Saturday, June 30, 2007

Einstein=myth+archetype squared

A recent biography of Albert Einstein discusses, as a point of interest, the scientist's friendship with Charlie Chaplin. In 1973, one Edwin Schlossberg wrote a book that was comprised entirely of an imaginary dialogue between Einstein and absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. Back in 1965, Bob Dylan sang about Einstein disguised as Robin Hood.

Leaving these juxtapositions aside for a moment, the appeal of Einstein himself is obvious. He couldn't have planned his celebrity any better. He was a living archetype of the eccentric genius. His crazy hair made him a type of proto hippie, and his ability to straddle the line between conservative academia and liberal bohemia made him a type of embodiment of the relativity that he discovered (and in this he in fact prefigured a collapsing of this binary--the long-haired hippy professor archetype may not have been possible without him).

As a measure of Einstein's purity as a signifier, consider that Time magazine's man of the century is known by no nickname. Almost all real-life turned mythological figures are given nicknames to build their legend. No such need for Einstein. The name itself is self-mythologizing.

What should we make then of the connections to Chaplin, Beckett, and Robin Hood? Or of the fact that he was allegedly the model for E.T.'s eyes and Yoda's forehead? Pure archetypes are just asking to be sullied. Or, to put it less negatively, we are compelled to mix archetypes in order to generate different ideas. To think about Einstein interacting with the archetypal comedic actor, to think about the great relativist scientist interacting with the great relativist artist, to think about an archetypal scientist as an archetypal trickster, to think about the penetrating insight of a scientist as the penetrating insight of an alien, to give in to the temptation to regard scientist as sage...all dizzying possibilities. I'm no Einstein, but I'd be surprised if the trend of appropriating Einstein into other mythological constructions doesn't play out for generations to come.


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