The pandemic has been a mega spring-cleaning of sorts for me. Organising always soothed me. Clubhouse rooms showed me that translation opens up a new realm of challenges in organising thought. What is language after all, but sound shapes around intangible ideas and unquantifiable experiences? Moving from one to another is akin to making interplanetary contact. Our sounds may carry through but who knows what sense they really make to the other side? Do we all really see blue the same way, even as we share the same sky?
As a relic of the pandemic, I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I have also been struggling to retain my focus on any one piece of content. My head feels like the inside of a snow globe that’s been grabbed by an angry football player to murder his opponent. Yes, that mixed metaphor up. Following some currently popular advice, I’m turning to books, the old-fashioned kill-a-tree kind. These paper corpses lulled me to sleep for decades before glass screens showed up. And where better to claw my way back to my pristine, meticulous achiever mind than the pile of still unread books?
This book has been lying in my closet and moved several homes for over a decade. It was a gift from someone I was instantly struck with – for his intellect and his easygoing nature. With the six years between us at a time when I was just taking a breather from fighting many personal battles of patriarchy, it felt safe to assume that he wasn’t a romantic prospect. We talked a lot about books and things that would later be highjacked by capitalism as ‘geek culture’. I decided then, that he was one of my favorite people. And at the time, I was naive and entitled enough to equate that to a close friendship. Maybe he was too young, maybe he was too cold to care, maybe he was just an Indian man with zero inclination to think about the repercussions of other people’s feelings but he went along.
We had many conversations and heated debates, all of which I enjoyed. I believed I was getting what I had craved my whole life but never found in men – an intellectual sparring partner who prized ideas as I did, instead of getting ego butthurt. I don’t know if I was wrong or if he changed. I don’t even know why I got dumped. I had trusted him with my broken self through my abuse, I had stayed with him through his awful relationships, I had called him when the first suicidal thoughts began hitting, I had held his hand through breaking addiction. Didn’t that mean we were friends? In my dictionary, that’s not the kind of relationship that is terminated over text. Definitely not by two articulate, feeling-aware people. Unless I was wrong. I had been wrong all along.
It has been years since that. I have grappled with the rage, the hurt and betrayal (because these men who treat me so badly somehow get called woke by the rest of the world; as if I am not part of this universe but some bad dream the world dreamt together and wants to shudder and forget). I have mourned and grieved without empathy because with so little space for single women to mourn their broken engagements, nobody gaf about broken friendships. Least of all with a cis man with whom there was never anything romantic. It is as if our genders exist only to be pawns in the diabolical politics of sex and any other interactions are like the annoying chats that run along in parallel in MMORPGs. I have done all this and still not understood.
Till I picked up this book. Something about it always made my heart sink, which may have been why I didn’t read it all the years we were in each other’s lives. Maybe it’s the title that is so terribly boring, coupled with a dry-as-mud blurb. I have never enjoyed biographies. Nothing about my personality, politics or demeanour speaks of an appreciation for German culture. And this book is all of that. Originally written in German, it carries the stiff, grandstanding, sombre tone I recognise from other cultural references. Possibly it reads well in the context of its home culture, as a white man’s worshipful, indulgent viewpoint of two other white men in the 1800s. But for this Indian woman reading in English in 2023, it feels callous, cruel and depraved.
I admit to have been very excited when I read the first page. I really thought it was going to be about how Gauss (a name I only remember from my college studies) came into the mathematical brilliance that students around the world would study a century later. Maths, like other ideas doesn’t just fall out of thin air fully shaped. It is pondered, belaboured, mistaken and often the result of some serendipitous events. I really, really thought it would bring alive some of the more boring facts and figures I’d studied (and still somehow managed to like the subject). The book did none of that. For a book that is half about one of the world’s best known mathematicians, there isn’t any maths at all. We are told that he is a genius and we keep getting told that in a manner of a gigantic hammer pounding it into our heads. Somehow this is supposed to explain his complete narcissism and disconnection from the regular world. Isn’t that exactly how people who hate maths and nerds/geeks think maths-lovers are?
Humboldt doesn’t fare much better either. His race and economic privilege are like a battering ram as he powers through all manner of cultures and civilisations, randomly collecting ‘samples’ and making jest of desperate human conditions like slavery, mining exploitation, rape and more. How very white supremacist, very 19th-century European of him. I am not sure lovers of geography or science or even anthropology appreciate this brutish, ham-handed approach at exploring the living world. Unless, I guess they’re rich, white men from 19th century Europe. It was literally the last continent to achieve the kind of maturity that societies are assumed to have even today – advanced science, complex economic and political models, art & culture. But after inflicting violence on each other for centuries, they harnessed firepower and distance travel technology to wreak havoc on the rest of the world. These are the folks that brought slavery, colonialism, religious war and genocide to every other continent in the world – all literally the opposites of civilisation. I hate the title even more now since it positions this kind of marauding as scientific and somehow civilising a barbaric world. Most of all, I hate that this is the history of what the world today thinks of as scientific exploration and mathematics. Cruel white men did not invent mathematics; why are they the custodians of its narratives?
I realised when this thought occurred to me, that it was also a perfect metaphor for how things were between my ex person and I. I recalled a conversation about mathematics. I am afraid I did not have the words (and still do not) to explain why mathematics and science are beauty and art and culture, how they are not separate but ingrained into every aspect of human thought and life. Like every maths-hating person I’ve met, he got angry. And our conversation was lost in translation. We never picked up that thread again. I don’t know if he gave me this book as an attempt to build a bridge to my world or as a nuclear bomb in my mind space. I will never know.
Mathematics is the language of all ideas. How did he and I get it so wrong? We’re both people of ideas. We just were lost in translation. I don’t regret it, even as I feel worn out by all the confusion he made me feel or all the revulsion this book induced in me. Maybe that’s why translations are important, as scrappy, crappy and imperfect as they are – because they brutishly tell us about the world that is not us. Maybe this is just a wordy way to do it. But having weathered this book and this idea lets me say goodbye. I needed that closure. Now the book can go into my discard pile and the memory is filed away as just another blogpost. That’s mathematical and it’s emotional.
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I was gifted this book by somebody who probably thought I would like it because of my interest in mathematics. This is just the kind of book that someone who doesn’t like maths or science would think would appeal to us ‘nerds’. It is a fictionalised account of two famous men, known for their achievements in mathematics and geographic mapping respectively. But does it actually interest people who like these two fields? I’m just one person interested in one of the two and I say naah.
Both Gauss and Humboldt come off narcissistic and self-obssessed in their respective worlds. Gauss comes from far more humble beginnings but his mathematical genius enables him to rise above poverty. He never seems to care about the family that did its best to educate him, after that though, or treat the one he has later with any kind of respect. Humboldt is a born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he takes the role of the classic white saviour-arrogant coloniser as he ‘swashbuckles’ (as the book describes it, but really more accurately blunders insensitively into cultures and ecosystems not his own and mows them all down with mighty money power). No, this one doesn’t treat other people well either.
I gave up the book at page 182 of 259 because I couldn’t stand the glorification of such horrible people. I don’t know if either of these men were actually this way or if ‘men were just that way in those days’ but it’s repugnant. This book was written in 2007 and if someone who has lived past the millennium thinks genius and achievement (at any cost, including privilege of birth) justify brutality, then we either have a world no better than Nazi Germany or an author who shouldn’t exist in this century.
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