Beyond All Logic

Amanda Kingsland

“Let’s do lo-JICK.”

I first heard Jean van Heijenoort utter these words in 1966. Even though I studied logic with him every subsequent semester until I graduated from Brandeis, I can barely remember another thing he said.

Van was something of a mystery. First the name, clearly Dutch. But he was French. In fact, Henry Aiken, who, like Van, also taught in the Brandeis philosophy department, had taken to calling him (behind his back) “Maurice Chevalier with a sour stomach.”

More tellingly, Van’s classes were about only one thing: “lo-JICK.” Never Vietnam. Never civil rights. Never student strikes. At a time when all politics was personal and individual authenticity was more important than academic credentials, Van was a Vulcan in an emotional maelstrom. You didn’t study with Van because you were interested in Van — that was a nonstarter. You studied with Van because you, too, were interested in “lo-JICK.”

Two persistent and totally nonlogical rumors about Van circulated in the philosophy department. The first was that he had been Trotsky’s bodyguard in Mexico. I couldn’t imagine this was true. I found it hard to believe that someone who had once “lived the revolution” could remain silent during the political struggles of the 1960s. Students were going on strike, taking over buildings, exchanging classes for teach-ins. Many faculty members showed their support by tailoring their classes to address the issues of the day, joining student demonstrations or acting as good-faith arbitrators between the administration and the student body. Van did “lo-JICK.”

The second rumor was that he had been married to a succession of manicurists named Bunny. I couldn’t imagine this was true, either. Van wore the same uniform every day — gray flannel pants, blue oxford shirt, thin blue wool tie; seemed to adhere to European standards of cleanliness; and, best I could tell, spoke only about “lo-JICK.” Though I once saw him half-smile in the direction of a pretty graduate student, he seemed neither married nor in a particular hurry to become so.

During my senior year, Van suggested I go off to Berkeley to continue my studies, which I did, though logic quickly morphed into more mainstream philosophy. I saw him once on the West Coast in the early 1970s when he visited Stanford philosopher and mathematician Solomon Feferman. He was his usual polite but curt self, and, as we shook hands goodbye, I sensed the Van part of my life was over.

Fast-forward to 1978. I’ve just returned to Berkeley after a stint in D.C. running the National Science Foundation’s Public Understanding of Science program. As I walk past Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by a book in the window: “With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacán,” by Jean van Heijenoort.

I race into the store, read the thin book while standing at the bookcase, and realize just how naive the 20-year-old me had been. Van was with Trotsky from 1932-39, leaving a year before Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico because he loved “lo-JICK” more than revolution. (Van’s character even appears in the movie “Frida,” about the painter Frida Kahlo, one of Trotsky’s lovers.)

Van was much more than Trotsky’s bodyguard, though he did that, too. Given his fluency in several languages, Van was Trotsky’s chief amanuensis. In fact, he spent much of his time post-Brandeis consulting at Harvard, where the Trotsky papers are housed.

Years later, in 1986, I’m sitting in my office in the philosophy department at San José State University when a colleague rushes in to tell me that Van had been murdered in Mexico by his wife, who then killed herself. In Van’s biography “Politics, Logic and Love” (1993), author Anita Feferman quotes him as saying he’d had “four or five marriages, depending upon how you count” — this numerical ambiguity from the most “lo-JICK-al” person I ever met! And, indeed, one of those marriages had been to a manicurist named Bunny.

Although I mourned Van, I was happy the naive me had finally learned some important life lessons: Not all reasons are good reasons. Even some good reasons aren’t good enough. Shakespeare was right — there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

Our very existence as thinking beings requires we remain open to the possibility that some things happen even though we can’t imagine that they might.

Howard Levine taught at San José State and the California College of the Arts, consulted for governments and industry, and is the author of a dozen books, only one of which deals with “lo-JICK.”