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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Female mad scientists and creative nihilism (thoughts on Sofia Kovalevskaya)

I've been thinking of making the protagonist of my next novel a female "mad scientist", but I wasn't sure how to write the character, so I started searching history for a good model.

I found damn few female mad scientists in recorded history.

The closest I found was the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovaleveskaya, whose name I knew from the Cauchy-Kovalevsky Theorem in partial differential equations. I hadn't known much about her before, so I did some reading and found she fit the bill pretty well:

  • World-class mathematician
  • Spent some time inventing weird new electrical machinery
  • Accomplished novelist
  • Also wrote plays and poetry
  • Participated in the Paris Commune, and generally schemed for revolutionary overthrow of governments
  • Helped her husband lose piles of money during a several year period devoted to "clever" real estate and financial speculation

A woman after my own heart -- wish I'd known her! She was also the first woman ever to get a math PhD (she lived in the mid-1800's).

Her biography is also full of nice tidbits, like

  • She first got passionate about advanced math when her attic happened to get wallpapered with lecture notes from a calculus class her father had taken years before. So she learned about limits and such from reading unordered pages of mathematical text pasted to a wall!
  • To study advanced math, she had to leave Russia (due to sexist regulations), and to do that she had to get married ... so she entered into a "fake marriage" with a platonic male friend with the sole purpose of escaping Russia to get to university in Western Europe (although, many years later, the fake marriage turned real...)

Her childhood memoir "A Russian Childhood" is a wonderful book and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Russian literature.

This biography is also worth reading for the story it tells -- although the biographer's radical-feminist antimasculism is annoying, and appears to radically falsify Kovalevskaya's relationship with her husband, among other things

There's also a historical novel about her life, which I haven't read

Her novella "Nihilist Girl" has some greatness about it too, but feels first-draft-ish, like it needed a final edit to really become a work of art.

But the main thing I wanted to write about today was the revised idea of "nihilism" I got from reading "Nihilist Girl" and these other materials....

I've generally thought of "nihilism" as meaning "believing in nothing" ... or at least the attitude of Turgenev's character Bazarov, that nothing really matters much including one's own life....

But after reading Kovalevskaya, I realize that -- in thinking about Russian nihilism from the mid-1800s -- I was largely mistaking the parody for the real thing.

Kovalevskaya's brand of nihilism was significantly more interesting than that of the fictional character Bazarov.

It wasn't about absolutely rejecting everything and judging everything as meaningless and worthless. Rather, it was about rejecting any absolute values. It was about rejecting anything as sacred -- and opening everything up to question.

What was being rejected was a world-view in which there are certain absolute truths, in terms of which everything else must be assessed.

If you get rid of absolute truth, though, then what are you left with? Complete worthlessness and suicide, a la Bazarov? Or maybe not. What Kovalevskaya and her friends were after was something different.

One can think about it in terms of self-organization and strange attractors. Once one gets rid of absolute truth, and admits every single thing as open to question and revision, then one has a self-organizing dynamical system in which each thing gets potentially revised by each other thing. But the outcome of this doesn't need to be a homogeneous evaluation of everything as worthless. The outcome can be some other "strange attractor" in which each thing gets value from each other thing, according to a complex system of interdependencies and interactions.

Kovalevskaya-style nihilism, it seems, wasn't really about rejecting everything as equally worthless, but more about rejecting anything as absolutely valuable ... and letting the process of interactive, adaptive, mutual-value-adjustment spread through everything and lead to a productive evolution of new valuations and forms.

But I don't seem to have been the only one to get confused about nihilism.

Wikipedia says:

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical position that values do not exist but rather are falsely invented. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without meaning, purpose or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another.... The term nihilism is sometimes used synonymously with anomie to denote the general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence that one has when they realize there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.

and Nietzsche wrote in his notebooks (The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought NOT to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

Nietzsche posited his own views as dramatically contradictory to nihilism -- and they certainly are wholly contradictory to Bazarov-style nihilism ... Nietzsche was all about creating your own values, rather than accepting any values as absolute, and rather than rejecting all values.

But it seems that Nietzsche was posing nihilism as a "straw man" to an even greater extent than I'd thought before ... and that his general views on trans-nihilist value-creation were not so fundamentally different than those of many of the Russian nihilists of the 1860s.

In Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs wrote "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" -- which on one reading reflects Bazarov-style nihilism ... and which Burroughs borrowed from Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra said:


“Nothing is true, all is permitted”: so said I to myself. Into the coldest water did I plunge with head and heart. Ah, how oft did I stand there naked on that account, like a red crab! –

But if one reads this Burroughs/Nietzsche aphorism as "Nothing is absolutely true; nothing is absolutely impermissible" then one has a Kovalevskaya-style nihilism, in which dogmatism is eliminated in favor of the creative self-organization of new value systems.

Dostoevsky also seems to have put a lot of energy into pillorying a straw-man version of Russian nihilism. Dostoevsky's nihilists are folks like Raskolnikov (the heartless, utilitarian murderer of Crime and Punishment) or Kirilov in The Possessed (a majorly hilarious character who preaches copiously about the worthlessness of existence and then suicides because he considers it the highest act of free will).

Kovalevskaya's "nihilist girl" character is about as far as you can get from Raskolnikov -- an extremely caring person, she marries a political prisoner (a man twice her age in whom she has no romantic interest) to save him from near-certain execution, even though this means her own exile to Siberia ... and generally decides to devote her life to helping Siberian prisoners, as a way of contributing to the common good. She doesn't lack values -- she just rejects having absolute values imposed on her, and wishes to create her own values based on her own intuitions and her engagement with the world.

And the narrator of Nihilist Girl makes a different choice -- she is a mathematician like Kovalevskaya, devoted to the life of science; she plainly states that she would not exile herself to save a political prisoner -- yet she just as plainly shares the same underlying philosophy of "creative nihilism" (my phrase, not Kovalevskaya's).

Dostoevsky courted Sofia Kovalevskaya's big sister Aniuta, as it happened. His story was that he broke off their engagement because she was too nihilistic. Her story (which has more ring of truth) was that she broke up with him, before they were formally engaged, because she didn't want to spend her life taking care of him and wanted more freedom to explore her own interests and passions.

But however the soap opera really went down, both Sofia and Aniuta were too nihilistic for Dostoevsky. The latter believed that only religious belief could save you from destructive nihilism of the form demonstrated by Bazarov, Raskolnikov or Kirilov. He didn't think new value systems could self-organize out of a pool of interacting non-absolutes ... to him value needed to begin with some absolute faith, some absolute assumptions.

All in all, I conclude that nihilism suffered from poor marketing, and an overly subtle and ironic name, which caused its more interesting variants to get forgotten, and its less interesting variants to get repeatedly parodied.

Long live creative nihilism, Kovalevskaya style!

Nothing is true; everything is permitted ;-)

7 comments:

John Schmidt said...

Dexamene Gregores....if a "mad scientist" can just be a puppet master who helps other people make the scientific advances. See:
Cellular Civilization

Odin Khriswill said...

Creative Nihilism... I like it! I especially identify with the concept of everything being up for question or revision. Perpetuating past beliefs as immutable rather than revising them is a great impediment to progress.

Joan SS said...

quite an interesting take on Kovalevskaya.
Hope you keep us posted on the novels progress.
And, on your SK research.

I authored the historical novel on SK you reference.

Joan

Ben Goertzel said...

Thanks Joan! It's an honor to have your comment here ;-)

I'm slowly working through your book (most of the events in it are familiar due to other background material I've read, but it's great the way you've dramatized her life)

For sure, if I were to happen on a time machine, Kovalevskaya is one of the historical figures on my short-list to get visited!

thecallofktulu89 said...

Dexamene Gregores....if a "mad scientist" can just be a puppet master who helps other people make the scientific advances. See:

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Genine Silverio said...

Thanks for writing this. I was looking for an interesting female mathematician to dress up as for five extra bonus points on a math test. She sounds pretty cool and edgy. I'll dress up like her on Monday.

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