Mathematics Considered as a Vice

Mathematics Considered as a Vice


I would invoke that man

Who chipped for all posterity an ass

             (The one that Jesus rode)

Out of hard stone, and set its either wing

Among the wings of the most saintly clan

On Chartres Cathedral, and that it might sing

             The praise to all who pass

             Of its unearthly load,

Hung from its neck a harp-like instrument.

             I would invoke that man

             To aid my argument.


             The ass smiles on us all,

Being astonished that an ass might rise

             To such sure eminence

Not merely among asses but mankind,

Simpers, almost, upon the western wall

In praise of folly, who midst sow and kine,

             Saw with its foolish eyes

             Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense

Enter the stable door, against all odds.

             The ass smiles on us all.

             Our butt at last is God’s.


             That man is but an ass—

More perfectly, that ass is but a man

             Who struggles to describe

Our rich, contingent and substantial world

In ideal signs: the dunged and pagan grass,

Misted in summer, or the mother-of-pearled

             Home of the bachelor-clam.

             A cold and toothless tribe

Has he for brothers, who would coldly think.

             That man is but an ass

             Who smells not his own stink.


             For all his abstract style

Speaks not to our humanity, and shows

             Neither the purity

Of heaven, nor the impurity beneath,

And cannot see the feasted crocodile

Ringed with St. Francis’ birds to pick its teeth,

             Nor can his thought disclose

             To normal intimacy,

Siamese twins, the double-beasted back,

             For all his abstract style

             Utters our chiefest lack.


             Despite his abstract style,

Pickerel will dawdle in their summer pools

             Lit by the flitterings

Of light dashing the gusty surfaces,

Or lie suspended among shades of bile

And lime in fluent shift, for all he says.

             And all the grey-haired mules,

             Simple and neuter things,

Will bray hosannas, blessing harp and wing.

             For all his abstract style,

             The ass will learn to sing.

By Anthony Hecht

Photography by Charles de Vaivre