By Janna Levin
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
ISBN # 978-0-7394-8142-4
230 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2010

Janna Levin writes a fascinating biographical novel of two importantly influential 20th century thinkers and very strange men. While she relates some details of their work and its impact, this is not about advanced mathematics, technology and philosophy. It’s a study of two mentally disturbed people. She allows this and on the first page tells us who this book is about and what focus she will take:

One apex is a paranoid lunatic, at another is a lonesome outcast: Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries; and Alan Turing, the brilliant code breaker and mathematician. Their genius is a testament to our own worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness.

These two people converge in history and diverge in belief. They act out lives that are only tangentially related and deaths that are written for each other, inverted reflections. They are both brilliantly original and outsiders. They are both loyal to reason and to truth. They are both besotted with mathematics.

But for all their devotion, mathematics is indifferent, unaltered by any of their dramas -- Gödel’s psychotic delusions, Turing’s sexuality. One plus one will always be two. Their broken lives are mere anecdotes in the margins of their discoveries. But then their discoveries are evidence of our purpose, and their lives are parables on free will. Against indifference, I want to tell their stories.

Don’t our stories matter?

Don’t our stories matter? That’s a fascinating question and one her novel has made me reflect upon.

I spent my working years as a professor of philosophy, some 36 wonderful years. However, I was deeply influenced by the school of literary criticism which emphasized textual analysis, concentrating on the produced work of artists and scholars, not on biography. So I come to this novel wondering if the “stories” of the lives of Gödel and Turing matter much in understanding their scholarly contributions.

I also came to this novel knowing relatively little about Turing’s work. I was at least aware of his World War II contribution to code breaking, and knew of his “Turing machine” and its importance to the development of computers. However, I knew much more of Gödel’s work, not as much in relation to its influence in mathematics, but for its impact on philosophy, especially the Vienna Circle and the school of analytic philosophy that it spurred.

At the same time I knew virtually nothing about their lives; that in keeping with my long-held view that it was the text, the work produced that mattered, not the person. Thus author Levin had a job to do to make me care much about their lives. She did indeed draw me in. It seems to me it would be hard not to be captivated by the contrasts between the incredible positivity to the WORK that each produced, and yet not be just astonished at the painful and difficult lives they lived. However, are we supposed to make a connection that somehow the pain, even disfunctionality of their personal lives was somehow contributive to their positive scholarly output? I wasn’t convinced.

It certainly isn’t hard to go into the scholarly and perhaps even more notably, the artistic world, and find that some of the most productive and famous contributors were people who lived tortured lives, or at least lives lived far on the outside of normal social acceptability. On the other hand, while much less noted, one can find just as many great scholars and artists who lived lives fairly much within the traditions and popular traditions of their time.

In this case I was simply gripped by the lives of the men independent of their fame and scholarly production. In Turing’s case it was all mainly new to me. In Gödel’s case, I have been reading about and even studying about the Vienna Circle for many years. At least 7 different years in my teaching career were spent in Vienna, Austria, home of the circle, and I was even so fascinated by the impact of the coffee house as cultural institution that I offered a course entitled: FIN-DE-SIECLE VIENNESE CULTURE AND THE COFFEEHOUSE

In that work, however, I wasn’t as much interested in the lives of these important contributors to that exciting period of Vienna’s intellectual life, but the fascinating implications of how the institution of the coffeehouse came to be so important in fostering that intellectual outpouring.

Thus I knew all the characters in the sections on Gödel and the Vienna Circle, had read a great deal of that work, and had especially focused on the work of two people who were not really “members” of the circle, but influential to them or influenced by them – Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is important in the novel, and Karl Popper who isn’t mentioned at all.

Probably because of that familiarity, I tended to be much more awed by the scenes around the table of the coffeehouse than I was in the prep school of Turing, or his pained life as a full adult.

I was especially delighted with Levin’s calling attention to the role of Moritz Schlick’s leadership, and how the physical geography of the round coffeehouse table did not reflect the role he played:

“Moritz creates a pinnacle at an otherwise round table.

“They are a ring of celestial bodies, rotating with respect to distant stars. They orbit around an identifiable epicenter of truth, the epicenter seemingly near at hand, just there in front of each of them, but unreachably far away like away like a star in the infinitely far surface of the sky, like a star that they can almost resolve but then slips away.”

Despite this disconnect for me between the scholarly output and the troubled lives of these two, I was simply gripped by Levin’s story and her writing was simply excellent. She grabbed me with his story of their lives, but in looking back on the novel, I realize there was actually very little of depth about the scholarly work itself, which is as it should have been in this novel.

Levin started out the novel “in the middle” of the lives of these two men, and while she ends with their deaths, it is still in the middle of the impact of their work. Thus that story doesn’t end, she just quits there, and is quite aware of that: “There is no ending. I’ve tried to invent one but it was a lie and I don’t want to be a liar. This story will end where it began, in the middle. A triangle or a circle. A closed loop with three points. A wayfaring chronicle searching for a treasure buried in woods, on the streets, in books, on empty trains. Craving an amulet, a jewel, a reason, a purpose, a truth. I can almost see it on the periphery, just where they said it would be, glistening at me from the far edges of every angle I search.

I tried to imagine reading this novel if one knew almost nothing of the work of Turing and Gödel, or who know almost nothing of the Turing machine or Vienna Circle. I think that in such a case the book would lose much of its luster. There is definitely a certain “hook” that comes with knowing something of the importance of the work of these two men that leads one to be gripped by the contrast of the startling success and importance of the work with the pain and suffering of the lives. Without that contrast I’m not sure this would be as successful a novel for most readers.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu