Einstein’s Mythology

If you read Allen Esterson’s dissection of the April 22 ‘In Our Time’ on Freud, perhaps you were inspired to listen to the programme. Interesting, wasn’t it? The matter-of-factness, the confidence, with which the participants talked of Freud’s discoveries as if they were settled knowledge (or normal science, as one might say). As Richard Webster amusingly points out, it’s as if people sat around the Radio 4 studio agreeing on how flat the earth is. Just so. Or how pretty the fairies look as they dance around the lawn, or how alarming it is when the poltergeists throw the dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor, or how long and tedious the trip to Alpha Centauri is and why doesn’t the airline serve better food.

Possibly the most irritating bit of all is toward the end, when Juliet Mitchell talks enthusiastically about Freud’s correspondence with Einstein after the War. He told Einstein that he – Einstein – would think Freud was talking about mythology – but then so is Einstein himself, Freud and Mitchell concluded, in Mitchell’s case at least with an air of triumph. Oh for heaven’s sake, I muttered, throwing dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor. Mythology indeed! Oh yes, that’s all it is, that’s all everything is, it’s just stories, it’s just narrative, all of it, astrology, psychoanalysis, physics, geology, therapeutic touch, quantum mechanics – it’s all just a story someone makes up that other people find persuasive and/or explanatory, and that’s all there is to it. You bet.

Melvyn Bragg did at least take issue with that bit of nonsense, though he didn’t take nearly enough with the rest of the show. But there’s something so – so having it both ways about that maneuver, that it sets the teeth on edge. When talking about Freud, treat his work as well-founded settled knowledge; when talking about Einstein, treat both of them as purveyors of mythology. It’s very similar to the maneuver often used by defenders of religion. When rationalists take issue with the truth claims of religion, pretend that religion has nothing to do with truth claims, it’s merely an attitude of awe and wonder, or an impulse to be good; when rationalists are not around, talk about God and God’s will. On the one hand, Freud is not nonsense, he discovered true things about hysteria, repressed memory, the unconscious, jealousy; on the other hand, Einstein and the rest of the scientific gang are story-tellers. More heads I win tails you lose. It won’t do.

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