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Topic: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Replies: 44   Last Post: Jan 8, 2000 12:08 AM

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Barry Cipra

Posts: 21
Registered: 12/3/04
Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Posted: Dec 17, 1999 10:26 AM
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Robert Tragesser's peculiar riff on the math-poetry correspondence in the
Weierstrass-Kovalevskaia correspondence warrants, I feel, a correspondingly
peculiar response.

Where Tragesser sees "a sign that Kovalevskaja was clueless about the nature
of poetic thought," I see a sign that Tragesser is clueless about
Kovalevskaia. (Please don't mistake my irony for insult; I'm only following
Tragesser's lead in making bold, provocative statements. Forgive me,
Robert, and kindly reply in kind!) He seems to be unaware that Kovalevskaia
had keen interest in literature, if little talent for it. (He also seems to
be unaware that Kovalevskaia was a woman.) As Ann Hibner Koblitz puts it in
her biography of Kovalevskaia, "A Convergence of Lives" (from which I've
taken my transliteration of her name),

"Sofia Kovalevskaia wrote a number of plays, novellas, poems, essays and
sketches, many of which were unfinished at the time of her death in 1891.
With the exception of her Memories of Childhood, however, most of her works
are of marginal literary interest at the present time. Sofia's style is
uneven, her characterizations are inconsistent, and her narrative point of
view too naive and sentimental to appeal to modern tastes."

Of course, Koblitz's assessment can be taken as proving Tragesser's point:
Kovalevskaia's literary weaknesses show she didn't really know anything
about poetry. But maybe not. Creative limitations don't automatically
correlate with misunderstanding, as plenty of English majors, art
historians, and others will protest (perhaps too much). Conversely, it's
entirely possible to create great works of art without thinking too deeply
about the nature of what you're doing.

I suppose it all depends on what's meant by understanding the nature of
poetic thought. Tragesser criticizes Kovalevskaia for wandering off into
generalities about poetry when she decries the popular misimpression of
mathematics as arid; he would rather have her trope the word "arid" into
something florid and sublime. But consider who Kovalevskaia was writing to.
Alfred Ross, who introduced the passage in the present discussion, didn't
stipulate a source (shame on him!), but one can be found in Koblitz:
Kovalevskaia was writing to "the belle lettrist A.S. Shabelskaia (Montvid)
in the autumn of 1890." I'm not exactly sure what a belle lettrist is,
either, but I think we can assume that Shabel- and Kovalevskaia shared
common views on the value of literature. I don't think Sofia was trying to
convert her correspondent over to an appreciation of mathematics; I think
she was just trying to clarify her own stance. She may not elaborate her
views to Tragesser's taste, but that doesn't make her clueless. Keep in
mind this was a private correspondence, not a treatise. (But what do I know
about nineteenth-century letter writers' views on the purpose of their
prose? All I can say is that I'll be deeply embarrassed if anyone ever
collects the platitudes and trivialities I've used over the years as bland
seasoning in letters to friends and family.)

As for the math-poetry nexus itself, I'm inclined to agree with Tragesser
(if I understand him correctly) that the quote is all too often offered up
without regard for its implications. The assertion that a mathematician
can't be complete without a component of poetry can't be taken seriously as
a statement of fact, but only as an expression of attitude. In this sense,
it falls roughly into the same category as the familiar phrase, "Real men
don't eat quiche." Each claim simply serves to convey a synoptic sense of
what's meant by "complete mathematician" or "real man." There are (I
conjecture) a great many mathematicians with no facility for poetry or much
interest in it; likewise there are undoubtedly many manly men who'll dive
into a plate of quiche, especially if the wife's away and it's the only
frozen dinner in the fridge.

The manly prohibition on quiche is, of course, primarily played for laughs
(though who knows what effect it's had on the grocery-shopping habits of
bachelors). The mathematician-poet combo is more often advanced in a
serious vein (though, again, who knows what chuckles it elicits among the
limerickmeisters). The Weierstrass quote is typically trotted out to
establish that mathematicians have an appreciation for the finer things of
life (namely poetry) and hopefully thereby jar the clueless view of math as
uncreative---though perhaps we should do with "uncreative" what Tragesser
suggests for "arid," and turn it with a tropical trick (or trompeur trope).

Finally, when it comes to context, I'm of the clan that doesn't care. More
precisely, I often don't care. I'm always looking for good, juicy quotes
that succinctly summarize a point, even if they're ripped entirely out of
context. One of my favorites is from a poem by Rita Dove, a poet-laureate
of the United States:

He is weary
of analysis, the small
predictable truths.

Dove is, of course, not referring to mathematical analysis (though others of
her poems do deal with mathematical themes), but the lines are nonetheless
delightful when read as unintended. Where context does become important is
if your use of the quote depends on the original, intended meaning---if, for
example, you're engaged in historical study of Weierstrass's view of
mathematics, or if you're appealing to the source of a quote as an authority
to support your own interpretation. (It would be a blunder to cite Dove in
a debate on the relative merits of, say calculus and abstract algebra.)

The Weierstrass quote certainly gains some of its force from the
(mathematical) stature of its author, as do the words of Kovalevskaia, but
it also stands on its own, just as Weierstrass's mathematics does. However,
the reach of his authority is, I daresay, rather limited. It's comforting
to mathematicians to hear the math-poetry comparison from one of their
legends, but it's not clear Weierstrass's words carry much weight outside
their own sphere. How many poets or poetasters know or care who Weierstrass
was or what he did? The effort to establish his credentials in order to
impress people with the wisdom of his words may be too taxing and ultimately
counterproductive (especially if you're dealing with people still smarting
from the epsilon-delta rigors of an old calculus professor).

It can also be dangerous, as we learn from Hans Lausch, whose posting shows
the Weierstrass quote was written cheek by jowl with some anti-semitic
remarks. Mathematicians arguing for a humanistic view of mathematics can
wind up hoist by their own petard if they're not careful. (Of course the
humanities have their own mine fields to dance through. Vide Ezra Pound.)
That's maybe one more reason for knowing the context of a quote.

To wrap things up, it's worth quoting the next paragraph from Kovalevskaia's
letter to her belle-lettrist buddy, after her allusion to Weierstrass. The
passage appears in Koblitz (pg. 231):

"As for me, I have never been able to decide toward which I have the greater
inclination: mathematics or literature. As soon as my mind becomes tired
of purely abstract speculations, it immediately begins to turn toward
observation of life, toward the urge to retell what I see. And conversely,
at other times everything in life suddenly seems unimportant and
uninteresting, and only the eternal, immutable laws of science attract me.
It is very possible that I would have done more in either one of these
fields if I had devoted myself exclusively to it, but at the same time I
simply cannot abandon either one of them."

Barry Cipra
cipra@microassist.com




Date Subject Author
12/14/99
Read [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Alfred Ross
12/14/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Antreas P. Hatzipolakis
12/14/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Hans Lausch
1/7/00
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Sanford L. Segal
1/8/00
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Julio Gonzalez Cabillon
12/14/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Robert Tragesser
12/14/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Hans Lausch
12/14/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Alfred Ross
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Samuel S. Kutler
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Robert Tragesser
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Tony Mann
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Antreas P. Hatzipolakis
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Valdusek@aol.com
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Michele Fanelli
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Hans Lausch
1/2/00
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Joao Filipe Queiro
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Fernando Q. Gouvea
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Juan Alvarado Ortega
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
richard@TUTORCOM.DIRCON.CO.UK
12/16/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Hans Lausch
12/16/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Walter Felscher
12/17/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
David Fowler
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Prof. Dr. Ivo Schneider
12/30/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Thomas L Bartlow
12/15/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Antreas P. Hatzipolakis
12/16/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Everdell@aol.com
12/16/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
John McKay
12/16/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Kim Plofker
12/17/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Barry Cipra
12/17/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Martin Davis
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Poetry and Mathematics
Dr. Siegmund Probst
12/20/99
Read [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Martin Davis
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Gordon Fisher
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Hans Lausch
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
William Tait
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Frode L. Odegard
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Julio Gonzalez Cabillon
12/20/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Gordon Fisher
12/21/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Gordon Fisher
12/20/99
Read [HM] The Mendelssohn-Dirichlet-Hensel connection
Hans Lausch
12/21/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
James A Landau
12/21/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Imre Toth
12/22/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Abe Shenitzer
12/22/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Gordon Fisher
12/26/99
Read Re: [HM] Was Cantor of Jewish descent? (was: Poetry and Mathematics)
Julio Gonzalez Cabillon

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