Mathematicians, like kleptomaniacs, take things literally. (Credit where it is due: I got that joke from a crossword puzzle.) One of the strengths of mathematical thinking is that, while intuition and creativity guide us, we follow it up with rigor and logic. We don’t assume the obvious is true without a proof. Unfortunately, this instinct to prove rather than assume can have some unintended side effects as we try to navigate a world that is a little more willing to let things slide.
There is a math joke that goes like this:
An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician are on a train in Scotland. The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, "How odd. All the sheep in Scotland are black!" "No, no, no!" says the physicist. "Only some Scottish sheep are black." The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions' muddled thinking and says, "In Scotland, there is at least one sheep, at least one side of which appears to be black from here some of the time.”
(The wording of this joke comes from Wikipedia. I have heard several variations, all with the same gist. I think the astronomer is often an engineer.)
In light of this joke, I should revise my opening paragraph. There is at least one mathematician, and she takes things literally. I know that real life isn’t a proof, so I try to let things slide in day-to-day conversation. I consciously add normal generalizations and exaggerations to conversations so I
won’t be detected as a pod person can fit in with other people. I try to leave my need to take things literally at my desk.
Sometimes I can’t. This is the story of how I finally snapped and wrote a strongly worded blog post about why literary disclaimers annoy me.
I recently read Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I think most people are familiar with it, but it’s a harrowing story of humanity and compromise in concentration camps and the aftereffects of going through such an experience. It’s heavy stuff, but this post isn't about the content. Like many works of fiction, Sophie’s Choice has a disclaimer:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any reference to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I understand the purpose of this sort of disclaimer, or at least I think I do: if someone sees herself in one of the characters and feels that she has been portrayed in an unflattering way or her privacy has been violated, this disclaimer may make it more difficult for her to sue the author. On the other hand, Sophie's Choice is set in and shortly after the Holocaust. Events in the novel are similar to events in the actual Holocaust. The narrator is a young author from the south who is writing a novel about Nat Turner, just like the actual author of the book. Neither of those facts is a coincidence, and saying that they are is disingenuous and factually incorrect.
“But Evelyn,” you might protest, “The disclaimer isn’t intended to be interpreted that way. No one would sue Styron for writing about himself as a young novelist. We all know it doesn't mean Styron wasn't basing his work on events of the Holocaust. It's just that if you know someone like Sophie or Nathan, you aren't supposed to think they inspired the book. The statement about fiction is only intended to apply to the fictitious elements.” You may have a point, but I keep coming back to this: if the exact words of a legal text are not meant to be taken literally, what are they for?
Even in a novel not based so directly on real events, I find these disclaimers silly. Writing is a deliberate act. Novels don’t just accidentally type themselves. It’s not a coincidence that a writer wrote about whatever she wrote about. The events of her life led her to write what she did, and most stories have some sort of relationship to the real world. Even the locale is supposed to be coincidental. Moby Dick could just as well have been set in the Sahara or on the moon!
I spend more of my life annoyed at the non-coincidental nature of people, places, and events in fiction than one person should. I hope that by sharing my story, I have forced you to shoulder some of the burden. If you are similarly afflicted with a crippling case of literalism, please share, and I will try to take some of the load off your hands as well.