Gorky’s description of a mathematician

I was reading “My Universities” by Maksim Gorky yesterday, and I found a curious description of a mathematician who was his neighbor in 1884:

[…] Three rooms opened on the corridor, two occupied by prostitutes and the third by a consumptive mathematician, tall and cadaverous, and topped with coarse, red hair. Through holes in the dirty rags that barely covered him, one shuddered to see his corpselike ribs and bluish skin.

It would appear that the mathematician sustained himself chiefly on his own nails, which he chewed down till they bled. Day and night he was at his formulas, mumbling numbers, and coughing with dry rasps. The prostitutes were uneasy about him, considering him insane, but out of pity they put bread, tea and sugar outside his door. As he carried them in he snorted like a tired horse. If, for some reason, these gifts failed to appear he would stand in the doorway croaking indignantly, “Bread! Bread!”

In their dark caverns his eyes gleamed with maniac pride, happy in the assurance of his greatness. He had an occasional visitor, a hump-backed cripple with a gray beard, thick lenses straddling his swollen nose, and a sharp smile on his yellow, eunuch’s face. Behind the shut door the two would sit for hours in an incomprehensible silence. But once, late in the night, I was awakened by mad screams from the mathematician, “A prison! I say, a cage, a mousetrap! Geometry is a prison!”

The humpbacked dwarf’s retort was a shrill giggle and a word I could not make out, repeated several times.

“Damn you! Get out!” the mathematician roared.

His expelled visitor stood in the corridor, sputtering and pulling his cape about him, while the mathematician, gaunt and terrifying, in the doorway, his fingers writhing in his hair, shouted, “Euclid’s a fool! A fool! God’s wiser that the Greek. I’ll show you!” And he banged the door so hard things in his room crashed down.

The mathematician’s aim, I discovered, was to prove God’s existence mathematically. He died with the task unfinished.

I think I’ll end up the same way.

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