The Writer We Killed

John Kennedy TooleIt turns out that Joan Fontaine also died over the weekend. I’ve never much liked her, but I think that’s because of the kinds of roles she played. She was rather good in Suspicion, and generally later in career when she wasn’t typecast so much, like in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It’s hard to be too sad that she has died, given that she was 96. But her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, is still kicking at 97.

The great Hindi poet Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana, better known as simply Rahim, was born on this day in 1556. Strangely, although he was Indian, his religion was Islam. He wrote a bit of poetry where he discussed how he gave money to beggars, “Sir, Why give alms like this? Where did you learn that? Your hands are as high as your eyes are low.” By this he means that he gives out charity with humility; he does not pretend that the act makes him superior. It is wisdom for all of us to take to heart. We should be grateful that we are able to give. It is a blessing.

The mathematician and physicist Emilie du Chatelet was born in 1706. She is best known for translating Newton’s Principia into French, which is still considered the standard translation. She also did much research, include work on fire that predicted the concept of infrared radiation. She was also very important in physics education of the 18th century. As I always note: she was a woman, which probably means she would be a household name if she had been born a man. Her lover Voltaire wrote that she was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”

It is a big day for scientists. The physicist Joseph Henry was born in 1797. He was basically the American Faraday. He did most of his work with electromagnetism. He discovered self-inductance, as well as mutual inductance, although Faraday published first and so gets the credit. He was also a great inventor, his work on the electromagnetic relay led pretty directly to the telegraph. The unit for inductance is named after him.

The great mathematician Mary Cartwright was born in 1990. She is best known for her work on chaos theory. She did this work with J E Littlewood, who coined the term, “The butterfly effect.” This is the idea that one couldn’t predict atmospheric dynamics perfectly, because a butterfly flapping its wings half a world away would have a large effect on the local dynamics. The atmosphere is a chaotic system. But don’t misunderstand. This is not the chaos theory that was all the rage in the 1980s. Cartwright was doing her work in the 1930s. I’ve never been too clear why more recently people have made a big deal of the study of highly non-linear systems. Physicists have been working on these problems for a very long time.

Pope FrancisAnd Jorge Mario Bergoglio is 77 today. He is better known as Pope Francis and I’m sure you know a lot about him. He did not become a priest until the age of 33—I’m not sure how common that is. Before that, we worked as a nightclub bouncer. I’m curious to see what he does. Many people expect too much of him. But thus far, he has done a lot to improve the image of the Church. And that isn’t just marketing. He is the first Jesuit Pope, and that means a great deal. They are the most committed to interfaith dialog, for example. And they also profess poverty, something that has only barely been tolerated by the papacy for most of the history of the group.

Other birthdays: the great chemists Humphry Davy (1778); mathematician Sophus Lie (1842); post-impressionist painter Paul Cesar Helleu (1859); theater director Erwin Piscator (1893); actor Richard Long (1927); linguistics fan William Safire (1929); publisher Bob Guccione (1930); musician Art Neville (76); truly horrible human being and “journalist” Chris Matthews (68); comedian Eugene Levy (67); film editor Sally Menke (1953); and film director Peter Farrelly (57).

The day, however, belongs to the great writer John Kennedy Toole who was born on this day in 1937. Sadly, he killed himself in 1969, at the age of 31. He really only wrote one book, A Confederacy of Dunces. But it is such a great book. It’s impossible to say exactly why anyone kills himself, but it is certainly true that not being able to find a publisher for the book started his decline. It is hard to understand, because the book is brilliant from the first page. I like to think that he could have been our Cervantes. If you haven’t read the book, you really should. I mean: really. It is very humorous and wonderfully insightful. Most of all, it is a fun read. If you’ve read Life of Pi and not A Confederacy of Dunces, shame on you. Go now and read it! Toole clearly suffered for our benefit. Don’t ignore his sacrifice.

Happy birthday John Kennedy Toole!

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