In Conversation

Janna Levin with Sylvie Myerson

DOES 1 + 1 REALLY = 2?

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines is Janna Levin’s first novel, and with it she has broken new ground. The work has been hailed as a novel of ideas recounting the lives and deaths of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing, whose discoveries radically changed the way philosophers, mathematicians and scientists understand mathematics.

The fact that two different people who never actually met led even remotely similar lives is the stuff from which fiction is made. Their beliefs could not be more opposite: Gödel believed in transmigration of the soul and Turing, who invented the computer, came to believe that human beings are soulless biological machines just like their electromechanical or digital counterparts. Yet their trajectories bear a striking resemblance: Gödel was a hypochondriac and paranoid schizophrenic who committed an extremely drawn out suicide by starving himself to death, fearful that his food was being poisoned; Turing, having been convicted of gross indecency due to his homosexuality and condemned to chemical castration, was in effect poisoned by the British government. He eventually committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

Madman is a stylistically innovative and emotionally charged work of fiction. With its pulsing and at times painful use of sensory imagery Levin takes us into the minds of a fictional Gödel and a fictional Turing as seen through the eyes of a shadowy and perhaps not entirely reliable narrator. Thematically, the novel captures the violent collision of the search for truth and purity on the one hand, and our inescapable mortality and decay on the other. It is driven by lush, dense, virtually alchemical language that will make your skin prickle and keep you up at night.

Janna Levin is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. Her scientific research concerns the Early Universe, Chaos, and Black Holes. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (Knopf, 2006) won the PEN/Bingham Fellowship for Writers. Stephen Colbert refers to her as “Dr. Brainiac.” This interview is the result of a series of conversations which took place in NYC in July of 2007.

Rail: Gödel and Turing seem unrelated in their beliefs and personalities yet their ideas overlapped. What was the relationship between the two?

Levin: I think it’s fascinating that there’s this way in which they converge. I understand Gödel’s leanings towards saying that’s the only thing that’s unambiguous in this world…these mathematical propositions, these mathematical facts. They touch on that totally unambiguous reality and then they diverge wildly in their beliefs about things. Gödel believes in transmigration of the soul and Turing believes that we are soulless biological machines. Where they touched in their ideas is that after Gödel proved that there were mathematical statements that could not be decided, peculiar self-referential tangles that could not be proven true or false, Turing came along and showed that actually most numbers are numbers about which we will never know anything.

Rail: They were obviously aware of each other’s work even though they never met.

Levin: They were very aware of each other. Turing was a bit younger and was clearly thinking in response to Gödel. He delivered the final blow to that ambition that mathematicians had before Gödel, that mathematics was complete, consistent and decidable. He showed that there was no systematic way to approach a general mathematical idea and decide whether you could prove it or not because there were infinite lists of uncomputable numbers. Now here Gödel works in total abstraction but Turing, who seems very down to earth in some ways, imagines building a machine. He was thinking that you could encode each thought in a series of zeros and ones in a binary system. You could mechanize the thought process that corresponds to adding or subtracting or dividing, pipe it into a machine and that machine would then generate an output. Really, he invented the computer. He invented the idea of an electromechanical machine that would read those zeros and ones and generate output. When he was thinking of uncomputable numbers, he was saying no machine could compute those numbers and since we are ultimately biological machines, neither could we.

Rail: You have described Turing as a gay martyr. I was wondering if we could talk about that some more.

Levin: The story is an unbelievable moment in our collective history. Turing was absolutely essential in terms of turning World War II around in favor of the allies and is credited with shortening the war by several years. He did this by cracking the Nazi naval enigma code and inventing a machine that could mechanize some of the thought process.

Rail: But in spite of this he was still relatively unknown, right?

Levin: He’s really a war hero but not a recognised public figure. Many people around him knew that he did mysterious work at Bletchley Park but even after the war, not even Turing would talk about it. I think it’s amazing that he never raised that flag.

Rail: Why do you think that is?

Levin: I think he respected the idea that he was supposed to keep that secret. We talked, last time, about how truthful he was and it is actually a sign of autism. Autistics don’t lie. Turing wasn’t a severe autistic but he probably had what we would call now Asperger’s syndrome. He did not believe in lying. He was a fundamentally truthful, honest person. I think he respected that allegiance. So he didn’t tell people but what he did tell them is the one thing he probably shouldn’t have which is that he had had homosexual affairs. Do you want the whole story?

Rail: Sure.

Levin: He had been burgled. It was really a pretty minor burglary. They took a compass, maybe some old trousers, little odds and ends…People told him, just let it go, let it go. I mean, it wasn’t like he was going to get his compass back! What was right and what was wrong was very clear to him, so he went to the police. He suspected that it was somehow connected to a man he had picked up in Manchester and had been having an on-and-off affair with. The police sensed that the story wasn’t completely clear. They pushed him, not very hard at all. He very quickly confessed that he had had a homosexual affair and when they asked him to write it down he wrote it down in great detail and signed it.

Rail: He could’ve reported the burglary without disclosing his sexuality.

Levin: He almost tried to hide it but he very quickly gave it up. I think he could not stand to be a fake. I think fakes and phonies were the worst things imaginable to Turing. He did not think there was anything wrong with being gay and he wasn’t going to pretend there was. So I think he was relieved to tell them about the affair. I think he was happy to transcribe it.

Rail: Did he have any idea that he would be condemned to chemical castration?

Levin: I think he didn’t fully think far enough ahead. I’m sure that was a shock to him. Essentially, he was convicted of gross indecency and he was given a choice between prison and chemical castration. It’s not exactly a choice but those were the two punishments on the table at that time.

Rail: It’s amazing how the government can do this to a war hero.

Levin: That’s right. So, really he’s betrayed by his country.

Rail: And he’s poisoned.

Levin: And he’s poisoned. So, here is Gödel fearing his food is poisoned by the government and Turing is actually poisoned by his government.

Rail: Then he poisons himself as a result.

Levin: Right. He bites from a poisoned apple. And that probably had many meanings. I’m sure there was this feeling that he had just been poisoned, although he wasn’t really given to allegory. There was a much more literal application which is that he loved Snow White. He just loved this film. He used to go around chanting, “dip the apple in the brew, let the sleeping death seep through.” In that sense, it was a pretty literal gesture.

Rail: The idea of truth seems central to the novel, both in terms of the protagonists’ quests but also in terms of its structure.

Levin: The issue of truth is most relevant to whether it’s a novel, because if you’re writing about truth and you’re writing about mathematics then why bother writing a novel? Most people who are interested in truth and mathematics aren’t interested in fiction. There was a lot that made me want to write it as a novel, one being this whole idea that sometimes truth cannot come out as a theorem even in mathematics, let alone in a retelling of two people’s lives. Sometimes you have to step outside of the perfect linear logic of biographical facts. The very idea of doing fiction was to structure it on their theorems and also to play with the idea that, ultimately, everything we receive and retell is in our minds. So there’s the sense that the narrator, as they’re telling the story, is admitting that they’re lying, that they’re a composite, and is drawing your attention to the fact that this exists in the narrator’s mind. I think that once you make that leap as the reader then you have to accept that, really, it only exists in your mind and that truth is this thing that we can only get at with swats.

Rail: Towards the end the narrator says that it’s like certain stars that you can only see from the periphery of your eye.

Levin: Right. What truth would I have given somebody if I had, for instance, not used sentences but had just listed the biographical facts? No truth emerges from that. That’s just not how our minds operate. So, exactly. Sometimes you have to look to the side.

Rail: Your novel rests on the opposition between the organic and the inorganic. You refer to truth as being hard like rocks or gems, and this is in opposition to the decay of organic matter. I think of your description of Turing in his bath looking at his sagging flesh. It’s very strong poetic imagery.

Levin: I think I have more sympathy for Turing’s world view, his practicality…Why argue philosophically about artificial intelligence? If something’s intelligent just ask it. That was his simple resolution. If it convinces you it’s intelligent then it must be. But I could also be quite seduced by Gödel’s platonic notions and this idea that truth exists and that it is pure and perfect. Atoms are always going to be flawed, an actual circle will always be flawed but the mathematical circle is perfect. There is something that’s seductive about that idea. Something that’s just gloriously, blindingly beautiful.

Rail: It’s spiritual.

Levin: You can see why there are religious feelings towards it. I think there is something that’s beautiful in the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the reality of our lives that is played out again and again. They pursue truth but they are organic beings. They do age and die. They do respond to chemicals and hormones.

Rail: Well, they age and die but in such extreme ways. Gödel is starving himself. Turing is poisoned then commits suicide. Their deaths are both slow and violent.

Levin: The physicality of it is so extreme but it’s just what we were saying before: here is Gödel, who believes that there is another reality and I think, to some extent because of it, he is literally erasing himself by wasting away and Turing committing suicide…There is an organic reality about their lives that’s a reminder that they are not in this pure platonic world. Truth is this beautiful, pure, rock hard, crystal place but their lives are full of food and death and rot and mud, germs and coal and they’re surviving all of this to get to some other level of truth, of purity. Even though Turing was a very practical person, I think he did feel this. Mathematics was the one place where he felt safe and I think he found meaning.

Rail: For a novel of ideas this is an extremely poetic work. There is also a surprisingly magical imagery that seeps into the writing. How did that get in there?

Levin: Oh God, that’s really tough! On the one level I am extremely ruthless about mathematics. What I love about it is that it’s pure and hard and that it’s just like truth. Those feelings that I’m describing in the book are feelings that I have about being a mathematical scientist. It’s something all our brains connect on and there’s no meaning to saying it’s male or female or western or eastern. Yet I resonate a lot with a certain magical language and writing. We talked about Marquez and Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai.. There’s something about the lushness of the language and the magical quality of the imagery that really resonates with me. I like playing with that line a little bit…to push them as uncomfortably close to each other…just sheer beauty and emotion against cold, hard mathematics. That conflict, to me, creates a tension that’s beautiful.

Rail: That runs throughout the book and I think that’s what makes it so strong.

Levin: Well, that’s exciting. I’m very glad you picked up on that.

Rail: I also told you that I thought it was intolerable, right?

Levin: Still, or only at the beginning? [laughs]

Rail: At first I felt really uncomfortable and I thought it was because the writing was contrived. Then after the first few chapters I started to understand why I was feeling this way. I think the narrator is being bombarded with particularly intense sensory stimuli which aren’t being integrated but are, instead, communicated to the reader. This is actually consistent with the symptoms of a condition known as sensory integration dysfunction. I feel like each sentence is pushing a different sense in this painful way yet, as a reader, you can’t help getting pulled into the story.

Levin: The narrator, originally, was going to become unhinged. I had this idea that the narrator could seem like me in the beginning.

Rail: You’re unhinged!

Levin: I’m unhinged! I’m addressing the reader from the opening as though you might assume it’s the author, and then slowly, as you progress you realize the narrator’s not really me and this is really a false composite. Then slowly the narrator would become as emotionally unhinged as the characters. But sometimes you have to limit what you’re trying to do in one book. So I think you are picking up on a shadow of what was originally going to be there.

Rail: I don’t think you needed to spell it out because I think people will pick up on it.

Levin: Some people will have picked up on the madman of the title. Is the madman the narrator? It could be Gödel if you’re being really literal but he’s rational to the end. There’s something extremely logical about the way in which he’s delusional. So, is the madman the reader? Or is it all of us? Isn’t it possible for all of us to wonder about the truth and then to dismiss that wonder because it’s just too much to grapple with?

Rail: It’s intolerable.

Levin: Yeah, and so we all dismiss it. We all accept living a more confused life for a happier life as opposed to Gödel and Turing. For both of them, being alive was just a battle that they went through in order to pursue the truth. I think that the narrator is doing that a little bit too.

Rail: There’s something in the language that makes you particularly aware of your physical senses and it’s done in a way that sets you on edge.

Levin: I’m not comparing myself to Conrad, by any means, but if you read Heart of Darkness, the language becomes really difficult to trawl through, like you’re in the jungle. This is not the first time in literary history people try to mess with your mind in that visceral way. I was nowhere doing anything like that but I think there was this sort of exchange between the actual words and the visceral experience. You’re supposed to feel it in your solar plexus, comfort or discomfort.

Rail: I also think the narrator is delusional. I remember the image of the narrator looking at the reflection of her eye in the window of the train which is not quite a mirror, as if she thinks hers is an all-seeing eye.

Levin: The narrator is pretending that she knows everything by telling the story in the first place. She doesn’t know how Gödel opened the window when he was alone in a cold room after the coal fire had been extinguished. This is part true, part lie. So I think the narrator acknowledges that this is fact and fiction rolled into one. The narrator is the author but then this Turing isn’t really exactly the real Turing and this Gödel isn’t exactly the real Gödel. This narrator isn’t exactly the author in the same sense.

Rail: I know you consulted archives and a lot of the dialogue is actually historically documented. I though it was interesting you included end notes pointing out what’s historical and what’s fictional.

Levin: I wanted to include the end notes because I think if I was reading historical fiction I could go along with the game and be seduced. You enter that world and you’re in the hands of the author for that time. You can step out of the book at the end and look at the end notes and then there’s your list of biographical facts. It shouldn’t change anything about the experience.

Rail: Would you have felt dishonest otherwise?

Levin: I would’ve felt I was doing something dishonest. If it’s a novel I don’t want to pretend I invented that dialogue and take credit I didn’t deserve. Also, I don’t want to falsely represent something as true that’s not true.

Rail: We’re right back to the idea of truth.

Levin: Well, I’m basically a truthful person.

Contributor

Sylvie Myerson

Sylvie Myerson is a French-American writer living in Brooklyn.

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