Illustration: A Mathematician's Apology by G.H Hardy
In January of 1913, a 25-year-old autodidact by the name of Srinivasa Ramanujan wrote a letter to the British mathematician G.H. Hardy. He had already written letters to a number of prominent academics, but Hardy was the only one to respond. A little more than a year later Ramanujan boarded a ship in Madras bound for London. Soon, he was in Cambridge, where he would collaborate with Hardy and live out the duration of the First World War. In England, however, Ramanujan’s health began to deteriorate — in part because of the weather, in part because of the food. More than anything else, it was this poor health that led Ramanujan to board a ship at the conclusion of the war and return to India, having left a definitive mark on modern mathematics.
Hardy had recognized Ramanujan’s brilliance almost immediately. His approach was highly intuitive, which is notable in a field dominated by logical demands. But his thinking also had its blindspots. As Hardy once said of him, “The limitations of his knowledge were as startling as its profundity.” Ramanujan, to be sure, was an anomaly, and Hardy wondered what Ramanujan would have been capable of if he had had the kinds of privileges Hardy enjoyed. But part of the beauty of Ramanujan’s story is that he was not limited by the kinds of knowledge out of which men like Hardy made careers. Having a relatively poor mind for math myself, my interest in Ramanujan has less to do with his research on Bernoulli numbers than with the fact that, at the conclusion of the war and in terrible health, he returned to India, where he died at the age of 33.
But you will forgive me, Comrades. It seems I have overshot my mark. I have not begun at the beginning. Let me retrace my steps and begin again.
First, let it be assumed that everywhere we touch the world meaning proliferates, and that this fecundity is what makes the dual activities of reading and writing so pleasurable. Let it also be assumed that this pleasure can produce, as an unintended consequence, a kind of paranoia, by which I mean both the delirium the word more commonly implies and something else entirely. The word paranoia comes from the Greek root nous, meaning mind, and the prefix para- (as in words such as paradox, paraphrase, and paradise) from something like “analogous or parallel to” but also “beyond.” I am interested, here, in appraising a mind that is like mind, separate from or just beyond it. A mind untethered to mind. What language would such a mind speak? I want to describe a position from which thinking can address the world, but buoyantly, as though thought could suspend us above the melee of daily life.
I also want to examine where writing leads us, and how it takes us there. Literature, although it may not be an entirely useless endeavor, comes pretty damn close sometimes. The fact that everything can be found to have some use, however provisional, does not mean that those phenomena nearest to uselessness on an imaginary spectrum are, for all intents and purposes, useful. In a house, one wants every square foot to be accounted for, to have some purpose. In my own house, we have even found a use for the space beneath the stairs. But while architecture may abhor impracticality, in literature it may be a cause for celebration.
Useful or not, let us assume that any product of a culture is inseparable ...read more