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Lately I was a bit obsessed with learning everything about J. Robert Oppenheimer. 18 years ago I went to the opera about him, “Dr. Atomic”, in the San Francisco Opera House. Now before treating myself with my elder son and his wife to the 70 mm version of the blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer” in an IMAX movie theater next week, I have listened, with deep interest, to the entire Pulitzer winner book “American Prometheus – the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” on Audible. It is such a phenomenal biography that took the authors 25 years to write. I am reading the print version of this book again.
Among so many things I have learned, one is Oppenheimer’s way with narratives, in writing and speech.
I admire Oppenheimer’s nuance, intellect, brilliance, and the poetry in his use of English language, to convey complex thoughts, to architect subject matters, to persuade what he staunchly believed in, and to imply the mystery of the unknown. Even in his most persuasive statements, his points were woven by logic, facts, and structure. They do not come across as imposing, but with sensitivity even in the strongest argument.
Ironically, dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb”, Oppenheimer, who was talented with multiple languages and loved poetry, was a man of science AND humanity. It was his humanity and a sense of duty that drove him to be vocal against the nuclear arms race, which eventually made him a target of humiliation and destruction by his enemies.
Here is an example of his artful speech from the book, quoting Oppenheimer’s 1953 BBC speech on atomic physics “that is relevant, helpful and inspiriting for men to know”. The book said: “The Cold War was not his topic, but in an aside, he spoke briefly about the nature of communism: ‘It is a cruel and humorless sort of pun that so powerful a present form of modern tyranny should call itself by the very name of a belief in community, by a word, ‘communism,’ which in other times evoked memories of villages and village inns and of artisans concerting their skills, and of men learning [to be] content with anonymity. But perhaps only a malignant end can follow the systematic belief that all communities are one community; that all truth is one truth; that all experience is compatible with all other; that total knowledge is possible; that all that is potential can exist as actual. This is not man’s fate; this is not his path; to force him on it makes him resemble not that divine image of the all-knowing and all-powerful but the helpless, iron-bound prisoner of a dying world.’” (American Prometheus, p. 475.)
There was a level of self restraint, even in presenting a matter as close as black and white. (Unlike Ronald Reagn, who called the Soviet Union “an evil empire”, rightfully so, then retracted it in Red Square when Gorbachev asked him about this description.)
Today, the use of short and simple sound-bites, the purely practical SEO keywords for Google search engine, the ubiquitous partisanship TV narratives of I AM RIGHT, YOU ARE WRONG on both Fox News and MSNBC – all of which bifurcates a country into arbitrary camps where there are only shouted slogans rather than sound reasoning and unimposing persuasions.
Nowadays, truth does not have any shades of gray but must always be as black and white as day and night. More than just a style of writing and speech, this dangerously simplistic way of viewing truth and the world is limiting healthy and open debates, thus degrading our collective intelligence and polarizing ourselves.
It is more than a style of narrative, but in substance the use of civility has persuasive power.
In his 1963 Fermi Award ceremony at the White House, the book said: “In his acceptance speech, Oppenheimer mentioned that an earlier president, Thomas Jefferson, often wrote of the ‘brotherly spirit of science’… We have not, I know, always given evidence of that brotherly spirit of science. This is not because we lack vital common or intersecting scientific interests. It is in part because, with countless other men and women, we are engaged in this great enterprise of our time, testing whether men can both preserve and enlarge life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and live without war as the great arbiter of history.” And then he turned to Johnson and said,”I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to me a good augury for all our futures.” American Prometheus, p. 576).
Oppenheimer built his sentences with delicate balance, nuance, and deferential respect for the audience. There is even some ambiguity to leave room for the audience’s own interpretation and imagination. Truth can be told better without preaching, simplifying, lecturing, blaming, or over-explaining.
About 12 years ago, I read through another biography, “Cleopatra, a Life” (by Stacy Schiff). To this day, I remember the pain in reading the entire book written in the style and format of one-sentence and short-sentence only, which was almost militantly adhered to by the author with every line in every page. Is it a matter of style, or due to a profound lack of subtlety, complexity, and an inability to structure multiple ideas in a fluid, creative, and artful way?
How one thinks, perceives, and articulates determines both one’s ability and style for communicating the complex with structure and elegance. A great command of language, a rich imagination, and a profound understanding of humanity are the foundational tools.
In storytelling, the audience is not intrigued, inspired, or benefitted when everything is boiled down and dumbed down. And worse, spoon fed.
Some people may call rhetorical elegance flowery, ornate, like classical music – out of date. They may even argue that it is no longer serving the digital age.
But think of the memorable lines from President John F. Kennedy, that have become the American lexicon: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I cannot recall anything close to this from any US presidents since the 70’s. I think Clinton and the gifted orator Obama both tried but failed to leave something memorable like JFK.
My alma mater, Brandeis University, just celebrated its 75th anniversary. At the back of the Brandeis Magazine was a letter dated March 7, 1968, by then President Abram. L. Sacher. I found elegance, artistry, humor and wit in both his mind and his writing. This two-paragraph letter evidences an intellect’s architectural skills for weaving his thoughts with artfully selected words, and a poet’s mastery of outlandish stories, metaphors, and pictorial depictions. It also records the flavor of that era, shared by Oppenheimer and JFK. Here is Dr. Sacher’s short but rich masterpiece of a letter:
A bonus by-product of the announcement of my retirement as President of Brandeis is the flow of messages and letters that evaluable my incumbency with gratifying generosity. I have on order about a dozen halos, and my normally cynical children look upon me with new respect. Even Thelma has begun to wonder whether it is compatible with my dignity to serve (even occasionally) hamburger. I do not at all mind the fuss and feathers. I have been in so many brawls and rhubarbs with extremist faculty and student groups and have had so many evasions and ruffs from potential donors that my wounded ego has absorbed the messages as balm of Gilead.
Of course, I am not ‘retiring’ in the conventional sense. I can still out walk any of the tenured members of the faculty, and can out walk even the hippies and the student editors. There are still valuable veins of ore in not too skilfully camouflaged mines that can be prospected by an old pro who has developed special divining rods. So, as chancellor, on assignment by the Board, I shall continue to rise very early, along with milkmen, burglars and newsboys, to scheme and conspire on stratagems that will help to keep our University in the forefront. And I shall hang on tenaciously to such friendships as yours which no change in status or title will ever jeopardize.
With many thanks to you for writing and fond regards,…”
Why is this art of writing nowhere to be found today? Is the over-simplified, unimaginative, staccato style of single sentences the natural result of a cultural desert we are living in? Like the same sized apricots sold in today’s super market, each has the exactly identical annoyance of a tiny label, politicians’ speech sounds more like repeating the same notes in a marching song for soldiers.
But it was only six decades ago when the American English language was used by scholars, presidents, and influencers to construct a symphony of various themes, with harmony and melody, like a beautiful landscape of hills, streams, boulders, rocks, with rich and diverse vegetation. You may find their old style of writing “flowery” – yes, plenty of different colored wildflowers dotting the green lush carpet of this enchanting landscape.
Compared to the cultural desert we are living in, I do appreciate and prefer this rich landscape, even if only to be found in the bygone times.
© Joanne Z. Tan All rights reserved.
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