The Sublime Vanishing Point Of A Gifted, Daring Mind
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:20

A rug doctor who loses his shadow, a scientist who discovers that the sky contains a hidden message in Braille, a philosopher who chokes to death on a premise of his own argument. These are just some of the curious and fascinating characters to emerge from the rarefied heights of Lindsay Stern’s imagination.

A Powerful Intellect
As her friends and professors can attest, Stern is a curious and fascinating character herself: a published author, Watson fellow, former editor-in-chief of The Indicator and English and Philosophy double major, Stern devotes her life to exploring the more challenging questions in life and moving past the stultifying dichotomies and categorizations that often hamper thinking in everyday life. Professor Adam Sitze, who has taught Stern in three of his classes, praised her literary and intellectual talents and lauded her attitude towards life and philosophy.

“Lindsay is a gifted, daring writer. Her literary experiments are driven by her powerful intellect. She is especially skilled at bringing together, in effortless and unforced prose, the impasses of contemporary mathematical theory with the aporias of classical political philosophy. Her work on irony in Plato is dazzling, vertiginous, even Kierkegaardian. Her mind operates at that sublime vanishing point where extreme seriousness and extreme playfulness become indistinct. She devotes herself to her work with fierce determination and discipline, but she is the furthest thing from humorless. She is a generous and empathetic soul, with a taste for the absurd and a talent for friendship,” Professor Sitze said.

Stern, a native of New York City, came to the College looking for a tight-knit and community-oriented environment where she could learn from professors who had time to mentor their students. She credits the College for encouraging her to have conversations with others that challenged her beliefs and helped her improve her capacities to think.

“I used to be an extremely conflict-averse person, and I definitely learned to be the opposite here. When you’re conflict-averse, you don’t really speak to people; you don’t stand for things,” Stern said. “There’s a great Bertrand Russell quote that goes ‘Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for…the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.’ The idea that you can have an intelligent argument with someone presupposes a level of solidarity.”

Despite her gift for gab, Stern’s primary passion has been writing for as long as she can remember. In my interview with her, she recalled that when she was young, she would write letters to strangers and toss them out her 13th floor window. Additionally, Stern’s friend Deidre Nelms ’13 said that Stern has a penchant for aphoristic thinking that can sometime lead her to strange places.

“Sometimes Lindsay speaks in aphorisms, and sometimes it’s really beautiful and you’re like ‘Oh my god, how did you come up with that?’ But other times you’re like ‘Lindsay, what?’ One time we were walking back from the Socials and she said that the leaves on the ground looked like severed hands. That pretty much sums up Lindsay. She has very poetic moments,” Nelms said.

Don’t Call It A Novel
In fall 2012, Scrambler Books published Stern’s “document” — she won’t let you call it a novel — Town of Shadows, which describes through a series of literary fragments and vignettes the strange but deeply human lives of Pierre and Selma in a dystopian town led by a mayor with a penchant for bizarre and arbitrary rules, such as a ban on the use of vowels. Stern decided to write Town of Shadows after an internship fell through during the summer after her sophomore year, using the writing process as an opportunity to explore philosophical questions that had captivated her for a long time.

I had an internship that was really hideously boring at Star Magazine, a paragon of trash entertainment. I hadn’t known it was for Star; I’d signed up as an editor for an alum who needed help. His office was covered with pictures of bikini-clad people with the worst tag-lines imaginable, so I was looking forward to a really bleak summer. But then he canceled the project, and I had absolutely nothing to do,” Stern said. “In writing the book I found a means of conducting thought experiments in a kind of mischievous and subversive way, rather than in a dry, analytical style, so the act was liberating for me in that sense. I didn’t really expect it to get published or anything; I just sort of randomly sent it out from Morris Pratt one night in sophomore year.”

While mere mortals may have been exhausted after writing a book that ManArchy Magazine called one of the top five best books published in 2012, Stern wasted no time writing another “document” (that’s her word for it) for her English honors thesis. Continuing her penchant for daringly philosophical literature, her thesis explores the relationship between language and reality, focusing on a group of individuals who seek to prove that the world is a language.

“One of the main characters publishes photos of the sky in the newspaper and then decodes them in Braille. I wanted to investigate how the act of decoding the world might function as an allegory for science and religion—in other words, as a means of exploring how both set out, in radically different ways, to treat the natural world as a language. All-in-all the thesis is part-fable, part-dialogue, about a society united and estranged by its use of signs,” Stern said. “It was definitely a response to abiding questions I had and still have about the role of language in politics and private understanding. What I write is almost always motivated by impasses I’ve encountered in my classes and elsewhere, and these documents serve as a sort of a whimsical way to think through those impasses.”

Although one might think that producing such abstract works that are almost Icarian in their efforts to explore seemingly impossible questions would isolate Stern in her own thoughts, Nelms quickly notes how human and humble she is, despite her publicity and literary success.

“She’s just a really warm, supportive person,” Nelms said. “She’s exuberant; she’s just a really giving person with her friends. There’s just a lot of vitality to her; she’s really funny… She has a lot of humility. She’s had a lot of pieces written about her and she’s been publicized and bragged about by the College a lot, but she’s been very humble and not arrogant. At her reading at Amherst Books she was very poised but it wasn’t grandiose or anything like that.”

Ideas into Practice
Stern’s passions aren’t restricted to the world of thought, however; she is deeply concerned with putting her ideas into practice. In her sophomore year at the College, she designed a free creative writing program for disadvantaged children in Holyoke, called WordBox. Sterns rates this experience among one of her most meaningful during her time at the College.

“The children came from disadvantaged families and some of them had never heard the word ‘imagination.’ To see them electrified by the act of recording their memories and inventions was an honor and a total counterpoint to the passively cynical attitude I’ve sometimes noticed at Amherst,” Stern said.

This experience motivated Stern to look at the ways in which creativity, imagination and education intersect, a pursuit that Stern will continue after graduation as a Watson fellow, traveling across the Southern hemisphere to places like Cambodia, Nepal, South Africa and Latin America to teach children living in orphanages and write about her experiences.

“I went when I was eleven to adopt my sister from an orphanage in China, and ever since I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to go back to environments like that. I also want to help bring the act of writing—a liberating act so often confined, ironically, to hermetic, academic settings—to people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it,” Stern said.

While she is somewhat concerned about the linguistic and cultural barriers that she will have to cross in her work, she has been exploring alternative methods of teaching to overcome those issues, describing how she sees the communication challenge as an opportunity for innovation.

“I’m reading a lot of people who have thought about how to incorporate creativity into education, and I’m trying to integrate those theories into a program that would operate across language barriers. There’s one very cool woman who won a Macarthur [Genius Grant] for her work. She brought a roll of duct tape into the classroom, made a square with the duct tape and told the students: ‘This is your stage, now act out a story.’ The idea is to teach narrative without constraining students to a page,” Stern said.Looking further down the road, Stern would like to continue to write and think, possibly as a college professor or a teacher.

“I definitely want to go back and study ancient political thought in graduate school. I would love to become a professor if that works out, but it’s not my motivation in going to graduate school. I would be just as happy teaching high school or even little kids. Basically I just want to continue writing and thinking and doing so in the company of others,” Stern said.

No matter where she goes in life, Stern will always carry with her vicious curiosity about the abstract, her passion for language and her commitment to making a difference in the here and now.