Friday, May 08, 2015

`Goes Through Me Like a Spear'

I spoke with a young statistician who suggested I read G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (1940), a work I knew only from an often quoted passage: “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” For a non-mathematician, the thought is charming and deeply attractive, but perhaps my reaction betrays the limitations of my dilettante status. My mathematical gift will always remain modest, but Hardy’s Apology can be appreciated and judged for its literary qualities. 

And its literary content.  Hardy opens with big guns in his first paragraph: “Exposition, criticism, appreciation is work for second-rate minds.” In the second he describes “one of the few serious conversations” he had with A.E. Housman, also at Cambridge. In 1933, Housman had delivered his Leslie Stephen Lecture, “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” In it, Hardy says, Housman “denied very emphatically that he was a ‘critic’; but he had denied it in what seemed to me a singularly perverse way, and had expressed an admiration for literary criticism which startled and scandalized me.” Hardy wasn’t shy and Housman was no shrinking violet. The mathematician writes: 

“Did he really mean what he had said to be taken very seriously? Would the life of the best of critics really have seemed to him comparable with that of a scholar and a poet? We argued the questions all through dinner, and I think that finally he agreed with me. I must not seem to claim a dialectical triumph over a man who can no longer contradict me, but ‘Perhaps not entirely’ was, in the end, his reply to the first question, and ‘Probably no’ to the second.” 

Housman had died in 1936, and could not respond to Hardy’s judgment, but it seems the mathematician’s objection was more personal than literary or philosophical. Hardy (1877-1947) had other things on his mind. He may have sensed that his own essential mathematical work was behind him. Historically, mathematicians, like athletes, do their best work when young. In the paragraph following the one quoted above, Hardy writes candidly and with regret, but seemingly without self-pity: 

“If then I find myself writing, not mathematics but `about’ mathematics, it is a confession of weakness, for which I may rightly be scorned or pitied by younger and more vigorous mathematicians. I write about mathematics because, like any other mathematician who had passed sixty, I have no longer the freshness of mind, the energy, or the patience to carry on effectively with my proper job.” 

I find Hardy’s stoical resignation stirring. Few spectacles are more embarrassing than a codger masquerading as a young Turk. Hardy was by all accounts a first-rate mathematician. He befriended and collaborated with the brilliant, doomed Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. That Hardy wrote with clarity and wit makes him a doubly precious rarity. His differences with Housman take nothing away from that great poet. I have always admired his statement in “The Name and Nature of Poetry” that, “Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual,” followed by this description of his test for poetry: 

“Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’” 

In his review of A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose (ed. Christopher Ricks, Penguin Press, 1988), Kingsley Amis says Housman’s famous lecture “reads rather disappointingly today.” Elsewhere, Amis had already described Housman as his favorite poet, and in the review he writes: “No poet could have turned his back more comprehensively on the modern world or (what has come to be part of the same thing) written in a way less cut out for study in modern universities, where the standing of poets seems nowadays to be determined. From such places he looks a disagreeable figure, elitist, embittered, pessimistic and utterly unsuitable for appearing on television.”

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