The least and lowest fact of outward observation is not a bare fact, an independent entity, fact minus mind.
—J. Caird

The quasi-prepositional pedantic use
Placed in order to deduce,
Between two self-satisfied expressions,
The presence of some indiscretions,
Lurking nihilists whose very threats
Will swamp the happy pair in debts
Of this quantity or that,
Or to indicate that the that
(Or the this) does not in fact
Subsist in reason as an act
To the enumerated being,
Or lack of being,
Therein specified,
A so-to-speak numericide
Where some passing figure
Has been waylaid by a bigger,
Pretending just to coincide
When really it is misallied
And intends to rid itself
Of its companion's greater wealth,
But quite demurely,
With the deduction purely
Of some constituent
Or inattentive element
Of the smugly solvent universe,
The calculus of scavengers
And abacus of raw excess
By which deficient lives egress,
Destitute of an essence which pertains
To their mathematical remains,
Invisible, abstruse, and thin as air,
The inner urge to strip us bare,
And yet as dangerous to the vast expanse
As any finite circumstance,
But, on the other hand,
The opposite of the ampersand,
Needing mass where it's prefixed
To represent a world nixed,
Forming only in the shell,
Whose emptiness it lives to tell,
The whirling devil of the genuine,
Against whose heaven it must sin,
The algebraic form of vis-à-vis,
Where our contrarieties we see,
Something really just not there—
To existence au contraire—
Yet without it nothing matters
And the theory of all numbers shatters;
On its own: nonentity,
Yet without its frown, we cease to be:
But though it from the least of subjects stole,
Minus minus remains a whole.

Tippet Alley
February 18th, 2002

Tippet Alley
Rewritten March 10th, 2002


As this is one of my more forbidding poems, some paraphrasing might encourage the timid to explore its amusement park of mathematical conundrums.
Caird’s quote, from the “minus” entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (my constant study, along with The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, edited by Marvin Spevack, who allowed me to forage blindly molelike one summer in the mousy accumulation of his gewgaws, somewhat like Ratty’s crowded household in The Wind in the Willows, but I digress)—Caird’s quote started me thinking about what “minus” meant as a concept. It is similar to Leibniz’s logical subtraction, wherein man - rational = animal.
Subtraction is not only a depressing invention; it is also miserly. That one thing robs another reminds me of Timon of Athens’ misanthropy, which extends even to the spheres:

The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun...
TIMON, 4.3.432-434

(Nabokov’s poetry thief, Charles Kinbote, has appropriated Timon’s pale fire as the title of his novel, but, having no library in the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon in his cave, I am compelled for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this passage into English prose from a Zemblan poetical version:

The sun is a thief: she lures the sea
and robs it. The moon is a thief:
he steals his silvery light from the sun.
The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon.)

Once again I am playing hooky, but genius deserves a detour before having to return dejectedly to school.
Our happy couple is robbed by the nihilistic Minus, who preys on bigger, wealthier specimens who have committed some fiscal indiscretion—the subtrahend, or subtracted quality—thus allowing Minus to appear. Vampires must be invited inside initially, after which they are free to sport themselves indiscriminately, like accountants in the corporate ruins.
Our couple becomes destitute, their very spirits robbed, leaving only the remainder, the remnants of their former selves. Thus a minus is an anarchist, a thief, the opposite of the “and” symbol, the ampersand, which is somewhat acquisitive in nature. Minus needs a positive mass to feed on, finally living predator-like in the vacated shell of its victim, like a crab.
A vis-à-vis is a view into the neighbor’s apartment, a one-on-one, where we see the flip side, the evil twin, the dark side of addition. Human nature contains both a thing and its opposite in varying degrees of tension, and so for every plus there is a minus. Minus by itself can’t be subtracted; it needs a positive sum for it to become functional, or even to exist. But without the ability to subtract, numbers themselves don’t work, and our theories, all of them numerically grounded, become unfounded.
A negative and a negative make a positive, so that, in math, two wrongs can make a right.

Tippet Alley
February 18th, 2002
Rewritten March 10th, 2002