Thursday, August 9, 2018

THE SMITHSONIAN By Gore Vidal New York: Random House, 1998 ISBN: 0-375-50121-5

The Smithsonian Institution: A Novel

T is a 13 year old student who attends St. Albans School and lives in Washington, D.C. The day before the story begins he had a phone call inviting him to the Smithsonian. It is 1939 and his invitation is related to the coming war. He has no idea why he has been invited, but later discovers that Papa Chasseau, one of the teachers at the school, is behind this invitation.

T, it turns out, has an exceptional, perhaps unique talent: He can VISUALIZE the meaning of mathematical and physics formulas. The puzzle that a strange group of scientists is exploring is that if one explodes an atomic bomb it would seem one would set off a chain reaction that would destroy the whole cosmos. They believe this strange young man may be able to help with their problem.

He goes to the museum, however, it is not what it seems and a totally new world, a hidden and unimaginable universe is going on inside in which many many dead but important people in history are still living. T gets to join them.

“T” is for Time. He’s working on a concept of indeterminacy, following up on the work of Max Planck. One 18th century priest scientist tells him:

“Your science is astonishing, but then anyone who can see clearly what is already self-evident in the way of time and space is classified as a genius.”

And in fact it is T who solves the problem of the splitting of the atom and proves that it can be done within a controlled explosion (not exploding all the atoms in the cosmos). However, his scientific skills are such that they want him permanently as a member of the Smithsonian’s dead science team. However, he isn’t yet dead!

There are many spaces in THIS Smithsonian that are known only to specific people – folks know of this “secret” Smithsonian, but only know this world if the Smithsonian revealed it to them. The rest of humanity doesn’t know of it. It is effectively several different universes.

He also meets a love interest in Squaw, a woman who exists in one of the exhibits. In a later exhibit she is also Frankie, 22, and later is even the wife of president Grover Cleveland. After he dies and becomes a permanent part of the Smithsonian, he is able to take her as wife.

T actually knows very little science beyond what he can “see” (and he often can’t interpret what he can see). His dominant source has been True Mechanics magazine! Yet, despite this lack of knowledge, his “ability” to “see” the meaning of scientific formulas does allow the author to have T be the person who actually solves the problem of the uncontrolled explosion, and allowed the atomic bomb to go forward.

Another part of his dialogue with the priest-scientist of an earlier period was T’s reaction to the priest’s absolute hold on the Aristotelian-Thomistic thesis that every effect must have a cause, thus there must be a first cause (i.e. a God).

But T’s argument is that what is eternal is not the first cause God, but change itself:

“As we start and stop so, for us, the cosmos must start and stop. But he could also see that his own reasoning was crippled by the built-in limitations of a two-lobe human brain, with its peculiar hang-up on beginnings and endings when it was change that was the nature of nature.”

I liked this formulation. In studying both ancient Greek and Medieval philosophy I was always dissatisfied with the first cause argument for exactly that reason. It seemed to me that change was the ultimate natural fact, and not the relationship of cause and effect.

Part of what I found so gripping in this novel were the “everyday” details of his that come up routinely as he meets people from other times. Immediately a soldier from 1870 comes to mind who is blown away by T’s belt, or the hard baseball he has with him. It’s these little tidbits of historical comparison which are so fascinating. One can imagine along with Gore Vidal, the impact small historical changes have had and how people who lived without them would have responded to seeing these objects in existence. It added a great measure of humor and delight to the novel.

T wants to interfere with time and stop the war. Smithson, this sort of hidden and shady figure who is the man for whom the Smithsonian is named, writes to him that he will die March 1, 1945. However, by this time, since he is “full time” at the Smithsonian, they have created another “him” to live in the real world and he doesn’t want that innocent fellow to die. He feels he absolutely must stop the coming of this war. In order to stop the war he does what no one has yet done: enters into time, goes back several years, and CHANGES some decisions the U.S. made so that different presidents come into power and the historical path to World War II, as it occurred in history is avoided. He feels he simply had to take this incredible risk to save his alter self.

However, while he has this incredible ability to “see” the meaning of scientific formulas, he doesn’t really understand what it is to change time and history, and he simply ignores or forgets that it was Japan that got the U.S. into the war, not Germany, at least in the direct causality.

So while he has changed the course of the actual history that led to WWII, he didn’t change the fact of the war, nor the coming of the death of his alter-self. However, given that this is, after all, a science fiction novel, while everything else goes haywire, he is allowed to save his alter self’s life.

The Smithsonian folks let T die (but the “second” him live) as the cost of the only hope they have to solve these difficult scientific problems that they need T’s abilities. They knew he would die in the “real” war and took the path they did (after his changing of time), so that they could try to put him back together (as an exhibit in the Smithsonian) and, like the others, he could continue his work.

It is sort of funny to me. This is a wildly fantastic and crazily impossible novel. Yet I could accept nearly all of it as acceptable WITHIN the novel, and not have any difficulty with all the dead being alive (in the Smithsonian when living people aren’t there), and yet, this notion of the author allowing a change in history by having someone go back in time and change it, was just too too much for me and I couldn’t accept that. It makes no sense. The whole tale of these non-real eternal beings living in the basement of the Smithsonian is as nutty as can be. But I could just accept that as fascinating and amusing and not raise a word of criticism. Yet, let T traverse time and “redo” something that was done, and all that follows from that, well, that was just too much, too over the top for me. My “feeling” which is what it is, makes absolutely no “sense” at all, as the whole novel doesn’t. Alas and alack it is what it is and I am who I am. I just couldn’t “go” with the changing history.

In my summary and recounting of the tale I haven’t said much at all about the simply charming and lovely romantic relationship. T develops a love interest with a woman from history who is in the Smithsonian at three different times of her life and three different “hers.” This love affair out of time was a quite enjoyable part of the story, a sort of dessert treat to a heavier meal.

I think this is not a great book. It was fascinating reading, challenging to imagine, even more challenging to accept it as anything other than a mad romp. Nonetheless, it was a light and delightful read and I had a great deal of fun in the reading.

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