Ray Monk

Not a people person

Text settings

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster, pp. 675, £

Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace and the Bomb

edited by David E. Rowe and Robert Schulmann

Princeton University Press, pp. 523, £

‘Einstein’s personality, for no clear reason, triggers outbursts of a kind of mass hysteria,’ wrote a puzzled German consul to his superiors in Berlin during Einstein’s visit to America in 1930. Wherever Einstein appeared, the consul observed ruefully, he attracted huge audiences who were not just enthusiastic but positively worshipful. Overwrought admirers crowded round him, wanting to kiss his hand, touch his clothes, or just gaze into his eyes.

The hysteria continued after his death, his relics preserved and treasured as if he were a medieval saint. His eyes, for example, are kept in a safe-deposit box in New Jersey. His brain was chopped into pieces and preserved in two biscuit jars by Thomas Harvey, the pathologist at the hospital in which he died, who every now and again would hand pieces of it over to other people to inspect, analyse or simply reverence.

This weird reaction to a scientist is all the more inexplicable, not only because Einstein’s scientific work is inaccessible to the layman, but also because there was, if the truth be told, something a little chilly about his personality. ‘For all his kindness, sociability and love of humanity,’ his friend Max Born once commented, ‘he was nevertheless totally detached from his environment and the human beings in it.’ In his single-minded pursuit of scientific truth, he was capable of cutting emotional ties with those close to him with an unsettling ruthlessness and finality. The existence of his first child, an illegitimate daughter called Lieserl, was not discovered until 1986, over 30 years after his death. Never once did Einstein speak of her in public or mention her in letters to friends. She was handed over for adoption, but what happened to her after that no one knows. Einstein’s younger son, Eduard, became schizophrenic and spent most of his adult life in psychiatric institutions. When a friend urged Einstein to make contact with Eduard, he refused, remarking, ‘There is something blocking me that I am unable to analyse fully.’ Not that he tried very hard to analyse his or other people’s personality traits. As he himself admitted, ‘I have not bestowed the same care to understanding people as to understanding science.’

Despite this lack of understanding of, and detachment from, other people, Einstein continues to attract devotion, and a steady stream of biographies of him continues to flow. For those who want a detailed account of his intellectual development, Abraham Pais’ Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein remains the best, though it is very difficult for the general reader and not particularly satisfying as a work of literature. Banesh Hoffman’s Einstein is far more readable and also contains authoritative explanations of Einstein’s scientific work, but it is too discreet and restrained to offer a convincing account of his personality. The Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter tells in moving detail the story of Einstein’s relations with his first and second wives, and provides a series of revelations about Lieserl and Eduard, but it offers only cursory summaries of Einstein’s scientific achievements. Denis Brian’s Einstein: A Life is excellent on Einstein’s public life, especially after he moved to America in 1933, but it, too, is inadequate and unreliable as a guide to relativity.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, there is still a need for another biography of Einstein, one that would explain his work and its importance, give an open and honest account of his emotional life and his personal relations, describe his role as a public figure and provide a convincing all-round picture of his personality. Even more surprisingly, Walter Isaacson has succeeded in meeting that need. Isaacson does not have a scientific background; he studied history at Harvard and PPE at Oxford, and his previous biographies are of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. Neither is he a particularly graceful writer; he frequently ends sentences with prepositions, he says ‘immigrate’ when he means ‘emigrate’ and he all too often adopts a tone of ingratiating familiarity with his readers, which many will find irritating (‘Now imagine this happening in the four-dimensional fabric of space and time,’ he urges us at one point. ‘Okay, it’s not easy, but that’s why we’re no Einstein and he was’.) And yet, despite all this, he has written a great book, one that provides everything one would want from a biography of Einstein.

The book is extremely well-researched, though what distinguishes it from its predecessors is not the revelation of some hitherto unknown facts. Rather, it sets itself apart by offering, for the first time, a well-rounded portrait of Einstein, both as a man and as a scientist, that is fully accessible to the general reader. Isaacson’s acknowledgments show that he received a great deal of help in understanding the science from an impressive list of distinguished physicists and historians of science. And it has paid off. When the narrative demands it, he shows himself able to provide explanations of Einstein’s scientific work that do not duck the difficult questions and that offer as much background as one needs to see what problems Einstein was trying to solve and how successful he was in solving them. In this way, Isaacson allows us to appreciate the originality and the depth of Einstein’s thought. One feels as a reader that one is benefiting from Isaacson’s own dogged determination to really understand what Einstein’s work was all about.

He is no less dogged in his efforts to understand Einstein’s character, and, though clearly a deep admirer, he is no hagiographer and gives due emphasis to the chilly aspects of Einstein’s personality mentioned above. He is also good on Einstein’s political thought and activities, particularly on his Zionist sympathies, which, as Isaacson explains well, sit uneasily with his general Weltanschauung. Why would an atheist and an anti-nationalist want to support a movement that sought to establish a nation for a religious group? The answer, of course, lies in Einstein’s reaction to the virulent anti-Semitism of the Europe in which he grew up, which persuaded him to take seriously the idea of Jews as a ‘tribe’, the members of which had to look after each other.

For a deeper understanding of this, it is useful to have the journalism and private correspondence (mostly the latter) that are collected in Einstein on Politics, which begins with Einstein’s horrified reaction to the outbreak of war in 1914 and ends with his efforts — which continued to his dying day in 1955 — to promote peace. There is nothing here to establish Einstein as an important political thinker, but there is plenty to show that, like Bertrand Russell and Linus (the philosopher in the ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strips by Charles Schulz who once memorably exclaimed, ‘Humanity? I love humanity — it’s people I can’t stand’), he cared deeply for the human race en masse even if he did not care to get too close to individual members of it. And, in return, humanity en masse loved and revered him even if they did not understand a word he said.

Don’t imagine this book by a 42-year-old Englishwoman who has been in her time an English undergraduate at Oxford, a digging-in anti-roads campaigner and a lonely depressive in her London flat, is anything resembling your average expedition into the wild. The usual elegant reflections on wilderness and its transcendent emptiness are absent here. Instead, there is an encyclopaedic, energetic, plunging, anarchic, intensely sexualised, often wildly written and over-written journey, filled with a mayhem of influences and references, from anthropology to English religious history, the European classics and the big OED (h er favourite book), through five of the earth’s biomes-cum-elements: Amazonia for earth itself, Greenland for ice (seen as a fifth element), Indonesia for water, the Australian desert for fire and the mountains of West Papua for air. If, as I imagine they are bound to, books are soon going to carry a sticker showing the carbon emitted in their creation, this one would be miles into the purple end of red.

The ambition is vast: an attempt to rewrite our understanding of what wilderness means. Wilderness is not what we have always taken it for. It is not where meaning runs out. It is not even where there are no people. It is not even particularly hostile. In Griffiths’s understanding, wilderness is where people have been and still are most intimately connected with the earth. Unlike tilled ground, she maintains, which has been told what to do, wilderness retains its will, and it is in that sense ‘willed earth’, earth which is allowed its part in a conversation with people. ‘Today the Amazon is full of mute inglorious Clares,’ she says, referring to the Northampton-shire poet, ‘whose silenced words would sing the songlines of a stolen world, if they could. For them their lands have been lit with meaning, glowing with signs and messages, imbued with symbolic thought. Without land, they say, they are not.’

Europeans have always got this wrong, marching out into the subtleties of wilderness as if there were nothing there and stamping their egos all over it, either in the form of self-lauding accounts or more directly through colonisation, enslavement of the people, theft of their goods and destruction of their civilisations.

This is a feminist book and one of its most intriguing aspects is that this unheard and abused global wild stands for the great female heart of earthiness. (Those with delicate constitutions should look away now.) ‘Not enough cunt. That’s the problem with Genesis,’ she says and there are acres of jungle here in which the wilder, shaggy, dark, odoriferous, secret, engaging and complex implications of the hidden wilderness are fully explored. The forest needless to say is a vagina dendrida and the alarmingly re-invigorated name of the Australian bush is ‘dusky-musk lingering, furry with desire, spicing a low branch with gamy loin-smell of a female kangaroo.’ The wild is a place, as another chapter is entitled, where there is  ‘Nothing unthrust’, where the ‘Priapic Puck fucks everything in his grasp’, rainbows are ejaculations, the forests throb, ‘potency thickens every leaf and blooms in every flower’, ‘mushrooms conjugally fungal’ — I think that’s a verb — all of it ‘nudging deep down in the chthonic nub of things.’

You might get the feeling that you should button up your jacket if you are going to survive much of this but it would be absurd to be too prim. What can a book on wildness be if not wildly pretentious, coarse, overblown and risking gracelessness?

Long passages are saved by Griffiths’ dazzling gift and fascination for language. The four pages exploring the nature of a coral reef read as if she has opened the tap on descriptive brilliance and let it run. She can listen. Under an iced sea in the Arctic, ‘a wave surges, knocking on an iceberg underwater, sounding like the muted thud of wind on icy canvas.’ And she can hear the nuances of understatement. Also in Greenland, she visits a settlement where Inuit people have ended up in poor, sterilised houses, divorced from the reality of the wilderness she has come to find. Outside the windows, there are 2,000 miles of unadulterated wilderness stretching from there to the pole. She asks one woman about it. ‘Yes,’ the woman says, ‘I remember it was beautiful.’

Griffiths is wrong about a lot of things. It is simply not true that people in Europe have not been attuned to what the natural world can mean. Nor have we been indifferent to the power of the anarchic multiplicity that Griffiths finds in wildness. What is the meaning of much of Shakespeare, if not in that? This is not a puritan culture. And there has been a long European love affair with darkness, with the beauty of the night and the magic power of blindness, all things Griffiths associates with the other and the wild. Why else would Homer have always been seen as the blind man. A banner was carried at Sir Philip Sidney’s funeral on which the words Per Tenebras were embroidered — only through the darkness can one arrive at the light. Half the Renaissance was devoted to that idea.

For all that, this is a hungry, brave, all-consuming book, jumping with life, littered with perceptions and understandings, written by a woman who has engaged deeply with her subject and addressed it with warmth, affection and vigour. Where else could you find a writer who loved ‘writhy names such as Urrinka-willartji which means “the teats of the Dingo-bitch dreaming”.’