The barista in Muffin Break named Betty brought me my flat white and, glancing at the battered tome that had fallen apart in three pieces, asked, “What are you reading?”
“Halliday, Resnick, and Walker. Fundamentals of Physics. I want to understand Maxwell’s equations.”
She pursed her lips, shook her head, and said, “Don’t. It’s Mulholland Drive.”
“Mulholland Drive. The movie. Watch it. You’ll see.”
Actually, that never happened. None of that is true. I made it up. It’s fiction. It might even have been a scene out of Mulholland Drive. But I think I’ll start peddling the expression as a descriptor for any Grand Enterprise that is futile in a particular and specific way. It occurred to me when I heard some people on Radio 4 discussing David Lynch’s masterpiece of Hollywood neo-Noir. Somebody averred they were determined to “get to the bottom of” Mulholland Drive. I thought, “Oh no, don’t do that!” That way lies madness. The thing about Mulholland Drive is that it is a nightmare. The only thing to do when you find yourself in a nightmare is to wake up. Naomi Watts plays an aspiring young actress arriving at LAX, full of hope, fresh from Canada. En route, she falls in with a kindly elderly couple, Irene and her companion. They say fond farewells at the airport. Cut to the elderly couple sitting together in the back of a car, grinning grotesquely. They are in fact, monsters. That is merely one of many, disjointed vignettes.
It wouldn’t surprise me if you could take an undergraduate course in an American college, UCLA perhaps, in “Mulholland Drive studies”. Some colleges still offer credits for JFK assassination conspiracy studies. I think that might turn out to be a trip down Mulholland Drive as well. The point is that not only will you be wasting your time; you will also be damaging your mental health. Professors of mathematics are frequently plagued by correspondence from amateur mathematicians who purport they have a proof of Fermat’s last theorem that can be written on the back of a postcard. The prof, if of a kindly disposition, will send back a brief note of discouragement. “Let it go. It’s Mulholland Drive.”
I’ve stopped over in LA many times on my way to New Zealand. So for me the City of Angels has a transient, transitory quality. If you fly into LA at night from the east, the illuminated, neon reticulum seems eternal. All these highways yet, on terra firma and in broad daylight, nothing seems to lead anywhere. Hollywood itself is an archipelago of ramparted estates as secluded as the ancestral piles of the Scottish aristocracy. You ascend into the intense privacy of Beverly Hills and feel like an interloper. I recall sitting on the lowest stanchion of the iconic Hollywood sign (I don’t suppose you could do that now) and sharing the same view as the femme fatale played by Laura Harring who calls herself Rita (or is she Camilla Rhodes?) The asphalt sprawled to the horizon. I went back down the sinuous, tortuous mountain road – it might have been Mulholland Drive – back into the smog. Where is the town centre? It doesn’t exist. Rodeo Drive feels suburban; Sunset Boulevard doesn’t go anywhere until you pass Pacific Palisades and reach the ocean.
Every time I’ve stopped in LA something bizarre has happened. I checked into a hotel in Anaheim to find my room was gone and I was put up on a camp bed in somebody’s office. Disneyland was across the street so it seemed perverse to be so close and not take a look. Bad idea. What does an adult male, travelling alone, want to do in Disneyland? Take a ride in a teacup? Buy an ice cream and get change in Disney money? It was like another scene from the David Lynch film. At least, back at LAX, the ground staff were affable, despite the crush of heaving humanity going through Security. Jet lagged and on automatic pilot, I had my belt and shoes off ahead of time.
“Be proactive like this gem’mun! Take his lead!”
But what of James Clerk Maxwell? Should I let him go? I can imagine a mathematician shaking his head at me. “Somebody at your time of life should let differential equations go and concentrate on the Humanities.” Actually, in my opinion, professors of mathematics rather tend to overplay the Mulholland Drive card. I think they think that people mathematically gifted have their brains wired in a special way, and that the rest of us needn’t bother applying. There was a professor at Glasgow who throughout his entire tenure only took on about two graduate students because he thought everybody else was wasting their time. At the time, university mathematical texts looked very arcane and abstruse because they were written in a symbolic language that had to be learned before the reader might make any headway. The idea that a gifted teacher would gauge the level of understanding of his student and then pull the student up from that starting point (Latin e ducere) had not really gained any traction. I remember horror stories from contemporaries of mine who became freshmen in the science faculty. The engineering lecturer said, “Take a look at the guy on your left; take a look at the guy on your right.” (Guy, note, not gal. A woman in engineering? The hard hat doesn’t suit you, luv. If you want to come on site, be a calendar girl on the wall of the Nissen hut.) “By Christmas, one of you won’t be here!” The Physics lecturer held up a school text popular in its day – Physics is Fun. “Let’s get one thing straight. Physics isn’t fun!”
I liaised with a femme fatale for a time around the turn of the millennium. She looked a bit like Laura Harring. She averted her gaze, looked down at her coffee, and said in a low voice, “Don’t come after me, James. I’m bad news.” Naturally, I didn’t pay the slightest attention. I don’t feel myself now in similarly dangerous territory. After all, as J. R. Pierce wrote, “To anyone who is motivated by anything beyond the most narrowly practical, it is worthwhile to understand Maxwell’s equations simply for the good of his soul.”
Two equations down, two to go. Then what? Quantum mechanics? Don’t go there. It’s Mulholland Drive.