When Gödel did the political math

I spent much of the past week coughing when I should have been sleeping, the only boon of which is that I managed to read Jordan Ellenberg’s lively and instructive How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. I came across an alarming politics-related anecdote about Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who famously demonstrated that in any formal axiomatic system of arithmetic, there will be some true theorems that can’t be proved to be true.

Apparently, when Gödel was studying for the U.S. citizenship test in 1948, he found what seemed to him a fatal flaw. “The document,” Ellenberg writes, “contained a contradiction that could allow a Fascist dictatorship to take over the country in a perfectly constitutional manner.” For better or worse, the exact nature of this flaw has been lost to posterity, but Gödel was apparently so upset that he couldn’t help but talk about his concern with the judge who examined him on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, despite the advice of colleagues Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, who thought he should keep his worry to himself. Years later, in 1971, Morgenstern wrote down his memory of the exchange:

The examiner turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?

Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.

The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?

Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.

The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.

Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.

The examiner, Morgenstern remembered, “was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”

Ellenberg’s source is a webpage at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a page that unfortunately no longer exists, but there’s an account of Gödel’s immigration exam on page 7 of the spring 2006 issue of the institute’s newsletter, and the writer Jeffrey Kegler has put together a synopsis of the documentary evidence and has shared a scan of Morgenstern’s memorandum.

Emerson in the tower of song

I get the New York Times on paper, and today I put off reading it until the end of the day—my practice during the George W. Bush years in order to retain my sanity, which I may well return to for the Trump administration. I peeked at Twitter at around 3pm, and so I read the paper, when at last I did read it, with a little less urgency than I otherwise might have, already knowing that Trump had done new horrible things that would not be mentioned in its pages, and that I was reading only to fill in the context, as it were.

Anyway, in this vague mood, I read Leon Wieseltier’s eulogy for the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose songs I’ve loved for years. Wieseltier quotes my favorite two lines of Cohen’s:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

and I was interested to learn that Cohen “once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo.” And the point of the very modest blog post that you’re currently reading is that it occurred to me, when I read this, that maybe not everyone knows that in those lines Cohen was quoting—and putting a twist on—Emerson.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed the quotation if I hadn’t come to Emerson after coming to Cohen. But that was my sequence, so I did notice it. In a journal entry for April 1837, Emerson wrote:

There is a crack in every thing God has made. Fine weather! — yes, but cold. Warm day!— ‘yes but dry.’ — ‘You look well’ — ‘I am very well except a little cold.’ The case of damaged hats — one a broken brim; the other perfect in the rim, but rubbed on the side; the third whole in the cylinder, but bruised on the crown.

As was his wont, Emerson recycled the line later in an essay, “Compensation,” though he upgraded his illustrative examples, switching out the hats for mythic heroes:

Aurora forgot to ask youth for her lover, and though Tithonus is immortal, he is old. Achilles is not quite invulnerable; the sacred waters did not wash the heel by which Thetis held him. Siegfried, in the Nibelungen, is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back whilst he was bathing in the dragon’s blood, and that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it must be. There is a crack in every thing God has made.

The light, however, seems to be entirely Cohen’s.

A distinction

A peaceful transfer of power is a column of the republic, & it’s appropriate for political leaders to cooperate graciously with Trump now. But there’s no comparable duty for writers and intellectuals. To the contrary, by temperament and profession, we’re the canaries in the coal mine. Our calling is to say what we see happening, as soon as we see it, as forcefully as we can express it.