Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Optical Ill Luzhin

Yesterday while reading I had an odd visual experience that I don't recall happening before.  In my right eye it felt as if I could see the edge of the lens in my glasses.  If I stared straight ahead I could avoid this feeling, so that is what I did to concentrate on the reading.  But it is hard to constrain peripheral vision entirely.  So I kept returning to this odd sensation.  I don't know how long this persisted.  Ultimately, it occurred to me to take off my glasses.  When I did I found a hair, one that must have been from the top of my head rather than my eyelid, fully extended near the middle of the lens.  I removed it and the sensation went away.  One mystery solved, though how the hair got there in the first place will remain a puzzle.  I don't think I'm shedding. 

During that session I finished reading Nabokov's novel The Luzhin Defense.  Somewhere recently I read something, a review of the book or a critique of Nabokov as a writer, that said the story was very familiar.  But it was not known to me and the story in the book is so different from the one in the movie that seeing the movie first did not prepare me for how the book concluded.  In my previous post I wrote that I had reached the part of the story where Luzhin has a nervous breakdown.  This is a bit past the middle of the book.  What then?

I don't want to give away the story, so instead will describe things at a rather abstract level.  I hope this can shed some light on the matter without being a spoiler for the book.

Chess and math are similar in how they are depicted from the perspective of the extremely skilled practitioner, i.e., a genius. That person has intense powers of concentration and uses those powers to find patterns or discover metaphors in the object of study that others don't see.  This universe of thought becomes a world into itself.  In the late 1980s the students who were studying economic theory at Illinois would wear a sweatshirt that said: Do you live in your model?  That question conveys the fundamental idea.  The requisite concentration makes for a life of its own, one entirely apart from what we consider normal living.

There are many more aspirants than geniuses.  As one of the former, I have some sense of what it is like to be in that mental world where thoughts of anything outside that world fade into oblivion.  And on some occasions when in this aware state it has been possible for me to see things that others miss.  But as a pretender to the throne I've learned that if I don't experience that seeing rather early in the quest I'm much more likely to get stuck in the mire than to find something beautiful.  The true genius can let the pattern unfold without loss of patience or concentration in doing so.  The discovery then can be bigger and more elegant.  It requires the fullness of time to develop to maturity.

Having some sense about intense mental focus on a hard problem, there then is the question about how or if the person brings normalcy to the rest of his life.  This is far easier to do if the person has a diversity of interests - variety is the spice of life.  But then the pastimes compete with the main event for attention.  The singular genius may reject other interests or treat them at surface level only, so as not to disrupt his concentration.  And when in creative mode this singularity of mind is a very good thing.  The genius will produce wonderful stuff.

But it is a double edged sword and can be a trap.  The genius may then start to apply his familiar metaphors to the world of normalcy and find in normalcy patterns from his abstract universe.  This can reduce possibility rather than help with coping and can come to feel like the walls are caving in.  The genius is more prone to this form of depression than the rest of us, because the genius has made it a habit to block out thoughts others would welcome as normal.   This I believe to be the main theme of the story.

There is one other, related theme.   Can a genius have feelings of intimacy that are profound enough to serve as a sustaining counterweight?  Or is it that even if the genius has a wife whom he "loves" that he nonetheless fundamentally feels alone because the genius can't share his inner world with his spouse?  And what does the spouse think of the situation?  Does she believe, perhaps falsely, that she is getting through when in fact she isn't?  Or does she recognize that in spite of her efforts to comfort her husband and protect him from his inner demons that his ability to block out normalcy is so strong that it includes blocking her out as well?

It may be interesting for us non-geniuses to reflect on communication in our own marriages by reading about Luzhin and his wife.  But, to be truthful, I didn't find this part of the book as compelling to read as the part that led up to the breakdown.  Yet in retrospect, the way Nabokov tells the story seems like the inevitable conclusion.  If genius could fully transform from one domain to another - in the story this would be drawing to replace chess - then a different outcome would have been possible.  Such a transformation was the wife's hope, but that hope was steeped in unreality.  How is it possible to turn off thoughts from the first domain where the genius is world class?  That has become a vortex from which there is no escape. 

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