Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Trip to Scotland with some obstacles

August 21, 2022

Recently Eva and I travelled to Scotland. It was an organized tourist trip although I was also able to meet my sister and some other family for dinner on one evening. We flew from Frankfurt to Edinburgh via Brussels. We had heard a lot about chaos at airports in the recent past and were pleasantly surprised when everything went smoothly in Frankfurt. This did not last long. Our flight to Brussels was late and we had to run as fast as we could and jump the queue for immigration to just get to the gate in time for boarding. Our luggage was not so successful as we were. When we arrived in Edinburgh we waited a long time for our luggage to come and it did not. There was no information on the display and the information office was closed. There were no airport employees visible. Eventually we had no choice but to leave the baggage area and file a lost baggage claim. During the trip we were moving from one hotel to another and it was not possible to leave more than one forwarding address. We had to make several calls about this matter in the days that followed and often got the information that the person we were calling was not responsible and that we should call another number. The people I talked to often had strong Indian accents and I suppose that they were all sitting in call centres in India. We arrived in Edinburgh on a Sunday and in the end we got a message the following Saturday that our luggage would be delivered to our hotel in Aberdeen that day at a certain time. This was later revised to say that it would arrive on the Sunday between 00.02 and 02.22. It did arrive and was received by the hotel. Of course we had to buy various things during the week to replace those sitting in our suitcases. This whole business cost us a lot of time and nerves. On the way back we had to cross the EU border in Brussels.The only problem was that there was nobody there, only a written message that it was not possible to call anyone. In the end, fearing that we would miss our flight I spoke to a security guard who was buying a sandwich. He was very helpful. He made several phone calls. Then he took us through a security gate and passed us on to an immigration official who checked our passports. Again we just managed to reach the gate in time. In fact the flight was late so that we would have had a bit more time. The flight was almost empty. In Frankfurt there was a message that the luggage would arrive in thirty minutes. Then thirty suddenly changed to eight and the luggage came even faster than that. Thus positive surprises are also possible.

What conclusions do I draw from this? Firstly, I do not believe that we had specially bad luck but rather that this is the usual state of affairs at the moment. (The luggage of several other members of our group, arriving from different airports with different airlines, also took many days to arrive, in one case even a day longer than ours.) We also experienced a number of other things while in Scotland, such as lifts or coffee machines in hotels which were not working and had been waiting for months to be repaired. Many hotels in Scotland, especially in rural areas, have closed, at least for the season and maybe for ever. For these reasons we had to stay in some cases at hotels much further away from the points we wanted to visit than planned and there were long drives. The situation with logistics is dire. We were not organizing the trip alone. The organization was being done by a company which has many years of experience organizing trips of this kind in Scotland and all over the world. We know from previous experience that this company is very good. Thus things are very difficult even for the experts. If things do not change quickly this type of tourism is threatened. In future I will think very carefully about flying anywhere. This has nothing to do with the frequently discussed environmental issues but simply with the doubt that I will arrive successfully with my luggage and without an excessive amount of stress. If I do fly anywhere then I will be prepared to pay a higher price to get a direct flight. This is then the analogue of my present practise with train trips where I try to minimize the number of connections which have to be reached since the trains cannot be expected to be on time. It seems that these days the most reasonable thing is to expect that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Travelling has become an adventure again. Will this change soon? I do not expect it will.

We arrived in Edinburgh in the midst of the Festival. The streets were full of people and the atmosphere good. On the evening of the second day we went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The spectacle was impressive as was the way the arrival and departure of the mass of spectators was coordinated. The weather was dry and not too cold and so we were in luck. We heard that at the corresponding performance one week later it rained the whole time. Since almost all the spectators are sitting out in the open the weather makes a big difference. After leaving Edinburgh we crossed into Fife over the old road bridge which was only open for buses due to repairs. We briefly visited St. Andrews where I had not been before and then continued to Pitlochry where we spent a couple of nights. While there we had an excursion to visit the house of Walter Scott. I am not an admirer of Scott. One time years ago I felt the duty to read at least something by him and I read ‘Heart of Midlothian’. It did not leave a lasting impression on me. The main thing I remember about Scott is how the father in ‘To the Lighthouse’ often talks about his novels. From Pitlochry we drove to Braemar and then down Deeside to Aberdeen. We also made an extra little excursion to Dunnottar Castle. I had never been there before although it is so close to Aberdeen where I lived for seven years. The excursions I made from there were generally to the north or to the west. In Aberdeen we had a guided tour from a local which was quite entertaining.We then went into the Machar Bar (a place where I spent many hours as a student), ate stovies (which I had forgotten about for many years) and drank whisky. The guide recited some Burns and we did some singing. Together with him I sang ‘The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’. Up to that time we had almost only warm weather and sun (apart from a little coastal fog). After that we crossed over to the west coast. A rear view mirror of our bus was destroyed by another passing bus and this lead to some delays. In the end we took the most direct route from Inverness to Gairloch where our next hotel was. Perhaps we actually profited from the accident since the landscape on that route was spectacular. After the stress with our luggage I felt a great relaxation in Gairloch. The impression it made on me was of somewhere which is really far away and isolated from my usual everyday world. From our hotel room we could see Gannets fishing in the bay and in the night I heard Ringed Plovers calling on the beach. This is nature in the form I appreciate it most. The next day we crossed to Skye. It was rather foggy but what else can be expected from Skye? Our next hotel was in Tyndrum. From there we made a day trip to Iona via Oban and Mull. The general impression of the participants (and it was also my impression) was that the day was too hectic in order to enjoy it properly. For reasons already indicated the hotel was too far away and as a consequence the time was too short. I did not really get a feeling about what it might have been like for St. Columba to arrive on Iona and do what he did there. Another religious figure I would like to know more about after this trip is John Knox. Knowing very little about him I had the feeling that he was a bigot and an extremist. Now I wonder if he might not be responsible for some of most positive aspects of Scottish culture, aspects which I have profited from in my life. We spent our last night in Stirling, where we visited the castle.


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

May 30, 2022

The novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark has been on my bookshelf at home for many years. I bought it and read it when I was a student. I suppose I did so because I heard friends of mine who were studying English (including Ali Smith – see here for my relations with her) praising it. I do not know how much I liked it at the time. Now, for reasons not worth relating here, I took it off the shelf and opened it. I started reading a little and then could not stop until I had finished it. I had the strange impression that I liked the book much better and laughed a lot more than than the first time. Is this true or is it just my memory failing with increasing age? Now I am considering the possibility that among all novels by Scottish writers it is the one I like the best. What are other possible contenders for this role? The one which occurs to me is ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray. I read it with admiration as a student. In a way Gray is to Glasgow as Joyce is to Dublin although I would not think of regarding Gray as being on the same level as Joyce. I once met Gray personally. The Aberdeen University Creative Writing Group invited him and Jim Kelman (who years later won the Booker Prize) to Aberdeen to give a reading. They came on the train from Glasgow and presumably consumed alcohol continuously during the whole journey. At any rate they were both very drunk when they arrived, whereby Gray appeared a bit less intoxicated than Kelman. I had no particular interest in Kelman; Gray was the one who interested me. I cannot remember much about our conversation, except that he pronounced ‘Proust’ incorrectly. I am not sure if that was ignorance or provocation. It was probably the latter. I have not read Lanark again since then and I think my copy did not survive my moves since then. I do not know what my impression would be if I started reading Lanark again but my intuition tells me that it would not captivate me like Miss Jean Brodie. This is because of the way I have changed over the past almost forty years.

As the title suggests the novel ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is dominated by one character. She is strong and fascinating but it is wise to be cautious of having too much admiration for her. This is made clear at the latest by her professed admiration for Mussolini. (The novel is set in the years leading up to the Second World War.) She is a teacher at a private school, her pupils being girls of under the age of twelve. A group of these girls from one year come together to form ‘the Brodie set’. They are brought together not by any similarities between them but by their bond to Jean Brodie. This also keeps them together for the rest of their time at school. She is regarded by most of the teachers at the conventional school as too progressive and the headmistress is keen to find a reason to get rid of her. Eventually she succeeds in doing so. I cannot see Jean Brodie as a model for a teacher. She hatches out schemes to allow her pupils to avoid the work they should be doing and to listen to the stories she tells them. She has very definite ideas, for instance as to the relative importance of subjects: art first, philosophy second, science third. My ordering would be: science first, art second, philosophy third. The book is often very funny but I think there is also a lot in it which is very serious. Apart from the content, the use of language is very impressive. I enjoyed trying to imagine what it means for a jersey to be ‘a dark forbidding green’. There is even a little mathematics, although that is a subject which Jean Brodie has little liking for. Concerning the conflict of Miss Brodie with the Kerr sisters we read, ‘Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides’. For me this is one of those few books which is able to bring some movement into my usual routine. I watched a documentary about Muriel Spark herself, which is also very interesting. Maybe I will soon read another of her novels. ‘Aiding and Abetting’ has also found its way from my distant past onto my bookshelf but I am not sure it will be the next one I read.

The age of innocence

February 20, 2022

In a previous post I talked about my search for authors to read who are new to me. Now, following one suggestion there, I have read ‘The age of innocence’ by Edith Wharton. I did appreciate the book a lot. What are the reasons? The ‘psychological subtlety’ I mentioned in my previous post is also very much present in the novel. The society portrayed in the book is that of a small group of rich and elitist people in the New York of the late nineteenth century. In that group people tend to avoid talking about the things which are really important to them. This means that they have to be good at communicating without words. The novel is very successful in presenting the resulting non-verbal communication. Another aspect of the book I appreciate is the use of language. There are often phrases for which I felt the necessity to pause and savour them. The book is also rich in humour and irony.

What are the main themes of the novel? One is a certain society. We see a small number of people who are very rich, know each other well and are very resistent to letting anyone else into their circle. In some ways it is similar to the aristocracy in Europe at that time except that it lacks the long historical tradition and the codification of its rules. It consists mainly of people without special talents or great intelligence. In this society people are known because they are known and because certain other people in the same circle accept them. It reminds me a bit of the ‘celebrities’ of the present day who have similar characteristics including in many cases a lack of any obvious talent other than self-presentation. The main difference is that there are more chances to enter the circle of the celebrities. The two main characters in the book, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, are exceptions to the general rule. The Countess Olenska, as she is usually referred to in the book, comes from the small society described there but married a Polish count. She left him due to his bad treatment of her and came back to New York. What this treatment was is never really specified. In fact, it is not only the characters in the book who do not say openly what they mean. The author also presents many things in a way which is more suggestive than specific. The case of what really happened between the Countess Olenska and her husband is a good example but there are many more. In a way I found it a little frustrating to feel that I was waiting for information which never came. On the other hand I find that this allusive style has its own attraction. For me the Countess Olenska, who often ignores the strict rules of the society she is living in and is clearly highly intelligent and thoughtful, is the most attractive character in the novel. Newland Archer is the central character in the book in the sense that the story is told from his point of view, although in the third person. In his own way he questions the standards of the society around him. He often has impulses to act in a positive way but seems incapable of following them. He marries May Welland, a cousin of the Countess Olenska, who is the ideal partner for him in terms of her social standing and physical appearance. May is extremely conventional and not very intelligent. Her husband soon sees her as stupid, although in the end she has enough cunning to trick him and, in a sense, triumph over her clever cousin. There is a great deal of erotic tension between Archer and the Countess but, in the abstract and not only the literal sense, the orgasm never comes. May is treated cruelly in the text. Although it happens without any further comment the fact that she is given a painting of sheep as a present is a good example.

The two main characters are very different but in a way they mirror each other. I wonder to what extent the Countess Olenska is an image of the author and to what extent Newland Archer might be a better one. For me the most interesting aspect of the novel is what it has to say about love. I found the ending, whose content I will not reveal here, striking.

After I finished this post I remembered a question which I had asked myself and forgotten. This concerns the question of the relation of Marcel Proust, an author I much admire, to Edith Wharton. After all they did live in the same place at the same time. A short search led me to the following interesting answer.


Looking for a good read

January 9, 2022

In the recent past my reading has mostly been limited to mathematics and other scientific subjects. I have harldly found time to read literature. I have also tended to read only authors I already knew I liked. A few weeks ago I was in a second hand book shop and tried to do something against these tendencies. One of the things I did was to buy a book called ’50 Great Short Stories’ edited by Milton Crane. My motivation was less a desire to read short stories than to get to know authors I might like to read more of. Of course it was clear to me that reading a short story by an author may not give a very useful impression of what a novel by that author might be like. I was disappointed to find that there were few of the short stories in the book I liked very much. Those I did not appreciate much included ones by a number of authors who have written books I like very much, for instance E. M. Forster, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. I long time ago I was keen on Aldous Huxley and read most of his books. This collection contains a short story by him ‘The Gioconda Smile’, which I am sure I had read before. I was not very enthusiastic about it this time but at least I did find it good. In the end there were only two stories in the collection which were by authors I had not previously read and which I liked enough so as to want to read more. The first is ‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton and I found the psychological subtlety of the writing attractive. I read a little about the author, who I found out has often been compared with Henry James. My superficial reading on this subject indicates to me that Wharton might have some of those qualities of James which I like while lacking some of those I dislike. Thus I am now motivated to read more of Wharton. The other story which made a very positive impression on me was ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. I find it difficult to pin down what it was that I liked so much about it. In fact I think both aspects of the form and content were involved. I think a part of it was the impression of reading ‘something very different’. Here again I want to read more.

The other book I bought on that day was a collection of writings of Jean Paul, ‘Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht’. Unfortunately I found it completely inaccessible for me and I only read a small part of it.

Lisa Eckhart and her novel Omama

October 2, 2020

Lisa Eckhart is a young Austrian known for a type of comedy which is called Kabarett in German-speaking countries. Characteristic features of this form of entertainment are black humour and political content. In her stage performances she likes to break taboos and flout political correctness. I first happened to see her on TV and I was immediately interested by her performance. Since then I saw her on stage in Mainz, shortly before COVID-19 made going to the theatre impossible for some time. I had also previously seen another Austrian proponent of the same type of performance who I appreciate a lot, Josef Hader, on stage in Mainz. Recently Eckhart published her first novel, ‘Omama’, and I now read it. In her stage performances there are some obstacles to understanding. The first is that her humour relies essentially on ambiguity. The second is that the whole thing goes very fast. The third is that she likes to mix in quite a lot of Austrian dialect. I thought that if there is some similarity between the contents of the novel and that of the performances it might help me to understand more. After all, a novel can be read at the speed the reader desires and it is possible to take time to investigate anything which is unclear. Recently there has been some public controversy in Germany around Eckhart. She has been accused of antisemitism, which I do not believe is justified. In August she was supposed to give a reading from her novel at a literature festival in Hamburg. Her invitation was withdrawn because the organisers were afraid that her appearance there might lead to violent protests by left-wing groups which the police would not be able to control. I find the fact that such a thing can happen a disgrace. What happened to free speech? Later the organisers renewed the invitation in a modified form but this time Eckhart refused, which I can understand. On Wednesday evening I went to read the last few pages of the book but before I got properly started I was called by my wife, who was watching TV. When I came into the living room I understood why she had called me since Lisa Eckhart was on the screen. She was participating in a program on the channel ARTE on the subject of decadence. The word decadence was one which had not gone through my mind for many years but it interested me a long time ago. At that time I read ‘A Rebours’ by Huysmans, ‘Le Soleil des Morts’ by Mauclair and, of course, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. Looking back it is hard to imagine how different my world was then, a fact that has less to do with a change in the world than with a change in myself. In any case, when I think about it, it is clear that we are now living in a period of decadence.

Let me finally come to the novel itself. It struck me as a curate’s egg. Parts of it are very good. There are passages where I appreciate the humour and I find the author’s use of language impressive. On a more global level I do not find the text attractive. It is the story of the narrator’s grandmother. (Here is a marginal note for the mathematical reader. Walter Rudin, known for his analysis textbooks, was born in Austria. In  a biographical text about him I read that one of his grandmothers was referred to as ‘Omama’.) The expressions are often very crude, with a large dose of excrement and other unpleasant aspects of the human body, and many elements of the story seem to me pointless. There is no single character in the novel who I find attractive. This is in contrast to the novel of Banine which I previously wrote about, where I find the narrator attractive. That novel also contains plenty of crude expressions but there are more than enough positive things to make up for it. I would like to emphasize that just because I find a novel unpleasant to read it does not mean I judge it negatively. A book which I found very unpleasant was ‘Alexis ou le traite du vain combat’ by Marguerite  Yourcenar but in that case my conclusion was that it could only be so unpleasant because it was so well written. I do not have the same feeling about Omama. As to the insight which I hoped I might get for Eckhart’s stage performances I have not seen it yet, but maybe I will notice a benefit the next time I experience a stage performance by her.

The plague priest of Annaberg

March 26, 2020

I find accounts of epidemics, whether documentary or fictional, fascinating. I appreciated texts of this kind by Camus (La Peste), Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year) and Giono (Le Hussard sur le Toit). This interest is reflected in a number of posts in this blog, for instance this one on the influenza pandemic of 1918. At the moment we all have the opportunity to experience what a pandemic is like, some of us more than others. In such a situation there are two basic points of view, depending on whether you see the events as concerning other people or whether you feel that you are yourself one of the potential victims. The choice of one of these points of view probably does not depend mainly on the external circumstances, except in extreme cases, and is more dependent on individual psychology. I do feel that the present COVID-19 pandemic concerns me personally. This is because Germany, where I live, is one of the countries with the most total cases at the moment, after China, Italy, USA and Spain. Every evening I study the new data in the Situation Reports of the WHO. The numbers to be found in the Internet are sometimes quite inconsistent. This can be explained by the time delays in reporting, the differences in the definitions of classes of infected individuals used by different people or organizations and unfortunately in some cases by poltically motivated lies. My strategy for extracting real information from this data is to stick to one source I believe to be competent and trustworthy (the WHO) and to concentrate on the relative differences between one day and the next and one country and another in order to be able to see trends. I find interesting the extent to which diagrams coming from mathematical models have found their way into the media reporting of this subject. Prediction is a high priority for many people at the moment.

Motivated by this background I started to read a historical novel by Gertrud Busch called ‘Der Pestpfarrer von Annaberg’ [the plague priest of Annaberg] which I got from my wife. The main character in the book is a person who really existed but many of the events reported there are fictional. Annaberg is a town in Germany, in the area called ‘Erzgebirge’, the literal English translation of whose name is ‘Ore mountains’. This mountain range lies on the border between Germany and the Czech republic. People were attracted there by the discovery of valuable mineral deposits. In particular, starting in the late fifteenth century, there was a kind of gold rush there (Berggeschrey), with the difference that the metal which caused it was silver rather than gold. My wife was born and grew up in that area and for this reason I have spent some time in Annaberg and other places close to there. The narrator of the book is Wolfgang Uhle, a priest in the Erzgebirge in the sixteenth century active in Annaberg during the outbreak of plague there. In fact in the end only a small part of the book concerns the plague itself but I am glad I read it. The author has created a striking picture of the point of view of the narrator, at a great distance from the modern world.

During Uhle’s first period as a priest there was a fire in a neighbouring village which destroyed many houses. He saved the life of a young girl, in fact a small child, who was playing in a burning house. Much to the amusement of the adults the girl said she would marry him when she was old enough. In fact she meant it very seriously and when she was old enough it did happen that after some difficulties she got engaged to him. The tragedy of Wolfgang Uhle is that he had a temper which was sometimes uncontrollable. Before the marriage took place he once got into a rage due to the disgraceful behaviour of the judge in his village. Unfortunately at that moment he was holding a large hammer in his hand. A young girl had asked him if a stone she had brought him was valuable. He had some knowledge of geology and he intended to use the hammer to break open the stone and find out more about its composition. In his sudden rage he hit the judge on the head with the hammer and killed him. He went home in a state of shock without any plan but his housekeeper brought him to flee over the border into Bohemia. He was sentenced to death in absentia and hid in the woods for five years. The girl who he was engaged to repudiated him, stamped on his engagement ring and quickly married another man. He partly lived from what he could find in nature, living at first in a cave. Later he started working together with a charcoal burner. I learned something about what that industry was like when I visited those woods myself a few years ago. Eventually he revealed his identity and had to leave.

In the woods he met a man who had got lost and asked him the way. The man wanted to go to Bärenstein, which is the town where my wife spent her childhood. He agreed to show him the way. The man told him that the plague had broken out in Annaberg and that the town was desperately searching for a priest to tend to the spiritual needs of the sick. Uhle decided that he should volunteer, despite the danger. He saw this as God giving him a chance to make amends for his crime. He wrote letters to the local prince and the authorities of the town. The prince agreed to grant him a pardon in return for his service as priest for the people infected with the plague. He then went to Annaberg and tended to the sick, without regard to the danger he was putting himself in. There is not much description of the plague itself in the book. There is a key scene where he meets his former love on her deathbed and it turns out that she had continued to love him and felt guilty for having abandoned him. Uhle survives the plague, gets a new position as a priest, marries and has children. This book was different from what I expected when I started reading it. Actually the fact that it was so different from things I otherwise encounter made it worthwhile for me to read it.

Ernst Jünger

December 25, 2019

The two German writers I admire most are Ernst Jünger and Hermann Hesse (not necessarily in that order). This might cause some surprise since these two authors are so different. There are, however, some telling similarities. One is that both are appreciated relatively little in their own country and have had a better reception in France. (As some evidence for this I mention that the Magazine Littéraire had a special issue on Hesse (No. 318, February 1994) and that there is an article on Jünger in the issue ‘Ecrire la guerre’ (No. 378, July-August 1999).) Another, which is not unrelated, is that both were individualists who did not fit well into the political categories of their society. In Germany Jünger has a widespread reputation (particularly among people who have not read him) as a Nazi. It is true that he had relations to the party in the very early days but he had sufficient opportunity to regret that later. His book ‘In Stahlgewittern’ was a favourite of Adolf Hitler but an author cannot be held responsible for his readers. This book has more generally been a source of animosity towards Jünger. In this context there is a story which I think is enlightening. Jünger was an officer in the German army which occupied Paris. He attempted to visit André Gide at his home but Gide did not receive him. This was based on prejudice since at that time Gide had read none of Jünger’s books. When he later read ‘In Stahlgewittern’ he called it ‘the best book ever written about war’ and completely changed his attitude to Jünger. Unfortunately, after the first opportunity had been missed, the two never met. (I no longer remember where I read about Gide’s statement and so the quote is only approximate.) I agree with Gide’s judgement on the book. Some people may be put off by the objectivity of the book – this also applies to other writings of Jünger. It does not waste time with general talk about how bad war is. Instead it shows directly how terrible war is for the benefit of those of us fortunate enough never to have experienced it directly.

The book of Jünger which ignited my enthusiasm for his writing is ‘Afrikanische Spiele’. This is a work of fiction but it is based rather closely on Jünger’s own experiences. He was often bored in school and preferred to read adventure stories. For him Africa was the land of adventure and he wanted to go there. He ran away from school and travelled to Verdun, where he enlisted in the Foreign Legion. He was then stationed in Algeria. This was not his real aim and so he deserted and tried to travel further. He was caught and put into prison in solitary confinement. A doctor in the place he was stationed wrote to his father. Since in fact Jünger was not old enough to have joined the foreign legion and had only managed to do so by lying about his age his father was able to get him discharged and took him home. Shortly after he returned the First World War began and Jünger enlisted immediately and had his opportunity for adventure, as related in ‘In Stahlgewittern’. One thing which attracts me to Jüngers writing, in ‘Afrikanische Spiele’ and elsewhere, is the style. At the same time, the content is often remarkable. Here is a striking example. The hero of the book has taken some money with him when he left home. He feels the danger that he might give up and not dare to carry out his plan. To avoid this he takes all the money he has and puts in down a drain in Verdun. In this way he removes the chance of turning back. This reminds me a little of the story of how Nansen became the first to cross the Greenland icecap. He chose the direction of crossing in such a way that failure would have meant almost certain death.

In a previous post I mentioned that I had read a book about Jünger by Banine. I now read her book ‘Rencontres avec Ernst Jünger’. She wrote more than one book about him and I think this is not the same one I read before. The reason is that apart from describing events from the time of the Second World War in Paris she also describes how she visited Jünger in Tübingen after the war. The copy of the book I am reading is from the university library. Interestingly it contains a stamp ‘Don du Gouvernement Français’ [gift of the French government]. It would be interesting to know how that came about. According to the description in the book it was hard for Banine and Jünger to form a warm personal relationship – the positive aspects of their communication during the time in Paris were on a purely intellectual level. It has been a pleasure reading Banine again. She too is a stylist who I appreciate a lot. There are also interesting facts. Banine mentions that Jünger had read neither Proust nor Huxley and that when she gave him their books to read he did not appreciate them. She tells the story of his meeting with Madame Cardot, a Jewish woman who ran a bookshop in Paris throughout the war. The first time he came into her shop (in uniform) the first thing he did was to thank her for having displayed his book ‘Gärten und Strassen’ (in French translation) prominently in her window. This was the start of an unusual friendship. When they met on the street they usually avoiding giving any sign that they knew each other for practical reasons. When they met for the last time it was on the street in July 1944 and Jünger whispered to her ‘in a few weeks you will be rid of us’.

I will mention a passage in ‘Gärten und Strassen’ which particularly struck me and which Banine mentions in her book. In this book Jünger described his experiences during the German invasion of France in the Second World War. This time, in contrast with what happened in the First World War, he was hardly involved in the fighting at all. At one time he was the commanding officer in the town of Laon. Laon has a magnificent gothic cathedral, which I have visited myself. He describes his experience of looking at this cathedral, for whose safety he was responsible at that time, and feeling that this huge building was like a small vulnerable creature. He was successful in preventing treasures from the cathedral being stolen or destroyed, helped by the fact that those who might have done so did not realize how valuable these things were.

Despite my admiration for Jünger’s writings there is one thing which I do not like and which I feel I have to mention. This is a tendency to esotericism which he shows from time to time and which I just try to ignore. Despite this I am sure that I will continue to read Jünger with pleasure in the future.

Science as a literary pursuit

August 24, 2019

I found something in a footnote in the book of Oliver Sacks I mentioned in the previous post which attracted my attention. There is a citation from a letter of Jonathan Miller to Sacks with the idea of a love of science which is purely literary. Sacks suggests that his own love of science was of this type and that that is the reason that he had no success as a laboratory scientist. I feel that my own love for science has a strong literary component, or at least a strong component which is under the control of language. In molecular biology there are many things which have to be named and people have demonstrated a lot of originality in inventing those names. I find the language of molecular biology very attractive in a way which has a considerable independence from the actual meaning of the words. I expect that there are other people for whom this jungle of terminology acts as a barrier to entering a certain subject. In my case it draws me in. In my basic field, mathematics, the terminology and language is also a source of pleasure for me. I find it stimulating that everyday words are often used with a quite different meaning in mathematics. This bane of many starting students is a charm of the subject for me. Personal taste plays a strong role in these things. String theory is another area where there is a considerable need for inventing names. There too a lot of originality has been invested but in that case the result is not at at all to my taste. I emphasize that when I say that I am not talking about the content, but about the form.

The idea of using the same words with different meanings has a systematic development in mathematics in context of topos theory. I learned about this through a lecture of Ioan James which I heard many years ago with the title ‘topology over a base’. What is the idea? For topological spaces X there are many definitions and many statements which can be formulated using them, true or false. Suppose now we have two topological spaces X and B and a suitable continuous mapping from X to B. Given a definition for a topological space X (a topological space is called (A) if it has the property (1)) we may think of a corresponding property for topological spaces over a base. A topological space X over a base B is called (A) if it has property (2). Suppose now that I formulate a true sentence for topological spaces and suppose that each property which is used in the sentence has an analogue for topological spaces over a base. If I now interpret the sentence as relating to topological spaces over a base under what circumstances is it still true? If we have a large supply of statements where the truth of the statement is preserved then this provides a powerful machine for proving new theorems with no extra effort. A similar example which is better known and where it is easier (at least for me) to guess good definitions is where each property is replaced by one including equivariance under the action of a certain group.

Different mathematicians have different channels by which they make contact with their subject. There is an algebraic channel which means starting to calculate, to manipulate symbols, as a route to understanding. There is a geometric channel which means using schematic pictures to aid understanding. There is a combinatoric channel which means arranging the mathematical objects to be studied in a certain way. There is a linguistic channel, where the names of the objects play an important role. There is a logical channel, where formal implications are the centre of the process. There may be many more possibilities. For me the linguistic channel is very important. The intriguing name of a mathematical object can be enough to provide me with a strong motivation to understand what it means. The geometric channel is also very important. In my work schematic pictures which may be purely mental are of key importance for formulating conjectures or carrying out proofs. By contrast the other channels are less accessible to me. The algebraic channel is problematic because I tend to make many mistakes when calculating. I find it difficult enough just to transfer a formula correctly from one piece of paper to another. As a child I was good in mental arithmetic but somehow that and related abilities got lost quite early. The combinatoric channel is one where I have a psychological problem. Sometimes I see myself surrounded by a large number of mathematical objects which should be arranged in a clever way and this leads to a feeling of helplessness. Of course I use the logical channel but that is usually on a relatively concrete level and not the level of building abstract constructs.

Does all this lead to any conclusion? It would make sense for me to think more about my motivations in doing (and teaching) mathematics in one way or another. This might allow me to do better mathematics on the one hand and to have more pleasure in doing so on the other hand.

Light and lighthouses

June 3, 2019

I recently had the idea that I should improve my university web pages. The most important thing was to give a new presentation of my research. At the same time I had the idea that the picture of me on the main page was not very appropriate for attracting people’s attention and I decided to replace it with a different one. Now I have a picture of me in front of the lighthouse ‘Les Éclaireurs’ in the Beagle Channel, taken by my wife. I always felt a special attachment to lighthouses. This was related to the fact that as a child I very much liked the adventure of visiting uninhabited or sparsely inhabited small islands and these islands usually had lighthouses on them. This was in particular true in the case of Auskerry, an island which I visited during several summers to ring birds, especially storm petrels. I wrote some more about this in my very first post on this blog. For me the lighthouse is a symbol of adventure and of things which are far away and not so easy to reach. In this sense it is an appropriate symbol for how I feel about research. There too the goals are far away and hard to reach. In this context I am reminded of a text of Marcel Proust which is quoted by Mikhail Gromov in the preface to his book ‘Metric structures for Riemannian and non-Riemannian spaces’:

‘Même ceux qui furent favorables à ma perception des vérités que je voulais ensuite graver dans le temple, me félicitèrent de les avoir découvertes au microscope, quand je m’étais au contraire servi d’un télescope pour apercevoir des choses, très petites en effet, mais parce qu’elles étaient situées à une grande distance, et qui étaient chacune un monde’

[Even those who were favourable to my perception of the truths which I wanted to engrave in the temple, congratulated me on having discovered them with a microscope, when on the contrary I used a telescope to perceive things, in fact very small, but because they were situated at a great distance, and each of which was a world in itself.]

I feel absolutely in harmony with that text. Returning to lighthouses, I think they are also embedded in my unconscious. Years ago, I was fascinated by lucid dreams. A lucid dream usually includes a key moment, where lucidity begins, i.e. where the dreamer becomes conscious of being in a dream. In one example I experienced this moment was brought about by the fact of simultaneously seeing three lighthouses, those of Copinsay, Auskerry and the Brough of Birsay. Since I knew that in reality it is impossible to see all three at the same time this made it clear to me that I must be dreaming.

The function of a lighthouse is to use light to convey information and to allow people (seafarers) to recognise things which are important for them. Thus a lighthouse is a natural symbol for such concepts as truth, reason, reliability, learning and science. These concepts are of course also associated with the idea of light itself, that which allows us to see things. These are the elements which characterize the phase of history called the enlightenment. Sometimes I fear that we are now entering a phase which is just the opposite of that. Perhaps it could be called the age of obscurity. It is characterized by an increasing amount of lies, deceit, ignorance and superstition. Science continues its progress but sometimes it seems to me like a thin ray among gathering darkness. A future historian might describe the arch leading from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. I recently watched a video of the Commencement speech of Angela Merkel in Harvard. In a way many of the things she said were commonplaces, nothing new, but listening to her speech and seeing the reactions of the audience it became clear to me that it is important these days to repeat these simple truths. Those of us who have not forgotten them should propagate them. And with some luck, the age of obscurity may yet be averted.

Banine’s ‘Jours caucasiens’

April 11, 2019

I have just read the novel ‘Jours caucasiens’ by Banine. This is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood in Baku. I find it difficult to judge how much of what she writes there is true and how much is a product of her vivid imagination. I do not find that so important. In any case I found it very interesting to read. It is not for readers who are easily shocked. Banine is the pen name of Umm-El-Banine Assadoulaeff. She was born in Baku into a family of oil magnates and multimillionaires. In fact she herself was in principle a multimillionaire for a few days after the death of her grandfather, until her fortune was destroyed when Azerbaijan was invaded by the Soviet Union. In later years she lived in Paris and wrote in French. To my taste she writes very beautifully in French. I first heard of her through the diaries of Ernst Jünger. While he was an officer in the German army occupying Paris during the Second World War he got to know Banine and visited her regularly. It was not entirely unproblematic for her during the occupation when she was visited at her appartment by a German army officer in uniform. She seemed to regard this with humour. The two had a close but platonic relationship.

As I mentioned in a previous post, during the year I lived in Paris I was a frequent visitor to the library of the Centre Pompidou. One of the books I found and read there was a book by Banine about her meetings with Jünger. I believe she actually wrote three books about him and I am not sure which one it was I read. I enjoyed reading her book and it was nice to see an account of Jünger’s time in Paris which was complementary to his own. I had completely forgotten about Banine until recently. I was reminded of her by the following chain of circumstances. Together with my wife we were thinking of going on holiday to Georgia. I found an interesting organised tour visiting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. One of the places to be visited was Baku. I must confess that it was not clear to me at that point that Baku was in Azerbaijan. In any case, it occurred to me that Banine was born in Baku and I looked her up in Wikipedia. I found out that she had written the book ‘Jours caucasiens’ and I thought it might be good to read it before the planned trip. I got the book from the university library without being sure I wanted to read it. The prose of the first page captured me immediately and did not let me go. The potential trip to Georgia will not take place this year, if at all. Even if it does not it has had the pleasant consequence of leading me to rediscover Banine.

The society in which Banine grew up was the result of the discovery of oil. Her ancestors had been poor farmers who suddenly became very rich because oil-wells were built on their land. She presents her family as being very uncivilised. They were muslims but had already been strongly affected by western culture. I found an article in the magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ from 1947 where ‘Jours caucasiens’ is described by the words ‘gehören zu den skandalösesten Neuerscheinungen in Paris’ [is one of the most scandalous new publications in Paris]. It also says that her family was very unhappy about the way they were presented in the book and I can well understand that. It seems that she had a low opinion of her family and their friends and the culture they belonged to, although she herself did not seem to mind being part of it. She was attracted by Western culture and Paris was the place of her dreams. As a child she had a German governess. Her mother died when she was very young and after her father had remarried she had a French and an English teacher for those languages. She quickly fell in love with French. On the other hand, she saw having to learn English as a bit of a nuisance. Her impression was that the English had just taken the words from German and French and changed them in a strange way.

After the Russian invasion Banine’s father, who had been a government minister in the short-lived Azerbaijan Republic, was imprisoned. He was released due to the efforts of a man whose motivation for doing so was the desire to marry Banine. She was very much against this. Perhaps the strongest reason was that he had red hair. There was a superstition that red-haired people, who were not very common in that region, had evil supernatural powers. Banine’s grandmother told her a story about an alchemist who discovered the secret of red-haired people. According to him they should be treated in the following way. He cut off their head, boiled it in a pot and put the head on a pedestal. If this was done correctly then the heads would start to speak and make prophecies which were always true. Banine could not help associating her potential husband with this horrible myth. Unfortunately she was under a lot of social pressure and after hesitating a bit agreed to the marriage. Apart from being a sign of gratitude for her father’s release this was also a way of persuading her suitor to use his influence to get a visa for her father to allow him to leave Russia. In the end she accepted this arrangement instead of running away with the man she loved. At this time she was fifteen years old. Her father got the visa and left the country. Later she also got a visa and was able to leave. The last stage of her journey was with the Orient Express from Constantinople to Paris. The book ends as the train is approaching Paris and a new life is starting for her.