The age of Einstein
He became, almost despite himself, the emblem of all that was
new, original and unsettling in the modern age
By ROGER ROSENBLATT
December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EST (1730 GMT)
For Einstein to become a modern icon, especially in America,
required a total revision of the definition of a hero.
Anti-intellectualism has been as integral a part of American
culture as the drive for universal education, and the fact that
both have existed concurrently may account for the low status of
teachers. In America it is not enough to be smart; one must
compensate for one's intelligence by also showing the canniness
and real-world power of the cowboy and the pioneer. Einstein did
this. He was the first modern intellectual superstar, and he won
his stardom in the only way that Americans could accept--by dint
of intuitive, not scholarly, intelligence and by having his
thought applied to practical things, such as rockets and atom
The recognition of the practical power of his ideas coincided
with a time when such power was most needed. Einstein came to
America in 1933 as the most celebrated of a distinguished group
of European intellectuals, refugees from Hitler and Mussolini,
who, as soon as they arrived, changed the composition of
university faculties (largely from patrician to Jewish), and who
also changed the composition of government. Until F.D.R.'s New
Deal, the country had never associated the contemplative life
with governmental action. Now there was a Brain Trust; being an
"egghead" was useful, admirable, even sexy. One saw that it was
possible to outthink the enemy. Einstein wrote a letter to
Roosevelt urging the making of a uranium bomb, and soon a coterie
of can-do intellectuals convened at Los Alamos to become the new
cowboys of war machinery. Presidents have relied on eggheads ever
since: Einstein begat Kissinger begat Rubin, Reich and Greenspan.
As for the appeal of his intuitive imagination, it helped that
Einstein was initially not associated with a brand-name
institution of higher learning and that his stature did not
depend on official accreditation--both of which Americans at once
insist on and do not trust. To the contrary: he was eagerly
adopted by ordinary folks, though he spoke the obscure language
of mathematics, because he seemed removed from snooty trappings.
In fact, he seemed removed from the planet, to be out of things
in the way the public often adores: a lovable dreamer.
So strong was the image he created that he affected both culture
and politics in ways that were sometimes wholly opposite to his
beliefs and intentions. That his theory of relativity was readily
mistranslated as a justification for relativism says more about
the way the world was already tending than about Einstein. His
stature gave an underpinning to ideas that had nothing to do with
his science or personal inclinations. The entire thrust of modern
art, whether it took the form of Expressionism, Cubism, Fauvism
or fantasy, was a conscious effort to rejigger the shapes of
observable reality in the same spirit of liberation and
experimentation that Einstein brought to science.
But relativism--that is, the idea that moral and ethical truth
exists in the point of view of the beholder--owed nothing to
Einstein (who believed the opposite), except a generalized homage
to revolutionary thought. Art's elimination of semblances to the
physical world corresponded vaguely with Einstein's way of seeing
time and space, but it really sprung from an atmosphere of
change, in which Einstein was yoked with Freud, Marx, Picasso,
Bergson, Wittgenstein, Joyce, Kafka, Duchamp, Kandinsky and
anyone else with original and disruptive ideas and an aggressive
sense of the new. By that tenuous connection did the discoverer
of relativity become a major figure of a world consisting of
individuals interpreting the world individually. He was similarly
associated with the pluralism of modern music and the eclecticism
of modern architecture.
In literature, things were ready to fall apart on their own, so
any excuse to do so--especially one as revered as a theoretical
restructuring of the universe--was embraced. In 1919 relativity
exploded upon science. In 1922 T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land had a
similar effect on literature. Yet when Eliot wrote, "these
fragments I have shored against my ruins," people took up the
fragments but ignored the shoring.
The key, though, in Eliot and other 20th century poets and
novelists, lay in the prominence of the pronoun I--the center of
relativistic thought. Thus spake the confessional poetry of the
1960s, the memoirs in the 1980s and 1990s, the prominence of the
narrator in all of modern fiction. A commonplace paradox that was
soon to characterize fiction was that the antihero, who was beset
and disempowered by modern bureaucracies and machines, was
simultaneously exalted by his diminished status.
Relativism brought the underground man into his own--in Europe,
with Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett, Aichinger, Sartre, Mann and
Pirandello; in America with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Ellison,
Capote and Salinger. The antihero, too, searched for unified
meaning, but the narrative that held him was all about divisions,
schisms and self-inspection. He sought to be by himself, like a
god. In Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities and Richard
Wright's The Outsider, protagonists become serial killers out of
the desire to be alone.
All this has nothing to do with relativity, but it had much to do
with Einstein's contemplation of relativity. Einstein became the
emblem not only of the desire to know the truth but also of the
capacity to know the truth. In his 1993 novel, Einstein's Dreams,
Alan Lightman writes, "In this world time is a visible dimension.
Just as one may look off in the distance and see houses, trees,
mountain peaks that are landmarks in space, so one may look out
in another direction and see births, marriages, deaths that are
signposts in time, stretching off dimly into the far future." It
does not take much of another stretch to attach godhead to such a
vision, though that was hardly Einstein's own feeling.
However interesting this view made art, what it did for politics
was pure destruction. Paul Johnson connects relativism to the
extreme nationalism of 20th century political movements in his
generally persuasive view of Modern Times. The relationship he
cites is sometimes elliptical. What one can say is that the
destruction of absolutes--monarchies no less than Newtonian
physics--created a vacuum, and in certain key places that vacuum
was filled by maniacs and murderers.
There is a connection, though, between European Romanticism,
which came into being at the tail end of the 18th century, and
the totalitarian credos that bloomed like sudden deadly plants in
the first third of the 20th. Einstein did not promote the image
of man at the center of the cosmos, controlling the stars by
thought. But, quite by accident, he was that image. Merely by
being, he corroborated the Romantic view that people were 10 feet
tall, capable of knowing heaven, and, in the Byronic mode, of
speaking directly to God. The logical consequence of such
"thinking" was that some people were more able to speak to God
than were others, and that God, in turn, spoke to a selected few.
Throw in social Darwinism, and by the time the 20th century was
under way, Romanticism led directly to Dachau, Auschwitz, the
Gulags, the hills of skulls in Cambodia and most recently the
fields of graves in Bosnia.
To read Einstein's essays in Out of My Later Years is to see that
he held none of the artistic or political ideas that were
extrapolated from his work. Whatever revisions he made of Newton,
he continued to side with his predecessor on the issue of
causality. He abhorred chaos and revolution for its own sake. He
was devoted to constancy as much as to relativity, and to the
illogical and the senses. In the end, his most useful gift may be
not that he pulled the world apart but that once that was done,
he strove to put it back together.
"The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility," he
quoted Kant, and added that the fact that the world is
comprehensible "is a miracle." He also understood his
responsibility for the weapons he helped create. "We scientists,"
he wrote, "whose tragic destination has been to help in making
the methods of annihilation more gruesome and more effective,
must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in
our power in preventing these weapons from being used."
Why, finally, is he so important to the age? Not because he
personified brainpower--not because he was "an Einstein"--but
rather because he demonstrated that the imagination is capable of
coming to terms with experience. Simply by gazing into existence,
he concluded that time and space could be warped, that mass and
energy were interchangeable. He understood that the world was a
puzzle created for deciphering and, more, that a person's place
in the order of things was to solve as much of the puzzle as
possible. This is what makes a human human; this, and the
governing elements of morals and humor.
Einstein's friend and fellow physicist Abraham Pais called him
"the freest man I have known," by which he meant that by the pure
act of thinking, Einstein controlled his destiny. His mind was
utterly fearless, and by its uses he diminished fear in others.
"It stands to the everlasting credit of science," Einstein wrote,
"that by acting on the human mind, it has overcome man's
insecurity before himself and before nature." And so he became a
model of what humans might do if they put their mind to it.
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Cover Date: December 31, 1999