The Semantics of Murder, Aifric Campbell. Serpent’s Tail (April, 2009). 256pp.
[NOTE: Parts of this review are cannibalized from my earlier essay "That's Just Semantics! (or, the Proper Treatment of Richard Montague in Literary Fiction)", which appeared in Issue 11 of Other and has been reprinted by The Quarterly Conversation.]
The Semantics of Murder is at least the third work of fiction to be inspired by the life and death of Richard Montague, a professor of philosophy at UCLA whose 1971 murder was never solved. In addition to doing brilliant work in logic and philosophy of language, Montague was a successful real estate investor, an accomplished church organist, and—notoriously—an extremely promiscuous gay man. The heterogeneous elements of his life, and the continuing mystery surrounding his death, have proven seductive for a number of novelists, including David Berlinski, Samuel R. Delany, and now Aifric Campbell, who makes her debut with this book.
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, it’s necessary to consult the biography of someone else—his advisor, Alfred Tarski. In Anita and Solomon Feferman’s outstanding Alfred Tarski: Life and Logic, the following fragment of a paragraph details Montague’s final night:
On the day of his death, he brought three or four people home with him for some sort of soirée. 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.
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 1970 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.) This declaration went against the conventional wisdom in philosophy of language, which held that the meanings of expressions in natural languages like English were just too burdened by vagueness and ambiguity to be suitable for scientific study. By the time Montague made his claim, Noam Chomsky and his associates at MIT had been at work for a decade and a half, but their approaches to semantics were poorly formalized and had limited explanatory power. What Montague achieved was a theory of meaning that did justice to both logic and grammar.
The juxtaposition of intensely formal and abstract research with a wildly risky personal life is compelling, and in 1994 two authors used Montague’s story as a jumping-off point for works of fiction.
David Berlinski’s Less Than Meets the Eye is essentially just a detective story. It begins with the murder of a fictional philosophy professor (named Richard Montague!) rumored to have been found strangled to death in his house following what looks to have been a gay orgy. Few aspects of the historical Montague’s life and work survive this fictionalization, which is just as well—the book is uniformly lazy in its intellectual substance and narrative architecture (and its naming practices). Mostly, its academic characters are there to furnish left-wing targets for the wit of its right-wing detective hero, who is never actually funny.
Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man, which melds detective fiction and pornography, is a more interesting case. The novel’s central figure, Timothy Hasler, has clear parallels with Montague—a youngish gay philosopher who is murdered in the early 1970s by persons unknown. Also paralleling Montague, Hasler is famous for a series of heavily mathematical articles on “natural language philosophy,” posthumously collected in a book called Formal Conjunctions/Informal Disjunctions. While Delany’s book is much better written than Berlinski’s, and much more thoughtful about sexuality and academic life, it shares with Less Than Meets the Eye a focus on the murder’s investigator, not its victim. In this case, the investigator is a philosophy grad student who’s supposed to be researching Hasler’s life and death for his dissertation, but spends most of the book having erotic adventures of his own.
Aifric Campbell’s The Semantics of Murder, published in the UK last year and forthcoming in the U.S., departs from its two precursors in a number of ways. Most visibly, it acknowledges its inspiration by Montague’s life and work, and it even incorporates the results of original research by its author: after tunneling through boxes of archival material at UCLA and meeting with the homicide detective at the LAPD in charge of Montague’s newly re-opened case, Campbell incorporated her findings into the novel.
The book itself is also a departure, embedding the story of Montague surrogate Robert Hamilton in a psychological thriller driven by sibling rivalry. The rival is Hamilton’s younger brother, Jay, a psychoanalyst jealous not only of Robert’s talents but of his privileged place in their mother’s heart. Although the book is set in the present, with the murder over thirty years in the past, Jay’s jealousy for his murdered brother is again triggered when biographer Dana Flynn approaches him seeking information about Robert’s life. Critically, Flynn the investigator is only a supporting character—the real action is in the friction between Jay and Robert (captured in flashbacks) and in the intrusion of Jay’s frustration into his psychoanalytic practice.
Proud not to be one of “those analysts who encouraged clients to become their own religion,” Jay is relentlessly harsh with his patients. He’s no so harsh on himself. Noting that “the clinical practice of psychoanalysis generates ideal material for the creative writer,” Jay publishes stories inspired by his clients under an assumed name. Regarding the breach of confidence this practice represents, Jay feels that “by incorporating them into his fiction, he could reach a far wider audience and might even succeed where Freud had failed in the integration of science and art.”
The megalomania lurking in that last quote is defensive, I think. Jay remembers well what Robert’s own arrogance had been like, and what galls him the most is that his brother’s arrogance turns out to have been justified—Robert really has revolutionized the study of meaning in natural language (as did Montague). Reading him rant about his research in high movie-of-the-week style is good fun:
“Chomsky leads nowhere,” Robert continued impatiently. “He thinks semantics is a branch of psychology! But linguists are not capable of answering the really important questions. The analysis of language properly belongs to mathematics and that is what I intend to do: solve the mystery of meaning.”
But what’s entertaining for us is torture for Jay, who resists a scientific approach to “the very essence of humanity” in spite of his brother’s successes.
Another way The Semantics of Murder departs from its precursors is by shifting its focus away from academic life—refreshing for reasons of fact, since most researchers in the community that developed Montague’s ideas are nothing like either the radical-chic nitwits of Berlinski’s novel or the frigid idol-worshippers of Delany’s. However, Robert’s own imperious nature is similar to the personality of Montague himself, a man characterized even by his students and admirers as a “little tyrant” with “little use for tact, diplomacy, or silence.” Campbell adds flesh to this caricature by including in the book (and attributing to Robert) many extracts from archival material at UCLA.
Since there are no biographies of Montague, The Semantics of Murder is one of the few documents we have regarding his life outside his research—assuming it faithfully represents that life. But while the work Campbell has done uncovering new facts is admirable, it’s less clear whether such facts reveal anything important. To adapt the famous question of William Gaddis, what’s any philosopher, or any scientist, but the dregs of his work? The work itself is always the most important thing; even the best fictionalization is an afterthought.
Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation. Among other publications, his work has appeared in Other magazine and The Believer.
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