Unit 8 The Merely Very Good
Early in 1981 I received an invitation to give a lecture at a writers' conference that was being held someplace on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, just across from New Jersey. I don't remember the exact location, but a study of the map convinces me that it was probably New Hope. My first inclination was to say no. There were several reasons. I was living in New York City and teaching full time. My weekends were precious and the idea of getting up before dawn on a Saturday, renting a car, and driving across the entire state of New Jersey to deliver a lecture was repellent. As I recall, the honorarium offered would have barely covered the expense. Furthermore, a subject had been suggested for my lecture that, in truth, no longer interested me. Since I both wrote and did physics, I had often been asked to discuss the connection, if any, between these two activities. When this first came up, I felt obligated to say something, but after twenty years, about the only thing that I felt like saying was that both physics and writing, especially if one wanted to do them well, were extremely difficult.
The conference seemed to be centered on poetry, and one of the things that came to mind was an anecdote that Robert Oppenheimer used to tell about himself. Since Oppenheimer will play a significant role in what follows, I will elaborate. After Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard in 1925, he was awarded a fellowship to study in Europe. Following a very unhappy time in England, where he seems to have had a sort of nervous breakdown, he went to Germany to get his Ph.D.