“If he’s a mathematician, what are you?”: Anxiety of Individuality and Authorship in Leonard Michaels’ “The Penultimate Conjecture”
For the ambitious but low achieving, there’s an immediate sense of self-recognition in Leonard Michaels’ Nachman character who recurs in a cycle of short stories the author penned toward the end of his life. As Nachman recounts packing for his brief intrastate flight — putting extra underwear, socks, and aspirin into his bag — he muses about the unpredictability of travel. Even for an overnight trip, one never knows what could happen. It is this same pathological anxiety that drives Nachman into relative obscurity despite his reputation for brilliance. Nachman is unable or unwilling to risk the potential embarrassment offering a proof for the (fictional) math problem, the titular penultimate conjecture, as a consequence of this anxiety. And yet, Nachman can’t divorce himself from his desire to solve the problem as he boards a plane to witness the wunderkind Björn Lindquist try his hand. Nachman’s feelings during the trip are equal parts anticipation and schadenfreude.
As the sinister figure Chertoff enters the equation, Nachman becomes aware of the threat Lindquist’s resolution of Nachman’s life-long ambition poses. As Michaels writes, “Nachman remembered Chertoff’s question. ‘If he’s a mathematician, what are you?’ He’d meant that Lindquist’s existence, merely that, threatened Nachman and vise versa.” In a recessive job market, this idea is brought into visceral clarity when one considers the idea of their only being so much “room” in a given profession. There are only so many wages to be earned, and those who don’t “fit” will fall by the wayside. However, in my view Michaels doesn’t offer a Marxist critique of market structure but rather raises an existential question “if you cannot be that which you strive to be, what are you?” For Nachman, the penultimate conjecture serves as his reason for being a mathematician. Math is his life, and Chertoff questions Nachman about what he would live for if not the penultimate conjecture. Though Nachman distances himself from the desire when he believes Lindquist has solved the problem, new life flows into Nachman as he sees the error in Lindquist’s calculations.
The issue of individual purpose intersects masterfully with the question of authorship that Michaels raises. Nachman produces work slowly, but authors it individually. Lindquist works quickly but collaboratively. There is an extent to which Lindquist’s approach is cheapened by his failure to solve the penultimate conjecture. Though Lindquist appears to be more relevant than Nachman, and a more desirable partner for collaboration, Nachman is venerated by Lindquist and the rest of the community. Although Nachman may not be producing work as daring or as often as Lindquist, Nachman’s intellect is recognizable to his peers. For Chertoff, and in turn for Nachman, there is a supremacy of the id which emerges. Nachman is in touch with his instincts, and his instincts are inherently mathematical, unlike his peers. Nachman’s ability is mitigated and stifled by societal mores and standards. It is a pretense of politeness that stops Nachman from making Lindquist aware of his error.
Though many question whether or not Nachman would inform Lindquist of his error after the story’s conclusion, I find such a question to be beside the point. Nachman’s desire to assert an individuality has been ignited by Lindquist’s failure and Chertoff’s seduction. The idea Michaels articulates here is that one can only truly exist in the fullest sense when fulfilling an ambition on their own power. Clear recognition for an accomplishment makes an individual more concrete than a vague recognition of intelligence or ability. “The Penultimate Conjecture” seem to endorse the notion that one only exists inasmuch as they can distinguish themselves from others. Duplicate personalities, skills, and ambitions are threatening to an individuals existential visibility. There are many, myself included, who should find this instructive.