See also "The Complete Angler" by Donavan Hall (@theangler)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Without qualities

The title of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities puzzled me when I first saw it. I don’t pretend to have a full sense of what Musil means to be without qualities but in Chapter 34 Ulrich experiences a moment of self-consciousness. “At this moment he wished he were a man without qualities.” Elucidation of this idea comes in the following sentences. “Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession, and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change.”

The cliché of the mid-life crisis might be a subject for joking, but still it is during this stage of life that a man faces his greatest challenge, to survive the weight of being small.

Twenty years ago when I was still in graduate school, I bought a copy of the diary of C.S. Lewis chronicling the years 1922 to 1927. The title given to the diary was “All my road before me”, and even at that time in my life I was aware of my own road and had a real sense that of how I’d only just begun a journey that would take me into uncharted territory. Now it seems that the present volume of my own diary would have to carry the title “Half my road behind me.” I commiserate with Ulrich’s desire to return to that youthful state where he was less defined by his own history and could still shape himself. When we are young, we are without qualities, or those qualities are just forming, taking shape, and giving structure to the person we will become in mid-life.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Anne Carson

The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson will be published by New Directions on Wednesday, 25 June 2014. “The Albertine Workout contains fifty-nine paragraphs, with appendices, summarizing Anne Carson’s research on Albertine, the principal love interest of Marcel in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.” [New Directions] Today, I chanced across Anne Carson’s name wedged in between Enrique Vila-Matas and César Aira. And later, Rasan told me about an interview in the Times with Rachel Kushner and when I read the interview before heading off to bed chanced upend Anne Carson’s name for the second time that day.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The mystery of Majorana

Ettore Majorana was (by all accounts) a brilliant physicist who had a preternatural grasp of the mathematical description of the physical world. Stories of his genius abound and perhaps those stories are given particular weight by the fact that Majorana disappeared (mysteriously) in March 1938 and was never seen or heard from again.

What happened to Ettore Majorana is the subject of a short book by Leonardo Sciascia called The Mystery of Majorana which appears as an sort of appendix to the English edition of The Moro Affair translated by Peter Robb and published in the US by NYRB. Sciascia’s artful account of Majorana’s life and his disappearance is the best sort of book for the reader who delights in speculation and filling in the curious blanks left in our knowledge of historical events.

Sciascia argues that Majorana’s early understanding of the processes of nuclear fission are what drove the physicist to drop out of circulation. He also believes that Majorana likely sought refuge in a Carthusian monastery where he passed his remaining days in quiet contemplation and devotion. This view is woven from a fine thread and perhaps has the same solidity as a network of cobwebs, but even if you think Sciascia’s romantic view is too much for reality, there is still much that we can think about profitably by allowing Majorana to assume the role of a character in a fiction. Would such a character who saw the destruction of the world in the collision of nuclei excuse himself and retreat into invisible obscurity, or would he do his best to warn mankind of the dangers of this knowledge? History has given us a case study of the second type in the life of Leo Szilard. But what do we know of the first type? The wise man who understands the weight of his insight and who like Bartleby refuses and instead prefers not to...

Friday, February 14, 2014

The publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Somehow Ludwig Wittgenstein managed to compose his Tractatus during the calamity of the first World War. He spent the final months of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Italy. From there he wrote notes to Russell and Frege. He hoped that they could read his book and understand it. He’d written a book which (he thought) solved the problems of philosophy. Finding a publisher for the book wasn’t so easy.

Ray Monk wrote about the difficulties that Wittgenstein encountered as he attempted to publish the book. Most who read it thought it an odd book. The numbered propositions which came across as pronouncements from on high produced a strange effect on the reader. Wittgenstein insisted on the numbering scheme which he said was the only element that gave the book structure and sense. Without the order imposed by the numbers, the statements would be an incomprehensible jumble. Even with the numbers, readers of the book struggled to understand it.

On the surface, Tractatus appears to be a philosophical work, a “scientific” exposition of logic, but more than that, it is a literary work. What is clear from Wittgenstein’s own preface is that the book is not to be taken as a textbook. He wrote that the book’s “object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.” The pleasure derived would be of the sort that a solitary person wandering in the desert or the jungle gains when they see another person wandering in the same desert or jungle. The two are kindred spirits. They will hail each other and perhaps pass an evening together talking around an improvised campfire. It doesn’t matter what they talk about or how they describe their world, their thoughts, their discoveries, because both will speak the same language, that of a shared experience (denizens of the wilderness), of an intelligence of a common understanding. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a human attempt to connect with a kindred spirit and as such it is a literary work.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fictional authors, authors of fictions

In a scene in Dublinesque Riba is walking with his friend Ricardo down Calle Mallorca in Barcelona. Ricardo is “the world authority on writers such as Andrew Breen and Derek Hobbs, modest Irish writers...” Ricardo himself is the author of an autobiographical book, The Exception of My Parents. Ricardo and Riba are old friends. Ricardo’s son is named Samuel, after Riba whose given name is Samuel. Ricardo lives close to La Central (a bookstore) which the astute reader will naturally connect with The Center, the fictional essay by Vilém Vok about New York. (Calle My-york-a?)

In this scene, Ricardo asks Riba “if he’s read Larry O’Sullivan’s poems yet. Riba doesn’t even know who this O’Sullivan might be, he’s usually only interested in writers he’s at least heard of; he always has this feeling that any others are made up.”

This is a wink to the reader who continually is encountering the names of writers in Dublinesque that he has never heard of. Andrew Breen and Derek Hobbs, the modest Irish writers for example. And Vilém Vok. I’ve made a list of the writers mentioned in Dublinesque. Can you spot who are the authors of fictions and who are the fictional authors?

Fleur Jaeggy, Jean Echenoz, Philip Larkin, Vilém Vok, Andrew Breen, Derek Hobbs, Larry O’Sullivan, Brendan Behan, Maurice Blanchot, Julien Gracq, Philip Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Gary Romain, Michel Houellebecq, Arto Paasilinna, Hart Craine, John Banville, Augusto Monterroso, Hugo Claus, Philip K Dick, Robert Walser, Stanislav Lem, James Joyce, Marguerite Duras, W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, and George Perec.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oppenheimer's legacy?

In the spring of 1926 Robert Oppenheimer spent ten days on a walking tour of Corsica with John Edsall and Jefferies Wyman.  The trio walked the length of the entire island, from the north to the medieval citadel Bonifacio in the south.  Something happened during those ten days which Oppenheimer never spoke about.  But even though we don't know what happened, he hinted that the events of those days would make a lasting impression on his life.  And, indeed, Oppenheimer's mental outlook appears to have improved remarkably after the Corsica episode.

In Monk's biography of Oppenheimer, he reveals that the young physicist read À la recherche du temps perdu (at least the first volume, Du côté du chez Swann) while on that walking tour.  The idea that reading Swann's Way might have been a cure for Oppenheimer's ailing soul gives me comfort.

As a side note, I'll add that a copy of W.G. Sebald's Campo Santo arrived in my mailbox last week.  The first four essays in the section labeled "Prose" concern Sebald's own walking tour of Corsica.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Uncluttered.  That was the word that seemed best to sum up my sense of being in William Stoner’s world.  John Williams’ novel is uncluttered.  Nothing appears in the pages that is extraneous.  No digressions, no excursions.  Just the bare, hard story of a man, alone and melancholy.  Williams has written the biography of a man from his early days laboring on a farm to his painful death of cancer after a forty year career of teaching English composition and literature at the University of Missouri (misery?).  I suspect that something in all that reading that Stoner did prepared him to face death courageously, even stoically.  He doesn’t rush off to war, preferring to stay put during World War I in the safe environs of the University even as his friend, David Masters, the brilliant mind, meets his death on a battlefield in France.  What is most remarkable about Stoner, the man, is his ability to accept and adapt to the conditions imposed on him.  He never broke.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The disappearance of Majorana

I've just finished reading two books on the curious disappearance of Italian physicist Ettore Majorana.  One by Leonardo Sciascia, and the other by João Magueijo titled A Brilliant Darkness.  I'd recommend both.  Sciascia's treatment, which appears as a kind of appendix in the NYRB edition of The Moro Affair (translated by Peter Robb), is more literary perhaps and more focused on Ettore Majorana the man rather than the details of his scientific interests.  Magueijo's book is lighter and is funny, suspenseful, and informative (lots of neutrino physics).  There's a review by Michael Brooks posted on the New Scientist blog CultureLab if you want the skinny on Magueijo's book.

My interest in Ettore Majorana began a few years ago after reading a paper about Majorana fermions in topological insulators.  That was probably back in 2009, right about the time A Brilliant Darkness was published.  Since then Majorana fermions have been all over the condensed matter literature.  Not a day goes by when I don't see a paper invoking Majorana states or modes.  Naturally, I was curious about who the man behind these curious fermions might be.  Until I found Sciascia's small book, I had to rely on number of incomplete articles about the physicist which are easily conjured up from the web with a simple search.  What I didn't appreciate until reading Magueijo's book was just what an industry Majorana conspiracy theory is.  There are films, documentaries, comic books, novels, and crankish web sites all devoted to solving the mystery of Majorana's unexplained disappearance.  Magueijo remains objectively circumspect about what became of Majorana.

On the off chance that João Magueijo reads this post, I have a question for him: "What did Gilda Senatore say when you asked her why she never opened the box that Majorana gave her the day he disappeared?  Or, perhaps more important, how did she react to the question?  Guilty, puzzled, regretful?"

The real reason that I took the leap and read both Sciascia's and Magueijo's book is that I chanced on a reference to the missing Italian physicist in the novel Docteur Pasavento by Enrique Vila-Matas.  An example of literature feeding back into my scientific life.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The importance of reading

One of my colleagues alerted me to an article by Phil Davis in Scholarly Kitchen about a study of the reading habits of academics.  Evidently there's some concern over whether scholars are reading more or less of the academic literature.  While I was reading Davis' account of the study and its correction, I recalled Roberto Bolaño's dictum that reading is more important than writing.

I'm not the fastest reader.  In fact, I might be the slowest reader I know.  Even my ten year old son reads faster than I do.  Because I read so slowly, I tend to be choosey about what I read.  And if a book doesn't work for me, I'll give it up.  My personal library contains hundreds of half-read books (where "half-read" is defined as any value of pages greater than zero but less than the total).  A lot of these books, I do plan on finishing one day.  Just because I put down a book and don't finish it, doesn't mean the book is bad, just that there was something more pressing to read that bumped it off the stack.

Ten years ago, I started reading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  I was enjoying the book.  (I especially like the bit about the dodos.)  But something happened when I got to page 120.  I got distracted.  (Brain cramp?)  One day though, I'll get back to reading the remaining 640 pages.

So have I read Gravity's Rainbow?  I'd say that I haven't read it.  But I have read 15% of it.  Does that count for anything?

Another thought occurred to me as I read Davis' Scholarly Kitchen piece: what does your typical academic consider to be reading?  In order to read a paper, do you just need to read all the words in the article and examine the figures?  What if there are mathematical formulae?  Is it sufficient to glance at the formulae, or should you try to work from equation 1 to equation N along with the author?  Have you read an article if you've read the abstract, introduction, and conclusions only?  If we take a liberal view and say that an article has been read if one gathers as much as one needs from the text, then I've already read half-a-dozen articles today and will likely "read" a half-dozen more before my "academic work day" ends.  But if I need to have read all the words in these articles, then I've read precisely zero articles.

What is the quanta of reading?