Thursday, February 7, 2008

Walk like an electron

Will Lebow, John Kuntz and Karen MacDonald prepare to collide.

I know everyone says I expect too much of the local print critics, but there's a real downside to having average-joe (or -jane) journalists writing on the cultural scene - indeed, the reception to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (recently closed at the A.R.T.) could serve as one example of how poorly Boston is served by the Globe and Phoenix.

Now Frayn's play is, I admit, often entertaining in the manner of much upper-middlebrow melodrama; but as a "play of ideas," it is, like such shameless potboilers as Equus and The Elephant Man, hooey through and through. And frankly, there's no one in Boston's print media with either the brains or the balls to make that call.

But before we get to the critical reaction, let's ponder the play. Frayn conjures a kind of No-Exit-like limbo for three historical figures, two of them among the century's geniuses - Niels Bohr, father figure to atomic physics, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant upstart who wrested the universe, as it were, away from Einstein with his probability-based model of subatomic particles. Over the course of the play, this trio ponders, and re-ponders, a famous "walk in the woods" in Copenhagen between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941, during which somehow, away from the Nazi microphones which were surveilling Bohr's home, Heisenberg gave Bohr the impression (intentionally or not), that he was working on an atomic bomb.

Bohr, horrified, soon escaped occupied Denmark, and joined the Manhattan Project, which no doubt accelerated with the news of Heisenberg's activity. Heisenberg, rebuffed, returned to Germany and began furious work on a fission reactor, which, in one version of his story, was designed to produce plutonium for an eventual bomb. Upon Germany's defeat, Heisenberg was discovered literally in a hole in the ground (at left), working in near-hysteria on his failed reactor without even rudimentary safety controls. Technically, he was both wrong in his reactor design and in his assumption that the quickest route to a bomb was via a reactor; the Manhattan Project got further, faster, by simply separating existing isotopes of uranium (plus Heisenberg was wildly incorrect in his calculations - if he did them - of how much uranium he'd need). Still, despite being at the helm of a project that could have led to the vaporization of London and Paris, Heisenberg was never tried as a collaborator - like the brilliant Wernher von Braun, he was instead re-installed in the scientific firmament, at what became the Max Planck Institute, and spent the rest of his life essentially floating explanations for his past behavior.

Heisenberg (with Bohr in happier days, left) had many ways to revise his story, but the central question which he exploited was this: how could someone so brilliant have made such basic mistakes? Of course said mistakes look more obvious in hindsight, but Heisenberg was quick to hint that they weren't mistakes at all, but that he had, in fact, intentionally sent the Nazi nuclear project down the wrong path (and then wandered off the path to boot). This interpretation was undercut both by the ferocious speed with which he attacked the reactor project, and his own later conversations with his cohorts (secretly recorded in England after the war). In short, Heisenberg's story is a self-serving excuse from a useful genius, and that's pretty much that.

But not for Michael Frayn, who conjures in Copenhagen an elaborate game of philosophical hide-and-seek, forever hinting that we can't accurately guess Heisenberg's motives or even his actions - that instead, he's a kind of humanoid electron, always "scattering" into a probabilistic cloud before the slits of good and evil. Frayn of course is only following the lead of so many scientifically illiterate humanists - it's almost taken for granted now among the smart set that quantum mechanics implies some sort of historical, or even moral, uncertainty principle. How this should be - what the actual correlates are between matrix algebra and moral reasoning - always remains unspoken; yet somehow the idea survives, even thrives, at roughly the level of a Charlie Rose interview - a level that, frankly, you'd think Harvard would sniff at.

Yet here the A.R.T. was, positing the idea that the question of Heisenberg's culpability was somehow unanswerable and unknowable - instead of being simply an unpleasant fact that our society had long ago decided to ignore. Gosh, who can really say what his motives were at Copenhagen? Well, this question resonates only about as long as you try to square it with his later actions - then suddenly the best you can say is that he was of two minds, perhaps, at the start of his project, but then dove right in. And as for hints that Heisenberg hoped to get an agreement with Bohr that neither would work on an atom bomb - please; would anyone in Bohr's shoes have just sat tight in Copenhagen, trusting Heisenberg to do what was right? To be fair, Frayn does lay out what Heisenberg's success would have meant for the world - the end of London, followed no doubt by Berlin, then Paris - a cultural apocalypse before which the puny accomplishments of, say, Osama bin Laden would pale. But at the same time Frayn suggests the U.S. (and it seems Niels Bohr) bears some similar level of guilt for the actual bombing of Hiroshima, that we are perhaps even lower on the moral scale than his hero; no ditzy matrix-algebra morals for us, apparently!

Obviously, Copenhagen is Tony-winning claptrap - but at least it's entertaining claptrap, the same way Sleuth and Amadeus are entertaining, and it's skillfully brought off by the A.R.T. team. Still, it was troubling how little the critics engaged with its themes and theses. The play "dazzled and confounded" the Globe's Louise Kennedy, who then offered:

"Copenhagen" has provoked great controversy over its historical accuracy, especially with regard to Heisenberg's relationship with the Nazis. Feelings run high because it deals with profoundly troubling ethical questions and events arising out of the development of nuclear weapons during World War II . . . But director Scott Zigler's spare production helps to turn our focus from the possible discrepancies between Frayn's play and the facts to the broader but deeper concerns that are his true subject: What can we know? What should we do? How are we to live?

Uh-huh. Okay - here are the answers to those questions: What can we know? That Heisenberg, for whatever reason, was a collaborator. What should we do? Refuse to rehabilitate his reputation. How are we to live? By not collaborating with Nazis and their ilk. I mean really. She then tries to compare Frayn's sophistry with Shakespeare's willful misrepresentation of Richard III - which was committed over 125 years after the facts in question (as opposed to 50), and of course led to the creation of one of the greatest characters in literature. But Kennedy actually tries to posit the following:

"In time, I think, Frayn's "Heisenberg" and "Bohr" will become similarly detached from their counterparts in reality; our questions about whether Heisenberg helped or sabotaged the Nazi war effort will remain in the sphere of history, while our reading of the character "Heisenberg" will enrich our consideration of drama, ethics, and the largest questions of human nature . . . Even as I make this argument, I find myself wondering whether I agree with it. Facts matter, after all, and it has become pretty clear that Frayn, like Shakespeare, gets some facts wrong. That matters, too, especially if it gives any aid and comfort to those who attempt to minimize the evil of colluding with Nazis. Ultimately, though, I think my unease and perplexity is part of what Frayn is trying to provoke. He wants us to know that stories get things wrong, that any attempt to see "what happened" is colored by the storyteller's shaping of the story and then further refracted by our own interests, biases, and blind spots."

I don't really know what to say about this other than that the most interesting thing about it is watching Kennedy, like Heisenberg, try to wriggle out of her own position. But can she really believe that "Heisenberg" will ever matter as much to the culture as "Richard III"? And needless to say, any critique of the play's "quantum morals" - even the idea of such a critique - seems to be beyond her. Let's just say if Louise is ever called for jury duty, I think she could hold up this review as evidence of why she should be excused.

Over at the Phoenix, meanwhile, Carolyn Clay didn't do much better:

The play has stirred controversy, with allegations arising as to its scientific accuracy, not to mention its portrayal of lightning rod Heisenberg, who spent his 30 post-war years stepping lightly between identities as Nazi thwarter and bomb bungler. But the play is not intended as docudrama. Rather, it is a metaphorical musing in which Frayn applies scientific method (including what the characters might call the Elsinore principle) to a consideration of history, responsibility, and the human heart.

Clay never wrestles with the fact that the play is far more insidious as a "metaphorical musing" than as a docudrama, and as for "history, responsibility, and the human heart" - really, has she no sense of perspective?

Well, perhaps she has little hard knowledge of the ongoing controversy about Heisenberg. Draft letters from Neils Bohr have recently come to light which pretty much plant a stake in the heart of Copenhagen; in these letters, Bohr recalled Heisenberg declaring during their 1941 walk that "Germany would win the war and that he did not wish to be on the losing side." Put that line in the middle of Copenhagen and the whole pseudo-intellectual soufflé falls flat, doesn't it. Suddenly there's no cloud of probability, no competing Copenhagen interpretations: there's only a simple, hard-headed calculus of the kind scientists like Heisenberg and Bohr were in the habit of making every day.

What's intriguing is the fact that there probably is a fascinating play to be written about Werner Heisenberg - a theoretical genius (though not, thank God, a practical one!) so dazzling as to eclipse, perhaps, even Einstein. Heisenberg was reportedly no anti-Semite, and disdained the crude world of realpolitik - and ironically, he even opposed West Germany's acquisition of nuclear weapons after the war. So how was he drawn into the Nazi nuclear project? By his vaulting ambition, his romantic sense of his "German-ness," his belief that he moved in some otherworldly realm of "truth," above the common fray? It's a question that might someday yield a dramatic character to equal, yes, Richard III.


  1. Too True.

    I was surprised more reviews didn't mention Frayn's recent Pre Copernican philosophical text The Human Touch. I have great respect for Frayn as a dramatist, but I had to turn off an NPR interview I heard when the book was published.

    After five minutes I felt like I was transported back to a freshman dorm room discussion at 2:00 in the morning.

    Also, here is a link to a letter exchange regarding Copenhagen at the New York Review of Books a few years back.

    Here's a quote from Gerald Horton of Harvard University's Science History Department, in that exchange:

    But just here we come finally to the tragic flaw with Mr. Frayn's own perception of his play. As the unusual succession of Mr. Frayn's postscripts makes clear, he is not satisfied to have Copenhagen be and remain a work of fiction, along the lines of others in the genre such as Bertold Brecht's Galileo or, for that matter, Shakespeare's historical dramas—plays that retain their authenticity regardless of how far they diverge from the actual events on which they drew initially for inspiration. On the contrary, Mr. Frayn evidently has an agenda—to make a moral judgment about the actual persons, Heisenberg and Bohr. He speaks now of the audience drawing "its own moral conclusions."

  2. A very good point about the difference between "Richard III" and "Heisenberg" - Shakespeare pens a brilliant caricature who is only slightly tethered to history: Richard essentially floats through a lurid melodrama, in which the names haven't been changed, but almost everything else has. Frayn, on the other hand, almost overloads his drama with facts in an attempt, it would, to suggest that he is performing a moral analysis on the actual people involved.