This is the last entry of this, my blog. Its contents will provide the substance of a book to be published later this year, 2021.
In March 1955, after learning of the death in Geneva of Michele Besso, his close friend for almost sixty years, Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to the family. It included this: ‘Now he has left this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present and future only has the meaning of an illusion, though a persistent one.’ Einstein died the following month. To me, Einstein comes across as one of the more rounded and socially well adjusted of the great physicists, and so I tend to regard the letter’s statement as expressive of his sombre mood as he faced his own imminent death, and also perhaps as having the intention of comforting his friend’s widow. The tone is fatalistic, but as a younger man he did not come across in that way. Although a decidedly solitary thinker, he led a life which, as far as one can judge, was both full and fully engaged in the concerns of the rest of mankind.
Shakespeare in The Tempest gives notice of his retirement as a playwright through the elegiac speeches of Prospero. Although he was about fifty when he wrote it, he probably recognised that death was not too far away. There is a mood of resignation and acceptance in the great speech concluding ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’, and an echo of the Lord’s prayer in the epilogue. I would like to suggest, although my opinion is unverifiable, that Prospero’s remark ‘every third thought shall be my grave’ is Shakespeare’s pious remembrance of his two living daughters and his dead son, Hamnet.
The time of physics and the time of experience are very different. In order to ask, as some physicists are apt to do, ‘Is time real?’, we must forget our own mortality, something which, beyond a certain age, we can rarely do for long. And yet the fear of death is exceeded by the horror of the prospect of suffering through an indefinitely prolonged embodied existence. Perhaps more selflessly, many have yearned for an intuition of timeless relatedness to those whom they have loved. We are bound to admit, that such a vision of reciprocity is unimaginable, unless through a leap of faith or mystical experience.
In the final volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust describes a complex revelatory experience which is twofold: that the meaning of his life is to write a book, and that the past is alive within him, including a continuing connection with those whom he had loved. He analyses the latter aspect – his intense experience of involuntary memory triggered by the senses in the following words:-
“But let a noise or scent, once heard or once smelt, be heard or smelt again in the present and at the same time in the past, real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and immediately the permanent and habitually concealed essence of things is liberated and our true self. . . which had long seemed to be dead is awakened and reanimated as it receives the celestial nourishment that is brought to it. A minute freed from the order of time, has re-created in us, to feel it, the man freed from the order of time.”
Proust goes on to observe that such a feeling cannot be sustained for long, because it consists of fragments of existence withdrawn from Time.
One can find other remarks about the sense of the ineffability present in certain experiences in Rilke, Kafka and T.S.Eliot. I will conclude with this from Kafka:
“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible within himself, though both the indestructible something and his own trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.”