Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Language as Math -- Tangents Included

I recently watched the movie Proof and it made me want to write. In the film, Anthony Hopkins, having given up eating young women, spent hours a day filling notebooks with mathematical gibberish. A "graphomaniac" they called him. I have bouts of graphomania, especially when traveling. I have notebooks full of airport observations, risque thoughts that pop up while supping at unfamiliar sidewalk cafes, and bedtime musings from the comfort (or discomfort) of strange beds.

The film also made me think about poetry, which is essentially language math. So is any kind of writing where words are attacked like problems and functions that need to be solved or plugged in at the right point in the text. The elegance of a proof is a virtue, as is elegance in writing.

However, writers of complex sentences who fail to spare their audience multiple clauses and multi-syllabic words that may or may not be in the abridged dictionary would probably argue that elegance in writing does not depend on clarity or simplicity. Literary critics, which are the focus of my summer reading, are the best example of elegance in its hardest-to-read form.

In math, clarity and simplicity are requirements. Being simplified, having both sides balance, making all signs pointing to ONE single solution - all these things are necessary in math. But in language, ambiguity and complexity in some cases can add to the elegance of a sentence rather than distract from it, or make it somehow "incorrect."

In fact, some thinkers like Barthes and Lacan would say that extremely clear language must have an agenda -- that it is the "language of persuasion and autocracy." Ambiguity lets the reader work with the author to uncover meaning instead of the author merely "handing down to us from on high his firm doctrine."

Despite the looser rules of language, I believe math and language are still analogous. Although, I imagine mathematicians who drool over the plainness, clarity, and certainty of their art would not like it to be compared to the art of writing. There may still be some math geniuses who are more interested in math for the fun of it, or in theories about math, and who would enjoy such a comparison.

Um, OK. Did we need to prove that?
From Russell and Whitehead's Principia


We writers and other humanities sorts are fully expected to look in enviously and respectfully on the world of math and marvel at their solutions. In films they are depicted as heroes standing at huge white boards or chalk boards drawing alien symbols in montage, as they rush to solve the big problems of the universe. The writer is not a hero -- he is a tortured and failed genius, an emotionally disturbed slacker. I do not think the math bunch are as expected to marvel at our verbal acrobatics or our insights into humanity as we writers are at their curly Greek letters and their associations with the cutting edge of everything.

Math is not superior to the humanities and other arts. Maybe only in its superlative abstraction. But some linguists would argue that language is equally abstract.

Don't get me wrong! I like math. Hey, I was student of the month (twice!) in tenth grade geometry. But once I got to college algebra I began to struggle, loved trig, but hit my wall at calculus. If I were better at math (the SAT shows I'm painfully average at the 55th percentile) I might write volumes on this subject, that is if I could find a way to make a valid comparison. I'll have to find a math genius who appreciates words, and see what he or she thinks of all this.




I hit my math peak at fifteen.


The phrases quoted on the virtues of complex language and the vices of clarity are from the introduction to Structuralism and Since, ed. John Sturrock, 1979, Oxford Press.

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