[Paleopsych] New Yorker: (more Einstein and Godel) The Great Foreigner by Niccolò Tucci
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Wed Apr 6 22:43:54 UTC 2005
The Great Foreigner by Niccolò Tucci
The New Yorker: From the Archives
This week in the magazine and here online, Jim Holt writes about the
intriguing friendship between Albert Einstein and the logician Kurt
Gödel. In this piece from 1947, Niccolò Tucci describes an afternoon
visit with Albert Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey.
There is such a thing as being a foreigner, but not in the sense
implied by passports. Foreigners exist, to be sure, but they may be
found only in places where it would be impossible to discover a single
policeman or a single immigration official--in the field of the
intellect. A man who achieves anything great in any province of the
mind is, inevitably, a foreigner, and cannot admit others to his
province. If you are one of his own people, you will, of course, find
him, because you yourself are there, but if you are not, your
knowledge of him will be mostly confined to the petty intelligence of
the gossip columns. Now, we all know from experience what it means, in
this sense, to be refused entry, even as a temporary visitor, into
this or that foreigner's domain. We meet a great man and cannot talk
to him, because, alas, we happen not to be able to get interested in
the thing in which he excels. Silly though it seems, this is
humiliating, for it makes us aware of our limitations. Yet that
feeling is soon forgotten. There are people today, however, whose
foreignness can't be forgotten, and these are the physicists, who have
done things to us that keep us wondering, to say the least. They have
lessened--in fact, almost destroyed--our hopes of a quiet and happy
future. It is true that they have also increased our hopes of
surviving discomfort and disease, but, oh, how far away that seems,
and how near seems the possibility of extermination! That is why, when
my mother-in-law, who flew over from Europe a couple of weeks ago,
said that she wanted me to accompany her on a visit to the home of her
friend Albert Einstein, in Princeton, I was very reluctant to go.
I had seen Einstein several times in the past eight or nine years, and
on the last occasion--in 1942, I believe--I had been bold enough to
invite him to come out of his inaccessible territory and into that of
all the unscientific people, like myself. Would he, I asked, explain,
in words rather than in mathematical symbols, what he and his
colleagues actually meant by the fourth dimension? And he did, so
simply and so clearly that I left his house with an uncontrollable
feeling of pride. Here, I, the living negation of anything even
slightly numerical, had been able to understand what Einstein had
said--had really said, for he had said it not only in his conversation
with me but years before in his theories. Obviously, he had explained
to me merely what a child would be able to grasp, but it impressed me
as much more because my schoolteachers and my father, all of them less
great than Einstein, had never forgone a chance to make me feel a
perfect fool (and to tell me, lest I should have missed drawing the
inference), even when they spoke to me about fractions or equations of
the first degree. I consequently realized that Einstein belonged to
the extremely rare type of foreigner who can come out of his seclusion
and meet aliens on alien ground. Yet, much as I cherished the
recollection of that pleasant experience, I did not think it
altogether advisable to try my luck again. "This time," I said to my
mother-in-law, who is called Bice in the family, "he may easily make
me feel like a fool. Besides, in 1942 Einstein's achievements did not
keep me awake at night, as they do now. If I saw him now, I would not
be moved by the slightest scientific curiosity about his work. I would
much rather ask him what he thinks of the responsibility of modern
scientists, and so forth. It might be quite unfair to him and
unpleasant for me."
Well, mothers-in-law must have secret ways of persuasion, because a
few days later I gave in, not only on seeing Einstein but also on
taking along Bimba, my six-year-old daughter. "All right," I said
resignedly, "but you, Bimba, will be sorry for this. You don't know
who Einstein is. He has all the numbers; they belong to him. He will
ask you how old you are." And I must say here that Bimba, even more
than myself, is the mathematical scandal of our family. She tries to
count her six years on her fingers, but she forgets how high she has
counted and must try again. Upon a guarantee from me that Einstein
would not interview her on that delicate subject, we made peace and
departed. On our way out of the apartment, we met my eight-year-old
son, Vieri, who was playing ball on the sidewalk.
"Vieri," I said, "want to come and see Einstein?"
"Einstein the great mathematician?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Naw," he said. "I have enough arithmetic in school."
On the train that morning, my mother-in-law and I talked a great deal
about Maja, Einstein's younger sister, one of two links Bice has with
higher mathematics. But I must say that she is a weak link, because
Maja is the opposite of all abstraction. She looks exactly like her
brother (one would almost say that she, too, needs a haircut), but she
is a Tuscan peasant, like the people who work in the fields near her
small estate of Colonnata, just outside Florence. Even her frame of
mind is, in spite of her cosmopolitan culture, Tuscan. Whatever in
conversation does not make sense to her in plain, human terms she will
quickly dismiss with a witty remark. But before becoming a Tuscan
peasant, Maja was a brilliant young German student of philosophy in
Paris. She interrupted her studies to take a job as governess in
charge of young Bice, whose mother had just died, leaving her the only
female of the family, surrounded by a number of older brothers and her
father. All this happened forty years ago. Soon after her arrival in
the family, Maja became Bice's second mother and dearest friend. Even
after Maja resumed her studies and got married, they remained very
close, and did not lose touch with each other until shortly before the
outbreak of the recent war, when Maja left Italy to join her brother
in Princeton. And today Bice, accompanied by a somewhat impatient
son-in-law and by a pestiferous young angel of a granddaughter, was
rushing to Princeton for the great reunion.
On the way, we also talked pleasantly about America (like all
Europeans who come here for the first time, Bice was eager to know
about everything in the first week), we discussed the fate of the
world and the wisdom of those who run it, we quarrelled over theology
(Bice is fond of theologies, with a marked preference for her own, the
Roman Catholic), and finally I noticed that she wasn't listening to me
any more. She frowned, she shook her head, then she smiled and nodded,
staring in front of her, but not at me and not at Bimba. I knew that
she was making an inventory of her sentimental luggage. All the news
of the troubled years, from the death of her eldest son in the war to
the latest item of family gossip, from the bombings of towns to the
latest method of making a pound of sugar last a year, were being
called to mind, so that everything would surely be ready for Maja. I
made a sign to Bimba not to interrupt her grandmother, and Bimba sat
there and stared, somewhat frightened by this woman who was looking so
intently at her own life.
When we arrived in Princeton, it was quite misty, and there was a
threat of rain in the Indian summer air. At the station, we took a cab
and soon learned that the driver, a young student, was the son of a
friend of ours in Florence. He was trying to make enough money driving
a cab to finance a trip to South America. Our conversation with him
was so interesting that only the sight of open country around us made
us realize that we had driven all the way out of town. We drove back
and stopped in front of a house on Mercer Street. I had forgotten the
exact address, but this house looked like the right one. In her
eagerness, Bice ran ahead of me toward the door, but the reunion could
not take place, because, as we discovered when we rang the bell, it
was the wrong house. Luckily for us, the cab was still there, so we
drove along a little, and finally, after ringing the bells of two
other families that refused, not without sorrow, to be the Einsteins,
we decided upon one more house, which happened to be the right one.
Miss Dukas, Einstein's secretary, greeted us at the door; then came
Margot, his delicate and silent stepdaughter, who looks so much like a
Flemish painting; and Chico, the dog, who tried to snatch Bimba's red
ribbons from her pigtails.
"Bimba," I said, "don't get the dog excited. Remember how he ate your
doll five years ago. Now, if you are not very quiet today, I am going
to ask you in front of Einstein how much makes three and
She nodded, and whispered, "Four?"
We were asked to wait for a moment in the small anteroom that leads to
the dining room. Maja was upstairs; she was being helped out of bed
and into the chair in which she spends most of her day. She is
recovering from a long illness, which has delayed her return to Italy,
so it was only natural that this reunion should be delayed until she
was ready and comfortable. And yet this addition of even a few minutes
to years of separation created an effect of absurdity. One always
imagines that the crossing of the last span of a trip bridging years
will be something impulsive: when all the real impediments, such as
continents, oceans, and passports, have been overcome, friends should
run into each other's arms as fast as they can. Still, it is never
quite that way. We become so used to living at a distance that we
slowly begin to live with it, too; we lean on it, we share it, in
equal parts, with our faraway friends, and when it's gone and we are
again there, corporeally present, we feel lost, as if a faithful
servant had abandoned us.
To fill in those extra minutes, we began to look at the furniture in
the anteroom and dining room, and I noticed again what I had noticed
five years ago in those same rooms: everything suggested the house of
a faculty member of a German university. I could not trace this
impression to any particular object. The large dining-room table in
the center, with the white tablecloth on it, was not particularly
German, nor was the furniture in the anteroom, but there was the same
quiet atmosphere of culture that had impressed me so deeply in the
houses of university professors, in Freiburg, Leipzig, and Berlin, to
which my parents had taken me when I was a boy and spent my summers
travelling over Europe. It is something that remains suspended in the
air almost as stubbornly as the smell of tobacco; one might say that
the furniture had been seasoned with serious conversation. Curiously,
it is an atmosphere that can never be found in the apartment of a
diplomat, even if he is the son of a professor and has inherited his
We were finally called upstairs by Margot, who then disappeared into
her study. Bice's impatience was such that, not finding Maja in the
first room we entered, she said disappointedly, "Not here," and ran
toward a closed door to open it, like a child playing
hide-and-go-seek. This search lasted only a matter of seconds, because
the house isn't large enough for a long search. But by the time we
reached Maja, Bice seemed almost to have lost hope that she would ever
get there. Maja was standing near her chair waiting, quiet, dignified,
almost ironical, under a cloud of white hair. She never shows any
emotion, never speaks louder than a whisper, and never more than a few
appropriate words--just like the Tuscan peasants, with the difference
that when they whisper, they might as well be addressing a crowd
across a five-acre field.
The "How well you look!" and "How unchanged you are!" were soon over,
and then the Great Foreigner arrived, pipe in hand and smiling gently.
He complimented Bice on looking just the same as ever, and received
the same compliment with grace, then inquired about Michele, Bice's
eldest brother and her second link with higher mathematics. Uncle
Michele is a gentle little man who sits in Bern, Switzerland, and
looks out into the world, leaning on a white beard that descends from
almost under his blue eyes to the end of his necktie. Every night for
twenty years, in the company of a friend, he has looked into "The
Divine Comedy," taking time off to look into his soul with a fierce,
puritanical spirit tempered by a great deal of natural goodness; he
has also looked into the field of economics, trying to find
mathematical formulae to solve the crisis of the world; and for a long
time, in the company of Einstein, he looked into the mysteries of
higher mathematics. We had just finished hearing all about Uncle
Michele's health and his many grandchildren when Bice seemed suddenly
to recall an extremely urgent matter--as if, indeed, it were the very
reason she had flown all the way over here from Europe. "Herr
Professor," she asked, in German (the whole conversation, in fact, was
in German), "this I really meant to ask you for a long time--why
hasn't Michele made some important discovery in mathematics?"
"Aber, Frau Bice," said Einstein, laughing, "this is a very good sign.
Michele is a humanist, a universal spirit, too interested in too many
things to become a monomaniac. Only a monomaniac gets what we commonly
refer to as results." And he giggled happily to himself.
Then we spoke about dreams. Bice told us two symbolic dreams she had
had years ago; I told the dream that the grandfather of a friend of
mine had had the day before he died; Einstein told an absurd dream of
his. He seemed the only one to find the conversation interesting,
which it was not. Bice was now sleepy (the emotion had been too great
for her); Maja sat silent and ate her lunch, which a nurse had brought
in on a tray; and I nodded to Einstein's words, searching impatiently
for a way out of dreams to the subject of the responsibility of modern
scientists. But the atmosphere somehow weighed on me. The mist was
getting thicker, and it had begun to rain, with that quick, fingertip
drumming on the leaves, on the roof, on some pail outside, that makes
you go to sleep. It was dark in the room now. The only points of light
were the white of the bed, the white of the nurse's uniform, and the
white of Maja's hair and of Einstein's head against the window--and
his laughing eyes, his voice, and the joy that sprang from him. "Damn
the responsibility of modern scientists on a damp day like this," I
thought. It made me both envious and angry to see this man in front of
me who laughed so heartily at the most trivial things, who listened
with such concentration to our nonsense, who was so full of life while
I could see no reason even for breathing in that damp, misty air. "Why
is he so young," I asked myself, "and what makes him laugh so? Is he
making fun of us, or what is this?" Then I began to understand. He had
just come from the other room; he was stretching his mind; he was
"abroad." All these words were only formally addressed to us; actually
they were references to some demonstration he must have received, in
the heart of his own secret country, that something was exactly as he
had suspected it would be. Yes, it could be nothing but this: he had
done fruitful work that morning. I saw it now because I recognized
myself in him--not as a scientist, alas, but as a child of seven, at
which age it was my hobby to make locomotives with tin cans and old
shaving brushes (the smokestack with the smoke). The situation was the
same. When the joy of toymaking became too great, I had to interrupt
my work and run to the living room, where the grownups were boring
themselves to death. And I laughed at their words without bothering to
inquire what they meant; I found them interesting, new, exciting; I
was praised for being such good company while in actuality I was still
playing with my locomotive--I was deciding in my mind what colors I
would paint it, what I would use for wheels and lanterns--and it was
good to know that no one shared my secret. "You and your toys," I
thought, looking at Einstein with the envy that an ailing old man has
for a young athlete.
Lunch was announced, and we went downstairs, leaving Maja alone. The
smell of food consoled me for my humiliation. I began to eat. Einstein
asked Bice for her impression of America, and she expressed her
disappointment at the bad manners of children in this country. This
led to a family argument, in which Einstein was asked to act as
arbiter. Bice claimed that American children (she meant mine, of
course) have no respect for the authority of their parents, or for
that of such people as park attendants. To prove her point, she said
that, on the day before, Vieri and his friend Herbert had laughed in
the face of a park attendant when he told them not to play ball. Yes,
they had obeyed him in the end, but not without making strange noises
in his honor. (She didn't know the name for this Bronx ceremony.) I
conceded that this was frightful, but I reminded her that a park
attendant in Europe was a sort of Commander-in-Chief of Leaves and
Flowers and First Admiral of Public Fountains and of the paper boats
in them. Even a smile addressed to him without proper authorization
was considered daring. "When I was a boy in Italy, we never questioned
anyone's authority," I said, "and thus we passed, with the most
perfect manners, from the hands of our nurses to those of our
As moderator, Einstein asked me how I had managed to lose authority
over my children.
"I didn't have to work much," I replied. "It was rather simple. I just
told them, `Look at the kind of world in which we live. See what we,
the grownups, are able to invent, from passports to radioactive
Bice contended that nothing is gained by embittering the lives of
children with remarks of that nature, but Einstein was in full
agreement with me when I answered that less than nothing is gained--in
other words, that much is lost--by lulling them into the illusion that
all is as it should be in the world. "You, as a scientist," I said to
Einstein, "know that the world is round and not divided naturally by
cow fences into holy, restricted fatherlands. When you were young,
there was still a semblance of good in governments and institutions,
but today--see where we are today."
He became very serious, as if he were seeing where we are today, but
suddenly a smile lit up in his eyes, and it quickly spread all over
his face and beyond it. He laughed happily, then said, "Let me tell
you what happened to me years ago, before the other war, when there
were no passports. The only two countries that required them were
Russia and Rumania. Now, I was in Hungary and had to go to Rumania. I
didn't know where and how to apply for a passport, but I was told that
it wasn't necessary. There was a man who had a passport of his own,
and he was kind enough to let anybody use it to cross the border. I
accepted the offer, but when they asked me at the frontier what my
name was, I said, `Wait a moment,' took out the passport from my
pocket, and had a great deal of trouble trying to find out who I was.
Now, to go back to your point, I agree with you that those who
exercise any kind of authority, be it the authority of a father or
that of a government, have a definite obligation to show that they
deserve respect, but the trouble with grownups in our day is that they
have lost the habit of disobedience, and they should quickly learn it
again, especially when it comes to the infringement of their
individual rights." He laughed again, this time like a bad boy, then,
shaking his head, said, "These grownups. Isn't it terrible how readily
they will obey?"
"Take the loyalty test for federal employees, against which so few
have protested," I said.
"That is a case in point," he answered. "People are asked to be loyal
to their jobs. But who wouldn't be loyal to his job? Too many people,
indeed. Also in Italy and in Germany they used to test people's
loyalty to their jobs, and they found a far greater loyalty to jobs
than to democracy. But now tell me another thing. What do you give to
your children in the way of good news about the world?"
"Plenty," I said. "For example, I tell them about Socrates, who was
killed by the greatest democracy on earth for standing at the corner
drugstore and asking questions that made the politicians feel
"That's not a cheerful story, either," he said, "but if they were able
to absorb some of the spirit of the Greeks, that would serve them a
great deal later on in life. The more I read the Greeks, the more I
realize that nothing like them has ever appeared in the world since."
"You read the Greeks?" I said.
"But of course," he replied, slightly surprised at my amazement. And
so I heard, partly from him and partly from Miss Dukas, that he reads
the Greeks to Maja every night for an hour or so, even if he has had a
very tiring day. Empedocles, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Thucydides
receive the tribute of the most advanced and abstract modern science
every night, in the calm voice of this affectionate brother who keeps
his sister company.
"You know," I said, "that is great news. Young Americans, who have an
idea of the pure scientist worthy of the comics, should be told that
Einstein reads the Greeks. All those who relish the idiotic and
dangerous myth of the scientist as a kind of Superman, free from all
bonds of responsibility, should know this and draw their conclusions
from it. Many people in our day go back to the Greeks out of sheer
despair. So you too, Herr Professor, have gone back to the Greeks."
He seemed a little hurt. "But I have never gone away from them," he
said. "How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have
always been far more interested in them than in science."
Lunch was over, and Einstein announced that he was going to go
upstairs for his nap. Bice was assigned, for hers, a couch under a
red-nosed portrait of Schopenhauer in the library-and-music room. The
sun was shining again, so Bimba was told that she could go out to the
garden to play, and I went for a walk around the town.
When, after an hour or so, I came back to the house, I found Bimba
still in the garden. I was quite disappointed to hear that I had
missed an extraordinary event. Just after I had left and just as
Einstein started to go upstairs, Bimba had asked him to play the
violin for her. He had not touched his instrument for almost a year,
but he took it out and played Bimba a few bars from a Mozart minuet.
I saw Einstein on the porch, waving to me. I joined him there and sat
down next to him while he stretched his legs on a deck chair and
leaned back, one hand behind his head, the other holding his pipe in
mid-air. I had a volume of the German translation of Plato by
Preisendanz in my briefcase and asked his permission to read aloud a
passage from "Gorgias." He listened patiently and was very amused by
Socrates' wit. When I was through, he said, "Beautiful. But your
friend Plato"--and he extended his pipe in such a way that it became
Plato--"is too much of an aristocrat for my taste."
"But you would agree," I said, "that all the qualities that make for a
democratic attitude are noble qualities?"
"I would never deny that," he said. "Only a noble soul can attain true
independence of judgment and exercise respect for other people's
rights, while any so-called nobleman prefers to conceal his vulgarity
behind such cheap shields as an illustrious name and a coat of arms.
But, you see, in Plato's time and even later, in Jefferson's time, it
was still possible to reconcile democracy with a moral and
intellectual aristocracy, while today democracy is based on a
different principle--namely, that the other fellow is no better than I
am. You will admit that this attitude doesn't altogether facilitate
There was a silence, and he interrupted it, almost talking to himself.
"I lived for a while in Italy," he said, "and I think that the
Italians are among the most humane people in the world. When I want to
find an example of a naturally noble creature, I must think of the
Italian peasants, the artisans, the very simple people, while the
higher you go in Italian society . . ." and as he lifted his pipe a
little, it became a contemptible specimen of a class of Italians he
does not admire.
A small airplane was appearing and disappearing between treetops, and
gargling noisily right into our conversation.
"In the past," said Einstein, "when man travelled by horse, he was
never alone, never away from the measure of man, because"--he
laughed--"well, the horse, you might say, is a human being; it belongs
to man. And you could never take a horse apart, see how it works, then
put it together again, while you can do this with automobiles, trains,
airplanes, bicycles. Modern man is besieged by mechanics. And even
more ominous than this invasion of our lives is the rise of a class of
people born of the machine, so to speak--people to whom certain powers
must be delegated without the moral screening of a democratic process.
I mean the technicians. You can't elect them, you can't control them
from below; their work is not of the type that may be improved by
"Yes," I said, "and they are born Fascists. What can you do against
"Only one thing," he said. "Try to prevent them from becoming a closed
society, as they have become in Russia."
"This is why," I said, "now that we have lost the company of the
horse, we may get something out of the company of men such as the
"It may be an antidote to conformism," he said.
"Don't you think that American youth is becoming more and more
conformist?" I asked.
"Modern conformism," he said, "is alarming everywhere, and naturally
here it is growing worse every day, but, you see, American conformism
has always existed to some extent, because American society, being
based on the community itself and not on the authority of a strong
central state, needs the coöperation of every individual to function
well. Therefore, the individual has always considered it his duty to
act as a kind of spiritual policeman for himself and his neighbor. The
lack of tolerance is also connected with this, but much more with the
fact that American communities were religious in their origin, and
religion is by its very nature intolerant. This will also help you
understand another seemingly strange contradiction. For example, you
will find a far greater amount of tolerance in England than over here,
where to be `different' is almost a disgrace, for everyone, starting
with schoolboys and up to the inhabitants of small towns. But you will
find far more democracy over here than in England. That, also, is a
"Tell me, Herr Professor," I said. "This has nothing to do with what
we were discussing, but what are the chances that a chain reaction may
destroy the planet?"
He looked at me with sincere sympathy, took his pipe slowly out of his
mouth, stretched out his arm in my direction, and explained why his
pipe (now the planet) was not likely to be blown to bits by a chain
reaction. And I was so pleased by his answer that I didn't bother to
understand the reasons.
"Tell me," I now asked, "why is it that most scientists are so cynical
with regard to the issues of war and peace today? I know many
physicists who worked on nuclear reactions, and I am struck by their
complete indifference to what goes on outside their field. Some of
them are as conspicuous for their silence as they are for their
"So much more credit for those who talk," said he. "But, believe me,
my friend, it's not only the scientists who are cynical. Everyone is.
Some people sit in heated offices and talk for years and write reports
and draw their livelihood from the fact that there exist displaced
persons who cannot afford to wait. Wouldn't you call this cynicism? I
know that you were going to ask me about the responsibility of the
scientists. Well, it is exactly the same as that of any other man. If
you think that they are more responsible because in the course of
their research they found things that are dangerous, such as the
atomic bomb, then also Newton is responsible, because he discovered
the law of gravitation. Or the philologists who contributed to the
development of languages should be considered responsible for Hitler's
speeches. And for his actions. If scientists were to refrain from
investigation for fear of what bad people might do with the results,
then all of us might as well refrain from living altogether."
"In other words," I said, "it would amount to a form of censorship on
all our actions and thoughts."
"A rather useless censorship," he said, "for you can trust man to find
other channels of evil." Then he laughed heartily and added, "You may
underestimate man's ability to do evil."
It was time to go. I ran upstairs to say goodbye to Maja and call
Bice. "We heard you laugh a good deal," said Maja. "You must have had
a good time downstairs."
"Indeed," I said. "And it was a great honor to have Professor Einstein
spend such a long time chatting with me."
"Macchè onore d'Egitto," said Maja, which means, in colloquial Italian
Einstein went slowly back into his study. I caught a glimpse of his
face; he was miles away from everybody, back in his foreign land.
As Bice, Bimba, and I were walking to the station, Bimba began to cry
because she had lost the hat of a paper doll Miss Dukas had given her.
She wanted to run back to look for it, but there was no time for that.
To console her, Bice said, "Think, Bimba, when you grow up, you will
be able to say that Einstein played the violin for you."
"Oh, come," said Bimba, "it isn't true."
"Why?" I asked. "Didn't he play for you?"
"Call that play?" she said, making a sour face. "He had to use a stick
to play it."
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