Resting in Peace

There is something romantic about old cemeteries. Whether it is the sobering symbolism of socialism in action, or the visual stimulus of ancient crypts, the thought that the hallowed ground inters the bones of generations long gone sends a primitive shiver through the body, reminding one of the mortality and equality of Man.

It is particularly humbling to be at the grave site of a personal hero, and be re-inspired by the work and contribution that have lived on long after the creator is gone. In that light, I have always wanted to visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (resting place of Chopin, Bizet, Marcel Marceau, J R D Tata and Oscar Wilde), Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence (resting place of Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo) and London's Westminster Abbey (home to Newton, Darwin, Dickens and Lord Tennyson among many other literary greats).

One of my favourite burial grounds is the Princeton Cemetery. Small and intimate like the town, this eighteenth century cemetery has been described as the "Westminster Abbey of the United States", and has its share of scientists and mathematicians, thanks largely in part to the drawing power of the nearby Institute of Advanced Study (IAS).

Although there are no literary stalwarts resting at Princeton, it is home to Sylvia Beech, the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and lending library in Paris, who took the risk of publishing James Joyce's Ulysses when no other publisher dared approach the controversial manuscript. While the English speaking world owes her a debt of gratitude for this courageous decision, the book proved to be her bête noire as it put her in a debt from which she never recovered, especially when Joyce took the book to Bodley Head after its striking success, thereby stranding Beech financially and cutting her off from the book's royalties.

The unassuming tombstone of John von Neumann is my biggest draw at the Princeton cemetery. Within a stone's throw away from Kurt Gödel, the grave is difficult to locate even with a map, and is almost unworthy of the role played by von Neumann in fields as diverse as mathematics, computer science and quantum mechanics (sadly, he was also a member of the Manhattan Project and had proposed Kyoto as the target of the bomb; this was overruled in favour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Despite his immense contributions to the architecture of modern computers, the lasting bone of contention today is whether von Neumann was first and foremost a mathematician or a physicist. One of the stories that my college physics teacher enjoyed telling, in the context of discussing a Resnick-Halliday problem about the total distance travelled by a bird flying back and forth between two approaching trains, was that von Neumann had confounded scholars by solving a similar problem using the long-winded mathematician's approach (forming an infinite geometric series) but faster than the quicker common-sense physicist's strategy (calculating the time elapsed before the trains collide and multiplying it by the bird's constant speed)!

Von Neumann, Gödel and Einstein were among the first set of faculty members hired by the newly formed IAS in 1930, allegedly as an asylum for Jewish émigré who were refused positions at Princeton University because of its anti-Semitic policies. Stories abound about Einstein and Gödel walking to work during the summer months, and even today driving past Einstein's simple house at 112 Mercer Street is an inspiring experience.

Einstein himself was not buried. After his brain was removed and preserved for scientific research, his body was cremated and ashes scattered in the nearby Raritan river. Interestingly, during the ceremony, lines from a half-forgotten elegy were repeated: "He gleams like some departing meteor bright/Combining, with his own, eternal light." This dirge had been written by the grief-stricken Goethe for his friend Friedrich Schiller, whose Ode to Joy was put to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, and which Einstein would play on his piano (he was adept at it in addition to the violin). Thus, Einstein's funeral miraculously combined elements from some of his greatest compatriots, and was a fitting farewell to a man who had claimed if not a physicist, he would probably have been a musician.

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

James Shirley, Death the Leveller

1 comment:

Antigone said...

amazing post...awakens the wanderlust in me for these places of fascination.