The Private, Unskilled One

I went into Istanbul’s Pandora Bookshop a month ago, looking for an English translation of War and Peace, since the Garnett translation I had read at college was falling apart. I was told the Oxford World’s Classics edition (with the Maude translation) was coming the next week, and it did come.

Elif Batuman, The Idiot, in Nesin Matematik Köyü, Kayser Dağı Mevkii, Şirince, Selçuk, İzmir, Turkey, 2017.05.18

Since January, I had been reading War and Peace, a chapter a day, following along with Brian E. Denton on Medium. Mr Denton’s project helped inspire my own project of reading and writing about the Iliad, book by book—a project that I consider to be ongoing, though not at my originally suggested rate of a book a week. I had heard about the War and Peace project from a tweet by Elif Batuman.

I had read Ms Batuman’s essay collection The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), but I do not recall where I bought it, even which side of the Atlantic. I had probably read one of the essays, “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy,” when it appeared in Harper’s in February, 2009. That essay went on to appear in The Best American Essays 2010 (edited by Christopher Hitchens), which I bought at Border’s Books in Dulles Airport on February 10, 2011 (as I know because the receipt is in the book; I was flying back to Ankara at the time).

My attention returned to Ms Batuman, because the March 2017 Harper’s had an essay, “No Fool,” about her and her new novel, The Idiot. There Molly Fischer reports on what Ms Batuman said in the Introduction to The Possessed and at more length in “Get a Real Degree” (London Review of Books, September 23, 2010): studying a tradition of literature, as in the English department of a university, must be a better preparation for writing a novel than is reading the work of other would-be contemporary novelists in a writers’ colony.

Relevant here was a quotation that I happened to have at hand from Louis Menand, “Practical Cat: How Eliot became Eliot,” (New Yorker, September 19, 2011), concerning the very creation of English departments at universities:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that “stand for” something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the authors’ own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

I had found Mr Menand’s essay on September 18, 2011, during an email discussion of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The quoted passage raises various questions. If people think stories are filled with symbols, or have hidden meanings, might not these very ideas come from their teachers at school?

When I recovered the Menand quotation, the burning question was whether to order The Idiot.

I saw that in The Possessed I had marked three passages with bronze Book Darts:

The qaqnus bird has one thousand teeth in its beak, and each tooth sings a melody. Collecting thorns and twigs, it builds a tall nest, sits on top of it, and starts to sing. Its song is incredibly beautiful, but makes human listeners sick … As a function of singing, the qaqnus sets itself on fire, burns up, rises to heaven, and becomes a flower … According to the critic Vahid Abdullayev … each writer in the history of literature is a qaqnus: he spends his whole life gathering firewood with which to burn up the previous generation of writers. (p. 169)

When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn’t speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half understanding—a feeling that is intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry is written in a foreign language … (p. 248)

Matej often brought up the subject of our supposed similarity, which struck me as frankly ludicrous. What about us was the same? He had spent his high-school years drinking coffee in basements during bomb scares, reading Max Scheler, becoming convinced he was a member of the zoo commission and had to inspect the living conditions of every elephant in Europe. He believed that the only way to be good was to imitate Jesus, that Kant’s categorical imperative represented a dilution of the Sermon on the Mount, that suicide was immoral because human life doesn’t belong to the individual. What did it mean to say we were the same, when all our experiences and beliefs were different? (p. 274)

I did order The Idiot. I should have liked to order it through Pandora; but then it would not have arrived in time for a trip to the Nesin Mathematics Village above Ephesus for the nineteenth Antalya Algebra Days (and the seventeenth I would attend). I resorted to that online retailer whose founder now owns the Washington Post and whose name suggests the lacking of a breast.

Here in Ionia now, I have finished The Idiot. Along the way, I transcribed a few passages to send to the folks I had discussed Eliot with. There are Homeric similes; here is a typical Batumanic simile:

The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that somebody had washed with a red shirt. (p. 107)

I am a living example of the following:

Ivan was going home to Hungary for seven weeks, and then to Japan with Radu for a math conference. He said mathematicians never got any vacation so they were always having conferences, for example in Honolulu. He talked about mathematicians as if they were somehow fundamentally different from other people. (p. 160)

I adore the naïve analyticity of The Idiot‘s first person, American college freshman Selin Karadağ, as when she agrees to go out, first to a bar with Ivan, and then to a party with another friend:

The beer was cold and not especially unpleasant but I couldn’t tell what the point of it was. Like the iced coffee, it was at once watery and bitter. Apparently that was desirable. (p. 175)

The music was pulsing like a bodily function. I saw Noor right away at the turntables, wearing headphones. I knew from Lakshmi that he was extremely attractive and dressed really well. I looked at him and tried to understand what an attractive well-dressed man looked like. He had facial stubble and an earring. (p. 221)

As I read, I also noted passages for their ideas: for example,

Lately, he was really into existentialism. The existentialists said you couldn’t make decisions based on preexisting norms or codes, which were always too general for any given case. Rather, every decision you made created you. The decision (existence) comes first, and creates essence. (p. 223)

The book sets the last sentence in a sans-serif font, to indicate that it comes from an email. A monospace font would have been a better choice. Concerning the passage itself, as opposed to its typography, I would say that you can indeed make decisions based on a preexisting rule; but the decision requires your own determination, both that the rule is worth following, and that the situation at hand fits the rule sufficiently well.

In the Conclusion of Walden, Thoreau criticizes the kind of attitude attributed by Selin to the existentialists:

It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery “to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place one’s self in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society.” He declared that “a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require half so much courage as a footpad”—“that honor and religion have never stood in the way of a well-considered and a firm resolve.” This was manly, as the world goes; and yet it was idle, if not desperate. A saner man would have found himself often enough “in formal opposition” to what are deemed “the most sacred laws of society,” through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.

I considered this passage also in §0 of “One and Many.” One might distinguish between Thoreau’s obedience to the laws of his being and creating those laws (or one’s “essence”) with each new action.

In The Idiot, Ivan takes Selin swimming in Walden Pond, though without having much sense of its significance. I confess to not having remembered the scene well; I found it through a web search, which took me to a page from a site that seems devoted to putting romance novels online. The whole of The Idiot seems to be there, albeit broken into many pages, like the print version. I cut and paste part of the scene from Walden Pond:

“Hey, wait, you’re American,” Ivan said suddenly. “You must have read his book! So what’s his story, this Thoreau?”

“I read it in high school. I don’t remember it so well.”

He laughed. “Because high school was such a long time ago for you.”

“It was sophomore year of high school. That was three years ago!”

“Okay, okay. Did you like it when you read it three years ago?”

I hadn’t found Thoreau to be the world’s most likable character—the way he looked down on Emerson, and then used Emerson’s money to build his cabin. “I remember he said the Egyptians wasted their time building the pyramids, because the pharaoh should have been thrown in the Nile like a dog,” I said. “He said the Egyptian slaves should have been out sucking the marrow of life.”

“Sorry, I didn’t hear—what should they have been doing?”

“Sucking the marrow of life,” I said loudly.

“Aha, okay. So he’s some kind of a Communist…”

That was from pages 206–7 of the print version. Communist or not, Thoreau is not quite right to say that there are laws of our being. At least there are no such laws that limit what we can do, but we can create new laws as we go along. This is because, despite what seems to be a common assumption, our minds are not computers.

The argument must derive from Roger Penrose, though I have not spent much time reading him; I did see and hear him give a public lecture in Vienna on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Gödel’s birth in 2006; but according to my own fallible memory, Penrose got confused as he tried to explain the summary of his argument that he had written out on a slide. I know how this can happen: you prepare your talk, and you think you have everything down, but then you lose your clarity when you are up on stage.

We know from the work of Mojżesz Presburger in 1929 that the first-order theory of the natural numbers with addition is decidable: there is a computer program that, when fed a sentence of first-order logic having only “+” as a non-logical symbol, will determine whether that sentence is true of the natural numbers (the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on).

We know from the work of Kurt Gödel in 1931 that the first-order theory of the natural numbers with addition and multiplication is undecidable.

There are computer programs that can generate infinitely many true statements about the natural numbers. However, given any such program P, we can write down a sentence S that is both true of the natural numbers, but not generated by P. An example of such a sentence S is, “The sentence having such-and-such specifications cannot be proved by P,” where it turns out that S has just those specifications.

Since the human mind knows S is true, this shows that not every statement about the natural numbers that can be known to the human mind can be generated by a computer program.

One may try to get around this problem by saying that the mind at any moment is a program, but the program can change. This may be so, but then the program does not change in a programmed way. Our thinking does not just work out the “laws of our being.”

Elif Batuman helps provoke such thought. She brings up an issue that my wife and I face as teachers of mathematics, and that we tend to disagree on: memorization. I could summarize Ms Batuman’s take, but her own words are superior:

I wrote to Ivan on Friday morning, and thought he would call me either that evening or Saturday. He didn’t. On Sunday, I studied Russian with Svetlana. Svetlana had made up a song to help memorize the declensions of irregular nouns. It was a doleful little tune, more of a chant really, with only two notes: “There are no citizens. There are no citizens. I see the citizen. I see the citizen.”

Svetlana was way better than I was at memorizing. She accepted it in her heart as something necessary. Growing up in America, I had been taught to despise memorization, which was known as “rote memorization,” or sometimes as “regurgitating facts.” The teachers said that they wanted to teach us to think. They didn’t want us to turn out like robots, like the Soviet and Japanese schoolchildren. That was the only reason Soviet and Japanese schoolchildren did better than us on tests. It was because they didn’t know how to think.

By high school, I sensed that the teachers weren’t leveling with us. Our biology teacher would say: “I don’t want you to memorize and regurgitate, I want you to understand the elegant logic of each mechanism.” Nonetheless, on the test you had to draw a diagram of RNA transcription. When it came to science or history, reason got you only so far. Even if each step followed from the previous one, you still had to memorize the first step, and also the rule for how steps followed from each other. It wasn’t as if there was only one way the world could have turned out. It wasn’t like strawberries had to grow from bushes. There were lots of ways things could have turned out, and you had to memorize the particular one that was real.

Or … did you? Was there only one way the world could have turned out? If you were smart enough, could you deduce it? A tiny part of me held out the hope that you could. And that part was bad at learning Svetlana’s song. (p. 197)

For the record, memories of my own American education do include disparaging comments about rote memorization and regurgitation; but I also had to memorize French vocabulary words and significant dates in ancient Greek history. I am glad to have committed to memory—in tenth grade it must have been—trigonometric rules like

sin(α + β) = sin α cos β + cos α sin β.

Reacting to her own Turkish education, my wife disparages the memorizing even of identities like this.

Having finished my first reading of The Idiot, I have turned to the reviews. Most of the review in the New York Review of Books, and all of the review in Threepenny Review, are behind paywalls, but I have now read reviews in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Slate, along with two reviews in the New York Times. All of these reviews do describe the book I read. Though they are all more or less positive, they may not have induced me to actually read the book. But then not many reviews do induce me to read books. The Harper’s essay by Molly Fischer induced me to read The Idiot by spending time on the author’s published criticism of writing programs. I could agree with this criticism, but wanted to see how well Ms Batuman put her money where her mouth was.

I knew somebody who turned back to page one after finishing Moby Dick. I have never done such a thing. The Idiot tempts me, though I think now, for variety, I shall turn to Thoreau, whose Maine Woods I ordered along with The Idiot. The opening sentence of The Idiot is

I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.

The opening sentence of The Maine Woods is

On the 31st of August, 1846, I left Concord in Massachusetts for Bangor and the backwoods of Maine, by way of the railroad and steamboat, intending to accompany a relative of mine engaged in the lumber-trade in Bangor, as far as a dam on the west branch of the Penobscot, in which property he was interested.

An email friend tells me there was an experimental filmmaker, one of whose works was the result of throwing a camera off a cliff. The Idiot might well be likened to what you get when you do this. Ms Batuman is a good camera. To me she is like Somerset Maugham in this way.

Maugham actually finds good stories to tell, whether his travels are in Southeast Asia, London, or Chicago. He begins The Razor’s Edge by apologizing for having “little story to tell”; but then at the end he finds events to have wrapped themselves up very nicely.

If that book was a human comedy, Ms Batuman’s is a tragedy. Its last sentence is, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.” Nonetheless, The Idiot is intensely funny. I laughed many times.

This raises the question for me of how much my laughter depended on an independent feeling of well-being, a feeling I have in my current setting in Ionia, at the Math Village, surrounded by hills, trees, and birdsong, rather than the car horns and concrete of Istanbul.

Selin in The Idiot turns the camera on herself, as I just have. I appreciate this. She really does have little story to tell. She just describes her life as an American college freshman, one who spends the following summer in Paris, Hungary, and Turkey. I assume that many things described by the fictional Selin occur in the novel only because the real Elif experienced them. Indeed, some are described factually in The Possessed. They need not have any greater meaning; I like them as they are.

Nonetheless, perhaps they do have greater meaning. In a Friday evening lecture at St John’s College, I was amazed by how much meaning one of our tutors could find in little details in Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger.” At a conventional college such as Selin’s and Ms Batuman’s Harvard, I might have heard such lectures all the time. Elif Batuman’s book is officially a novel; this means the writer is not constrained to tell things just as they actually happened to her. She can give them meaning as she wishes. A literary scholar might analyze the details. I just enjoy Ms Batuman’s treatment of them.

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