Discussed in this essay:
Less Than Meets the Eye, David Berlinski. St. Martin’s Press. $19.95.
The Mad Man, Samuel R. Delany. Rhinoceros Publications. 520pp
0. Death is Not the End
On March 12, 1971, the funeral of Richard Merritt Montague brought a very diverse crowd to the Praisewater Funeral Home in Los Angeles. His academic colleagues were there from UCLA (where he taught in the Philosophy Department) and elsewhere. But so were his friends from the gay cruising scene, where poor judgment had proved fatal to him five days before. Then there were the real estate people, who knew him only as the shrewd investor who’d made a fortune buying and selling in the area. A loving son, he’d installed his mother and father as the managers of the buildings he bought. They were there too, of course. The pastor who officiated knew Montague primarily as an accomplished church organist.
Do I even need to mention that each of these groups was surprised to find the others there? Montague was as good an example as any of just how many faces one person can show to the world.
But this trite, superficial observation is not my thesis.
I don’t really have a thesis. I just want to figure out how the life and death of one man, unknown beyond a few technical areas in linguistics and philosophy, became the apparent inspiration behind two full-length novels by two authors with wildly dissimilar backgrounds and agendas. Both use the murder investigation of a Montague-like scholar as their organizing framework, and both seek to make points about academic life as they unfold. Both get it wrong. Otherwise, they’re as dissimilar as a philistine sub-Chandler mystery and a cum-encrusted gay porn epic can be.
And now to business.
1. Formal Philosophy
Montague was murdered by a group of strangers he’d brought home with him after a night of cruising. For a sober and accurate account of this, you have to consult the biography of someone else—his advisor, Alfred Tarski. In Anita and Solomon Feferman’s outstanding volume on Tarski, you’ll find the following fragment of a paragraph detailing Montague’s final night:
On the day of his death, he brought three or four people home with him for some sort of soireé. A friend found him in his shower, strangled with a bath towel. It was not a robbery this time—his wallet was on the soap dish—and the circumstances were ambiguous. The “visitors” escaped in his car, the beautiful Bentley, which they crashed into a telephone pole and then set on fire. The crime was never solved.
That’s as much as anyone knows for sure, which hasn’t prevented others from circulating variants like “stabbed to death” or “beaten to death,” sometimes by a solitary attacker who’s sometimes also a spurned lover.
The phrase this time in the Fefermans’ account is significant, as it points to a pattern of risky behavior. According to the Fefermans, Montague “was in constant trouble of his own making.” He’d been tied up and robbed before under similar circumstances, and his combination of great promiscuity and great wealth (the Bentley had been bought with his real estate earnings) likely made him an attractive target. Even as far back as his grad school days in Berkeley, he’d been accused of and tried for seducing a minor. (There was a hung jury, and with the help of Tarski and others the judge was persuaded not to try him again.)
Logic was Montague’s research focus. He wrote a dissertation on axiomatic set theory, co-authored a successful logic textbook, and built a reputation on highly technical approaches to various philosophical problems. He also inspired a research tradition in natural language semantics that would come to bear his name.
“I reject the contention that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages.” So begins Montague’s paper “English as a Formal Language,” the first of the three on which his posthumous renown chiefly rests. (All are collected in the book Formal Philosophy.) His words had roughly the force of “Workers of the world, unite!” for many linguists and philosophers at the start of the 1970s. The conventional wisdom on the philosophical side was that the meanings of expressions in natural languages like English were just too burdened by vagueness and ambiguity to be suitable for scientific study. Noam Chomsky and his associates at MIT had been at work for a decade and a half by then, but their approaches to semantics lacked the mathematical precision of their theories of phonology and syntax. In addition, Chomsky himself was frequently dismissive of logic-based approaches to meaning that were mathematically precise. What Montague achieved was a theory of meaning that did justice to both logic and grammar.
The term “Montague grammar,” coined by Barbara Partee and referring to the approach to semantics he pioneered, entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. By then, most theoretically-focused linguistics departments were teaching Montague’s approach or related ones as the core of their semantics curricula for grad students. And when students got burned out thinking about intensional logic, type theory, categorial grammar, lambda-abstraction, and the rest of the Montagovian stock in trade, they could think about the ugly, sordid details of the murder. Really, how could they not? Something about the juxtaposition of intensely formal and abstract research with a wildly risky personal life is endlessly compelling.
For years I’d thought that Montague’s story, with its sex and violence and enigmatic circumstances, would be a terrific jumping-off point for a work of fiction. Two genres naturally suggested themselves:
(A) a detective novel with pornographic flourishes
(B) a pornographic novel with detective flourishes
What I discovered recently was that in 1994, the Borgesian gods of literature blessed us with examples of both (A) and (B): Less Than Meets the Eye, a murder mystery by pop-science author and creationist hack David Berlinski, and The Mad Man, a “pornotopic fantasy” by science-fiction master Samuel R. Delany. Both books try to say something about scholarship too, with what we’ll see are curious results.
2. Discover the Networks
A fictional professor is dead. Murdered, in fact. If you believe the rumors, he was found strangled to death in his house following what looks to have been a gay orgy. No leads on who did it. His death is sending shock waves through the Philosophy Department of the California university where he taught.
The fictional professor’s name? Richard Montague.
Readers, why oh why oh why did David Berlinski—ex-philosopher, pretend mathematician, and “Intelligent Design” apologist—give his creation the same name as his evident real-world counterpart? I don’t think it’s a pomo trick, and I don’t think it’s a test case of Saul Kripke’s theory of proper names (according to which a name denotes the same individual in every possible world), although the latter would be pretty cool. I don’t really know what to think. But the book seems like the product of such laziness, in both its intellectual substance and its narrative architecture, that the dullest explanation may be the correct one: Berlinski took a colorful story from his former field as his template and didn’t bother to change the central figure’s name. Maybe he calculated that the fan bases for pulp detective fiction and formal semantics didn’t overlap enough for it to matter.
If you are a fan of formal semantics, Less Than Meets the Eye will profoundly disappoint. There’s no mention of “Montague”‘s research interests, or those of his colleagues at the novel’s unnamed (but remarkably like Stanford) university. OK, there’s one who’s some kind of Stalinist, but he and all the other academics are only there to furnish targets for the wit of Aaron Asherfeld, PI. Asherfeld, who’s investigating “Montague”‘s murder, is a man of no stated ideology, but his casual racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, as well as his constant sniping at politically-correct campus types, give you a pretty good sense of his sympathies. In fact, the book seems to have been written for no grander purpose than to bash liberal professors (or Berlinski/Asherfeld’s idea of them). Support for this comes from the online world, where a search for “Richard Montague murder” returns not only the Wikipedia entry on the historical Montague, but several excerpts from an early version of Berlinski’s novel in Heterodoxy, a right-wing rag helmed by the odious David Horowitz.
The historical Montague makes a curious PC poster boy. His most noteworthy political act—opposing the reappointment of Angela Davis to the UCLA Philosophy faculty in 1970—was hardly a “progressive” one. But because of his sexuality and its connections with his death, there does seem to be a temptation to read political significance into Montague’s story. The other apparently Montague-inspired novel of 1994 gives into this temptation more explicitly – in every sense.
3. Hasler Studies
I owe my discovery of The Mad Man to a survey by Ray Davis of Samuel R. Delany’s pornographic fiction. As far as I know, Davis is the only person to have made clear the parallels between Montague and the novel’s central figure, Timothy Hasler. Hasler is a youngish (like Montague) gay (like Montague) philosopher (like Montague), murdered (like Montague) in the early 1970s (like Montague) by persons unknown (like Montague). Nevertheless, Davis insists, “Montague is not Hasler.”
And Leibniz is not Dr. Pangloss.
If you know what to look for (which Davis may not—his abstract of Montague’s research would give any working semanticist an aneurysm), the signs are everywhere. Hasler is famous for a series of heavily mathematical articles on “natural language philosophy,” posthumously collected in a book called Formal Conjunctions/Informal Disjunctions, and indirectly the inspiration for research on “Hasler Grammars.” In the book’s disclaimer, Delany warns that “correspondences are not only coincidental but preposterous,” which seems to me a sure sign that they’re neither. To be fair, Hasler has plenty of un-Montagovian properties; he’s a Korean-American New Yorker and the author of a number of science-fiction stories based on his logical work (too bad those aren’t real—I’d read them!). And I don’t find much that’s familiar beyond a few proper names (such as Kripke’s, nyuk nyuk nyuk) in Delany’s picture of academic life. More about that in a moment.
If detailed set pieces about promiscuous sex with homeless men and an epicurean approach to urine and smegma that elevates them to the aesthetic level of wine and cheese are your thing, The Mad Man is your book. The principal adventurer in the novel’s excremental landscape is not Hasler but John Marr, a philosophy grad student who’s researching Hasler’s life and death for his dissertation. Delany sets up funny parallels between detective work and academic study at many points in the book, gently reminding us that both these things are what Marr’s “supposed” to be doing. What Marr actually spends most of the book doing is pleasuring the likes of the Piece o’ Shit, Crazy Joey, Tony the shit-eater, the titular Mad Man Mike, and one Leaky Sowps, the latter of whom becomes Marr’s lover towards the end. Davis’s article does an excellent job covering The Mad Man’s sexual content, which I’ll mostly pass over in silence.
What I do want to mention is the book’s portrayal of scholarly research and influence. For all of Delany’s gifted mimicry of analytic philosophy’s distinctive argot, the intellectual community in The Mad Man diverges from its real-world counterpart in bizarre ways. Chief among these is the “great man” approach Delany’s philosophers take—there exists, in the novel, a specialty called “Hasler Studies” that includes purely biographical work of the kind Marr is laboring to produce. This is anomalous from the point of view of actual philosophical scholarship, where even foundational figures are less important as people than as sources of problems and arguments. Logic is not “Frege Studies”: political philosophy is not “Rawls Studies”.
And semantics is not “Montague Studies.” Montague the man is simply not a central topic, and not because there’s thought to be anything shameful about his life. Again, this contrasts with what Delany gives us in his novel. Serious Intellectuals like Marr’s advisor Irving Mossman and Hasler’s friend Almira Adler are genuinely repelled by Hasler’s sexual practices (pale precursors of Marr’s), and let their repulsion color their outlook on his work. Not so among Montague’s intellectual heirs. It’s true that, as linguist Henk Verkuyl says, “Montague was dealt with so abstractly as to make him invisible,” but stories about him circulate freely. My experience is that even the most sordid of these are related non-judgmentally. Again, I refer the interested reader to the Fefermans’ book, the source for most of the biographical facts in this essay and worth reading for its own virtues as a life of Montague’s mentor, the brilliant polyamorous speedfreak Alfred Tarski. Montague was a second-generation libertine.
4. “An Orgy of Good Feelings”
The two years I spent as a grad student in linguistics, with formal semantics as my specialization, were among the most intellectually satisfying of my life. My professors were part of the community that developed and extended Montague’s ideas. Fortunately for me, they were nothing like either the radical-chic nitwits of Berlinski’s novel or the frigid idol-worshippers of Delany’s. It wasn’t luck at work here, but a disciplinary culture characterized by at least one observer with the epithet that’s the title of this section.
And the final irony is that the warm and open character of semantics today would have been alien to Montague himself, a man characterized even by his students and admirers as a “little tyrant” with “little use for tact, diplomacy, or silence.” This essay is not a hagiography, and I want to leave readers with a sense of Montague’s feelings towards the field that ultimately embraced him.
Barbara Partee, his colleague at UCLA and the person most responsible for the spread of his ideas within linguistics, provides the quote with which I’ll conclude. At a conference in 1970, Montague and George Lakoff were arguing about a grammatical point when Partee intervened, attempting to explain each one’s position to the other. Afterwards, Montague gave her what she describes as “the nearest I ever got to a compliment” from him.
“Barbara,” he said, “I think you’re the only linguist who it is not the case that I can’t talk to.”
Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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