“Did they ever meet?”

I got the question all the time. People would ask what I was working on, and I would say a book about Einstein and Freud, and then would come the question.

Same thing with my next book. People would ask what I was working on, and I would say a book about dark matter and dark energy. Figuring these words were more foreign than Einstein and Freud, I would add, “Maybe you’ve heard about this,” or, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with these terms.”

“So it’s like…black holes?”

“No,” I would say. “Scientists actually know what black holes are. But dark matter and dark energy are parts of the universe that are totally unlike anything else we’ve ever encountered. We know they’re there, and we know they make up 96 percent of the universe, but we don’t know what they are.”

A month later, maybe two, I would run into the same person at a party or on the street. And then, inevitably, would come the question: “Hey, how’s that book of yours going—the one on black holes?”

These questions, I realized, were telling me something important. They were telling me, in the case of Einstein and Freud, what people wanted to know and, in the case of dark matter and dark energy, what they needed to know. They were telling me that in order to avoid any misunderstandings, I should answer these questions right at the start. And they were telling me that I could turn these answers to my narrative advantage.

I try to impart this lesson to my creative writing students. Anticipate what readers want to know or need to know. Then in satisfying that curiosity, give readers what you want them to know.

In the book on dark matter and dark energy, The 4% Universe, the relevant material appeared less than two pages into the prologue: “This is not ‘dark’ as in black holes or deep space.” Then I introduced the major theme of the book: “This is ‘dark’ as in unknown for now, and possibly forever…The ‘ultimate Copernican revolution,’ as [scientists] often call it, is taking place right now.”

In The Invisible Century, the relevant material about Einstein and Freud came even earlier—in the opening sentence: “They met only once.” Then I spent the rest of that paragraph as well as the next setting up the major theme of the book—that even though their lives rarely overlapped, Freud and Einstein each needed to break with a purely empiricist understanding of the scientific method and make a creative leap.

Problem solved!

Not quite. While promoting The Invisible Century, I found myself in a television studio in San Francisco being interviewed by a perky young woman who had clearly not read the book. So it came as no surprise when she asked, “Did they ever meet?” I gave her a condensed version of what I wrote in the opening paragraphs of the book.

Yes, they met, but only once. Einstein called on Freud during the New Years’ season of early 1927 when they both found themselves in Berlin. But it was hardly a meeting of the minds. When a friend wrote Einstein just a few months later suggesting that he undergo psychoanalysis, Einstein answered, “I should like very much to remain in the darkness of not having been analyzed.” For his part, Freud wrote to a friend regarding Einstein immediately after their meeting, “He understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

By this point in my relationship with the book—discussing it, writing it, promoting it—I had actually memorized those two quotes. And I had memorized the usual response:  a pause, then a laugh. I leaned back in my chair. I’d done my part. Now it was her turn.

“So,” she said, nodding seriously, “they were buds.”

I froze. I didn’t want to embarrass her while a guest in her studio, but I didn’t want to mislead viewers, either. I did some quick calculus.

The fact is, Einstein and Freud would later correspond from time to time, mostly expressing mutual admiration amid birthday wishes, and when the League of Nations’ Institute for Intellectual Cooperation enlisted Einstein to engage in a public correspondence with another world-famous figure, Einstein immediately approached Freud. In answer to the title question of the resulting volume, Why War?, Einstein borrowed Freud’s own terminology: “Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, and it emerges only in unusual circumstances; but it is a comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis.” To which Freud, who privately thought the project “tedious,” replied, “you yourself have said almost all there is to say on the subject.” Then he went on to give his own answer to the question of Why War?, at four times the length of Einstein’s response.

So: not buds. But not strangers, either.

I now realize that her comment, too, was telling me something important. It was telling me that, yes, you can anticipate what people want to know, and that, yes, you can give it to them, and that yes, you can even do so in a way that gives them what you want them to know—but that, no, they won’t hear it unless they want to hear it. It was telling me that I would have to begin to consider a third category of curiosity, in addition to what people want to know or need to know: what people want or need to believe. But in that moment I hadn’t yet learned this lesson. So I gave her the answer she wanted to hear.

“Sure,” I said. “They were buds.”

* * *

Image: Library of Congress.

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4 thoughts on “Buds

  1. Even if someone reads the book, we can’t guarantee that they will learn what we want them to learn. I had a student tell me, after reading Sebastian Junger’s book “War,” that he fought in the jungles of Afghanistan. Something I am sure Junger would be surprised to know. We can do all the background work in the world, and sometimes the “clicks” just don’t happen.

  2. I’ll bet that radio person wasn’t hearing what she wanted to believe, I bet she just wasn’t listening, just waiting until your voice wound down so she could ask the next dumb question. And with your usual politesse, you’ve made something intelligent out of it.

  3. Thanks, Richard, for a fun read this morning. As usual, your writing makes me smile.

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