Promenade Through a Life's Work: The Child and its Mother
2.The importance of Solitude
A few years after I finally established contact with the world of mathematics at Paris, I learned, among other things, that the work I'd in my little niche with the means at my disposal had (essentially ) been long known to the whole world under the name of "Lebesgue's theory of measure and integration". In the eyes of my mentors, to whom I'd described this work, and even shown them the manuscript, I'd simply "wasted my time", merely doing over again something that was "already known". But I don't recall feeling any sense of disappointment. At that time the very notion of "taking credit" for my own work, either to receive compliments or even the mere interest of anyone else, ) was furthest from my thoughts. My energies at that time were completely taken up with adjusting to a totally unfamiliar environment, above all with learning what one had to know to be treated like a mathematician.(*)
(*)I talk briefly about this transitional period, which was rather rough, in the first part of Récoltes et Semailles (R&S I), in the section entitled "Welcoming the Stranger" (#9)
However, re-thinking those three years (1945-48), I realize that they weren't wasted in the least. Without recognizing it, I'd thereby familiarized myself with the conditions of solitude that are essential for the profession of mathematician , something that no-one can teach you. Without having to be told, without having to meet others who shared my thirst for understanding, I already knew "in my guts", that I was indeed a mathematician: because I knew that I was one who "makes mathematics", in the way someone "makes love". Quite simply, mathematics had become a mistress, ever receptive to gratifying my desire. These years of isolation laid the foundation for a faith that has never been shaken - neither by the discovery ( arriving in Paris at the age of 20), of the full extent of my ignorance and the immensity of what I would be obliged to learn; nor (20 years later) by the turbulent events surrounding my final departure from the world of mathematics; nor, in recent years, by the thoroughly weird episodes of a metaphorical "Burial" of my person and my work, so perfectly orchestrated by those who were formerly my closest friends ....
To state it in slightly different terms: in those critical years I learned how to be alone (*)
(*) This formulation doesn't really capture my meaning. I didn't, in any literal sense learn
to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned
during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these 3 years of work in isolation, when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law. I come back to this subject again in the note: "Roots and Solitude" ( R&S IV, #171.3, in particular page 1080).
By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lyé and at the university, that one shouldn't bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like "volume", which was "obviously self-evident", "generally known", "unproblematic", etc. I'd gone over their heads, almost as a matter of course, even as Lesbesgue himself had, several decades before, gone over their heads. It is in this gesture of "going beyond", to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one - it is in this solitary
act that one finds true creativity
. All others things follow as a matter of course.
I've had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my "elders" and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more "gifted" than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle - while for myself I felt clumsy. even oafish, wandering painfully up a arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn ( so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.
In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of 30 or 35 years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They've all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they've remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birth-right, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.
The infant has no trouble whatsoever being alone. It is solitary by nature, even when it's enjoying the company surrounding him or seeks his mother's tit when it is in need of it. And he is well aware, without having to be told, that the tit is for him, and knows how to use it. Yet all too often we have lost touch with the child within us. And it's often the case that we pass by the most important things without bothering to look at them...
If, in Récoltes et Semailles I'm addressing anyone besides myself, it isn't what's called a "public". Rather I'm addressing that someone who is prepared to read me as a person , and as a solitary person. It's to that being inside of you who knows how to be alone, it is to this infant that I wish to speak, and no-one else. I'm well aware that this infant has been considerably estranged. It's been through some hard times, and more than once over a long period. It's been dropped off Lord knows where, and it can be very difficult to reach. One swears that it died ages ago, or that it never existed - and yet I am certain it's always there, and very much alive.
And, as well, I know how to recognize the signs that tell me I'm being understood. It's when, beyond all differences of culture and fate, what I have to say about my person finds an echo and an resonance in you, in that moment when you see , your own life , your own experience, in a light which, up to that moment, you'd not thought of paying attention to. It's not a matter of some sort of "re-identifying " something or someone that was lost to you. It means that you have rediscovered your own life, that which is closest to you, by virtue of the rediscovery that I've made of mine in the course of my writing these pages of R8#233coltes et Semailles, and even in those pages that I am in the process of setting down at this very moment.