Benjamin Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World

“What was beyond our grasp was neither the future nor the past,
but the present itself.”

It is a mistake to suspect that this book will help one make sense of the world.

I fell victim to this assumption that I even intended this to be my first read of 2022 if not for delayed shipments caused by Typhoon Odette/Rai.

Read from cover to cover within 24 hours, partly because the web Labatut weaves is sheer genius and the subject of quantum mechanics is so fascinating, but also partly because of a panicked speed when what I sought to find — comfort and hope — was still nowhere to be found even as I approached the final pages.

“…it was mathematics — not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon — which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant. Not that we ever did… but things are getting worse… But it’s not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.”

I fell in love with mathematics later in life and even though my dabbling in the subject is nowhere close to the mathematical heights mentioned in the book, I wondered at every morsel. But mathematics, as wondrous and beautiful as it is, has not always been wielded for the good and has often passed through the hands and minds of the eccentric and the disturbed.

Labatut draws us to this dark side. To say that this book is unsettling is an understatement. And reviewing it through my distilled notes highlights the irony and alarm:

  • Mary Shelley, recalled to have warned us through her monstrous masterpiece of “the risk of the blind advancement of science.”
  • Fritz Haber, first to obtain nitrogen, recipient of the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, accused by his wife of “perverting science by devising a method for exterminating human beings on an industrial scale.”
  • Albert Einstein, who sensed that following one of quantum mechanics’ pioneers Werner Heisenberg’s line of thinking would lead to a darkness that would infect the soul of physics.
  • Karl Schwarzschild, contributed greatly to the general theory of relativity, said to have possessed a “peculiar form of a fear that physics would be incapable of… finding an order in the universe.” “…the most frightful thing about mass at its most extreme degree of concentration was not the way it altered the form of space, or the strange effects it exerted on time: the true horror, he said, was that the singularity was a blind spot, fundamentally unknowable. Light could never escape from it, so our eyes were incapable of seeing it. Nor could our minds grasp it, because at the singularity the laws of general relativity simply broke down. Physics no longer had meaning… If matter were prone to birthing monsters of this kind, Schwarzschild asked with a trembling voice, were there correlations with the human psyche?”

“Don’t they understand that we are rising up only to fall?”

“We have reached the highest point of civilization. All that is left for us is to decay and fall.”

  • Alexander Grothendieck, leading figure in the creation of modern algebraic geometry, withdrew from the world not because he hated human beings but for the protection of mankind. “Grothendieck said that no one should suffer from his discovery, but he refused to explain what he meant when he spoke of ‘the shadow of a new horror.’”
  • Shinichi Mochizuki, awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a mathematician, who, after publishing six hundred pages that contained a proof of an important conjecture in number theory, deleted his blog and announced that “in mathematics, certain things should remain hidden, ‘for the good of all of us.’”

Benjamin Labatut, you go to such great lengths if only to say, in this strange and brilliant way, that innocence is bliss?

Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet

Because I heard about this book through Bjork, my mind immediately appointed her as the protagonist’s voice in my head. If you don’t know how oddly endearing that is, search for that video of Bjork talking about her TV.

So although our main character is a nonagenarian, the whimsical nature of the book had no problem merging with my brain’s choice of voice.

The author was unknown to me, but I soon learned that I am acquainted with her former lover’s art —  that of Max Ernst. Apparently, Leonora Carrington herself was also a surrealist painter; and yes, that is her work on the cover of this NYRB edition.

And as it is with art, it overflows through different channels of your being and explores different media, but it stems from the same soul. Needless to say, this is also a surrealist novel.

And as it is with surrealist art, we find ourselves wading through allusions, symbolisms; reality becomes warped, and rules are contorted, and it certainly gets weird. But as it is with paintings, there are only certain people you would gift with surrealist art, those are the same people to whom you would recommend this book. 

But why do we read novels in the first place? Olga Tokarczuk asks and answers in the afterword — an afterword which, I believe, is already a ratification of her Nobel: “To gain a broader perspective on everything that happens to people on Earth. Our own experience is too small, our beings too helpless, to make sense of the complexity and enormity of the universe; we desire to see life up close, to get a glimpse of the existence of others… we are seeking a communal order, each of us a stitch in a piece of knitted fabric. In short, we expect novels to put forward a certain hypotheses that might tell us what’s what. And banal as it might sound, this is a metaphysical question: On what principles does the world operate?” She continues to write that a nongenre novel like this “passes disturbing comment on things we never stop to question.” As it is with Bjork’s music, so it is with this novel.

There is an act that the protagonist commits close to the end that seemed most monumental to me (a potential spoiler, so I will refrain from mentioning it, although I am up for a discussion with those who have read this) but which Tokarczuk does not mention in the afterword. It is possible that she left it out to urge us to develop our own thoughts. Besides, what is the point of all this art if we don’t?