I have been sitting here at my desk with my absentee ballot in front of me, meditating on the important choice I must make: whether to vote for Biden or for Trump. The exercise of the right of suffrage is the most important responsibility confronting a citizen in a democracy and I must give this careful thought. Weighed down by the gravity of the matter, it occurred to me that I might take a break from these citizen labors to respond to several of the comments provoked by my story about having tea with Bertrand Russell.
I love the Douglas Hofstadter story. I have my own Douglas Hofstadter story in a manner of speaking and it is a very odd one. I told the story 10 years ago on my blog as part of my online autobiography but 10 years in cyberspace is an eternity so I thought perhaps I would reproduce my little account here. This is part of what I had to say about my first year teaching at Columbia, which was 1964 – 65.
“The third outstanding student from that year is a real mystery. I taught a graduate course on Political Philosophy, in which I unpacked my "Fundamental Problem of Political Philosophy" paper and set forth the argument of what became In Defense of Anarchism. There was a brilliant student in the class who is listed on my hand-written grade sheet simply as D. Hofstadter. He was far and away the best student in the class, and earned an A+. For thirty years, I have thought that student was Douglas Hofstadter, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gődel, Escher, Bach. But when I Googled him to check, it turned out that he went to Stanford. What is more, I sent him an email, and he replied that it was definitely not he. So there were apparently two brilliant D. Hofstadters at the same time. Would the real D. Hofstadter please check in?”
Someone else mentioned Henry Kissinger. I knew Kissinger 60 years ago when I was a young instructor at Harvard and he was a prominent young Government Department professor. I hated him even then, though I was hardly alone in that feeling. I was very vocal in my opposition to nuclear weapons and he was rather condescending and dismissive of the views of those of us who were pushing that point of view. Still I will have to say, he invited me to make a presentation on the subject to his seminar. This was a seminar he taught every year and it actually came to play, in later years, a significant role in American foreign policy because a steady stream of young men from prominent and powerful families in third world countries came to Harvard to study and took the seminar. Some years later when Kissinger became Nixon’s national security advisor, his professorial relationship with these young men who in the intervening years had become important people in their own countries gave him an outsized influence that he used to his advantage. I did have the pleasure of scoring one little point on Kissinger in the seminar. He had written his doctoral dissertation on Bismarck, I believe, and although he put himself forward as possessing expert knowledge in the new field of deterrence theory, he actually had no grasp at all of the Game Theory that deterrence theorists drew on to give their ruminations an air of science. I had been learning up the mathematics behind the work of people like Herman Kahn (a real fool) and Thomas Schelling (a genuinely distinguished thinker), and I thought in my talk to the Kissinger seminar that I would make some reference to it. Kissinger had, some weeks earlier, published a scornful letter in the Harvard Crimson disparaging the work of disarmament proponents like myself by saying that this was a “very serious subject.” When I met with Kissinger in his office before the seminar meeting began, I asked whether there was a blackboard that I could use. Kissinger asked why I would need one and I explained that I wanted to put some math before the students. Kissinger got a kind of nervous and squirelly look and said “is that really necessary?” “Well,” I said with a very sober look on my face, “it is a very serious subject.” I went on to teach for a while at the University of Chicago and Kissinger went on to oversee the Vietnam war and win the Nobel Prize so I don’t think I can view my exchange with him as an unalloyed victory.
But the most remarkable part of Eric’s lovely comment was the revelation that he started studying the organ when he was four. How on earth did that come about? The organ? The drums, maybe. Certainly, especially if one is Jewish, the violin. And of course the piano. But the organ? Are there quarter size organs like quarter size violins? There is surely more to that story than Eric has given us.
Finally, Jordan asked whether I have ever thought about writing fiction. Since I love telling stories one might think that that was a natural direction in which I might turn but in fact I have not ever tried my hand at fiction and I am absolutely certain that I would be simply awful at it. I could imagine writing a didactic novel in which the main character is transparently my mouthpiece spouting the views that I hold on this or that, but I do not really think of that as fiction. Real fiction writers create people, scenes, interpersonal interactions and crises and resolutions. Real fiction writers clearly love their characters and inhabit them as they write. I have on several occasions read statements by novelists who describe their characters as coming to them demanding that their stories be told. Nothing remotely like that has ever happened to me. I suspect that being a real writer of fiction requires that the author give himself or herself up to the characters and their lives in a way that I cannot imagine doing. On the other hand, I could in my fantasies imagine myself as a sort of philosophical Garrison Keillor.