Category Archives: Literature

Updike’s Rabbit, Poincare, and the Art of Honest Writing

Cover of "Rabbit, Run"

Cover of Rabbit, Run

As I am reading Rabbit, Run, I am slowly recognizing the literary genius of John Updike and I can not help but to draw parallels to the artists of the second kind — mathematicians.  Updike does not use the tricks of literary construction that are so prevalent in the popular literature and modern blog writing.  There is nothing wrong with clever literary construction of course.  It makes the pages turn, it draws you in and leaves you asking for more.  If you have read John Grisham’s Time to Kill (his first and best novel, I think), you know what I am talking about.  The problem is that this kind of prose gets tiring after a while as you sort of feel like the author is consciously tricking you.

Not so with Updike.  His storyline is quite ordinary as are his characters.  He does not leave you hanging at the end pages and paragraphs.  He simply tells.  The beauty of his writing, it seems to me, is that the prose itself is so cleverly nuanced, yet so vivid, that it infuses extraordinary qualities into ordinary events and actors.  For example, from Rabbit, Run, describing a foreplay with a plump prostitute:

As swiftly, he bends his face into a small forest smelling of spice, where he is out of all dimension, and where a tender entire woman seems an inch away, around a kind of corner.  When he straightens up on his knees, kneeling as he is by the bed, Ruth under his eyes is an incredible continent, the pushed-up slip a north of snow.

When reading Updike, the reading itself is an incredible experience, a total escape into the Updike dimension that is as insightful as it is unique.  This kind of prose seems completely out of reach for mere mortals who need to resort to literary tricks.

Cover of "The Value of Science: Essential...

Cover via Amazon

I get a similar feeling when reading Henri Poincare’s The Value of Science (in English translation) in that his understanding of mathematics is so deep that it feels almost untouchable, yet he simply tells without the drama of other popularizers of science like say Hawking (a brilliant man) or Mlodinow (also no slouch.) Not to be outdone by the literary types, Poincare’s narration is so beautiful that it makes me want to learn French just to read him in the original.  Here is Poincare on the nuances of Number Theory:

He is a savant indeed who will not take is as evident that every curve has a tangent; and in fact if we think of a curve and straight line as two narrow bands, we can always arrange them in such a way that they have a common part without intersecting

And here he is again on the scientific motivation.

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.  If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature would not be worth knowing, life would not be worth living.

It was Poincare who noted that:

A scientist worthy of his name, above all a mathematician, experiences in his work the same impression as an artist; his pleasure is as great and of the same nature.

The curious intersection of art and science has been noted by many.  The fact that science has its own aesthetic beauty is not a byproduct of the scientific method.  As Poincare so eloquently points out, it is the reason for its existence.