Monday, June 12, 2006

An irresistible lucidity passed over...

Two of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, men who unlocked the invisible secrets of the cosmos and the unconscious, macro and micro, had almost no idea what to make of each other's work. They met in Berlin over the New Year's holiday in 1927 where the seventy year-old Freud was staying with one of his sons. Einstein, a mere whipper-snapper at forty-seven, would have been the only other brain on the planet to rival (and perhaps eclipse) Freud's fame. "He understands as much about psychology as I do about physics," Freud reported, “so we had a very pleasant talk." The weather and music were two neutral topics in which both men were expert.

How sad. This awkward meeting has many peers in the annals of celebrity history. A favorite is the time Brigitte Bardot came to Abbey Road studios (after hours) all dolled up to meet John Lennon. The latter, being nervous, decided that a few hundred thousand micrograms of LSD would take the edge off. Fittingly, the sex kitten and the rock start sat in a dark studio for a couple of hours while one twanged a sitar and the other looked at her nails.

Freud and Einstein shared a native language, German, but their respective professional vocabularies had long since diverged, to the point that they now seemed virtually irreconcilable. Even so, Freud and Einstein had more in common than they might have imagined. Einstein’s favorite psychological doctrine came from Schopenhauer: We can do whatever we want, but we cannot choose our wants. Freud’s ideas owed much to Schopenhauer and were quite in keeping with that sentiment, although as a medical man, he attracted patients by offering the hope that they could overcome their neurotic actions. Perhaps the single idea most closely shared by these two was the notion that every event has its cause.

Five years later, Einstein was contacted by the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. He was asked to choose another person, anyone alive, with whom he would share an open correspondence on a pressing global topic of his choosing. He chose this one: "Is there any way of delivering humankind from the menace of war?" And his pen pal would be Sigmund Freud. Freud accepted, but blanched at the question.

Dear Mr. Einstein:
When I learned of your intention to invite me to a mutual exchange of views upon a subject which not only interested you personally but seemed deserving, too, of public interest, I cordially assented. I expected you to choose a problem lying on the borderland of the knowable, as it stands today, a theme which each of us, physicist and psychologist, might approach from his own angle, to meet at last on common ground, though setting out from different premises. Thus the question which you put me--what is to be done to rid mankind of the war menace?--took me by surprise. And, next, I was dumbfounded by the thought of my (of our, I almost wrote) incompetence; for this struck me as being a matter of practical politics, the statesman's proper study...

Einstein was up for a world class meeting of the minds. Freud was a crotchety old cokehead with better things to do. Ultimately, the correspondence went forward, and was published as a book called "Why War?". You can read some of the letters here. Pretty interesting stuff.


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