In what little we learned of the movements of Theodore Kaczynski before and during the seventeen years of bombings that killed three people and injured twenty-nine and led to the charges on which he will be sentenced in May, there seemed something obstinately, if not recently, familiar, arresting details of place and class and fractured expectations in a curiously earlier American mold, the sketchy outline of a kind of Dreiser character. Here we had the Chicago-born son of the Polish sausagemaker and the mother who dedicated herself to cultivating the apparent early brilliance of her firstborn child: figures from a midwestern Bildungsroman before the world wars. Here we had the sixteen-year-old scholarship student at Harvard (the same novel, at the point in which the yearning son of the prairie West comes up against the lazy entitlement of the East), his cubicle in the service quarters of Eliot House littered with takeout containers of molding coffee while he argued Kant in an all-night cafeteria. Here we had the graduate student at Michigan who worked in a field of calculus so outside the mainstream that he was advised in the interests of a career to abandon it, who stubbornly refused, and who, at the time he received his doctorate and was hired by the mathematics department at Berkeley, was judged by the chairman of that department to be “probably one of the top twenty to twenty-five PhDs out of eight hundred coming out that year.”
In the fall of 1967, Theodore Kazcynski, who appeared into his twenty-fifth year to have remained largely untouched by the diversions and deflections of his own time, arrived at Berkeley as an assistant professor: one of the few, in a famously high-powered department, believed to be on an assured tenure track. Two years later, despite the attempts of the department to keep him, he abruptly left both Berkeley and academic life, a disconnect perhaps less noticeable in the distractions of 1969 in Berkeley (riots on Telegraph Avenue, People’s Park, Ronald Reagan sending in the National Guard) than it might have seemed before or later.
After this unexplained break, not much, not even the retreat into real wilderness that would become the given of his tabloid persona, just a mean sojourn in the raw Western empty. There was the period in Salt Lake when he supported himself doing odd jobs. There was the purchase with his younger brother David of the small Montana plot, not quite an acre and a half four miles outside Lincoln and seven hundred yards from an operating sawmill, from which, as it turned out, he would venture only sporadically for the rest of his life as a free man. There were the bus trips: Lincoln to Helena, Helena to Butte or Missoula for Salt Lake, connect out of Salt Lake for Sacramento or San Francisco. There was the fourteen-dollar-a-night hotel in Helena, the Park. There was the transient hotel near the Greyhound bus station in Sacramento, the Royal, $31.90 a night and the keys on the wall behind the night clerk. There was the Burger King near the Royal. In Helena he was remembered to have bought and sold used books at a local shop, Aunt Bonnie’s. In Sacramento he was remembered by the clerks at Tower Books, twenty blocks from the bus station. The clerks referred to him as “Einstein.”
His “manifesto,” the typewritten thirty-five-thousand-word manuscript mailed in June of 1995 to The New York Times and The Washington Post, told us more. On the strength of the writer’s promise to “desist from all terrorist activities” if either paper ran the full text within three months, the manifesto was published, in September of 1995, by both papers, and a month later by a small Berkeley publisher who immediately moved a five-thousand-copy first printing onto the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list. Until the publication of the manifesto, there had been only a few things about the writer we knew, or thought we knew. The pattern of the bombs and their postmarks had suggested familiarity with northern California; an earlier communiqué had even mentioned testing devices in “the sierras,” which was not common usage in the country at large but was how people in and around Sacramento refer to the Sierra Nevada.
The targets themselves (academics in the sciences, computer experts, lobbyists for the logging industry, described rather opaquely in the press as “forestry officials”) had strongly suggested someone bent on taking to its diehard conclusion a kind of romantic environmentalism that had flourished in northern California during the late 1960s and the 1970s, so much so that during the summer of 1995, when newspapers were reporting the general argument of the manifesto but the full text had not yet been published, many of us erroneously took for granted that the bomber, when found, would turn out to be a dug-in survivor of one or another of the radical underground groups which had operated in the north coast and central counties during those years.
At first glance, the manifesto, which was called Industrial Society and Its Future, seemed to support some such notion. On the Chronicle’s bestseller list, the manifesto was slugged “Terrorist tract, unedited and unexpurgated,” but there was little in its general thesis that did not echo the apprehension of technology as a double-edged sword that pervaded a good deal of nineteenth-century social thinking. Its central argument, that the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, even as they have “greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries,” have also “destabilized society,” “made life unfulfilling,” “subjected human beings to indignities,” “led to widespread psychological suffering,” and “inflicted severe damage on the natural world,” was by 1995 unexceptionable, arguable only to the extent that the reader might place a greater or lesser worth on increased life expectancy.
To read much of this logically reasoned if somewhat hermetic document (which, like the Unabomber’s previous communiqués, purported to be the product of an unknown underground group, “FC,” for “Freedom Club”) was in fact to be lulled into an impression that what changes the writer or writers had in mind could occur in a kind of geologic time, history’s great clock moving into another inexorable correction. A “revolution against the industrial system” was definitely advocated, but it need be neither violent (“This revolution may or may not make use of violence”) nor immediate: “It may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that.”
The writer seemed modest to a fault, apologetic about his inadequate ability not only to predict all outcomes but to explain all terms, weave together all threads. Again and again, he did “not pretend” to offer “an accurate description,” only “a rough indication.” Consistently, he acknowledged the “many objections” that could be raised. Repeatedly, he fretted that the principles he presented were “expressed in imprecise language.” He ventured to present them at all “not as inviolable laws but as rules of thumb, or guides to thinking.” He recognized that his discussion had “a serious weakness,” regretted that it must remain “far from clear.” “Throughout this article,” he concluded,
…we’ve made imprecise statements and statements that ought to have had all sorts of qualifications and reservations attached to them; and some of our statements may be flatly false…. In a discussion of this kind one must rely heavily on intuitive judgment, and that can sometimes be wrong…. We don’t claim that this article expresses more than a crude approximation to the truth….
The question of whether or not Theodore Kaczynski was guilty of the acts for which he was charged or of which he was suspected became moot in January, when, having been judged legally competent to stand trial, he pled guilty in federal court in Sacramento to charges related to five bombings and admitted to the remaining eleven. The question of whether or not he was also mad, which came to dominate not only the aborted trial but a good deal of low-wattage attitudinizing in what passed for the national discourse, was dismissed by David Gelernter, the associate professor of computer science at Yale who in 1993 was severely injured and permanently maimed by one of the bombs and who by virtue of this event became a reliable quote on the subject, as a kind of speculation that could derive only from “our ‘don’t be judgmental’ perversity,” our “morally disastrous unwillingness to draw a sharp, hard line between good and evil,” in other words, our “moral depravity.”
This was interesting. The Unabomber, while we watched, had become a marker on the front lines of the culture wars, a convenient focus for woolly discontents about the criminal justice system and contemporary life in general, particularly that aspect of it repeatedly referred to on talk radio as “this anything-goes morality.” “The twentieth century is the crime scene,” Gelernter declared, and the blast that injured him had been “a reenactment of a far bigger one a generation earlier, which destroyed something basic in this society that has yet to be repaired.” The “tendency among some intellectuals and journalists to dignify with analysis the thinking of violent criminals has always struck me as low and contemptible,” he wrote in Time, apparently geared up by the crusade to pretty much jettison that part of the canon that had taken as its subject the mysteries of crime and punishment. To call the Unabomber mad, as Time had done when it referred to Kaczynski as a “mad genius,” Gelernter wrote in Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, “went beyond funny and obnoxious into the realm of evil.”
Yet no one could have read the full text of the manifesto without witnessing a mind spiking past the point of no return. There was the document’s tabula rasa aspect, as if the writer had been tuning into the arguments of the past quarter century via shortwave and working obsessively to shape this garbled transmission to his thesis. There were the usual straw men, but they were lined up wrong. There were the familiar phrases, but to a different point. It had been generally assumed that someone who sent bombs to advance an aim most often described as “neo-Luddite” would share certain views with either the radical left or the radical right, but the author of this document, its full text made clear, shared views with neither, or both, or with no one at all.
“The conservatives are fools,” he advised us. “They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.” If he held “the conservatives” in contempt, he also despised “leftists,” by which he meant “mainly socialists, collectivists, ‘politically correct’ types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like,” an assortment he collectively dismissed as “one of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world.” Leftists, he wrote, as if his shortwave had been picking up transmissions from the Heritage Foundation,
…hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality.
The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive countries, the leftist finds excuses for them…. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful….
Words like “self-confidence,” “self-reliance,” “initiative,” “enterprise,” “optimism,” etc. play little role in the liberal and leftist vocabulary….
Art forms that appeal to modern leftist intellectuals tend to focus on sordidness, defeat and despair….
The leftist’s feelings of inferiority run so deep that he cannot tolerate any classification of some things as successful or superior and other things as failed or inferior….
There were the theories that soared free of any possible accumulated experience (to spread the revolution, “Revolutionaries should have as many children as they can”), there were the procedural afterthoughts that suddenly shattered the orderly argument (“The factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.”), there were the cryptic drops into the colloquial that signaled a break in the writer’s patience. Paragraph 179, which concluded a laborious analysis, in Paragraphs 171-178, of the direction society would take “if the industrial-technological system survives the next 40 to 100 years,” read in its entirety:
179. It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.
I recall, on my initial reading of the manifesto, more or less coasting through what had seemed a cogent enough discussion of why freedom of the press, although “a very important tool for limiting concentration of political power,” had been reduced by the obliterating explosion of material made available by advanced technology to a merely nominal freedom, one of “very little use to the average citizen as an individual.” And then, with the irreversible momentum of dreams, the manifesto slipped into the deepest water of its most desolate lake, the colloquial voice, and into what must have seemed to its author (as the drowning of Roberta in An American Tragedy had seemed to Dreiser, who made Clyde Griffiths die for it) the only possible next step, the logical thing to do, the clincher: “Take us (FC) for example…. In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”
How we deal with madness has always been a question, a vexation, not least when it turns up in connection with a degree of academic or creative achievement. In her new biography of the mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., who in 1994 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (for the work he had done on game theory as a graduate student at Princeton in 1950) after “waking” from three decades of paranoid schizophrenia, Sylvia Nasar discusses the well-documented correlation between scientific creativity and the “emotionally detached, inward-looking temperament.” As a child in West Virginia, Nasar tells us, John Nash made electric chairs of Tinkertoys, and tried to get other children, including his baby sister, to sit in them. As an adolescent, he and two friends made pipe bombs, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin, experiments that ended when one of the other boys, alone in the garage that served as their laboratory, picked up a bomb that exploded and killed him. As an adult, Nash was described by his contemporaries as “aloof,” “haughty,” “without affect,” “detached,” “spooky,” “isolated,” and “queer.”
Until the series of events that in April of 1959 led his wife to commit Nash to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (the first of many hospitalizations, all involuntary), this “isolation” did not occasion undue comment. René Descartes, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Immanuel Kant, Thorstein Veblen, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein had, Nasar notes, “similarly strange and solitary personalities”; Newton, at age fifty-one, suffered a psychotic break with paranoid delusions. Norbert Wiener, who was at MIT when Nash arrived there as a twenty-three-year-old instructor in 1951, endured “periods of manic excitability followed by severe depressions,” during which he spoke of suicide. Nash’s own mentor at MIT, Norman Levinson, suffered “steep mood swings, long, manic periods of intense creative activity followed by months, sometimes years, of depression in which nothing interested him.” When the ideas that would extend quantum mechanics began coming to Robert Oppenheimer he stood at a blackboard so paralyzed by his inability to either define or dismiss them that he consulted a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with dementia praecox, which is what the syndrome we now know as schizophrenia was then called.
For Nash, Nasar writes, “his longstanding conviction that the world was rational”—the very driving force behind his insights as a mathematician—had, as illness took hold and he began to find hidden messages in The New York Times and in the number of men wearing red neckties on the MIT campus, metastasized, “evolved into a caricature of itself, turning into an unshakable belief that everything had meaning, everything had a reason, nothing was random or coincidental.” He interrupted a seminar to tell an MIT undergraduate that there was a photograph of him, John Nash, on the cover of Life. Life had disguised the photograph as Pope John XXIII but he knew it to be of him. The undergraduate asked how he knew. Two ways, Nash said. First, John was not the Pope’s given name but the name he had chosen. Second, Nash said, twenty-three was his “favorite prime number.” He was offered a prestigious chair by Chicago, and turned it down, explaining that he was scheduled to become Emperor of Antarctica. He was asked to speak at Columbia, and gave a talk that seemed to those present a chilling free fall, “a very strange adventure,” “just lunacy.” He was asked to speak at Yale, and could not remember how to get off the Merritt Parkway.
In Luxembourg, the summer after his first hospitalization, he arrived at the American embassy with the intention of renouncing his citizenship, but became confused by the bureaucracy of the undertaking. By the time he got to Geneva, the same summer, he was mounting a renewed attempt not only to renounce citizenship but to obtain certification as a refugee from “all NATO, Warsaw, Middle East, and SEATO pact countries.” This also failed, and a year later he was back in Princeton, where his wife, Alicia, a physicist, had taken a job at RCA. There, in the venues in which he had done his most brilliant work, he walked the streets with a fixed expression and dead gaze that many found frightening, pasted the “messages” he found in newspapers in a scrapbook labeled “ABSOLUTE ZERO,” referred to himself in the third person as “Johann von Nassau,” and spoke only in nonsensical distortions of the inductive method.
“What do Spain and the Sinai have in common?” he would ask, and then answer himself: “They both start with S.” A day or so before he was again committed, this time to Trenton State Hospital, where he would be subjected to insulin therapy that took him daily to the point of coma, Nash, according to Nasar, appeared on the Princeton campus covered with scratches and clearly frightened. “Johann von Nassau has been a bad boy,” he said. “They’re going to come and get me now.” During his six months at Trenton he recovered to the point of beginning a paper on fluid dynamics, “Le Problème de Cauchy Pour Les Equat-ions Différentielles d’une Fluid Générale,” which would be published the next year in a French mathematical journal and described in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mathematics as “basic and noteworthy.”
By the summer of 1962, however, he was again in Europe, due to attend both a conference at the Collège de France in Paris and the World Mathematical Congress in Stockholm but meanwhile staying in London, at the Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury, which he described in a postcard to a colleague as “very grand” and from which, Nasar tells us, he mailed, on June 14, an envelope containing only a scrap of paper with this written on it:
The tedium of madness, for those exposed to it, lies in its apparent willfulness, its stubborn intractability, its destructive waste of time and happiness and any bright coin life seems to offer. Alicia Nash, in desperation, filed for divorce on the day after Christmas l962. In 1970, however, after her ex-husband’s two further hospitalizations at a private clinic near Princeton and a third at a state institution in Virginia to which his sister committed him, Alicia determined not only to discourage as futile any further treatment but to let Nash live with her and their son, then twelve, in the house she was renting across from the railroad station in Princeton Junction. “He had his room and board, his basic needs taken care of, and not too much pressure,” she told Nasar. “That’s what you need: being taken care of and not too much pressure.”
The pressure on Alicia was unremitting. She had lost her job at RCA. She was getting up at 4:30 AM (and arriving home well after 8 PM) to commute to the only job she could find, at Consolidated Edison in Manhattan. Her and Nash’s son, brilliant but moody, dropped out of school, refused to leave his room, joined a fundamentalist sect called the Way Ministry, and by 1976 was himself hospitalized. Yet this would be the period during which John Nash would begin to effect, consciously or unconsciously, his recovery. “Nash’s daily rounds in those years,” Nasar writes, “followed a predictable pattern. He would get up, not too early, and ride the Dinky into town, buy a copy of The New York Times, walk over to Olden Lane, eat breakfast or lunch at the Institute, and wander back to the university.” At the Institute for Advanced Study, where he had gone as a graduate student to argue his ideas to Einstein and to John von Neumann, he would sometimes cadge cigarettes, sometimes spare change. Mostly, however, he sat alone, smoking and drinking coffee and spreading out the frayed papers he carried with him.
In the reference room of Firestone Library, where he read the Encyclopedia Britannica, he was known to students as “the library crazy man.” Around New Fine Hall, the mathematics building, he was “the Phantom.” When he roamed the New Fine corridors in khaki pants and bright-red high-top Keds and left messages on the blackboards (“Mao Tse-Tung’s Bar Mitzvah was 13 years, 13 months, and 13 days after Brezhnev’s circumcision,” or “I agree with Harvard: There is a brain flat”), students were told not to bother him. When he became obsessed with numerology, and believed that certain secret messages could be found by factoring numbers derived from the name “Nelson Rockefeller,” he was given, to speed up his calculations, free time on the Princeton mainframe.
It was 1983 before a few people at Princeton, mainly graduate students in awe of the Nash reputation, began noticing signs of recovery. Although still mostly silent, Nash began talking to a programmer in the Princeton computer center, who described his programs as “startlingly elegant.” Freeman Dyson, who for years had greeted Nash when he saw him at the Institute but had never heard him speak, was stunned, when he said hello as usual one morning in the late 1980s, to get this response: “I see your daughter is in the news again today,” Nash said out of the blue, referring to Dyson’s daughter Esther. “I had no idea he was aware of her existence,” Dyson told Nasar. “It was beautiful. I remember the astonishment I felt. What I found most wonderful was this slow awakening…. Nobody else has ever awakened the way he did.”
No one can say whether this “awakening” represents a recovery or only a remission. Nash himself has told others, according to Nasar, that although he is still plagued by paranoid thoughts and even by voices, “the noise level” has been turned down. “Gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation,” he wrote, after he won the Nobel Prize, about his odyssey.
This began, most recognizably, with the rejection of politically oriented thinking as essentially a hopeless waste of intellectual effort…. A key step was a resolution not to concern myself in politics relative to my secret world because it was ineffectual. This in turn led me to renounce anything relative to religious issues, or teaching or intending to teach. I began to study mathematical problems and to learn the computer as it existed at the time. I was helped (by mathematicians who got me computer time).
The thing remains a mystery. There were years, we are told in A Beautiful Mind, when Nash believed himself to be in Cairo, Zebak, Kabul, Bangui, Thebes, Guyana, Mongolia. In these places, where he believed himself to be trapped in a refugee camp or an embassy or a prison or a bomb shelter,
his identities, like the return addresses on his letters, were like the skins of an onion…. He was C.O.R.P.S.E. (a Palestinian Arab refugee), a great Japanese shogun, C1423, Esau, L’homme d’Or, Chin Hsing, Job, Jorap Castro, Janos Norses, even, at times, a mouse…. He lived in constant fear of annihilation, both of the world (genocide, Armageddon, the Apocalypse, Final Day of Judgment, Day of Resolution of Singularities) and of himself (death and bankruptcy). Certain dates struck him as ominous, among them May 29.
Nash refers now to such delusional states as “the time of my irrationality.” In 1959, when a colleague visited him at McLean’s and tried to penetrate his Thorazine silence by asking how, as “a man devoted to reason and logical proof,” he could believe that extraterrestrials were recruiting him to save the world, Nash, we are told in A Beautiful Mind, “looked up at last” and fixed his visitor “with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake.”
“Because,” Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
On the June morning in 1993 when David Gelernter, in his office in the Arthur K. Watson computer sciences building at Yale, opened what he assumed to be a dissertation from yet another unknown graduate student looking for comment (the return address on the package, which was postmarked Sacramento, was unfamiliar), the explosion that followed drove shrapnel through metal filing cabinets, set the office on fire, and almost killed Gelernter. His right hand was shattered beyond repair. His right eye was damaged, and would eventually require a cornea transplant. His left hand was broken, his ear injured, his chest and legs deeply wounded. In April of 1995 he received, again in his office, a letter from the still unidentified bomber.
“If you had any brains,” the letter read in part, “you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world, and you wouldn’t have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source.” On the same day this letter arrived in New Haven, Gilbert Murray, a lobbyist for the California Forestry Association, received, in Sacramento, his own unexpected package from the unknown source, opened it, and was killed. Gelernter, whose experience would seem to give him the right to call Theodore Kaczynski anything he wants to call him, has in fact and repeatedly chosen to call him “Mr. Bucolic-Cottage-in-the-Countryside,” “Saint John of Montana,” and, most often, “Hut Man,” as in “Hut Man’s goal was to be the country’s number-one criminal; he’d been described as the ‘most wanted killer’ in the nation and was obviously flattered.”
That nothing we know about Kaczynski supports this reading (since his “goal” was unknowable, his reaction to reaching it remains equally so) is of a piece with much about Drawing Life, a kind of fitful rumination in which Gelernter uses his injury and rehabilitation as a frame on which to hang his many complaints about the error of modern life. Drawing Life manages to offer, astonishingly, virtually no sentence that does not turn on the sly insertion of the unestablished adjective (“At any rate the old, discredited assumptions, large and small, proved repeatedly to be correct: Great poetry is a consolation”); assume an attitude also based on the unestablished (“History is inspiring. Bravery is inspiring. It is shameful that we no longer teach this to our children”); claim some pebble of vox populi wisdom, also unestablished, as its own (“‘Count your blessings’ is a kindergarten-level moral insight, but nowadays we teach our children to nurse their grievances instead”); parrot the deeply meaningless and also unestablished (“Symbolism starts in dreams, and so does literature”); or ascribe equally unestablished, but tellingly petulant, motives to others. In an intensive-care unit at Yale-New Haven hospital, we are told in Drawing Life, news reached its author that “an older colleague, a rival of sorts, who had suspected (wrongly, it turns out) that he was smarter than me, had been so incensed to learn that his up-market literary agent was now mine too that he drove his car off the road, or something like that.”
“When the language goes down the drain, you lose everything,” Gelernter wrote, or something like that, in Drawing Life (1997), which was the fourth of his five books. The third, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, published in 1995, was a trying excursion into nostalgie de l’autorité d’antan, a catalog of the ways in which the author believed the 1939 World’s Fair to epitomize an America in which respect was accorded to the flag, to the presidency, to “the cop on the beat” and “the railway conductor on his rounds,” to Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, to “adulthood itself.” This is a fantasy, or theme, to which he returns briefly in Drawing Life, reporting the “energy” he drew from making “a direct electrical connection to 1940”:
“The pedestrian finds it pleasant to stroll at the Fair,” says the World’s Fair Guide, “where the walks are of bituminous asphalt.” Asphalt, the rubbery-hot smell and black sheen of it when you lay the stuff down: progress, the triumphant vanquishing of discouragement and mud. The sentence speaks with authority. Doesn’t clown around or snicker or tongue-in-cheek-it as a modern guide would.
Gelernter’s remaining books, Mirror Worlds (1991), The Muse in the Machine (1994), and Machine Beauty (1997), derive from his own professional discipline, about which he is dismissive (“Only a few people have ever grasped what a bizarre choice I made”), as if he had somewhere along the line misread the “two cultures” argument as a mandate to take a stand. “By inclination I’m a writer and a painter,” he advised us in the essay he published in Time after Theodore Kaczynski’s arrest. “I got into computer science because of the Talmudic injunction to learn a useful trade and support your wife and family.” “Nothing in art is foreign to me,” he tells us at one point in Drawing Life, and, at another, “I am rotten at everything that is not art; have succeeded in computer science only by forcing software into a strictly aesthetic mold, making it a design issue like architecture or painting.”
Again, the suggestion that he is not rotten at art, whatever he construes “art” to mean, remains unsupported, and is clouded further by Machine Beauty, in which he endeavors to present, as if it were novel, the notion that there is art, or “beauty” and “elegance,” to be found in science and technology. “There is,” he writes,
…the ever-present danger when you discuss beauty in science, mathematics, and technology that readers will assume the word is being used metaphorically. People will react to such discussions the way they might to the news that some rich and famous playboy is feeling mopey. Just how unhappy could Crown Prince Fluvial be? Considering that he owns a dozen yachts, dominates international chess and beach volleyball competition, and has to fight off beautiful women with a broom? We figure that if he is “unhappy,” it could only be in a relative or metaphorical sense. And could a mathematical proof, scientific theory, or piece of software be “beautiful” in the real, literal way that a painting or symphony or rose can be beautiful?
Readers (even those distracted by how Crown Prince Fluvial got into this) will be unsurprised to learn that the answer is “Yes,” set off in a one-word paragraph. The meaningless opposition of “metaphorical” and “real” to one side (“Symbolism starts in dreams, and so does literature”), Gelernter’s own idea of what makes a mathematical proof or a scientific theory or a piece of software beautiful tends to depend less on the thing’s internal logic than on its decorative wrap, and the extent to which it offers an opportunity to deplore the “passivity” of a society that accepts computers in plastic boxes instead of in, say, “warm orange wood, cherry or mahogany.” Since this turns out to be, for Gelernter, another “story that goes beyond aesthetics right to the base of modern society,” we soon find ourselves, not entirely unexpectedly, back in 1937, when “the electronic marvel of the moment was radio” and “you could get your radio in wood or chrome or blue mirrors or plastic—“
—solid plastic or marbled, opaque or translucent. Radios came in towers and globes, square or rounded, staid or swoopy; with square dials, round dials, ruler dials, half-circle dials. Fada’s lovely Streamliner series alone was available in yellow, orange, orange-on-maroon, yellow-on-black, vermilion-on-yellow, orange-on-creamy-blue…. Those exuberant radios delivered a bit of beauty and joy to their owners, and still do. The mere fact that thousands of these gorgeous things still exist is grounds for euphoria.
“Passive” is the last thing you would ever say about the society that made them.
“There are many reasons I wound up in computer science,” Gelernter tells us in Drawing Life, the Talmudic injunction apparently having slipped his mind, “but an important one in retrospect is my dislike of intellectuals and my unwillingness to be one.” Since the heart of computing, as was understood by those intellectuals who in the 1950s deserted the nation’s philosophy and mathematics departments to develop the computer industry, is symbolic logic, this makes no sense, nor, really, is it intended to: it is instead an attitude struck, an opinion voiced, a stand taken, in this case against a familiar phantom, that “group of intellectuals” who in the late 1960s “entered the freightyard control room and toyed like children with the switches, resetting them for fun—unaware of what they were doing, except making trouble; then the excitement wore off and they slunk away.”
This, too, was an attitude struck, one that eventually boxed Gelernter, with no apparent sense of where he was headed, into the complaint that in American colleges “intellectual rigor and distinction are the main hiring criteria now, and young professors are increasingly apt to be card-carrying intellectuals.” “My analysis of mod-ern US culture in terms of a take-over by intellectuals is too over-loaded with passion to resemble any normal, proper theory,” he acknowledges, at once recasting potential objections as the quibbles of less passionate minds and nudging us to recall the dramatic instance from which his own passion derives. “It wasn’t conjured up out of controlled field studies…. The theorizing was done under stress and the niceties were not observed.”
His theorizing has been on view, over the past three or four years, with remarkable regularity. One month finds him in Commentary, writing on “Why Mothers Should Stay Home” (“The whole thing fits tragically with the ascendance of the intelligentsia,” Drawing Life tells us to that point, since “women intellectuals aren’t known for their love of homemaking”), another in The Weekly Standard, with this mysterious pronouncement: “Intellectuals have always tended to miss the point of tall buildings.” A visit to an exhibition of Vermeers at the National Gallery provides an opportunity to deplore, in National Review, “the contemporary art world’s contemptuous, bitterly ironic view of ‘woman’s work’ as a male-built prison.” The 1996 Communications Decency Act offers a chance to argue, in The Weekly Standard, against the challenge to its constitutionality, for “the community’s voice comes through loud and clear if you listen—and the message is plain and right…. Get this: Right is right and wrong is wrong—on the Web, and on Venus, and every other damned place, and don’t you forget it.”
Last October in New York, in the course of a brief address at the Harvard Club to members and guests of the Manhattan Institute, Gelernter took the following, among other, positions: “Today’s art world is full of intense hatred for America and American culture.” “Hatred of America and Americans is commonplace in modern art.” Willem de Kooning’s “liking for the place he lived makes him unusual nowadays,” as does the fact that he was “a brilliant technician,” because “the mainstream despises technique.” “Marxism was a state religion among artists for years—not all artists, of course, but it was definitely the dominant mode.” “Of course the university world regards religion with disdain.” “The matter of what used to be called good character is an occasion for snickering at the university today.”
And again: “Teachers tend to be “unreconstructed late Sixties, early Seventies leftist,” people who “can’t even imagine that there is such a thing as an anti-environmentalist or an anti-feminist.” “The modern intellectual community celebrates its contempt for the middle class.” The reason Harold Ross’s New Yorker was dismissed as “middlebrow” was because it was “resolutely non-ideological.” The reason E.B. White is “patronized and barely taught in universities is that he knew the rules, insisted on them, and knowing the rules is tremendously unpopular today of course.”
“So,” Gelernter concluded his remarks that afternoon. “That’s why I’m an anti-intellectual.” The willingness to reach this pitch on a predictable and useful range of bogus issues—“intellectuals,” “modern art,” “today’s victim culture,” “our ‘don’t be judgmental’ perversity,” “modern feminism”—is key to understanding the platform on which he now finds himself. He will strike what he imagines to be a besieged and lonely position as most of us blink. “When a working mother like the First Lady condescends (as she did in her infamous remarks about not staying home to bake cookies) to women like my grandmothers and my mother and my wife,” he tells us in Drawing Life,
…I am furious and despise her…. What sets my mother and my wife apart from these arrogant, preening women is not less strength or brains but more character. The axioms of modern feminism are insulting to the very people I have the greatest duty and desire to defend, and it should be obvious to anyone, whether he likes my position or hates it, that it would be gutless and contemptible of me not to fight modern feminism tooth and nail, as hard as I can, however little I may accomplish. And I teach my boys to do the same.
A man who will invoke his grandmothers, his mother, his wife, and his children in the course of pumping his own applause lines (“insulting to the very people I have the greatest duty and desire to defend,” “it would be gutless and contemptible of me,” “tooth and nail,” “And I teach my boys to do the same“) is a man who recognizes that he speaks from a kind of rhetorical free-fire zone, occupies a podium on which he is tacitly understood to be fireproof, certified by his encounter with history (as he does not construe it) to express, exempt from the rigor of argument, those “cultural” resentments (not excluding, and here we have come full circle, the one about “today’s victim culture”) too inflammatory to be personally expressed by those who would deploy them to political advantage.
“We have a brutal, bloodthirsty, cowardly murderer and people shrug their shoulders,” Gelernter told The Sacramento Bee not long before Theodore Kaczynski’s trial, not actually specifying how bringing thirteen charges, three of them capital, and seating a death-qualified jury added up to people shrugging their shoulders. “It could be that Hut Man is insane,” he acknowledges in Drawing Life, although only rhetorically, since the point here is not the question but the posture: “In the end this is an argument for eliminating the very idea of guilt, and I can only guess that the attraction in calling a criminal ‘mad’ is that it gets you off the hook and you don’t have to be judgmental.”
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there“: Gerard Manley Hopkins, one poet to whom Gelernter, on the trail of those “old, discredited assumptions,” appears not to have looked for consolation. To dismiss the question of Theodore Kaczynski’s sanity as “an argument for eliminating the very idea of guilt” is dishonest, and, to the extent that it links this narrow question of sanity to popular resentments or bewilderments about the administration of criminal justice and constitutional rights is general, it is dishonest in the service of ideology. That the politicizing of the culture could lead to this kind of malignant conflation was always clear. That it had already led to a society that would reduce its own deepest mysteries to opportunities for striking an attitude has now been made clear, by everything in the noise that obscured The United States of America v. Theodore John Kaczynski aka “FC.”
April 23, 1998