The reality (or lack thereof) of numbers is the kind of problem some philosophers consider overwhelmingly important, but it’s of no consequence to just about everyone else. It does not make a wink of difference to your life whether the figures in your bank account or the digits on your clock are, in a philosophical sense, really real, so long as they work as expected. The mathematician Paolo Zellini’s book, now translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre from the 2016 Italian original, does not exactly elevate the number-reality problem to a matter of concern to non-philosophers, and certainly does not explain the problem in a way that will make it tractable to them. But Zellini does offer a creative shift in perspective that challenges certain philosophers and philosophy-minded mathematicians to see the problem differently.
Where one might expect numbers to get their reality from the things they enumerate — canonically, two apples come before the number two — Zellini argues that this gets the story backward. Rather, the most philosophically significant examples of enumeration from ancient to modern times used numbers to give reality to the things they enumerated. He reaches this conclusion by setting to one side the bulk of historical enumeration and focusing on philosophical texts about divine and natural existence. Sure enough, in these texts numbers appear to be the source of reality, often by way of a divine agency or inspiration: hence the titular ‘mathematics of the Gods’.
We are inundated with information every hour of every day, and so it’s entirely possible to go through your life without realizing which subjects, pieces of art, or stories call out to you. If you’re a writer or artist, missing this information will deprive your work. If you’re not a writer or artist, missing this information will make your life less interesting. Part of why we’re here must be to figure out which parts of this world makes the DNA, molecules and peculiar history inside us light up, right?
But people also say they want their lives to be meaningful. And judging from the way they talk about meaning, this seems to be distinct from happiness. Indeed, meaning and happiness can be in conflict—so the psychological evidence tells us. In surveys conducted by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, people correlate the activities that fill their lives with these two goals. And it turns out that activities that increase meaning can reduce happiness—and vice versa. The most striking example is the activity of raising children, which reliably diminishes measured happiness, both from moment to moment and on the whole. Then why do people do it? This has been called the “parenthood paradox.” And its resolution is simple: people have children because doing so gives meaning to their lives.
When Rama and Miller got together in the early 90s to write the book, it took weeks to figure out what exactly would go into it. With all their combined cooking experience, the pair had to leave their assumptions about what constituted basic kitchen knowledge at the door. “I’ve been in the food business all my life, and sometimes you get caught up in your own little world,” Rama said. This meant that the coauthors would forget that someone coming to this book might not know the difference between an egg white and an egg yolk. “They put editors on our book who didn’t know how to cook. It was frustrating a lot of times because we’d have to tone the recipes down,” Rama explained. “We had to be really careful with our language or else our editors would come back and say, ‘What does it mean to slice an onion? I don’t know how to do that!’”
In Cuban author Marcial Gala’s 2012 novel The Black Cathedral (newly translated by Anna Kushner), a large cast of characters, including several ghosts, narrates a story about a “neighborhood of forgotten black people and desperate white people,” where merely surviving can feel like a feat. The narrative, jumping from voice to voice to give us a kaleidoscopic vision of events, also leaps forward and back in time: we learn in the early pages that a main character will end up in a US prison, that another will suffer from diabetes.
Trained as an architect, the author seems less interested in chronology and its secrets than in creating the illusion that we’re experiencing his story from every angle, as we would were we walking through a building. The strategy of embedding the future in the present has the effect of deepening the pathos, heightening our awareness of the vulnerability of characters who, in keeping with the principles of tragedy, appear to be moving inexorably toward their fates (a technique Gala perfects in his most recent novel, Call Me Cassandra , where the narrator foresees everything that’s going to happen to himself and the other characters each step along the way).
Powerful, funny and highly manipulative, the moment seeks to turn any sense of the book’s shortcomings into a failure of the reader – a risky alchemy that proves key to Bina’s chewy moral heart, as well as being a mark of its admirable, wholly non-emollient chutzpah.
A simmering paranoia bubbles under the surface of Stone’s fiction, a paranoia he had a sense of humor about. He once proposed an Alcoholics Anonymous-type group: “The idea was, if you’re feeling paranoid, contact Paranoids Anonymous and they’ll send you another paranoid.”
Reading “Child of Light,” a revealing new biography of Stone by the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, Stone’s distrust begins to make sense. He was not inherently a wild man, but he attracted wildness. It came to him, as if he were coaxing it out of the soil. He fed off the destructive energy.