Loneliness in Time: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Immigration and How Severing Our Connection to the Past Shallows Our Present and Hollows Our History
An antidote to today’s perilous self-expatriation from history.
By Maria Popova
What a disorienting feeling to wake up one hot early-August morning and realize that exactly fifteen early-August mornings earlier, I had awakened to face my first day on American soil, having arrived alone as a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe with $800 my parents had cobbled together to last me a year. I thought about how my life might have turned out if immigration policies and attitudes were then what they are now, and about the generations of immigrants who have devoted their lives to making this country what it is. I thought about the great physicist and inventor Michael Pupin, after whom the physics building at Columbia University is named, reflecting on his own improbable path from immigrant to inventor after arriving in America as a penniless teenage boy from Serbia, born across the border from my native Bulgaria. I thought about James Baldwin and Margaret Mead challenging the problematic nature of the melting pot metaphor and Hannah Arendt contemplating the many layers of the immigrant plight for identity. I thought about Alfred Kazin’s bittersweet meditation on the loneliness of the immigrant experience.
It seems to me that in a country so fundamentally shaped by immigrants, a societal sentiment so suddenly unwelcoming to them can only be the product of an absurd narrowing of perspective — an unthinking self-expatriation from history, a willful blindness to the cultural legacy of the past, and an inability to take the telescopic perspective so vital to inhabiting the present with lucidity, integrity, and a deep sense of connection to the whole of humanity.
Somewhere in this cascade of thought and feeling, I was reminded of a brief and beautiful reflection by physicist Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) from his magnificent epistolary memoir, Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library).
Dyson writes in a letter from January 2, 1948, shortly after arriving in America as a twenty-four-year-old Englishman, having survived World War II to work on some of the most exciting scientific questions of the twentieth century:
Several of my friends are second-generation Americans, whose parents came over from Germany or Poland or Lithuania or some such place, and I am always curious to ask them questions about their parents’ histories in Europe and their reasons for emigrating and their emotional backgrounds. Always I have been amazed to find that the young people know practically nothing, and apparently care little, about such matters. It is very strange when one thinks how much we have absorbed about the history and society to which our family belonged.
In a sentiment evocative of Hannah Arendt’s insight into how demagogues and dictators use loneliness as a weapon of oppression, Dyson adds a wonderfully generous and optimistic counterpoint:
Not that I dislike the Americans on the whole; it is probably in the long run a good thing that they live so much in the present and the future and so little in the past. The fact that they are more alone in the world than average English people probably accounts for their great spontaneous friendliness. I had heard this friendliness attributed to the size of the country and to people’s loneliness in space, but I think the loneliness in time is more important.
For more of Dyson’s timeless insight into the human experience, savor his vivid recollection of how the unconscious mind ferments creative breakthrough, then revisit Carla Torres’s lovely children’s book about immigration.
Published August 8, 2018