Books: Cultural Amnesia — Charles Chaplin |
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For most of his life, which stretched from 1889 to 1977, Charles Chaplin was world-famous, and for much of the early part of his career, up until the end of the silent movie era, he was, if measured in terms of recognizability and media coverage, by far the most famous person in the world. Readers of his stilted My Autobiography might assume that it all went to his head. The facts say that it didn’t. The object of adulation on a scale that would have embarrassed Louis XIV, Chaplin nevertheless maintained his identification with the common people from whom he emerged. His progressive politics were genuinely felt, and his embarrassment at the hands of Red scare witch-hunters during the McCarthy era—the persecution drove him into exile—was an episode in modern American history of which his adopted country had no cause to be proud. In his later and less successful movies of the sound era, there were signs of disabling conceit in his determination to take every major credit including that of composer, but nobody had a better right to consider himself an artistic genius. He knew, however, that he wasn’t a genius about everything else as well. Hitler, who awarded himself credentials for peculiar insight even into science, was thus a perfect subject for Chaplin’s comic gift. The Great Dictator (1940) was a study of megalomania by an essentially humble man.

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They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no‑one understands you.

ON THE BIG night, both of the great men looked good in their tuxedos, but the film star was undoubtedly the more adroit at social charm. He said exactly the right thing. He wasn’t quite right, however, about the “no-one.” Contrary to the lasting myth—generated by a New York Times reporter keen to sex up the story—every physicist in the world understood the theory of special relativity straight away, even if they thought it might be wrong. By now, almost every literate person can recite the equation E = mc², and even give a rough account of what it means. They might not be able to do the same for the multiple equations of the theory of general relativity, but they have some idea of what the theory deals with. To give a rough account, however, is not the same as giving a precise one, and having some idea is not the same as understanding. It remains true that only the scientifically competent can fully know what is involved. Everybody else has to take it on trust. Chaplin’s remark nailed down a discrepancy between two kinds of knowledge: the artistic and the scientific.

The discrepancy had already been there when Goethe rejected Newton’s theory about the composition of light because it didn’t strike him as artistically satisfactory. The discrepancy was there, but it wasn’t obvious. (Certainly it wasn’t obvious to Goethe.) By the time Chaplin and Einstein both went to see City Lights, it was obvious to all but the insane. Most of science, for those of us without mathematics, is a closed book. But some of the book’s contents can be transmitted in a form we can appreciate, and there is consolation in the fact that the humanities unarguably constitute a culture, whereas whether or not science is a culture is a question that science can’t answer. When the British scientist cum novelist C. P. Snow gave his lecture called The Two Cultures in 1959—his main point was that literary people who didn’t know something about science couldn’t know enough about the modern world—he started a quarrel that he was bound to lose, because the dispute could be conducted only within the framework of written argument. There was no way of conducting it by experiment, or stating it in symbols. It could take place only in language—on the territory, that is, that the humanities have occupied throughout history.

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances. (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist. Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, although he did.) The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained. The two forms of knowledge thus have fundamentally different kinds of history. A scientist can revisit scientific history at his choice. A humanist has no choice: he must revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive, and can’t be superseded. Two different kinds of history, and two different kinds of time. Humanist time runs both ways: an arrow with a head at each end. If Homer could be beamed up from the past, taught English, and introduced to Braille editions of the novels of Jane Austen, he would be able to tell that they were stories about men, women and conflict, and more like his own stories than not. Much of the background would be strange to him, but not the foreground. A couple of millennia have done not much more to make the present unrecognizable to the past than they have done to make the past unrecognizable to the present. Science, on the other hand, can make its own future unrecognizable in a couple of decades. If the most brilliant mathematicians and computer engineers of 1945 could be brought here now and shown an ordinary laptop, they might conceivably be able to operate it, but they would have no idea of how it worked. Its microprocessors would be insoluble mysteries. The power of science is to transform the world in ways that not even scientists can predict. The power of the humanities—of the one and only culture—is to interpret the world in ways that anybody can appreciate. Einstein knew that science had given Chaplin the means to be famous. Einstein also knew that Chaplin could live without a knowledge of science. But as Einstein told Chaplin on many occasions, he himself, Einstein, could not live without a knowledge of the humanities. Einstein loved music, for example, and was so wedded to the concept of aesthetic satisfaction that he gained added faith in his general relativity equations from finding them beautiful, and frowned on the propositions of quantum mechanics because he found them shapeless. On the latter point he turned out to be wrong, and physicists in the next generation were generally agreed that his aesthetic sense had led him astray. The two different kinds of inspiration almost certainly connect, but only at a level so deep that nobody inspired in either way can ever know exactly how he does it. Whoever was inspired to invent the tuxedo, however, did the world a service: on the big night, the two different geniuses looked like the equals that they were.