Nightmares of Reason: On Benjamín Labatut’s “The MANIAC”

Ed Simon reviews Benjamín Labatut’s newest book “The MANIAC.”

Nightmares of Reason: On Benjamín Labatut’s “The MANIAC”

The MANIAC by Benjamín Labatut. Penguin. 368 pages.

ONCE, MANY CENTURIES AGO, there was supposedly a contraption of gleaming pneumatic tubes and shiny brass gears and widgets, a head constructed of polished metal with lips of copper and eyes that were smooth glass balls within corrugated sockets. The Brazen Head, as the folktale normally refers to this device, is less famous than other manufactured men, from Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel’s golem to Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein (1818), even if the marvelous moving gearworks’ name endures in a handful of English and Irish pubs for whom he remains a mascot of sorts. Medieval sources claim that the machine, operated by a combination of principles both mechanical and magical, was capable of answering questions posed to it, was capable of thought.

Associated with any number of figures, from Albertus Magnus to Johann Faust, this constructed man was most often remembered as a device built by the 13th-century English Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon, a polymath to whom inventions ranging from eyeglasses to gunpowder are often attributed. Bacon was an unusual sort of wizard for, in his own estimation, he was scarcely a wizard at all. “Experimental science is the queen of sciences,” he wrote in his Opus Tertium (1267), “and the goal of all speculation.” An avowed nominalist and disdainer of the occult (despite being an alchemist), Bacon was among the first empiricists and experimentalists in the West. Yet so seemingly miraculous were his experiments that he was easily configured in the collective memory as a necromancer, a man capable of magic. A character in the Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene’s 1589 stage hit Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay enthuses how the monk’s machine is “a brazen head by art, / Which shall unfold strange doubts and aphorisms, / And read a lecture in philosophy,” an analytical engine that exists within “rich networks,” eerily prefiguring the internet. There is a newly pertinent aspect to Bacon’s mechanism, for his thinking machine is a clear prefiguration of an automaton, a robot, an android, a computer—an artificial intelligence. Before Alexa, Siri, or ChatGPT, there was the Brazen Head; humanity was haunted by the possibility of artificial intelligence before it ever existed.

Bacon is only mentioned in the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut’s first English-language novel The MANIAC (2023) by way of a deftly placed epigraph drawn from Greene’s play, but the fantastical aura of the Brazen Head permeates Labatut’s allegory about the ways in which reason, pushed to its extreme, can become its opposite, about how a certain tyranny of unfeeling logic could very well usher in an apocalypse (and soon). The title of Labatut’s novel, after all, refers to the acronym for the thousand-pound supercomputer that once occupied a few floors at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1950s. The novel is ostensibly historical fiction concerning the Hungarian Jewish physicist and father of modern computing John von Neumann, but The MANIAC is actually something far rarer and more unusual—a bona fide experimental novel of ideas that has emerged from a publishing ecosystem that all too often only rewards dry literary fiction or lowest-common-denominator genre fiction. The necessities of marketing and publicity no doubt require the book to be sold as a “novel,” and while obviously the inner thoughts of the scientist’s wife Klára Dán von Neumann or the economist Oskar Morgenstern require a certain amount of speculation on Labatut’s part (even while clearly based on voluminous research), it’s difficult to fully categorize The MANIAC as fiction, even historical fiction. Rather, The MANIAC’s genre is better understood as historical creative nonfiction, philosophical argument, or some conjunction of the two.

The material on von Neumann occupies the bulk of Labatut’s attention, comprising the long middle portion of The MANIAC, wherein several different figures, ranging from the scientist’s wives and daughter to physicists Eugene Wigner and Richard Feynman, give first-person testimony in chronological order (almost as if they were being interviewed for a documentary, but no such framing conceit is offered). Meanwhile, the von Neumann narrative is bookended by a substantial prologue that sketches the biography of marginal Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, who was simultaneously haunted by irrationality and the rise of Nazism and so murdered his Down syndrome–afflicted son and then took his own life in 1933. In keeping with narrative symmetry, The MANIAC ends decades later, in 2016, when the Korean Go savant Lee Sedol lost four of five tournament games to the computer program AlphaGO at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul.

That the editors at Penguin were agreeable with Labatut’s novel ending in an 84-page (admittedly riveting) synopsis of the strategies that underlie a complex 3,000-year-old Chinese game speaks to an admirable conception of what novels can do, the way that they can be pushed and can in turn push our conceptions. Because what Labatut’s intent appears to be is nothing less than an interpretation of our nightmares of reason, this engine that powers a “reckless drive toward death and self-destruction” and embodies “an incorporeal wraith, an unholy spirit.” In that infernal trinity of nuclear weapons, climate change, and artificial intelligence, all avatars of humanity’s Thanatos, there is one figure who dwells within their nexus—Johnny von Neumann, the wizard whose supercomputer calculated the yield of the first hydrogen bombs, who advocated using those weapons as a means to control the weather in a potential Third World War, and who perhaps delivered to us the mechanism by which that conflagration will be fought in the form of the digital revolution. He is, if not in reality than certainly in The MANIAC, a demonic figure.

He was the smartest human being of the 20th century,” argues Labatut (italics his), and The MANIAC makes such a claim seem anything but histrionic. Von Neumann revolutionized several disparate fields, from quantum mechanics and nuclear physics to economics and computer science. He was the father of mathematical set theory, of proof theory, of game theory, of operator algebras, of fluid dynamics. Of the computer. He was the author of Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (1932), Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), and Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata (posthumously published in 1966), among scores of other books, papers, and lectures. “So much of the high-tech world we live in today, with its conquest of space and extraordinary advances in biology and medicine, were spurred on by one man’s monomania,” writes Labatut. Von Neumann straddled the theoretical and the experimental; able to accomplish complicated mathematical proofs that had flummoxed scholars for decades while he was still just a schoolboy, his pudgy hands also groped at circuit boards and vacuum tubes. If it’s true that von Neumann was the most brilliant human of the last century, then he has ironically dwindled into popular obscurity (a lifelong fear of his), perhaps because, as a character, he lacks the doomed romanticism of a J. Robert Oppenheimer, the paranoiac madness of his friend and foil Kurt Gödel, or even the (studied) avuncular saintliness of an Albert Einstein. Far from being an otherworldly anchorite, von Neumann was a womanizer and a drinker, a gambler and a lover of luxury cars, closer to the military brass who gave him a dozen different security clearances to work at the Atomic Energy Commission, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, and so on, than he was to the genteel physicists of his Austro-Hungarian youth. Yet, as The MANIAC makes clear, von Neumann’s was the animating spirit of our current technological epoch, an individual whose dogged work ethic and almost supernatural intelligence made our current moment possible.

His childhood was elegant and refined (the aristocratic “von” was added by the Hapsburg emperor in honor of services rendered by the scientist’s banker father during the Great War), yet, as his second wife is imagined as remembering, “Johnny loved America.” This infatuation, the transition from Neumann János Lajos who was raised in an 18-room apartment on sophisticated Báthory Street into Johnny von Neumann, American patriot, goes some way towards explaining the scientist’s Faustian proclivities. Labatut has Klára von Neumann further elaborate that America “did something to him. All that maddening, unthinking optimism, all that cheerful naïveté under which they hid their cruelty, it brought out the worst in him. A sleeping demon, a secret desire whispered by the nightmare that he confessed to no one.”

It would be an error, however, to read The MANIAC as merely the Chilean novelist’s indictment of the gringo military-industrial complex, as embodied by von Neumann, because Labatut’s critique drives deeper, indicting the United States’ antinomian rationalism, its instrumental, utilitarian, positivist, rapacious, anarchic logic that so often can appear as its exact opposite. Von Neumann’s fall from grace wasn’t his becoming an American but rather the death of his faith in reason while he was still the most adept wielder of that reason. That self-exile occurs after von Neumann, whose European studies were long occupied by the search for “absolute truth, […] a mathematical basis for reality, a land free from contradictions and paradoxes,” finally encounters Gödel and his infamous incompleteness theorems, which forever laid to rest the naive belief that mathematics could be placed on an entirely consistent or coherent logical basis. The result is a reality that, at its deepest level, implies the existence of things that

obey no measure and refuse categorization, because they exist outside the order that encompasses all phenomena. These outliers, these singularities, these monstrosities, will not be governed or compared by means of a number, because they lie at the root of what is disharmonious, chaotic, and unruly about the world.

The conclusion is unassailable—if nothing is real, then everything is permitted (at least somewhere). Gödel reacted by going insane, while von Neumann took a less decent route—not the sanitarium but the Pentagon.

Bacon built a head of brass and copper, but von Neumann’s oracle was rendered in binary and punch card, code and algorithm. In the last years of his life, eventually succumbing in 1957 to metastatic cancer most likely caused by his work at the Manhattan Project, von Neumann became obsessed with machine consciousness, with the idea that humans could create silicon minds far superior to our own. Long before there was any possibility of such a thing, when the processing power of a machine like MANIAC (short for the Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer) was equivalent to a single bit, von Neumann was already imagining “the singularity,” the coming eschaton whereby our machines finally outstrip us. As incandescent as von Neumann’s brilliance was, his mind was different from ours only in degree, not in kind. The artificial intelligence he dreamt would survive our nuclear wars (which he had made possible) would be something else entirely—they would be gods. The central preoccupation of The MANIAC isn’t von Neumann but rather von Neumann’s dying obsession, and how, now that we’re seemingly on the cusp of that epoch he yearned for, we can see the full fruit of irrationality hitherto masked as its opposite. Labatut’s novel is a sweeping condemnation of the cult of rationality, an acknowledgment that logic pushed to its extreme transforms into madness—an insanity like the nuclear deterrence method called mutually assured destruction, for which von Neumann advocated, convincing military brass that it was nothing but the clearest of clear thinking.

Our supposedly rational economy drives us towards climate collapse; our apparently logical foreign policy pushes us towards nuclear war; our burgeoning artificial intelligences—paragons of miraculous technology—court apocalypse. Ours is a final age “suffused with a Faustian, boundless energy, a haste, a tragic fall,” an era of much knowledge and no wisdom, which recognizes “no laws, no method, no truth, just a blind, uncontainable surge, a rush of madness that would not stop for anyone or anything but drive us onward even to the ends of the Earth.” Our predicament is born not from a deficit of rationality but from a surfeit of it: logic dialectically pushed towards its contrary through our cowardice and idolatry. If reality has always had the demonic at its core, and if our prophets of science like von Neumann drove reason itself to insanity, then Labatut implies that we’re now witnessing the shuddering birth of a new intelligence, hence the 84-page epilogue about a Korean Go champion bested by a computer program. That program was just one of Johnny’s AI children, “a profoundly inhuman form of intelligence that was completely indifferent to mankind’s deepest needs; this deranged reason, this specter.” As exemplary as the intelligence of von Neumann was, his legacy is the crafting of intelligences far more alien than his own, the gestation of a new reason beyond reason.

In legends of the Brazen Head, it is claimed that the only prediction offered by the mechanical mind was an inscrutable warning: “Time is, time was, time is past,” uttered right before it destroyed itself. Von Neumann himself was treated as a doomed oracle, his delirious brain finally so eaten by cancer that the military locked him up in Walter Reed hospital, fearing that he might start yelling out state secrets. Guarded around the clock by army personnel who hoped they could get von Neumann’s assistance, even while on his deathbed, in finding a few more solutions to their technical problems, the tortured man instead screamed out his own prophecies, which none of the officers could understand, since everything was in Hungarian, the language of the maniac’s youth.


Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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