I began writing a short story about Alan Turing last year. Despite a lengthy scribbled outline it remains a stunted opening gambit. After reading Jann...moreI began writing a short story about Alan Turing last year. Despite a lengthy scribbled outline it remains a stunted opening gambit. After reading Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines I really feel far less of a need to finish what I started, because she basically captured what I'd kept confined in my head, off the page. I still might finish it one day, but after reading David Leavitt's beautiful Turing biography (The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer) and this incredible historical fiction of Levin's I feel like they've jointly completed what I wanted to see carried out: a sensitive, detailed, intellectually astute and "literary" portrait of this far too underappreciated genius and his tragic decline.
This is the historically-informed story of two 20th century intellectual giants, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. Other real life figures make supporting appearances such as Wittgenstein and Otto Neurath. There are also very brief and well-placed metafictional entries and minute allusions that bring the author into the fold in a narrator-as-character manner, as can be seen in the very (non-)beginning of the book:
"There is no beginning. I've tried to invent one but it was a lie and I don’t want to be a liar. This story will end where it began, in the middle. A triangle or a circle. A closed loop with three points.
At one apex is a paranoid lunatic, at another is a lonesome outcast: Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries; and Alan Turing, the brilliant code breaker and mathematician. Their genius is a testament to our worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness."
The connection between mental illness and artistic and intellectual greatness is a long established cliché by this point and is probably far too often overstated via confirmation bias. There’s a fantastic documentary called Dangerous Knowledge which focuses on four mathematicians and/or scientists who all grappled with hugely complex and difficult issues like the nature of the deepest structures of reality, infinity, human consciousness, free will v. determinism, etc, and all ended up killing themselves. Turing and Gödel are two of the four. There’s an implication that it was their theories and obsessive intellectual aspirations that drove them to commit suicide, which I think is a rather flawed notion considering the facts and other plausible explanations. However, it does make for compelling narrative to peer into the lives of tortured geniuses consumed by their own big brains or whatever, and is an excellent sounding board for thinking about the pursuit of knowledge and its various costs and benefits. In any case, these are fascinating stories, and Turing’s in particular I find the most captivating and tragic.
Alan Turing's influence is felt hugely in the realm of computer science, cryptology, Artificial Intelligence and mathematical logic more generally. He’s often credited as one of the single most important influences on the development of the modern computer—without Turing we may not be having this exchange of information right now. He also played a hugely instrumental role in cracking the German Naval Enigma Code in WWII with his tireless cryptology work and innovations in the field which allowed for a far more rapid decoding of the German transmissions that were quite literally matters of life or death. After the war he was arrested for admitting to having homosexual relationships to the police after he reported being burgled by a casual fling—arrested and prosecuted by the very same government he’d served and protected. Instead of going to prison he was chemically castrated. The regimen of huge doses of estrogen caused him to gain weight and grow breasts, fall into a chemical depression, and ultimately end his life by eating a cyanide-glazed apple, mimicking one of his favorite films, Snow White. Turing was persecuted to death. The British government has the blood of a genius (who saved them from further Axis-led destruction) on their hands. Only as recently as 2009 has the British government issued an official apology for this incident that occurred in 1952 (however the same government has rejected the proposal to posthumously pardon Turing of his "crimes"). It took the Roman Catholic Church 359 years to finally officially apologize for persecuting Galileo for positing that the Earth revolves around the sun, so perhaps this is the sign of a kind of progress, but it still all feels far too little, far too late.
Kurt Gödel was a mathematician and logician (the distinction between the two starts to break down at a certain point) who famously constructed his Incompleteness Theorems, which I still have trouble explaining, because I’m a dummy when it comes to mathematics and formal logic (Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem For Dummies). I am truly ignorant about mathematical matters, but I can appreciate from my perch of acknowledged ignorance the allure of "the sanctity and purity of mathematics, the profound truth so completely immune to human stains." Gödel was also an absolute loon. He held a deep paranoid fear of being poisoned and as such rarely ate anything and only enough to keep his skeletal frame alive, and had elaborate rituals involving his wife’s cooking. He was also a member of the famed Vienna Circle, a group of intellectuals who met weekly to discuss the tenets of their new unifying idealistic philosophy of Logical Positivism. Gödel, along with Wittgenstein, each in their own ways, aided in dismantling this group with their unorthodox ideas. There are great sections in this book where Gödel's proposed notions of “Incompleteness” cause a great uproar amongst those seeking complete unifying theories to knit all of reality together. Gödel lived much longer than Turing, but ultimately died by starving himself to death both out of his paranoid notions of being poisoned and for other sad and errant reasons: there’s a passage in the book where Gödel delusionally claims that his refusal to eat is a proof of his free will, something he desperately wanted to believe in, along with the existence of an afterlife.
Turing and Gödel never met, but they were certainly aware of each other’s work and so the only way they collide in the book is in mentioning one another’s ideas.
Janna Levin is a physicist with a concentration in philosophy (her primary professional focus is cosmology but she had formal focus on philosophy as well, and I think it shows) yet on the stylistic level her writing is fantastic and surely shames huge numbers of authors who’ve workshopped their way through MFAs and maybe even published for years and years, while narrowly focused on literary fiction and nothing else. Janna Levin churns out steadily captivating prose that soars richly and exultantly without succumbing to a plummeted decadence; regularly supplanting ho-hum descriptions with a strikingly vivid lyricism through the conjuring of unusual imago-sensory crossbreeds that dance across the neural pathways with pleasantly assured aplomb.
The book is thoroughly researched as the notes provided at the back of the book further prove. It’s intellectually dexterous in its portrayals of these brilliant and flawed figures. The subjects (and the sort of human beings most tightly latched upon them) that are classically conceived of as cold and cerebral and arrogantly cocksure are sensitively imbued with the squirming life and heat of fallibility, frailty, confusion, and the portrayal of the true scientific spirit, where truth is provisional, and self-doubt and self-interrogation are constant companions.
While this is a book of heady ideas, it’s also a humanizing ode. The sections on Turing especially tugged the heartstrings. He was an odd but deeply sympathetic person. There are gripping descriptions of London being bombed by the German Luftwaffe, of Alan’s loneliness and tragic loss of his one true love as a schoolboy, and multiple gorgeous sections about the interconnectivity of things that just need to be read to be felt.
Both Turing and Gödel chased after the Truth with great fervor accompanied by great doubt. This classic yearning for the Truth of All Truths is maybe something many can easily set aside as not worth wasting time over when there is a more pressing desire for the Pursuit of Happiness on offer. I myself have often done this and will continue to do it. Hitting a wall where I no longer hunger for deep abstract truths about the nature of consciousness or reality or death, etc. But the desire never fully cools either. Also, even if one doesn't care at all about such cliché or high-minded foolishness, everyone knows what it’s like to yearn strongly for something Ideal, be it Romantic Love or the Perfect Career or the Perfect Artistic Creation and so on. As Olga Neurath says to Gödel about her and her husband finally accepting his Incompleteness Theorem:
"Your incompleteness theorem was hard for him to accept. It was hard for all of us, for every mathematician alive. But then Moritz always knew that it did not matter what he believed. What matters is the truth. And somehow you found it hidden where none of us could see. We all came to realize that mathematics is still flawless—no paradoxes, contradictions—just some truths that cannot be proven. Not so bad. We can live with that. He could live with that. [...] I myself worried from the start. Kurt, you worried us. It was hard for us for a time, to be sure. If not even arithmetic is complete, then what could we hope for from our philosophies, from our sciences, from the very things that were to be our salvation? The buoys that we clung—perhaps, I would admit now, with too much desperation—were taken away. [...] And here we are again with our hopes being crushed. I used to believe that when I was older I would come to some kind of conclusion, some calming resolution, and then the restlessness would end. I would know something definitive and questions would fade. But that will never happen. [...] We wanted to construct complete worldviews, complete and consistent theories and philosophies, perfect solutions where everything could find its place. But we cannot. The girls I hear playing in the park when I walk to the institute, our neighbor the old woman who will die soon, our own circle, we all prize a resolution, a gratifying ending, completeness and unity, but we are surrounded by incompleteness.
So I think that reading about the pursuit of Truth can still be moving and redemptive and nourishing for those who do not currently or never have really put much value on it. And then the journey becomes more valuable than the destination, as the ol' cliché reminds us.(less)
Most people, fans of Wallace or not, will want to skip this. Upon e-mail request back in January of this year I was given a digitized version of the p...moreMost people, fans of Wallace or not, will want to skip this. Upon e-mail request back in January of this year I was given a digitized version of the photocopied thesis as typed out on an actual typewriter (!) by the barely twentysomething Dave through the gift-giving mediation of one of the friendly fellows who runs the single best source for DFW-related things on this Interlace system thingy we're all on right this instant. I slogged through this paper over the course of a few days after downloading it, feeling like I was "in" on some secret and underground thing and somberly and beautifully contemplating the life and mind of Tiny Budding Genius Depressive College Boy Wallace while doing the dually sigh-and-sheer-fascination-inducing mental heavy lifting of following the trajectory of the actual content--content which ultimately led to emotionally and intellectually satisfying conclusions.
Now it's being published in book form with supplemental essays by philosophers, including one of DFW's old professors who acted as his advisor on the paper.
It's difficult, highly technical philosophy. Not my exact cup o' philosophical tea, honestly. But Wallace did it and did it while writing another undergrad thesis at the same time which went on to be known as his first novel The Broom of the System. This double-major (English and Philosophy) feat was carried out in the immediate wake of a sort of Mental Breakdown and Subsequent Hospitalization and as such is astounding to me. Oh Dave, I just wanna pinch your cheeks and tell you everything is gonna be alright...
The thesis is also brilliant. Unfortunately and understandably the language of symbolic logic makes most eyes glaze over and their lids droop, including my own, as the response to and representation of the distracted boredom and confusion churning "within." I'm curious to read the commentary that will be published within this professionally bound, non-typewritered version slated for release in a few months.
And for the record, the Big Obvious Sad Thing is still very hard for me to believe and makes me pretty sad when the bare fact becomes a focus. The work remains, however, and in its own incredible way helps to defocus this bare, raw fact-beholding, i.e., makes me feel better.(less)
There once was a time in college when I took a fellow student's copy of this book and literally ripped it to shreds. I believe I'd consumed a pint of...moreThere once was a time in college when I took a fellow student's copy of this book and literally ripped it to shreds. I believe I'd consumed a pint of Bacardi 151 (alcohol content 75.5%) beforehand. In any case, I wasn't sober at the time, although my actions reflected real, albeit, exaggerated feelings about the largely overstated brilliance of his contributions to Western Philosophy.
Hegel's writing is extremely and unnecessarily complicated and a supreme pain in the ass to make sense of. This quality I do not begrudge unto itself--I can dig dense and difficult, and am even more forgiving when it comes to truly important philosophy. However, when one realizes what the "insights" are really about, they should feel like they've been had. The "big ideas" are not worth the effort of toiling with a single paragraph per hour. Not. At. All.
Not only are the ideas banal, but for the most part, they're fucking wrong. Wrong as in logically incoherent and/or morally flawed.
To cut to the chase: Fuck Hegel.
I tore this book apart with my frustrated, angry hands. A pile of pages sat in one of the common rooms of one of the communal houses on the "campus" of my strange little liberal arts school. The house was named after Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Godot was its name. That's where I was when I drunkenly destroyed this Best Of collection of words from an unduly--in my educated and indignant opinion--venerated philosopher.
I'd had it up to here with Hegel's horribly uninteresting and unnecessarily dense and convoluted "writing" if one can even call it such a thing.
Again: Fuck Hegel.
The best part of the whole anecdote is that after I'd destroyed the book and left its stupid guts torn up around the room, I grabbed another book that was sitting on the mantel, which I can only assume was sitting there ironically. Bill Cosby's Fatherhood. It was also ripped to shreds, and its hilariously stupid debris became mingled with the great Hegel's.
One of my few memories from the evening involved the owner of the Hegel Reader in question giving me grief for destroying his book. I probably promised to give him cash in exchange for my violent and humorous desecration. I probably never remembered to make good on this promise, though I would have if prompted.
So the last intact memory I can conjure from this removed distance is taking a broom and sweeping the ripped up pages of Cosby and Hegel into a single pile of intermingled bullshit.
Here Nietzsche returns to the form of the essay after several complete works largely composed aphoristically. The second essay in the polemic On the G...moreHere Nietzsche returns to the form of the essay after several complete works largely composed aphoristically. The second essay in the polemic On the Geneology of Morals is excellent and my personal favorite of the three essays that comprise this work. He discusses the historical tossings and turnings that have led to weird inversions of moral standards throughout the ages. The ways in which many eggs are often broken to make various omelettes and how the omelettes often turn out much differently than intended. Social psychology at its most fearless and polemicized.
Ecce Homo (tr. "Behold the man!" in reference to Pontius Pilate's presentation of Jesus to the blood thirsty crowd) is interesting as well. Nietzsche gives several short "reviews" of each of his own books written up until that time, some are a bit forgettable, some a bit more interesting. For a good example of official self-critique see his essay ("Attempt at Self-Criticism") about his first book The Birth of Tragedy which can be found in the intro to some copies of the same book.
The rest of this Beholding of the Man consists of four short chapters entitled "Why I Am So Wise", "Why I Am So Clever", "Why I Write Such Good Books", and "Why I Am a Destiny". These are probably best read as something written on the brink of insanity and steeped in deliberate irony and sarcasm--but not completely. I'll just admit that I had a hard time taking much of it all that seriously. For several pages Nietzsche goes on about his ideas concerning nutrition. He also equates drinking alcohol with subscribing to Christianity. It's a bit of a laugh riot from some angles but one that includes a series of doubtful and perplexed moments about from where or why the laughter comes.(less)
"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever yo...more"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored--oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants--eternity."
Someday I'm going to go through my Nietzsche reviews and write something substantial. For now I'll insert my favorite quotations every so often.(less)
"Who will sing a song for us, a morning song, so sunny, so light, so fledged that it will not chase away the blues but invite them instead to join in...more"Who will sing a song for us, a morning song, so sunny, so light, so fledged that it will not chase away the blues but invite them instead to join in the singing and dancing?" ("Wer singt uns ein Lied, ein Vormittagslied, so sonnig, so leicht, so flügge, dass es die Grillen nicht verscheucht,—dass es die Grillen vielmehr einlädt, mit zu singen, mit zu tanzen?")
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book Five, section 383 (less)