Math fascinates me, although I don’t understand any of
it. I don’t mean addition and subtraction, multiplication and long division, I
mean those bizarre symbols and letters. I think what I’m talking about is
algebra and calculus, those fancier manifestations of number and quantity. What
do those symbols mean? How are they supposed to work? It’s like looking at Arabic
script. Beautiful symbols, beautiful writing, but apart from that immediate
visual appeal the meaning of those symbols, their parabolas and proofs, their
vectors and functions, roots and probabilities, vertiginous theorems and
prodigious trajectories, transformative powers and constructions in space, are
an utter mystery. Not of a magnitude such as the origin of life, but a throne
in a clearing of the forest, circles of titanic stone, or an ostrich at a strip
club.

According to what I can
glean from YouTube, a number next to an x means that it is to be multiplied by
x. So that if you have 9x minus 3x minus 20 equals 10, what is x? Ok, so here’s
what you do, you “combine like terms.” Subtract coefficients: 9 minus 3 is 6.
That gives us 6x minus 20. We perform an inverse operation. We give 20 a plus
sign, add it to ten, and get 30. 30 divided by 6 is 5. So the mysterious
coefficient (x) would have to be five. 30 divided by six is five.

Ok, but what about something
weirder involving a lot more symbols and mental gyrations? What, for example,
are some good stress equations for the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals?
For this we need to resort to continuum mechanics: the behavior of material as
a continuous mass rather than as discrete particles. Continuum means that the matter
of the body in question is continuously distributed and fills the entire region
of space that it occupies. In Chartres cathedral, for example, ribbed vaults
are supported at regular intervals and the piers themselves are supported
laterally at the level of the clerestory by flying buttresses that lead to high
exterior towers topped by pinnacles. The pinnacles aren’t merely decorative but
serve a structural purpose, maintaining the integrity of the buttresses by overcoming
local tension.

Complicated stuff. And
done without math. Medieval builders used, at most, Roman numerals.

Astonishing.

Stress analysis is an
amazing field. It even applies to staples. Anytime things are joined together
there are stresses and strains. Stress analysis applies to solid objects.
Stresses in liquids and gases are the subject of fluid mechanics. But what
about the stresses and strains of daily existence? Of getting along with other
people, a lot of them total assholes? And what about slammed doors and
explosive emergency room tempers? Drug-induced elations? Caught zippers?
Revolving doors? Stained glasses? Blister packs?
Impossible-to-open-clamshell-packaging?

Moose antlers? Lyrical
daughters? Extraterrestrial probes?

The house of math offers
an immoderate bed. Its equations are springs in a mattress of hyperbolic
functions. Human truth is everywhere in all desires. Empirical desire cannot be
conceived in isolation. What counts is total involvement. The decorative is
abandoned. The book asserts its own burning. The hibiscus is a talking pan. The
broom twists its tibia and the toads wear glasses. The world becomes a place of
breath and melodies of sweat. Mathematics becomes more dependent on algorithms,
on tattoos and coffee, on rules without reason, on improbable probabilities and
castles made of sand, on camels drinking in a crowd, on the leverage of
thundering algebra, on the breath of angels speaking in the fog, and declares
itself to be primitive, graffiti and scrawlings on walls and sidewalks, on the
cold raw elements drooling trinkets of eccentric iron.

What might a stress
analysis reveal about my current emotional state?

My current emotional
state is a blend of rattle and hum, cyclonic vortex, debris clouds, exquisite
anxieties and blunt, nihilistic depressions. The sky is an arena of cumuliform
anvils and troughs of beaded lightning. My life, any life, is a never-ending
song of fevers and looms.

There is always a vagrant
story waiting to be born.

Is there sometimes a
generality to these things, a mathematics of charcoal, of chiaroscuro? Of
storms and flapping tarpaulins?

In general, my state is
characterized by rising currents and downdraughts. On a good day you can see
Paris. On a bad day you would want to cover your head with a newspaper and
avoid the freeway. I could not be a flying buttress. I have the personality of
nitroglycerin.

Buddhists refer to our
inner life as a bitter ocean of life and death, a constant churn of internal
clashes and contradictions. Is there a polynomial for this? If so, it should
not be a feather or foam cushion. It should be a low center of gravity.

I have to be what I am,
or think I am, which is temporarily untenable, at least as a solid, or a pyramid
revolving a footstool. This would be a situation in which the given force is
rolled into a cricket of transparent quartz and plunged into language where it
assumes a life of squeamish predicates and furious oratory.

There are no stress
equations for emotional distress. Perhaps I could write one. Let us say that
the sum of the pressure for a non-viscous, incompressible emotion in steady
flow will be constant at any point, until it begins to boil, and overflow into
curt behavior, and become a shape like tragedy, a mask with a downturned mouth
and two ruby eyes glowing with inner fire. Then if X equals sand, and sand
equals dune, finding the value of seaweed will require a sandwich and a little
seclusion.

If the ellipsoid is
sufficiently oblate, the rest of the formula will be simple as a road, a
mailbox leaning slightly westward, and a roll of thunder coming from the east.
Otherwise, the answer is feeling, and may be furnished with words, including
sleep and sequoia, penumbra and yolk.

The spheres are beautiful
and when the emotions are entangled there is a mathematics that holds the
camels away from the carpentry during combing, for the camels must be combed,
and houses must be built. I feel a snow within falling, numbing, a wonderful
thunder pushing it into number, numb number, and I cry tones of neglected
cloth, and embarrass the greenery with abstract fogs. Equations in shining
muslin give their grace to the nettles of life, our parables undertaking the
shinbones of the hummingbird and calculating significations of a widened
purchase, odors trimmed with reflection, shovels eating mirrors of silence in a
derelict garage.

Therefore, if density
equals squirrels and knife is a function of life, St. Ives will appear in the
mirror, and dishes and spoons will quake with quadratic reciprocity,
particularly at dinner. The sum of a hat
is carried by integers of hat. Hat is integral to hat. The obtuse angle implies
a sleuth or Walt Whitman. Nothing times nothing is anything at all. Think of it
as the wings of a butterfly in Brazil whose gentle flight in the Amazon basin
will result in a hurricane off the coast of Australia. The world is a nonlinear
tablespoon. Sooner or later the trees will multiply the sky and the goldfish
will compute their bowl in erratic circles, implying a sphere of glass in a
one-bedroom apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York, and this will turn out to be
another equivalent of parsley, which is photogenic and coincident with thought.
This is proof that there are infinites sets which cannot be put into one-to-one
correspondence with Limoges porcelain, but must be preserved in the cupboard,
until they are needed to serve Leibnitz’s pi.

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