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Back Art Blog The New York Times: Is Truth True? Or Beauty? A Couple of Thinkers Go Deep

The New York Times: Is Truth True? Or Beauty? A Couple of Thinkers Go Deep

Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met

When Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met for the first time, in Germany in 1930, both had won the Nobel Prize, Tagore for literature in 1913, Einstein for physics in 1921. At the time of that meeting, Dimitri Marianoff, a relative of Einstein, described Tagore as ''the poet with the head of a thinker'' and Einstein as ''the thinker with the head of a poet.'' The conversation, he added, was ''as though two planets were engaged in a chat.''

They met in July at Einstein's home on a hilltop outside Berlin. Einstein, 42, came down to the road to meet his 70-year-old Bengali guest, who later recalled about his host, ''His shock of white hair, his burning eyes, his warm manner again impressed me with the human character of this man who dealt so abstractly with the laws of geometry and mathematics.''

He wrote that he was deeply impressed by Einstein's great simplicity: ''There was nothing stiff about him -- there was no intellectual aloofness. He seemed to me a man who valued human relationship and he showed toward me a real interest and understanding.''

Marianoff published an abbreviated report of the meeting in The New York Times Magazine in 1930 under the headline ''Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth.'' Now, a longer version of that conversation and a second dialogue, based on notes taken by Marianoff and another guest, has been printed in a special issue of The Kenyon Review, which was jointly published with the British literary periodical Stand. The journal, titled ''Cultures of Creativity,'' was published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes.

In almost all respects, the two laureates were different: nationality, cultural background, occupations and preoccupations. Yet they were allied by their curiosity about the other's contributions, their pursuit of truth and their love of music. The Tagore-Einstein dialogues are filled with insights into the creativity and the philosophy of the two men, as well as their interest in the arts. Tagore was an incredibly prolific poet, playwright, novelist and essayist.

Their first conversation dealt with truth and the nature of reality, with Einstein wondering if truth and beauty existed independently of man. ''If there would be no human beings any more,'' Einstein offered as a hypothesis, ''the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.''

When Tagore objected to that premise, Einstein said that he agreed with it in terms of Beauty, but not Truth. Tagore said that Truth was realized through man: ''If there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.'' To which Einstein responded, ''Then I am more religious than you are!''

They met again in Berlin the next month -- the second of four meetings between 1930 and 1931. The men were photographed together, both hirsute -- Einstein with his moustache, Tagore with his long white beard -- hands identically clasped and each staring into the camera.

In that conversation, the two talked about family, the German youth movement and the interplay of chance and predetermination. That led to a discussion about the differences between Western and Indian classical music. Tagore commented that in human affairs there is ''an element of elasticity -- some freedom within a small range which is for the expression of our personality.'' He compared that freedom to Indian music, saying that it is not as rigidly fixed as Western music, and added that ''in India the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality -- he can make permutations and combinations of notes according to the law of the melody prescribed,'' but he had to be guided by his artistic conscience.

Veering from any attempt at criticism, both agreed that the beauty of a piece of music is beyond analysis. ''It is so difficult to analyze the effect of Eastern and Western music on our minds,'' Tagore said. ''I feel deeply moved by Western music . . . that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is gothic in its structure.''

Einstein responded, ''We want to know whether our music is a conventional or fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural or is it a convention which we accept.''

He continued: ''The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.''

Tagore neither agreed nor disagreed but sought a position of compromise between East and West. ''And yet,'' he said, ''there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.''

In her introduction to the dialogues, Wendy Singer says that the they have been narrowly interpreted as an example of an East-West confrontation, a scientific debate, or a philosophical commentary on the nature of Truth. But she emphasizes that Tagore and Einstein also ''functioned in a world of international scholars who sought out one another across national boundaries and disciplines to share their thoughts about the contemporary world.'' In that context, they developed a personal relationship even before they met, through their correspondence.

As Tagore wrote in a postcard to Einstein dated Dec. 22, 1929, ''My salutation is to him who knows me imperfect and loves me.''

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Last Updated on Sunday, 15 May 2011 14:52