BOOKS & THE CULTURE AVarmint Light in the Great Darkness Essays of a Rational Polymath in an Age of Irrationalism BY JAMES SLEDD THE NIGHT IS LARGE: Collected Essays 1938-1995. By Martin Gardner. St. Martins Press. 586 pages. $29.95. ri ll he high point of an ordinary person’s education is some acquaintance with greatness. The nadir is the confusion of greatness with established mediocrity. Noam Chomsky is an intellectual. Every university swarms with administrators. The great arc the people who just have itnot many, but some. The rest of us are lucky if we can meet one of the few and so raise our opinion of the human species by seeing its highest capabilities. Since that privilege is rare, we compensate by reading what the few have written. Martin Gardner’s book should be required reading for all members of English departments, especially for those of the postmodern persuasion and for those very advanced feminists who make ineffectual war on science, objectivity, reason itself. The supposed blunders of dead white males and living white scientists are as nothing compared to the real blunders of irrationality-peddlers. The Night Is Large collects essays originally published from the ’30s to the ’90s. They are grouped under the headings physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, and religionheadings which testify to the astonishing range of Gardner’s knowledge and interests. The title, however, reflects Gardner’s modesty. It comes from Lord Dunsany: “A man is a small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders.” The mere list of illustrations in Gardner’s book strengthens my willingness to admit the limitations of human knowledge in general and mine in particular. I had no idea what “M.C. Escher’s reptile tessellation” might be, and to me, a “a two-trousers string ver sion of a Feynman diagram” sounded vaguely indecent. But the book is not forbidding, even to the mathematically challenged for whom all physics was always chaos theory. Gardner’s obvious enjoyment of his life and learning is infectious. Through most of a century, he has somehow managed to keep the unrestrained and irreverent intellectual vigor of the almost frighteningly gifted undergraduates at R.M. Hutchins’ University of Chicago, where Gardner \(the son of a losophy major in 1936. The headnote and postscript with which he accompanies each reprinted essay provide needed context and THERE IS NOW “SOME EVIDENCE,” HE SAYS, THAT WHEN THE REAGANITES LOWERED TAXES, THEY SECRETLY ANTICIPATED A DEFICIT SO LARGE THAT IT “WOULD PERSUADE CONGRESS TO DISMANTLE WELFARE.” a sense of Gardner’s personal history. For summary indications of Gardner’s thought, readers might look first at the headnote to Part VI, “Philosophy.” There Gardner explains that he has defended “realism in the sense that the universe is mindindependent, the correspondence theory of truth as opposed to pragmatic theory, a naturalistic ethics as against extreme cultural relativism, and the right to make leaps of faith concerning crucial questions on which it is impossible not to make a decision.” Oddly, a more extensive overview might be the hoaxing denunciation of Gardner’s Ways of a Philosophical Scrivener, which Gardner himself contributed to the New York Review of Books Notable to me were his beliefs in “a common human nature,” “free will and the weird ability to act for good or evil,” science as a continuing approach to an impossible absolute certainty, and the grounding of science and mathematics in the reality of a mathematically structured universe “in dependent of the cultural process.” I was delighted that Gardner rarely if ever used the buzzword discourse. In his index there is no entry for either Foucault or Derrida. I found Gardner’s politics and economics equally congenial. As contemptuous of Marx as he is of Freud, Gardner calls himself “a democratic socialist.” Ridiculing Jack Kemp as a “supply-side goldbug,” he writes that “Our Republican-controlled Congress, having learned nothing from the fate of supply-side Reaganomics, is now struggling to move us even further back to the days of Coolidge and Hoover.” The Doleful would profit from his account of failed economic prophecies and from his reGardner repeats a wisecrack attributed to Bernard Shaw: “If all the world’s economists were stretched end to end… they still would not reach a conclusion.” That judgment may be some consolation to professorial elders in English, whose latter years have been somewhat darkened by the suspicion that their own departments have established an unrivaled claim to be academia’s zaniest, but not all of Gardner’s economic ideas are comforting. There is now “some evidence,” he says, that when the Reaganites lowered taxes, they secretly anticipated a deficit so large that it “would persuade Congress to dismantle welfare.” On the Jim Lehrer “Newshour” very recently vard economist suggested that Dole’s proposed tax cut would next force the slashing of Medicare and Social Security. I thought the guru was hinting that such eventual slashing is Dole’s real aim \(or maybe the aim tury of the Common Man fizzles out, the War on the Common Man intensifies. I suspect that Martin Gardner could never think of himself as great \(though I admitting his own limitations but never advertising them immodestly, he repeatedly places himself among “ordinary folk.” NOVEMBER 22, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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