Seeing the Unseen

Creative genius in both science and the arts is a heightened state of perception that transforms the very pulses of the air into revelations.

By E L Doctorow
Dec 3, 2004 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:40 AM


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Recently a coterie of distinguished scientists, including Murray Gell-Mann, Brian Greene, and Sir Martin Rees, were featured speakers at “Einstein: A Celebration,” a conference hosted by the Aspen Institute and sponsored in part by Discover. After three days of discussion about Albert Einstein’s impact on science, society, and culture, the task of defining the nature of his creative genius fell to a great American novelist: E. L. Doctorow. “Perhaps the organizers of this conference understood all too well that any report on the genius of a mind like Einstein’s would have to be a matter of fiction,” he joked. Yet it was fitting that Doctorow be given the last word on the subject. His novel City of God begins with a meditation on the Big Bang and includes several memorable passages in which a fictional writer peers inside Einstein’s mind and channels his thoughts. This is an adapted version of Doctorow’s remarks at the Aspen Institute on August 11.

When I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, our principal, Dr. Morris Meister, had an image for scientific endeavor and the enlightenment it brings: “Think of science as a powerful searchlight continuously widening its beam and bringing more of the universe into the light,” he said. “But as the beam of light expands, so does the circumference of darkness.”

That image would certainly have appealed to Albert Einstein, whose lifelong effort to find the few laws that would explain all physical phenomena ran into immense difficulties as the revolutionary light of his theory of relativity discerned a widening darkness.

Of course, to a public celebrating its own mystification, that hardly mattered. The incomprehensibility of his space-time physics, and the fulfillment of an early prophecy of the theory of relativity when Sir Arthur Eddington’s experiments confirmed the bending of starlight as it passed by the sun, was enough for Einstein to be exalted as the iconic genius of the 20th century.

This was a role he could never seriously accept; he would come to enjoy its perks and use it as he grew older on behalf of his various political and social causes, but his fame was an irrelevancy at best and did not accord with the reality of a life lived most of the time in a state of intellectual perplexity. To be a genius to someone else was not to be a genius to oneself. Acts of mind always come to us without a rating.

Einstein would say by way of calming his worldwide admirers: “In science . . . the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation.”

Could this statement have been something more than an expression of modesty on his part?

Einstein came of age in a culture that was in hot pursuit of physical laws. In Europe some of his scientific elders—Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, Hermann Helmholtz, Heinrich Hertz, and Ernst Mach, to name a few—determined that electromagnetic waves move through space at the speed of light; their work called into question the concepts of absolute motion and absolute rest, everything in the universe moving only in relation to something else. So the science leading up to Einstein’s breakthrough was in a sense premonitory—it gave him the tools with which to think.

If we look outside the scientific enterprise of his time to the culture in general, we discover that this same turn-of-the-century period in which Einstein conceived his theory of relativity put him in the national German-speaking Jewish company of such contemporaries as Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, the revolutionary atonalist composer Arnold Schoenberg, the critic Walter Benjamin, the great anthropologist Franz Boas, and the philosopher of symbolic forms Ernst Cassirer. They joined the still-living precedent generation of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had proclaimed that God is dead, and Gustav Mahler, whose freewheeling First Symphony was written while Einstein was still a child. Mahler’s First, a big kitchen sink of a symphony, with its openness to idea, its structural relaxations, its excesses of voice and extravagance of mood, all coming after the unified and majestic sonorities of Brahms, for example, was in effect a kind of news broadcast: “This just in: The 19th-century world is coming apart.”

Frederic V. Grunfeld’s book Prophets Without Honor is the definitive account of this cultural florescence of German-speaking Jews. A multibiographical study of some of the artists and intellectuals of the period, it finds as their common characteristic not only an intense work ethic but also a passion that would drive them to take on the deepest and most intransigent questions. As Freud would plumb the unconscious in his effort to “understand the origin and nature of human behavior,” so Einstein would set off on his lifelong quest for a unified field theory that would encompass all physical phenomena.

Of course, outside Germany some world-shattering things were going on as well: in Paris, Braque’s and Picasso’s cubist paintings and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which brought on a riot at its premiere; in Bologna, Marconi’s experiments with radio waves; at Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers’ first flight. So Einstein came of age at a moment not only in German culture but in world history—those early years of the 20th century—that if I were a transcendentalist I might consider as manifesting the activity of some sort of stirred-up world oversoul.

The English poet and essayist Matthew Arnold speaks about such historic moments of creative arousal in literature in his 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Pres-ent Time”: “The grand work of literary genius,” says Arnold, “is a work of synthesis and exposition, . . . its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them; of dealing divinely with these ideas. . . . But it must have the atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of ideas, in order to work freely; and these it is not so easy to command. This is why great creative epochs in literature are so rare; this is why there is so much that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of real genius; because for the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment.”

Arnold’s thesis puts me in mind of the debate among historians of science as to whether science at its most glorious (for example, the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, or Einstein) is a revolution or whether it emerges incrementally as evolution. Perhaps it is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Perhaps there is an evolving communal intellect, and its role is periodically to be stunned and possibly outraged by the revolutionary ideas that it had not realized it was itself fomenting.

Thus, to speak of the power of the moment does not gainsay the power of the man. Opinions vary as to when, if ever, the theory of relativity might have been articulated if Einstein had not lived. Some scholars have said it would have taken generations. The eminent English astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees believes that it would have been conceived by now, but not by just one theorist working alone.

So what are we to make of Einstein’s own reference to the communal context of creativity, whereby the scientific work of an individual “appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation”? As always, he was being totally honest. Yet we must ask to whom the work appears as an impersonal product—certainly not to the world that applauds it and names its producer a genius. Rather it appears impersonal to the producer himself, the revelation of such work coming to his mind always as a deliverance, at a moment in his thought when his personality, his psyche, is released from itself in the transcendent freedom of a revelation.

The creative act doesn’t fulfill the ego but rather changes its nature. You are less than the person you usually are.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was an arduous work of self-expression no less than that of a great writer or painter. It was not accomplished without enormous mental struggle. It was created not merely from an intellectual capacity but also from an internal demand of his character that must have defined itself in his nightmares as Atlas holding up the sky with his shoulders. It was a matter of urgency to figure things out lest the universe be so irrational that it would come down around his and everyone else’s head. The term “obsession” is woefully insufficient to describe a mind so cosmologically burdened.

We have to assume also that there was the occasion of lightning clarity when that formula

E = mc^2

wrote itself in his brain, the moment of creative crisis, the eureka moment let’s call it. And here a writer can only scrub about in his own field to find a writer’s equivalent moment, as described by a giant of his profession: Henry James.

In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” James speaks of the “immense sensibility . . . that takes to itself the faintest hints of life . . . and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

Every author from the writers of the ancient sacred texts to James himself has relied on that empowering paradox. It involves the working of our linguistic minds on the world of things-in-themselves. We ascribe meaning to the unmeant, and the sentences form with such synaptic speed that the act of writing, when it is going well, seems no more than the dutiful secretarial response to a silent dictation.

This feeling, I suggest, may be the same as the scientist’s in his eureka moment, when what he has discovered by seeing past the seen to the unseen has the character of appearing as “an impersonal product of his generation.”

And there must be something common to the creative act, whatever its discipline, in James’s assertion that from one evocative fragment of conversation overheard by the writer a entire novel can be written, that from the slightest bit of material a whole novelistic world is created. We may represent this as the Little Bang of the writer’s or scientist’s inspiration, thinking analogously of the Big Bang, that prime-moving happenstance when the universe blew out into its dimensions, exploding in one silent flash into the volume and chronology of space-time.

If the analogy seems grandiose, I remind myself that the writers of the ancient texts, the sacred texts of our religions, attributed the Little Bang of their own written cosmologies not to the impersonal product of their generation but to God. The God of the universe was the author of what they wrote, so awed were they by the mystery of their own creative process.

But whether the creative mind feels it is dutifully transcribing a silent dictation, or that its work appears almost as an impersonal product of a generation, or that it is serving as a medium for the voice of God, what is always involved is a release from personality, liberation, an unshackling from the self.

That self was wildly manifest in Einstein’s youth, when he seems to have renounced both his German citizenship and his Jewish faith; it was manifest in his adulthood during the course of two difficult marriages and an affinity for extramarital wandering. His biographers tell us how, in his student days as an assimilated Jewish boy in a German gymnasium, one of his teachers held up a rusty nail and, looking directly at Albert, said such spikes were driven through Christ’s hands and feet. That brought home to the boy the social isolation he was born to, a position he came to relish because looking in from the outside, he saw clearly the pretensions and lies and dogmas upon which the society fed. He would come to distrust every form of authority. He was from the beginning, as he himself said, “a free spirit.”

It was in childhood that Einstein’s difference as a quiet, unflinchingly observant Jewish kid allowed him to hone the skepticism that as an adult he applied to intellectual postulates that had been in place for centuries. His society’s resentment grew as Einstein’s mind grew, exponentially. By the 1930s, a winner of the Nobel Prize, he was at the top of Hitler’s enemy list. He was designated for assassination, and even when he was out of the country, in Belgium, authorities insisted that he have bodyguards. Einstein’s biographers agree that he was always philosophical, always calm in the face of personal danger. As his fame grew, he had necessarily to apply his mind to social, political, and religious issues. He brought to these nonscientific issues the same clarity of thinking that was evident in the only definitions of time and space that he could allow himself: time, “something you measure with a clock,” and space, “something you measure with a ruler.” God he called Das Alte, or “the Old One,” identifying the only attribute of God he could be sure of—old in nominal existence solely. He applied that same beautiful and scrupulously pragmatic clarity of thought to the famous ethical conundrum most forcefully postulated by Immanuel Kant: How can there be an ethical system without an ultimate authority, without the categorical imperative of an ought—in short, without God?

Here is how Einstein cut through that problem: “Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience,” he said. “For pure logic, all axioms are arbitrary, including the axioms of ethics. But they are by no means arbitrary from a psychological and genetic point of view. They are derived from our inborn tendencies to avoid pain and annihilation, and from the accumulated emotional reaction of individuals to the behavior of their neighbors. It is the privilege of man’s moral genius . . . to advance ethical axioms which are so comprehensive and so well founded that men will accept them as grounded in the vast mass of their individual emotional experiences.”

There is one more point to be made in the futile project of trying to plumb the creative mind of this genius: Throughout his life he found excuses, almost apologies, for his prodigious accomplishment. “Sometimes I ask myself,” he once said, “how it came about that I happened to be the one to discover the theory of relativity. The reason is, I think, that the normal adult never stops to think about space and time. Whatever thinking he may do about these things he will already have done as a small child. I, on the other hand, was so slow to develop that I only began thinking about space and time when I was already grown up. Naturally, I then went more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child.”

Einstein had a sense of humor; a sly diffidence was one of his stocks-in-trade when dealing with the press, and this was a sweetly funny thing to say—except that in this case I think he was quite serious. For hidden in this remark is an acceptance of himself as an eternal child. This prodigy of thought was eternally a child prodigy. And if that would seem to diminish the man, remember that it was a child who cried out that the emperor had no clothes. All his life Einstein would point to this or that ruling thought and reveal its nakedness, until finally it was the prevailing universe that had no clothes.

Dare we think that a mind of this immensity—independent, self-directed with such a penetrating clarity of thought, and driven with a rampant curiosity—must have had, too, a protective naïveté about the nature of itself? There was a confidence in reality that must have protected him from the philosophical despair of Ludwig Wittgenstein, another genius born to the power of the moment, just 10 years after Einstein, and the most influential European philosopher of his generation.

Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy by dismissing everyone from Plato to Hegel as purveyors of metaphysical nonsense. All philosophy could do was to logically understand thought. He was a philosopher of language who used linguistic analysis to distinguish those propositions that were meaningful from those that had no justifiable connection to the existing world. “The meaning is the use,” he said. Wittgenstein’s philosophy, a technique more than a teaching, was almost directly attributable to the appropriation by science of the great cosmological questions that had traditionally been the province of philosophy. Certainly Einstein’s discoveries were the salients of this scientific encroachment. Yet Wittgenstein believed that science, even at its most successful, by its nature could go only so far. He articulated the most desolate intellectual pronouncement of the 20th century: “If all possible scientific questions are answered,” said Wittgenstein, “our problem is still not touched at all.”

What did he mean? He meant that even if Einstein, or we, find the final few laws to account for all phenomena, the unfathomable is still there. He meant all science hits a wall.

Wittgenstein’s is the steely gaze of the inconsolable and ultimately irretrievable spirit directed into the abyss of its own consciousness. His is the philosophical despair of a mind in the appalled contemplation of itself. Such a despair was not in the nature of Einstein’s beautifully childlike contemplations.

Einstein was directed outward, his face pressed into the sky. The universe had always been there, as it was, regardless of how it was conceived by humanity, and so the great enterprise was to understand it as it was in the true laws by which it operated. It was a matter for wonder and mental industry. The crackling vastness of black holes and monumental conflagrations, the ineffable something rather than nothing, such an indifference to life as to make us think that if God is involved in its creation he is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace or comfort or the redemption that would come of our being brought into his secret—this consideration did not seem to be part of Einstein’s cosmology.

Einstein’s life spanned the terrors of the 20th century—two world wars, the worldwide Great Depression, fascism, communism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war—and he was never less than steadfast and rational in his attention to the history of his time. He lived as he thought, in the thrill of the engagement. He was a scientist, a secular humanist, a democratic socialist, a Zionist, a pacifist, an antinuclear activist, and never, so far as I know, did he succumb to a despair of human life. So finally, even if in his Einsteinian pragmatism God could only be accurately described as the Old One, surely there was a faith in that image, perhaps an agnostic’s faith, that made it presumptuous for any human being to come to any conclusion about the goodness or incomprehensible amorality of God’s universe or the souls it contained until we at least learned the laws that governed it.

For Albert Einstein a unified field theory needn’t be the end. It can just as well be the beginning.

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