This article, written in 1927 by the psychoanalyst Smith Ely Jeliffe (a dude) has a take on workplace sexism that is, to me, startlingly contemporary.
When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Freud (OK, I read a lot of Janet Malcolm writing about Freud and, inspired by that, a little bit of Freud) and I caught a whiff of the good old family romance when I encountered “dadbod”:
“In case you haven’t noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod,” Pearson wrote. “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ ”
“There is just something about the dad bod,” Pearson continued, “that makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.”
OK, I thought, I’m a guy who’s read a lot of Freud, I’m probably reading too much into this. Sometimes a trend piece is just a trend piece. But then:
Pearson: My dad has read it. He called me this morning to talk about it. My dad is super into CrossFit. He’s super, super fit and really healthy. He actually found a comment where someone had uploaded a picture from Facebook saying, “This is her, this is actually her and her dad!” My dad looks young. People think we’re dating all the time, because he’s in such great shape. He told me that he got a kick out of it. He sent it to my entire extended family, saying, “Look how funny my daughter is!” He’s really enjoyed the comments and the attention.
One good feature of meeting Adam Phillips was that I got to ask him about Grothendieck’s use of the phrase “the capacity to be alone,” generally associated with the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott was Phillips’s analyst’s analyst, and Phillips has written extensively on him, so I thought I’d run the quote by him. Phillips told me:
I have often been told I needed to sit down and have a conversation with a psychoanalyst, and now I’m doing it — in public! Adam Phillips and I will be at Hillel Friday morning to talk about the challenges of writing about technical material for a general audience. Feel free to suggest questions for Phillips in the comments.
I’d never encountered this exquisitely characterizing passage from Grothendieck’s memoir before. I think even non-mathematicians will find it of interest.
In those critical years I learned how to be alone.[But even]this formulation doesn’t really capture my meaning. I didn’t, in any literal sense, learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation[1945-1948],when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law..By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member. or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me both at the lycee and at the university, that one shouldn’t bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like” volume” which was “obviously self-evident”, “generally known,” ”in problematic” etc…it is in this gesture of ”going beyond to be in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one-it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.
Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.
In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.
I’ll add just one remark: “The capacity to be alone” is a phrase made famous by the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who understood the development of this capacity to be a crucial phase in the maturation of the child. Winnicott’s sense of the term is quite specific: “the basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox; it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present.” I don’t know whether Grothendieck was quoting Winnicott here (is it known whether he was analyzed, or familiar with the psychoanalytic literature at all?) but his sense of the phrase is much the same. The challenge is not to do mathematics in isolation, but to preserve a necessary circle of isolation and autonomy around oneself even while part of a mathematical community.
I should say that this is totally foreign to my own mode of mathematical work, which involves near-constant communication with collaborators and other colleagues and a close attention to the “notions of the consensus,” which I find are usually quite useful.
Also, Grothendieck’s distinction between himself and the less profound mathematicians who were quick studies and winners of competitions should give John Tierney something to think about.
Twice in my life I have read novels by unknown-to-me Nordic authors simply because they won the Nobel Prize, and in both cases they were really, really great. The first was Independent People, by Halldór Laxness. The second, which I’ve just finished, was Pär Lagerkvist’s short novel The Dwarf, in Alexandra Dick’s translation. Looks like I’ll have to try Knut Hamsun.
Here’s the opening paragraph. The impression this gives of the book is exactly correct.
I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head perhaps a trifle too large. My hair is not black like the others’, but reddish, very stiff and thick, drawn back from the temples and the broad but not especially lofty brow. My face is beardless, but otherwise just like that of other men. My eyebrows meet. My bodily strength is considerable, particularly if I am annoyed. When the wrestling match between Jehoshaphat and myself I forced him onto his back after twenty minutes and strangled him. Since then I have been the only dwarf at this court.
The prevailing critical take about The Dwarf seems to read it as a meditation on evil, but I don’t think that’s quite right — it’s much more like a meditation on childishness. What’s going on here is something like this. We find the innocence and freedom of childhood attractive, but this is only because actual children are small and weak. Lagerkvist takes the mental qualities we associate with children — first and foremost an incomprehension, verging on horror, of adult appetites and their satisfaction, but also impulsivity, stubbornness, and moral rigidity — and imparts them to a being with the power to do something about them. The result is something like psychopathy. Or, if you want, evil.
(As for the first paragraph — just note that the dwarf’s height is given in inches only, not feet and inches, like that of an infant. And that the story told is a compressed little fantasy of sibling rivalry.)
The Dwarf is from 1945, the height of the psychoanalytic era. So my guess is that the question implicit in the book, “What happens when a furious child is working the gears of an adult body?” was meant to be taken literally.