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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten

Proust and the Logic of Love

Proust and the Logic of Love - Jessica Q. Rabbit Given the acres of newsprint that have already been wasted on Jessica Rabbit's second book, what is the point of writing yet another review? But I'll try, since, even though it's a bit uncharitable of me, I do wonder whether most of the other reviewers have actually bothered to read it. Let me first dispose of the largely irrelevant criticisms that have already been repeated several thousand times. Yes, she does dedicate it to Ed Bear. Yes, there are far too many pictures, most of them at best tangential to the text and showing the comely Dr. Rabbit in various provocative states of undress. Yes, there are more equations than pictures. And yes, I think she wrote the whole thing herself, including the equations.

I know it seems unfair that someone who looks like Dr. Rabbit is also a startlingly successful academic - most people would settle for one out of two and consider themselves more than lucky - but life isn't always fair. Enough nonsense: let me tell you what the book is about. The title gives you a good summary. As she says in the Introduction, Dr. Rabbit has had a lifelong obsession with Proust, and in particular with his interpretation of the concept of "love". About five years ago, she was doing some work on quantum logics, and it occurred to her to wonder whether this might provide a technical tool that could capture Proust's insights in formal terms. The book is the result of systematically following up on that thought.

The argument is divided into four parts. After the long Introduction, which provides a good road-map of the thorny path the author has chosen for herself, Part 1 is devoted to Proust. Dr. Rabbit focusses almost exclusively on three central threads in the narrative, the romances between Swann and Odette, Marcel and Albertine, and Marcel and Duchesse de Guermantes. (I wish she had had time to discuss Gilberte; I have heard that she is writing a paper about her, but I am not sure whether this is true). In each case, the author retells the story from the rather special viewpoint of the relationship's ontological/epistemological nature. Some people have complained about disrespect to Proust, but I do not think that these criticisms stand up to careful examination. Dr. Rabbit is scrupulous about grounding all her arguments in a close study of the text, which she obviously knows extremely well, and, even if her conclusions are unusual, they deserve to be treated with respect. The common thread in all three cases is what one might be tempted to call the "unreality" of the loved one. This is a clumsy term, and in the rest of the book Dr. Rabbit takes pains to replace it with a much more exact and interesting notion.

Part 2 introduces the formal logical apparatus that will be needed to perform the analyses. There is no point in pretending that it is an easy read, and even if some of the pictures are witty - I particularly liked the one for "bound existential quantification", illustrating the de dicto/de re distinction - they annoy more than they help. Here, I unfortunately feel that the rumors are true, and the artwork owes more to the publisher than the author. None the less, if one can ignore the distractions, there are ample rewards. Dr. Rabbit rigorously defines an interesting hybrid logic which takes inspiration both from classical modal logic and from one of von Neumann's lesser-known forays into quantum logic. In passing, she elegantly demolishes Vikki Blows's extension of David Foster Wallace's modal framework. The rivalry between Rabbit and Blows is by now an open secret, and here Blows suffers an attack she will find hard to parry.

With the lengthy scene-setting completed, Part 3 presents the core of the book. Once again, I was both delighted and frustrated. The argument showing how Odette's seduction of Swann and Albertine's capture of Marcel can both be represented by the same formula was an undeniable triumph, but this was immediately followed by a completely unnecessary detour into Lacan's sexual theorizing. It is perhaps true that Dr. Rabbit's key formulas can be extended to support Lacan's well-known thesis that all sex can be conceptualized as masturbation; but this felt more like an excuse for further illustrations, some of them in decidedly questionable taste. None the less, the strong points far outweighed the weak ones, and overall I must admit that I was very impressed. This is a strikingly original piece of work, and will further cement Dr. Rabbit's claim to lead the new field of quantum literary criticism.