In order to have an opinion on Einstein’s statement, we first need to decide what he means by “more important.” Einstein was speaking of his own process. He had been asked whether intuition or inspiration accounted for his theories. Certainly, when devising a new theory, imagination plays a very significant role, and without it a new theory can’t emerge.
Einstein’s contribution to science was creative. For him, then, imagination was more important that knowledge.
As my wife and I visited our newborn son in the ICU today we talked about the role of the nursing staff. So much of what they do is routine — they learn how to care for the newborns and follow the instructions they’ve been given. But the difference between a competent nurse and a nurse who contributes something important is the degree to which she is engaged with the baby and his parents.
The competent nurse follows the correct procedures, attends to her tasks with care and dedication. The engaged nurse does this too, but also sees things, listens, and reacts.
Artist Mark Rothko said this about art: “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”
Rothko could have been speaking about nursing. One looks at Rothko’s paintings and one could be forgiven for asking what they are about. But does this mean that they aren’t about something?
Rothko’s children are suing to have his remains unearthed and moved to a Jewish cemetery. I don’t know how Rothko would feel about this. Judged as a creative act, one imagines that he would find it rather obvious. Judged as an action in the world, one imagines he would find it somewhat depressing.
Another child of a famous person — Max Mosley, son of Oswald Mosley the notorious British Nazi — has been in trouble for exploring his imaginative world in a sadomasochistic orgy with prostitutes in London. Apparently, shades of Nazism can be detected in the role-play. Mosley is the chief of the Formula One motor racing federation and has been asked to resign.
The thread that I’m trying to mine is the concept of engagement. A nurse engaged with her role as caregiver. A scientist engaged with his role as a pursuer of new ideas. A painter engaged with the direct communication of otherwise uncommunicable ideas. And a man engaged with his legacy and its demons.
But what does any of this have to do with Bacon? Stanley Fish writes about deconstruction and Sir Francis Bacon.
Bacon predicted that rational thought would eventually win out; that we would one day have a consistent , complete understanding of the world we live in, but that we would go through tough times to get there. He predicted that language would get in the way. That the terms we use to talk about and define things would become recursively problematic.
Rothko sought to eliminate words. Bacon recognized their challenges. Einstein sought to subjugate knowledge.
There is a reason, I think, for such struggle. Rothko, Bacon and Einstein all felt painfully the distinction between ideas and reality. We experience reality, and we conceive of ideas.
Ideas can be consistent and whole and concrete. Reality must be felt and experienced and can never be pinned down. Einstein eluded language, Rothko avoided it, Mosley seeks to bend it, and Bacon wanted to wrestle with it, but found it stronger than him. Language, I would argue, can be accurate and complete when it expresses ideas, but not when it seeks to represent the world and our experience of it. (more…)