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Mathematical Certainty and Pirandello's Cosí è (se vi pare) Jerome Mazzaro Some years ago, Bernard Knox skillfully argued the role of mathematical certainty in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (c.427 B.C.). Knox observed how significantly the language of mathematics is interwoven into the play's images and characterization of Oedipus as "equator and measurer." He also demonstrated how intricately the solution to Laius' murderer lies in the mathematical axiom that "in no circumstances can one [Oedipus] be equal to more than one." Report had indicated that "many" killed the king. Knox points out that this incorporation of a mathematical model is indicative of Greek faith in mathematics. Mathematics had brought man to power and given him such "attributes of divinity" as "knowledge, certainty, [and] justice." Were it to prove unreliable, then, as the chorus says of oracles, life's meaning would be shaken, and indeed it is the shaking of Oedipus' belief in mathematics that, in part, brings on the wisdom and deification of Oedipus at Colonus (405 B.C.). The questioning of the basis of these mathematical axioms by David Hubert in the late nineteenth century led to their being seen as self-evident assumptions "about space (or objects in space)" and a consequent increased reliance by mathematicians on assumed models. Within these models, they concentrated on consistency and the principle "that logically incompatible statements cannot be simultaneously true," though, as Bertrand Russell later argued, even within the framework of elementary logic, contradiction may be constructed "that is precisely analogous to the contradiction first developed in the Cantorian theory of infinite classes."' It is to this principle of resolving incompatible statements that Luigi Pirandello addresses both his play Cost è (se vi pare) {Right You Are [If You Think So], 1917) and his earlier tale "La signora Frôla e il signor Ponza, suo genero" (1915) on which the play is based. In both, people are asked to arrive at truth by choosing between incompatible statements by Mrs. Frola and her son-in-law. 439 440Comparative Drama These statements concern the identity of Mrs. Ponza. For Frola, she is her daughter who is humoring Ponza into believing that she is his second wife in an effort to preserve his sanity. For Ponza, she is his second wife who is humoring Frola in an attempt to preserve her sanity. Certainty appears to rely on the community's coming to an agreement as to whom to believe. Rather than the removal of the "deadly pestilence" which plagues Oedipus' Thebes and propels his need to know Laius' killer, in the short story, at least, nothing less than the salvation of the citizens of Valdana hinges on their reaching this agreement. To fail is to plant the seeds of a division that will ultimately flower into paralysis and moral and social disintegration. Nor, in choosing different models or genres in defining and formulating the problem of creating a "common lie" from the inconsistency, does either work simplify what immediately appear to be the central issues—namely, the bases on which belief occurs and the purposes to which it is put. In life, as in Greek mathematics, belief must be interested. It has "an objective of practical utility." In art, as in modern mathematics, belief is disinterested. Its goal is within itself: "it wills itself for itself" and serves no practical ends. Thus, for both Pirandello works, just as for modern mathematical logic, illusions of interest are conveyed within larger contexts of disinterest/ "La signora Frola e il signor Ponza, suo genero" sets up the bases of these internal concerns within a model of literary narrative . Ideally in literary narrative, an event or series of events is recounted from an identifiable and credible point-of-view. Even in cases where a narrator is intended to be uncredible, he must be seen as "credibly uncredible." The point-of-view that the Pirandello story establishes is that of a limited, anonymous male who either is an inhabitant of Valdana and, therefore, involved in the town's anguish or, much less likely, has heard of the situation from someone who lives there and strongly identifies with the town's dilemma. By failing to use first-person-plural verbs...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 439-457
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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