Literature and Science: Numbers and Poetry. An Approach

Jou, David
Quaderns Divulgatius, 14 2000

I have chosen three points for my contribution to the discussion on the theme of numbers and poetry. The first takes off from the statement "The world is written in mathematical language". The conviction that numbers constitute a secret and privileged language dates from Pythagoras at least, and is vigorously taken up by Plato in Timaeus. Numbers and geometry are seen as a possibility for penetrating into the profundity of the world, for discovering eternal regularities, beyond the anecdotal turbulence of human vicissitudes. Thus, numbers become a passionate space, a door leading to the discovery of a new form of beauty which goes beyond the senses.
The second point refers to the ineffability of numbers. Pythagoras has to suffer the irruption of the irrational numbers, as an undesired consequence of the celebrated theorem bearing his name, and which leads to the conclusion that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side: the quotient is the square root of two, the first number whose irrationality was demonstrated. Pythagoras was right in feeling dizzy. Yet the majority of irrational numbers are not reducible to a recipe, to an algorism which may be expressed with relatively few words. They cannot be named. They have no expression other than the infinite sequence of decimal points.
The third point takes as its basis a statement by George Steiner, "Poetry finds its limit with God, mathematics and music". This makes us think of other ineffable matters --and thus the limits of the word and of poetry-- and about the relations between scientific, religious and poetic knowledge. Music, mathematics and religious experience confront us with the problem of frontiers between languages.
There is no need to recall the extreme importance of rhythm in poetry, this small condescension that music has with poetic language. Scientific popularising and religious poetry have a problem in common, that of wanting to express with words a knowledge that, through numbers or the intensity of the experience, seems luminously immediate, the problem of confirming that the word is not the most adequate instrument for expressing that knowledge of which we wish to speak. Even in mathematics, the question is raised of what the most adequate language for emphasising the simplicity of the problems would be.
To conclude, to speak of numbers and poetry, invites us, amongst many other suggestive issues, to three types of dialogue: that of the number and the word as a penetration into the reality of the world; that of the suspicion of the ultimate ineffability of the world; and that of the relations between the different languages of the world. An interest in mathematical purity, this task of transcendence, this burning passion, all of them form part of the root of the world and, as such, will be present in each generation, in the work of some of its poets.

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