Saw the movie version of Proof the other night. It’s a nicely written mystery, masquerading as a family drama. I especially liked these lines:

“If I go back to the beginning. I could start it over again. Here. I could go line by line. Try and find a shorter way. I could try to make it… better.”

These lines are the overture of both the play and the film. Robert, the crazy mathematician dad, continually exhorts his daughter Catherine to work through his proof in this way, to take the results of his addled mind and improve upon it. Catherine resists this all through the film, because of course the proof her father has written is garbage… or poetry, at least. It’s not mathematics. But at the end, when she sits down with her new lover, Hal, she quotes these lines to the audience, ostensibly because they are about to work through her great invention together.

In truth, she has come to terms with her own inheritance; not the proof itself, which she is now confident is her own, but her brain, which preserves her father’s insight and brilliance but is not quite so prone to insanity. She takes her life and her psyche as an extraordinary result of her father’s inventiveness, left to her to work through again, from the beginning. She is his daughter, and in the way of children she supplies a proof that he existed even after he died, and that he existed long after he stopped publishing prize-winning mathematics. At the same time, she has the opportunity to work through the life of a brilliant, potentially schizophrenic mathematician ‘again’, to improve on the version of that life that her father led. So when she finds the shorter way in Hal, when she agrees to work at “it” (life, math, love, etc.) rather than waste away in bed or in an institution, she’s improving on the model her father gave her.

This emphasis on the novelty that children introduce, rather than the therapeutic obsession with nature/nurture, is something that scientific minds share with political minds. The notion that we’re not stuck doing the same math, living in the same polis, forever, but rather that we can innovate and achieve better results, learn from our heritage and improve upon it… that’s the essence of the revolutionary spirit. I love the spaces and disciplines that look at the world through this perspective. In math, sadly, there’s a tendency to subsume the singular insight of this or that genius into the ‘machinery of the mind,’ which operates in such a way as allow someone to briefly see farther than his (and it’s always his) fellows by dint of youth and some barely-contained psychosis.

I like Catherine’s model better, the feminine model of genius and innovation; over-old, constantly struggling with the conflicting imperatives of care and creation, with the low expectations of sexism and the automatic arrogance of paternalistic professors and experts, she still manages to accomplish a great thing. Yet of course her achievement is so far outside the expectations of the establishment that even her new boyfriend suspects that her crazy old man must have produced it in a lucid moment. Worse, she worries that she should allow him the credit for it, as if to make another stereotypically feminine sacrifice to care and concern.

This is the problem with all making, whether it’s knowledge-work or carpentry; even one’s signiature easily fades into the woodwork, even the marks of mind and intellect that we leave in the phantom ‘voice’ of the written word or the signal turns of a mathematical argument are easily missed. And this is a problem too for political innovation, which so often requires both a courageous act and the willingness to recede from the spotlight so that the peace brokered or the nation founded can flourish on its own.

I’m thinking a little of Solon here, who wrote the constitution of Athens and brokered a peace instead of civil war. He was so concerned to avoid the fate of a tyrant that he retired from public life after that act. This was the temptation that Catherine faces in the film; to achieve something groundbreaking but avoid the attention, the credit, and the expectations for future work. To keep working, to remain a source of novelty… these are the challenges that every daughter and every son faces. The alternative to is to become another kind of source, to give birth to a revolutionary, a doctor, or a novelist. The challenge is to act and to make in such a way that what one has done or produced doesn’t weigh you down. At the same time, all action worthy of the name threatens just this weightiness; any journal article or blog post could turn out to be the one thing that you will always be remembered by and judged against. I like the riskiness of that proposition: I think that’s the courage of Proof.

Second Opinions