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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The age of Einstein

He became, almost despite himself, the emblem of all that was new, original and unsettling in the modern age


cover photo

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 bombs.

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.


Cover Date: December 31, 1999

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