August 22, 2021

1. Einstein’s Last Interview

I came across a charming piece in Scientific American called “An Interview With Einstein.” The interview was conducted in 1955, just two weeks before Einstein died. The interviewer, Bernard Cohen, was a specialist in the history of science who taught at Harvard. The interview was conducted at Einstein’s house in Princeton, New Jersey.

This was evidently the first and only meeting between the two men. Cohen says that, at the end of the meeting,

As I walked out to the street, I thought to myself that of course I had known that Einstein was a great man and a great scientist, but I had had no idea of the warmth of his friendly personality, his kindness and his rich sense of humor.

Cohen didn’t realize that Einstein was in his last days: “There had been, during that visit, no sense of the imminence of death. Einstein’s mind was alert, his wit was keen and he had seemed very gay.” A couple days later, however, Einstein chatted with a Princeton friend, and said that he thought of death as a “relief.” When he was hospitalized with internal bleeding, Einstein “refused surgery, saying, ‘I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.’”

I never thought of a theory as creative in the way that a novel or a symphony is creative. But Einstein said to Cohen that “he had always believed that the invention of scientific concepts and the building of theories upon them was one of the great creative properties of the human mind.” Some scientists took a different view; Mach, for example, “assumed that the laws of science were only an economical way of describing a large collection of facts.” I prefer Einstein’s view. Einstein’s view helps us to understand why theories come from intuition, and why theories are often created by people who are only 20 or 25.

Cohen says that Einstein “spoke softly and clearly; his command of English was remarkable, though marked by a German accent.” Cohen says, “The contrast between his soft speech and his ringing laughter was enormous.” Is this the contrast between the social mask and the real self, the trimmed hedge and wild nature, the trained self and the aggressive ego? In an earlier issue, I discussed Einstein’s soft voice, and I quoted an Einstein-biographer named Denis Brian:

Brian contrasts the mature Einstein with the young Einstein. “I’ve heard his voice,” Brian says, “on radio and also in documentary films of him. It’s a very quiet, gentle, slow, musical voice, which is an incredible contrast from this dynamic young man. As a young boy, he had a terrible temper, and he hit his sister Maja over the head with a garden hoe in one of his tempers, so that she said, ‘To be the sister of a thinker, you must have a very thick skull.’” There are two kinds of gentle people: those who are simply gentle, and those who are very aggressive by nature, and become gentle as a “reaction-formation”. It seems that Einstein was the latter sort — an aggressive, strong-willed, dominating person who gradually learned to control himself, to reign in his impulses.

This may explain why Einstein didn’t speak coolly, he spoke passionately. When Cohen and Einstein discussed a controversial book, Einstein said that “bringing pressure to bear on a publisher to suppress a book was an evil thing to do.... Einstein expressed himself on this point with great passion.”

Because he was passionate about his views, Einstein tended to repeat them. When Einstein said what he thought was Newton’s greatest achievement, “He repeated this statement several times and with great emphasis.”1 After telling Cohen a story about Mach, Einstein “told me the story all over again to be sure that I understood it fully.”

The word “theory” sometimes has a pejorative connotation, it sometimes means “an unproven idea.” If you discover what you regard as a fact, and I call it a “theory,” you might be annoyed. When Cohen spoke of Einstein’s theory of photons, “Einstein stared at me for a moment or two in silence. Then he smiled and said: ‘No, not a theory. Not a theory of photons,’ and again his deep laughter enveloped us both.”

* * * * *

After meeting Tolstoy, Gorky said that Tolstoy “was not very fond of talking about literature, but he was vitally interested in the personality of an author.” Cohen says that Einstein had the same interest in personality:

Einstein said that the biographical aspects of scientists had always interested him as much as their ideas. He liked to learn the lives of the men who had created the great theories and performed the major experiments, what kind of men they were, how they worked and how they treated their fellow men.

In a recent issue, I noted that William James’ favorite literature was biography, memoir, etc. Here we have a contrast between the thinker and the scholar. The thinker (Tolstoy, Einstein, William James, etc.) is fascinated by people, especially by his fellow thinkers, while the scholar believes that the work is more important than the person; literary scholars pride themselves on ignoring the biography, and focusing on the work.

* * * * *

I’ve often argued that the most important philosophical idea is the idea that everything is connected. A corollary of this is that action-at-a-distance is possible; things can influence other things at a distance — even over vast distances. I’ve always regarded Newton as the chief opponent of action-at-a-distance; in Newton’s view, this is a mechanical world, not a magical world. I was always troubled by the fact that Newton’s theory of gravity seemed to involve action-at-a-distance. How can Newton argue that action-at-a-distance is impossible if gravity is action-at-a-distance?

Enter aether. Newton turned to the idea of aether to explain how gravity worked. Cohen writes, “Einstein believed that what Newton most strongly objected to was the idea of a force being able to transmit itself through empty space. Newton hoped by means of an aether to reduce action at a distance to a force of contact.” So gravity doesn’t operate at a distance, it affects adjacent “stuff,” adjacent aether. Newton views the universe as a pool table; the balls influence each other by contact.

My view, the non-rational or occult view, says that the universe is like two pool tables, and the balls on one table can influence the balls on the other by mysterious means, occult means, magical means; the world is magical, not mechanical — an organism, not a machine. One of the best proofs of this view is the quantum-physics experiment known as “paired particles,” or “the Aspect experiment.” Since Einstein was uncomfortable with the occult, he was uncomfortable with the paired-particles experiment, calling it “spooky” and “telepathic.”

Primitive man is receptive to magic, to the occult, to action-at-a-distance. In some respects, primitive man understands the universe better than the great Einstein. Primitive man takes the world as it is; modern man sees the world through the lens of his preconceptions.

* * * * *

Even the most original ideas aren’t completely original, they have ancestors. Consider, for example, Einstein’s idea of curved space. Faraday, who died before Einstein was born, believed that space and gravity were related. Faraday said, “Many considerations urge my mind towards the idea of a cause of gravity which is not resident in the particles of matter merely, but conjointly in them and in all space.”2 Bernhard Riemann and William Clifford anticipated Einstein’s idea of curved space. Henri Poincaré and Ernst Mach anticipated some of Einstein’s other theories. Perhaps the earliest thinker to anticipate Einstein was George Berkeley; in his treatise De Motu (1721), Berkeley “rejected Sir Isaac Newton’s absolute space, time, and motion.”

Cohen says that Einstein “admired Mach’s writings, which had had a great influence on him.” The two books that most influenced the young Einstein were Mach’s Science of Mechanics, and Mach’s Theory of Heat. During Einstein’s early years, one of the central questions in physics was, Do atoms and molecules really exist? Mach said no, Einstein yes. Cohen says that Einstein was “strongly committed” to the atomic theory. Einstein argued that Brownian Motion was solid evidence of the reality of atoms/molecules. Eventually the atomic theory carried the day, and physicists no longer debated whether atoms/molecules really existed.

2. “The Madonna of the Future”

In his conversation with Einstein, Bernard Cohen said, “The historian often encountered this problem: Can a scientist’s contemporaries tell whether he is a crank or a genius when the only evident fact is his unorthodoxy?” Einstein agreed that this was a difficult problem; “There is no objective test,” Einstein said.

The same question arises in Henry James’ short story “The Madonna of the Future.” The narrator, an American visiting Florence, meets an American painter named Theobald, who has been living in Florence for years. Theobald guides the narrator through Florence’s galleries and streets, while the narrator wonders whether Theobald is a genius or a crank. When someone calls Theobald a “magnificent genius,” the narrator says,

“I am sure I don’t know,” I answered with a shrug. “If you are in a position to affirm it, you have the advantage of me. I have seen nothing from his hand but the bambino yonder, which certainly is fine.”

The narrator says that Theobald has “a certain pallid leanness of visage, which I hardly knew whether to refer to the consuming fire of genius or to a meager diet.... He seemed always hungry.... His velvet coat was threadbare.”

Is Theobald actually creating any works? Is he above the art market, or below it? Theobald says,

“As a proof of my conscientiousness” — and he stopped short, and eyed me with extraordinary candor, as if the proof were to be overwhelming — “I have never sold a picture!”

The narrator isn’t sure what to make of this. “The fact that he had never sold a picture was more obvious than glorious.” But the narrator is impressed with Theobald’s commitment, enthusiasm, inspiration:

I was more and more impressed with my companion’s remarkable singleness of purpose. Everything was a pretext for some wildly idealistic rhapsody or reverie. Nothing could be seen or said that did not lead him sooner or later to a glowing discourse on the true, the beautiful, and the good. If my friend was not a genius, he was certainly a monomaniac.

Surely this is an allusion to Goethe’s creed, “Live resolutely in the good, the whole, and the beautiful” (Im guten, ganzen, shonen resolut zu leben). Goethe was an important figure in James’ time; in a recent issue, I discussed how William James admired Goethe. Goethe died in 1832, just ten years before William was born.

Note that Henry James has modified Goethe’s creed, he’s omitted “the whole,” and replaced it with “the true.” Is this because he himself didn’t try to achieve wholeness, and focused instead on art and literature? Goethe was involved in three things that James wasn’t involved with: science, politics, and family. William James faulted his brother’s writing for “over-refinement” and “want of blood.” Was Goethe a greater writer because he included wholeness among his goals, because he wasn’t focused entirely on art?

Though William found fault with Henry’s writings, he called “Madonna of the Future” a “masterpiece.” I agree with William that it’s a first-rate story, a lively and readable story; I’m more impressed with the style than I am with the style of Henry’s later works. “Madonna of the Future” contains some profound remarks on art, as when the narrator says, “Besides being strong in his genius, Raphael was happy in a certain good faith of which we have lost the trick.” The Renaissance artist is distinguished not only by his genius and his skill but by his faith in life.3

* * * * *

Theobald complains about his American roots:

An American, to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European.... We have neither taste, nor tact, nor power. How should we have them? Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, [are] void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist.

To which the narrator responds:

Nothing is so idle as to talk about our want of a nutritive soil, of opportunity, of inspiration, and all the rest of it. The worthy part is to do something fine! There is no law in our glorious Constitution against that. Invent, create, achieve! No matter if you have to study fifty times as much as one of these! What else are you an artist for?

James probably subscribed to both these views — he thought it was a handicap not to be European, but he thought that this handicap could be overcome. In his book on Hawthorne, James listed all the things that America lacked:

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life — especially in the American life of forty years ago.

This long list helps us to understand why James left the U.S., and spent most of his adult life in Europe. James speaks of, “the coldness, the thinness, the blankness” of the American scene. What is there for an American novelist to write about?

Our foremost feeling is that of compassion for a romancer looking for subjects in such a field. It takes so many things, as Hawthorne must have felt later in life, when he made the acquaintance of the denser, richer, warmer European spectacle — it takes such an accumulation of history and custom, such a complexity of manners and types, to form a fund of suggestion for a novelist.

But at least the American can laugh. “It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny [the American] the consolation of his national gift, that ‘American humor’ of which of late years we have heard so much.” I enjoy James’ humor, and I enjoy Mark Twain’s humor even more.

One source of inspiration for American writers is nature; Melville is our great marine writer, Thoreau our great terrene writer. If we lacked “old country-houses” and “Norman churches,” we didn’t lack nature.

* * * * *

Henry James spent much of his life around museums and artists. As a teenager, he studied painting with William Morris Hunt. One of his fellow-students, John La Farge, introduced him to the poetry of Robert Browning. Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” influenced “Madonna of the Future.” Browning’s protagonist is a painter who is productive but uninspired, James’ protagonist is a painter who is inspired but unproductive. Browning says “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Andrea doesn’t reach high enough, Theobald reaches for the stars but grasps nothing.4

Another influence on “Madonna of the Future” is a Balzac story called “The Unknown Masterpiece” (Le Chef-d’Oeuvre Inconnu). Balzac describes a painter who believes he has found the secret of depicting living, breathing people, but after working on his masterpiece for ten years, he suddenly loses faith in his work after a casual remark by a young man. Likewise, James’ painter keeps his faith for many years until a casual remark by a young man deflates his inspiration, breaks the spell.

Like Browning, Balzac was a major influence on Henry James; like Browning, Balzac was introduced to James by the artist John La Farge, who was eight years older than James. As Henry’s brother William was fond of Browning, so too William was fond of Balzac; in an earlier issue, I quoted William’s resolve to “read all Balzac.” Browning and Balzac were both important writers in Henry James’ youth; they both seemed to explore human nature more deeply than it had been explored before.

But taste changes, and our view of human nature changes. Browning and Balzac were hot new writers in Henry’s youth, but they didn’t keep that position for long. By the time Henry was in the evening of his life, young people were losing interest in Balzac. In 1902, when Yeats mentioned Balzac to a 20-year-old James Joyce, “Joyce burst out laughing so that everyone in the café turned round to look at him. ‘Who reads Balzac today?’ he exclaimed.”

We find the same thing in philosophy; the hot philosopher of today doesn’t stay hot for long. For many years, the philosopher struggles to gain recognition, and soon after he’s recognized, another thinker comes along and renders him obsolete. As Schopenhauer put it, “To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.”5 Schopenhauer himself enjoyed “a celebration of victory” from about 1860 to 1890, then everyone started talking about Nietzsche.

But we shouldn’t push this argument too far, it’s only half-true.6 It would be equally true to say that Homer and Shakespeare are still interesting to modern readers, Balzac and Schopenhauer are still interesting. The cutting-edge moves, but the classics endure.

3. “A Guide to Finding Faith”

A recent piece in the New York Times by Ross Douthat tries to persuade the reader to believe in God; Douthat calls his piece “a suggested blueprint for thinking your way into religious belief.” Douthat sees occult phenomena as an argument for the existence of God. He says that the world has

so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death.

Douthat says that occult phenomena are so widespread that even the Mainstream Media can’t ignore them:

They just keep on happening, frequently enough that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them: You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.

Is there some sort of mysterious intelligence in the universe? That intelligence must be God, Douthat argues. In my view, the universe itself is intelligent, there’s intelligence in “stuff,” so there’s no need to bring in God. The paired-particles experiment proves, in my view, that a mysterious connectedness is a fundamental property of matter, of the universe.

4. Afghanistan

I remember talking to someone who had smoked cigarettes for many years, then quit. He said, “I would never start smoking again because the withdrawals are so painful.” Our withdrawal from Afghanistan is so painful, such a national disgrace, that we should think carefully before starting another nation-building project.

After the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, we wanted to strike back, but invading Afghanistan was a mistake. We had no exit strategy, we were in a quagmire, we were in another Vietnam. We couldn’t hope to locate a dozen Al-Qaeda leaders in such a large country (it took us ten years to kill bin Laden, and we still haven’t caught Zawahiri). We couldn’t hope to build a functioning government, our conception of government has no roots in Afghan history, custom, etc. We can barely build a functioning government in Washington DC.

But the decision to invade Afghanistan had broad support, we wanted to strike back at someone for the 9/11 attacks. In retrospect, we should have repressed this urge to strike back, the President should have explained why it would be a mistake to invade Afghanistan. We should have struck back only with air-strikes and clandestine operations. We should have remembered Vietnam.

If there was broad support to invade, there was also broad support to withdraw when the nation-building project seemed hopeless and endless. Perhaps we should have repressed the urge to withdraw, as we should have earlier repressed the urge to invade; the President should have explained why it would be a mistake to withdraw completely. Four months ago, before the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, David Brooks said it would be a “grave mistake” to withdraw; the cost of remaining was low, other NATO countries were helping, etc.

We under-estimated the strength, the tenacity, of the Taliban. The Taliban knows what they want, and knows what they believe in. Their very ignorance and narrow-mindedness make them formidable.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Our battle with groups like the Taliban is a battle for hearts and minds. Perhaps our best hope is to defeat them on the plane of ideas, on the plane of beliefs. Once they get a narrow faith embedded in their heads, once they’re willing to kill themselves and everyone else in order to gain power, they become very difficult to deal with. You almost need to stand back until their faith burns itself out, until their own people are disgusted with them.

Peter Wehner has a piece in The Atlantic called “Biden’s Long Trail of Betrayals: Why is the president so consistently wrong on major foreign-policy matters?” As Tip O’Neill believed “all politics is local,” so Biden believes all politics is personal; you meet someone, you look them in the eye, you clap them on the back, you trade favors with them. Biden is a small person, he can’t think in large strategic terms, he can’t conceive of the long-term national interest, he doesn’t acknowledge any moral obligations to people in a faraway country. His Afghanistan policy is of a piece with his border policy — bold, sweeping, over-confident, disastrous. Biden is confident that he can buy enough votes to win the next election, that voters don’t care what happens in Afghanistan.

One of the best commentaries on the Afghan debacle is Kissinger’s. At 98, Kissinger is still sharp, still a deep thinker.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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Footnotes
1. According to Einstein, Newton’s greatest achievement was “his recognition of the role of privileged systems.” This view puzzled Cohen; Cohen thought that there are no privileged systems, all systems are in motion (or at rest) relative to each other. Newton said that “the center of the system of the world” was fixed and immobile. This was a hypothesis that Newton didn’t try to prove; one might call it a “necessary fiction.” In Newton’s day, a scientist couldn’t go further. “Newton’s solution appeared to Einstein ingenious and necessary in his day.” back
2. Quoted in Richardson’s biography of William James, Ch. 7 back
3. In an earlier issue, I discussed Panofsky’s view that “a portrait of an individual is more than a portrait of an individual — it is sometimes a portrait of the spirit of an age.” The Renaissance spirit was confident and balanced, as was the Renaissance portrait. Henry James says that Raphael had “a certain good faith,” and Panofsky speaks of being “free and open to the world.” The Renaissance had confidence in the world, and this is apparent in their portraits. James says that his contemporaries have “lost the trick” of this “good faith.” What would he say about more modern works, such as Munch’s Scream? Surely he’d use a stronger phrase than “lost the trick.” Perhaps he’d say, as Kafka did, that the spine of the soul had broken. back
4. See “Henry James’ ‘Half-Man’: The Legacy of Browning in ‘The Madonna of the Future,’” by Michael L. Ross, Browning Institute Studies, 1974, Vol. 2 (1974), pp. 25-42, jstor.org/stable/25057596. Ross says he’s indebted to Cornelia Kelley’s book The Early Development of Henry James.

I noted elsewhere that William James, like his brother, was a fan of Browning, especially his “Grammarian’s Funeral.”

We should aim high, Browning says, even if we produce something imperfect. This is called Browning’s “doctrine of the imperfect.” Ruskin would have agreed with Browning (were they fans of each other?). Ruskin wrote, “It is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they... receive the results of the labor of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole. It seems a fantastic paradox, but it is nevertheless a most important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect.... The principle may be stated more broadly still. I have confined the illustration of it to architecture, but I must not leave it as if true of architecture only.... No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.”(The Stones of Venice)

Yet another influence on “Madonna of the Future” is the play Lorenzaccio, by Musset. This play has a character named Tebaldeo, who is a model for James’ Theobald. Tebaldeo says, “Mes ouvrages ont peu de mérite; je sais mieux aimer les arts que je ne sais les exercer. Ma jeunesse tout entière s’est passée dans les églises. Il me semble que je ne puis admirer ailleurs Raphael et notre divin Buonarroti. Je demeure alors durant des journées devant leurs ouvrages, dans une extase sans égale” [My works have little merit; I know better how to love the arts than how to practice them. My whole youth was spent in churches. It seems to me that I cannot admire Raphael and our divine Buonarroti elsewhere. So I stay for days in front of their works, in an ecstasy without equal.]

Like Theobald, Tebaldeo is something of a loner: “Je passe les journées à l’atelier. Le dimanche, je vais à l'Annonciade ou à Sainte-Marie; les moines trouvent que j’ai de la voix; ils me mettent une robe blanche et une calotte rouge, et je fais ma partie dans les choeurs, quelquefois un petit solo: ce sont les seules occasions où je vais en public. Le soir je vais chez ma maîtresse, et quand la nuit est belle, je la passe sur son balcon. Personne ne me connaît, et je ne connais personne.” [I spend the days in the workshop. On Sunday, I go to the Annonciade or to Sainte-Marie; the monks find that I have a voice; they put on me a white dress and a red cap, and I do my part in the choirs, sometimes a little solo: these are the only times I go in public. In the evening I go to my mistress, and when the night is fine, I spend it on her balcony. Nobody knows me, and I don’t know anybody.]

These two passages are quoted in Cornelia Kelley’s Early Development of Henry James. Kelley says that “Madonna of the Future” is “the best thing [James] had yet done. The story has form; it has feeling; figurative, imaginative though it is, it rings true; it is an allegory of life.”(p. 152) back

5. The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, Preface to first edition back
6. As Berenson put it, “Nothing we can say, except perhaps in the quantitative sciences, can be more than a half-truth.”(Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, Introduction) back