Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Disinclination for Mathematics

I have always had my doubts about writers who boasted, or seemed to boast, of their incompetence in mathematics. Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Robertson Davies come to mind. A passage in the first section of James's Notes of a Son and Brother runs for example
 I so feared and abhorred mathematics that the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank--the dire discipline of the years bringing no relief whatever to my state...
Ford I recall as putting it more whimsically, Davies more plainly. But the message is the same. I was therefore struck by a passage noticed the other day in The World as Will and Representation, Third Book, Section 36:
The disinclination of men of genius to direct their attention to the content of the principle of sufficient reason will show itself first in regard to the ground of being, as a disinclination for mathematics. The consideration of mathematics proceeds on the most universal forms of the phenomenon, space and time, which are themselves only modes or aspects of the principle of sufficient reason: and it is therefore the very opposite of that consideration which seeks only the content of the phenomenon, namely the Idea expressing itself in the phenomenon apart from all relations. Moreover, the logical procedure of mathematics will be repugnant to genius, for it obscures real insight and does not satisfy it; it presents a mere concatenation  of conclusion according to the principle of the ground of knowing. Of all the mental powers, it makes the greatest claim on memory, so that one may have before oneself all the earlier propositions to which reference is made. experience has also confirmed that men of great artistic genius have no aptitude for mathematics; no man was ever very distinguished in both at the same time. Alfieri relates that he was never able to understand even the fourth proposition of Euclid.
Well, perhaps. On the other hand, in the first book, section 15, Schopenhauer writes that
In our view, however, this method of Euclid in mathematics can appear only as a very brilliant piece of perversity.... We see that such a method is like that of a wanderer who, mistaking at night a bright firm road for water, refrains from walking on it and goes over the rough ground beside it, content to keep from point to point along the edge of the supposed water.
Would Alfieri have made more progress with a better text?

There are writers I prefer to Ford and Davies, if not necessarily to James, who were competent in mathematics. Stendhal was briefly fond of mathematics in his youth. Novalis wrote some pages in praise of mathematics that might or might not reflect considerable knowledge. I suspect that Tolstoy, as artillerist, and Chekhov, as physician, must have picked up at least the rudiments, and likewise Eliot and Stevens as businessmen. Still, perhaps I should not roll my eyes the next time I encounter the anti-mathematical writer.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Reading Aloud

One night last week, I read the first three chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet aloud. My wife's book club is to discuss this in a couple of weeks, and her eyes were bothering her. I noticed a number of things, some owing to reading aloud, some owing to this being a second reading.

First, about myself. I was unable to read the first chapter, a difficult childbirth, unmoved. One of the women in my wife's book club was not sure about going on with the book after the first chapter. I did not understand this when I heard of it; I do now. I wonder whether I would have read it the same way at 20 or 30, before I had been in a delivery room (save as the one delivered). I wonder what I made of it when our (shared) book club read it some years ago.

Second, about a detail. In the second chapter, an troublesome character on board the American ship Shenandoah is restrained by marines. But if this ship is an American ship of war, what is it doing carrying wares for the Dutch Overseas Company? And if it is not a ship of war, how does it come to have marines? Discipline, and often harsh discipline, was enforced in the American merchant marine from early days; but not by marines in the military sense.

Third, about another detail that I had noticed in rereading later chapters: David Mitchell does not seem to distinguish between cross and crucifix. As far as I know, the Anglicans of 1800 did not go in for crucifixes, nor did the Calvinists of that day. But in this novel they do. The Georgian captain of the Shenandoah seems to have plenty of crucifixes and rosaries for the Japanese customs service to secure and impound. Yet though Catholics were never unknown in the US merchant marine and Navy, were they that prevalent?

My wife has since purchased the audiobook. She says, and I believe, that the reader does better than I did. He uses different voices for the different characters; I might have tried that, had I been able to settle on what they should sound like. If I listen to the audiobook at all, though, it will be to see how the reader renders Dutch names--what does Vorstenbosch sound like, or Oost, or Gronigen?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pelikan, Newman, the University

During the academic year 1990-1991, Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, invited the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan
to deliver a set of public lectures together with a seminar durng the academic year 1990-91 on "The Future of the University," as the first in a series of events in preparation for the observation of Yale's tricentennial.
Those lectures, extensively revised, became The Idea of the University--a Reexamination, a volume that I recently purchased and read.

Pelikan professed himself, as the title of the first chapter reads, "In Dialogue with John Henry Newman". Elsewhere (for example in  The Vindication of Tradition and in The Melody of Theology) he has written of Newman's influence on him as historian of doctrine and as theologian. In this book he took Newman's Idea of a University as presenting ideas to agree with and argue against. The chapter titles all incorporate quotations from Newman.

Where Newman assumed and expounded the English (and Anglo-American) collegiate system, Pelikan's heritage was that of the German university as it developed during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is to say that he places much greater weight on the work of research, publishing, and the direction of graduate studies relative to the instruction of undergraduates. He makes a compelling case for the importance of research and publishing, so that among other considerations the matter of instruction shall not become static and dead. He considers the role of the university press and the libraries in disseminating knowledge.

Pelikan of course argues well. He exemplified the scholar as writer during his career. Yet I would argue that it  is never the case that all or even a majority of the works that come out of the universities are important. I think of Jacques Barzun's objection to the
further absurd assumption that when a man writes a scholarly book that reaches a dozen specialists he adds immeasurably to the world's knowledge; whereas if he imparts his thought and reading to one hundred and fifty students every year he is wasting his time and leaving the world in darkness.
Pelikan does acknowledge the objection to many such works:
 Yet is distressing to see how many scholarly books are still being written more with the reviewer than with the reader in mind.... Therefore scholars must learn "contemplata aliis tradere" beyond the charmed circle of other professors. if scholars are to carry out this publishing responsibility, they have the obligation to give a lot more attention than they now do to the question of how we are to publish lest we perish.
(Contemplata aliis tradere: to communicate to others the fruits of one's contemplations, the motto of the Dominican Order, as Pelikan helpfully explains on the previous page.)

There is also the question of the suitability of German model to American conditions. John Jay Chapman wrote long ago in his essay on President Eliot, referring to the elective system he had introduced to Harvard College:
Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
 Do the boys (and girls) now come up to college with better preparation than in Chapman's day? I suspect in the sciences and in mathematics they do; in modern if not classical languages they may also. Pelikan does consider the question of secondary schools, and the university's duty to shape their instruction and materials, and to prepare their teachers. This is something that I have not often seen mentioned in my (spotty) reading of works on universities. Jacques Barzun does mention it in passing in Teacher in America, and Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman has a curious few pages on textbooks for elementary instruction.

And? The book requires a second reading, which I have hardly begun. The bibliography runs to almost seventeen pages: it includes about a dozen works I have read through, half a dozen I have looked into, many more that I should read, and a couple that I will.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Management

At a retirement party the other day, I spoke to someone who had been my boss's boss. He thanked me for pointing him some years ago to a passage by Tom DeMarco in Peopleware:
In my early years as a developer, I was privileged to work on a project managed by Sharon Weinberg, now president of the Codd and Date Consulting Group. She was a walking example of much of what I now think of as enlightened management. One snowy day, I dragged myself out of a sickbed to pull together our shaky system for a user demo. Sharon came in and found me propped up at the console. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a container of soup. After she'd poured it into me and buoyed up my spirits, I asked her how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do. She gave me her patented grin and said, "Tom, this is management."
He had stopped by our department on some minor errand, and this brought the story to mind.

Our conversation the other day brought another bit of reading to mind, this from Herbert Simon's memoir Models of My Life. The passage is from Chapter 9, "Building a Business School: The Graduate School of Industrial Administration" (at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later merged with the Mellon Institute to become Carnegie Mellon University). It concerns the first dean of that school, Lee Bach:
When I try to describe his style, it always seems too simple, too obvious. It's like saying of a tennis ace, "He always hit the ball squarely and with force, placing it precisely where he aimed." If you you can do that, you can be a great tennis player. But is the advice worth teaching? What do you do with that information?...

I warned you that I would say little about Lee that would tell you how to be a good manager, and I have made good my warning. The principles of good management are simple, even trivial. They are not widely practiced for the same reason that Christianity is not widely practiced. it is not enough to know what the principles are; you must acquire deeply ingrained habits of carrying them out, in the face of all sorts of strong urges to stray onto more comfortable and pleasant paths, to respond to provocations, and just to goof off. Lee had the self-discipline actually to apply the principles, to behave like a good manager and a leader. Not many of us do.
I am grateful to have worked for a few persons who had that self-discipline.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Price

Recently, I happened to look into a copy of Osip Mandelstam's Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S Merwin. Within the book, I found a receipt, which gave the price as $6.25. That seemed improbable, until I looked at the date: October 1987, purchased at Olsson's Records and Books in Georgetown.The date brought something else to mind: I must have bought the book after seeing the poem beginning "Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails" quoted in Vassily Aksyonov's novel The Burn, which I had read some months before. The poem appears in this volume on page 8, as poem 78 from Stone.

This time I looked up the book because I had been reading Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. That volume I found on the outside carts at Second Story Books. I imagined that I would read it over the next couple of weeks: it occupied most of my spare time for the next four days. It gives an appalling picture of the Mandelstams' suffering--and of the bad behavior of many associates--during the period of his persecution for the "Stalin epigram"; it also leaves me wondering about their days in the Crimea and Georgia.

My copy of Selected Poems was published by Athenaeum. I find that NYRB keeps the collection in print, at a list price of $15.95.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Padding

The project of clearance reading, begun in May, wrapped up today with the end of In the Kingdom of Speech. It comprised two novels and four other books. My commute is now available for other reading.

In the middle of In the Kingdom of Speech, it struck me how padded the book is. Apart from the notes it has 169 pages, yet without Tom Wolfe's quirks of repetition, ellipsis, onomatopoiea, and snide social observations it would fit comfortably in about a third as many. Two of the other works of non-fiction were padded with pages of what might have or must have happened. Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance was the exception: it was the longest of the four and had little if any spare flesh.

Did Tom Wolfe's way of writing derive from his career of writing for magazines? The publishers have advertisements they must fit in around a decent amount of text. The readers have time to kill, in a dentist's waiting room, in an airport gate or on a flight, and they may welcome padding that amuses. In a book, I'd prefer something more concise.