A Thanksgiving Essay
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Since this is the last Thanksgiving of the century, you might as well make it a doozy and consider what we have to thank the century for in terms of ideas and events.
The major influences of thought when the century began were Einstein, Freud, and Marx; each of whom, though quite different, brought to the new era a way to take the old era apart.
Freud demolished the absolutism of good and evil by stating that every individual functions within a general guilt of the species.
Marx declared that the world should be turned on its head and ruled from the bottom up, implying that the individual was the state.
Einstein, the most picturesque of the three, for whom “e=mc2″ was placed on T-shirts, dismantled Newtonian physics by proving that space and time are relative, not absolute concepts. His relativity was misinterpreted as relativism, the idea that ethical truth depends on the individuals or groups holding them.
That truth derives from point of view. Einstein did not believe this, but Freud and Marx did. In any case, all three of these fellows shook up what sense of certainty remained in the 19th century after Darwin. And they’re shaking up accounts for much of what is good and bad in the century they transformed.
So when I say we have these three thinkers to thank for the past 100 years, I mean both genuine gratitude and “thanks, but no thanks.” What relativism did for art, literature, and music was thrilling, whether one likes the stuff or not.
A relativistic century of imaginative creation was urged on by the likes of Picasso, the cubists, T.S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Shoenberg, Proust, Joyce, Yeats, and many to follow. Yet when relativism was applied to political order, chaos was not so attractive. (Gunfire)
When World War I was underway, Yeats lamented that mere anarchy was loosed upon the world. That war of all against all was anti-absolutist in the extreme. Whole countries flung at one another for no discernible purpose other than murder incorporated.
Neitzsche had already proclaimed that god is dead. Now so it appeared. One gives thanks for nothing, then, for the ideas that produced upheaval for upheaval’s sake. And things were going to get worse.
First, the Marxist rights of man are sung to bring down imperial power. Then the rights of man are trampled to retain the power of the state. Lenin begets Stalin begets gulags and the Berlin Wall. Freud, who took the sin out of sin, made evil seem merely as someone’s bad dream, not a real force; a point of view. (Air raid siren wailing)
Then Hitler comes along with his lethal point of view to prove otherwise… (Explosion) …That absolute evil exists. He was later affirmed by Pol Pot in Cambodia, by Idi Amin in Uganda, and more recently, by Milosevic in Bosnia. (Explosion)
Einstein’s discoveries about the structure of matter led to the making of the atom bomb, which led to the Cold War and to the hot war waiting in the wings. Once absolutes were smashed, nationalism rushed to fill the vacuum and ethnocentrism. And the individual who was said to be the darling of the world was found lying under some other individual’s boot.
SPOKESMAN: You’re all set. Go get ’em.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yet all that also changed, and today, most of the world’s powers have shifted to democracies, with the rather large exception of China, which itself may be learning the lesson that nationalism is a shaky and dangerous way of living in the world.
One needs a few absolutes of a moral sort here and there. Einstein alone, among the century’s intellectuals, knew this to be true. His last years at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, were spent in search of a unified field theory, something he believed in as early as 1905, when he rattled the universe.
For him, God was never dead, but God was sublimely and subtly clever. Einstein wrote, “The world of our sense experience is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” In the end, the three great minds that shaped and launched our century deserve our thanks, not so much for what they discovered or for where their discoveries led, but rather for the fact that they stood for the power of the free imagination.
Marx, the least interesting of the three, saw something hidden in the social structure. Freud saw something hidden in the mind. Einstein saw something hidden in the cosmos. They saw without seeing, and had to envision the world anew. It would be nice to think that we arrive at the end of the century both improved and chastened by the free uses of their minds.
Here is the lesson. We are free individuals, relative only to the good for which we make our freedom work. That is what one learns after all the paintings and the music and the words and the prisons and the murders and the strivings for faith on this Thanksgiving Day 1999.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.