Talking About Albert Einstein

So you might have anticipated this piece to be more about Einstein’s contributions to theoretical physics and modern science, but I admit that even after reading his biography, I’m still not quite able to grasp the theory of relativity enough to explain it, which is less the book’s fault than my own.

The book is Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacon, and what struck me most about it is the thing that compels me to read anyone’s biography in the first place: Character. Einstein’s personality. His opinions. His habits and world view. All those things that can be summed up in the simple question: What was he like?

And while the personality was sort of what I imagined—aloof, often emotionally detached to the point of seeming an eccentric, but gentle, kind, even charming—it was the public stances he took later in life that impressed me most.

Following the devastation of WWI, he’d become a committed and outspoken pacifist; but those views changed with the rise of fascism in Germany, the country where he’d lived and worked for most of his career up to that point.  He eventually admitted pacifism’s impracticality in combating the rising Nazi terror, its systemic persecution and ultimate murder of ethnic communities, including the Jewish community of which he was a part.

His own friends and colleagues at the time supported cultural assimilation–the process of taking on the characteristics of one culture by giving up your own–giving up their Jewish identity in favor of a German one.  

Einstein refused and admonished the notion, viewing it as an offense to individual expression, to say nothing of personal freedom. 

He left Europe for the United States in 1933, thinking he might return in a few months. Shortly after his arrival in America, however, Hitler seized power in Germany. Einstein renounced his German citizenship and became an American citizen in 1940. He would in fact never visit Europe again, and would live in the United States for the rest of his life.

I initially wondered how difficult that was for him, whether he felt any strong ties to Germany and had any desire to return after the war. 

Apparently not, and it’s not entirely surprising considering his broader view of the world and his place in it.  Einstein always viewed himself less a citizen of any one nation than a citizen of the planet.  He despised nationalism and he adamantly promoted ideals of international cooperation to the point of favoring the creation of a one-world government, which would theoretically diminish each country’s own military in favor of a global one to police international relations and potential conflicts.   

In his final years, Einstein was regarded as something of a political radical.  During the McCarthy witch-hunts he was thought by many to be a communist sympathizer, which he consistently denied. 

That speculation only grew when he pled on behalf of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American citizens convicted of turning over atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and sentenced to death.  Einstein didn’t argue that they were innocent, but he did believe the death penalty was too harsh a sentence–one that seemed driven more by popular sentiment, a thirst for vengeance rather than justice.

When word of Einstein’s overtures to the President got out, he received more than a hundred angry letters from across the country. 

“You need some common sense plus some appreciation for what America has given you,” one read. “You evidently like to see our GI’s killed,” wrote a soldier serving in Korea.  “Go to Russia or back where you came from, because I don’t like Americans like you living off this country and making un-American statements.” The Rosenbergs were executed June 19, 1953.

For me, the times then bear striking resemblance to our own.  Where emotions are high and so many of us are quick to take sides, driven more by tribalistic impulses rather than objective reasoning.  We can learn from the example of Albert Einstein.  A man whose legacy justly transcends even the vast limits of the modern science, whose own life provides valuable lessons on how to be good Americans and more intelligent human beings.   

 

Triumph of the Imagination

Now that we’ve been in this lockdown for nearly two months I find myself wanting to get back to another world, one that I manifest through sheer will and can fully inhabit, maybe even share with others. I’m kidding, sort of. I’m just a humble writer with a humble new magazine. But I can understand the impulse.

It was the guiding impulse of Walt Disney’s life and career, according to biographer Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Inscribed in it’s opening pages is an excerpt from William Blake–one of our favorite poets–whose words hint as to where the rest of the book is going.

I must create a system
or be enslaved by another man’s;
I will not reason and compare:
my business is to create.

William Blake
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but Disney succeeded. I’m sure you knew it by looking at everything today that bears his name. Disney, the man who launched a groundbreaking animation studio that revolutionized motion pictures. Disney, who created a theme park that continues to dramatically influence American culture, for better or worse.

A sympathetic view might say that his creative legacy and the force of his imagination inspired the imagination and creativity in countless generations to come all around the world, while critics might insist that the legacy of his films, the parks and merchandise only glorify some childlike escapism, a tacky sentimentality and gross materialism.

I can’t lend much to the discussion either way, one that most people might have anticipated before even reading the book. How a person connects to the films and theme parks is their own business.  I only finished the book with a renewed perspective on a man far more complicated than I realized.

What I never expected to learn was how many times he failed. How ridden with obstacles, and miseries and all sorts of horrible anxieties that long road became, the road to his own utopia, the road that ultimately never ended.

Throughout the book I found myself revisiting one question in particular. One that I think is essential in understanding the nature of success itself, specifically in this country. To what degree did his achievements rest on the ingenuity of other people?

It’s the gray area of his life and career that proved the most compelling for me. The relationship between the big idea and the details. The back-and-forth from which, it turns out, most of his problems arose.

I wondered if he ever missed the old days when he started in mixed animation and live-action shorts, and only needed a small crew and a couple of friends to stand in front of the camera.

His talent was more in coming up with ideas, and less about the smaller details on how to realize them. Of course those details played the most decisive role in getting the task done, and so naturally a far greater deal of credit is owed to those with whom he surrounded himself.

Still, the more heads in the room, the more problems arose; and it wasn’t long before he suffered one of the most devastating disappointments in his career following the studio’s loss of it’s first original character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the rights for which were lost during a contract dispute with Universal Studios.

Walt standing in front of the Animation Building, the creative hub of the studio.

It’s worth noting that, shortly thereafter, Disney and chief animator Ub Iwerks created a new character that launched Disney and his studio to international fame and served as the creative foundation from which everything would follow.

Yet from that point on, he had a harder time trusting people, which only grew following the labor strike in the early 1940s, shortly after the success of Snow White and the subsequent financial losses incurred from Pinocchio and Fantasia, cemented as classics today despite nearly bankrupting the studio at the time.

It survived but was never the same. For a brief moment before the strike, the studio had served as the closest thing to Walt’s very own creative utopia, a community of visionaries operating at the intersection of art and technology, constructing worlds that broadened the public imagination and provided a psychological, emotional, even transcendent experience for anyone willing, if not just for the artist themselves.

Following years of creative stagnancy, Disneyland was the first project to resurrect that old vision. As he once did with the animation studio, he could regard it as a perpetual work in progress, something that was both a creation in itself and a workshop for continued ideas.

Creation was the guiding impulse of his life; and so by that measure, on a core level at least, Disney was an artist, first and foremost. While the scope of his creative vision is arguably unparalleled, his greatest successes seem equally linked to his ability to manage and lead other creative people in seeing that vision realized.

Walt introducing EPCOT for a promotional film

Shortly after the park’s completion and enormous success, he started planning a second and far more ambitious project that would serve as the apotheosis of his creative energies.

Where Disneyland had become the quintessential amusement park, this would serve as the quintessential city. The Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. Unlike the theme park and most of the innovations bearing his name, EPCOT would form a fuller synthesis between his own imagination and the real world, an environmentally sustainable community, free of pollution where people would actually be able to live and work harmoniously.

It would break down the long-standing walls between the fantasy worlds he helped create and reality, and challenge the long-standing critique that he was more preoccupied with escaping our world, rather than changing it.

Walt’s own sketch of the EPCOT project

An artist can stay true to their vision and hope others relate to it, but of course they have little control over that in the end. Disney learned as much through frequent creative disappointments that likely sobered his own perspective on the matter.

He passed away before EPCOT was ever approved, and today what stands in its place is a much smaller version of what he envisioned, a theme park only hinting at the community he had in mind.

One might dream ’till the cows come home, but when it comes to the big ones, it takes communicating to others, appreciating and counting on them to help make it happen. Recognizing the stake one person has in the other.

We could guess how well Disney understood that in the end. My guess is that he knew it, and that through every failure and subsequent success, he was always working on it.

I also think it’s no small thing how EPCOT as he saw it, represents that idea more directly than anything else he ever put to paper.

I hope someday we’ll see it realized.

Issue #4
Q&Co.

Little Dragon

by Sam D. Lyons

His passion might have been in the martial arts, but Bruce Lee’s most constant ambition was to achieve worldwide superstardom in films. That surprised me to learn, though I didn’t know much about him anyway before reading the book by Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: a life.

I knew only that his fame as a fighter was nearly matched by his reputation as a philosopher; and so I guess he always struck me as being too far above the pursuit of something as egocentric as fame and global superstardom.  But then, it turns out he was a pretty egotistical guy, and this ambition might have been every bit as attributable to vanity as it was practicality.

For one thing, yes, he had a lot of swagger and bragged often.  In fact, it’s a character trait that took center-stage recently in Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in a scene where Bruce Lee challenges a stunt man, played by Brad Pitt, to a fight after Pitt’s character raises doubts about whether Lee could defeat Muhammad Ali.  Seconds before, Lee had insisted that he could make Ali a cripple.  

The film sparked controversy among Lee’s fans, as well as friends and family, who regarded the depiction as distastefully over the top, while further citing Bruce Lee’s deep admiration for Muhammad Ali. In an interview for The Wrap, Polly himself weighed in on the scene.

“Bruce Lee was often a cocky, strutting, braggart,” Polly says.  “But Tarantino took those traits and exaggerated them to the point of a ‘SNL’ caricature.”

It may indeed be easy to observe Lee’s cockiness and vanity and think less of him for it.  I’ll admit that I did too while reading the book, until I began questioning whether it said more about me and less about Bruce.  This book is not just the story of Bruce Lee, after all, but a compelling portrait of ambition, and devotion to oneself and self-actualization.

Bruce Lee from his unfinished film ‘Game of Death’

I think it’s safe to say our relationship with ambition has proven complicated over the years, at least in America.  On the one hand, we celebrate it as an integral component of success, something that neatly ties into the more traditional, individualistic values of the American Dream.   On the other hand, we relate to it with an equal degree of skepticism, a wariness of how easily and suddenly it can morph into selfishness, ruthlessness and greed.

Lately I’ve come to identify two seemingly separate value systems at the heart of that ethos, counterbalancing eachother in a continuous drama playing out in the mind of the individual, and by extension, in the whole history of mankind: service to oneself and service to others.

Now in reading Bruce Lee’s story, it might be easier to assume that he most definitely took the more individualistic route.  For example, at first glance, someone who frequently brags about how great they are might not seem like the most likely person to prioritize other people’s needs over their own.  He also took virtually no interest in social and political issues or the larger news of the world.  But in true Bruce Lee fashion, examining this a little further leads to larger, more philosophical questions.  Chief among them, to what degree does self-devotion translate into service to others?

It’s another question probably better suited for another time.  The book makes no claim to know the answer, and I won’t either.  Like so many of the best questions, there may not be even an ultimate answer that can be applied to every situation. 

Still, in pursuing that ambition, Bruce Lee left an indelible mark on our culture, revolutionizing the film industry around the world and popularizing martial arts into a global phenomenon and respected institution. 

It’s important to understand because it suggests Lee’s own awareness of the more practical benefits of achieving fame; that while he might have been as keen as the next guy in simply seeing his face and name all lit up on the silver screen, he knew full well that those same benefits extended far beyond himself.

Starring on screen as a strong, confident Chinese man with attitude, acting not in some peripheral, subservient ‘butler’ role–the kind that was typically given to Asian actors next to their white co-stars–but as a leading man with more wit, charisma, charm and sophistication than any action movie star before or perhaps since, Bruce Lee left an incalculable influence on the collective consciousness for millions of people around the world, certainly for the continent of Asia, and most specifically for the Chinese, who for centuries had long suffered under the stigma of being labeled the “sick man of Asia.” 

Bruce Lee’s fame shattered that image, and his influence continues to empower generations of people, young and old, navigating their own paths to self-empowerment, in the continued realization of who they are, and what they want to be. 

Still, it seems that same ambition cut his life tragically short.  At age 32, he suffered a cerebral edema and died shortly before the release of Enter the Dragon, the very film which would catapult him into fame and set that future influence into motion. 

While the precise cause of the edema is still met with some uncertainty by medical experts and biographers, Polly makes a strong case for heat stroke/hypothermia caused by overexertion and sleep deprivation during the production of the film.  Enter the Dragon was his first starring role in an American movie, and he was very much aware of it’s potential impact as the perfect platform to introduce both himself and his philosophies of self-empowerment to the world. 

The Man Himself

With the film’s success, Bruce Lee had finally achieved much of what he envisioned, only posthumously; and as he paid the ultimate price, we might question whether it was even worth it.  The author makes no overt claim to know one way or another, though he does conclude that his death was not a tragedy because, as he writes, Bruce Lee’s life was a triumph.   

“Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die someday without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I feel no sorrow,” he once said.  “I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.”

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.