November 30, 2009

MISFIT:

The Images Dancing in David Gelernter's Head (Evan R. Goldstein, 11/29/09, The Chronicle Review)

[David] Gelernter—technological guru, conservative polemicist, Unabomber target—had tried to locate his own identity. "I'm a misfit," he said. "Most people fit in a groove and focus on one thing, but I cut across the grain of different areas." In conversation, the eclecticism of Gelernter's mind is immediately apparent. An opinionated raconteur, he seamlessly transitions from literary criticism ("Deconstructionists destroy texts"), to trends in the art world ("Modern museums are devoted to diversity as opposed to greatness"), gender roles ("Women mainly work because of male greed"), contemporary politics ("Anti-Semitism in Europe is so intense that, I think, Hitler would have an easier time today then he did in 1933"), and earthier topics ("I am obsessed with sex and sexuality as much as anyone I have ever met").

Gelernter, a plump man with dark curly hair and a stringy beard, occupies a unique spot in American intellectual life, at the intersection of technology, art, politics, and religion. Yale University Press just published his latest book, Judaism: A Way of Being, a sweeping meditation on Jewish spirituality and belief. His career, he says, has not adhered to the "standard academic chalk lines." In 1979, as a 23-year-old graduate student, he began writing a landmark programming language that enabled multiple computers to work simultaneously on a single problem. (He named it Linda, in honor of Linda Lovelace, star of the 1972 pornographic movie Deep Throat.) In 1991, Oxford University Press published his Mirror Worlds, or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox—How it Will Happen and What It Will Mean, which imagined a time when people would be able to peer at their computer screens and see reality. Today, Gelernter is widely credited with having anticipated the rise of the Internet. His reputation as a doyen of digital culture was cemented by the publication of Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought (Free Press, 1994) and Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (Basic Books, 1997).

"It was wonderfully ego-boosting to become well known in computer science, but my interests were always drawing, painting, reading, and writing," Gelernter says. "I was being irresponsible to my own artistic responsibilities." He speaks amid the toppled stacks of paper, empty cans of diet soda, and haphazard piles of books that clutter his corner office. As he talks, he occasionally worries the Velcro strap on the black-and-white glove he wears on his right hand, the most visible reminder of the day in 1993 when he was almost killed by a mail bomb sent by the Unabomber.

Gelernter was emboldened by his brush with mortality. He loathes the idea of victimhood. To be a victim, he says, is "to define yourself in terms of what some random thug did to you. I would never sink so low as that." Says Leon R. Kass, the bioethicist and University of Chicago professor, "David is not embittered by the Unabomber attack. He doesn't walk around feeling sorry for himself. On the contrary, it seems to have energized him to make absolutely the most out of every grain of talent and power that he has." Neal Kozodoy, a former editor of Commentary magazine and a friend of Gelernter, says that after the attack, "David entered into the most creative period of his life. Everything became much more urgent to him."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2009 3:07 PM
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