Seeking Virtual Realities In Both Science and Art
More than a decade after David recovered from a Unabomber attack that nearly killed him, the prominent Yale computer scientist is at a crossroads with his life’s work.
As a graduate student in the late 1970s, Gelernter made his mark by writing a program called “Linda” — after porn star Linda Lovelace — which allowed programmers to break down large scientific problems by distributing them over several small computers. He further enhanced his reputation with the 1991 book “Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox,” which predicted that desktop computers would one day be used as a window to the virtual counterpart of real-world institutions. Even today, scientists champion the book’s prescient vision of the Internet.
But Gelernter, who just turned 50, recently found himself working 10-hour-plus days on a series of “Hebrew” paintings at the Connecticut home he shares with his wife, Jane, and their two children. Inspired by what he considers the deeply visual but nonrepresentational approach to imagery found in ancient Israel, his newest paintings feature mixed media such as acrylics, pastels, gold-and-silver leaf, and even pieces of window mesh. Several of these are currently on exhibit through April 15 at Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Most of the paintings for the show were created within the past few years, and the mixed-media works encompass images inspired by the Bible and Greek mythology, as well as Gelernter’s own writing about Jewish art.
He is placing fiction writing center stage, as well. Though mostly known as a prolific conservative commentator for publications ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to Commentary and the Weekly Standard (where he was, until recently, the in-house art critic), Gelernter has also produced five books, including the semi-fictional history work, “1939: The Lost World of the Fair.” Published almost a decade ago, “1939” was optioned by Tom Hanks’s production company just last month, giving Gelernter good reason to believe it will actually go into production. He has a book on the character of Americanism forthcoming from Doubleday, and there is talk of adapting his novella “Swan House,” published this past summer in Commentary, into a play.
“I’ve had to ask myself where my intellectual contribution is going to be,” Gelernter said in an interview with the Forward. “Do I put my time and energy into building more software, or do I make more paintings and write more essays? And it’s gotten to the point where a man has to make choices.”
Though he has been painting since he was a boy, his current exhibit is only the second time that Gelernter has shown his work publicly. Both this and an earlier exhibit, also held at the Slifka Center, have been highly popular, according to Amy Aaland, the center’s executive director, who also oversees the gallery space. And for the first time in his career, Gelernter, who also sits on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts, said he’s considering a dealer.
All of which is more impressive when you consider that Gelernter had to retrain himself to draw and paint with his left hand. Early on the morning of June 24, 1993, he opened a mail package he assumed to be an unsolicited dissertation from one of his former graduate students. The explosion that ensued shattered most of Gelernter’s right hand and tore open his chest. It also permanently damaged his hearing and sight. It appears that convicted Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski had targeted Gelernter as a leader in the technology field that Kaczynski despised.
While Gelernter will carry the physical reminders of the attack for the rest of his life, he didn’t raise the topic in his interview with the Forward. In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote that the attack has had no direct impact on his current work, but it left him more serious about his art: “Getting blown up did change my approach to life. It destroyed my stretching-out-to-infinity future, during which (allegedly) I’d have plenty of time to paint and write.”
Three years ago, Gelernter began to publish a series of essays he called “Judaism Beyond Words” in Commentary. In these pieces — which he plans to publish as a book under the guidance of editor Neal Kozodoy — he argues that far from being an anti-image religion, as it’s sometimes characterized, Judaism is profoundly visual.
To make his point he cites examples from the Bible, such as the brilliant array of colors and materials used to fashion the tabernacle in Exodus. And he considers Hebrew sacred texts “laid in translucent leaves over the foundation,” or how “one generation’s work of study and understanding never obscures, only colors, the previous generation’s.”
The concept of sacred text as palimpsest is everywhere in Gelernter’s most recent “Hebrew” paintings, which are filled with ghostly fragments of gilded Hebrew texts superimposed on brilliant swaths of orange and blue. In the center of several paintings float life-sized butterflies, some lemony yellow, others a nearly hallucinatory blue.
In addition to several paintings based on the Deuteronomy text found in mezuzahs, Gelernter uses snippets such as “Atah hareisah” (“You have been shown”), also found in Deuteronomy. The accompanying artist statement explores the difference between being shown and merely told. “Judaism has always preferred firsthand showing to second-hand telling,” he writes.
Though none of the paintings directly address the subject of his bomb attack, at least a few are playfully self-reflexive. A set of three figurative paintings, titled “David Preparing for Single Combat With Goliath,” features a three-quarter-length view of the biblical hero in figurative poses. In one painting, David clutches his right hand with his left, a gesture emphasized by the painting’s light-and-dark color scheme.
In a sense, the David paintings are perhaps an extension of Gelernter’s other career as a cultural critic. In his 1997 memoir, “Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber,” he alternated the account of his recovery with a wistful rumination on the decline of American civilization. “The blast that injured me was a re-enactment of a far bigger one a generation earlier, which destroyed something basic in this society that has yet to be repaired,” he wrote, blaming feminism, political correctness, multiculturalists and the “intellectual elite” for all that is wrong with the country.
Several reviewers complained that these fulminations never develop into real arguments, thereby undercutting the power and originality of the author’s essayistic gifts. But none of this has slowed him down.
“People say to me that I’m a professional computer scientist and an amateur writer and painter, but it’s really the opposite,” he said. “I don’t blame people for being suspicious. I’d be suspicious if someone wandered into my office from the physics department and said, ‘Let me show you my novel or my painting.’ But I’m willing to stand on my record.”
Paul Zakrzewski, who edited the anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge” (Perennial, 2003), is a writer and critic living in Boston.