The Relative Arts
Albert Einstein elucidated his theories of relativity in detached, specific prose, with no thought for style or flourish. We should be thankful that he never wrote philosophy, produced a novel or wrote a sequence of poems. The laureate of Germany, and later of Princeton, was no painter, either, and no sculptor. And though he relished playing chamber music, he was not a violinist but a weekend fiddler.
Despite these artistic failings, Einstein became a symbol of science-as-art. His genius was such that his medium, which was the unknown, didn’t even require paper. The rarefied nature of Einstein’s science recommends it for consideration alongside the art of Europe’s other revolutionaries: Einstein’s theories of relativity (1905’s special theory of relativity came before the general theory) represented a breakthrough that can be coupled with that of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality, followed by his founding of serial music (1908, for the former); with Cubism as practiced by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso (1907, the painting of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”), and with the new literature of the interior mind, exemplified by the memorious novel of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and informed by the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941).
To the scientist, such tendentious parallels foolishly reduce their model, denigrating the absolution of mathematics while depriving art of joy. But exploring analogies between Einsteinian relativity and the work of contemporaneous artists is a way of both relating an esoteric theory to the layperson and exorcising whatever ineffable power it was that, in the early days of the past century, chose to express itself so similarly in equations, music, paint and words. (The book that provides the pretext for this essay, “Einstein for the 21st Century,” is just the latest example of this exploration, presenting fast but footnoted thesicles written by top academics on a host of Einsteinian lives: Einstein-as-Artist, Einstein-as-Jew….)
We should remember that all innovations are developed on the work of their predecessors; nothing of value has ever sprung from the ether. Schoenberg’s compositions were a stark extenuation of Gustav Mahler’s meandering intervals and weighty chords; Picasso was painting on the fractious model of the Impressionists of the previous generation, notably Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne, and Proust’s achievement was an individual embodiment or monologuing of Honoré de Balzac’s gargantuan scope. Tellingly, Einstein’s discovery comprised a metaphor itself: It was a transference, or translation, of earlier relativities, from the mechanical world to the world of what cannot be sensed.
For centuries, Galilean and Newtonian physics had proved that it was impossible for a body to measure its own motion. By the 19th century, Newton’s theories had become Laws implying that no one thing could determine its own velocity or the velocity of another without reference to an exteriority, without comparison. In applying this mechanistic idea to the entirety of the cosmos, Einstein insisted that a comparison of velocities could be made with the use of a universal constant, which he would discover in the speed of light, the c (for Latin’s celeritas, or speed) of his famous formula that would relate energy, E, to mass, m: E=mc2. Einstein’s initial theorizing held that there was no one temporally or spatially stationary perspective in the universe by, or from, which all motion could be judged, and that because the universe’s only constant seemed to be the speed of light, it could be proved that space and time were experienced differently by bodies in different states of motion. These “uncertainty principles,” founded upon a certainty that binds together all experience — namely the consistency of light hurtling at 299,792,458 meters per second — revolutionized a number of worlds: scientific, philosophic and artistic. The very constancy of light speed, when taken in the context of Einstein’s abstract conclusions, illuminated a wholly new field of being, an imperceptible alterity previously unexplored outside of esoteric religion, or mysticism — a Fourth Dimension, founded in 1908, first postulated by Hermann Minkowski. Inextricably coiled within the three traditional dimensions of space, which are length, width and depth or height, was this new (or the oldest) dimension of Time, or the superseding dimension of “Spacetime.” When taken as metaphor, this idea of an extra, evanescent dimensionality departs from physics for the black hole of art — a void in which matter does not inherently mean anything, but, rather, always must signify and refer, reliant on the relativistic expression of symbols.
It sometimes happens that a radical in thought emerges as a conservative in aesthetic preference. Revolution in one sphere is often supportable only by strict comfort in another. From his own pronouncements and letters to friends, we know that Einstein had orthodox musical tastes and that, even in his listening, he favored music that favored the skill level of the dedicated amateur. Even as Einstein played polite Mozart and Mozartian early Beethoven during breaks from his work as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, key centers were disappearing from music, and the entire tonal system, which had standardized sound ever since the chants of the Gregorian church developed into polyphony from monody, was being subverted.
Though none would argue that Schoenberg and his Viennese students Alban Berg and Anton Webern kept abreast of contemporary physics, it’s difficult to ignore that their musical practice was imbued with the same spirit of thought that informed Relativity. In Schoenberg’s dodecaphony, or 12-tone music, fundamental musical structure — once determined by the pulls of home keys and the pushes of dominants — gave way to a unified field in which all notes were equally related. Dissonance and consonance were revealed as meaningless mental constructs, not artistic verities; they represented the polarities of a flat world that thrived on hierarchy, on the differences to be plotted between the horizontal (melody) and vertical (harmony). After dodecaphony, melody and harmony would become inseparable, in music whose forms were determined by principles of mathematic variation. Much like the earth, which was once thought the universe’s center, with the other planets humming around on their orbital strings, music had lost its primacy or core, and composers after Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt began to focus less on musical pitch and more on the qualities of sound, and on innovations in live and recorded performance.
Relativity in the visual arts begins with the Impressionists, who abandoned Renaissance perspective, which had provided for a pictorial vanishing point and established the grid as the governing principle of the canvas. In Monet’s practice, the canvas was no longer a window to the three-dimensional outside or to a disegno interno (an ideal internal design), but a mirror that would reflect the artist’s mutable perception — the conduit for what the Impressionists would preciously call le petit sensation. Monet’s greatest pictures registered the time during which they were painted; their quickened brushstrokes represented the artist’s impressions at different hours, minutes and seconds, as time itself became not consecutive or linear, but layered, a palimpsest. Especially in Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, not one point of view was ever privileged, but an amalgamation of many, and each shadow or lightening of paint could represent a new gaze or insight, while the cathedral’s western window, as if a blank eye staring out from the middle of the canvas, signified nothing but the timeless void, an emptiness around which all of existence was swirling.
Cubism dashed Impressionism’s clock on the shapes of new, non-Euclidean geometries (a term for a mathematics that introduced Spacetime to geometry, complicating Euclid’s simple formula that all parallels could be intersected by a perpendicular line). The shapes suggested by mathematicians Georg Riemann and Henri Poincaré pointed to an artistic annex of the Fourth Dimension, as if what lay beyond the perceptible was only an infinite gallery wall. Lines of hypercubes and tessellation patterns would transform into the Cubistic presentation of simultaneous viewpoints and time frames, accounting, in Braque’s still lifes and Picasso’s portraits, for the coeval combinations of opposing facets and profiles.
In the century before Impressionism, painting had been thought of as a depiction of a specific locus and temporality, or the presentation of a timeless ideal. But the abstraction of a single flat surface that did not admit a viewer’s gaze, serving instead as a platform for geometric balancing acts, negated the prospect of a future or past for any scene or person so framed. This erasure of time was mated to the elimination of space, or depth, and Cubism courted abstraction as it moved toward a total complication of plane. Soon geometry self-effaced, and just as Impressionism had made Spacetime a veritable subject, and Cubism made it an object or technique, total abstraction exploded its component surfaces, as if splitting an atom into a Jackson Pollock mess. In the paintings of Pollock and Willem de Kooning, a Fourth Dimension was forsaken for an anarchical refusal to be tethered to the body’s exigencies, the rule of geometry and the very sciences that underlie the workings of clocks and the angles of place.
A metaphoric Fourth Dimension, though, was most explicitly a literary phenomenon, reflected in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and in the surreal fantasies of Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland,” where protagonists are not people but geometries, and where the narrator is a square. A less superficial manifestation of relativity can be found in the literature of memory, in the philosophy of Bergson and in the writings of that philosopher’s acquaintance (and cousin by marriage), Marcel Proust, whose “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” presents extra-dimensionality as a reflective or hesternal phenomenon, as the mental inhabitation of the past.
Bergson believed that since time was always in motion, the single moment was unknowable: Just as one attempted to grasp an individual moment or thought, it would be gone — not necessarily replaced by another, but lost to the flow of all moments, all thoughts. Bergson’s Spacetime, then, was essentially consciousness, which he felt would forever elude mensuration. While physicists of his day, which saw the perfection of the microscope and the first experimentation with subatomic particles, observed objects and events in fixed, finite relationships, Bergson would invoke a Zeno’s Paradox applied not to spatial or chronologic infinity, but to the mind itself. He believed in what he called la durée, which has been translated as “Duration,” implying that ceaseless flux of indivisible experience. It was intuition (l’intuition), and not intellection or formula, that would interpret the world, and while Spacetime could best be analogized by Bergson as consciousness, Bergsonian consciousness itself could be expressed only indirectly, which is to say symbolically, in images, or as memory; because every moment, forever ungraspable, is immediately past, and each instant becomes, instantaneously, the stuff of reminiscence and yesterdays. Bergson’s vertiginous metaphysic, in which nothing is knowable, and consciousness can lead only to consciousness-of-consciousness, and so on in a regressus ad infinitum, brings us back to an original garden where memory frolics with fantasy, and where what we know of our pasts is forever being revised by the personalities we are always becoming.
In the opening of his vast, sevenfold novel, Marcel Proust, or the narrator “Marcel Proust,” dipped a madeleine into his tea, which parlor ritual was a Big Bang for literature and mind. Proust’s masterwork explores the world — or only the memories displaced by the dunking of that teatime treat — through an almost somnambulistic, or deathly, consciousness, both timeless and without space. One never knows who, where or when “Marcel Proust” is, what he’s doing or what his life is like while he is telling his story. Childhood experiences are seen through childhood eyes, and then, in another paragraph, as if through the eyes of an adult; love is experienced as a teenager experiences love, and then lust is philosophized about in a way befitting a man of experience and wisdom. The gaze of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” is synoptic, even while the irreducible point at center — the force that binds together the novel’s narrator in all his ages and selves, with the writer who, lying abed in Paris, narrates the narrator — remains an insufferable cipher. In Proust as in Bergson, memory is the ultimate and terminal dimension, where space and time create and populate worlds that spin, and spin tales, in the darkness of our imaginations. But it is here — in the human capacity to imagine — where science must end, and the true fictions of existence begin.
A century after Einstein and the advent of the movement called Modernism, it appears we are still searching for scientific explanations for the meaning of art, and not because science has any logical connection with artistic content — as it has, for example, with form — but because scientific criteria might help set standards by which the unsure or uneducated of a technocratic culture might judge an artwork as competent, inevitable or necessary. (Indeed, it is this attitude that gave 20th-century art its ridiculous air of research, or progress: “Abstraction in painting is more sophisticated than the representational”; “Serial music is an advance on the tonal,” etc.) Einstein’s discoveries and their peer achievements in the arts were inspired by the same secret, perhaps divine aspirations: to know the world in a new light; to listen to and see what was previously unable to be heard and invisible, and to read ourselves, by understanding consciousness as a human talent whose capacities for the creation of alternate spaces and times are shared with, or are the same as, the talents of the cosmos itself.
Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.