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The Shock Tactics of Alexander Grothendieck

Karen Karin Rosenberg
June 7, 2015

A Brilliant Mathematician's Moral Protest

by Karen Karin Rosenberg
GROTHENDIECK-obit-master180ALEXANDER GROTHENDIECK, who died last fall, was a towering figure in mathematics who won the very top awards in his field: the Field’s Medal in 1966, the Crafoord Prize in 1988. He used those events theatrically to make moral points. In protest against Soviet policies, he boycotted the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow, where he was to receive the former award, and he turned down the latter prize, worth a lot of money as well as prestige, to express his rejection of the culture in which research takes place. In a statement to the bestowers of the Crafoord Prize, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, he criticized what we now call the star system. Excessive rewards and status are given to a few, he charged. And he pointed to corruption in his profession: Plagiarizing the work of one’s colleagues is a widespread and generally accepted practice, according to Grothendieck. He called for others to take part in an ethical change that he foresaw would come before the end of the suicidal 20th century. This prophetic, apocalyptic tone did not help his credibility.

Grothendieck’s politics are often placed in the context of a descent into madness that led him to withdraw first from the mathematical community and then from friends and family. Only with his death did the world learn the name of the village in the French Pyrenees where he lived since 1991. The problem with this storyline is that it can convert all his non-mathematical ideas into symptoms of paranoia or some other psychological illness — which implies that you have to be crazy to question how money is distributed in math and science. This has generally stopped people from pursuing his critique.

Yet there is another way to see Grothendieck, as only one voice in a debate on research funding that took place in the Cold War era, and specifically during the Vietnam War. The common picture of that debate features students protesting against the war-related research conducted by faculty members and researchers at their universities. But young versus old, radical students versus conservative professors are misleading clichés. The frame should be widened to include researchers and faculty members who protested, on and off campus (as well as students who defended the status quo).

“Faculty activists have gotten far less attention than the students,” notes Ellen Schrecker, a historian known for her study of McCarthyism and academia. “Yet it was the faculty that created the intellectual structure for the American anti-war movement.” Her book-in-progress on this subject draws on interviews, memoirs, and the few existing analytical studies like Sarah Bridger’s Ph.D. dissertation, Scientists and the Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research (Columbia University, 2011). Schrecker's is a big project, since many institutions were involved — and what’s needed is an even larger historical context, an international one.

GROTHENDIECK SPENT a few weeks in war-torn Vietnam in 1967 and was back in France during the May 1968 rebellion. It seems likely that these experiences contributed to his decision to resign in May 1970 from the prestigious Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (Institut des Hautes Études Scientiques) in France, severing all ties with it because, he said, it was receiving money from the French Ministry of Defense. At issue was a small part of the Institute’s budget, not over 5 percent, but Grothendieck clearly viewed the independence of research as a matter of principle, an either/or question. One would like to know how widespread this position was, in Europe and elsewhere.

In the years that followed his resignation, Grothendieck continued to teach mathematics on the university level, in North America as well as in France. He was a founder and leader of the ecological and anti-militarist movement Survive, later called Survive and Live (in French: Survivre and Survivre et Vivre). In more than one rural commune, he practiced an eccentric Buddhism. “There was a blurry line between the counterculture and political radicalism, even among faculty,” notes Schrecker, speaking of the U.S. Yet Grothendieck’s alternative lifestyle, which became increasingly hermit-like, managed to shock many mathematicians, as his leading biographer, a retired German professor of mathematics named Winfried Scharlau, has shown.

grothendieck4Was the shock that Grothendieck produced an accidental byproduct of his beliefs? Many have depicted him as a political naïf and/or a madman cut off from the opinions of others, but I’d like to sketch a savvier activist who knew how to attract attention to himself and his philosophy. A hermit, after all, may win more notice than a more conventional retiree. This Grothendieck was a master of the shock tactic, which he learned early from his parents: a mother who had been involved with avant-garde theater, and a father who, in his own way, was equally theatrical.

First the female member of the pair: Johanna (nickname: Hanka) Grothendieck. In rebellion against her proper Protestant family in North Germany, she knew just how to get the goat of the bourgeoisie. She escaped to erotic Berlin (the subject of a spate of recent studies with neon titles, like Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, Victoria Harris’s Selling Sex in the Reich, and Jill Suzanne Smith’s Berlin Coquette). In the early 1920s, when German prostitutes were organizing to defend their interests and rights, Hanka wrote for the magazine of the group in Hamburg-Altona. Its issues were sold — and confiscated or banned—in various German cities. Called The Pillory (Der Pranger), it criticized not just brothel-owners who pushed drinks as well as sex, but also respectable men with money who pretended that they weren’t customers.

Hanka Grothendieck’s editors were independent-minded Communists (one was kicked out of the party in 1924) who advocated an economic system in which brothels didn’t exploit sex workers. But according to Julia Roos’s Weimar though the Lens of Gender (2010), some prostitutes preferred brothel-owners to landlords who charged a fortune or wouldn’t rent to them at all. I don’t know whether such arguments influenced Hanka, but she left her Marxist husband, who had fathered her daughter, for a stateless anarchist from Soviet Russia often known as Sasha-Pyotr (with no last name).

Probably, but not definitely, he was one Aleksander Schapiro, who at 14 had left his pious Hasidic family in Ukraine. A one-armed revolutionary whose higher education was what you learned in tsarist and Soviet prisons, he was not too employable in Germany during the economic crisis that followed its defeat in World War I. When he and Hanka weren’t able to earn money with street photography and performing songs in workers’ pubs, they borrowed from friends and well-wishers.

Sasha-Pyotr was also a writer in many genres, I discovered, by chance, in libraries. For example, the February 1925 issue of The International Anarchist Review (La Revue internationale anarchiste), a multi-lingual monthly published in Paris, contains his article on the Bulgarian movement. In 1935-36, his literary prose and poems appeared in Detroit in a Russian-language anarchist magazine called The Awakening (Probuzhdenie). Other researchers may want to hunt for Sasha-Pyotr when they realize he was Alexander Grothendieck’s father. This son — Sasha-Pyotr had left another in Soviet Russia — was born in Berlin in March 1928.

YOUNG ALEXANDER Grothendieck’s family life was torn apart often. In 1933, Sasha-Pyotr left for France because a stateless anarchist of Jewish background was in grave danger in Nazi Germany. Hanka followed him, putting her daughter in a children’s home in Berlin and her son in the care of a left-leaning pastor and his wife near Hamburg. When Sasha-Pyotr went to Spain to support the anarchists in the Civil War, she apparently went there too for a time. By May 1939, the boy’s protectors felt he was in danger in Germany, so he was sent to his father in Paris. After so many years, they no longer recognized each other. In October, 1939 Sascha-Pyotr was taken to French internment camps, and in August 1942 to Auschwitz. He was never heard from again. The boy and his mother lived together in French camps from June 1940 to June 1942, when he found refuge in the nearby town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, under German occupation.

Like Weimar prostitution, Le Chambon is a hot topic these days. In reaction to Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (1979), and Pierre Sauvage’s film Weapons of the Spirit (1989), two recent books have complicated the story of a pacifist pastor who led a saintly town. According to Peter Grosse’s The Greatest Escape and Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets, both published last year, Jewish children and adults were also placed in other villages on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon. The new version of events features not just Huguenots, but smaller Protestant sects as well, all used to living by their own rules during long winters on isolated mountains. Yet hotels, guesthouses, and other rooms-for-rent were also there, because in the summer, the good, cool air had long attracted city tourists. This is the setting of a complex tale of collaboration, armed resistance, and quiet non-compliance. Unfortunately neither new book gives more than a mention to Grothendieck, who completed his baccalaureate at a private school.

It is not surprising, given this background, that Grothendieck was not well read in mathematics when he entered university. What’s amazing is the speed with which he caught up with others and surpassed them, while he cared for a mother whose mental and physical condition wasn’t good. The French mathematical community deserves much credit for supplying him with help, attention, support, and jobs. If he became impatient, ungrateful, one must remember that his parents, too, had left the bourgeois world behind. They trained him to condemn its weaknesses, to try other roads.

When Grothendieck’s autobiographical works are available, this context should become clearer. Up to now, publishers have shied away from thousands of pages by him that include possibly libelous attacks on colleagues. In 2010, Grothendieck himself tried to stop the circulation of pirate editions of his writings — or long quotations from them — during his lifetime. After his death, such material is likely to surface, especially on websites like that of the Grothendieck Circle. Winfried Scharlau’s biography, which contains passages by Grothendieck, is being translated from German by Melissa Schneps: Who is Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1. Anarchy (2013) is available in PDF and book form, and Who is Alexandre Grothendieck? Vol. 3. Spirituality is gradually being translated and posted on the web. Meanwhile, Roy Lisker’s translations of Grothendieck can be found in the online magazine Ferment. Yet there are still many gaps and inaccuracies in our picture of Grothendieck the thinker and activist.

For me, one question has been resolved: whether only his “pure” math is worth serious consideration.

Karen Karin Rosenberg is working on a book on Russian revolutionary propaganda.