Love, Intelligence—and Sofia Kovalevsky

Can Love Make a Woman More Intelligent?

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of aspects of the life of mathematician Sofia Kovalevsky 

Sofia Kovalevsky
Sofia Kovalevsky

I didn’t think I was intelligent in love—in fact, I felt I was foolish. In my everyday life, however, I thought I was very smart. I did well in school—for instance, I liked figuring out proofs in plane geometry and physics.

But love was a different world. In my teens, life took on new excitement if a young man saw me as wonderful. If he didn’t, I was bereft; and if he did, the joy did not last. For one thing, I felt it was stupid to depend so much on a man’s attentions. I also felt other things meant less.

Aesthetic Realism for the first time describes the fight in every woman which makes for the trouble about both love and intelligence—the fight between wanting to know and like the world and wanting to be glorious, superior to, more important than the world. This second desire is contempt, and it hurts our minds and our relations with everything.

I felt new hope and great relief when I learned from Aesthetic Realism that I would be intelligent as to love if through knowing a man I wanted to like the world itself. This is love’s true purpose. “Intelligence,” Eli Siegel said in his lecture Mind and Intelligence, “can be defined as the ability to take care of ourselves and also to care as such.”  Knowing this changed my life.

Tonight I will tell about what I learned, what my colleagues and I are teaching women in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and about Sofia Kovalevsky, a woman who lived from 1850 to 1891, and “whose mathematical genius,” writes biographer D.H. Kennedy, “startled the academics of Europe.” Born in Russia when that country and most of Europe barred women from attending universities, she helped break ground for other women, becoming a professor at the University of Stockholm. Sofia Kovalevsky H.S. Mathematics Day is celebrated here in the U.S. She was an admirable woman; she was also very much pained by love—and I believe the division in her between intellect and caring for a man, knowledge and feeling, helped to shorten her life. I’m sure she wants to be used now for women to be more intelligent in love!

Intelligence & Non-Intelligence in Childhood

In his preface to Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes:

Every child has this debate: Shall I…see the world as magnificently and delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?

This debate was in Sofia Kovalevsky and can be seen her memoir, Recollections of Childhood, which was popular in her lifetime.

quadratue of the circle
Quadrature of the circle

Sofia, youngest of three children of a Russian General, describes growing up on a large estate of forests, lakes, and gardens south of St. Petersburg. She learned to read before the age of five by looking at the newspaper and asking questions about letters and words. She would recite aloud stanzas of Lermontov’s “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” and wrote verses—some about the Panama Canal, much in the news at the time. The children’s room was papered with the pages of one of her father’s old math texts—Ostrogradsky’s lectures on differential and integral calculus—and she spent whole hours pondering the formulas there until, she said, though she didn’t understand them, many became “fairly engraved on my memory.” And she tells of an uncle who she cared for because “he conversed with me as with a grown-up person”:

I heard from him for the first time….about the quadrature of the circle, about the asymptotes (outer-most limits) which the curve always approaches without ever attaining them, and about many other things of the same sort—the sense of which I could not of course understand as yet; but which acted on my inspiration imbuing me with a reverence for mathematics, as for a very lofty and mysterious science.

Yet, Sofia wrote, “In general there runs through all the memories of my childhood, like a black thread, the conviction that I was not beloved in the family….This pained me very much.” From her nurse she heard that her mother had been keenly disappointed she was not a boy. She wrote:

[My mother] seemed to me more beautiful and charming than all the ladies of our acquaintance; but, at the same time, I constantly felt rather hurt—why did she love me less than the other children?

There’s a constant sense in her writing of her being mistreated—including being disciplined unjustly by her father.

Aesthetic Realism taught me that a large reason children feel hurt is that they do not feel their parents want to know them. But the unintelligent thing that a child very often does is, our disappointment about this is changed into a victory of scorn and superiority. And wanting to continue to have that victory, we can arrange to be hurt by others.

In her Recollections Sofia gives evidence that she had the desire to be hurt. For example, she tells that one evening, after she finished her studies she ran up to where her brother and sister were sitting with her mother at the piano and laughing and talking “in so very lively a manner that they do not observe my arrival.” She continues:

I stand beside them for a few minutes, in the hope that they will notice me, but they continue to talk about their own affairs. This is enough to chill all my warmth. ‘They are happy without me.’ The bitter, jealous feeling sweeps across my soul…I hide myself somewhere in a corner, far away from them, and sulk.

I too have a memory of a particular moment in my childhood which I used to clinch my case that other people were against me. It was when two school friends laughed derisively as I told them I’d had a peanut butter and bacon sandwich for breakfast, and I was devastated. “It is necessary to see,” wrote Mr. Siegel in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, “that when the world or a person pains us, the stage for our superiority exists, even while we are unhappy.”

Meanwhile, different from Sofia, I received much praise from both my parents and felt quite special. However, I thought my mother was overly managerial and easily fooled; we often fought. I was mean and spoke scornfully to her. I didn’t feel I had to know her, to try to understand her—instead, as I see it now, I had a motive to lessen her so I could feel superior. Unknowingly, I was preparing for great unwisdom in love, as Sofia was.

Love Is Based on Knowledge

Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, “Love is in exact proportion to accurate knowledge.” He gives this great description of how, in caring for another person, we are taking care of ourselves and being truly intelligent:

A self can say to another being, “Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself: and I can see the immeasurable being of things more wonderfully of me, for me, and therefore sharply and magnificently kind and akin.’

Sofia writes in her Recollections that, “the craving for a strong and exclusive affection developed early in me.” She was so “exclusive” about her uncle that once when he took another little girl on his lap, she bit her. But love is not exclusive; the real thing comes from the desire to know and care for “immeasurable” reality through another person.

A neighbor who was a physics professor recognized Sofia’s ability in mathematics when she was 15—and her father arranged for a tutor in St. Petersburg. It was there she began to learn of what were called “nihilist” ideas. The term, popularized by Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, meant the annihilation of traditional values and norms, including the norm that women didn’t have the intelligence men had, and were not allowed to attend universities.

Attitudes to women’s education were changing in Europe, however, and a solution was to arrange what was called a “nihilist” marriage with a man sympathetic with these ideas. At 18, Sofia arranged for a nihilist marriage with Vladimir Kovalevsky, age 26. Though supposedly a “fictitious” marriage, I think she hoped it was a solution to her dilemma about intelligence and love. Sofia wrote to her sister about Vladimir from Heidelberg, Germany:

You won’t believe how solicitous he is about me, how he waits on me and is ready to subordinate all his desires and caprices to mine… I love him really with my whole soul, but a little as one does a younger brother.

This is patronizing. Vladimir was actually 8 years older and a publisher of Russian translations of Darwin, Huxley, and other European scientists. An ardent advocate of Darwin, he was getting a degree in geology to enable him to do evolutionary research. I think he respected Sofia’s seriousness about study and liked her liveliness, but he began to see another side of her, writing to his brother:

I love Sofia excessively….(but) She is a person one must care for as for a child. She simply cannot spend an evening alone….I can’t promise that I will change and become a Simon-dapifer (i.e. a noble devoted to the personal service of a tsar)….Besides this, our work is so different. For her no other science exists except mathematics ….

Though Sofia said she “felt no passion” for Vladimir, friend Julia Lermontova observed, “she became jealous of his studies as it seemed to her they excluded her, or relegated her to the last place in his affections…and she began to disturb him with continual demands.” And while Sofia saw herself as yearning for love, Julia wrote critically, “She wanted to have without giving aught in return.”

I also saw myself as yearning to love someone, and was constantly hurt as it was never sufficiently returned. Early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel asked me questions about a man, Tom Madison, I had thought I was in love with, and was hoping to marry.

Eli Siegel.  Do you think Mr. Madison is strong in needing you? The way a woman’s mind is most confused is when she sees a man needs her desperately. Are you proud of a man for needing you?

I realized I wasn’t. In fact, the more he seemed to need me, the more I thought he was weak. Mr. Siegel continued:

ES   You should admit it casually. You’re a charming holding company. Do you want to own him?
NH    Yes.
ES    What do you think or yourself for that?
NH    It causes me pain.
ES    Can anything be done about it? Is there any greater comfort in the world than owning a person whom you desire? Do you believe you conquer the world by having a man need you?

I came to see that it was this conquest, disguising itself as love, that was driving me.

The Infinite Is in Every Man & Woman

Sofia visited London with Vladimir, who was collaborating with Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin. There she was invited to George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans) Sunday salons and at her suggestion, debated Herbert Spencer on “woman’s capacity for abstract thought.”

Sofia could spend an entire day working out partial differential equations, and in this, there certainly was a great ability to care for what was not herself. Mathematics however, Eli Siegel once pointed out, is a world “where you don’t get egg on your shirt”—and it’s likely she saw it as a “higher” realm than vexing humanity and the everyday moments of life.

spinning gyroscope
Spinning gyroscope

In studying for this paper I learned some of the ways that calculus represents the aesthetic structure of reality: the oneness of opposites. It arrives at a finite answer using infinitesimal divisions of space and time. One of the problems she dealt with was about the motion of a spinning top, or a gyroscope, which has “stability of motion”—that is, even if it is knocked from its path, it will resume its previous course! It is this beautiful relation of the opposites of rest and motion that enables a mathematician to figure out its course, because though complex, it has order.

Sofia didn’t know that it was the oneness of opposites in calculus that thrilled her, nor that the finite and infinite were also in Vladimir Kovalevsky, and everyone she knew. And not knowing this, she suffered. She and Vladimir would separate, return to live together for several years during which she gave birth to a daughter, and separate again.

She worked with some of the noted mathematicians of the time—then, barred from a position in this field, she spent a decade writing, including theatre reviews and a novel—and finally became a professor in mathematics, a first for women, at the University of Stockholm.

But, at the height of her achievement, after winning the prestigious Prix Bordin of the French Academy of Science in 1888, friend and biographer Anna Leffler wrote:

She said she would willingly exchange all the celebrity…all the triumphs of intellect, for the lot of the most insignificant woman who lived in her proper circle—a circle of which she was the center, and in which she was beloved.

After making a painful decision to leave teaching to marry again, she died, only 41, of influenza.

Love Can Make for Greater Intelligence

Beth Traherne*, a woman having Aesthetic Realism consultations by telephone from Oakland, CA, told her consultants that she didn’t understand why, after being very smitten by a man, she found herself acting aloof and mean. We asked,

Consultants:  Do you think you’ve wanted to teach men a lesson: they shouldn’t mean so much to you—they’re not that important?
BT:  I think so.
C:  Would you like to change your purpose to knowing them?
BT:  Yes! That is what I want.
C:  Have you wanted to do a man’s life good, by respecting and encouraging the best in him? Or have you mainly wanted him to have a big feeling about you?
BT:  Definitely the second.

As she began dating Richard Logan, a student of filmmaking, she was studying good will, which, Mr. Siegel described as always “a true mingling of kindness and exactness.” Two of the questions we asked were: “Do you want Mr. Logan to feel stronger—more coherent—when he’s close to you?”; and “How might a novelist see him?”

A high point for her was when Mr. Logan criticized her for how she described her day. She said:

BT:  I was telling him, I said this, and I said that—and he pointed out how much the accent was on myself. He wanted to know what other people said, too! And he asked “Do you want my approval as you tell me these things?”

She was surprised, but she was grateful because she felt he wanted her to be better, and she did assignments in which she used her mind carefully to know who Richard Logan was; she wrote how logic and emotion were in him, and how five other people saw him. In an assignment titled “How do I want to be affected by, changed by Richard Logan, as standing for the outside world?” She wrote:

As Richard points out things he sees, I’ve seen more meaning in the sky over Lakeside Park, and the way two lit buildings look across the Bay. I’m grateful he wants me to like things!

Beth Traherne was changing; she had a directness and enthusiasm that was different from the strategic, hidden young woman we first saw. She increasingly valued her possibilities of mind, and became a teacher. She’s told us how important it is to her that through the opposites she can encourage children to see meaning in the letters of the alphabet. She feels passionately that Aesthetic Realism should be the basis of all education, and wrote to us:

Through the criticism and good will of Aesthetic Realism I changed from being afraid of and angry at men and love to a person who wants to have a good effect on people, including a man. I fell in love with Richard Logan, a man I respect. I’ve had the tenderest, most sweeping feelings for him as we talk.…Aesthetic Realism has opened up my eyes, my mind, and my heart to the world.

Aesthetic Realism makes love, the real thing, possible—and the real thing makes a woman more intelligent!

* Name has been changed