In Review: July 8, 1998
Mathematics and madness|
A journalist examines the life of Nobelist John Nash *50
A Beautiful Mind
As Sylvia Nasar tells it, the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. *50 is a tale filled with pathos as well as magnificent, if largely incomprehensible, mathematical concepts -- a compelling "story about the mystery of the human mind, in three acts: genius, madness, reawakening."
Nash first came to Princeton from the Carnegie Institute of Technology as a brilliant young graduate student in 1948. The university was then a mathematical hothouse, and Einstein, Godel, Oppenheimer, and von Neumann were just a mile from the university at the Institute for Advanced Study. It was a stimulating environment, particularly for a genius like Nash who was "obsessed with learning from scratch" and who preferred to pick others' minds about problems that caught his interest rather than sit through classes or do book research. Within two years, by the age of 22, Nash had completed his dissertation, a development of Oskar Morgenstern and John von Neumann's game theory which was to have lasting effects on the field of economics.
When Nash left Princeton in 1951 to work as a consultant at the rand Corporation, a Cold War think tank in California, and then to teach at MIT, his future looked bright. He had turned his attention from game theory to problems in pure mathematics. A beautiful physics student at MIT, Alicia Larde, fell in love with him and wooed him, despite her discovery that he had a son through a clandestine affair with another woman. Young Nash was handsome, obnoxious, arrogant, and aloof, a terrible teacher who put trick questions on his exams, but his social ineptitude was largely forgiven because of his brilliance.
In her thoroughly researched biography, Nasar quotes mathematician after mathematician who praise Nash's stunning originality and unique, audacious approach to problems. But what really interests her are not so much Nash's mathematical breakthroughs as his long "slide from eccentricity into madness." Much of her book charts his 30-year battle with schizophrenia, which Nasar likens to a "cancer of the mind." She chronicles his struggles with bisexuality, his delusions that he is "the Emperor of Antarctica," and his incarcerations in various mental institutions, from the posh McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where a fellow inmate was the poet Robert Lowell, to the frighteningly punitive Trenton State Hospital, where he underwent insulin-coma therapy. She describes Nash's increasing paranoia against the backdrop of McCarthyism and the Cold War, and his confused months in Europe, where he tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship to become a citizen of the world. Once his family gave up on mental institutions, Nash spent decades wandering around Princeton, where he lunched at the Institute and haunted Fine Hall, writing strange messages on blackboards about current events in the Middle East that he signed "Ya Ya Fontana." At Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s, he became known to students as "the library crazy man" and "the Phantom of Fine Hall" and was given free access to the computer center, where he eventually progressed from working on bizarre cryptic numerology back into real mathematics.
It's a riveting story, and one which Nasar has told before, in more condensed form, in an article that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine in late 1994 (reprinted in paw a few months later). Renewed interest in Nash was occasioned by his miraculous remission and emergence from his "lost years" and the decision of the Nobel Prize committee to belatedly honor him in 1994 for his influential dissertation work on game theory. In her book, Nasar expands her narrative of Nash's life, and especially her inquiry into the link between genius and mental illness.
Along the way, we learn that Nash, the son of an electrical engineer in affluent Bluefield, West Virginia, was an outsider from earliest childhood. Early pastimes included reading, whistling Bach, and, less benignly, building pipe bombs and even a working electric chair, onto which he tried to coax his younger sister. Nasar provides entertaining character sketches of eccentric colleagues with whom Nash interacted in his early career, in part to demonstrate that Nash was not alone in his borderline behavior. Many of these former associates rallied around him during his illness out of intellectual if not personal solidarity.
Nasar also does not shy from Nash's family life. She paints a sympathetic portrait of his longsuffering, stalwart wife Alicia (to whom she dedicates her book), who supported and provided a home for Nash even after divorcing him in 1963. (They still live together in Princeton Junction.) She also tells the sad story of the separate unhappy childhoods of Nash's two sons, both named John: his mistress Eleanor's son, in and out of foster care and poverty, who finally made it through Amherst on a scholarship and into a nursing career; and Alicia's son, who inherited his father's mathematical ability and his devastating schizophrenia along with it.
The disappointment of A Beautiful Mind is that Nasar fails to convey Nash's mathematical achievements to the uninitiated with greater clarity than she did in her short article. While the human aspects of Nash's story come through forcefully, unexplained terms such as the "axiomatization of set theory" or "Hilbert's socalled Fifth Problem for compact groups" are bound to baffle many and make it unclear who her intended audience is. We are told that Nash worked from flashes of insight and vision, "constructing laborious proofs long afterward," but we never really understand those insights, never mind how he proved them. In addition, rather than identify sources of comments within her text, Nasar relies on hundreds of footnotes, located annoyingly at the back of the book.
Fortunately, Nasar is far more effective at conveying the tragedy that occurs when a "compulsively rational" person with absolute faith in "the power of pure thought" is overcome by delusions. How could this happen? Harvard professor George Mackey asks Nash that very question when visiting him at McLean Hospital in 1959: "How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof...believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?" Nash's answer resonates chillingly: "Because...the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."
This is a book, and a life, to take seriously -- despite flaws in both.
Looking forward from 1898
1898: Prelude to a Century
When John A. Corry '53 was winding down his career as a New York City tax attorney, he found himself drawn to the old-fashioned biographies of his father's and grandfather's libraries. In search of a post-retirement pursuit, Corry decided to try recreating the "riveting personalities and major events" of the year 1898. This self-published volume, released in time for the centennial of that fateful year, is the result of Corry's labors.
Corry offers an intriguing and well-developed conceit: He uses the events of 1898 as a lens through which to view the 20th century. Fortunately, he has chosen well. "Today the United States bestrides the globe militarily, economically and technologically to a much greater degree than even the British Empire at the peak of its power," Corry writes. "The events of 1898 were instrumental in setting it on that course."
It was the year that the U.S. acquired its first overseas possessions (from Spain, during the Spanish-American War) and began to assert its prerogatives on the world stage, especially in Asia and Latin America. It was the year that Theodore Roosevelt -- later an influential shaper of American foreign and domestic policy -- first came to national attention. And it was the year in which North and South put aside their differences to fight their first overseas war since the Civil War.
Internationally, it was the year in which the U.S. and England began to cement the "special relationship" that persevered through two world wars -- as well as a year of escalating military tensions between Germany and England, who would face off in those same 20th-century wars. Finally, it was the year in which France was paralyzed by an ugly campaign of anti-Semitism revolving around the treason conviction of Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Though he was innocent and later freed, l'affaire Dreyfus presaged the monstrous European anti-Semitism that later culminated in the Holocaust.
Corry addresses each of these subjects with care, and manages to weave together the various strands of his multifaceted story in a tidy manner. Occasionally, he even inserts a bit of edgy humor. But readers should not expect up-to-date historiography from Cor-ry. Right down to its typography and photographs, Corry's book is openly, and proudly, old-fashioned. This is what provides its charm -- but also its drawbacks.
The author concentrates almost exclusively on the history of diplomats and "great men"; by contrast, he sheds little light on either ordinary citizens or those outside the politico-military realm, such as scientists, artists, and thinkers. Indeed, in the similarly titled 1898: The Birth of the American Century, which was published this spring, author David Traxel points out several other influential events that were completely overlooked by Corry, from the waning war against American Indians and the emergence of John Muir's conservation movement to the creation of the National Biscuit Company, a model of 20th-century corporate marketing.
Corry's narrative also has a tendency to drag, especially when he relates blow-by-blow excerpts from diplomatic messages. And for someone whose forward-looking thesis is so compelling, Corry spends too many pages on such quaint, 19th-century doings as African colonial expeditions and horse-and-sword battles fought by platoons of aristocrats. If Corry wanted to spotlight the real precursor of modern warfare, he might have described more fully the brutal guerilla warfare that followed the American annexation of the Philippines a few short years later. It is this kind of warfare that would be replicated so bloodily in Vietnam -- not to mention in Central America and Africa -- in the succeeding century.
Despite these problems, Corry has managed to do more than just
retell history; he has actually shaped his material into a striking and original
argument. As an amateur historian in the best sense of the word, this is no
After 50 years of running The Hudson Review, Frederick Morgan '43 is stepping aside -- not down -- to an advisory role. His wife, Paula Dietz, who has been with the magazine 30 years, will be the editor.
The Hudson Review celebrated its 50th anniversary this spring with a special 288-page issue and a gala party at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York City attended by 170 people, including many of the magazine's writers, benefactors, and friends. Other literary publications around the world noted the review's anniversary.
Morgan founded The Hudson Review with two other Princetonians, Joseph Bennett '43 and William Arrowsmith '45, both of whom left the magazine before their deaths.
Bennett and Morgan enrolled in Princeton's first creative writing class their freshman year. Poet and critic Allen Tate, who taught the class, was encouraging and supportive when the two talked of starting a new literary magazine. Even more influential, however, was their experience at Princeton on the Nassau Lit. In 1941-42, when Morgan was coeditor and Bennett was managing editor, the Lit celebrated its centennial, and they learned then to go after big name writers (Morgan snared Thomas Mann, for one) and to attract young, unpublished writers of great talent.
After World War II, these lessons proved useful to them when they started The Hudson Review in space in Morgan's parents' home on West 11th Street. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner both refused Morgan's invitation to contribute to the first issue, but Wallace Stevens contributed a poem, as did W. S. Merwin '48, who was still an undergraduate.
Later Thomas Mann appeared, as did Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Eudora Welty, and Robert Graves. Published at the beginning of their careers were Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Saul Bellow, Louis Simpson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, A.R. Ammons, Theodore Roethke, and R.W.B. Lewis.
In more recent years, Morgan has joyfully welcomed young fiction writers such as Gary Krist '79 and essayists such as Susan Bellée, whose first contribution was a scathing description of defending her dissertation at Columbia against theorists and politically correct diehards.
Morgan is proud of the young writers he has helped bring to the public's attention and proud, too, that The Hudson Review was never bound by any ideology. "We were never a journal of the left or the right," he says. "We never adopted the New Criticism as the only method to use. We resisted deconstruction when all the major universities fell for it hook, line, and sinker," he says.
And what advice does Frederick Morgan have for young people who want to start a literary magazine today? "They have to love good writing for its own sake," he says. "That means loving literature, as distinguished from journalism or writing commercially for publications that use pictures." They must also be interested in the conflict of ideas, he adds.
Morgan points out that a lot of little magazines get started and cannot maintain continuity. "I don't see why a couple of young people couldn't succeed as we did," he says, "assuming they had the same motivations and the same intellectual preparation. They would have to raise more money than we did. Everything -- printing, postage, salaries, rent -- costs more than it did in 1948."
He thinks further, then adds, "People say literature today is a specialized
taste, like string quartets. But what else is new?"
Illegal drugs; censored writings
If you're seeking Websites that anger, provoke, or inspire (depending on your political leaning), consider those of the Drug Reform Coordination Network (www.drcnet.org, where David Borden '88 is the director) and the Digital Freedom Network (www.dfn.org; Bobson Wong '93 is executive director). Both take on serious issues and use the Internet to deliver perspectives that are hard to find in mainstream media.
First to drcnet.org. The organization opposes current drug policies and their social consequences, such as prison-building, corruption, and asset forfeiture. An editorial lays down the thinking in the clearest possible terms: "If a person, a free person, with full information, wants to trade 20 years of her life for the pleasure of tobacco, flirt with dependence to unwind with valium, or even risk a heart attack to party with cocaine, that is her choice. It is a poor choice perhaps, but a choice nonetheless." Building on that premise, the site provides a weekly news round-up ("Indiana reporter arrested after exposing drug task force corruption"), a "guided tour" of the war on drugs, and a library of drug-policy materials. Particularly fascinating is the "topics in depth" section, which features essays such as "Cops Against the Drug War." Also, one of the links goes to The Lindesmith Center, headed by former assistant professor of politics and public affairs Ethan Nadelmann.
The site makes a strong pitch for reader involvement with its rapid-response team mailing list, through which subscribers can learn about drug policy trends and work for reform. A page for feedback called, "The Great Drug Debate," declares, "We are not afraid to confront other points of view."
In terms of design, drcnet.org has an antiquated look by Web standards, nothing flashy or slick, although the screaming red homepage does promote an air of urgency. Much of the content also seems dated, such as articles and references from 1996. Chunks of the site were under construction during a May visit. Too bad -- the gift shop would have been revealing. Still, the site gives a thorough argument on drugs, and is exceptionally provocative in the process.
Launched in May, dfn.org brings together censored materials -- journalism, personal essays, poetry, even cartoons -- from China, Cuba, Algeria, Turkey, Belgium, Puerto Rico, and other places. The site provides solid background on the dissident writers so viewers can understand the context behind their words. It collaborates with other human rights groups, such as Index on Censorship and Reporters sans Frontières, to find and publicize work with the goal that "it will provide an even greater audience for the material and show governments the futility of censorship activities," the site says. The first set of materials includes information about Pius Njawé, editor of Le Messager in Cameroon, who was sentenced to two years in prison in January after the paper reported that the president of the country had "a heart problem while watching a soccer game," according to the site.
Of the two sites, dfn.org is the more subversive because it puts the censored materials back into the societies whence they originated. In this country, drug reform, while not a popular position, can at least be discussed. Given unfettered Internet access, viewers in repressive countries can find the materials their leaders want to banish. It may not be a flood, but dfn.org provides a trickle of information that over time can intensify the pressure on the most obdurate political systems. Time will tell if drcnet.org will perform the same role.
-- Van Wallach '80
Stephen Bogardus '76 plays a reluctant scandal-seeking journalist (gotta love him) in High Society, a Broadway musical based on The Philadelphia Story, by Philip Barry. The show, which opened to mixed reviews in April, features music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Bogardus, an actor since graduating, can also be seen in the recent movie Love! Valour! Compassion!
Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer, by Rick Kennedy '57 (Stonebridge Press, $12.95) -- Not believing it's important to begin reading a travel guide at the very beginning, I first opened Rick Kennedy's book to page 99 and read a chapter called Cherry-Blossom Viewing in Ueno Park. After read-ing only three paragraphs, I was ready to be Tokyo-bound. But deciding it was perhaps precipitous to head east (west?) without read-ing the whole book, I took a morning off to lie in bed to read it from beginning to end; I finished three hours later, stopping once to make myself a bowl of rice and a cup of tea. And the verdict: When I go to Tokyo, I'm taking this book. It isn't a practical guide at all -- it doesn't offer information about hotels, exchange rates, transportaion, or restaurants; it's much more intriguing. Kennedy's view is that of a poet -- he's interested in the sensual experience of traveling: the smells, the odd sights, the incongruity of various elements. He offers chapters on unusual experiences, such as public bathing, visiting the teeming fish market, and group zen meditation. Though he's lived in Tokyo for 20 years, his observations are lively and fresh. (The book is a reissue of a 1992 edition.) Kennedy manages a Website called TokyoQ (www.so-net.or.jp/tokyoq/), an online city magazine.
-- Lolly O'Brien
The Hidden Pope: The Untold Story of a Lifelong Friendship That is Changing the Relationship Between Catholics and Jews--The Personal Journey of John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger, by Darcy O'Brien '61 (Daybreak, Rodale, $25)An accessible biography of Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, told alongside the life story of Wojtyla's longtime friend, Jerzy Kluger, a Jew. O'Brien, who died earlier this year, is the author of 10 other books.
How It All Began: The Prison Novel, by Nikolai Bukharin (Columbia, $28.95)The manuscript for this autobiographical novel by the Bolshevik intellectual Bukharin, who was executed in 1938 by the Stalinist regime, was found in Stalin's archives by Stephen F. Cohen, professor of politics, emeritus. The book, written while Bukharin was in prison, is considered a novel, memoir, political apology, and historical document.
Sharing the Universe: Perspectives on Extraterrestrial Life, by Seth Shostak '65 (Berkeley Hills, $14.95)Shostak, who is a member of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), explains the science involved in searching for alien life. Amply illustrated, this small volume seeks to bring readers up to date with the latest in the search and what the future holds.
Littérature Moderne du Monde Francophone, compiled by Peters S. Thompson '70 (National Textbook)A collection of short literary pieces written in French by non-French writers. The book, which introduces new voices to the intermediate French student, includes biographical information on each writer and questions about the text. Thompson is a teacher in Rhode Island.