March 14, 2018

Side by Side on Einstein’s Birthday: Hamlet, Relativity, and the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale

Imagination is more important than knowledge — it encircles the whole world.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

—Hamlet (1601–∞)

By Stuart Mitchner

If you were to measure their relative value in light of Einstein’s statement, Shakespeare would have the advantage because the works of his imagination can be apprehended while Einstein’s require a knowledge of mathematics and physics most people don’t possess. Unfair and illogical though it may be, the wonders of Shakespeare’s language supercede the relatively impenetrable wonders of Einstein’s theory.

Or you could say that if an Einstein had not existed, a Shakespeare might have invented one, given that a relative universal appreciation of both depends on the medium in which Shakespeare is the ultimate master. Meanwhile, scientists might suggest that if a value defined as Shakespeare had not existed, an entity known as Einstein might have imagined a formula for the mysterious convergence of matter and inertia that produced Hamlet and Portia and Falstaff and all the other enduring formations of word-matter comprising Shakespeare’s universe.

In Einstein’s Princeton

In the realm of 21st-century Princeton life, Wednesday is Einstein’s birthday and Friday is the annual Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, where there are more books “in heaven and earth, book lovers, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

This phenomenon, like the Princeton Public Library’s annual sale, is a donation-driven equivalent of the Big Bang wherein volumes covering virtually every facet of civilization descend on the venue shoppers will be exploring March 16-20 at the Princeton Day School. Although I’m writing in advance of this year’s sale, the one unassailable physical reality you can count on is that volumes by and about Einstein and Shakespeare will be there. For the sake of this necessarily hypothetical visit, imagine that I’ve found an advance proof of Einstein’s Travel Diaries (free, since it’s marked “not for resale”), and The Formative Years of Relativity: The History and Meaning of Einstein’s Princeton Lectures, both books from Princeton University Press, which last year also published Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years in the acclaimed translation of Princeton resident Shelley Frisch. In addition to this homegrown assortment, let’s say I’m reading Hamlet in Volume 7 of the 1836 Hilliard, Gray, and Company edition of Shakespeare’s Works.

In Prague and Princeton

Shakespeare’s kings and clowns have nothing on Princeton’s Einstein, the “king of infinite space” who will be viewed in less exalted terms on Pi Day, whether shambling in slippers or sticking his tongue out or drifting in his dinghy on Lake Carnegie. He’s always with us, the town’s patron saint and its adorable mascot. Like it or not, this is the Einstein Princeton holds dear 63 years after his death in the hospital that once stood on Witherspoon Street.

 A preview of Princeton’s Einstein can be found in Kafka: The Early Years. Having arrived in Prague in the spring of 1911 with an appointment as full professor in the physics institute at the German university, he is “utterly indifferent to the standards of professorial dignity,” showing up for lectures wearing a sweater and coming to a formal reception in his honor wearing a blue shirt, leading the concierge to think “he was the electrician they had been expecting.” Again, the Princeton equation: what we value about Einstein’s humanity, dressing like a workman, without airs, is relative to the magnitude of his reputation, a foil for his genius.

Prague’s Einstein is soon prey to Kafkaesque paranoia, finding the citizens “alien” to him, “not people with natural sentiments” but “unfeeling … without any kind of goodwill toward their fellow men …. Something akin to personality is unusual here.” He sounds all the more like K. in The Castle after finding “that he would have to apply to the highest political authority — the governor of Bohemia himself — to cover the cleaning costs for his institute.”

Kafka came to the lecture Einstein gave on May 24 on the heels of a talk by Rudolph Steiner that left him thinking that “Theosophy is nothing but a surrogate for literature.” After attending Steiner’s lecture on “The Hidden Depths of Spiritual Life,” Einstein seems to consider theosophy a surrogate for nothing, least of all science, calling Steiner’s notion of extrasensory experience “complete rubbish …. Maybe I don’t need my eyes and ears to experience something, but surely I have to use one sense or another.”

Einstein and Hamlet

Reading Hamlet by the light of a battery-operated lantern during last week’s power outage, I kept noticing lines and passages that might have attracted Einstein’s interest. Again and again, Elsinore’s prince gives all his senses to the challenge of “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls” and of “what dreams may come” after death. The cosmic note is sounded when the ghost of his father declares that his tale and the mission it portends will make “thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.” Einstein might also have related to the terms of Hamlet’s soaring vision of “this goodly frame, the earth” and “this most excellent canopy, the air, … this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.”

I’m taking my cue from Einstein’s May 1921 Princeton lecture, where, after stating that “the theory of relativity is intimately connected with the theory of space and time” and that the “object of all science, whether natural science or psychology, is to co-ordinate our experiences,” he goes on to say that by “the aid of language, different individuals can, to a certain extent, compare their experiences.”

Such a comparison relative to Hamlet can be made by way of the intimate daily jottings in the Travel Diaries from Einstein’s voyage to the Far East, Palestine, and Spain in 1922-1923. In MTV parlance, this is Einstein “unplugged.” At times, the stream of consciousness element suggests Leopold Bloom in Ulysses: “Roasted lobsters. Poor creatures … Decent filth everywhere … Unwell from bad grub … Trees wonderful: people banal … Futile attempt to buy pipe tobacco … Visits by Berliners and burial alive … Radiant sunshine. Sense of liberation … great indignation by left-at-home wife … Hilarious pilgrimages with a big lantern to the outhouse.”

His favorite metaphors for social fatigue are relative to “dead tired,” as in “burial alive or “I was dead and my corpse rode back to Moji where it was dragged to a children’s Christmas and had to play violin for the children.”

Side by Side

Read alongside Hamlet, the diaries offer some intriguing “co-ordinate” interplay. For instance these entries in Einstein’s shipboard diary from October 1922, a year and a half after his Princeton lectures on relativity. He’s headed east on a Japanese ship.

“9th Oct. …. The sun revitalizes me and removes the gulf between ‘ego’ and ‘id.’ I began reading Kretschmer’s On Physique and Character. Wonderful description of temperaments and their physical habitus. I can thus categorize many of my fellow beings but not myself, because I’m a hopeless hybrid. Yesterday I perused Bergson’s book on relativity and time. Strange that time alone is problematic to him but not space.”

Hamlet: after referring to “all forms, modes, shows of grief” that a man “might play”: “I have that within which passeth show.” Then: “The time is out of joint” and later: “O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Einstein: “11th Oct: …. Sea somewhat restless. I now think that seasickness is based on dizziness caused by lack of orientation, not directly on the apparent changes in gravity, according to direction and magnitude.”

Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Einstein: “13th Oct. Midday. 3 p.m., Port Said …. In the harbor, a swarm of rowing boats with screaming and gesticulating Levantines of every shade, who lunge at our ship. As if spewed from hell.”

Ophelia (after her “terrifying” encounter with Hamlet): “As if he had been loosed out of hell/To speak of horrors, — he comes before me.”

Einstein (from The Formative Years of Relativity): “A turning point was the confirmation of the bending of light in a gravitational field, which, as predicted, was observed during a solar eclipse in 1919.”

Ophelia (after the same encounter): “He seem’d to find his way without his eyes;/For out o’ doors he went without their helps,/And, to the last, bended their light on me.”

Shakespeare plays on the pompous absurdities of Polonius in a speech to Claudius and Gertrude that becomes like relativity gone wild: “What majesty should be, what duty is,/Why day is day, night night, and time is time,/Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.” After Gertrude asks for “More matter with less art”: “Madam, I swear I use no art at all./That he is mad, ‘tis true: ‘tis true ‘tis pity;/And pity ‘tis ‘tis true: a foolish figure;/But farewell it, for I will use no art./Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains/That we find out the cause of this effect,/Or rather say, the cause of this defect,/For this effect defective comes by cause.”

Found at Bryn Mawr

It’s been years since I took my numbered place in line on the opening day of the Bryn Mawr book sale, back before Wellesley became a co-host. Of all the books I found there over the years, one of the few I still own and frequently consult is the paperback edition of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, where the longest chapter is devoted to Hamlet, whose “infinite reverberations,” in Bloom’s words, are matched by “no other single character in the plays.”

The same could be said for Shakespeare at Bryn Mawr. Even though the setting up process had only just begun on Monday afternoon, Shakespeare already filled an entire table and was overflowing on to his neighbor in Drama. The only books on Princeton’s most famous resident I saw (you can be sure there will be many more) were recent ones like Einstein in Berlin and Walter Isaacson’s biography. Meanwhile the Shakespeare table groaned under the weight of heavy scholarly artillery that included the massive one-volume Arden Shakespeare, the Harvard Concordance, a 2 volume Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, and numerous incarnations of the Works, including the 30-volume-plus 1901 Booklover’s Edition.

For full details on the sale, see the ads in this week’s Town Topics or visit