Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Einstein's Enigma

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger

Einstein had taught me, albeit quite inadvertently, a real lesson in humility, something I’ll never forget.

During the hot month of August, 1988, I was invited to visit the Research Labs of the giant Dupont Chemical Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware. Driving on my way back to Montreal, still having some free leisure time, on a moment’s caprice, I decided to pass through Princeton and visit the places where Einstein had lived and worked for the last 22 years of his life. Soon enough, I found his house at 112 Mercer Street; but, no trace, not even a tiny memorial plaque that he had ever lived there!

Same story at the Institute of Advanced Studies, except for a small bust-statue in the library. The janitor told me that Einstein’s office had been repartitioned, and half of it is a brooms’ closet by now. And a very old scholar, who must have known Einstein personally, told me rather scornfully, that all of Einstein’s works had been published, and there was no personal memorabilia left whatsoever. What he implied, of course, was that there remained nothing to worship. I was unable to locate Einstein’s tomb or even his burial site. There was no trace of him at the small local synagogue. True, there was a lane way named after him in the scholars’ cottages section near the Institute, but everyone I spoke to, academics and laymen alike, treated me and the subject with an almost contemptuous nonchalance.

drawing of Einstein
drawing by Fred Vaughan

Behind the Institute is a small lake. I remember sitting on an old bench, possibly the same one on which the great man sat, and feeling bitter and resentful. Countless people of far lesser caliber had been honored and exalted, and here… what a callous ingratitude! Something didn’t make sense in all this, I smelled an enigma. But, not having any other handy explanation, I imagined that maybe this had something to do with anti-Semitism. After all, Princeton appeared to be a very WASP-ish town, and I recalled the anti-Semitism before and during the McCarthy era, as for example in the 1947 Gregory Peck film Gentleman’s Agreement, etc. I was wrong, dead wrong. A few weeks later, while doing some research in the McGill University library in Montreal, I stumbled upon the solution to the Princeton enigma quite by fluke. While flipping through the thick biography of Einstein by the British author Clark (out of idle curiosity since I was working on an entirely unrelated topic), near the end there it was. In all simplicity, Einstein himself wanted it that way: on his deathbed he specifically told his secretary not to let the house be turned into a museum. Nor did he want any kind of memorial or plaque or anything. All his personal effects were to be gotten rid of. Although cremation is frowned upon in Judaism, he wanted to be cremated and the ashes disposed of at an undisclosed location. In short, let people remember him through his work and his work only.

Suddenly I felt very hot. Burning up with shame, I ran out of the library, gasping for a few breaths of the cool autumn weather. For here was true greatness, the same immortality as that of Mozart, for example; and it was my own conceit and insignificance which had just humiliated me into the dust. If I could, even today, more than a decade later, I would publicly beg the pardon of academia in general and Princeton in particular for my arrogant presumptions.

No comments: