The Animated Score for Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” the Horrifying Composition Featured in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Cuarón’s Children of Men & Other Films

If you were watching episode 8 of Twin Peaks on Sunday night, you might still be recovering from an overdose of uncut, pure David Lynch. We’re not here to summarize the episode but instead to point to the musical accompaniment to one of the most startling sequences in all of the director’s filmography: The slow tracking aerial shot into the heart of the first nuclear test mushroom cloud, right into the middle of hell itself (see below).

Although Angelo Badalamenti is back on board as the show’s composer, Lynch chose to use for this scene the modern classical work by Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, one of the most harrowing works of the 20th century.




The eight-and-a-half minute composition—-which you can listen to while following the composer’s abstract score in the video above—-was written by the Polish composer for 52 strings, nothing else. This accounts for the shrill, all treble nature of the piece. The title and dedication came later, only after Penderecki had listened to it being performed.

"I was struck by the emotional charge of the work,” Penderecki said, “I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims.”

The work went on to take third place at the Grzegorz Fitelberg Composers' Competition in Katowice in 1960 and won the Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs UNESCO prize in 1961, two major awards that began Penderecki’s journey to become one of Poland’s most respected composers, second only to Henryk Górecki.

This isn’t Lynch’s first use of Penderecki, having put an excerpt of 1970’s Kosmogonia in Wild at Heart’s “lipstick freakout” scene, and six pieces in Inland Empire.

And it isn’t the first time Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, has been used in film. It was chosen by Alfonso Cuarón for Children of Men, and by Wes Craven for The People Under the Stairs, which coincidentally starred two actors from Twin Peaks.

Interestingly, Penderecki had scored films in the ‘60s, but they were work for hire jobs: a pleasant folk filled score for Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript and choral pastiche in a Renaissance style for Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, Je t’aime, along with some television work. But he kept that music separate from his serious work as a concert composer, seeing soundtrack work as undignified—-this was long before Philip Glass was scoring films, when careers were more regimented.

Because he refused to score William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for that reason, the director chose instead to use five of Penderecki’s already existing works for some of the film's scariest moments: the appearance of words on Regan’s body, Father Merrin’s vision of evil near the start of the film, and during the exorcism itself. People remember Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells" for its futuristic sound of occult apprehension, but it's Penderecki's work that accompanied all the screaming from the audiences.

Six years later in 1979, Stanley Kubrick would use seven Penderecki works for The Shining, underlining the state of madness in that particularly jarring film.

By the mid-1970s, the composer was turning away from the discordant tonal clusters of these early works and towards a more traditional and often beautiful style. But for a certain generation of filmmakers, Penderecki will be synonymous with horror. Last Sunday showed the piece still holds a grim, devastating power.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Edvard Munch’s Famous Painting “The Scream” Animated to the Sound of Pink Floyd’s Primal Music

In this short video, Romanian animator Sebastian Cosor brings together two haunting works from different times and different media: The Scream, by Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and "The Great Gig in the Sky," by the British rock band Pink Floyd.

Munch painted the first of four versions of The Scream in 1893. He later wrote a poem describing the apocalyptic vision behind it:

I was walking along the road with two Friends
the Sun was setting -- the Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy -- I stood
Still, deathly tired -- over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on -- I remained behind
-- shivering with anxiety -- I felt the Great Scream in Nature

Munch's horrific Great Scream in Nature is combined in the video with Floyd's otherworldly "The Great Gig in the Sky," one of the signature pieces from the band's 1973 masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. The vocals on "The Great Gig" were performed by an unknown young songwriter and session singer named Clare Torry.




Torry had been invited by producer Alan Parsons to come to Abbey Road Studios and improvise over a haunting piano chord progression by Richard Wright, on a track that was tentatively called "The Mortality Sequence."  The 25-year-old singer was given very little direction from the band. "Clare came into the studio one day," said bassist Roger Waters in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, "and we said, 'There's no lyrics. It's about dying -- have a bit of a sing on that, girl.'"

Forty-two years later, that "bit of a sing" can still send a shiver down anyone's spine. For more on the making of "The Great Gig in the Sky," and Torry's amazing contribution, see the clip below to hear Torry's story in her own words.

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George Orwell Reviews We, the Russian Dystopian Novel That Noam Chomsky Considers “More Perceptive” Than Brave New World & 1984

We know George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at least by reputation, and we’ve heard both references tossed around with alarming frequency this past year. Before these watershed dystopian novels, published over a decade apart (1949 and 1932, respectively), came an earlier book, one truly “most relevant to our time,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1923 and set “1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power.” The novel had a significant influence on Orwell’s more famous political dystopia. And we have a good sense of Orwell’s indebtedness to the Russian writer.

Three years before the publication of 1984, Orwell published a review of Zamyatin’s book, having “at last got my hands on a copy… several years after hearing of its existence.” Orwell describes the novel as “one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age" and spends a good part of his brief commentary comparing We to Huxley’s novel. “[T]he resemblance with Brave New World is striking,” he writes. “But though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together—it has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarise—it has a political point which the other lacks.” The earlier Russian novel, writes Orwell, in 1946, “is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.”




Part of what Orwell found convincing in Zamyatin’s “less well put together” book was the fact that underneath the technocratic totalitarian state he depicts, “many of the ancient human instincts are still there” rather than having been eradicated by eugenics and medication. (Although citizens in We are lobotomized, more or less, if they rebel.) “It may well be,” Orwell goes on to say, “that Zamyatin did not intend the Soviet regime to be the special target of his satire.” He did write the book many years before the Stalinist dictatorship that inspired Orwell’s dystopias. “What Zamyatin seems to be aiming at is not any particular country but the implied aims of industrial civilization.”

In the interview at the top of the post (with clumsy subtitles), Noam Chomsky makes some similar observations, and declares We the superior book to both Brave New World and 1984 (which he pronounces “obvious and wooden”). Zamyatin was “more perceptive” than Orwell or Huxley, says Chomsky. He “was talking about the real world…. I think he sensed what a totalitarian system is like,” projecting an overwhelmingly controlling surveillance state in We before such a thing existed in the form it would in Orwell's time. The novel will remind us of the many dystopian scenarios that have populated fiction and film in the almost 100 years since its publication. As Dougherty concisely summarizes it, in We:

Citizens are known only by their number, and the story's protagonist is D-503, an engineer working on a spaceship that aims to bring the glorious principles of the Revolution to space. This world is ruled by the Benefactor, and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on citizens, who all live in apartments made of glass so that they can be perfectly observed. Trust in the system is absolute.

Equality is enforced, to the point of disfiguring the physically beautiful. Beauty — as well as its companion, art — are a kind of heresy in the One State, because "to be original means to distinguish yourself from others. It follows that to be original is to violate the principle of equality."

Zamyatin surely drew from earlier dystopias, as well as the classical utopia of Plato’s Republic. But an even more immediate influence, curiously, was his time spent in England just before the Revolution. Like his main character, Zamyatin began his career as an engineer—a shipbuilder, in fact, the craft he studied at St. Petersburg Polytechnical University. He was sent to Newcastle in 1916, writes Yolanda Delgado, “to supervise the construction of icebreakers for the Russian government. However, by the time the ships actually reached Russia, they belonged to the new authorities—the Bolsheviks…. [I]n an ironic twist, Zamyatin, one of the most outspoken early critics of the Soviet regime, actually designed the first Soviet icebreakers.”

While Zamyatin wrote We in response to the Soviet takeover, his style and sci-fi setting was greatly inspired by his immersion in English culture. His two years abroad “greatly influenced him,” from his dress to his speech, earning him the nickname “the Englishman.” He became so fluent in English that he found work as an “editor and translator of foreign authors such as H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Sheridan.” (During his sojourn in England, writes Orwell, Zamyatin “had written some blistering satires on English life.”) Upon returning to Russia, Zamyatin quickly became one of the “very first dissidents.” We was banned by the Soviet censors in 1921, and that year the author published an essay called “I Fear,” in which he described the struggles of Russian artists under the new regime, writing, “the conditions under which we live are tearing us to pieces.”

Eventually smuggling the manuscript of We to New York, Zamyatin was able to get the novel published in 1923, incurring the wrath of the Soviet authorities. He was “ostracized… demonized in the press, blacklisted from publishing and kicked out of the Union of Soviet Writers.” Zamyatin was unapologetic, writing Stalin to ask that he be allowed to leave the country. Stalin not only granted the request, allowing Zamyatin to settle in Paris, but allowed him back into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934, an unusual turn of events indeed. Just above, you can see a German film adaptation of We (turn on closed captions to watch it with English subtitles). And you can read Orwell’s full review of We here.

Related Content:

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George Orwell’s 1984 Is Now the #1 Bestselling Book on Amazon

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Makes 140,000+ Artistic Images from Its Collections Available on Archive.org

As an Open Culture reader, you might already know the Internet Archive, often simply called "Archive.org," as an ever expanding trove of wonders, freely offering everything from political TV ads to vintage cookbooks to Grateful Dead concert recordings to the history of the internet itself. You might also know the Metropolitan Museum of Art as not just a building on Fifth Avenue, but a leading digital cultural institution, one willing and able to make hundreds of art books available to download and hundreds of thousands of fine-art images usable and remixable under a Creative Commons license.

Now, the Internet Archive and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have teamed up to bring you a collection of over 140,000 art images gathered by the latter and organized and hosted by the former.




Most every digital vault in the Internet Archive offers a cultural and historical journey within, but the collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an especially deep one, ranging historically from early 19th-century India (The Pleasures of the Hunt at the top of the post) to midcentury New York (the photo of the mighty locomotive before the entrance to the 1939 World's Fair above) and, in either direction, well beyond.

Culturally speaking, you can also find in the Met's collection in the Internet Archive everything from from Japanese interpretations of French photography (the woodblock print French Photographer above) to the Belgian interpretation of Anglo-American cinema (the poster design for Charlie Chaplin's Play Day below). You can dial in on your zone of interest by using the "Topics & Subjects," whose hundreds of filterable options include, to name just a few, such categories as Asia, woodfragmentsLondon, folios, and underwear.

The collection also contains works of the masters, such as Vincent van Gogh's 1887 Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (as well as its obverse, 1885's The Potato Peeler), and some of the world's great vistas, including Francesco Guardi's 1765 rendering of Venice from the Bacino di San Marco. If you'd like to see what in the collection has drawn the attention of most of its browsers so far, sort it by view count: those at work should beware that nudes and other erotically charged artworks predictably dominate the rankings, but they do it alongside Naruto Whirlpool, the Philosopher's Stone, and Albert Einstein. Human interest, like human creativity, always has a surprise or two in store.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Introduction to Stoicism, the Ancient Greek Philosophy That Lets You Lead a Happy, Fulfilling Life

Forever known, it seems, as keeping a “stiff upper lip,” Stoicism—like its predecessor, Cynicism—is an ancient school of Greek philosophy that has been reduced into an attitude, a pose rather than a way of life. “We do this to our philosophies,” writes Lary Wallace at Aeon, “We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasizing all the wrong features.” We do this especially to schools as obscure to most people as Stoicism and Cynicism.

“In reality,” however, writes Massimo Pigliucci at The Stone, “practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity): it is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like.” Would the ancient Stoics have agreed with this assessment? In the short TED-Ed lesson above, written by Pigliucci and animated by Compote Collective, we learn about Zeno of Cyprus, “stranded miles from home, with no money or possessions.”




Destitute and “shipwrecked in Athens around 300 BCE,” the once-wealthy merchant discovered Socrates, and decided to “seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.” Zeno then taught his own students the principles of “virtue, tolerance, and self-control” that underlie Stoic philosophy (called so for “the porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens” where the group congregated). Although the ability to remain calm and composed in a crisis—the quality most associated with Stoicism—occupies a prominent place in Stoic thought, it is centrally concerned with two questions.

As the site 99u puts it, Stoics ask: “1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?” and “2. How can we become better human beings?” In brief, we do so not by obeying or submitting to some kind of capricious divine will, but by attending to the rational structure of the universe, the Logos, an intricate web of cause and effect that determines the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The Stoic cultivates four virtues—Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage—and the character recommended by Stoic philosophy makes it plain why Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, as Pigliucci notes, was “actually modeled after [Gene Roddenberry’s]—mistaken—understanding of Stoicism.”

Given Stoicism’s concern with happiness and virtue, we might expect Alain de Botton’s School of Life to be an advocate, and we would be right. In the animated introduction to Stoicism above, de Botton assures viewers “you need more of it in your life.” Why? Because “life is difficult,” and Stoicism is “helpful,” for commoners and aristocrats alike. Indeed the most famous of Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. Considered one of the greatest works of ancient thought, Aurelius’ Meditations is also perhaps one of the most accessible of philosophical texts.

In plain, straightforward language, the emperor-philosopher recommends a series of Greco-Roman virtues, and gives credit to his many teachers. In book two, he writes, “Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.” In other words, rather than suffering in courageous silence—the caricature of Stoicism—Aurelius distills much of its essence to this: “Don’t worry about what you can't control, find good work to do, and do it well and wisely.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writing Process: Keep a Diary, Carry a Notebook, Read Out Loud, Abandon Hope

When did you first hear David Sedaris? Normally in the case of a writer, let alone one of the most famous and successful writers alive, the question would be when you first read him, but Sedaris' writing voice has never really existed apart from his actual voice. He first became famous in 1992 when National Public Radio aired his reading of the "Santaland Diaries," a piece literally constructed from diaries kept while he worked in Santaland, the Christmas village at Macy's, as an elf. Though that break illustrates the importance of what we might call two pillars of Sedaris' writing process, nobody in his enormous fanbase-to-be gave it much thought at the time — they just wanted to hear more of his hilarious storytelling.

A quarter-century later, Sedaris has released more diaries — many more diaries — to his adoring public in the form of Theft by Finding, a hefty volume of selected entries written between 1977 and 2002. They give additional insight into not just the events and characters involved in the personal essays compiled in bestselling books like NakedMe Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but also into his writing process itself. "A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary," a 26-year-old Sedaris writes in an entry from 1983. "After a while you'd stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts."




Obviously he didn't need that advice at the time, since even then keeping a diary had already become the first pillar of the David Sedaris writing process. "I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day," he once told the New Yorker, also a publisher of his stories. "At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking." Most of what he writes in his diary each and every morning he describes as "just whining," but "every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote."

The entries later cohere, along with other ideas and experiences, into his widely read stories. One such piece began, Sedaris told Fast Company's Kristin Hohenadel, as "a diary entry from a trip to Amsterdam. He met a college kid who told him he’d learned that the first person to reach the age of 200 had already been born." Then, Sedaris said, "I speculated that the first person to reach the age of 200 would be my father. And then I attached it to something else that had been in my diary, that all my dad talks about is me getting a colonoscopy. So I connected the 200-year-old man to my father wanting me to get a colonoscopy, and that became the story.”

Only connect, as E.M. Forster said, but you do need material to connect in the first place. Hence the second pillar of the process: carrying a notebook. To the Missouri Review Sedaris described himself as less funny than observant, adding that "everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall things," especially for later inclusion in his diary. When he publicly opened his notebook at the request of a redditor while doing an AMA a few years ago, he found the words, "Illegal metal sharks... white skin classy... driver's name is free Time... rats eat coconuts... beautiful place city, not beautiful..."

These cryptic lines, he explained, were "notes I wrote in the Mekong delta a few weeks ago. A Vietnamese woman was giving me a little tour, and this is what I jotted down in my notebook." For instance, "I was asking about all the women whom I saw on motor scooters wearing opera gloves, and masks that covered everything but their eyes. And the driver told me they were trying to keep their skin white, because it's just classier. Tan skin means you're a farmer. So that's something I remembered from our conversation, so when I transcribe my notebook into my diary, I added all of that." And one day his readers may well see this fragment of life that caught his attention appear again, but as part of a coherent, polished narrative whole.

The better part of that polishing happens through the practice of reading, and revising, in front of an audience. "During his biannual multicity lecture tours, Sedaris says he routinely notices imperfections in the text simply through the act of reading aloud to other people," writes Hohenadel. "He circles accidental rhymes or closely repeated words, or words that sound alike — like night and nightlife — in the same sentence, rewriting after each reading and trying out revisions during the next stop on his tour." When a passage gets laughs from the audience, he pencils in a check mark beside it; when one gets coughs (which he likens to "a hammer driving a nail into your coffin"), he draws a skull. "On the page it seems like I’m trying too hard, and that’s one of the things I can usually catch when I’m reading out loud,” he says, whether his writing "sounds a little too obvious" or "like somebody who’s just straining for a laugh."

And the presence of live human beings can't but improve your storytelling skills. It helps to be able to fill Carnegie Hall like Sedaris can, but all of us can find, and learn from, some kind of audience somewhere, no matter how modest. He told Junkee that he began reading out loud back in his art-school days: "I was in a painting class and we had a critique, and you put your work up and talk about it, and most people would talk as if they were alone with a psychiatrist." He realized that "they don’t have any sense of an audience. For some reason, maybe it’s because I have so many brothers and sisters, I was always very acutely aware of an audience," and so for his critiques he prepared in-character monologues from the point of view of invented artists. "People laughed, and it felt amazing to me," which brought about an even bigger realization: "This is what I’m supposed to do. Write my own stuff and read it out loud."

Whatever fears so many of us have about speaking in public, the fourth pillar of the Sedaris process may prove the most difficult to incorporate into your own work methods: abandoning hope. "If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence," he told the New Yorker. "It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun." And anybody who gets stuck can use the writer's-block-breaking strategy he revealed on Reddit: "There are a lot of college writing textbooks that will include essays and short stories, and after reading the story or essay, there will be questions such as 'Have YOU Had any experience with a pedophile in YOUR family?' or 'When was the last time you saw YOUR mother drunk?' and they're just really good at prompting stories."

And though it might seem obvious, the activity that constitutes Sedaris' fifth pillar gets all too much neglect from aspiring writers: constant reading, the active pursuit of which he considers "one of those things that changes your life." At the same time he began writing his diary, he told the Missouri Review, "I started reading voraciously. They go hand in hand, especially for a young person who’s trying to write." Today, when people ask him to have a look at what they've written, "I often want to say to them, 'This doesn’t look like how things in books look.' Reading is important when you’re trying to write because then you can look at what’s in a book and remind yourself, 'Hey, I’m young; I just started, and it’s gonna take me a long time, but boy, look at the difference between this and that.'"

He should know, given the viciousness with which he criticizes his own work. Even now his stories require more than twenty drafts to get right, as he mentions in the PBS NewsHour clip at the top of the post, but when he re-read his first diaries, "it was really painful. Really painful." These early entries revealed that "no one was a worse writer than me. No one was more false. No one was more pretentious. It was just absolute garbage." But some of them hint at things to come. "I stayed up all night and worked on my new story," a 28-year-old Sedaris writes in 1985. "Unfortunately, I write like I paint: one corner at a time. I can never step back and see the full picture. Instead, I concentrate on a little square and realize later that it looks nothing like the real live object. Maybe it's my strength, and I'm the only one who can't see it."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Albert Einstein Writes the 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?” and Attempts to Find a Solution to the “Grave Evils of Capitalism”

Image by Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a complicated human being, with a wide range of interests. His personality seemed balanced between a certain chilliness when it came to personal matters, and a great deal of warmth and compassion when it came to the wider human family. The physicist struck up friendships with famed American activists Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and he championed the cause of Civil Rights in the U.S. He professed a deep admiration for Gandhi, and praised him several times in letters and speeches. And in 1955, just days before his death, Einstein collaborated with another outspoken public intellectual, Bertrand Russell, on a peace manifesto, which was signed by six other scientists.

Einstein saw a public role for scientists in matters social, political, and even economic. In 1949, he published an article in the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” Anticipating his critics, he begins by asking “is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a number of reasons that it is.”




Einstein goes on, sounding something like a combination of Karl Marx and E.O. Wilson, to elaborate the theoretical basis for socialism as he sees it, first describing what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and what the socialist economist Thorstein Veblen called “’the predatory phase’ of human development.”

…most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

The science of economics, as it stands, writes Einstein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observable economic facts… are not applicable to other phases.” These facts simply describe the predatory state of affairs, and Einstein implies that not even economists have sufficient methods to definitively answer the question “why socialism?”—“economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” Einstein himself doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few questions addressing “some extremely difficult socio-political problems,” of the kind that attend every debate about socialism:

…how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Nevertheless, Einstein is “convinced” that the only way to eliminate the “grave evils” of capitalism is “through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” For Einstein, the “worst evil” of predatory capitalism is the “crippling of individuals” through an educational system that emphasizes an “exaggerated competitive attitude” and trains students “to worship acquisitive success.” But the problems extend far beyond the individual and into the very nature of the political order.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands… The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The political economy Einstein describes is one often lambasted by right libertarians as an impure variety of crony capitalism, one not worthy of the name, but the physicist is skeptical of the claim, writing “there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society.” Private owners always secure their privileges through the manipulation of the political and educational systems and the mass media.

The predatory situation Einstein observes is one of extreme alienation among all classes; “All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Einstein believed that devotion should take the form of a socialist economy that promotes both the physical wellbeing and the political rights of everyone. But he did not presume to know exactly what such an economic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, "Why Socialism?" here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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