[21 November 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Why didn’t Einstein kill himself?
Without realizing it, this question had always haunted me these long years that I’ve read and reread Hunter S. Thompson’s “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum”. “Why didn’t Einstein kill himself?”, the idea would prove to be a stone lodged in between other stones. Decades later, it would take Adam Glass’s “Running with the Devil”, the “Death of the Family” tie-in for this month’s Suicide Squad, to finally kick that stone loose and then watch to it skip and glide and roll over the landscape of the popular imagination, until it finally vanished from sight.
In “Lured” HST starts by playing the same trick that Stephen King does in The Colorado Kid, which is to say HST and King both harness the mystery novel form in the service of an essentially insoluble “crime”. For King it’s a dead body from the Big City found in the early hours in a small Northeast fishing village. For HST, the title says it all; what lured Hemingway to Ketchum, Idaho, the rural town with a population less than 500, where Hemingway eventually killed himself?
But harnessing the mystery genre isn’t the only trick that HST pulls. At least one other is writing himself free, at least temporarily. “Lured” isn’t simply HST hammering Hemingway’s suicide into the more recognizable form of a dime-store mystery novel. “Lured” is HST’s assumption of ambition—it is the man himself wrestling with Hemingway, a latter-day Brutus some 30 seconds after getting mugged by Antony, left lost for the rest of the play wondering how to escape the immense power of an already-dead Caesar.
And HST does, at least initially, assume the uncharacteristic stance of writing like someone else, and in this instance, writing like Hemingway. And by the time HST does denounce Hemingway as not having been as successful to outlast the destruction of his literary niche as F. Scott Fitzgerald (the term is a comparative one, HST admits, as Fitzgerald himself could not be said to have succeeded at this task by any credible measure), HST has reasserted his own voice. There’s a cold desperate equation that begins to emerge…as long as HST is able to assert and reassert his own voice, he will continually escape the invariable self-annihilation that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald could not. And although it’s Hemingway that succumbed to suicide, HST correctly assesses that Fitzgerald too brushed up against that purity of exhausted, and courted self-destruction as a consequence.
But for just a moment, peer behind HST’s beautiful, haunting prose. Just for a moment, grant every single premise that HST offers up in “Lured”, and then ask, are the insights necessarily as cogent, as germane as they first seem? Does not being able to see the world “clear and as a whole” (as Hemingway himself would have wanted to, HST suggests), necessarily lead to that existential exhaustion, and does that exhaustion invariably lead on to a drive for self-annihilation? Because if it does, how do we explain Einstein?
There’s a slow turn of the wheel with Einstein, that begins creaking at around the time he irons out unseen inaccuracies in Newton with the Special Theory of Relativity. The Enlightenment really begins with Newton. Seeing just one apple fall to the earth while just behind the moon remained aloft, was more than enough for Newton to make the foundational statement for the secular era, that there is one law. That there is one law and the heavens and the earth can be unified under it. Even the Ancient Greeks had succumbed to the superstition that the heavens were perfect and unchanging, and impermeable. With just one insight, Newton completely reversed that. A human mind, we were coming to understand, could comprehend the Heavens just as easily as it could the mutable, terrestrial world. Nothing, was beyond our reach and understanding. It was a golden time to be a human.
Maybe Einstein hadn’t intended to, but his Theories of Relativity seemed to reverse every cherished philosophical step forward made during the secular progressivism following on from Newton. Einstein’s own thoughts around mass, matter energy and light would pave the way for Niels Bohr and others to formulate the canon of quantum mechanics, a body of knowledge that doesn’t seem able to be unified with the world of relativity. Quantum mechanics describes the world of the very small, the microfractional and the rules aren’t rules at all, simply a set of probabilistic outcomes. Relativity, allows for everything to be calculated, everything to be known for certain. Quantum mechanics just doesn’t work that way.
“Niels I cannot believe that God rolls dice”, Einstein famously said. Bohr’s response perfectly frames the stakes in this debate, “Not only does God roll dice, but he rolls them in places we cannot imagine”. The secret tragedy is that it was Einstein’s own work that paved the way for the field of quantum mechanics. A perfect, certain, knowable worldview presented by Einstein would ultimately become eclipsed by the incalculable, the unknowable. And in the process, Newton’s grand philosophical statement—the unification of the heavens and the earth, the ignition of the Age of Reason—would itself be undone.
So if we grant every premise that HST offers in “Lured”, if we grant the argument in its entirety, it seems at least plausible that Einstein might have been in the throes of the same storm of ambitions. That he was no longer able to see the world “clear and as a whole”. We know that he sat in his house for the last 20 years of his life, busily working away at trying to cobble together the mathematics for a higher-order viewpoint that would unify gravity and quantum mechanics. We know Einstein simply ran out of time. But the question remains, how is it Einstein “escaped” the same exhaustion and self-annihilation that Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Thompson himself inevitably could not?
In “Lured” HST warms to Hemingway’s own idea of having “the courage to know what to leave out”. What HST himself leaves out of “Lured” and out of the hauntingly moving prose with which he frames Hemingway’s suicide, is Einstein. Einstein the man who neither bowed to, nor was broken by the exhaustion that comes from the dismantling of a worldview that had served him so well all those decades long.
To truly understand the concept of the post-traumatic growth as evidenced by Einstein, a concept that Hemingway himself guessed at (in the Old Man and the Sea Hemingway writes, “…the world breaks everyone and after, many are strong in the broken places…”), you could do far, far worse than read Adam’s “Running with the Devil”. In an earlier interview with PopMatters, Adam’s already spoken about attempting the same tactic as Hemingway—to leverage the action genre as a conceptual tool for excising the webwork of unconscious motivations that make for the palette of human interactions. Imagine Rachel Getting Married retold through the lens of Die Hard or Todd Solondz’s Happiness as The Expendables. “Running with the Devil” marks the singular triumph of this project.
It’s hard not to get sucked in by the fan-favorite moment of the Joker suddenly appearing in the pages of Suicide Squad, and in true Pied Piper fashion, luring Harley Quinn off to play her part in the Batman-du-jour “Death of the Family”. Great as that moment at the funeral is, it’s not the real heart of the issue. The real heart of the issue is how Adam weighs the Hemingway of Deadshot (who shot himself through his heart last issue, to kill cult leader Regulus who was holding him hostage at the time) against the Einsteins of El Diablo, of Iceberg and of Black Spider who find their own worldview permanently damaged, and now stare down the barrel of exhaustion, but perhaps not self-annihilation.
And perhaps, even that is not the real, real heart of the issue. Perhaps the real, real heart can be found in Amanda Waller herself and the emotionally devastating conversation she has with Black Spider. Over the course of the last year we’ve seen Amanda’s character grow darker by tinges, but never embittered, and we’re now seeing her become even more formidable and even more damaged than the Amanda Waller of John Ostrander’s era. In distinction to an Amanda that was far more easily “explained” based on her physical form, Adam presents an Amanda that cannot easily be “explained” away.
And returning to “Lured” as a kind of frame one last time, this is an Amanda Waller that more and more finds herself recast as HST himself, who has the courage to leave out Einstein, but may do say at the peril of later having to pay the same ultimate price as Hemingway.