Monday, March 16, 2015

Language... matters

Here’s a story Albert Einstein was fond of telling:
“I was at a tea in Princeton. The hostess asked me to explain relativity theory in a few words”.
So I said, “I once had a friend who was blind from birth and one day we went for a hike in the country. It was hot so after a couple of hours we sat down to rest”.
“How thirsty am I” I remarked to my friend, “I wish I had a cool glass of milk”.
“What is milk?” my friend inquired.
“Milk? Milk is a white fluid”.  
“I know what fluid is” my friend responded but what is “white?”
“White is the color of the swan’s feathers”
“I know what feathers are but what is a swan?”
“A swan is a large bird with a crooked neck”
“I can understand that” my blind friend replied, “Except for one thing. What is crooked?”
“Here” I said seizing his arm and stretching it out. “Now your arm is straight”. Then I folded it against his chest “And now your arm is crooked”.
“Ah, now I know what milk is.”

This is a story not of the foolishness of a blind man but rather, the gulf that separates individual cosmologies from each other and the essential uselessness of attempting to explain one of them with the tools available to the other. Einstein was capable of recognizing that and that is what I like about him the most. He was not the world’s greatest mind nor was he the world’s greatest scientist – those assertions are highly debatable except to those to whom Einstein is the equivalent of Jesus. Well marketed ideas mind you but like all marketing, to be taken with very large mountains of salt. No, what I like about him is the fact that he played the violin and considered that a greater achievement than his work in theoretical physics.

Here then is another “tea-party story” in similar vein although in this, instead of two disparate entities talking irreconcilable languages, this one is about a common language and its importance to everyone. It is a personal testimony of journalist Jerome Weidman. There are many versions of this story but this is the one I like best:

“When I was a very young man, just beginning to make my way I was invited to a talk by a great scientist at one of the more upmarket addresses in the Princeton area. The ride was difficult, it was raining, and I ran in breathless and very late. The hostess, slightly harried, says that the talk is over but they had retired to the drawing room so could I please fix myself a drink and get my late-ass in there without delay?”

It was an enormous room and the other guests were coming in in twos and threes and my eyes beheld two unnerving sights: Servants were arranging small gilt chairs in long, neat rows; and up front, leaning against the wall, were musical instruments.

Apparently I was in for an evening of chamber music.

 I use the phrase “in for” because music meant nothing to me. I am almost tone deaf—only with great effort can I carry the simplest tune, and serious music was to me no more than an arrangement of noises. So I did what I always did when trapped: I sat down, and when the music started, I fixed my face in what I hoped was an expression of intelligent appreciation, closed my ears from the inside, and submerged myself in my own completely irrelevant thoughts.

After a while, becoming aware that the people around me were applauding, I concluded it was safe to unplug my ears. At once I heard a gentle but surprisingly penetrating voice on my right: “You are fond of Bach?”

I knew as much about Bach as I know about nuclear fission. But the old man who was sitting there next to me was irksome and had decided to compound my misery it seems.

“Well,” I said uncomfortably and hesitated. I had been asked a casual question. All I had to do was be equally casual in my reply. But I could see from the look in my neighbor’s eyes that their owner was not merely going through the perfunctory duties of elementary politeness. Regardless of what value I placed on my part in the verbal exchange, to this man his part in it mattered very much. Above all, I could feel that this was a man to whom you did not tell a lie, however small.

“I don’t know anything about Bach,” I said awkwardly. “I’ve never heard any of his music.”

A look of perplexed astonishment washed across his countenance.

“You have never heard Bach?”

He made it sound as though I had said I’d never taken a bath.

“It isn’t that I don’t want to like Bach,” I replied hastily. “It’s just that I’m tone deaf, or almost tone deaf, and I’ve never really heard anybody’s music.”

A look of concern came into the old man’s face. “Please,” he said abruptly. “You will come with me?”

He stood up and took my arm. I stood up. As he led me across that crowded room, I kept my glance fixed on the carpet. A rising murmur of puzzled speculation followed us out into the hall but the man seemed not to notice.

Resolutely, he led me upstairs. He obviously knew the house well. On the floor above, he opened the door into a book-lined study, drew me in, and shut the door.

“Now,” he said with a small, troubled smile. “You will tell me, please, how long you have felt this way about music?”

“All my life,” I said, feeling awful. “I wish you would go back downstairs Sir. The fact that I don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean I deprive you of it.”

He scowled “You can go through life knowing nothing of mathematics or physics or science. They are not all that important to life or enjoyment. However, you cannot possibly go through life without music so, tell me if there is any kind of music you like?”

“Well,” I answered, “I like songs that have words, and the kind of music where I can follow the tune.”

He smiled and nodded, obviously pleased. “You can give me an example, perhaps?”

“Well,” I ventured, “almost anything by Bing Crosby.”

He nodded again, briskly. “Good!”

He went to a corner of the room, opened a phonograph, and started pulling out records. I watched him uneasily. At last, he beamed. “Ah!” he said.

He put the record on, and in a moment, the study was filled with the relaxed, lilting strains of Bing Crosby’s “When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.” He beamed at me and kept time with the stem of his pipe. After three or four phrases, he stopped the phonograph.

“Now,” he said. “Will you tell me, please, what you have just heard?”

The simplest answer seemed to be to sing the lines. I did just that, trying desperately to stay in tune and keep my voice from cracking. The expression on the old man’s face was like the sunrise.

“You see!” he cried with delight when I finished. “You do have an ear!”

I mumbled something about this being one of my favorite songs, something I had heard hundreds of times so that it didn’t really prove anything.

“Nonsense!” says he. “It proves everything! Do you remember your first arithmetic lesson in school? Suppose, at your very first contact with numbers, your teacher had ordered you to work out a problem in, say, long division or fractions. Could you have done so?”

“No, of course not.”

“Precisely!” he made a triumphant wave of his hand. “It would have been impossible, and you would have reacted in panic. You would have closed your mind to long division and fractions. As a result, because of that one small mistake by your teacher, it is possible your whole life you would be denied the beauty of long division and fractions.”

The hand went up and out in another wave.

“But on your first day, no teacher would be so foolish. He would start you with elementary things—then, when you had acquired skill with the simplest problems, he would lead you up to long division and to fractions.

“So it is with music.” He picked up the Bing Crosby record. “This simple, charming little song is like simple addition or subtraction. You have mastered it. Now we go on to something more complicated.”

He found another record and set it going. The golden voice of John McCormack singing “The Trumpeter” filled the room. After a few lines, he stopped the record.

“So!” he said. “You will sing that back to me, please?”

I did—with a good deal of self-consciousness but with, for me, a surprising degree of accuracy.

He stared at me with a look on his face that I had seen only once before in my life: on the face of my father as he listened to me deliver the valedictory address at my high school graduation ceremony.
“Excellent!” he remarked when I finished. “Wonderful! Now this!”

“This” turned out to be Caruso in what was to me a completely unrecognizable fragment from Cavalleria Rusticana, a one-act opera. Nevertheless, I managed to reproduce an approximation of the sounds the famous tenor had made. The old man beamed his approval.

Caruso was followed by at least a dozen others. I could not shake my feeling of awe over the way this great man, into whose company I had been thrown by chance, was completely preoccupied by what we were doing, as though I were his sole concern.

We came at last to recordings of music without words, which I was instructed to reproduce by humming. When I reached for a high note, his mouth opened, and his head went back as if to help me attain what seemed unattainable. Evidently I came close enough, for he suddenly turned off the phonograph.

“Now, young man,” he said, putting his arm through mine. “We are ready for Bach!”

As we returned to our seats in the drawing room, the players were tuning up for a new selection. he smiled and gave me a reassuring pat on the knee.

“Just allow yourself to listen,” he whispered. “That is all.”

It wasn’t really all, of course. Without the effort he had just poured out for a total stranger I would never have heard, as I did that night for the first time in my life, Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” I have heard it many times since. I don’t think I shall ever tire of it. Because I never listen to it alone. I am sitting beside a small, round man with a shock of untidy white hair, a dead pipe clamped between his teeth, and eyes that contain in their extraordinary warmth all the wonder of the world.

When the concert was finished, I added my genuine applause to that of the others.

I was still in my own dreamworlds when the hostess came up to me sighing “Oh it was a wonderful talk you missed” but I hardly heard her. The music was in my ears and I was staring across the room at the old man who was talking to the other guests. I pointed him out to the hostess and asked “who is that man?”

“Why you chump” she cries out. “That’s the man who gave the talk. That’s Albert Einstein”.

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