Vicars of Christ Say the Darnedest Things

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Pope Francis recently remarked that the US, among other countries, has a
"distorted vision of the world."




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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

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Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and expos√©. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Reverse Order

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Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.


Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.



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When Extremism Is a Vice

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Those on the religious right get angry when progressives accuse them of being similar to the Taliban. In their more candid moments, almost as a slip, they will protest that they are much milder: “Not that bad.”

How good is “not that bad”? Is the line that divides them from the crazies firmly in place? Does it waver? What makes Islamic extremists worse than Christian extremists? Is it simply a matter of degree, and can we know with certainty that the line cannot shift — perhaps dramatically, in the blink of an eye?

Perhaps I am more concerned about these questions than most people. I’m a doctrinally orthodox, fairly conservative Episcopalian, and a libertarian Republican. I am also a lesbian and a feminist. I am too much the grateful inheritor of both the conservative and the progressive traditions to sacrifice my commitment to either portion of my heritage for the sake of the other. To contemplate cutting myself off from either would be like debating over which of my arms to amputate.

I think it crucial to remember that both the Right and the Left, in America and elsewhere in the West, grew out of the same Judeo-Christian soil. Americans on both the Left and the Right can affirm the same religious faith and claim the same love of country. This is why, to outside observers, our squabbles over who among us is the truer Christian, or the more patriotic citizen, can seem so absurd.

Outsiders see the family resemblance, even if we don’t. If I were not a woman, I would likely not be a feminist. If I were not a lesbian, I would probably not care much about gay rights. But I would still, if born on American soil in what remains at least nominally a Christian nation, share with most of my fellow citizens a concern for the basic human dignity of those whose voices, in many religious countries, are not heard.

Therein lies the difference. In much of the rest of the world, all human beings are not considered fundamentally equal in worth. Here, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one . . .” There, being Jew or Greek, male or female, gay or straight can mean the difference between slavery and freedom, perhaps even life and death. All too often we take that difference for granted and treat our precious inheritance as a universal given.

Goldwater did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance.

Freedom is not like oxygen. It does not flow, unimpeded, over the face of the earth. It is often, just like the air we breathe, so obvious to us that we forget it is invisible. But because it is invisible, and because we cannot simply breathe it in, we often forget that it is there. Or that it matters as much to others as it does to ourselves.

“I would remind you,” a hero of mine, Senator Barry Goldwater, once thundered, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” This is, unfortunately, often quoted by those who would use extremism not to defend liberty but to attack it. They get the part about extremism being no vice, but they lose the rest of it completely.

Senator Goldwater is my hero, at least in part, because he also said, “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.”

Those who quote Barry Goldwater for the purpose of promoting not liberty but their own brand of power — even though they often do so in the name of liberty (their own, never anyone else’s) — almost always seek absolute power. At the very least, they use those words as a rebuke against those who would hold their power in check. We should bear in mind that the senator said extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice. He did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance. Nor have we any reason to conclude that he recommended liberty only to some and not, in equal measure, to others.

The Right has made much of the tendency of some on the Left to regard their familiar heritage with contempt, of the way they sell their western, Judeo-Christian birthright for a mess of multicultural pottage. That birthright should be duly noted and remembered by people who are quick to find fault with America, while neglecting much worse things that happen in other cultures. If it is wrong to fire one gay man from his job because of his sexual orientation, then surely we cannot look the other way, in the name of “tolerance,” when Islamic zealots murder another. If one woman is poked and ogled on an American street because her tank top is revealing, surely it merits no “tolerance” when another is stoned to death because she was the victim of rape.

But there is blindness aplenty on the Right as well. The same hunger for unchecked power burns in the hearts of political fundamentalists, Christian and Islamic alike. There is little to suggest that Christian zealots would not be sorely tempted to extend their own “liberty,” their own power, as far as possible.

“But we’re different,” they plead, and to some degree they’re right. What is not so often duly noted is why. The “secular humanists” they love to denigrate provide the crucial restraining force. The religious ought to thank the nonreligious, for saving them from themselves; but instead they fume. They may even snarl that these heathens ignore the debt they owe to their culture. But they do pay it; they pay it by checking the power of rapacious Christian extremists. The extremists seem not to notice that the rich soil of their own tradition — so honored by them when they find it convenient — is there to hold the humanist heathens firm when the ostentatiously devout betray it.

They can’t get away with what the Islamic extremists do because those damned secular humanists won’t let them — and that, my friends, is nothing less than our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition at work. Thank a godless liberal heathen the next time you see one. He may not realize why he finds homegrown religious tyranny so repugnant. What matters is that even if he knows not why he does what he does, he does it nonetheless.




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