An incredible essay, if you have the time: Not-Knowing.
An incredible essay, if you have the time: Not-Knowing.
The most gorgeous, the most damning and the most succinct essay I’ve ever read on protest novels:
(By James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)
(Baldwin with Nina Simone, 1963)
“The 18th-century Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley believed that unusual compass readings could be explained by the fact that the planet was composed of a hollow shell, two inner concentric shells and an innermost core about the diameters of the planets Venus, Mars and Mercury respectively.
One of the most famous Hollow Earth theorists, and a true predecessor of Thompson, was a veteran of the 1812 Anglo-American war, John Symmes. In his book Banvard’s Folly, Paul Collins recounts the “theory of concentric spheres and polar voids” that preoccupied the soldier.
Symmes published a pamphlet, in which he wrote, “I declare that the Earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees.” He pledged his life to promoting his notion, boldly declaring, “I am ready to explore the hollow.”
He toured the US with a handmade wooden globe that opened out to reveal its secret layers. Converts, in ever increasing numbers, began petitioning the government to finance his adventures. On March 7 1822 Senator Richard Thompson presented a case to Congress that Symmes be supplied with “the equipment of two vessels of 250 to 300 tons for the expedition, and the granting of such other aid as Government may deem requisite”.
During the debate, it was suggested that the Committee for Foreign Relations become involved, as the trip may well bring Symmes and his crew into contact with new races of interior people. But the motion was to fail. Seven further bills were presented to the House. Not one succeeded.
Symmes spent the rest of his life lecturing and lobbying for action. “In May 1829,” writes Collins, “Symmes died, believing right up to the end that the greatest discovery in human history had eluded his grasp.”
(original story here)
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO: Sixteen minutes of a private reading from Cormac McCarthy’s unpublished novel The Passenger surfaced on YouTube last summer. I just got around to watching it today. Having done so I can safely say it is either a really long ad for Italian violins or a hoax perpetrated by Richard Feynman’s estate. Most of the dialogue is monologue, and most of the monologue is math. The man is some kind of cardboard box. The woman is a robot who has learned to love atomic bombs and cry on the bus.
I love McCarthy too much to google him more than once a year. My heart can’t stand it. What if he’s lost his typewriter in that big leather chair from the Oprah interview? What if he’s flying around the world in a snakeskin balloon? What if – what if he’s trapped in a well?
In 2014 they said it would be 2015. In 2015 they said it would be 2016. I know better than to hope anymore. I can only fear. The Passenger now has a rumored release date of December 2017, which means nothing except more crying for Molly. And let’s let not forget McCarthy is 83 years old. Meaning let’s not forget he’ll die before this book is published. He’ll die and win a second Pulitzer. Which he’ll probably deserve, unless the entire book is like the excerpt I heard today, but even then, he could still get another one, and they could let everyone know it’s really for Suttree, not for this last one about graphing calculators.
That is assuming McCarthy is in fact a mortal human being who can die at all. (Some brief hope to be gleaned here?) He may be some other kind, some transformed angel of death. Sent here to name and catalog the sum total of all man’s despair for Lucifer’s personal library. Incapable of dying. Could have left before but now it is too late. Sent here only to write books as punishment but now that punishment is over wants to stay forever. Will never leave us now, unless the sun explodes! Books will keep getting better and better into infinity! The man himself will never die – “he says that he will never die” merely a clue to the man himself! Possibly!
Anyway here’s the transcript.
Bold font indicates comically absurd levels of McCarthyism.
MYSTERIOUS PRETENTIOUS WOMAN (MPW): For all my railings against the Platonists, it’s hard to ignore the transcendent nature of mathematical truths. There is nothing else that all men are compelled to agree upon. And when the last light in the last eye fades to black and takes all speculation with it forever, I think it could even be that these truths will glow for just a moment in the final light. And then the dark and the cold will claim everything.
CORMAC MCCARTHY: Patient is a 20-year old Jewish Caucasian female. Attractive. Possibly anorexic. Arrived at this facility six days ago apparently by bus and without luggage. Admission signed by Doctor Wakener[sp]. Patient had plastic bag full of hundred dollar bills in her purse, something over forty thousand dollars which she attempted to give to the receptionist. Patient is a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago and has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic with a longstanding ideology of visual and auditory hallucinations. Resident of this facility on two prior occasions.
MPW: My father came in and found me there and I thought I was in trouble and I jumped up, but he took me by the hand and led me back to the chair and sat me down and went over the paper with me. His explanations were clear. Simple. But it was more than that. They were filled with metaphor. He drew a couple of Feynman diagrams and I thought they were pretty cool. They mapped the world of the subatomic particles he was attempting to explain. The collisions, the weighted routes. I understood, really understood, that the equations were not a supposition of the form whose life was confined to the symbols on the page which described them, but that they were there before my eyes in actuality. They were in the paper, the ink, in me, the universe. Their invisibility could never speak against them or their being, their age, which was the age of reality itself, which was itself invisible and always had been. He never let go of my hand.
CORMAC MCCARTHY: The actual issue is that someone a hundred thousand years ago sat up in their robes and said “holy shit.” Something like that. He didn’t have a language yet. But what he had just understood is that one thing can be another thing. Not look like it, or act upon it. Be it. Stand for it. Pebbles can be ghosts, sounds can be things. The name for water is water. What seems consequential to us by reason of usage is in fact the founding motion of civilization. Language, art, mathematics, everything. Ultimately, the world itself and all in it.
[recording cuts out and skips ahead]
MAN: Do you think that the world exists?
MAN: You’re not serious.
MPW: Let’s just say that I don’t understand the question. It’s like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. What it fails to address is that the ability of a quantum event to eventuate without any help from us is a very different thing from an observation of the event. What bridges the worlds of the event and the witness? It may take an observer to complete the picture of the event. Not to mention the need for apparatus with timers and steel gridlocked magnets. Not the event, but the engendering of it.
MAN: I’m not sure I get that.
MPW: It just seemed a useful analogy. It’s just that questions about the reality of things tend to be poorly formulated and vague answers are as likely to reflect the quality of the question as that of the answer.
MAN: Why is it called mechanics?
MPW: Because it explains mechanisms, how things work. Quantum mechanics is just the theory of things the size of an atom or smaller. We think. We don’t really know how small small gets. Even H-bar as a scale of variant of the world is a supposition. People think a lot of this will be sorted out once we get a theory of quantum gravity. But they’re looking through the wrong end of the glass. There will never be a theory of quantum gravity until there’s a better theory of the universe. It’s probably true that quantum mechanics has never been asked a quantum mechanical question it couldn’t answer, but if that were true of some domain in mathematics, you’d start sniffing around for tautologies. Heisenberg doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he seems to have been a Nazi sympathizer, and then he went crazy. As if he were a mathematician. He and Paullay were just kids. All they had to go on were some anomalies in the spectra. They used to write letters to each other. And at one point Paullay said that he was constantly amazed at the boldness with which Heisenberg approached these problems. And he could only attribute it to Heisenberg’s almost complete lack of understanding of physics. And of course Paullay was right. And of course he knew a great deal more physics than Heisenberg. But Heisenberg had what Einstein had: an almost faultless intuition as to the nature of physical reality. How things work. Mechanisms.
MAN: You grew up in Los Alamos.
MPW: Yes. We lived there ’til my mother died.
MAN: And then you moved to Tennessee?
MAN: Do you remember Los Alamos?
MPW: Yes, of course.
MAN: How old were you when you left?
MPW: Four, the first time. Then eleven.
MAN: What was it like?
MPW: During the war, I think it was pretty primitive. Supposedly there were eight thousand fire extinguishers and five bathtubs. And endless mud. What I remember mostly is people at our house talking until 3 in the morning.
MAN: You were awake until 3 o’clock in the morning.
MPW: Yes. You could hear the clink of glasses. The house smelled of perfume and cigarette smoke. I would lie there listening until the last guest had left.
MAN: You couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
MPW: What I understood was that I had to learn what they were talking about.
MAN: Where is Trinity? Is that in Nevada?
MPW: New Mexico.
MAN: Was your father there?
MPW: Yes, of course.
MAN: Did he talk about it?
MPW: Not much. I’ve read the standard accounts. My father’s group was about six miles from ground zero. They’d been given glasses that were very dark. I think something like welding goggles. But my father had brought his own because he didn’t think he’d be able to see much with the government-issued glasses. I guess you could read that as a metaphor. But all the glasses had to do was block the ultraviolet light. They listened to the countdown over a loudspeaker. They were a pretty nervous lot. Not that it would go off, but that it wouldn’t. The thing I remember my father saying was that he put his hands over his glasses against the initial flare of light and that when it came he could see the bones in his fingers with his eyes closed. There was no sound. Just this searing white light. And then the reddish purple cloud rising in billows and flowering into the iconic white mushroom. Symbol of the age. The whole thing standing slowly to ten thousand feet. The wind from the shockwave was supersonic and it hurt your ears for just a moment. Lastly, of course, the sound of it. The ungodly detonation followed by the slow rumble. The after clap that rolled away over the burning countryside into a world that had never existed before. This side of the sun. The desert creatures evaporating without a cry, the desert birds incinerating and falling in slow arcs earthward like burning party figures and the scientists watching with this thing standing twinned in the black lenses of their glasses. And my father watching it through his fingers. Like, “see no evil.” But if they knew nothing else they all knew it was too late for that.
MAN: What did they say, the scientists?
MPW: They all stood up and said “holy shit.” Intelligence is numbers. It’s not words. Words are things we made up. Mathematics is the world. The math and logic questions on the IQ tests are a joke.
MAN: How did it get that way? Intelligence is numerical?
MPW: Maybe it always was. Or you could say that we got there by counting. For a million years before the first word was ever said. If you want an IQ of over 150, you’d better be good with numbers.
MAN: I would think it would be difficult for someone to assemble the responses which you did on some of these tests without being familiar with the tests.
MPW: I’d had a certain amount of practice. I had to make A’s in humanities in college without reading the idiotic material assigned.
MAN: You wouldn’t read the material on principle?
MPW: No, I just didn’t have time.
MAN: Why didn’t you have time?
MPW: Because I was doing math 18 hours a day.
MAN: You no longer do math.
MPW: No. Well. Maybe on the problem of problems, which won’t go away.
MAN: Which is?
MPW: The foundational problem. What to do about Prega, the Brutlagen, the unification question. The beginning and the end. What are we doing and how do we know? And insight. Does something know? Is that possible? And if it does, what must we become in order for it to tell us? The Langlands Project. Which is not ever going to tell me what I want to know.
MAN: I see.
MPW: I don’t think so. Mathematics is ultimately a faith-based initiative and faith is an uncertain business.
MAN: I’m not sure I understand the idea of mathematics as, what, a spiritual undertaking?
MPW: I know, I just don’t have something else to call it. I’ve thought for a long time that the basic truths of mathematics must transcend number. It is after all a rather ramshackle affair for all its considerable beauty. The laws of mathematics supposedly derive from the rules of logic. But there is no argument for the rules of logic that does not presuppose them. I suppose one thing that might evoke the analogy with the spiritual is the understanding that the greatest spiritual insights seem to derive from the testimonies of those who stand teetering in the dark.
MAN: And I don’t see how mathematical truths could transcend number.
MPW: I know.
MAN: But you’re never the less a fan of Godel even if he was a Platonist?
MPW: Yes, huge fan. I agree with Oppenheimer’s view.
MAN: Are most of your heroes mathematicians?
MPW: Yes. Or heroines.
MAN: Who else do you admire?
MPW: Cantor, Gauss, Riemann, Euler, Hilbert, Poincare, Eminota[sp], the ancients…Hypatia, Klein, Minkowski, Turing, Von Neumann…that’s not even a partial list. Kaushi, Lee, Ditkin, Brouwer, Pohl, Peano…Church is still alive…Hamilton…Laplace, Lagrange…You look at these names and the work they represent and you realize the annals of latter day literature and philosophy are barren beyond description.
MAN: Beauty in mathematics?
MAN: Is that a part of its description? Is that what makes it true?
MPW: Profound equations are often said to be beautiful. Maxwell, I suppose, most famously.
MAN: Are the equations themselves beautiful?
MPW: Not if you don’t know what they mean.
MAN: Alright. I don’t know that much about Godel. I know he had a theory that math couldn’t solve all the questions it posed or something like that.
MPW: Something like that, yes. Two papers in 1931.
MAN: Is that a theory you agree with?
MPW: Of course. The papers are brilliant. They are beyond argument. I said that mathematical platonism was incoherent, but that’s not quite right. The truth is that there’s nothing to cohere. The theory is simply barren. In his later years Godel jerked away from mathematics and studied philosophy. Then he went crazy.
MAN: How crazy?
MPW: Pretty bad. He wouldn’t eat. Thought the food was poisoned. When he died he weighed about seventy pounds. Oppenheimer was head of IAS at the time and he would go to see him in the hospital. One day the doctor came in and Oppenheimer told him to take good care of Godel because he was the greatest logician since Aristotle. And the doctor nodded and began to edge toward the door, and Oppenheimer realized that he was thinking, “Good god, now there’s two of them.”
MAN: So you took this Amati violin home on the bus?
MPW: Yes. When I got home, I sat down on the bed with it in my lap and opened the case. Nothing smells like a four-hundred year old violin. I plucked the strings and it was surprisingly close. I took it out of the case and sat there and tuned it. Ebony pegs. I wondered where the Italians had gotten ebony wood. And the fretboard of course. I got out the bow. It was German-made. Eighteenth century. Very nice ivory inlays. I tightened it and then I just sat there and started playing Bach’s Chaconne. Such a raw haunting piece. He composed it for his wife Barbara. She died while he was away. But I couldn’t finish it.
MAN: Why not?
MPW: Because I started crying. I started crying and I couldn’t stop.
MAN: Why were you crying? Why are you crying now?
MPW: I’m sorry. For more reasons than I could tell you. I remember blotting the tears off the spruce top of the Amati and laying it aside and going into the bathroom to splash water on my face. But it just started again. I kept thinking of the lines, “what a piece of work is a man.” I couldn’t stop crying. And I remember saying, ‘What are we? What are we?” And sitting there on the bed, holding the Amati, which was so beautiful it hardly seemed real. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and I couldn’t understand how such a thing could even be possible.
MAN: Do you want to stop?
[end of recording]
“Our tank shakes with the impact of enemy shots but we are still alive. We have no more shells and are short of bullets. Pavel is shooting at the enemy with a turret machine gun while I take a breather and chat with you. I know this will be the last time. I would like a long chat, but time is too short. It’s good to die when you know that somewhere there’s a person who will think it was good to have been loved.”
-Red Army Tank Gunner, letter to his wife found on his corpse – July, 1941
(courtesy the great comedian Seth Morris):