Einstein’s List and a man’s Magnum Opus

The iconic 20th century German physicist Albert Einstein had an interesting and noteworthy relationship with women. I say ‘noteworthy’ because Einstein is a good example of a man who did not squander his energy in endlessly seeking approval from others about his life path and activities. He is also, needless to say, an example of a man who accomplished much of what he dreamed about, even if his work was ultimately a work in progress (notwithstanding the popular image he was a mortal man, not some scientific ‘god’, and to his last days his greatest ambition—the ‘unified field theory’—remained unrealized, despite his previous spectacular and successful work in other branches of physics).

Einstein, when it came to women, was a regular guy

All that said, Einstein, when it came to women, was a regular guy—that is, his brilliance in physics and mathematics did not mean he had somehow figured out the mystery of the opposite sex. In this area he was as capable of being vexed, frustrated, neurotic, and unforgiving as the next guy. But what he did have was a certain backbone that belied his wild haired, teddy bear exterior. This backbone was most in evidence in his relationship with his first wife, the Serbian scientist Mileva Maric. In 1914 when their relationship was floundering Einstein drew up a list of his requirements for them to stay together. The infamous list was as follows:

You will make sure:

  1. That my clothes and laundry are kept in good order.
  2. That I will receive my three meals regularly in my room.
  3. That my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.

You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, you will forego:

  1. My sitting at home with you.
  2. My going out or travelling with you.

You will obey the following points in your relations with me:

  1. You will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way.
  2. You will stop talking to me if I request it.
  3. You will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
  4. You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior. (Source: Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, pp. 185-186).

Although this list is obviously a last ditch effort by a man to remain living with his wife so that he can retain a live-in relationship with his children (they had two young sons at that point) while in the same breath acknowledging that the intimacy in the relationship is dead, the list nevertheless will produce very different reactions depending on who is reading it. A modern feminist would probably be inclined to brand it, and the person who wrote it, as cold, controlling, and cruel. A henpecked husband might frown at it to please his wife while secretly cheering Einstein on. A young single guy who has been free of family responsibilities might shrug and wonder what the fuss is about. A person with some amount of experience in intimate relationship might suspend judgment until more facts are known. But one thing I suspect for sure is that many modern Western men might be inclined to admire, if nothing else, Einstein’s firmness in the matter, other aspects of it notwithstanding.

In point of fact Einstein’s first wife was not a simple or easy woman to deal with. She was intelligent—as mentioned, she had an academically trained mind (also in physics), and she did assist Einstein in his initial work by acting as a sounding board for his ideas (it’s an urban myth that she did anything more than that)—but she was certainly a match for Einstein in the area of stubbornness. Einstein’s ‘list’ did not appear out of thin air; it had been preceded by years of struggle and acrimony between the two of them. As it happened Mileva actually agreed to Einstein’s frosty conditions, but only for as long as it took her to realize that he really was serious about the separation. At that point they agreed to live apart and divorced several years later. He went on to marry Elsa Lowenthal, his first cousin who was six years his elder. (Prominent marriages between cousins are not as uncommon as one might think; one need only do a Google search on this matter to read some interesting stories).

Einstein was no exemplar of stellar skill in intimate relationship, but his list is worth citing if only because it is a reasonable example—albeit one inflexible and cold—of a man who has prioritized his work and is simply refusing to allow his true calling to be sidelined by endlessly processing a relationship that was unhappy and not working for either party. If in this one regard only, Einstein proved more of a lion than a lap dog.

Alas, many men go the lap dog route, typically because they desperately fear the loss of their love-attachment, although probably a majority of such men would deny or scoff at such an idea. A fair percentage of men do poorly on their own, ending up choosing the domesticated lap-dog route rather than risk the terrors of a solitary life. Many men are already alone in their heads, so to speak, lacking the fuller social or feeling life of most women, and many fear the prospect of growing fat and old with nothing to be consoled by except for the flat screen T.V., porn, and the beer in the fridge. Best put up and shut up, then.

Another famous, though far less contentious example, was the important 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. A studious, highly intelligent man, he lived his whole life unmarried and unattached, alone with only a servant to attend to his basic needs. He was an academic, a professor of philosophy in a small German town, but he was intellectually ambitious, even if pedestrian in pace (his great works were not produced until he was well into his 50s). His A Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, is an extraordinarily rich and dense philosophical treatise. Although parts of it have been surpassed by later thinkers, it remains a seminal document, perhaps the philosophical equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica if only in terms of its influence. As his equally famous follower Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked, ‘anyone interested in truth is a child until they have understood Kant’.

What has any of this to do with the masculine spirit? Outwardly Kant was no paragon of masculinity. He was a very small man, about five feet tall, and lived a quiet and routine life (for eighty years he never left his home town, except for one brief trip). Appearances to the contrary, he was not antisocial—he had a weekly dinner party, mostly for his students. (If he was gay, there remains no evidence of it). The main point being illustrated here is that Kant manifested and completed his life work, his magnum opus—and by that, I’m not referring to a particular book, however famous Kant’s primary work was fated to become. I’m referring to a man’s primary life-work, and of the need to have structure and discipline in order to bring it about. Kant’s life was a vivid demonstration of structure and discipline—his neighbors were known to set their watches based on his precisely timed daily afternoon walk. Robotic? Perhaps. Pathologically afraid of feminine aliveness and apparent chaos? Possibly. However his life is interpreted, though, it can’t be argued that Kant underachieved, or breathed his last regretting that he never exercised his intelligence in order to make a contribution to the development—in his case, in the intellectual realm—of the human race.

Too many have squandered their creative force and intellectual ability in endlessly seeking to pacify a wife, or gain the five-star approval of a pretty woman.

Alas, too many men throughout history could never say the same. Too many have squandered their creative force and intellectual ability in endlessly seeking to pacify a wife, or gain the five-star approval of a pretty woman. The irony, of course, as mentioned time and again by writers in the field of masculine psychology, is that no woman, deep down, wants her man to be a passive, underachieving lap dog. She wants the lion in him to remain alive. She’s just not very good at helping to bring that about, as it’s not in her nature. For that, he needs the company of other male lions.

I have to stress that, the last two examples notwithstanding, I’m not suggesting that a man’s life work may not indeed be centrally based on the role of a devoted family man. For such men, however, I’m not directing these words, but rather to those who will recognize themselves as caught in a life that involves actively repressing or denying his creative force. And nor am I suggesting that men need to be as rigid and cold as Einstein and his list, or as cloistered and monk-like as Kant and his 3pm daily walk. But most men need to understand that their masculine spirit will wither if they fail to be clear and firm about their life work. Of course, that suggests a man actually knows what his life’s great work—his magnum opus—is.

Solar Power and the Great Work

What is the purpose of a man’s life? It is to accomplish his Great Work, his magnum opus. A poignant example of this—perhaps the most famous in the Western world—is the death of Jesus on the cross. Of course, the life of Jesus was not documented in one book—there are three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and four canonical gospels when John is added, along with several other apocryphal ones, and they do say different things. I’ve always been impressed by the conclusion of Jesus’ life as described in John’s gospel. In John 19:30 he is recorded as having said ‘it is accomplished’ (from the Greek word tetelestai). Immediately after he utters these words, he ‘gives up the ghost’.

Jesus’ life is the stuff of legend, and historically there is a great deal of uncertainty around most of the details of his story. (There is even an academic argument that he never existed, or that his story is a composite of several men, owing to the scarcity of corroborating historical documents outside of the gospels—but our concern is less with this, than with his myth and the power of him as archetype). Jesus clearly had a mission, one he was driven to accomplish, and although his journey was far from typical it is still marked with a number of extraordinary sign-posts that exemplify the creation and completion of a magnum opus.

Jesus last words in John are sometimes translated as ‘it is finished’. This is also significant, insofar as a key element of what I call the ‘mature masculine’ is the ability to complete things, and thereby gain the confidence that accompanies such accomplishment. To accomplish something is indeed to ‘finish’ it, even if it remains imperfect. The distinction is important. Accomplishing or finishing something is not about making it absolutely perfect. It is about having the endurance to see things through. Only in completing things can we approach mastery, and mastery is the essence of the mature king. But mastery is not about perfection, for the simple reason that life is a continuous process, not a static object.

When Leonardo da Vinci was in the last decade of his life he continued to fiddle with the Mona Lisa, even carrying it around with him as he relocated his residence several times in his final years. Over many years he poured a tremendous amount of energy into the painting (part of the reason for its hypnotic power—it is literally filled with Leonardo’s brilliant energy). It was not painted in one night. It was a magnum opus, a life’s Great Work, and it clearly reflects that (as does the bullet-proof glass that protects it in the Louvré in Paris). But was the painting perfect? As far as Leonardo was concerned (and who should know better) it was not. Perfection is an idea that suggests sterility, and creative power, like life, is never sterile.

Jesus on the cross is regarded, by religious convention, as a symbol having to do with sacrifice and the salvation and ultimate redemption of the common person. But I think it’s much more than that (however cosmic ‘that’ may be). ‘It is accomplished’, or ‘it is finished’, is the triumphant cry of a man who did what he had to do—not in the mechanical, foolish manner of a man doing something destructive or pointless, but in the manner of a man whose life was full of aspiration and oriented completely toward a great cause in which he played a key part. A man who completes his Great Work is not a solitary note, even if he is playing solo; he is an instrument in an orchestra and his music is essential to the greater piece.

What stops a man from recognizing his role in cosmic life? What blocks are in his way? A number of them have been touched on in the course of this book, but a few bear closer looking at. Of course, most of this is based on cultural context—a warrior in the army of Genghis Khan or in service of one of the Japanese shoguns faced very different ‘cosmic lessons’ than the average materially privileged Western man sitting in front of his computer. Modern men face challenges unique in history, some of which are connected to over-stimulus and a weakened attention span. In the final analysis however these are not impressive excuses. All men must pass beyond the prince stage into true warriorhood, in the sense of growing beyond childish dependencies, entitlement, or brooding resentment in order to get truly and properly untracked.

A man needs to locate his Holy Grail in life, but the Holy Grail is not a woman (with apologies to Dan Brown). It is his deep calling, his reason for being, and it is all about work. A man does not inhabit his masculinity until he cultivates a true work ethic. That is to say, he must leave nothing behind when he goes out on the field. If a man’s life is not governed and led by passion—and I speak here of passion that is free of exclusively self-serving agendas—then he meanders and eventually questions his purpose. Such a man is ineffectual in all areas of life.

This is a crucial point to consider, because without such direction a man is not inhabiting his masculine polarity. Despite modern technology men still hold within them the long history of cultural conditioning that require them to live as hunters and adventurers (and even, dare I say it, conquerors). When modern men become too soft, too passive, too lost in the sheer triviality of social networking and online surfing, they lose what edge they had—or worse, they occasionally explode in acts of resentful intensity in which their underlying frustration (or, more lethally, their rage) is triggered with deadly consequences.

As Bly had repeatedly pointed out, men weak in their masculine core usually lack healthy relationships with older men. On occasion I run weekend seminars for men. These workshops largely consist of processes that the men enact together. In one of them the older men in the workshop—men over 50—are asked to sit up front together, preferably wearing sunglasses. All the younger men are then invited, one at a time, to sit in front of them and speak spontaneously, from their gut. Often what emerges is plenty of anger, sometimes hate, and occasionally a plea for money. Only rarely will a younger man sit up front and voice appreciation (or, as one rare man once did, ask forgiveness for his ‘bratty’, entitled brothers).

Younger men frequently don’t like older guys, and the more ambitious younger men often dream of bringing down the king (or the plant foreman). It’s not always the personality of the older man that is at issue; it’s what he represents. He represents power and control (as well as material strength). He and his ilk run most of the world (how many political or business leaders are under 50? Some, but not many. The youngest U.S. presidents to assume office over the past century have been Bill Clinton at 46 and Barack Obama at 47). Accordingly, younger men frequently get mired in extraordinary frustration, compounded by both the testosterone coursing through their system and the simple reality that time moves slowly when younger. To be told ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ means nothing to the young, and usually only incites more contempt for the older person who utters those forgettable words. The younger guy wants it now, and finds it difficult to wait for tomorrow. He has a ‘need for speed’. Even if he’s intellectually oriented or introverted, his tendency toward bombast or arrogance will surface via his views about the stupidity of older people.

Maturity and Solar Wisdom: What was is Really All About?

David Letterman (b. 1947), the iconic late night talk show host and comedian who hosted two long term shows (Late Night on NBC and The Late Show on CBS) from 1982 to 2015, during which he conducted thousands of interviews with thousands of guests, made some remarkably sagely comments when interviewed six months after his retirement:

When you’re doing it for so long, and for each day…you believe that what you are doing is of great importance and it is affecting mankind wall-to-wall. And then when you get out of it you realize, oh, well, that wasn’t true at all. It was just silliness. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and I realized, geez, I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years…my wife will say ‘Well, look at what you’ve accomplished.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, what have I accomplished?’ And she says, ‘Well, look. You’ve employed a lot of people for a long time…’ So I always laugh and think, okay, I’ve put a lot of people to work. And that’s usually the end of the conversation.’  [note:]

Letterman began his career as a rather edgy interviewer. He could be funny and charming enough if he liked his guest but he could be acerbic, sarcastic, and merciless if he didn’t. I didn’t particularly enjoy watching him in his earlier years (the 1980s, when he followed Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on NBC). However, after open heart surgery, the 9-11 attacks in his city, and the birth of his son in 2003, Letterman mellowed into a far more likeable character. By the time he was in his 60s (2008 and beyond) he was showing some of the maturity that marks what I call ‘solar wisdom’. This is the kind of wisdom that understands one’s craft and performs it with excellence, but is not especially attached to outcomes or how it is being perceived by others. While solar power is engaged when a man finds his path and embraces it with passion, solar wisdom blossoms when a man performs his highest function in a way that is less and less personally involved. He may still be doing many things, but he’s less and less attached to the need to prove himself via his work. He is removed personally—meaning his work is less egocentric—even if his work flourishes (or is perhaps picked up by others).

Letterman specialized in self-deprecation, but he was no slouch. As of now he’s the longest serving late night talk show host in American history, unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. Prime aspects of ‘king energy’ are mastery and completion, and Letterman accomplished both in his long career. By the end he had mellowed nicely in his craft and was an effortless interviewer, despite the standard surface act of self-parody.

It’s arguable that ‘solar wisdom’ is not possible for a man under 50, or even under 60, as it requires a certain level of life experience before one can ripen into such a state, and that’s probably true to some degree. However, I think it’s possible for younger men to achieve a very similar level of wisdom, especially if they have not avoided life, relationships, and engaging their passions. A man of 35 who has lived a full and thoughtful life can surpass in wisdom a man of 50 who has let much of life pass him by.

There is a direct relationship between engaging life fully and personal attachment. The more we engage life, the less attached we tend to be on the level of egocentric needs for recognition.

There is a direct relationship between engaging life fully and personal attachment. The more we engage life, the less attached we tend to be on the level of egocentric needs for recognition. The less we engage life the more we tend to be sensitive to how the world perceives us, the more egocentric, and the more fragile.

Engaging life fully is not about how much stuff we do, or how many places or things we see, or how many people we sleep with. It’s about the quality of our presence, what we bring to the table, how we show up in whatever it is we’re doing. Living a life of passion and balance, work and play, creativity and contemplation, celebration and intimacy, leads to freedom and true wisdom. This is a wisdom that doesn’t worry about its immortal status in the scheme of things, because it recognizes that the deeper values are impersonal.

Alas, such recognition is not really possible if we haven’t first investigated the personal. This is why we have to live as if what we do makes a difference. At the end of the day, we may come to see—as Letterman did—that it was all ‘just silliness’. But before then it’s a better policy to live life as if it’s important and what we do is an important contribution to it. Such an approach keeps us from copping out or playing small. We’re part of a game and the idea is to play it, and play it fully. When the day comes to stand on the sidelines and wistfully chuckle at all the players on the field grinding it out, we’ll know it.

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