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The Intuitionist: Who do we believe?

Illustration for article titled The Intuitionist: Who do we believe?

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat today at 3:30 p.m. CST. Join us here this afternoon.


Ellen Wernecke: It was the ending more than any other aspect of The Intuitionist that prompted me to think of the book when choosing a selection for this round of the book club. I remembered feeling devastated, almost robbed the first time I read about Lila Mae’s second visit to Mrs. Rogers, and her realization that Intuitionism isn’t the process or approach she had learned at the Institute, and had begun as James Fulton’s prank, quickly taking on a life of its own that would permanently damage its founder. As Mrs. Rogers puts it:

“[Fulton] was making a joke of their entire way of life and they couldn’t see. The joke wasn’t funny to him anymore. Once he realized that—that it was a joke but they didn’t see it like that, it wasn’t a joke anymore. His sister come to visit soon after that. He told me later she saw him in the newspaper. Like I said, he got strange after that. He started writing that second book. He’d lock himself in his study and he wouldn’t come out.”

Inventing Intuitionism brought James Fulton fame and visionary status, but it eventually ruined him. So why does Lila Mae choose to guard that secret, given what we know about her? On the one hand, it would be difficult for her to reject the entire school of thought through which she rose through the ranks, even if she had nothing to lose in the Department by that time. Still, given what we know of her as a cautious individual, I found it hard to buy on second reading that she would willingly perpetuate the kind of private joke that could kill people (and in the case of Number Eleven, almost did).

How did you take the ending? Did you think that Lila Mae even had a choice to end Intuitionism and disavow Fulton’s work? And how does her decision to carry on with his writing connect with the search for the perfect elevator, the “black box”?

Leonard Pierce:  I, too, was really hit in the gut by the revelation about Intuitionism. It was as surprising to me as it must have been to Lila Mae. Such a devastating revelation, to someone who dedicated her whole career—her whole life—to a belief system, only to have it turn out to be a joke gone sour. It must have come close to crippling her.  In that light, maybe it’s understandable that she makes the decision not to expose the secret.  She’d not only be destroying the man and his legacy, and dealing a permanent discredit to the one movement that is attempting, however cynically, to create progress, she’d be annihilating everything she built her own career, outlook, and sense of self on. It may have been an act of self-abnegation too much to bear.

Then, too, we have to consider that Intuitionism wasn’t entirely a fraud.  Fulton intended it as a joke, certainly, but he was kidding on the square—it was a joke he hoped might help change the world. As I mentioned in the last post, it got corrupted, misunderstood, and eventually used as a tool by the status quo it was meant, however subtly, to alter. Would serving the truth be more harmful than perpetuating the lie? Of course, as you say, with Number Eleven, it could be more harmful than simply perpetuating an ideology of questionable worth. But besides the psychological devastation of learning Intuitionism’s origins, Lila Mae might have been considering the overall good that it did. In the way that the moral failings of great men have been understated to keep the great things they accomplished in their proper focus, she may have wanted to keep Intuitionism alive as an inspiration while continuing her own investigations into how it might be used as a tool for genuine progress—or as the basis of some third way.


Did she have a choice? Whitehead is probably aware of the problematic nature of that word. Choice, consent, and responsibility are all contingent, and in a story like this, are all wrapped up in the interconnectedness of people who are trying to do good, and people who are trying to spread corruption.  Whether Lila Mae’s decision would hurt more people than the alternative—publicly exposing Intuitionism as a sham, thus handing huge amounts of power and credibility to the reactionary forces of Empiricism—is beyond the immediate scope of the story, but it's a decision very much in keeping with the complexity of her character, and provides an ending I find very satisfying.

Tasha Robinson: Hm. We’re definitely parting roads here, guys. I didn’t take Number Eleven’s failure as any sort of condemnation of Intuitionism, given how many times we’re told it really was an ultra-rare freak accident. Given that Whitehead specifically sets up the racial split that white people are Empiricists and black people are Intuitionists, it’d be mighty strange of him to reach a point in the book where he revealed that Intuitionism was a corrupt, dangerous, dysfunctional philosophy that needed to be quashed. Lila Mae discovering that it started out as a joke is no different from her discovering that Fulton was black and passing for white. Both he and his philosophy were frauds, but they both accomplished great things, and became more complicated than they once were.


Granted, I never particularly bought into Fulton’s pompous pseudo-philosophy, which could clearly only exist in a highly fictionalized, elevator-mad world, so the revelation that it was all a joke didn’t have much impact on me. It confirmed what I’d already felt early on, that any belief system full of Platonic elevators and sentences like “Is the next elevator a bubble or is it shaped like a seashell, journeying both outward and into itself?” could not be taken seriously. The classroom session where Lila Mae and her classmates discuss whether an elevator exists inside the shaft when there’s no passenger to get into it was honestly painful.

So why do I find it so easy to dismiss what Lila Mae fully believes in, and yet still have faith in her abilities to diagnose an elevator by listening to the colors it makes? Maybe because the diagnostic scene comes so early that I didn’t have any sense yet for how realistic or fantastical the book might be, so I bought into it. But moreso, it’s because she herself is so concrete, down-to-earth, and competent that assume she found what was real and solid in Intuitionism. She lasts as a person even once everything she believed went up in smoke. And as I read it, in the end, she’s going to go on not to dispel and repudiate Intuitionism, but to further the parts of it that do actually work, including the search for the ultimate elevator—the uplift she needs.


Going back and reading those last few pages, it’s clear that Fulton became an Intuitionism convert at the end: “He had never allowed himself to believe out of fear. So of course when he started to believe, it was too late. He could only describe what he thought it would look like and give them the means… It works, but they are not ready for it. They will not be ready before his time runs out.” That’s why he left the note “Lila Mae is the one”—he knew as a dedicated, competent black student, neither as ashamed of her race as he was, or as fearful about stepping out into the world as herself—she’d take up the reins he dropped when he died.

Remember that metaphorically, what we’re talking about here isn’t elevator analysis, it’s black social uplift. Fulton’s world wasn’t ready for a black writer with ideas as profound and philosophical as his. Lila Mae’s is barely ready for her, but as the next generation of Intuitionist—of black thought—she’s already broken a few barriers, and it’s up to her, with her stubbornness and implacability, to break more. He’s trusting her to carry the torch forward, not for elevator science, but for their race. So focusing too much on the philosophy of the phantom elevator (which I still find pretty silly) is missing the point. It’s a metaphor, after all.


Todd VanDerWerff: Yeah, I'm with Tasha here. I didn't see the crash of 11 as a sign that Intuitionism was a false belief system at all. It started out as a joke, yeah, but it had come to hold such value for its creator and its adherents that it sort of became true simply through their force of belief (I realize that's a ridiculous idea that's overused in books of this type, but it's what comes to mind). That's what gave me a weird kind of hope about the ending. Lila Mae is participating in a vital act of creation, but she can only do so because she knows the truth of what she's a part of. The world is not ready for her yet, but she's sitting in the dark, keeping the flame of what she and Fulton have to say alive. In a weird way, this reminded me of the end of Riddley Walker, where the storyteller goes forth with truths the world isn't yet ready for.

But as I said yesterday, the ending of this book was one of my favorite things about it. Yes, it's rather sad, but there's also this sense of what will eventually be radiating off of it. I don't think it's coincidental that Whitehead drops a veiled reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., in this section. The Second Elevation is coming, but there will need to be prophets along the way, people who will point toward the eventual "Promised Land." Whitehead clearly sees Fulton and Lila Mae as figures in this tradition for his world, but he also points to King as a figure in that tradition for our world. I don't know if Whitehead is trying to argue that the path toward social uplift began with an elaborate bluff, as the path toward Intuitionism did, or if the creation of Intuitionism is meant to be an elaborate plot twist with little impact on the more fable-like aspects. Either way, it's a fascinating idea to consider.


Or look at it this way: The Intuitionist is fundamentally a religious novel. It's a story about people who keep the light on in the darkness because they know that the messiah - or the Second Elevation - is coming. They may not have been certain when they started out, but something about the process of lying about it made them certain. In a way, most of life is about learning to lie in just the right way, to make people think you're more what you claim to be than you actually are. Life is all about faking that confidence, and the book suggests that what separates Lila Mae and Fulton from the rest is that they find a way to fake it so much that they actually start to believe it. This isn't a book about elevator inspectors; it's a book about John the Baptist.