Blood and logic

Michael Dummett

  • Politics, Logic and Love: The Life of Jean van Heijenoort by Anita Burdman Feferman
    A.K. Peters, 415 pp, £19.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 86720 286 6

Jean van Heijenoort was a mathematical logician who had once been Trotsky’s secretary, and if only those who have already heard of him read this book, a great many people will miss a fascinating story. The community of those interested in mathematical logic is one of which the public is very little aware. The name of van Heijenoort is known to everyone within it, not for any great discovery he made, but because of what is probably his most lasting contribution: the large and immensely useful source book, From Frege to Gödel, which he published in 1967.

Yet, astonishingly for an apparently reclusive scholar, van Heijenoort’s life was framed by scenes of blood. He died in Mexico City in 1986, at the age of 72, murdered by his wife, who shot him three times while he was asleep and then put the revolver into her own mouth and killed herself. His earliest memory, from the age of two, was of seeing his father bleed to death, vomiting blood from an internal haemorrhage. It was 1914. His father, then living in a small town north of Paris, was not in the Army, because he was Dutch by nationality, and suffered in any case from gastric ulcers. There was no one to tend him, since all the doctors and nurses had left the town; and so he died, coughing his life’s blood up into a china basin. It was, Anita Feferman tells us, this astonishing answer to the question she asked van Heijenoort during the first of many interviews, ‘What is your earliest memory?’, that moved her to write his story. She recounts the varied episodes of his life clearly and vividly, but also affectionately, without sensationalism and with entire honesty.

What intervened between the terrifying sight of van Heijenoort’s father’s death and his own violent end in Mexico? Not a tranquil academic career. The scholarly compiler of From Frege to Gödel spent seven years, from 1932, when he was 20, to 1939, as secretary to Leon Trotsky; he then spent six more years trying to organise the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party in New York and writing for its journal The Fourth International. Few of those who knew him later as a university teacher had any idea that he had passed the earlier part of his life in this way, and even after he published a memoir, With Trotsky in Exile, in 1978, he remained reluctant to talk about it.

The first two questions van Heijenoort’s biographer has to answer are: what led him into politics, and into that particular political engagement? And what led him out of it? As Anita Feferman explains it, he saw a chance to take part in changing the world, and grabbed it without hesitation. He had been a consistently brilliant student, above all in mathematics, and had been involved, from the age of 15, with companions of left-wing, and particularly Trotskyite, views; but in 1931-2, he for the first time became engaged with politics to the detriment of his studies at the lycée. In the summer of 1932 a colleague proposed he should go to the Turkish island of Prinkipo to serve as secretary to Trotsky; he accepted without hesitation.

The moment was a critical one: Germany was on the verge of becoming a Nazi state. The world certainly needed changing. It is clear to us now that joining Trotsky was not the way to change it, but it could not have been clear then. It was not wholly unrealistic at that moment to believe that Stalin might be overthrown and Trotsky return to power; as Anita Feferman remarks, Trotsky had twice before returned from the obscurity of exile to become a leader of revolution in Russia, and Stalin had not yet fully revealed his savage brutality.

Van Heijenoort hero-worshipped Trotsky, and in 1933 followed him from Turkey to France and from France, after an interval, to Norway. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Stalin launched the infamous treason trials, in which all the old comrades were accused of plotting against his regime, under the inspiration of Trotsky. The Norwegian Socialist Government executed a volte-face, and placed Trotsky under house arrest. Van Heijenoort and another aide were deported to Denmark and imprisoned; the next day they were deported again to Belgium and from there escorted by police to Paris, where they were released. In December 1936, Trotsky left Norway for Mexico, his last place of refuge, at the invitation of the painter Diego Rivera; there van Heijenoort very shortly joined him.

By the time of their arrival in Mexico, Trotsky’s prospects had dwindled to mere daydreams. The Nazis had been in power in Germany for nearly four years; Stalin had consolidated his domination, and continued through the treason trials to project an image of Trotsky as the arch-traitor. Trotsky could go on writing trenchant analyses of the political situation, but there was no longer any realistic hope of his return to Russia or even of his leading a mass international political movement. In April 1937 an international commission, headed by the philosopher John Dewey, assembled in Mexico to enquire into the Stalinist charges of conspiracy against Trotsky, and pronounced a verdict totally exonerating him. This was no doubt useful in influencing world opinion in Trotsky’s favour; but a 1938 manifesto signed by André Breton, Trotsky and Rivera, calling for a federation of independent revolutionary artists, represented a lapse into fantasy. Rivera had proved what valuable assistance artists can give to a revolution; but no artists can create one.

In November 1939, van Heijenoort left Mexico for New York. What enabled him to enter the United States was his second marriage in July to an American girl named Bunny Guyer, who had arrived in Mexico on a pilgrimage to visit Trotsky. ‘Consciously or not, by marrying Bunny,’ Anita Feferman remarks, he had become able to ‘divorce himself from Trotsky’, geographically though not yet politically. It is hard to think this was not conscious motive, so little time elapsed between the couple’s marriage and their departure, the initiative for which appears to have been van Heijenoort’s, though Trotsky acquiesced in it. Faults in Trotsky’s character had become apparent and had tarnished his image in van Heijenoort’s mind. He can no longer have seen much chance of changing the world, and he felt the need to become his own man, when for seven years he had been wholly Trotsky’s.

In New York, Bunny earned money as a hairdresser and van Heijenoort taught French at a language school while writing under various pseudonyms for The Fourth International and corresponding with Trotskyites in Europe. They moved between New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, where in 1940 the news of Trotsky’s assassination – which van Heijenoort believed he might have prevented, had he been present – determined that he would spend the remainder of his life in the United States. In 1945 he began a new career. His political activities, now evidently pointless, came to an end, although he says in With Trotsky in Exile that they lasted for seven years after Trotsky’s death. In 1948 he published in Partisan Review a recantation of his Marxism. His argument, not quite clearly brought out by Anita Feferman, was that events had disproved Marx’s fundamental hypothesis that the proletariat would assume control of political events: it had shown itself unfit to hold political power, not being able to control or change its leaders, but only to suffer endless betrayals. It was therefore necessary to frame, and act on, a more soundly based theory. He emphatically repudiated the temptation to turn one’s back on politics and forget the years spent in the Marxist movement; yet that in effect was what he did.

To what should a disillusioned revolutionary devote himself at the age of 33? Van Heijenoort’s answer was idiosyncratic: he returned to the study of mathematics that he had abandoned thirteen years before, enrolling to work for a PhD at New York University. The book does not make clear how he supported himself or paid the fees during the four years he spent writing his thesis; presumably he relied mainly on Bunny. He remained at NYU as a mathematics teacher for another sixteen years, developing a particular interest in mathematical logic. Numerous reviews and, in 1963, two encyclopedia articles brought him no celebrity. When, in 1965, he became a professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, where he remained until he retired in 1977, he seemed set to pursue a placid but undistinguished academic career.

The publication in 1967 of his celebrated source-book in mathematical logic brought him instant celebrity. The texts were selected with great skill and a flawless historical sense, and the volume was the fruit of prolonged and difficult labour. Thereafter he published steadily, though not voluminously, making no original contribution to mathematical logic, but proving himself a scholar of great insight: his writings on logic, few in number, clear, trenchant and admirably brief, were all either expository or philosophical in character.

A shy, obsessively reserved man, a meticulous scholar with keen intellectual insight, van Heijenoort hid within himself a passionate, emotional nature; but tenderness seems to have been no part of his makeup. He had a tangled, varied and frequently intense sex life; but it is doubtful whether what he felt for any of his women can rightly be called love. He took up with them when he felt a need, but without any thought that his decisions should not be carried out, irrespective of their wishes. If they wanted to break away before he wished them to, he became violently jealous; but when his need for them evaporated, he had no concern for what then happened to them. Anita Feferman describes his dealings with his four wives and other women fully but uncensoriously; she makes little comment on his total neglect of the duties of a father towards his son by his first wife or his daughter by his second.

He married his fourth wife, Ana Maria Zamora, in Mexico in 1969. In 1981, after he had in effect deserted her, she divorced him and remarried; but they married again in 1984. She aroused in him alternating feelings of passion and of irritation, reflected in alternating periods spent with her in Mexico and away from her in California. When he left her again, she reacted hysterically; he had finally married a woman who did not tamely accept her dismissal. There is much talk in the book of Ana Maria’s imbalance and need to consult a doctor; nobody seems to have thought van Heijenoort equally in need of counselling. Two days after he came to her once more in March 1986, she killed first him and then herself. I do not mean to be heartless in saying that her husband’s end was more appropriate to his life than her end was to hers.