Paul Dirac, one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists, spent his childhood in Bristol. His father, with whom he had a poor relationship, taught French at Colston’s School. ( Yes, it is he, Edward Colston.) The former Dirac family house is in Horfield, North Bristol near the city’s prison, and I used to pass it sometimes on my way to interview a prisoner to prepare a psychiatric report at the request of his solicitor.
A much quoted remark of Dirac’s is about poetry – ‘ The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simple way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.’ This is absurd, but even great men have their blind spots. His deep and almost exclusive interest in studying the physical world, did not leave him time to consider the world of human relationships and feelings. And perhaps he had a definite aversion, not only his unhappy childhood but the suicide of his brother in his twenties. There is another anecdote about Dirac talking with Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest, physicist and mathematician, who has been credited with first suggesting the origin of the universe with a big bang. After an intense conversation Dirac concluded that if anything were to provide support for theology it would be cosmology. Lemaitre disagreed, and said it would be psychology. I find the word ‘God’ difficult to the point of unhelpfulness, but I do like the emphasis of St. John of the Cross on inwardness, ‘ Those who know God most perfectly, perceive most clearly that he is perfectly incomprehensible.’
On the question of obscurity, Ruskin sounded a different note to Dirac. In Sesame and Lilies he points out that if an author is worth anything, you will not get his meaning all at once. ‘Not that he does not say what he means. . . but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, except in a hidden way or parable, in order that he may be sure you want it. I cannot quite see his reason for this, nor analyse that cruel reticence in the breasts of wise men which makes them hide their deeper thought.’ Proust in his essay, ‘ On Reading’ intended as an introduction to his translation of Sesame and Lilies, comments on this passage ‘. . . if to understand is, in some way, to be equal to, then to understand a profound thought, is at that moment to have a profound thought oneself.’
There are difficult poets, some wilfully, some arbitrarliy, but others necessarily so. And there is the special case of poets writng in a totalitarian state where self-censorship is a pre-condition of survival. This stanza from Mandelstam’s Octets records the tragic fate of Russia under Stalin through a metamorphosis from innocence to state terror which, despite ellipsis, was not published in his lifetime, and was scarcely written down at all. I have wondered whether Mandelstam had in mind the death’s head moth, but if so, there is no clue in the text. That too could be self-censorship.
O butterfly, o Muslim girl, peeping through a split shroud - so fragile the little life interred, see though how this one thrives! Biter with moustache-like wings, vanished the nymph in a burnous. O winding sheet unfurled to be our flag - fold back your wings I'm afraid!