Notational, No. 10

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

♦ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I deeply regret losing the fire of mathematics. I am not so far away from it now that the time when calculation came naturally doesn’t foreclose a clear, bright memory; the joy of accomplishing acts of pure reason did certainly burn like stars on the page, as well as in the brain. Still more I miss how it used to be possible for numbers to act as ciphers for more emotive and illusive signifiers. I used to derive equations that spoke to me of conflict, of the complex relationships between adults and children, of the yearning that emanated from the undisclosed x, the loneliness of the y; and, of course, of secret shames that harboured deep in the recesses of an analytical but also very superstitious mind.

My relationship to faith has been fairly cordial, though progressively more distant, since about the time that math and I began to part ways, but Joyce is not just capturing a guilty psyche riddled with paranoia here—there is something in this passage about the affective registers that lurk in all of human cognition. In the spaces between the most ostensibly unsentimental activity, passion exists. To be brought to interpret tenor and tone, even in the most monochromatic, matt surface of proofs, this shows something that elevates human accomplishment and has the capacity to suggest that a greater pattern governs the whole of mortal endeavour. A lesser intelligence begets the possibility of more powerful observation. Where and how is it localized? As we solve our affairs what is left in the margin? Does the remainder rest, and how is it evaluated?

The answers remain cold and disordered, alienated from heaven.

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