PD Smith

Travellers in relativity & the Anthropocene

15 December 2018 | Anthropocene, Einstein, Guardian, Hermann Hesse, Nabokov, Science, TLS | Post a comment

I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to review two books about people whose lives and work have fascinated me for a long time. Strangely, both were born within a few years of each other and in the same region of Germany – Swabia.

Albert Einstein was born in 1879 in the city of Ulm, which that other son of Swabia, Herman Hesse, described as an “extremely beautiful and unusual city”. Hesse was born just two years before Einstein, in the Black Forest town of Calw. It’s a beautiful part of Germany. The 15th-century astrologer and alchemist Johannes Faust also came from this region, as well as GWF Hegel and Friedrich Hölderlin.

In the autumn of 1922, Einstein travelled with his second wife, Elsa, to Japan to give a series of lectures at the invitation of the head of the Kaizo-Sha publishing house in Tokyo, Sanehiko Yamamoto. Apparently, Yamamoto had asked Betrand Russell to name the three greatest people in the world at the time. The philosopher replied: “First Einstein, then Lenin. There is nobody else.”

Einstein spent five and a half months travelling, also briefly visiting Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo and Shanghai (he cancelled a planned lecture series in Beijing at the last moment). On the return leg of his journey he spent twelve days in Palestine and three weeks in Spain.

During his travels, he kept a personal diary. Although it was private, it has now been published as The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine & Spain 1922-1923, edited by Einstein scholar Ze’ev Rosenkranz.

The diary begins on 6 October 1922 with a typically laconic remark: “Lost wife at border.” Fortunately Einstein was soon reunited with Elsa and they departed for Japan two days later on board the SS Kitano Maru. At Port Said the ship was greeted by “a swarm of rowing boats” filled with “bandit-like filthy Levantines, handsome and graceful to look at”.

At the other end of the Suez Canal he speaks rather more kindly of the Arab merchants, describing them as “handsome sons of the desert”. He enjoys views of the night sky from the ship: “Have never seen the Milky Way so beautiful”. He is somewhat less pleased by his newfound celebrity status: “On the ship I am frequently photographed, with and without people, mainly by Japanese”.

Einstein referred to himself as a “traveller in relativity” and in Japan he delivered a series of lectures on the theory many still regarded as incomprehensible. Einstein’s typically forthright and sometimes rather offensive language in the diary has caused some controversy. For instance, he describes the Chinese as “a peculiar herd-like nation…often resembling automatons more than humans”. By contrast, he enthused about the Japanese: “pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.”

Rosenkranz concludes that Einstein’s journey to the Far East “forced him to confront his own multiple identities: “ethnically as a Jew, nationally as a German and a Swiss, continentally as a European and hemispherically as a Westerner”. In this travel journal, clearly written for his eyes only, we see Einstein at his most human, capable of making boorish, unthinking and even racist remarks.

Indeed, it shows that Einstein was first and foremost a brilliant scientist and that though he undoubtedly had an unequalled insight into the laws of physics, his understanding of human nature and of other cultures was very far from profound. It seems that even a genius is, in the end, only human.

It was my love of Hermann Hesse’s novels that prompted me to study German literature at university. I was blown away by works like Demian, Narzissus and Goldmund and his classic novel The Glass Bead Game. His use of Chinese and Indian religious and philosophical ideas seemed to offer insights into individuation and an alternative to the crass materialism of modernity, a theme I explored in an undergraduate dissertation. So I was delighted to be asked to review Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow, by Gunnar Decker.

Decker notes that Hesse was “a notoriously irritable loner, who could tolerate other people – even his own wives – only at a suitable distance”. From adolescence he was a figure “on the verge of psychopathology” and the inner harmony that he sought throughout his life proved elusive. Indeed, it was something he only achieved in the pages of his writing: “he was and remains an author of crisis”.

Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. After his death in 1962, he became “the most successful German author bar none worldwide”. His collected works now extend to twenty volumes, some 15,000 pages. His writings were translated into 34 languages during his lifetime. Hesse noted wrly: “the Japanese understand me best and the Americans the least.”

Ironically, it was in the United States that he enjoyed a Renaissance in the 1960s among young, liberated readers. Timothy Leary described Steppenwolf as a “master guide to the psychedelic experience” and the rock group Steppenwolf had a single called “Born to Be Wild”. As Der Spiegel observed in 1968, “it was the hippies who dragged Hesse out of the doldrums”.

Hesse has always had a mixed reputation among English-speaking critics, with some detecting a “faint whiff of metaphysical Lederhosen” about his work. His star has certainly waned in recent years.

Nevertheless, Decker’s wonderfully rich and insightful biography reveals the true depth of vision in this “meticulous fabricator of dreams”. I believe it is destined to become the standard work on this difficult, reclusive and often self-destructive writer who “concealed himself within his contradictions”.

Lolita is a complex and often misunderstood novel, one in which Vladimir Nabokov “gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process”. Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World brilliantly reminds readers of the true crime behind the fiction and “the darkness of real life”.

An authority on crime fiction, Weinman has painstakingly researched the tragic case of Sally Horner, abducted aged eleven in 1948 by Frank La Salle. On the notecards which Nabokov used to record details of American life for his fiction, he wrote that Sally had spent “21 months as the cross-country slave” of “a middle-aged morals offender”. These were phrases that would appear in his 1955 novel, Lolita, proof, as Weinman says, that Sally’s story “captured his attention and that her real-life ordeal was inspiration for Dolores Haze’s fictional plight”.

Indeed, Weinman makes a compelling case (despite the absence of hard evidence) that Nabokov was aware of the case from an early stage in the novel’s composition, and that it is “seeded” throughout the narrative which he began writing at about the time Sally had been abducted, even referring to her by name at one point.

Though he later denied that the book was inspired by the case, Weinman argues it did indeed provide a vital impetus “to transform a partial manuscript primed for failure into the eventual, unlikely, staggering success of Lolita.” Weinman offers a timely corrective to Nabokov’s attempt to deny the roots of his fiction in reality, showing that he “pilfered from a true story”: “what Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.”

Like one of Nabokov’s butterflies, Weinman’s compassionate and gripping book allows Sally to “emerge from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free”.

Although I have to admit I’m no ornithologist, I’ve been enthralled by two recent books on birds I reviewed for the Guardian.

Christopher Skaife has what he himself describes as “the oddest job in Britain”. His official title is Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London. He is one of the former soldiers who are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower and custodians of its ancient rituals.

As if that isn’t Gormenghastian enough, Skaife is also the Tower’s Ravenmaster, responsible for the safety and welfare of the seven black-as-night corvids on whose continued residence at the Tower the fate of the nation depends, at least according to legend.

His book – The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – is not a natural history, although along the way you do pick up some fascinating facts about ravens, as well as their place in myth. Rather he describes his unique job and how he has come to love and respect the ravens he cares for: “In learning about the ravens, I have discovered a lot about what it means to be a human: I’ve learned to listen, to observe, and to be still. The ravens have been my teachers and I have been their pupil.”

These are truly fearsome birds. Apparently ravens are particularly fond of dog biscuits soaked in blood. They are also partial to a juicy, fat rat which they tackle thus: “foot on, claws in, beak engaged, guts first, then the rest stripped bare, leaving just the skin”. Skaife collects the remains to feed to the local foxes.

They also attack pigeons, often working in pairs using a “simple pincer movement” to trap them. Once Skaife was summoned by sounds of screaming from tourists standing in a queue at the Tower: a raven had caught a pigeon and was eating it “from the inside out while it was still alive”.

Ravens are also remarkably intelligent and pair for life, living for some twenty years. When their partner dies, Skaife has observed how the remaining raven is distraught: “it was heartbreaking to watch”. Skaife’s book is a wonderfully personal and authentic account of life with the Tower of London’s ravens.

Britain’s large gulls are divided into two separate populations of rural and urban birds. There are thought to be more than 100,000 urban pairs of gulls. Bristol’s rooftops have been colonised by these “canny opportunists” since at least the 1980s: “the city that brought the Atlantic to Britain – slaves, sugar and tobacco – has drawn seabirds into its heart.”

In Landfill, Tim Dee goes “gulling” with gull enthusiasts, or “larophiles”, a word derived from the Latin name for the gull family: Laridae.

Dee is less interested in writing a conventional natural history of Britain’s gulls than in “watching the watchers and the watched”. These sea birds – “tokens of the far-from-home and the storm-tossed” – are increasingly infiltrating our urban worlds and, as they do so, our view of them is evolving.

Picking up scraps of discarded fast food from gutters, snatching chips from the fingers of tourists, picking over rubbish dumps for food waste – gulls are scorned as “bin chickens” and “the subnatural inhabitants of drosscapes”. But they are becoming part of our everyday lives.

Dee’s task is subtle and almost philosophical. His beautifully written book is as much about us as it is about the gulls. In the Anthropocene, as we increasingly dominate and alter the natural world, animals are changing their behaviour in order to survive.

From conversations at rubbish dumps to Chekhov’s seagull (probably a black-headed gull) and gulls in Beckett’s plays (“there is no green; there aren’t even any gulls”), Dee’s book is a memorable meditation on gulls and our evolving relationship with nature in the Anthropocene.

Another book that focuses on life in the Anthropocene is Primate Change: How the World We Made is Remaking Us, by Vybarr Cregan-Reid. According to Cregan-Reid our urban, technological world is slowly killing us.

British children now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. A fifth of 5- to 12-year-olds don’t go outside at all on an average day and more than one in nine do not go to a park, beach, forest or any natural environment in a year.

Bad backs (from which the author himself suffers – as does this reviewer) rarely appear in fiction before the nineteenth century. One of the first examples is that of Jenny Wren in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Today 80% of adults in the US will suffer from it at some point.

Today most of us work sitting down, an extremely unnatural posture – chairs were not a common feature of homes until the Early Modern period. Sitting for long periods weakens the musculature in the back and eventually throughout the body: “sitting is a major cause of a sackful of diseases”. We spend 70-100 hours a week sitting, or four to six years of every decade, which is longer than we spend sleeping: “the human body was never meant to physically experience modern life in this way”.

The result is that in the Anthropocene, our current geological epoch, most people now die of a “mismatch disease” caused by the friction between our bodies and an unfamiliar environment: “the Anthropocene human is one whose body has changed – not as a result of evolution but in response to the environment we have created.” Examples of these diseases include myopia, allergies, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The way we live today is killing us. Although he adds: “still, modern life does have its benefits; in a busy metropolitan centre you are significantly less likely to be eaten by a dinosaur.”

In a work of remarkable synthesis and scope, Cregan-Reid ranges across ancient history, science and literature to explore the long history of human evolution and adaptation to our environment. He offers helpful advice, informed by current research, on how to avoid the mismatch between our bodies – designed for walking in the grassland – and the urban, sedentary lives we now lead.

His main point in this witty, informative and potentially life-changing book is that we should all get out of our chairs and start moving: “in order for our feet and our bodies to stay healthy, they need movement in the way that stomachs need food and skin needs sunlight”.

It’s a shocking fact that if you’re aged 45-64 and do sedentary work, you are 40% more likely to end up in a nursing home. Today, “if movement were a diet in modern life, we would all be starving”.

And with that in mind, I’ve been sitting down for long enough writing this, so I’m off for a walk.

Catch you later!


Links to the books & the reviews:

Ze’ev Rosenkranz, ed, The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine & Spain 1922-1923 (Princeton University Press, £29.95) – Times Literary Supplement (£)

Gunnar Decker, Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow, translated by Peter Lewis (Harvard UP, £30) – Guardian

Sarah Weinman, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99) – Guardian

Christopher Skaife, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London (4th Estate, £14.99) – Guardian

Tim Dee, Landfill (Little Toller Books, £16) – Guardian

Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Primate Change: How the World We Made is Remaking Us (Octopus, £16.99) – Guardian

Leave a Reply

Name (required)
Mail (will not be published) (required)