The Mathematics of Madness

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic.

“Poetry and mathematics,” Kéres muses, identifying his twin passions while recalling the onset of his insanity:

The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning.

Kéres suffers from this event, of course, and begins to succumb to inexplicable lapses of time. While delivering a lecture on mathematics one day, he loses his train of thought and pauses for what he believes is only an instant. Later, though, he learns that his audience watched him staring into space for fifteen minutes before he returned to the task at hand — and worse than that, several students have complained to his superiors that such events are becoming fixtures of his classes. Rather than simply detailing Kéres’ lapses of time, however, With My Dog-Eyes as a whole is structured in a way that mimics their effects. Time and again events underway are cut off and interrupted by recollections of other, unrelated events, and these interruptions are in turn interrupted by yet other events, and even these interruptions of interruptions are themselves interrupted, until the narratorial focus snaps back to one or another of the previous recollections and the events therein resume or conclude as if they weren’t interrupted at all.

Mathematical Formulae

Disjointed, perhaps, but in another sense perhaps not. Although Kéres’ experience of madness no doubt disjoints his perception of reality, his recollection and articulation of that experience rejoints his reality along apparently mathematical lines. Every interruption of an event suggests some sort of association between that which is interrupted and that which interrupts. Moreover, every conclusion to an interrupted event delineates a boundary that encases all of the event’s associated interruptions no matter how disparate they may otherwise be. As a result, although the events detailed by Kéres appear to lack coherent narrative organization because they are presented achronologically and without any evident causal connections, a closer look at their structure reveals an attempt at mathematical organization instead. Sequences of interruptions constitute something akin to mathematical sets when bound together within broader events that receive a conclusion. Other events, outside of these sets, perform the role of functions when by modifying either an entire set or one of the events within it, and still other events that interlace the sets work to establish or modify the relations between several of them.

Beyond serving as a mathematician’s account of his own descent into madness, then, With My Dog-Eyes also stands as Kéres’ attempt to reclaim his sanity by conforming his experiences to a non-narrative logic that may still enable him to make sense of them. This logic affords him a structural foundation on which to articulate his experiences and better equips him to literally commensurate the bursts of “incommensurable meaning” that afflict him. Of course, every narrative that surveys a life and takes stock of its significance is, in a sense, a narrative pegged to a mathematical formula, at least to the extent that it fixes some sort of value to the life in question by illustrating “what it all adds up to.” But while most works of that sort cleave to fairly linear formulae that are compatible with conventional narrative logic, With My Dog-Eyes employs a formula more appropriate to its narrator and his mathematical mind. The result is not the pure and simple chaos of a man’s reality falling apart: “a mind unravelling,” “a descent into madness,” “utter insanity pervading each and every page.” It is an experience of chaos relentlessly subjected to a system of order whose principles are not easily accommodated by the medium in which the experience is given expression.

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.”

I agree with that, and I also broadly agree with O’Connell’s assessment of Works. “Works is one of the most nakedly formalistic pieces of writing I’ve ever come across,” he writes:

The book as a whole is usefully encapsulated in its opening sentence, which is the first of 533 descriptions of ideas for artistic projects: “1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.” This is precisely what the book is, except for the obvious distinction that this particular oddball project has been brought into being, as evidenced by the fact that you are now reading it, or are at any rate about to try to read it. For the most part, it’s a catalogue of unrealized creativity, which in the very extensiveness of its cataloging becomes a monstrous paradox of realized creativity. … For a work of such rigorous formal experimentalism, Works can be surprisingly funny. I found myself laughing out loud, here and there, at Levé’s poker-faced batshittery. … It is, let me reiterate, a book consisting solely of descriptions of imaginary works of conceptual art. As with all of Levé’s work, his insistence on continuing doing the one specific thing he’s doing is an ongoing source of weird perplexity for the reader, a weird perplexity that is a key aspect of the experience of reading him.

What I find most captivating about Works, however, are those moments when Levé ruptures his own relentless accumulation of descriptions of conceptual works in alternative artforms and instead casts his readers directly into the abyss of literature. Every so often, Levé punctuates his catalogue of descriptions with a description of an artwork that possesses certain qualities which could not possibly be perceptible to anyone who might actually behold it, so that the work in question is ultimately and irreducibly literary in nature as the qualities by which it is defined and constituted are inextricably bound to the page. Consider, for example, artwork number eighty-six, which is described in its entirety as follows: “A painting is painted with the artist whispering, ‘Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye…'” The painting is the artwork, but the quality that defines and constitutes it as this painting and no other is a quality that cannot ever be observed by anyone other than Levé’s narratorial consciousness. The same is true of later artworks, such as number one hundred and twenty-four:

A pamphlet displays twenty-four photographs taken by an artist on a walk through the city, starting from his home. He chooses a metro stop at random. He takes the first exit. Once outside, he takes the second street on the left, the third on the right, again the second on the left, again the third on the right, and so on. If there are fewer than two or three streets, he takes the first possible turn. Every five minutes, he takes a photograph of what’s right in front of him. The walk lasts for two hours.

Since so much of the artistry of this artwork — so much of the artist’s exploitation of the particularities of his or her chosen artform — is invested in Levé’s description of the process of composition, and since so little of it is invested in the outcome of that process, the real value of the artwork resides not in the work itself but in Levé’s literary rendition of its coming into being. It is true that most of the artworks described in Works are not artworks of this sort. Most of them are works that could conceivably be brought forth in a way that does not compromise their artistic integrity. But every so often throughout Works, Levé describes something that is either imbued with aesthetic particularities or else productive of affective states that can exist only in a descriptive form, that are almost entirely constructions of language alone, and that therefore cannot escape or transcend the written word —

138. A wild animal is painted on a red background, in the middle of a round tableau, the radius of which is proportional to the distance at which the animal will choose to fight or take flight when approached by something dangerous.

264. An artist sells his works at the average price paid over the last year for works in the same medium by living artists of the same nationality.

297. A golden drill engraves a sausage.

312. The track of a giant slug — a fat and transparent viscous line — runs through an exhibition, thickening at those works before which the creature tarries.

341. Advertising photographs are reconstructed using expressionless models. The absence of slogans makes the message incomprehensible.

348. A political lobbying group aims to have zoo animals paid a monthly salary.

438. A surgeon creates invisible tattoos on the walls of internal organs.

— and it is with these sorts of descriptions that Levé invests the value of Works itself in its own literariness, in its exploitation of the aesthetic particularities of the artform of literature above any and all alternative forms.

The Wick Within the Flame

After recently re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Richard Crary found his appreciation of the novel undimmed a decade on from its first publication. “It is, in many ways, what used to be called ‘wisdom literature,’” he writes, “yet it is also a marvelous, and subtle, literary performance. And, it seems to me, a wholly appropriate literary response to our current situation, in the sense in which I have here attempted to channel or expand on Josipovici and others.”

I agree with both judgments and especially the last. Perhaps due to the vividness of its pastoral setting or the sophisticated and convincing ventriloquism through which Robinson breathes life into her narrator, the Reverand John Ames, Gilead tends to be read as a work of regional realism, a skilful observation of life in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. But there’s a conceit to both the narrative and the act of narration that imbues every word with extra complexity. “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett,” Josipovici writes in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, “is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.” In Gilead, Ames is similarly impelled to write and similarly suffers a sense that he is being false to himself, although his suffering comes with a twist on that of the writers named above.

Gilead takes the form of a long letter that the ageing Ames writes to his young son, to be read by the boy when Ames is dead. Knowing that he will be an absent father for much of his son’s life, Ames begins writing with the intention of articulating his son’s “begats” in much the way that such things appear in the Bible: “Adam begat Seth; and Seth, Enos,” and so on. He begins writing, then, because he is impelled in some sense to transcend death, to speak to his son from beyond the grave, but when he sits down and to put words on the page, he finds that he is impelled to write about very different matters. “Sometimes I almost forget my purpose in writing this,” he admits in a preface to one such interruption to his intentions, and Gilead is replete with remarks on events that Ames describes almost in real time insofar as they take place concurrent to his act of writing: see, for example, pages 10, 20, 42, 72, 62, and 118-119 of the 2005 Picador paperback. Gilead also contains a great deal of writing about the nature of religious belief and of belief in the power of words — which almost amount to one and the same thing for Ames, since, as he says, “[f]or me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers” — as well as Ames’ meditations on the difficulties of finding a way of writing that allows him to be true to himself. “You must not judge what I know by what I find words for,” he warns his son at one point, and later: “I am attempting to describe what I have never before attempted to put into words. I have made myself a little weary in the struggle.” If Gilead is indeed to be read as “wisdom literature,” passages of this sort are surely the locus of much of the wisdom it has to offer.

But quite unlike Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Beckett, and others whose struggles find an echo in those of the Reverend Ames, Ames’ act of writing in Gilead occurs in the shadow of a much larger and longer-term act of writing that has already taken place. His struggles, then, are the struggles of a man who strives as much to write something free of artifice as to find a way of writing that differs from the way in which he wrote the things he has already written. By the time he begins his letter to his son, Ames has been a small-town preacher for the better part of fifty years and, as he reveals early on,

I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. … Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. … I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many… If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life.

Had Ames wished to make it so, Gilead could have amounted to a record of his encounter with, and editing of, the past he has already committed to paper — a dialogue with his younger self, conducted by way of returning to those sermons to summarise, amend, or respond to them. But Gilead is no more that sort of record than it is the genealogical record that Ames originally intended it to produce. It is its own, new thing: implicitly a record of Ames’ failure to write of biographical affairs, implicitly a record of his refusal to write or rewrite his innermost life, and more or less explicitly an intermittent record of whatever it is that wrestles its way into his mind when he sits down to write and struggles with the task he has set himself.

Gilead is therefore, in a sense, a projection onto the page of a consciousness as it tarries, dwells, wallows in three distinct moments simultaneously: first the moment in which past events worthy of discussion are recalled by Ames; then the moment in which a new idea or sudden insight intrudes upon his recollection of events; and finally the moment in which he attempts to channel the intrusion into words, elucidating it and elaborating upon it until, intertwined with traces of the first two moments, it acquires the character of a sensual experience and becomes an abstraction clothed in material textures. Although he sets out to “impos[e] a shape on [the world] and giv[e] it a meaning which it doesn’t have,” Ames recurrently allows the world to impose upon his writing in ways that sometimes illuminate but more often challenge the meaning he finds in it. The result, at once retrospective and introspective, is a novel in which Ames’ distractions from and difficulties with the work he is attempting to write do not obstruct his expression of his “true nature” but rather allow recurrent glimpses of his “true nature” as he conceives of it. “When people come to speak to me,” he writes,

whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful.

If Ames himself is the “I” in Gilead, his distractions from and difficulties with writing are intermittently the objects of his attention, and those objects are woven into the letter he writes to his son in ways that invite him to detail the intricacies of any number of predicates. Insofar as those are the predicates through which, according to Ames’ own metaphor, one can truly glimpse the wick of the consciousness they burn upon, Gilead enacts the afflictions of Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, and their ilk — albeit in service of a narrative conceit that enables them to work to produce effects quite distinct from the despair of those writers.

Silence, True and Pure

Me and Ivy

Silence has shrouded this space for much of the last few months because, in my life offline, most of my recent thoughts have been bent around a different kind of silence, a silence true and pure. In April 2014, my wife and I became parents to a healthy and happy little girl named Ivy. Not quite six months later, however, Ivy underwent behavioural tests that showed some signs of hearing loss, and then, when she was exactly six months, specialised tests revealed that she is in fact profoundly deaf. She can’t hear sounds of any kind, not even at the volume of a close-range aircraft engine, and she suffers hearing loss so extreme that she may never be able to hear at all.

In coping with the failure of hearing aids, in anticipating the insertion of a cochlear implant, in working full-time and parenting while also learning how to respond to deafness in children and how to adjust our lives to meet the needs of a child with a severe disability, the stresses of the period following Ivy’s diagnosis have been monumental. But some of the most monumental stresses of all have come less from practical difficulties than from daily wrestling with a sense of long-term loss and the grief that attends it. To know that our daughter has no access to sound is to know that we may never be able to share with her so much of what we most appreciate in the world. For my wife, the greatest loss to Ivy is music in all its varieties. Coming from a family for whom music is the lingua franca of shared experience, it has been terrible for her to begin processing the knowledge that Ivy will in some sense be forever cut off, kept at a distance, from that part of her heritage.1 For me, of course, what seems to be lost is Ivy’s access to what I believe is the greatest of the pleasures of literature.

I was teaching The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass when the results of Ivy’s tests came through and, at the same time, I was preparing to teach Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, and dozens of other writers who invest extraordinary energy in distinct, challenging, and versatile prose styles. I could not escape the obvious truth. So much of what literature means to me depends on being attuned to its prosody. So much of what makes it valuable for me resides in the harmonies and dissonances that develop and dissolve as the eye passes over a sentence, the succession of concordant and discordant intonations offered up by the author’s careful selection of words and by the equally careful positioning of those words in relation to one another. The value of prosody sings to me from the shelves full of books in my house and from every page of my own book, Blood and Bone, which was published when Ivy was just eight weeks old.

Language is the distillation of the constituent elements and concepts of the world, in all their overwhelming variety, into a system of symbols. For most people, at first, those symbols take the form of sound. Literature, then, is not a system of symbols constructed to represent the world, but a system of symbols constructed to represent other symbols, a lexical representation of the auditory symbols that are our primary means of referring to the world and of thereby representing it. Even though reading remains a “visual business,” as William H. Gass puts it, the writers whose work attracts me are those whose practices involve what Gass calls a sense of “the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them.” Indeed, whether it be the work of Didion or Sontag, McCarthy or Murnane, Hemingway or Faulkner, Gaddis or Wallace, what resonates most powerfully with me is work in which each word seems to have been selected as much for its fixed referential qualities as for its atmospheric musicality, so that a carefully constructed tonal and prosodic soundtrack shadows the literal meaning of every sentence. But one need not turn to the writers above to seek out works in which prosody stands at the forefront of appreciable literary qualities. It’s there, too, at the forefront of just about every children’s book on the market — the majority of which make liberal use of qualities like alliteration and rhyme — so that Ivy’s deafness blocks her access to the pleasures of the literature available to her even at this early stage in her life. Will it hold other pleasures for her sometime further on? And equally, given the efforts now underway to facilitate Ivy’s acquisition of language, will literature come to hold for her distinct and unique pleasures that I can never access?

My wife and I are in the midst of learning British Sign Language (BSL) so that we can pass it on to her. This is a difficult process because, whereas hearing children acquire language by environmental means, simply by being within earshot of spoken language on a regular basis, Ivy will acquire it only through bursts of direct visual contact with BSL practitioners. Nevertheless, with BSL as her native language, with the constituent elements and concepts of the world distilled into a system of symbols entailing bodily movement, written language will call to mind a complex of worldly referents and movement sensations where otherwise it would call to mind a complex of referents and sounds.2 If, for me, to read is to see a word written on the page and then, reflexively, to simultaneously grasp its referent and hear in my head the whisper of its sound, will Ivy’s reading involve grasping a referent while also feeling a ghostly motion passing through her fingers, her face, her torso and her arms? If written words transmit to me a sense of music unaccompanied by motion, will they transmit to Ivy something like a dance without a tune? What exactly will be, for her, the sensation that shadows their meaning? And if, someday, Ivy were to read the work of any of the writers named above, would she experience a sensation as pleasurable as the one I derive from their sound? She almost certainly wouldn’t. This is not to say that the sensation of movement in sign language cannot generate pleasure,3 but only that the above writers have arranged their words on the page so as to produce pleasure through sound without regard for signs. Additionally, since sign languages vary greatly from country to country and even amongst countries that share a spoken language, and since the grammatical structures of the sign languages of English-speaking countries tend to depart significantly from the structures of spoken English, chaos is the inevitable result of any attempt to sign a word-for-word translation of a sentence as written in English.

When it comes to novels, then, what possibilities exist for native signers? Is there anywhere a novel written so as to be instantly grammatically intelligible to them, independent of any habituation to the grammar of written English? Is there anywhere a novel whose prose, whose selection and sequencing of words, is directed towards producing pleasurable sensations of ghostly movements for signers rather than producing sensations of sounds? Is there a work whose every turn of phrase is intended not to appeal to those who can hear and to generate pleasure through prosodic musicality, but rather to appeal specifically to the deaf by pleasurably conducting the motions of a body accustomed to sign? Is the composition of such a work even possible? If so, what sorts of sensations would the reading of it produce in a person who reads the way I do?

 

 


Notes

1. While cochlear implants “have the potential to magnificently enhance the understanding and acquisition of spoken language,” as Gavin Francis observes in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “15 to 20 percent of recipients gain little benefit from them and, contrary to some claims, they don’t reproduce normal hearing. Instead they transmit a simplified, broken-down representation of the acoustic world” which “one of the technology’s pioneers, Michael Merzenich, likens [to] ‘playing Chopin with your fist.’” Even in the best-case scenario, then, a full appreciation of music will probably remain inaccessible to Ivy.

2. As Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel Mayberry write, “To become readers, [hearing] children must learn the mapping between the spoken language they already know and printed words on a page. For English, as for most languages, that mapping is based on sound. Once children understand the underlying principles of the print-sound mapping… they can call upon their knowledge of their spoken language to facilitate the reading process,” such as when they are guided into ‘sounding out’ the letters of an unfamiliar word. But “deaf children are disadvantaged as potential readers on both of these counts — they do not have easy access to the phonological code and many do not know any language well.” Moreover, when “deaf readers translate [a written] sentence into [sign language],” they are continually at risk of finding the written sentence “relatively difficult to process,” and therefore unpleasant to read, because, among other reasons, “the signs in the translation [may be too] similar in form.”

3. In his recent book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon describes, with a sense of childlike wonder, watching the movements of a deaf woman who “manifests a pleasure in [her language] that only poets feel for English” through movements “so swift, crisp, and perfectly controlled that she seems to be arranging the air into a more acceptable shape.”

 

Books Are Made Out of Books

My research notes for Blood and Bone are now online at Necessary Fiction:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” Cormac McCarthy once said. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” But as well as appending those remarks to a list of his literary influences, McCarthy named the writers whose work he most dislikes (Marcel Proust, Henry James) and suggested that his own books are made not only out of others but against them as well. According to this view of things, literature is a form of protest against a sense of absence in the world. Since readers hardly need new work that merely echoes work already in existence, there must be, among the forces that compel a person to sit down and write a book, some lingering dissatisfaction with the books already written and some notion of a sort of book that has not been written before. Those forces are certainly what compelled me to write my novel Blood and Bone, a novel that contains traces of the books instrumental to its creation and that also, in a way, endeavors to unwrite them.

Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson, Geraldine Brooks, and Hannah Kent each score a mention for having influenced the writing of Blood and Bone in much the same way that Proust might have influenced Blood Meridian.