Image credit: John Bartelstone, from frenchculture.org
Greil Marcus was teaching the world how not to be wrong many years before Jordan Ellenberg published a book by that title. That, at least, was the opinion expressed by John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten—when asked about Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces. To quote from the book’s back cover (with my emphasis added):
John Lydon: “It’s so mad, it’s so daft, it’s so off the wall—it’s thoroughly enjoyable…”
Interviewer: “But you don’t think he’s completely wrong?”
John Lydon: “No, he’s not wrong.”
A foolproof way not to be wrong is to avoid making assertions to which the tired opposition between right and wrong can be meaningfully applied. Actually, that’s on the back cover as well:
Marcus offer[s] interpretations that are meant to excite the reader to further imagining and thought rather than mere agreement or disagreement… (Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone)
The brief proposal I submitted to Princeton University Press, accompanied by early drafts of what were to become Chapters 5, 6, and 9, opened with a promise to write a book in the same vein.
The idea for this book can be traced back to my reading more than ten years ago of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. Marcus’s book, which has nothing to do with mathematics, is hugely entertaining; it is also a profound work of cultural archeology, tracing the roots of a striking and apparently unprecedented cultural phenomenon — the emergence of punk rock in the 1970s — through echos of millenarian movements and the forgotten history of striving for transcendence. My immediate reaction was: mathematics has been around a lot longer than rock and roll, and is much more pervasive in our lives, in our popular culture, and in our very way of thinking. Why is there no book that presents mathematics in a historical and cultural context rich enough to reveal mathematics as a fully human experience, with all the pathos that entails?
For a long time it was my firm intention to recycle that paragraph in the preface of the book PUP quickly agreed to publish. The preface was the last thing I wrote, though, and either because I was exhausted or because I was concerned my meaning would be misunderstood or because the main text was already overloaded with rock and roll, I decided to try to adopt a more conventional tone in the first pages a potential reader was likely to see upon opening the book. After more than half a year of writing this blog and reading the occasional bad review of MWA — I’ll be turning my attention to one of those before I’m through with this post — I am now convinced this was a mistake. Besides, one of the outside reviewers to whom PUP sent the proposal before agreeing to sign a publishing contract reacted to this very paragraph:
I strongly urge PUP to acquire Michael Harris’s (untitled) book. Let
me put it quite simply. Harris proposes to write a book that will stand
in the relation to mathematics that Greil Marcus’s LIPSTICK TRACES does
to cultural theory and the academic study of popular music. You have
sent the proposal to the right reviewer, because I am a huge admirer of
LIPSTICK TRACES and think that Marcus’s book is the exemplar of the role
an academic press (in this case Harvard) can play in getting important,
complicated ideas from the academy out to the public.
To appreciate what Marcus accomplished with Lipstick Traces it’s not necessary to share his feeling that “every good punk record made in London in 1976 or 1977” is “the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.” (Lipstick Traces, p. 80; all references to the 1990 Harvard University Press paperback edition). It’s enough to be willing to respect “…the pursuit of a non sequitur for the pleasures only a non sequitur can bring… (p. 20) and to agree not only that “Real mysteries cannot be solved, but they can be turned into better mysteries” (p. 24) but that this can be the motto of a legitimate form of intellectual exploration going by the name of cultural criticism.
The anonymous reviewer accepted my proposal’s claim that, by writing book reviews and occasional articles,
I began to learn how to dissimulate a tightly directed narrative beneath an apparent series of free associations;
the reviewer added that “I cannot say confidently what [Chapter 6] is ABOUT but it is clear that something real is happening.” Last week, in the course of a wide-ranging discussion of his two most recent books at the French bookstore Albertine in New York (pictured above), Marcus alluded to the appearance of free association in his writing, and for several minutes he explained his methods and his motives with impeccably quotable clarity. Unfortunately I was not taking notes and, although some of the events at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy are recorded and made available on line — check out this conversation with John Nash and Cédric Villani if you haven’t already done so — I fear that all that’s left of Marcus’s words are the scattered traces that my memory will not be able to reassemble.
It would have been useful to be able to channel Marcus in responding to Mark Hunacek’s review of MWA in the American Mathematical Monthly. This particular negative review appeared nearly three months ago, but I have been putting off linking to it on this page because I really don’t know what to make of it. The conclusion, though, is unambiguous:
Final verdict: a reader will have to make an individual determination as to whether the benefits of this book outweigh the author’s rhetorical excesses and heavy-handed writing style. Undoubtedly, some will say that they do, but I’m afraid that I can’t count myself in that group.
Hunacek dislikes three things about the book: its “opaque writing style,” its “self-congratulatory tone,” and its
stream-of-consciousness feel…, with the author jumping from one idea to the next, following no particular narrative pattern that I could discern.
I thought I had explained what was behind the “self-congratulatory tone” the last time a reviewer missed the point, in point 2 of this post. But Hunacek obviously decided his assignment was to read the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book; he found MWA “opaque” because it refers to authors he had not read. (By the way, I don’t understand why it’s more acceptable to announce one’s ignorance of Max Weber in the pages of the American Mathematical Monthly than it would be to write that one doesn’t “really know[…] anything about” Darwin, say, in a hypothetical analogous journal of sociology — or rather, I do understand the reason, and it doesn’t reflect well on our profession.)
Lipstick Traces, like many of Marcus’s other writings, is relevant to Hunacek’s third complaint, the one about stream-of-consciousness — or, as Marcus put it, free association. Now Marcus is a professional writer and I am not, and I am under no illusion that I can make use of his stylistic innovations in cultural criticism with anything like his skill or effectiveness, not to say brilliance. But Hunacek’s third objection, as far as I can tell, is not to my lack of skill nor even to the style he calls “heavy-handed” but to the very notion that a non sequitur, even a merely apparent non sequitur, can bring pleasure; so that his lack of discernment is the author’s fault, not his.
Each chapter of MWA is in fact organized around a “tightly directed narrative” — with the possible exception of the last part of Chapter 8 — and I’m not going to spoil the reader’s pleasure, such as it is, in figuring out where the direction points. But I do want to share what I understood while listening to Marcus at Albertine, about why I needed to write in that particular way. I have long felt that writing about certain particularly sensitive topics in the practice of mathematics leads invariably to dead ends. (A good example is the controversy over whether mathematics is invented or discovered; there are many others.) I didn’t want to avoid sensitive topics; on the contrary, as far as possible I wanted to write only about sensitive topics. Tackling them head-on — taking a right vs. wrong position one way or the other — would clearly lead me to the same dead ends. So I chose to follow Marcus and to argue by the evidence of lipstick traces — by means of analogies, anecdotes, stories, digressions, and often incongruous or “daft … off the wall” juxtapositions “to excite the reader to further imagining and thought rather than mere agreement or disagreement.” (Brendan Larvor referred to this, eloquently, as “disclosure through juxtaposition and paradox,” which he considers a “Parisian activity.” Marcus is well-versed in critical theory of the Frankfurt as well as Parisian variety, though he belongs to no -ism.) And accessorily, to incite professionally qualified readers — historians, for example — to investigate some of the more suggestive lipstick traces that may have been overlooked.
Marcus said it much better at Albertine, in connection with his own aims as a writer, but those words are no longer available to me.
I have to write about one more paragraph in Hunacek’s review, the most problematic as far as I’m concerned, before I’m ready to post quotations from the review prominently on this blog. I’ll also consider the question of whether, on balance, the publication of this kind of negative review isn’t a blessing in disguise. But that’s for another time.
P.S. Lipstick Traces is also indirectly and implausibly responsible for the inclusion of Figure 6.4 in MWA, and more directly and plausibly responsible for the brief discussion of Isidore Isou in the same chapter.