Monday, September 12, 2005

n + 1, part 1

The subject of mathematics has long appealed to writers of a certain stripe, but it rarely receives more than superficial treatment. Ostentatious polymaths like to carefully plant equations in their fiction like magic seeds, hoping the resulting bloom will flatter their learning. A term such as "Bayesian" is offered as a kind of shibboleth; working knowledge of the quantitative is wielded as proof against mushy-headed sentimentalism or mysticism. And yet sometimes the inoculation causes the disease-- math is no more exempt from misuse and specious extrapolation than the scientific disciplines. When's the last time you heard the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle invoked to make some bullshit point about the unknowability of truth? Yesterday? Or how about chaos theory? Well, that one crested in about 1995, but you get my point.

So you have writers like David Foster Wallace glibly peppering their prose with math, hoping (perhaps, at times) that their readers are only familiar enough with the relevant concepts to appreciate the reference, and no more. But the affair often goes deeper. For example, Wallace recently wrote a nonfiction book on infinity. The primary conceit of Gravity's Rainbow was the Poisson distribution of V-2 rockets falling upon areas of London during the Blitz (and, consequently, the Poisson distribution of Tyrone Slothrop's erections). Italo Calvino fiddled with mathematics in his stories, notably in Cosmicomics, and loved using formal (or semiformal, really) generative devices. Which is all fine, and sometimes good readin'.

But here's the thing: usually, the tedentious musings inspired by an equation are shamed by the neat, wordless profundity of the thing itself. Mathematical concepts as symbols or analogies? By all means. True ideas wrapped as tightly as possible: why not use them to stand in for something more verbose; why not illuminate a dynamic in the messy world by comparing it to a reduced, simplified relation? Well, I suppose one reason is that this can lead to painfully bad (and puzzling) analogies. I don't really want to hear that melancholy is the second derivative of heartbreak. And please spare us from the uninformed interpretation, the above-mentioned specious extrapolation, that is a hallmark of this trope.

I actually had something to say about n+1, but I'm tired & done for now. More later.