“If we will make our seasons welcome here, asking not too much of earth or heaven, then a long time after we are dead the lives our lives prepare will live here, their houses strongly placed,” writes Wendell Berry in his poem “The Vision.” These past months, seasons have been welcomed and then bidden farewell. Just recently, we greeted yet another. Thanksgiving morphed into frenetic shopping, culminating in catharsis at gift giving, then hailing in a new year with a nod of recognition at the past and a toast to the future.
Shortly after I ventured into social media many years ago, I discovered this poem by Emily Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Allow me to tell you The Fable of the Fearsome √2, a proud irrational number with an unsettlingly sinister story behind it.
Feel free to share this story with the little children whom you tuck in. Please note that this is, like any respectable fairytale, the stuff of legend. Furthermore, as is a storyteller’s prerogative, I’ve taken a few minor liberties—mostly with respect to vocabulary—in retelling the legend.
In my last article, “Can Mathematics be Parables?” I considered the fantastical realm of “imaginary” numbers. Now, wander with me across a terrain of numbers even more dazzlingly head-spinning . . . and even more hazardous, perhaps, to encounter.
Are stories and parables told only through words?
Perhaps some might grant that parable-like tales are also told through visual art and music. I’d like to suggest, in addition, that there are many math – and, by logical extension, science – “parables” most of us have never heard. And even if we’ve heard them, many of us have likely overlooked the radically fantastic domain they represent and reflect.
The primary reason for this, sadly, is that few of us were told them as bedtime stories (though somewhat tongue in cheek, I’m actually quite serious about this).
In the first portion of our excursion through the sticky saying that we discover in Homer’s Achilles I explored the idea that we’re not as different from Achilles as we think. Hearkening back to Bespaloff (On the Iliad), we might at this point be able to recognize that while in spirit we admire Hektor, more often than not in action we emulate Achilles. For confirmation, we only need to survey our society in which appearances, wealth, fame, brash self-assertion, and power are our golden calves.
Many literary images have taken up residence in my life: laughing Lucy tossed into the air, safely caught by Aslan’s velvety paws; a gaunt Hamlet confronting a weird, haunting specter; the lovely Scheherazade, spinning a thousand tales for the Persian Šāhe Šāhān (King of Kings); a slave boy, answering questions posed by a curious man drawing figures in the sand; Margaret’s tears gently falling upon a golden carpet of leaves . . .
A young woman sits at the feet of Jesus. She is transfixed by his presence, hanging on his every word. Can you glimpse the delicate smile that hovers about her lips as she contemplates him? Her eyes are bright, captivated. She is Mary. See the somewhat older woman walking across the room deliberately towards Jesus? Her eyes are warm and straightforward, but her brow is furrowed and her expression troubled. Here is Martha.
Once upon a time, there were two sisters.
No, not the two step-sisters from Cinderella, although I can guess that for some of you, that’s who came to mind. Or, perhaps, if you’re like me, you thought of Austen’s Lizzy and Jane. Those sisters would be a most amiable topic to dwell on for a while.
However, the story of the two sisters I’m thinking of is told in the Bible. One sister, perhaps the elder, was Martha. The other was Mary. With their famous brother, Lazarus, these two sisters have joined the ranks of the Bible’s most well-known people.
Parables, somewhat open-endedly defined as “any saying or narration in which something is expressed in terms of something else” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1987), are sticky.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this nor, I’m sure, am I the first to use that word to describe them. But there’s no doubt in my mind: such “sayings” are sticky.