The Chronicle Review

The Images Dancing in David Gelernter's Head

Steve Pyke for The Chronicle Review

David Gelernter
November 29, 2009

On a Wednesday afternoon in late October, David Gelernter is seated at the head of a green Formica table in a small classroom in Arthur K. Watson Hall on the campus of Yale University, where he is a professor of computer science. "Can you know something you don't know you know?" he asks the small group of students enrolled in a course called "Computer Science and the Modern Intellectual Agenda," which, according to the syllabus, explores how cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of mind can distinguish "seeming from being" and locate "a man's (or your own) identity."

An hour before class, Gelernter—technological guru, conservative polemicist, Unabomber target—had tried to locate his own identity. "I'm a misfit," he said. "Most people fit in a groove and focus on one thing, but I cut across the grain of different areas." In conversation, the eclecticism of Gelernter's mind is immediately apparent. An opinionated raconteur, he seamlessly transitions from literary criticism ("Deconstructionists destroy texts"), to trends in the art world ("Modern museums are devoted to diversity as opposed to greatness"), gender roles ("Women mainly work because of male greed"), contemporary politics ("Anti-Semitism in Europe is so intense that, I think, Hitler would have an easier time today then he did in 1933"), and earthier topics ("I am obsessed with sex and sexuality as much as anyone I have ever met").

Gelernter, a plump man with dark curly hair and a stringy beard, occupies a unique spot in American intellectual life, at the intersection of technology, art, politics, and religion. Yale University Press just published his latest book, Judaism: A Way of Being, a sweeping meditation on Jewish spirituality and belief. His career, he says, has not adhered to the "standard academic chalk lines." In 1979, as a 23-year-old graduate student, he began writing a landmark programming language that enabled multiple computers to work simultaneously on a single problem. (He named it Linda, in honor of Linda Lovelace, star of the 1972 pornographic movie Deep Throat.) In 1991, Oxford University Press published his Mirror Worlds, or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a ShoeboxHow it Will Happen and What It Will Mean, which imagined a time when people would be able to peer at their computer screens and see reality. Today, Gelernter is widely credited with having anticipated the rise of the Internet. His reputation as a doyen of digital culture was cemented by the publication of Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought (Free Press, 1994) and Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (Basic Books, 1997).

"It was wonderfully ego-boosting to become well known in computer science, but my interests were always drawing, painting, reading, and writing," Gelernter says. "I was being irresponsible to my own artistic responsibilities." He speaks amid the toppled stacks of paper, empty cans of diet soda, and haphazard piles of books that clutter his corner office. As he talks, he occasionally worries the Velcro strap on the black-and-white glove he wears on his right hand, the most visible reminder of the day in 1993 when he was almost killed by a mail bomb sent by the Unabomber.

Gelernter was emboldened by his brush with mortality. He loathes the idea of victimhood. To be a victim, he says, is "to define yourself in terms of what some random thug did to you. I would never sink so low as that." Says Leon R. Kass, the bioethicist and University of Chicago professor, "David is not embittered by the Unabomber attack. He doesn't walk around feeling sorry for himself. On the contrary, it seems to have energized him to make absolutely the most out of every grain of talent and power that he has." Neal Kozodoy, a former editor of Commentary magazine and a friend of Gelernter, says that after the attack, "David entered into the most creative period of his life. Everything became much more urgent to him."

While convalescing from the bombing, which tore apart his right hand, damaged his right eye and ear, and severely lacerated his abdomen and chest, Gelernter researched and wrote 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (Free Press, 1995). Described in The New York Times as "part fiction, part history, part sociology, and part prophecy," the book begins by rhapsodizing on the sensation of "acute hope" that suffused the 1939 New York World's Fair (the theme was "The World of Tomorrow") and ends with a lament on the crushing pessimism of our own time. In between, Gelernter weaves the fictional account of a young couple's experience at the fair. (Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone, has optioned the book, and Hanks called Gelernter to discuss turning it into a film. "They're crazy if they don't," Gelernter says. "It would be a great movie.")

1939 sent a clear signal that Gelernter was intent on branching out in new directions. He has established himself as a writer of fiction, a painter, a cultural critic, and a political essayist, regularly contributing to The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary and, for a while, writing a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. His writings have touched on wide variety of issues, including the demise of romantic love in a culture where sex has "developed the moral significance of an ATM transaction on a street corner," and the legacy of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister, who, Gelernter argues, is the "inventor of modern conservatism."

Gelernter's own politics are conservative, even, he says, "extreme right-wing" on some issues. He is scornful of feminism, about which he plainly relishes making provocative pronouncements. In a much-discussed 1996 essay in Commentary, "Why Mothers Should Stay Home," he claimed that working mothers were harming their children. In recent years, Gelernter has emerged as the chief exponent of what he calls "Americanism," a set of beliefs "that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God." Gelernter, 54, says he grew up in a liberal family but suffered a "moral crisis" as a result of America's retreat from Vietnam. That "betrayal" still haunts him. The specter of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing into rickety rowboats to escape Ho Chi Minh's dictatorship, he says, was a "pivotal political moment" in his life. He says he knew that entering the arena of opinion journalism was "poison": "I would have loved to have been above the battle. All my friends and teachers were liberals, and all you do when you publish a political piece is make enemies." Coming out as a conservative, he adds, also meant that his childhood dream of being published in The New Yorker was over.

Instead Gelernter has found an intellectual home at Commentary, where his latest cross-disciplinary incursion, Judaism, took shape as a series of essays titled "Judaism Beyond Words." Judaism is a visual tour of Jewish life, an attempt to conjure "the grand scheme" of the Jewish religion. It is perhaps Gelernter's most ambitious work to date. The slender book, which includes several glossy reprints of Gelernter's paintings, is structured around a series of images that shade into themes, which in turn, he writes, coalesce "into the richly reverberant, soaring architecture of Judaism." That somewhat amorphous premise is placed in the service of a characteristically extravagant goal: to, in Gelernter's words, answer "the great questions of human existence."

Judaism marks a return of sort for the author, who began work on a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Yale but left to study Talmud at a yeshiva in New York. The book's reception, says Kass, will be an interesting test. "Will David the computer scientist make an impact as a man who 100 years ago would have been a rabbi?"

When, shortly before 8 a.m. on June 24, 1993, Gelernter opened a book-size package in his office on the fifth floor of Watson Hall, he thought it was a dissertation. It was a nail-laden bomb. Shirtless, bleeding profusely, he ran to a health clinic more than a block away. When he arrived he had no blood pressure.

"A man who has been blown up by a bomb is a mess," Gelernter wrote in his memoir, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (Free Press, 1997). During a six-week hospitalization, he endured several operations: reconstructive surgery on his hand, skin grafts on his torso, and, much later, a corneal transplant that restored partial vision in his right eye. His body was devastated—he has described his chest as a "gouged-out construction site"—but his mind was sharp and frantic.

"As I lay in the intensive-care unit, having almost died, I was filled with enormous remorse for the things I hadn't painted," he recalls from a paint-flecked blue leather chair in the living room of his house, where Gelernter lives with his wife, Jane, and two college-aged sons. Large tin buckets full of paintbrushes are scattered around the room. "I thought to myself: You knew you were an important painter, a major painter, but you threw it away." For a moment, Gelernter falls silent. "There is nothing worse than remorse," he says slowly, running his finger along the lip of an American-flag coffee mug.

Physical therapists told him that his left hand would develop new abilities to compensate for his injuries. "I didn't believe them," he says flatly. Gradually, though, he relearned to paint and draw. "I have resolved to never put down the paintbrush again," he says, turning his gaze to a bright-red painting on the wall in front of him. At the center of the canvas are green Hebrew letters that spell out Ashrei (a central prayer in Judaism and the Hebrew word for "happy") and a red butterfly. Butterflies are prominent in many of his paintings. "The butterfly is nature's own abstract art," Gelernter says. His affection for butterflies, however, also has to do with his love for Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist. "I own a collection of his lepidopterology writings," he says, gesturing at the floor-to-ceiling wood bookcases that line the room. The shelves are overfull—William Blake, Kierkegaard, Ian McEwan, Tolstoy, John Updike, and countless books on artists: Degas, Jasper Johns, Gustav Klimt, Matisse, and more and more and more. "What ties my work together," Gelernter continues, "is that it begins as an image dancing around in my head." He walks up to "Ashrei," which hangs above a giant mantle. (The painting appears on the cover of Judaism.) "I am trying to invoke a spiritual aura," he says, almost to himself. "Because I have always thought in images, it was natural for me to fasten on to the fact that Jewish literature, especially the Bible, is explosively visual."

In Judaism, Gelernter zeroes in on four "image-themes"—separation, veil, perfect asymmetry, and inward pilgrimage. "Imagine yourself in an amphitheater," he writes, "gazing down at a stage on which shapes appear and sometimes blend together." He goes on to discuss how the Red Sea parts to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt (separation), Abraham strides atop Mount Moriah with his son Isaac by his side (inward pilgrimage), Moses returns from his meeting with God with his luminous face obscured by a shroud (veil), and the biblical figures of Jacob and Rachel, side by side, in love (perfect asymmetry). "Imagery is natural to Judaism," Gelernter says, his fleshy face lighting up with excitement. "Jews have always pondered the beauty of the aleph bet"—the Hebrew alphabet—"so it is natural for art and images to emerge, which can communicate much more than a description in language."

Judaism is a strange book. Gelernter's stock-in-trade flourishes are present—captured between the two covers, he writes, is "Judaism at full strength, straight up; no water, no soda, aged in oak for three thousand years"—but the book is also a deeply lyrical, even sensual, accounting of Gelernter's own faith. "He is clearly convinced that he has discovered a truth that is available nowhere else, and he is celebrating it," says David Novak, a professor of the study of religion and philosophy at the University of Toronto. Gelernter, however, casts his deeply personal argument in universal terms as a "common Judaism" (he borrows the term from Israeli scholars) whose "beauties and animating principles can be recognized and (with qualifications) agreed to by all."

Not surprising, there is much disagreement. David Biale, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, takes exception to the very idea that Judaism can be boiled down to an essence. He calls that an antiquated notion with a long pedigree. "These sorts of books were a cottage industry a hundred years ago," he says. Their aim, in part, was tribal boosterism, an attempt to show that Judaism was a modern, even liberal tradition. "But," Biale says, "there was also a genuine intellectual conviction that Judaism could be reduced to a set of beliefs." Such a view, he adds, has largely been abandoned by contemporary scholars, who tend to regard Judaism as a complex, contradictory phenomenon.

In addition, Biale detects a "kind of chutzpah" in Gelernter's writings on Judaism. Take, for example, a short essay titled, "What Makes Judaism the Most Important Intellectual Development in Western History," which appears as an appendix in Judaism and argues that "the best ideas we possess come straight from Judaism." Gelernter acknowledges that such a view is likely to provoke. "But," he writes, "too many people have developed (in the name of tolerance) the habit of declining to say who or what is 'best' or 'most important' in any human endeavor—which shows not tolerance but laziness." Biale is unconvinced. "We need this sort of triumphalism like a hole in the head these days," he says.

Others are more sympathetic. James E. Ponet, head of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, hails Judaism as "a magnificent credo." Novak views Gelernter's intervention into Jewish studies as a positive development "because it challenges scholars in the field to be less stodgy." Franz Rosenzweig, one of the great Jewish philosophers of the last century, Novak notes, was himself an outsider. "Such people have insights that scholars in the field don't have. They challenge the deadening professionalism that can affect any discipline."

Two years after the bombing, Theodore J. Kaczynski, who would shortly be identified as the Unabomber, sent Gelernter a letter: "People with advanced degrees aren't as smart as they think they are," he wrote. "If you'd had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world." Gelernter himself, in fact, has always been profoundly ambivalent about technology. "Because David has a concern for the whole of human life, he doesn't fall for the view that technology can provide answers to our deepest needs and aspirations," says Kass. Gelernter's byline routinely appears over articles that include statements like: "American schools would do better if they junked their Macs and PC's and let students fool around somewhere else. Schools should be telling students to reads books, not play with computers."

Indeed, in an unusual and overlooked epilogue to Mirror Worlds, Gelernter imagined two fictional professors—his alter egos: a composer and an electrical engineer—walking and talking in the woods north of Yale's campus. "Remember running, when you were a kid, just for the hell of it? Just for fun?" asks the technologist. "That's why we do technology … it feels great, it's the human thing to do." But the humanist remains wary. "I've never said the possibilities aren't tantalizing," he counters. "All I'm saying is that the dangers are also frightening. I'm saying I'm worried and you're saying sorry, I can't help it."

So how did a techno-skeptic awash in nostalgia for a less high-tech age become, in the words of The New York Times, a "rock star" in the world of computer science? "It was natural in the sense that computers were never remote or frightening," Gelernter says. His father, Herbert, is a professor emeritus of computer science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. "I turned to computer science to make a living, but I also did it in the belief that, if I did not depend on painting and writing for income, I would be free to paint and write what I chose." In Drawing Life, Gelernter dropped an aside that provides a key for entering his thought. In retrospect, he wrote, one of the reasons he wound up in computer science was his dislike of "intellectuals"—and his unwillingness to be one.

Gelernter traffics in ideas, but he despises intellectuals and blames them for irreparably degrading American culture. "Stop any person on the street and ask them to name a living poet, a living painter, or a living composer. There will be complete silence," Gelernter says. "When I was a child, artists were heroes. Everyday people knew Robert Frost's poems, and not only people like me, a respected Yale professor. Classical music was moving closer to the middle class, Leonard Bernstein concerts were broadcast on television. It was a marvelous thing to have poets, novelists, painters, and musicians representing the middle and working classes and giving them greater and greater artistic depth. All of this," he says, sweeping his arm through the air, "was killed or at least dealt a very serious blow by the encroachment of the universities."

Gelernter is perched on a stool in his airy, sunlit kitchen. Spread before him is a light lunch of crackers, cheese, hummus, and cookies. In an adjacent room, Audrey, a bright-red 10-year-old parrot, and Flint, a cockatiel, bustle about in their cages, which are positioned in front of a television tuned to Fox News. (He and his wife, he says later, leave the television on because the birds enjoy the stimulation. Audrey and Flint only watch Fox News. "I don't want them misinformed," Gelernter explains with a grin.)

Gelernter places himself firmly in the ranks of men—and they are almost all men—like E.B. White, so-called nonintellectuals who are dubious of ideology and abstraction, as well as patriotic (a rare quality among contemporary intellectuals, he says). Such figures—Gelernter's heroes—include White's colleagues at The New Yorker, A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell; Irving Kristol; and Norman Podhoretz, among others, all of whom operated, by and large, outside academe. "They were the smartest ones," he says. "Compare T.S. Eliot to an English professor at Yale." Now, Gelernter continues, academe has taken over the intelligentsia, turning "narrow-mindedness into a virtue, narrow-mindedness intellectually and narrow-mindedness politically." He scorns specialization as "a killer virus," the "toxic disease of the modern intelligentsia."

Depending on whom you ask, Gelernter's intellectual adventurism is the mark of a true Renaissance man or the desperate flailing of a scattershot dilettante. Around Yale, there is a curious reluctance to criticize him on the record. "Some communication at Yale is conducted in raised eyebrows and significant silences," notes Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at the university, when asked about this reticence. It may be that many of his colleagues are reluctant to speak openly about Gelernter out of sympathy for his experience with the Unabomber. Whatever the case, few want to be publicly critical. Gelernter's admirers are more effusive. Richard Starr, managing editor of The Weekly Standard, describes him as a "polymath." Kass strikes a reverential tone. "David has the moral passion and moral courage of a prophet, the sensitivity and imaginative power of a poet, and the clarity and intellectual probity of a scientist," he says, adding, "There is a kind of genius at work in David." 

 Gelernter's career, his habitual breaches of disciplinary borders, can be seen as a revolt against the prevailing tides of academic life. His is also the career of a supremely confident thinker. Pressed to explain his intellectual certitude, Gelernter uncharacteristically struggles for words. "An artist has to have his own vision. He has to see things uniquely." His voice trails off. "How can I put this without saying I am naturally arrogant?" he says under his breath. "My intellectual heroes," he begins again, "were all fiercely independent." William Blake—a polymathic figure renowned as both a poet and a visual artist—"declared himself a visionary and a prophet." After a few beats of silence, Gelernter adds a clarification. "I don't claim to be Blake, but his life is an inspiration. I hope to emulate his artistic heroism." 

Evan R. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.