by being direct, as with this bit from Like Birds in the Wilderness:

She said that she was cold and wanted to get home because she didn’t feel well. We walked back through the park in silence. When we reached the gate where she caught the bus I asked her if she would see me the next afternoon at the same place. She sighed and said all right in a sullen manner. She allowed me to kiss her, but her lips were cold.

Both of them are writers who learned through the experience of their imagination, and not, as Robert Musil says, “with the aid of borrowed terms.”

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