Uniformly at Random

Archive for August 2009

Roger Loomis on source study

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Roger Sherman Loomis, in the preface and first chapter of his The Development of Arthurian Romance, makes some interesting remarks in defence of so-called “source study” as an approach to literary criticism:

If I have stressed origins and sources, it is because I believe with Vergil: ‘Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.’  For, without understanding the forces which went to the making of a work of art, one cannot understand the work of art, and right understanding is the basis of all true appreciation.


The reaction against the study of sources has led to the discovery in medieval literature of meanings and intentions which we may feel sure were never realized by the author.  Professor C. S. Lewis has been impressed by this phenomenon in the case of his own fictions:

Some published fantasies of my own have had foisted on them (often by the kindliest critics) so many admirable allegorical meanings that I never dreamed of as to throw me into doubt whether it is possible for the wit of man to devise anything in which the wit of some other man cannot find, and plausibly find, an allegory.


Practical-minded persons and aesthetically sensitive critics may well demand whether it is worth while to follow up studies so exotic and intricate in order to attain results so uncertain.  Is it not enough to read the Mabinogion or Malory’s prose epic or Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan or Tennyson’s Idylls or T. H. White’s The Once and Future King for pure enjoyment?  Is not the search for origins and influences really a ‘flight from the masterpiece’?

Now the raison d’etre of any work of art lies in the responses of those who see, hear, or read it, but its value lies only in the responses of those who are attuned to it; and in the realm of literature that means those who understand it.  In its fullest sense, understanding means knowing its creator, the materials he has worked with, what he did with them, and why.  When one cannot know the author, one must be content with some knowledge of his milieu and his age.  The reader who is content with his subjective reactions alone runs the risk of interpreting the work of art in a fashion which would evoke peals of laughter from the author.  He also shows his lack of interest in the creative process which produced the work of art.

Written by uncudh

August 30, 2009 at 1:48 am

Borges’ Theorem

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No doubt one of the most delightful parts of writing a book of mathematics is the search for clever literary quotations to place at the beginning of chapters or to scatter throughout the book as appropriate (perhaps also, in the eyes of some, one of the greatest wastes of time).  Flajolet and Sedgewick, in Analytic Combinatorics, make reference to the following result, which they call “Borges’ Theorem”, namely that given any finite set P of words, a random text of length n will contain every word of P with probability tending to 1 exponentially fast as n tends to infinity.  The reason for the appellation “Borges’ Theorem” is due to Borges’ story The Library of Babel, which describes a library that contains

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

Written by uncudh

August 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm

A quotation from Weierstrass

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I recently came across the following quotation from Weierstrass, which I found to be interesting.

A mathematician who is not also something of a poet will never be a complete mathematician.

It reminded me a little bit of the following quotations from Hardy.

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.

Written by uncudh

August 8, 2009 at 3:31 pm

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