Introduction to Lincoln Center in July

The career of Roy Lisker has been one of the most exciting and distinctive chapters in American letters, while leaving (as of yet) almost no mark in its official history. That this dichotomy exists is a reflection both of the noble and apparently absurd intransigence of the author in being himself—in fact, in being a person in a world of people striving with all their might to be non-persons—and of the perverse standards of the publishing and academic industry in the United States.

Lisker has led a life of creative ferment in many spheres. First and foremost a writer, he has worked prolifically in every imaginable literary form; done original work in mathematics and physics; performed music and poetry in the streets of the U.S. and Europe; composed music; and, inseparably from his other activities, been a political activist, which led to his imprisonment for non-violent protest against the Vietnam War. A key characteristic of his work and life is that it is fully and naturally expressed in multiple dimensions, resisting professional specialization. He is one of the few intellectuals today who bring together, without cant, deep sympathy for and knowledge of both the humanities and sciences.

Born in Philadelphia in 1938, he entered a graduate math program at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of sixteen, but in his second year, he felt powerfully called to an artistic vocation; though music was his deepest love, his diversity of interests required the medium of language, and he devoted himself to writing. Several stories in this volume date from this period.

In 1965, in a landmark protest covered on the front page of the New York Times, he and four other anti-war activists were arrested for burning their draft cards in New York City’s Union Square. In 1967, with his case still on appeal, he left for France and remained there for over four years. It was an extraordinarily productive time in his life, and he was well-received in France: his first novel was published by Gallimard, Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes published several of his articles, and Editions Max Eschig some of his musical compositions. However, he returned to the U.S. in 1972, as he had always planned, to serve a six month sentence in Allenwood Penitentiary.

For most of the next two decades, he led a largely itinerant lifestyle, staying especially in university towns (Boulder, Cambridge, Berkeley, New Paltz, Chicago, St. Louis…) and publishing his own work in newsletters available for private subscription: first New Universe Weekly and then its successor Ferment. These newsletters had a small but distinguished base of subscribers, including at various times E.O. Wilson, Milton Babbitt, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Thomas Kuhn. Attempts to find a conventional publisher in the U.S. led nowhere.

To say the least, Lisker made very little money from his self-published zine. He usually scrounged a living by staying with friends, busking with a violin, selling a few self-published books or cards on campus or in public places, occasionally working odd jobs (such as grading papers for the physics department at Berkeley). But much of the time he was as close to penniless as a person in twentieth-century urban America could be. He countered these difficulties with great resilience and personal energy, and an obstinate refusal to give up his personal freedom or dim his creative flame.

Ferment contained every sort of writing: accounts of scientific conferences (no doubt the most entertaining accounts of such events ever written); muckraking journalistic investigations; history (including memorable studies in the history of mathematics, such as the work for which he is best known, The Quest for Grothendieck); critical essays on theater, film, poetry, and music; a searing, unsparing memoir; serialized novels; short stories; original work in mathematics, physics, philosophy, and psychology; travel writing, poetry, drawings, recreational mathematics… a vast body of work with inexhaustible variety of form, reflecting endless curiosity and an irrepressible creative vitality.

When he inherited a small amount of money in the 2000s, he was able to return to France for periods of months at a time. Once more, he was received in France very differently than in the U.S. On his visits, he was given an office at the Institute Poincaré, where he spent part of his time studying statistical mechanics; he was invited to give presentations at IRCAM on math and music; public readings of his plays were produced. All of this occurred almost without preparation, simply because he was a productive intellectual: there was no necessity of “proving” that the work was valuable through a method of validation external to the work itself. When his money ran out, he would return home to Middletown, Connecticut, where he lives, still, in supportive housing, most of the tenants of which are handicapped in one way or another. Lisker, too, is handicapped, from a worldly point of view—by his intelligence, and by not being able to bear submitting to the consensually enforced tedium and betrayal of everyday life. This handicap, from another point of view, is a measure of the real seriousness of his mission—his own (and our) spiritual survival in a society based fundamentally on an ethic of spiritual self-destruction.

The stories collected here are a small part of his enormous output, but are representative of several important strands in his work that were present from the beginning: satire; a zest for playful formal experiment; the recurring themes of politics, music, mathematics, and the role of the frustrated outsider. While written for the most part early in his career, they have all been significantly revised in later years, some of them (like Sam The Messiah Man, the recitation of which is a long-standing holiday tradition) many times.

Many of the stories—Amplitude of the Cosmos, Sam The Messiah Man, Lincoln Center In July, Willy van Fritz, Three Weddings—deal with music, almost to the point of obsession—and indeed, obsession and madness follow upon music in one way or another in all of them. Several others reflect his scientific interests: Sea Urchins and The Revelation of Dr. Snew both satirize the spiritual emptiness and careerism of the scientific world; The Hotel Quagmire and Recent Advances in the Measurement of π are hilarious examples of a genre of mathematical spoof unique to him, in which the means of math and science are grotesquely misapplied. In the gleefully experimental Logan Airport, math also makes a hallucinatory cameo in a nightmarish survey of the modern world’s inhuman environments. The Tale of the Guru is, properly speaking, a short play, and has been staged delightfully as such; but we include it because, as a virtuosic etude in nested narrative layers, it works equally well as a play for reading, and it also represents another genre in which Lisker excels, the fable. Also a fable is the novella The Governments of Chelm, in which the legendary village of fools provides an opportunity to demonstrate the futility of all systems of government.

In Lisker’s work, as in life, the quest for personal fulfillment—whether through art, mathematics, beauty, or sheer human decency—is in perpetual conflict with social forces that deny it, shut it out, or commodify it to deprive it of meaning. While his own personal refusal to acquiesce to those forces has come at considerable cost to his own comfort and led to his being imprisoned, marginalized, and ignored, Lisker has never been defeated in his main purpose as an artist, nor has he ever dropped the torch of inspiration and good humor which shines so brightly in these stories.

—Jacob Smullyan April, 2016