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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


It occurred to me as I was thinking, rather obsessively, about the mathematician Georg Cantor's death after years of intermittent mental instability in the second half of his life, that religious faith can be a kind of medicine for the mind.

Cantor is famous to the the likes of me, curious but fundamentally ignorant about mathematics, for using set theory to classify infinities. He proved that infinities are not all created alike and defined them as countable, uncountable, and absolute. This was a reckless thing to do in his time (second half of the nineteenth century). It amounted to splitting open the mystery of God and proving that the human mind was able to understand the divine, summarize it in a handful of theorems speckled with arcane but comprehensible symbols.

The strange thing is that Cantor didn't make, as a result of this kind of work, the predictable enemies. The one man who opposed him most vehemently -- standing in the way of his work being published and intervening whenever Cantor was about to get a better university job -- did not belong to a religious institution but was a fellow mathematician. Leopold Kronecker found it abhorrent that mathematical logic would be applied to such nebulous, untidy quantities as infinity. He wielded all the power he had to undermine Cantor and prevent him from spreading his ideas.

Eventually, Cantor broke under the pressure. Science historians with a flair for the unnecessarily dramatic call this the madness of Georg Cantor. He began to look at his mathematical ability as a gift from God, the absolute infinite, and at his work as a form of devotion to the divine. He distanced himself from mathematicians and gathered around him a circle of men of faith and philosophers. Depression claimed him almost every year but he kept resurfacing and working, sustained by his faith. He died in the hospital of a heart attack in 1918.

Perhaps if you can't stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen. I tell myself this with the cruel practicality of street wisdom every time I succumb yet again to despair that my mind doesn't have what it takes to make beautiful, enduring things. Then I wonder if genius, that overused and nearly empty word, doesn't mean endurance, stubbornness, an unshakable faith in what you can do, more than it means brilliance. I wonder if accomplishing something extraordinary has to do more with courage than with intelligence.

Cantor's life half confirms and half belies all this. He succeeded in changing mathematics, after all. And at the same time he lost faith in his work's ability to stand on its own, apart from God and his redeeming power. That's how I see it, at least. This failing of the heart deeply troubles me. For if people like Georg Cantor cannot be sustained by the power of what they are able to accomplish, what's left for the rest of us ordinary people?

There is, of course, a biochemical explanation, besides the psychosocial one, for Cantor's melancholy. These days, he would have been kept going by anti-depressants instead of God. This sounds flippant, and I don't mean it to. God fails at least as often as pills do. And that's because both of them oversimplify, to some extent, the strange workings of the human mind. Both assume that there is an unequivocal answer, a final solution to the problem of doubt and despair. Whereas in reality there's nothing but waiting for them to release their hold on you enough for another deep breath, and another, and another. You do the best you can, and sometimes that's enough, and sometimes it isn't.


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

Courage is a greater factor than intelligence in producing genius. I was once a genius, not knowing that there were things to fear. I still have some of my past intelligence, but am racked by fear; nothing will come of this vaunted "intelligence." Be brave, Green Whale, and you will conquer.

June 08, 2007  

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