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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Jane Austen Master Mathematician-Logician



Diana Birchall posted the following link to her mathematician cousin Davis’s review of Michael’s book:


However, I am sorry to say that I found his review very wrong headed in several important ways, which I’ve been prompted to articulate, because it goes to the heart of the prevailing mythology about Jane Austen’s limitations as an author.  

Davis: “To the best of my knowledge, this is the only mention of a mathematician in any of Austen's works. It is safe to say that it never crossed Austen's mind that any form of mathematics would be at all helpful in understanding her novels, still less that her novels would be a significant contribution to mathematics.”

That already marks the reviewer as someone who has grossly underestimated Jane Austen, and who lacks the background knowledge to realize how wrong his instincts are, from the getgo. Even beyond Michael’s game theory insights, this post will articulate some of the reasons I believe JA’s fiction has strong mathematical logical resonance.

First, I find a subtle Lewis Carroll-like quality to JA’s writing, especially in Emma, in which I get a particularly strong sense of a powerful theoretical mind playing profound games with her readers. JA was very consciously creating allegorical structures in which the surface story provides an absurdist almost trivialist mask for deeper (philosophical and mathematical, among other) concerns. Even if JA was not, like Carroll, officially a mathematician and logician, she learned what she needed to learn somehow, some way, and invented the rest out of her huge intellect and imagination—the ultimate autodidact.

In a nutshell, I see Lewis Carroll having read Emma, in particular the charades and Harriet’s tale of the gypsies, and his having been inspired to do something similar in the conversations between Alice and her acquaintances on the other side of the looking glass. Harriet herself is a character straight out of Wonderland --superficially speaking absurdities, but concealing deep games underneath. The ultimate sort of irony.  

But there’s more mathematical stuff that comes to mind when I think about Emma in particular. For example, in the following post 3 ½ years ago….
…I responded to Anielka’s sharp observations about the mathematical precision and complexity hidden in the line by line structure of the “courtship” charade, even beyond its numerous alternate solutions, and I responded to her point with further points about the analogy of the  quadrille-like charade  structure to the quadrille in both dance and in international relations (the latter being, of  course and not coincidentally, a prime arena of study for game theorists!).

And there’s one more example I wish to present, perhaps the most mathematically elegant. I pointed out here…
…a layered insight which I have been speaking about in my Jane Fairfax talks since mid 2007. I.e., there is a strikingly logico-mathematical “nesting” (like those Russian Matryoshka dolls within dolls) of the mysteries of Emma, hidden in the mathematical structure of the novel, with its reversals. Good Harriet and Bad Harriet; Good Frank and Bad Frank; Good Knightley and (gasp!)  Bad Knightley. Matter and anti-matter, anyone?  

But, more mathematical still, was my realization that Mrs. Elton’s acrostic is Mr. Elton’s charade, that Frank is Mrs. Elton’s “abominable puppy”, that John Knightley is Emma’s “Mr. Dixon”, etc etc. What we have is nothing less than interpersonal relations depicted as algebraic equations, with characters as “unknowns” to be “solved”! I hadn’t even consciously realized that I was using algebraic terminology when I wrote the following teaser sheet for my 2010 JASNA talk in NYC:


I.e., I suspect that Jane Austen thought of herself as a player in that field, and that is why she puts  that seemingly offhand comment about mathematicians and grammarians in Emma’s mind—as in JA’s letters to James Stanier Clarke, it’s the offhand on the surface that is the onhand under the surface.


“By contrast, few of Austen's characters engage in sustained planning or plotting of any complexity.”

Diana, your cousin must not be reading the same novels I have read—I see nothing but “sustained plotting” of extremely intricate complexity in every one of JA’s novels. He seems to be  reading the novels, especially Emma, at their most literal, superficial level, without reading suspiciously at all, taking Knightley, e.g., as the ultimate reality test. That’s Emma according to Emma, not according to Jane Austen.

“Second, and more seriously, Chwe suggests tentatively that the elopement of Elizabeth Bennet's sister Lydia might be an instance of successful strategic planning on Lydia's part. This reading is absolutely impossible.”

Davis shows by this comment a total cluelessness that characters like Lydia might possibly have motives and understandings of which the clueless heroine  (in this case, Lizzy) is utterly unaware.

What is missing in the review is any awareness that the most important strategic, disingenuous deployment of game theory expertise in Jane Austen’s novels is that which is performed by Jane Austen on her readers! I.e., Jane Austen, in a thousand  places, strategically manipulates her readers’ awareness and understanding of what is going in the story, while at the same time playing fair by giving enough subtle hints and clues as to what might be going on offstage.

“Beyond these specific errors lies a more general and pervasive misunderstanding. In the final analysis, Austen places much more value on ethical behavior than on strategic planning.”

That has to be the biggest begging of an important question about Jane Austen that I’ve ever read! In a single sentence, Davis has inadvertently shown that he has drunk the interpretive Kool—Aid that JA has so cleverly offered. He believes the cover stories that JA’s characters tell.

Jane Austen’s realism is above all about the way people rationalize their immoral or strategic behavior. I bet your cousin thinks Sir Thomas Bertram is a good man, and not the heartless, hypocritical, sadistic, mercenary, greedy moral monster that he is. And he obviously thinks Knightley is the fount of all wisdom. He doesn’t realize that JA has led him through the looking glass, and has given him what he wants, a world in which the “good guys” like Knightley say what they mean, know themselves well, and behave strictly according to the high moral precepts they preach.
W.H. Auden would be rolling at more rotations per second than Rafael Nadal’s nastiest forehand to hear such opinions about Jane Austen. Auden understood as well as anyone that this is a fantasy world, having no resemblance to the domestic Machiavellianism actually depicted by Jane Austen, which is much closer to real life.

So above all, JA’s novels are ways of teaching strategic thinking experientially, not by means of dry lecture of “facts” about it, but by throwing the reader into deep water, and letting them learn to swim. The “currents” JA creates push the reader out to sea, but a strong reader can learn to avoid  those currents and get to shore, where the jewels from the deep left behind by JA have all washed up.  

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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