The most important lesson of modernity is that nihilism is not a monstrous abyss below us, but rather a solid reality that we are destined to face. Knowing that ‘nothing matters’ is indeed a great thing. It is almost as great as knowing the second law of thermodynamics. If we learned anything important from the bloodshed history of modernity, it is that nihilism is something inevitable. Unless we want to go back all the way to the grand inquisitor, we will inevitably need to learn to coexist with nihilism.
For a whole week, I could not fall asleep properly. Falling asleep at four, waking up in the afternoon. The pattern lasted for several days, and then a new day with no sleep at all. It is hard to describe the feeling. The sun has risen yet the day has not been renewed. It is not through the circle of nights and days but rather through the alternating of sleeping and waking that our biological clocks work. After a sleepless night, walking on the street, I feel like a stranger from yesterday. Everyone is reborn after the night, but I am alone, uncured.
Years ago I told my mother why I preferred to be away from home after graduation. I said I preferred large cities full of strangers to our cozy little small town. I love to wander out at a summer night, watching those strangers walking on the street, going into cinemas, eating at restaurants, converging to some place and then diverging again into the city night. I can pretend to be a ghost, coming from another time, watching, observing, seeing other people living without living by myself. It is a great pleasure, to experience life without actually living.
Today I saw people lying on the grass, reading. It is a strange thing. No, I am not saying these people are strange. I also did that sometimes, though I could not remember exactly when. There are other people on the grass. They are barbecuing, eating,drinking, playing football, playing cards, or just lying there, talking. Yet reading on the grass is different. To read is to make sense of a bunch of human-invented symbols that are nowhere existent in nature. It is a complicated activity that is uniquely human and extremely unnatural. Lying on the grass, you feel like you are integrated in nature, becoming a part of the cycle of birth and death. Yet reading promises something different, something about eternity and immortality, for in between the lines a will towards eternity is always there. What is written there is meant to last forever (at least we hope so), is a counter force to the inevitable cycle of nature. Though we know that everything written down on the paper shall one day also vanish into thin air, we naively believe that there is something transcendental behind the written symbols. It is a human illusion. Perhaps it is illusions like this that constitute humanity.
A game in which both sides shoot a straw man and unilaterally claim victory.
If I was made to choose my favorite biographies, Graham Farmelo’s biography of Dirac would definitely be among them, partly because of the steady-paced yet inciting writing style of the author, and partly due to the fact that Dirac himself is such a fascinating and mysterious figure. Fascinating as every genius in human history, and mysterious as an introvert whose inner workings are seldom visible to others, Dirac made the reputation as ‘the strangest man’ even among the circle of physicists which usually consists of many strange people.
Even a layman to physics may have heard about some anecdotes about Dirac. Story goes like that when a student raised his hand and said he did not understand the equation on the top-left blackboard, Dirac kept silent until being pressed to say something. And Dirac said’ That’s not a question, it is a comment.’ And there is another story: Dirac once claimed to some other fellow physicists that he invented bra without giving any further explanation and walked away, leaving his fellow colleagues puzzled. Anecdotes like these constitutes a large part of public imagination towards Paul Dirac and perhaps towards the whole scientists community. Fictional figures of scientists like Sheldon Cooper are almost exactly like Dirac in these anecdotes: living in their own world, thinking about weird problems all day and almost having no social skills. Of course these anecdotes capture something essential to the charm around Dirac. Yet at the same time they have a harmful side effect. By knowing Dirac from his anecdotes, we are often led to forget about the human side of him, to dehumanize him as a thinking machine that is completely different from us. Farmelo’s biography partially dissolved the mystery by paying a lot of attention to the family and personal lives of Dirac, making its protagonist as human as any.
Paul Dirac is the second child of Charles and Flo, after their eldest son Felix. Later they also had a daughter Betty. The marriage between Charles and Flo does not look like a matching one. Their personalities could not be more different. Charles, born in Switzerland, worked as a French teacher in the local Bristol school, had the reputation of being faithful to his work among colleagues. In the family, he is a rather strict and authoritative father, reticent and inscrutable, seldom talking to the children. According to Dirac, Charles only spoke French at home, which made him believe that grown-up men and women speak different languages. Flo is, on the contrary, a talkative and social person, feeling confined as a housewife. She is the more caring parent towards children, as perhaps every woman at that time is in marriage. Their marriage seems good at first. Later they shall find it horribly grinding, when their children grow up and leave them alone, with nothing between them as their harshly different personalities clashed.
In the local college, Dirac studied engineering for some time and later found himself more intrigued by more theoretical subjects like physics. When he got the opportunity to study physics in Cambridge, his father paid for it, which makes the only thing he felt grateful to his father.(After Charles’ death, it was revealed that Charles did not pay for this himself, he looked for some local funding to pay for Paul’s tuition fees in Cambridge.)
Meanwhile, as Dirac’s talent in science became obvious as a student, the relationship between him and Felix dimmed. His career dream of becoming a doctor collapsed when his father refused to pay for his medicine school. And perhaps feeling intellectually outmaneuvered by his younger brother, he left home for work. Years later he committed suicide.
Years in Cambridge make the most fruitful and probably the happiest time in Dirac’s whole life. Here he made his major contributions to physics. And he got some of his closest friends here. Among them is Peter Kapitza, who in some sense became Paul’s surrogate brother. Kapitza introduced left-wing thoughts to Dirac, which Dirac get inclined, though to many people he is too aloof to have any thoughts political.
With her eldest son dead and feeling oppressed doing the housework, Flo turned to her most favorable son for solace. She wrote to Paul regularly, telling him about the family and asking him about his life. Dirac rarely replied, and when he replied, there was usually not more than a few lines. The first year when Dirac got a position, Flo wrote to him, asking him if he would send her some money for a diamond ring which she wanted so much but Charles would never agreed to buy. Dirac sent the money. Flo was delighted, proudly telling friends about how much her beloved son cared for her. In the unhappy marriage with Charles, with all the tiresome house labors and dull days, Paul became the last hope she had against her monotonous, colorless life.
When Dirac won the Nobel prize in physics in 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger. He brought his mother to Stockholm with him. Together with them was last years prize winner Werner Heisenberg, who also brought his mother with him. Schrödinger took his wife. (see this picture here) Surrounded by journalists, Flo was at home, talking a lot about Dirac’s education and so on, leaving her son rather happily undisturbed by the reporters. When asked whether Charles Dirac cared much about their son’s achievement, Flo said she believed not. Now we knew that it is not quite a fair judgement, for Charles did care about his son’s achievement. He actually tended to the local college courses provided for people interested in physics, trying to figure out what his son’s work is about. The lecturer was surprised seeing an old man in his classroom. The old man talked to him after the lecture, thanked him for his lecture,saying that his son was a physicist but never told him anything when asked.
Just a few months before Dirac won the Nobel Prize, Paul Ehrenfest committed suicide after shooting his son Wassik, who suffered from Down Syndrome. A few days before the tragic incident, just after a meeting of physicists in Copenhagen, Ehrenfest told Dirac with tears that he was very grateful to know that a genius like Dirac would think his ideas valuable, and said he sometimes felt so depressed that he even lost his will to live. Stirred and apparently not used to handle the situation, Dirac could only say that his high evaluation of Ehrenfest’s ideas is absolutely sincere. After hearing about the tragedy, Dirac wrote to Bohr to express his regrets of not taking Ehrenfest’s words literally, a fault almost no one believes that Dirac would commit.
In 1937,Dirac married Manci, Eugene Wigner‘s younger sister,who he first met during her visit to Princeton. Manci had two children from her first marriage and did not seem to make a perfect match with Dirac at all. She is as subjective as Dirac is objective towards the outside world. She talks a lot and feels at ease being the focus in social occasions, while small talks seem to be physically repulsive to Dirac. Yet they get married. Fortunately, the unpleasant marriage which consumed his parents did not repeat itself on Manci and him. Although Manci and Flo did not get along very well, Flo understood that her influence on her son has long waned. Between Dirac and his mother, Flo was the person who constantly need emotional and economical support, not the another way round.
During the warring years, Dirac stayed rather detached from the war. Unlike some of his fellow physicists in the United States, he never worked fully for the military. And when the war ended, when Werner Heisenberg told Dirac that he never joined the Nazi and did not work for the project atomic bombs, Dirac accepted his explanation quite easily. Their friendship continued after the war.
In some sense, Dirac is as intriguing and mysterious as the quantum physics he discovered. Inscrutable as he is, he did, occasionally, showed his feelings. And through these few occasions, we saw a figure beyond the stereotype of a physicist, a man whose inner workings are not obersevables yet absolutely fascinating.
Sometimes a critic will write a novel just to prove that a gourmet is also able to cook delicious meals. With this kind of belief in mind, they seldom achieve to impress the readers with their cooking skills. Realizing the futility of such an effort, a wiser gourmet will confine him/herself to his/her own little world, resisting the lure of writing poems or novels. However, Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of The Journey seems quite different. It is Trilling’s only novel. And in any respect, it does not seem to be any kind of proof of the writer’s competence as a novelist. There is no showing-off of techniques or knowledge in the novel, nor is there any signs of the writer’s desire to prove any intellectual aptness of himself. The novel is there, standing alone as the only novel by the writer, as the only material we know about Trilling the Novelist, refusing to be connected in any way to the much more well-known Trilling the Critic.
But of course it is related to Trilling the Critic. Even though there is no aspirations of showing-off, the novel is there, existing as the only novel of a man who seems not to consider himself as a novelist at all, indicating that something is out of the reach of the gourmet’s little world, forcing the writer to step into a wilder and freer world. Trilling must be fully aware of the risks of being a cook-gourmet, which endows his effort of writing a novel with a quixotic idealism. Bearing these in mind, a reader is then aware of the seriousness of this novel, of its intention to express something of which the language of critics falls short. Dostoyevsky is sometimes considered as a much deeper thinker than most philosophers, though he never wrote anything as well-organised as a philosophical thesis. Literature feeds on its vagueness and indeterminacy, which is a sign of lacking coherence or being inadequate in critical essays. Perhaps it is exactly because of Trilling’s sharp awareness of the power of vagueness that he finally chose to put what he tried to express into the novel, taking the risks of being misinterpreted but managing to convey the message without distortion.
The story itself is nothing new, nor is there anything special about the way it is told. John Laskell, the liberal in the middle of the journey, who just survived from a severe illness, went into the country to join his friends Nancy and Arthur Croom for convalescence. Just before his departure, Gifford Maxim, who was once a member of the party, came to him and told Laskell that he had converted, asking Laskell to help him getting a job as an editor of the New Era to make him ‘existent’ again, believing that would prevent him from being murdered by the party. Laskell did not believe Maxim but helped him anyway. However, during the summer with the Crooms, Laskell began to doubt about the liberalism that the Crooms embodies. As it unfolds with the storyline, Trilling makes it apparent that under all these things and incidents that happened in the small country, the conflict of ideas is what he really wanted to say. Laskell suddenly found himself lost between Maxim’s new Orthodoxy and the Crooms’ Liberalism, not capable of making a choice, not even willing to make a choice. At the end, when Maxim claimed that Laskell’s ideal was outdated, was something only possible in the past, and the future has no place for it, and that he and the Crooms (no matter how distinct they seem to be) were actually together against Laskell, Laskell did not even try to repute.
Among all the characters, perhaps most readers would agree that the Dostoyevskian character Maxim is the most fascinating one. His conversion from Communism to Orthodoxy, his lengthy preaching on his ideal and his constant reference to The Grand Inquisitor remind readers of Ivan Karamazov. Unlike Ivan, Maxim seems to embrace the Grand Inquisitor’s brave new world joyfully. And perhaps it is exactly in this sense that he is together with the Crooms against Laskell, for his ideal and The Crooms’ ideal are exactly the double ideals that the Grand Inquisitor needed to build his new world, in which a man like Laskell has no place.
If the similarity between Maxim and Ivan Karamazov makes sense, then it would not be a surprise that John Laskell is, in some sense, a very ‘weak’ character. Probably it should be put this way: by the same reason of Aloysha’s being weak, John Laskell has to be weak. Thus the dangerous illness Laskell suffered from becomes a symbol of his helplessness in the idealistic conflicts. His feebleness lies in his unwillingness to choose between Maxim and the Crooms, which, in a modern world, seems inappropriate.
History endows people with wisdom. It does not require much wisdom for a modern man to see the futility of Matthew Arnold’s efforts to enlighten the middle class, for the history, as Karl Marx predicts, shall converge. And the middle class, in some sense, is exactly what history will converge towards. Taking a stance that Matthew Arnold took a century ago seems outdated and even ridiculous. And John Laskell’s dilemma lies in there.