Thursday, May 29, 2008


In 2001, I attended a performance of David Auburn's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Proof in New York. The play follows Catherine, a young Chicago woman, in the days immediately following the death of her father Robert, a renowned mathematician whom she has nursed for years through a mental illness. She is joined by her older sister Claire, who wants to take the nerve-wracked Catherine away and take care of her, and by Robert's former student Hal, who discovers a major mathematical proof among Robert's papers. When Catherine claims the proof as her own, Claire and Hal have to decide how to validate that claim, and whether such validation is even possible. Proof is a smart and well-written play, but what struck me most powerfully about it was that, as I wrote after watching the well-made film version, "[it] acknowledges the fact that for those inclined to it, mathematics (and other sciences) can hold the same beauty and emotional significance as art or religion, and the same promise of salvation." Though Catherine fears that her mathematical ability may presage the same mental collapse that befell her father, as the play draws on it becomes clear that math has actually saved her sanity, by giving her an outlet for self-expression in the midst of a stifling and exhausting routine.

Since then, I've been on the lookout for other works which, like Proof, feature characters whose lives are lived primarily in the mind, and who view the world, and interact with it most fully, through their intellect. It's most common, in fiction, to encounter depictions of these characters which paint them as villainous or at best pitiable--stunted and detached people, incapable of meaningful human relationships and more comfortable interacting with inanimate objects or abstract concepts. Arrogant and immature monsters, who need to be cured of their intelligence in order to live a full and happy life. When I asked some friends for examples to use in this post, Graham Sleight suggested Robert Hichens's 1900 horror novella "How Love Came to Professor Guildea," which perfectly exemplifies this approach. The title character is a brilliant scientist who has no use for emotion, tenderness, or companionship. His closest relationships are a caustic friendship with a soft-hearted priest and a detached ownership of a pet parrot. Though the priest cautions him that his manner of living will leave him vulnerable at any sort of extremity, Professor Guildea ignores him until he becomes the object of supernatural affections, as his home is infested by a spirit trying to force its love on him--an experience with which Professor Guildea is utterly incapable of dealing, leading his friend to conclude that he is being punished for living a loveless life.

There's no denying the danger of living entirely without emotion (though it may pale next to the danger of living entirely without intellect), but what stories like "How Love Came to Professor Guildea" seem to be saying is far deeper. They present a view of human nature in which the fundamental building block of the human psyche is emotion, with intellect being something that is layered on top, almost an artificial appendage. Which is true in extreme cases--a person in fear for their life, or experiencing great pain or pleasure, will react purely on an animal level. But in our day-to-day lives most of use both emotion and intellect to experience the world, process our experiences, and express ourselves. Some of us prioritize one of these tools over the other, and what I've been looking for since that performance of Proof are works that try to imagine what it's like to be an intellectually-oriented person, without assuming that such a person is damaged or less human for that orientation. This is what I've come up with.

An obvious starting point, since we've already mentioned a play about a scientist, would be works that try to imagine the origins of science. Neal Stephenson in the Baroque Cycle books, James Morrow in The Last Witchfinder, Iain Pears in the first segment of An Instance of the Fingerpost, try to bring to life the people who defined the scientific method, and set among them fictional characters who, like Newton and Hooke and Boyle, are shaken to the core by this new way of looking at themselves and at the world, unmade and made anew by this new set of concepts and terms with which to describe their environment. For these characters, a distinction between their intellectual pursuits and their emotional life is just as impossible as a separation between the scientific and political-economic ramifications of their discoveries--the latter being, of course, the point that Stephenson and Morrow (and to a lesser extent Pears) are trying to make with their books.

Moving from the origins of science to modern science, the last time I mentioned Proof on this blog was in comparison with Allegra Goodman's Intuition, a novel about a scandal that erupts in a medical research lab when one researcher accuses another of faking his results. Like Proof, I wrote
Intuition insists on treating research as a form of self-expression that is just as meaningful and just as personal to the people who are drawn to it as painting and literature are to artists and writers, but Goodman does Auburn one better by refusing to romanticize the process of scientific research, as he does with his shut-in mathematical genius of a protagonist. Intuition's plot hinges, in fact, on the primal importance of precision and attention to detail in the experimental process, and on the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when scientists surrender their detachment and skepticism in the face of potentially good results.
The scientific mindset seems ideally suited to the kind of stories I'd like to highlight in this piece, which in turn brings us to science fiction--Niall Harrison, for example, has suggested that Intuition is the mainstream analogue of Gwenyth Jones's Life. Just recently I reviewed two stories by Greg Egan which both center around mathematicians--"Dark Integers," whose protagonists find themselves at the vanguard of a mathematical cold war, and have to struggle with the weight of responsibility for the planet's survival where previously they had expected to find only cold numbers, and "Glory," which is told from the point of view of a mathematician trying to extract an important mathematical proof from a war-torn alien planet. This latter story in particular stresses the importance of the proof not as a means to new technological innovations (which the mathematician's alien hosts assume must be her goal) but as an end in its own right, an expansion of the sum total of understanding and, in its own way, a work of art. For "Glory"'s protagonist, the proof is an object of almost spiritual significance, and towards the end of the story she begins to wonder whether her society might not be dispirited by its retrieval, and by the loss of the great mystery of pursuing it. Ted Chiang touches on a similar theme in "Division by Zero," in which a brilliant mathematician discovers a flaw underlying the foundations of all mathematics, and can't deal with the realization that the discipline she's dedicated her life to is predicated on a lie.

Of course, there are other kinds of science, and since we're talking about Ted Chiang let's not forget his most famous story, "Story of Your Life," whose protagonist, a linguist, is transformed into an alien being by opening her mind to an alien language. Chiang's story is exceptional for many reasons, and among them is the attention it lavishes on the linguist's profession, on her affinity for language and her fascination with it, at the same time as it explores the more prosaic aspects of her life--a burgeoning romance, her relationship with her daughter.

Moving on to the humanities end of the scale, we have Norman Rush's Mating, narrated by an American anthropologist in Botswana in the same dry, detached tone in which she might compose a doctoral thesis. Her subject does, at first, appear to be a worthy topic for one--a women's commune in the Kalahari desert--but the narrator arrives there searching for something more personal, and finds it when she falls in love with the commune's founder, a philosopher and human rights activist. Throughout their relationship, and her deepening involvement with the commune, her voice remains acerbic and distant, her scientific inclinations informing her personal relationships and weighing them with her experience of both anthropology and politics as she constantly second-guesses her actions and choices. The result, rather than being remote, is a funny, warm novel about a woman who overthinks everything, and who is never, ever made to consider that this is a flaw or something she needs to change about herself.

Less clinical, if no less linguistically complex, is A.S. Byatt's Possession, a novel which juxtaposes the lives of 19th century poets with those of 20th century scholars researching them. Much of Possession is concerned with the struggle to strike a balance between passionate appreciation of an artist's work and cool dissection of it. For the main characters, Roland and Maud, the poets Ash and LaMotte are important because, as Maud puts it, their work "survived our education," remaining vibrant and alive under layers of scholarship and analysis. At the same time, Roland and Maud are also consumed with the need to know, to understand Ash and LaMotte's work more fully and to know the secret details of their lives--a desire towards which Byatt is quite ambivalent, arguing at several points that the poets' work ought to stand on its own. Other characters in the novel fall on different points on the spectrum between emotional and intellectual appreciation of the poets. Mortimer Cropper has so thoroughly fetishized Ash that he places a higher premium on a lock of the poet's hair than on the substance of his poems. Roland's colleagues have become immured in scholarship and ancillary material, barely able to recall why they loved Ash to begin with, and Maud's friend Leonora Stern is interested in LaMotte first as an example of a female, lesbian artist and only secondly as a poet. Though Byatt is more critical of some of these approaches than she is of others, she doesn't argue that it's only on the emotional level that the poets' work can be appreciated, that a more cerebral approach to them is inherently flawed. Underlying Possession is Byatt's acceptance and even celebration of her characters' choice to make their life's work the study of another's.

Then there are novels in which the scholarly mindset is independent of any specific topic, whose characters are driven by the love of knowledge, any knowledge, for its own sake. Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is narrated by the teenage Blue, a bright and fearsomely overeducated girl whose narrative is peppered with annotations, learned digressions, and references to scholarly texts (though oddly enough, no footnotes). What's most appealing about Blue is her unwillingness to compromise--though she's surrounded by people who aren't smart or energetic enough to keep up with her, she never dumbs herself down or doubts the appeal of her interests in the face of others' indifference to them. Unfortunately, though Blue is amusing, she is more a performance than a person, and as the novel draws on and the flaws in its plot are revealed, that hollowness becomes a fatal flaw.

For a truly successful variant on the hyper-educated narrator, we need to turn to Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. In its first half, it is narrated by Sybilla, an American single mother living in England after dropping out of Oxford. Furiously intelligent and yet utterly incapable of making the compromises necessary to succeed in academia or the world outside it, Sybilla ekes out a living doing typing while caring for her young son Ludo, a genius whose thirst for knowledge is starting to tax her intellectual resources. In the novel's second half, eleven year old Ludo sets out to find his father, making his way through a list of geniuses, celebrities, adventurers and humanitarians before he find one worthy of the title. Whereas Pessl played the meeting of an uncompromising genius with the mediocrity of the wider world for laughs, DeWitt acknowledges the inherent tragedy of Sybilla and Ludo's situation, the impossible choice they face between staying true to themselves in isolation and living a worthwhile life by playing according to the rules of a society which doesn't value knowledge. DeWitt presents this as a moral choice, and ultimately The Last Samurai is a moral novel, which examines the ways in which people who love knowledge for its own sake can function in a world in which knowledge is a means to an end.

Slightly different, and perhaps a little more functional, than the scholarly mindset as described in these novels is the geeky mindset--the difference, to put it very broadly, being that the geek is obsessed with practical, worldly knowledge, and its applications. The webcomic XKCD has for some time been doing a fantastic line in juxtapositions of geekiness with real life, but the seminal work on the geek mind remains Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Though in its historical strand Cryptonomicon treads similar ground as Stephenson's later Baroque Cycle, setting the fictional mathematical genius Lawrence Waterhouse (whose classification as a halfwit by the US navy after he treats a oversimplified physics question as a complicated fluid dynamics problem would not have been out of place in The Last Samurai) alongside Alan Turing and in Bletchley Park, the novel's present-day strand focuses not on geniuses but on craftsmen--engineers and programmers for whom knowledge is a tool with which to take the world apart, see how it works, and try to make it better. Much of Cryptonomicon is spent cycling through the clichés of geekish behavior--social awkwardness, especially around women (of course all of the geeks in Cryptonomicon are middle class white men), a desire to appear superior as a way of concealing an inferiority complex--but most of its characters are sufficiently self-aware to have come up with strategies for dealing with their shortcomings and making an accommodation with the mundane world. Cryptonomicon is a novel about geeks, but more than that it is a novel about grownups, who refuse to be limited or defined by either their shortcomings or the common perception of them.

Some geeks, of course, are geekish about subjects for which there is very little real-world application, and very few opportunities for fame and fortune. I haven't read it yet, but Juno Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao appears to be a novel about just such a person. The examples on my list, meanwhile, offer characters of this type a sort of wish-fulfillment--rare instances in which people manage to parlay their hobby into a meaningful, widely recognized accomplishment. Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit is a novel about that classically brainy activity, chess. Its protagonist is Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy growing up in an orphanage, and later under the care of an adoptive mother who is, if not exactly neglectful, then certainly not nearly as caring as Beth needs her to be. Chess is all Beth has, and the only thing she's good at--her life outside of tournaments is a mess, characterized by empty relationships and substance abuse. Which, at first glance, seems to make The Queen's Gambit precisely the sort of book I was hoping to avoid, and it is true that Tevis at times seems more concerned with Beth's chess career than with her mental health and happiness. Whatever strides Beth makes towards these two goals, however, she makes through chess--by finding a reason to overcome her addictions when they begin to compromise her skill, and by forming a community with other chess players.

Possibly the most famous intellectual hobbyist is Sherlock Holmes. Though it might be argued that solving murders is, unlike chess, an objectively important activity, as far as Holmes is concerned the two are interchangeable, as he is motivated to solve crimes mostly out of intellectual curiosity. The Holmes stories are exquisite intellectual puzzles, but they also paint the portrait of a man whose intellect is his salvation, as it provides him with his most meaningful relationship, and, like Beth Harmon, an escape from substance abuse. Of the slew of Holmes pastiches that appeared on the scene a few years ago, Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind both build on that quality, imagining a frail, aged Holmes forced to face the decrepitude of his mind and body, and struggling to comprehend atrocities far greater than the murders he once solved.

For some characters, intellect is not an alternative to emotion but a stand-in for it, a meticulously constructed system with which they compensate for an inability to process emotion or emotional cues. The most famous example is Christopher Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though to my mind Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark is far superior. Both tell the story of autistics trying to function in the world by laying out patterns, routines, and rules through which they can navigate the chaotic system that is human society. Both novels reveal their narrators to be limited in their capabilities, not their essence as human beings. (Pat Murphy tells a similar story, albeit on a smaller and simpler scale, in "Inappropriate Behavior"). Somewhat less successful is Peter Watts's Blindsight, which, though a clever and thought-provoking novel, didn't quite manage to convince me that its narrator, Siri Keeton, who underwent a hemispherectomy as a child, is a 'Chinese box'--a machine which processes input and produces output without comprehending either. It seems incredible that a person could be rendered so inhuman, and then actively seek to sham humanity as Siri does, when they no longer possess the mechanism by which they might feel a desire to do so.

Finally, we have Flowers for Algernon, a novel about learning to live with intelligence, and the effect that intelligence has on personality, effectively transforming the dull, childlike Charlie into a brilliant and completely different person, and presenting the loss of that intelligence as a tragedy comparable to death.

Anything else?


Matt said...

I would point to CJ Cheryh's Cyteen, a story of intrigue and politics that takes place almost entirely within what is essentially a large research corporation. Although the characters are motivated by some combination of ego, power, or ethics, their end goals are (supposed to be, at least) scientific in nature. Most of all it is a story about what makes us individuals, but it also deals quite a bit with ethics and intelligence.

incandescens said...

You might consider Dorothy Sayers' _Gaudy Night_: while it deals with other issues as well, it also considers the point that the women who are the centre of the story are choosing academia as a purpose for their life. Not as a substitute for something else, not as "something to do till they get married", but as a full and entire aim.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I'm not familiar with that book. I'll have to keep a lookout for it.


Oooh, interesting. I hadn't thought about Gaudy Night because I think of it as being more concerned with the political side of the question (and in fact I don't remember many instances in which the characters talk about their work or research - generally they spend more time discussing the validity of their choice to conduct it), but you're right that it, like many of the books on my list, considers the life of the mind to be a worthy goal.

Tzvika Barenholz said...

Nabokov's "The Defense", a.k.a "The Luzhin Defense", is a better treatment of a chess genius unable to cope with the world outside chess, although it is not considered by many critics to be some of his best work.

You have a wonderful blog!

ianras said...

Talk of 'Proof' makers me think of 'A Disappearing Number', a British play that won the Olivier for Best New Play this year. It's about Srinivasa Ramanujan's time at Cambridge and the convergence of mathematics and religious thinking. It's interesting but it's a play so if you don't read many plays, it might be something of a headache.

Mae Travels said...

"Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard
"The Mind-Body Problem" by Rebecca Goldstein

Mae Travels said...

Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen"

Anonymous said...

Speed of Dark and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time were interesting counterpoints; my girlfriend and I read both within about six months. I agree that Speed of Dark was much better.

My main problem with Curious Incident was that every review I read of it claimed it was very, very funny. I read it almost without cracking a smile, as did my girlfriend. We both identified with the main character and immersed ourselves in his viewpoint to an extent that we simply nodded as he explained his worldview. It didn't seem funny to us because we weren't detached from it, as far as I can tell. The book only works as a comedy - and I'm not sure it was even intended to work as a comedy, but I haven't read anything by the author on this - if you read it as an outsider.

I think the flaw might be that we're both mostly SF readers, and used to immersing ourselves in created worlds. The world of an autistic is just another world to inhabit, in a certain way.

It also doesn't hurt that the protagonist of Curious Incident was almost the only morally upright person in the book. Both his parents were shits, basically, and the fact that he still loved them at the end of the story further drove home the point that he was a better person than either.

Matthew Claxton

Ted said...

I much preferred Curious Incident to Speed of Dark, and one of the reasons was that I felt the character depictions were more nuanced. The protagonist of Curious Incident engages in antisocial behavior (like hitting a police officer), but remains sympathetic. The protagonist's parents make big mistakes, but I felt they were essentially decent people who were nearly overwhelmed by the challenges of raising an autistic son. By contrast, I felt that there was an overly black-or-white quality to the way characters were portrayed in Speed of Dark.

David Moles said...

I recommend Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and The Invention of Love, if you haven't run across them already. Also Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

Foxessa said...

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova?

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I've heard of the Nabokov (there was a film adaptation a few years back, I think) but haven't read it yet, mainly because I've heard that it isn't his best work and I still have so much top-shelf Nabokov works to get through. From what I've heard, though, it certainly seems to qualify for my list.

Mae and Dave:

I thought about Copenhagen, but though my recollection of it is vague it seems to me to be more concerned with the moral aspect of science rather than the intellectual end. Which, admittedly, is a fine distinction, and there's certainly room on my list for discussions of the responsibility that an intellectually-minded person has to look up from their drawing board and recognize the impact that their work might have on the world.

I'm not so sure I agree with The Invention of Love, though. It's a very smart play, but not necessarily about smart people. I haven't seen Arcadia.


I wasn't amused by Curious Incident either (and now I can't remember whether I'd been led to expect it to be humorous). It seems more tragic than funny - as you say Christopher is the only decent person in his social group, but he lacks to tools to effectively change its other members or get out.


There's no denying that one of Speed of Dark's greatest problems is a tendency to oversimplify its characters - you see this most especially in the case of Lou's antagonist, an hard, unkind man who very nearly scuttles the book. But I think Lou is a more interesting person than Christopher, for all that he is, ultimately, good, because his goodness is so clearly hard-won, the result of great effort and thought (I'm thinking in particular of the chapter in which he converses with the priest, one of the novel's highlights).


Oh, I hated that book. And though it is nominally about a scholar, there very little genuine love of scholarship in evidence in it.

Foxessa said...


I didn't care for the novel much either, though for other reasons, including, though not limited to, the unreasonable length and the ending.

Love, C.

Ilana said...

Possibly A.S. Byatt's "The Game"...Though with the caveat that I thought it reeked. (In a highbrow way, of course.)

tabulyogang said...

Glad i found your blog. The amount of books you've read blows me away! :)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is my first book about autistic people, and it opened my mind to what its really like to be in their shoes.

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