A few weeks ago I visited David Gelernter in his home in Woodbridge, near New Haven, Connecticut. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, is probably best known for being the victim of a mail bomb sent in 1993 by the Unabomber (now the subject of a new Discovery TV series premiering tomorrow night); ever since then he has a reconstructed right hand covered by a black glove and a chest that, he once wrote, looks “like a construction site.”
Gelernter is a brilliant iconoclast. He foresaw the World Wide Web and social media in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds, and he has written books about a wide range of subjects, including Judaism and the 1939 World’s Fair. He is also an outspoken conservative who has flirted with the idea of working for President Donald Trump. Some see Gelernter as nothing more than a right-wing grump—he loves to rail against liberal pieties out of nostalgia for the small-town America of his youth (he is 62 and grew up on Long Island). For others, he is a brilliant thinker about everything from art and music to cognitive science.
Gelernter—genial and slightly pudgy, in an untucked flannel shirt, thick glasses and beard—welcomed me to a living room cluttered with books, where an enormous parrot named Ike presided from his high wooden perch. During most of our interview Ike stayed at his station, spreading his wings and squawking excitedly from time to time. Gelernter explained that the room had recently featured a massive centerpiece, a pipe organ built by his son Joshua, who studied the organ at Yale; it was now held together by a comfortable old rug. On the walls were three impressive paintings by Gelernter, who surprisingly considers himself a visual artist more than anything else: tall, dark pictures of Saul, David, and Solomon modeled after the gisants of dead kings at the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris.
Gelernter told me that he’d been asked to write an op-ed about whether the internet should be censored. (The answer is yes: “We have a concept of public nuisance,” he said. “Throw them off the air. Not permanently.”) But what was really on his mind that day, he confessed, was the lack of credit he gets for having invented social media. “I built the first Twitter, Lifestreams,” he said, “and it was better than Twitter.” Steve Jobs once told his employees to “check out Lifestreams”; and last year, Apple settled a lawsuit with Lifestreams LLC for $25 million—Gelernter’s lawyers charged Apple with having stolen a key Lifestreams innovation, sorting documents by chronology.
Gelernter blames himself for not being a self-promoter: no one knows how central his ideas were to the present-day internet.
“The same thing happened to my father,” Gelernter muttered. “He fell off the map,” never getting the recognition he deserved. (Gelernter’s father was a pioneer in artificial intelligence.) “I’ve screwed it up much worse than he did.”
In the 1990s, Gelernter predicted that the internet would be a perfect environment for thinking, both serene and lively. “My idea in Mirror Worlds was that the computer screen should be like the still surface of a moving pond,” he explained. That didn’t happen. The internet gives us the news and assists our research, but it is mostly used for low purposes, a glorified fidget spinner, trolling device, and masturbation aid.
Gelernter still hasn’t given up on the internet—though, like any sane person, he thinks that children shouldn’t be exposed to it too often or too much. “The average kid doesn’t even know one tenth of the books in the school library,” he scoffed. “He doesn’t need an information superhighway.” Young people should be trained to use the web properly: “Push the button only when you’re done; don’t skip to the end. You don’t skip to the end when you read a book.” “The internet has a gigantic flaw,” Gelernter said. “It should be structured like a recursive nest, so that you’re encouraged to return to what you were looking at. Instead, the way it is, if you click you’ll probably never go back.”
I mentioned that children at my son’s elementary school in Brooklyn are taking coding classes in third grade. “It’s absolutely asinine,” Gelernter scowled. “You could also teach a third grader how to drive, using a miniature car, but why would you? Teach them discrete math, logic, graph theory, not baby coding. They have to work up to the coding. In America these days we don’t like working up to things.”
Gelernter’s own classes sound very Italian Renaissance. He preaches the need for “elegance, boldness, surprise, and beauty” in graphical user interfaces. The ancient Greek vase painter known as the Berlin Painter figures in his computer interface class, as do Gothic cathedrals, Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, and the trailblazing industrial designer Raymond Loewy. IBM, he said, introduced playfulness and beauty into computing in the 1960s. “Steve Jobs deserves respect,” he admitted. “He was an interesting guy. But there’s no way he was the father of bringing design to computers. IBM was the key force. They’re the ones who discovered that the computer was a way to communicate with people.”
Gelernter is not only a painter and computer scientist (a term he dislikes—“what makes it a science rather than an art?”); he also composes music: He wrote the music for his own wedding. He is also a novelist, as he proved in 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, the 1995 book that he wrote while recovering from the Unabomber attack. It is not only a history of the 1939 World’s Fair but a well-wrought story about a couple falling in love. (Tom Hanks optioned the book, but the movie has never been made.)
The fair occupies a special place in Gelernter’s idea of America. One of Gelernter’s characters, Harriet Levine, speaks for the author when she says that the fair “did not come at you with the arch smirk of the ’20s. Or the ragged desperation of most of the ’30s. Or the brash razzle-dazzle of the ’40s, or the glitzy commercialism of the ’50s—it came at you absolutely on the level.” The wonders of the world of tomorrow were presented dead seriously, with the excitement of—in Gelernter’s image—a kid dashing home with a perfect report card.
Gelernter was born too late to see the 1939 World’s Fair, but he recalls very well the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, which I too visited as a kindergartener. “I nagged my parents to take me there,” Gelernter told me. “I was there 10 times or more, which didn’t seem like a lot to me, though I think it did to them.” IBM had an exhibit at the 1964 Fair, designed by Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames: Inside a 90-foot-high egg-shaped theater, a “probability machine” explained the law of averages and robot puppets showed how computers could do Sherlock Holmes-style problem-solving.
The hopefulness on the cusp of the ’60s, so apparent in the 1964 World’s Fair, was wiped out, Gelernter argues, by a shock wave of intellectuals who invaded the government and the universities and spread the gospel of moral relativism. In his book Drawing Life, a memoir of “surviving the Unabomber,” Gelernter writes that the only religion left in place by the cataclysmic ’60s was the religion of civil rights: tolerance above all. He agrees that America became a more just and fair place as a result of the civil-rights movement. But when tolerance becomes the sole value, something crucial gets lost: the sense of what holds us together as Americans, our way of life. We’ve become afraid to make moral judgments, Gelernter insists. And so, 50 years later, we have students who prize money above anything else. “There’s only one sacred word in their lives: career,” he said of his Yale students. There are no smarter students anywhere in the world, Gelernter told me, but they take “stupid” courses in econometrics, wanting to make a bundle working for hedge funds or consulting firms.
Then came time for the inevitable Trump conversation. Some time ago the press reported that Gelernter is a candidate for national science adviser, and he is still willing to take the job. “There are some brilliant people” in the Trump administration, he said. “The best of them are absolutely tops.” Trump himself, he admitted, is “not my kind of guy”—he has met the president—but “I’m able to respect what he does.” Gelernter added that he did not vote for Trump and that he would have preferred Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, or Scott Walker as president. It’s hard for me to see how Gelernter, with his attachment to the old-fashioned norms of civility that once ruled America, could find anything respectable about Trump. But Gelernter is a born iconoclast, and there’s hardly a better way of being a black sheep in today’s academy than announcing that the president is really not so bad after all.
Gelernter and I agreed that Jewishness is in political peril these days, at least in Europe. Jeremy Corbyn is a “bigot,” he told me, “the most revolting kind of human being.” According to Gelernter, “anti-Semitism comes naturally to Europeans,” but thankfully not to Americans. That wasn’t always the case: The great medieval cathedrals were infused with Hebraic inspiration; Jewishness was, he said, the “hand inside the puppet” of Christian Europe.
“My parents took me to Sainte-Chapelle when I was 5, and it knocked my socks off,” Gelernter told me. “I’ve never had a day since when I haven’t thought about medieval art.” The art of the cathedrals, Gelernter argued, is Hebraic, with a vast empty space at the center that resembles the emptiness in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, the most fitting image of a transcendent God. And there’s the medieval idea of gallantry, which combines military bravery with piety in a way reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible. Judah Maccabee, Gelernter reminded me, was a central example of chivalry for the Middle Ages.
Gelernter loves Saint-Denis, “where Gothic art was invented in 1144.” “One late afternoon the gisants were eloquent, articulate; that’s how I decided to do the Jewish paintings I modeled after them.” He said, “I didn’t set out to be a Jewish painter like Chagall, but one like Modigliani or Soutine.” But, he added, Jewish themes are a bad idea for a painter, commercially speaking. “The Israeli art market is aggressively secular; there’s more interest in my paintings in Germany.”
We moved from Jews and Christians to sex. In the early 1980s, Gelernter called a computer language he invented Linda, after Linda Lovelace, and he told one interviewer, “I am obsessed with sex and sexuality as much as anyone I’ve ever met.” “The Gemara says that without a wife one wouldn’t build a house, start a business, or have an idea—the yetzer hara is necessary,” Gelernter told me. “They’re as clear as Freud. That’s why they say that when Joseph turned down Potiphar’s wife he was the greatest tzaddik in the Bible; that’s how powerful the sex drive is.” We wonder why, despite all the nudes, there are so few examples of genuinely erotic art. There’s Manet’s Olympia, I suggest, and he adds the same painter’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. “You’d think after those two paintings Manet would’ve gone further; he didn’t,” Gelernter said. “Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus is erotic. But there’s nothing erotic in Degas. Rodin wanted to be erotic; he had naked models walking around. There was clearly an element of pure lust. But he’s not erotic.”
By this point in the afternoon the sun was getting lower, and Ike the parrot had emitted his last screech. Gelernter could probably have gone on for a few more hours; we had started on a new bushel of subjects—his love for Nabokov and Philip Roth; why we prefer artists’ earlier works to their later ones; why Schubert’s death at 31 is so much more heartbreaking than Mozart’s at 35.
Gelernter’s wife, Jane, emerged and reminded him that it was dinner time. And so I made my way back to New York, deciding that Gelernter, odd as he is, is a rare species these days: an intellectual who has to think things out for himself and talk them out with other people, not in order to score points, but out of love.
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