Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ramanujan & Rand: On Parasites and the Creative Mind


Having recently watched The Man Who Knew Infinity, I cannot help but return to the subject of Ayn Rand's thought. In particular to the question of creative and parasitical Man.



Ramanujan and Roark share many traits. Their craft was the content of their happiness, their struggle pitted beauty against mediocrity. They were the objects of love on the part of women whose primary role was to love great men. The institutions of traditional society hindered their work and were obstacles to be overcome. Their genius was the motive force behind these institutions which loathed them for their creativity but needed them for sustinence; the definition of parasitical behavior.

The key differences between the two men were that Roark's mind was the totality of his being while Ramanujan was the vessel through which the wisdom of his goddess spoke. Roark was an egotist, while Ramanujan was pious. Roark was not only a genius, but an entrepreneur. Ramanujan was too humble for enterprise and sought safety in academic institutions which he mistakenly believed existed to nurture and preserve knowledge rather than feed off of it in order to support the livelihood of mediocre minds who were incapable of finding practical employment.

Rand, had she watched this film, would likely criticize Ramanujan for three things: his religious piety led him to accept the morality of the parasite and thus he put himself at the mercy of parasites rather than pursuing his own interest. The catastrophic effect was Ramanujan's death.

Next, Rand would likely claim that Ramanujan ought not have left the world of private enterprise for the world of academia. His abilities were such that he excelled in accounting and accounting could have easily paid for his necessities and bought him the liesure to pursue his mathematical genius.

Ramanujan erred in believing that Trinity College existed to provide liesure for great minds to think. The fact that he was forced to waste time on mathematical proofs was the result of envy on the part of the British intelligentsia, who could have done the proofs for him while he continued breaking new ground in mathematics.

If the ideal of absolute intellectual liesure was unattainable, Ramanujan was better off doing accounting in a private enterprise than doing proofs at the insistence of intellectual mediocrities. Accounting gave him money to support his wife and buy liesure to do his work. Doing proofs in Great Britain wasted his genius, kept him from his wife and from his goddess.

The separation from his wife certainly led to his psychological and ultimately physical decline. Had a woman been present to care for this man of genius, he may have lived much longer and done much more. Publishing in England and the prestige of joining the Royal Society were of little or no benefit to Ramanujan. The prestige of the second-hander was  nothing compared to the prestige gained by academic mediocrities who could add a second Newton to their society.

Such would be Rand's criticisms. She would doubtless agree with Bertrand Russell that Ramanujan ought to be given absolute creative freedom and add that such freedom could only be found outside of the academy, purchased in exchange for labor on the private market where this labor would have a tangible productive value rather than the banal satisfaction of mediocrities who insist on making men who expand the horizons of mathematics write proofs.

It may indeed be true that had Ramanujan returned a second time to England, this time in the company of his wife and as a full member of British society, he may have lived a long, happy and productive life. However that he did not is the fault of the college which destroyed him rather than nurturing him.

Towards the end of the film we learn that his greatest mathematical contributions - which serve to better understand black holes - come from his notes made in India prior to his death. We may be sure that these notes are not the result of any intellectual inspiration recieved in England. Ramanujan brought nothing back from England except his illness. He did, however, leave for the English a fragment of his wisdom which contains an infinity of potential.

All of this leads us to reconsider Ayn Rand's views regarding the dynamic between creative men and parasitical men. Modern biology teaches us that there is an aspect of evolutionary progress rooted in a surprisingly symbiotic relation between hosts and parasites wherein a relation of this type which is not symbiotic in the immediate sense becomes so in the long term evolutionary sense as the antagonistic elements of the host-parasite relation eventually generate new mutations which are by definition steps in the evolutionary continuum.

Does anything similar manifest itself in the interaction of human beings? Ramanujan's experience - at least as it is presented to us in its dramatized form - suggests there is not. His English mentor did indeed become a better man on account of their acquaintence and one could argue that Ramanujan gained honors. However at what cost? The interaction effectively led to the premature death of a great mind at the hands of those who at the very least consider themselves curators of great minds.

Had Ramanujan remained in the employment of a businessman who did not much care about mathematical theory but had an immediate self-interest in maintaining the life of a valuable accountant he may well have lived longer, happier and more productively. His mathematical genius would have been more profound. As such he represented what Rand would call the sanction of the victim who gives himself up in favor of the parasite.

note: Photo depicts the Ramanujan-Nagell equation

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