Fall 2017 HC 421H: Emerson and Einstein, Interdisciplinary Artist Activists: An Inquiry into Genius

Fall Term, 2017-2018

Professor: Barbara Mossberg

4 credits

  • CRN 12798: Monday & Wednesday, 14:00 – 15:20 @ MCK 240B

Poetry and science merge, converge, blur, and blend in this study of genius that rocked—and still rocks—our world. Bursting and bending disciplines, joyously defying definitions of field – Einstein the scientist playing the violin and encouraging humanities, Emerson the poet urging study of science and history. Despite the seeming impenetrability of e=mc2 and “The American Scholar,” icons of “genius” for their respective centuries, Emerson and Einstein were celebrities, famous minds and legends who shaped their centuries—and ours – as public intellectuals who were understood more than not.

Quoting and quoted, it is as writers in the public realm and popular culture that they became movers and shakers; it is as metaphor makers that they became change agents. Their metaphoric imaginations challenged and changed science and social sciences in how we think about our world and what “matters,” from transformative emergent complexity and chaos theories to civil and human rights and environmental policies. We ask, what makes a thinker so powerful?

Humanities advocates, teachers and preachers shaping 19th and 20th century thought, respectively, Emerson’s and Einstein’s writings continue in our own day to be some of the most influential ever published, spawning continuous revolutions in science, literature, and cultural understanding. We investigate formative texts for these great minds’ own learning and development as writers. What did they come to believe and practice as intellectual leaders? How and why did they use their “authority” as peace activists for human rights? We examine the paradox that such seemingly difficult thinkers seek a common world view, literally and morally, in terms of conscience, courage, empathy, kindness, and goodness. Feisty iconoclasts, Emerson and Einstein’s lives and writings inspire ways to see our world with imagination and insight as “miracle” worthy of excitement, awe, and wonder, and a rousing social critique to foster better behavior to one another.

Our readings include Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, The Cosmic Einstein: Writings on Art, Science, and Peace, Emerson’s Selected Essays, as well as ground-breaking creativity that comes from taking Emerson and Einstein literally – Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Richard Feynman, and today’s artists, scientists, and poet philosophers. As part of a growing oeuvre featuring Einstein and Emerson, we dramatize Steve Martin’s comedy honoring Einstein as artist, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (inviting alumni of this course), and Fred in the Hills and Friends—Einstein, Dali, Brecht, Twain, and the Real Jesus (Theater of Being), as well as the PBS series on genius featuring Einstein. Creative and analytical assignments are designed to engage each student’s inner “E.” Each student’s genius is brought to the table in translation projects across media. Finally, as a colloquium, we see how genius is made of “I,” “[y]o[u],” and “us.”