David Gerlernter, Yale computer scientist, was almost blown up by the Unabomber in 1993. That event changed him, but it also left him the same. Drawing Life offers a glimpse of Gelernter's thoughts during the first few years after the explosion that almost killed him and wrecked much of a hand and an eye. He's scarred, and it shows. Often he rants. But in between the forgettable finger-wagging and ponderous prescriptions for how to repair Western Civilization, Gelernter paints beautiful word-pictures that combine passion and self-deprecation. A few samples:

Chapter One:

If you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out.

Chapter Three:

But eventually my poetry got better. I have always been a devoted and solitary poet, moved only rarely to publish. People still write poetry today, but no one reads it, a freakish anomaly of supply and demand — as if society had forgotten to notify a certain whalebone-corset plant or detachable-wing-collar factory that tastes have changed. So the product builds up, neatly packaged, and in the end the producers are surrounded and cut off. Unfortunately a poet writes because he can't help it, not because it serves any purpose, and poem-writing today has the futility of alchemy.

Chapter Four:

Goodness is a matter of seeing what is right and not offering to do it, just doing it. I learned this from my mother; it does no good to hear about it — you have to see it in action. It is a rare quality and I don't have it.

Chapter Six:

And despite this amazing fact that I am now devoting myself mainly to art — painting and writing — art is no picnic and never has been. At any rate, not for me. I am a stumbling clumsy oaf of an artist, a Keystone Kop, disregarding the brambles as I lunge after a private butterfly that grazed me once on the cheek (or maybe I dreamt it); I have a certain technical facility, but facility is as likely to be an enemy as a friend. It's a frustrating chase. I chase in prose or poetry the way I grab a big brush or a small one as I try frantically to pin down the painting I have in mind. My world view lines up wrong with the normal categories; I care about beautiful things and my range is narrow, but I am interested in a certain type of beauty instead of a certain type of thing. In paint one time, prose another, it's all the same desperate chase. Success is just as fleeting and the trail just as hard everywhere, and you are the same bloody wreck at the end of the day.

David Gelernter doesn't deserve the celebrity that he now has; few celebrities do. His social commentary is loud and heavy-handed and sometimes embarrassingly inconsistent. But he can sure write!

TopicLiterature - TopicSociety - 2007-00-301

(correlates: Purpose of a Poem, DuringOrEnduring, ScathingRemarks, ...)