Mathematics: by Jacques Roubaud

Mathematics: BY Jacques Roubaud. Dalkey Archive Press. Paperback, 312 pages. $14.
The cover of Mathematics:

Nietzsche reminds us that philosophers have always taken great pains to hide themselves, whether behind the mask of Socrates or the mask of the categorical imperative. It is as if they believe anonymity will help them persuade readers that the systems they create are disinterested, objective, and universally valid—a collection of necessary truths. But this didn’t fool Nietzsche. “Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been,” he writes in Beyond Good and Evil. “Namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.”

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have been trying, in other words, to pass themselves off as mathematicians. But what about the mathematicians themselves? Aren’t they equally if not more guilty of striking the same pose?

Jacques Roubaud—poet and novelist, former professor of mathematics and member of the Oulipo—argues just that in his highly self-conscious memoir Mathematics:, demonstrating that there is nothing disinterested about the pursuit of abstract knowledge.

Written in 1997, Mathematics: is the third “branch” of Roubaud’s “Great Fire of London” series of memoirs to be translated into English (we Anglophones still have Impératif Catégorique, Poésie:, and La Bibliothèque de Warburg to look forward to). Mathematics: takes us further into the “project of memory” Roubaud inaugurated in Destruction, in which he mourned his wife (the photographer Alix Cléo Roubaud who died in 1983 of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31), and that he continued in The Loop, in which he recounts scenes from his boyhood in the French countryside during the Second World War.

Mathematics: doesn’t record the story of a born mathematician. Unlike those prodigies who prove a confounding theorem before they’re legally able to drink, Roubaud came to the discipline relatively late in life, after abandoning studies in English literature and Slavic linguistics, because he intuitively sensed that understanding mathematics would help him better understand what he considered to be his true vocation, poetry. Rejecting the “formal liberty” and “torrid free verse” of the Surrealists, Roubaud turned to mathematics for the relief provided by “being a part of a collective, universal, shareable certitude.” “I sought out arithmetic to protect myself,” he writes. “But from what? At the time, I probably would have said: from vagueness, from a lack of rigor, from ‘literature.’” His decision to study mathematics ultimately led to Roubaud’s membership in the Oulipo, that group of mathematicians and writers who look for expressive freedom within the “absolute submission to the rules and restrictions of [a] game.”

Roubaud’s “exploratory journey” into the world of mathematics takes him from the labyrinthine lecture halls of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris to a military base in the Sahara during the final months of the Algerian War, where, as a member of a team of scientists, he was charged with calculating the size of the mushroom cloud and the potential range of fallout from France’s first nuclear test. Along the way we are treated to brief biographies of Francois Le Lionnais, one of the founders of the Oulipo, and of the “many-headed monster” Nicolas Bourbaki, the pseudonym for a collective of mostly French mathematicians whose revolutions in set theory, algebra, and topology inspired an almost religious fervor in Roubaud’s classmates. The book also contains digressions about memory, why there are no Nobel Prizes in mathematics (Mrs. Nobel, it seems, had taken one as a lover), and the mathematical community’s strange combination of excitement and deflation when Andrew Wiles finally proved Fermat’s last theorem.

As with Infinite Jest—a work by another author interested in the intersection between philosophy, mathematics, and literature—reading Mathematics: requires the use of multiple bookmarks: one for the main story of the “branch”; one for the extended “interpolations” that are placed at the end of each chapter; and one for the alternative narratives (or “bifurcations”) at the end of chapters two and three. As Roubaud piles tangent upon tangent and traces parallel lines of story, the reader is forced to switch back and forth across the pages until he is quite literally lost in the book. With this structure, which mimics the way our minds are invaded by memories and distractions, he crosses what may be the printed book’s final frontier—the linear progression of pagination.

While all books teach us how they are meant to be read, few do so as explicitly as the “Great Fire” series. A great deal of Mathematics: concerns itself with explaining how its narrative was constructed. There are accounts of the genesis of book’s particular architecture; the constraints under which it was composed; and an elucidation of everything from the interlocking parentheses to the multiple font sizes and typefaces down to the colon at the end of the word mathematics in the title (according to what Roubaud calls the “Gertrude Stein Axiom,” “A title is a proper noun describing a book ”—or, to put it another way, “a book is an autobiography of its title.”)

All of this makes for highly self-conscious writing. But Mathematics: avoids the pitfalls of most metafiction: preciousness, smugness, self-indulgence. Though the melancholy tone of the first two branches is largely absent from this one, Mathematics: manages to retain a sense of gravity. Even when Roubaud is being playful he never winks or smirks. Its pieces may seem to fit together arbitrarily at first, but by the end of the book, we are presented with an image of mathematics and a portrait of its practictioners that seems as though it couldn’t have been constructed in any other way. (And the objection that the book could very well have been constructed in another way is precisely what its “bifurcations” were created to handle. “Of course it could,” Roubaud is saying, “and here’s how…”)

With the “Great Fire” series, Roubaud has built a gothic cathedral of a memoir, where the rib vaults and flying buttresses are visible and the structure is part of the ornamentation. When he worries he may be misremembering, he says so; when he knows he is simplifying for the purpose of the story, he admits it; when he is not quoting from memory but from a text, he flags it with boldface type; when he adds a bit of information in a second draft, he makes the font size smaller. For Roubaud, “veracity” is not a compositional constraint; it is a matter of principle, of “being absolutely faithful to this approach to memory” and to mathematics itself, in which “incorrectness was the only real, unforgiveable crime.”

No small part of the pleasure of reading Mathematics: is watching the pieces of Roubaud’s grand cathedral come together. It’s a pleasure not unlike that of solving a puzzle—or better still, of proving a theorem.

Ryan Ruby is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. He teaches philosophy at York College.