34: The story of Einstein’s desk.

- July 9, 2017 -

Just a few hours after Albert Einstein died of heart failure on April 18, 1955, a photographer from LIFE magazine managed to talk his way into Einstein’s office.

The photographer’s name was Ralph Morse, and the story of his role in the events of that day is captivating in its own right. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today.

Today, I’d like to talk about something else: one of the few photos Morse took of Einstein’s desk.

If you haven’t seen this photo before, you’re likely among the vast majority. There is, however, a good chance that you actually have seen this photo but, for one reason or another, either simply forgot about it or didn’t think it was worthy of a great deal of consideration. In neither case could anybody blame you.

You see, there’s nothing particularly compelling or impressive about this photo, nothing that would lend itself to leaving any kind of imprint on one’s mind. If you didn’t know it was Einstein’s desk, you would never guess: there’s nothing in the photo that would mark it as his office, no identity-laden name plate, diploma, or award in sight. It’s merely a sepia-coloured snapshot of a large wooden desk, overrun with stacks of papers and an assortment of books.

Behind the desk is a small, square blackboard, framed on either side by built-in bookshelves. The shelves are in a state of disarray similar to that of the desk, although, unlike the desk, the shelves are half-empty, with only a few stacks of books, binders, and loose papers among them. There are some half-scribbled equations on the blackboard — works-in-progress, perhaps — and a leather chair is turned out from the desk, as though someone intending to return had just momentarily gotten up.

. . .

Nearly sixty years after this photo was published, a second photo of Morse’s from that day was released. This time, it was a closeup of the loose papers on Einstein’s desk, a closeup which adds a great deal of context and life to what, from afar, seems only like a lifeless repository of old documents.

From the perspective of this second image, we see not crumpled clusters of paper and old, unused books, but handwritten notes and a workbook left open at a dog-eared page. We see a single black-and-white photo positioned directly in front of the desk chair; a playbill folded in two then left unfolded again; well-worn packages, what might be a few personal letters, and a stack of crisp, unopened envelopes.

The list goes on and on — some important-looking documents, a pamphlet on philosophy — but, even without any additional detail, the message is clear: this was a life well-lived.

This was a full life, a life which, in the original sense of the word, was productive: a life which was generative, which enthusiastically absorbed inputs from the outside world and, in return, was eager to put forth outputs from which others might gain something new. This was a life which was lived in connection with a broader community, in dialogue with books and journals, and on a scale beyond that of the individual.

Quite simply, in other words, this was a life that truly was lived.

. . .

These days, such tangible markers of existence are no longer a part of our lives. No, in the six decades since these photos were taken, we’ve exchanged the tangible histories of an overflowing desk for a torrent of the intangible, for the stream of newsfeeds and status updates and 30-second videos with which our lives are now plagued.

Quantitatively, of course, we now have more history to speak of, more personal correspondence, more photos, more insight into the lives of others. And, on the one hand, this increase in quantity has given us a great deal.

For all that we’ve gained, though, I can’t help but feel as though we’ve also sacrificed a great deal, as though our torrents of electronic updates have failed to follow through on even their most basic promise of added substance. Are we living more, do you think, now that we have all of these updates to insist upon our having lived, or are we in fact living less?


Waving from my (much less iconic) desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.