Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 28, 2016


from the Life magazine archives
Ray Monk’s biography of Robert Oppenheimer is a long but fascinating book. (Monk is also the author of a brilliant biography of Wittgenstein — I’m looking forward to reading him on Bertrand Russell at some point, though two volumes of Lord Russell may be more than I can handle....)

I admire what Monk does with Oppenheimer’s story so much because he has to balance an account of the events of the man’s life with some explanation of the incredibly complex contexts in which he lived. That means that we need to learn about what was happening in physics in the middle of the twentieth century, as well as the political deliberations that went into the building of the first atomic bomb and the later anxieties over the rise of the Soviet Union to the status of a second world power. Monk handles all this masterfully.

He does, however, take his subject’s view of things a little more often than he ought. Oppenheimer was clearly an enormously charming man, but also a manipulative man and one who made enemies he need not have made. The really horrible things Oppenheimer did as a young man – placing a poisoned apple on the desk of his advisor at Cambridge, attempting to strangle his best friend – and yes, he really did those things – Monk passes off as the result of temporary insanity, a profound but passing psychological disturbance. (There’s no real attempt by Monk to explain Oppenheimer’s attempt to get Linus Pauling’s wife Ava to run off to Mexico with him, which ended the possibility of collaboration with one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth, or any, century.) Certainly the youthful Oppenheimer did go through a period of serious mental illness; but the desire to get his own way, and feelings of enormous frustration with people who prevented him from getting his own way, seem to have been part of his character throughout his life.

Again, he had great charm, and that charm enabled him to be a very effective leader of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, and to be equally effective in leading the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton — for a while. But over the long term the charm wore off, and the manipulativeness and on some occasions cruelty began to loom larger in people's minds, so that when Oppenheimer turned sixty and there was a proposal to devote a special issue of Reviews of Modern Physics to him, Freeman Dyson, who was in charge of editing the issue, found it difficult to round up prominent physicists willing to speak on Oppenheimer’s behalf. He was very popular as a public figure, a kind of paragon of what a scientist should be in the common man’s mind, especially after people began to feel that he had been treated badly when his security clearance was withdrawn in 1954, but many of his colleagues grew frustrated with him over time and came to suspect his good will and integrity.

Jeremy Bernstein, in his memoir of Oppenheimer, tells a story that Monk also refers to. Oppenheimer had offered Bernstein, then a young physicist, a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and a few months before coming to Princeton Bernstein got a chance to hear Oppenheimer give one of his enormously popular public lectures.

After the lecture I decided to go onto the stage and introduce myself to Oppenheimer. I was, after all, going to be one of his charges in a few months. I went up to him, and he looked at me with what I distinctly remember as icy hostility — his students referred to it as the “blue glare.” It was clear that I had better explain — quickly — why I was bothering him. When I told him I was coming to the Institute that fall, his demeanor completely changed. It was like a sunrise. He told me who would be there — an incredible list. He ended by saying that Lee and Yang were going to be there and that they would teach us about parity.... Then Oppenheimer said, with a broad smile, “We’re going to have a ball!” I will never forget that. It made it clear to me why he had been such a fantastic director at Los Alamos.

But maybe we should think a little more than either Bernstein or Monk does about that “blue glare.” It might explain a few things.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Monk’s biography is his documenting of Oppenheimer’s increasing awareness, as he grew older, of his own flaws. Whenever he spoke of any darkness or sin within, people always assumed that he felt guilty because of his role in building the atomic bomb that killed so many Japanese people. But when he was asked about that role, he always said that if he had it to do over again he would do the same thing, even though of course he felt uneasy about the consequences of his actions.

My belief — based wholly on Monk’s story, of course — is that Oppenheimer’s sense of sin was actually prompted by his having had to confront, during the weeks in which he was grilled by inquisitors over his security clearance, his own habitual dishonesty and manipulativeness.

In any case, Monk demonstrates that late in his life Oppenheimer often, in his many public addresses, returned to this theme. For instance,

We most of all should try to be experts in the worst about ourselves: we should not be astonished to find some evil there, that we find so very readily abroad and in all others. We should not, as Rousseau tried to, comfort ourselves that it is the responsibility and the fault of others, that we are just naturally good; nor should we let Calvin persuade us that despite our obvious duty we are without any power, however small and limited, to deal with what we find of evil in ourselves. In this knowledge, of ourselves, of our profession, of our country — our often beloved country — of our civilization itself, there is scope for what we most need: self knowledge, courage, humor, and some charity. These are the great gifts that our tradition makes to us, to prepare us for how to live tomorrow.

He spoke of “a truth whose recognition seems to me essential to the very possibility of a permanently peaceful world, and to be indispensable also in our dealings with people with radically different history and culture and tradition”:

It is the knowledge of the inwardness of evil, and an awareness that in our dealings with this we are very close to the center of life. It is true of us as a people that we tend to see all devils as foreigners; it is true of us ourselves, most of us, who are not artists, that in our public life, and to a distressing extent our private life as well, we reflect and project and externalize what we cannot bear to see within us. When we are blind to the evil in ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves, and we deprive ourselves not only of our own destiny, but of any possibility of dealing with the evil in others.

And Oppenheimer — who not only read but wrote poetry, and in his college days wanted to be a writer — used this occasion to argue for the centrality of the arts: “it is almost wholly through the arts that we have a living reminder of the terror, of the nobility of what we can be, and what we are.”

I imagine, with considerable longing, the benefit to our current moment if one of our most famous scientists spoke openly about how profoundly fallible human beings can be and how necessary the arts are to an understanding of that fallibility. But that’s not where we are. That is so not where we are.

All this softens my heart towards Oppenheimer, and helps me to realize that what I have called the Oppenheimer Principle was his statement of how scientists think, not necessarily how they should think. And I find myself meditating on something extremely shrewd and perceptive that George Kennan said at Oppenheimer’s memorial service — a good note on which to close this post. Oppenheimer was

a man who had a deep yearning for friendship, for companionship, for the warmth and richness of human communication. The arrogance which to many appeared to be a part of his personality masked in reality an overpowering desire to bestow and receive affection. Neither circumstances nor at times the asperities of his own temperament permitted the gratification of this need in a measure remotely approaching its intensity.

UPDATE: Please see, from TNA ten years ago, this superb essay-review on Oppenheimer by Algis Valiunas.


  • Sounds like classic narcissism, which tends to worsen when narcissists have power. Charm, manipulation, lies, temper ...

    Narcissists don't actually 'desire to bestow and receive affection'; they intensely desire to be admired and adored without question, and they hate it if there are consequences to their behaviour.

    Many narcissists achieve a great deal, although often not as much as their potential implies, as they are so poor at cooperating and collaborating, and they wear out the people around them. We can admire their work, while still preferring to stay far away from them.

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