A Tale Of Madness, Murder, And Mathematics

There’s a well-known formula for creating a juicy story known as “The Three M’s” – murder, madness, and mathematics. Okay, so maybe not, but there is at least one story around that satisfies both the “juicy” and “three M’s” categories: the story of Andre Bloch (which first came to my attention via the blog of Dr. Romeo Vitelli). Born in 1893 in Besancon, France, to Alsatian Jewish parents, Bloch is remembered in the mathematical community for Bloch’s Theorem, the Bloch Constant, and the Bloch Space – which, according to Wikipedia, were significant in the field of Complex Analysis, specifically with regard to holomorphic functions (which is to say that it is, like the name, complex).

In addition to his mathematical contributions however, Bloch is also known for committing a grisly triple homicide. Bloch, along with his brother Georges, were in their first year at the prestigious École Polytechnique (located just south of Paris), when World War I broke out. The two brothers were conscripted into the French military and were wounded in service – Georges was discharged after losing an eye, Andre was allowed to recuperate after falling from a watch tower, but was kept on duty. During his convalescent leave in 1917, Andre attended a dinner with his brother Georges, his aunt, and his uncle. During the dinner, Bloch stabbed all three family members to death, after which, he allegedly ran, ranting, into the street and was shortly thereafter arrested without resistance.

Rather than finding himself on the block, Bloch was committed to the asylum at Charenton in Saint Maurice, where he would live out the majority of his remaining days (he was briefly transferred to Saint Anne’s Hospital in 1948, just a few months before his death). It was while in the asylum that Bloch completed all of his mathematical works (he was in frequent correspondence with other mathematicians, though naturally, being confined to the asylum, he rarely met with any of his contemporaries).

Henri Brauk, a psychiatrist at the asylum wrote that Bloch seemed perfectly content – “Every day for forty years this man sat at a table in a little corridor leading to the room he occupied, never budging from his position, except to take his meals, until evening…While other patients constantly requested that they be given their freedom, he was perfectly happy to study his equations and keep his correspondence up to date.”

So how does a brilliant mathematician, and an easy-going prisoner end up a murderer (of his own family members, no less)? Well, it seems that it was precisely Bloch’s mathematical mind that led him to the murders in the first place. Brauk writes that, when he asked Bloch to explain the murders, he replied, “It’s a matter of mathematical logic. There were mentally ill people in my family, on the maternal side, to be exact. The destruction of the whole branch had to follow as a matter of course. I started my job at the time of the famous meal, but never got a chance to finish it.”

There’s a cruel irony to the fact that a Jewish mathematician, who would have to hide his identity from the Nazis, committed his murders out of the same obsession with eugenics that would necessitate his hiding in the first place. The irony extends further –  it is Bloch’s same instrumental reasoning, the same cold, inhuman logic, which would inform Nazi thought 20 years later – we might see Bloch’s murders as a microcosmic prelude for the events of the Holocaust.

There’s a passage in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “Towards A New Manifesto” which seems especially relevant to the story of Bloch (especially when considered in light of the Holocaust). Horkheimer says, “The world is mad and will remain so. When it comes down to it, I find it easy to believe that the whole of world history is just a fly caught in the flames.” To which Adorno replies, perhaps optimistically, but more likely, sinisterly, “The world is not just mad. It is mad and rational as well.”

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at romm@forward.com or on Twitter, @JakeRomm

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A Tale Of Madness, Murder, And Mathematics

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