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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Jane Austen’s and John Nash’s Similarly Beautiful Minds



In the obituary for John Nash in the NY Times last month in the aftermath of his sad death in an auto accident, I just became aware (via a Tweet by my new Twitter follower/ee, Elan Durham @europabridge1) of the following unlikely mention of Jane Austen therein:  

“Jane Austen wrote six novels,” said Barry Mazur, a professor of mathematics at Harvard who was a freshman at M.I.T. when Dr. Nash taught there. “I think Nash’s pure mathematical contributions are on that level. Very, very few papers he wrote on different subjects, but the ones that had impact had incredible impact.”

What a brilliant observation by Mazur, to recognize the similarity between Nash and Austen in their relatively small output, their youth in producing it, and (most importantly) the incredible impact and influence they had on so many of those who followed in their footsteps. Those who’ve read or seen A Beautiful Mind know the story of how Nash’s influence grew during the decades following his groundbreaking theorizing.

But it is far from universally acknowledged that Jane Austen decisively changed the course of literary history in several important ways, and her influence is still growing worldwide, nearly two centuries after her death.  Even Nash, with his richly deserved Nobel Prize, would not have dreamt of having that level and persistence of influence.

And by the way, in making that observation, Prof. Mazur seems to be unaware of another irony in his comparison of an apple (a novelist) and an orange (a mathematician who made his greatest mark in the field of game theory)---the irony being that Michael Chwe wrote a book a few years ago entitled Jane Austen, Game Theorist. As I’ve written before, I believe that Chwe only scratched the surface of that excellent topic, given that he failed to realize that it was not only the obvious aspects of the relationship between Austen’s characters that could be fruitfully analyzed via game theory principles, but the relationship between Jane Austen as author, on the one hand, and her readers, on the other, as well.

Just as most Janeites (including Chwe) have failed to realize that the boldest scheming game-players in her novels are Miss Bates, Harriet Smith, Mary Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy, so too have most Janeites not imagined Jane Austen to be engaged in a bold didactic game of seducing her readers down a garden path of passive misinterpretation, the better to (eventually) teach them to read her novels (and their own lives) against the grain of conventional assumptions.

In short, Jane Austen’s mind was at least as beautiful as Nash’s (and Shakespeare’s.)  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter



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