Open Questions in Uncertain Times: Laura Sewell Matter and Anne Goldman on Stargazing in the Atomic Age (Part 1)

Anne Goldman’s new essay collection, Stargazing in the Atomic Age, is now out from Georgia Review Books, an imprint of the University of Georgia Press. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls Goldman’s book “A beguiling meditation on Jewish achievements that shine brightly against a dark background.” Earlier versions of three of its pieces, including the title essay, first appeared in The Georgia Review. Here, Goldman shares some of the stories behind the book in a conversation with fellow GR contributor Laura Sewell Matter, who is herself the author of many memorable essays.Laura Sewell Matter (LSM): In the introduction, you describe this as a “book about Jewish American achievement in the twentieth century.” That sentence economically identifies one of the most important threads that ties together the essays. But there are other ways one could describe the common threads that run through these essays about scientists, musicians, painters, mathematicians, and writers.

It is a book about creativity and its redemptive powers.

It is a book about displacement, and the ways that contributes to creativity.

It is a book about recurrent patterns. It is, in fact, a literary fractal of sorts.

It is a book about your family—and how sometimes, to understand those closest to us, we have to look for correspondences in people at a further remove.

That is to say, this book is ecumenical in its interests, even as you’ve focused on Jewish exemplars for the broadly humanistic themes that you examine. How did this collection come about, and how did you find and decide upon your subjects?

Anne Goldman (AG): Thank you for pointing out all of these unifying threads, a focus that very graciously and gracefully creates a kind of tapestry out of the essays. The first piece I wrote is actually the titular essay. It was driven by a feeling that the history of Jewish innovation in both the arts and the sciences is long and that while we’re inclined to tell the story of Jewish life, not just in the modern period but across the ages, as one of trauma and suffering, this in fact leaves out daily life, which in many cases is characterized by a tremendous intellectual energy. That energy produces a kind of vibrancy. Consider, for instance, the tonalities and cadences of Jewish music, which is mostly minor-keyed. I admit that in temperament, I usually incline toward the minor rather than major keys. But take klezmer, to which George Gershwin’s opening of the Rhapsody in Blue is indebted. There’s as much lilt to klezmer as there is melancholy. It’s the former quality I wanted to foreground in my own collection.

As for how I found my subjects: they pretty much found me. That probably sounds egregiously precious. It’s certainly something I would roll my eyes about if I heard it. So to dig myself out of this predicament, as well as to pick up on your comments about family and fractals, I’ll say something about my own family life. I’m struck by your insight about the ways we learn to understand those closest to us—that sometimes it’s by finding correspondences at a remove that we see who is close more clearly. I think that’s absolutely right. I grew up in a family that was close-knit, so close-knit that it seemed insular. Until my brother David died of lung cancer at thirty-one, we were a very symmetrical arrangement, almost crystalline, in that each birth was separated by two years. I have a sister four years younger and I had two brothers, identical twins, who were born between my sister and me. So there was a pleasing patterning right there from the beginning of my family life. Maybe on some level that kind of design informs the way I look at life more largely. But while we were arranged in a mathematically orderly way, our household was always chaotic. We were the kind of people who sustained three simultaneous conversations at the dinner table. There was always lots of excitement and lots of talk. My mother’s talk recalls how hummingbirds move; she darts and flits from topic to topic. My father, a physician and a scientist, brought a tremendous love for this work home with him. He just blew in at the end of every day—sometimes like a storm cloud, sometimes with the ebullience I associate as well with Gershwin. But always, he asked questions and communicated his curiosity about the world to his children. So the cultural life that sustained me as a child was one that possessed drive and contradiction and was sustained by crosstalk. It was this quality I saw mirrored in the figures I ended up writing about and this energy that attracted me and that provoked me to begin the research and reading that lead me to suggest that maybe, historically speaking, we’ve been in our blue period—to invoke Picasso—long enough.

LSM: Your academic grounding is in literature and writing. What do you find are the pleasures or perils of writing about people who have very different kinds of specialist knowledge—such as physicists and mathematicians?

AG: I think we share this penchant, as writers, for trespassing across different fields. I think of your beautiful “Franz Schubert Dreamt of Indians,” as well as of the stunning “Hell and Reason”—both published in the Georgia Review, and which usher readers into the world of music and the world of engineering and, eventually, toward atomic weapons and back to organ music. I love teaching, but I’d rather take courses than teach them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the perils of venturing to speak about people whose expertise was in entirely different fields, but I just plowed on anyway, because it was so satisfying for me to challenge myself to think about the world through the eyes of others whose disciplinary expertise offered them very different ways of working. Then again, my identity as the daughter of a scientist and as someone who continues to enjoy talk about science roots much of the inquiry in this book. How about you? That is, what do you do to give yourself permission to write about subjects you might consider far afield?

LSM: The beautiful thing about being a writer generally and an essayist specifically is that you can write about anything that interests you. Music and physics were the two subjects that I most loved learning when I was in high school, and in writing the two particular essays that you referenced, I was returning to old interests. At some point, when I was in college, my report card seemed to be telling me that I was better at writing and literature, so I stuck with it. My writing breakthrough came—around the time I wrote “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” (my most decorated and anthologized essay, which was also first published in The Georgia Review)—when I realized my limitations as a fiction writer: I do my best work when I am driven by curiosity. That’s why I became an essayist. The form, as you’ve so brilliantly demonstrated in your collection, is really about asking questions and searching for understanding. But as rewarding as the questioning and searching is, publishing an essay makes you an author if not an authority in the field about which you’re writing, and that’s a strange place to situate yourself when, say, you’re describing the life of a physicist but you never actually took a physics class in college. For example, it was initially crippling when I began writing “Franz Schubert Dreamt of Indians” to imagine it being read by a musicologist who would dismiss it simply because it was the work of an amateur musician. When I was actually writing, it helped to imagine that I was writing for other curious generalists like myself, who are happy to learn almost anything if it’s presented in an interesting way. But when I was researching, it helped to imagine the musicologist, in the hope that a specialist reader could take it seriously as the work of some literary person with a sincere enough interest in music to educate herself and others about a figure in the field.

Your essay “Iconoclasm con Brio” is mostly about your father, a medical researcher who worked for years at the Harvard School of Public Health. Though he is not mentioned in most of the essays, he feels like a presence in a lot of them. In the introduction, you acknowledge that this book is about characters who shared your father’s “penchant for provocation.” You describe him as “irremediably energetic and chronically hostile to despair.” Your book has that quality as well—you seem intent to focus on the positive and inspiring outcomes of creative endeavor.

AG: My father was definitely like this. He’d have a setback—often of his own making—but after raging for an hour or an afternoon, an idea would occur to him and he’d set to thinking about how he could develop it, as if his recent setback had occurred a decade rather than a day ago. And I’ve seen this unwillingness to give up in others—especially in one of my colleagues, Robert Coleman, who died several years ago, and who was just as stubborn as my father, and just as difficult to deal with, but whom I admired for that stubbornness. I think I have tried to work to foreground this insistence never to give up. I hoped that I might inspire readers to muse in a way that made them excited rather than to exacerbate the inevitable frustrations and disappointments we all face. Once I decided to retell twentieth-century Jewish cultural and intellectual history as a story of innovation, it seemed like all I had to do was turn around or turn a corner and there was another curious character—like Chagall, whose luminous paintings more often communicate delight than despair, or a figure like Gershwin, who died of a brain tumor not long before World War II began, but who seems effervescence personified. Champagne in the glass.

LSM: Clearly your dad found his way through that door at Harvard and then had some fun inside the gates. All of this is just to say that I took deep vicarious satisfaction in reading “Iconoclasm con Brio,” relishing the various ways your father messed with people’s elitist affectations there. I remember showing up for an on-campus admission interview at Harvard in 1993, and the ancient woman who interviewed me took a look at my transcript, and the first question out of her mouth was, “Oh, you’re from Farmington! Why don’t you go to Porter’s?” The institution to which she referred is most properly known as Miss Porter’s School for Girls, a prestigious and very expensive boarding school in the center of town, which boasted alumnae like Jacqueline Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis, blah blah blah. I told her that I think you get a real education by keeping company with a diverse swath of humanity that includes boys and girls, rich and poor—which can teach you things that can’t be learned at an elitist, single-gendered school. Of course, the most salient reason I didn’t go to Porter’s is that my family didn’t have the money to even discuss that option. Trying to spin it like some sort of principled choice was just ridiculous. The admissions officer called my bluff by asking why, if I felt that way about elite educational institutions, did I wish to attend Harvard? I had no answer to that. It went south from there. And, needless to say, I was not offered admission. I get that there is, still, a meritocratic door into a place like Harvard for those who can work out the entry code. I just didn’t have a clue how it operated when I was seventeen.

AG: This is such a great story—one my father would have appreciated, too. He was on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health for many years and was quick to say that the university lopped 20 percent off everybody’s salaries for prestige. And “affectation” is a great word to use. My dad did really mostly ignore and blunder past people who looked at him askance. But he also took pleasure in undermining that closed-door approach to life. That kind of affectation perhaps is a way of holding in advance deep shame. And then of displacing that shame onto other people. But it’s hard on the people who have to be the recipients of that behavior. And I do have to say in my own life I am always playing devil’s advocate and do take the same kind of relish, I’m afraid, in calling attention to the willful blindness of people who were just fortunate to be born into the ruling class, and who then naturalize that act of their birth as if they had something to do with it.

LSM: If catastrophe has an antidote you find it in “translating unspoken grief into forward motion.” And you give us exemplars who inspire us to keep thinking and creating.

AG: Thanks for this comment. Yes—even in grief, the most profound grief, people find their way forward. We don’t really have that much of a choice, do we? We either grind to a halt or stumble on. In my own life, I am very far from being a Pollyanna. My mind practically skips ahead toward catastrophe, so perhaps writing this book was one way of righting myself. But I also think we’re all subjected to stories of tragedy and despair—not least in every news outlet we find ourselves reading. What I wanted to do in this book is to push against the feelings we all struggle with, some of us, sometimes, on a daily basis, and never more so than in this last so difficult year.

LSM: Who are the living, working artists and problem solvers in the twenty-first century in whom you see this life-affirming energy and strength of mind?

AG: That is a marvelous question—and makes me practice what I preach. I think they are legion, but I cannot see them. There’s nothing more heroic to me than the quiet perseverance of the good. I think there are many, many people who make art out of their daily lives, by connecting with and by helping others, in ways we might harness collectively. The kindness of strangers—there are people who enact this all of the time and whose faith in small acts of communication is a form of communion. Most of them, unfortunately, will remain unsung except by the people who cross paths with them. That said, two of the problem-solvers who most inspire me (and probably much of the world) are a couple: Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, whose work has led to the development of Pfizer’s vaccine. Once again, here is an example of immigrants (from Turkey) who are part of a religious minority in their home nation (of Germany). He came to the country when he was young; Dr. Türeci is the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. And what did they do on the day of their marriage, after the ceremony? They went back to the lab. It made me happy to read about that kind of intellectual desire and dedication.

LSM: The essay “Antecedent” is a reflection of the Exodus story, and it primes us to see all these stories of dislocated, wandering individuals as one of the universe’s recurrent patterns. You return to this theme in “Dislocation and Invention: A Fugue.” This piece centers around Mozart (who is not Jewish) but who was a muse to figures like Bellow, Rothko, and Einstein. Like most of the other artists and scientists whose lives you contemplate in this collection, Mozart moved around a lot in pursuit of a creative and productive existence. He is cast as a fellow traveler to those who took inspiration from the order and creativity of his music.

AG: Yes, definitely. Still, it surprised me that Mozart made so many entrances in this book about Jewish accomplishment. The characters who people this book possess energy and curiosity even as they identify as wanderers—and often, as outsiders. But they all also share a reverence for mystery. They are in some measure as interested in asking questions as in answering them. They all seemed to me to acknowledge that the very act of solving a problem is to illuminate and recognize a pattern in a corner of an otherwise dark place. Despite their confidence—arrogance, often—they recognize with all due humility that there is much that is beyond us. For me, Mozart’s genius is a personification of this wonder—or rather, Mozart’s music speaks this wonder. In 1945, Alfred Einstein—perhaps a distant cousin of the physicist— published a biography of Mozart that remains a significant study in his field. Einstein considers Mozart so beyond the marvelous that he is “not of this world.” It turns out that many of the people I wrote about count this composer among their favorites: Rothko painted listening to Mozart; Albert Einstein, an excellent amateur violinist, revered him; Benoit Mandelbrot, the geometer of fractals, lists Mozart as peerless, and Bellow calls Così fan tutte “a miracle.” I think Mozart shares with these figures not only a luminous intelligence, but also a lightness, while not disavowing suffering or grieving. I also think there’s a kind of structural balance to Mozart’s art, as an eighteenth-century composer, that people living two centuries later found beyond their grasp, at least in terms of their contemporary history of conflict.

LSM: A fractal is a geometric figure characterized by recursive, self-similar features at different scales. There are lots of fractals in this book, right from the outset, in the the fabulous cover art. Did you have a hand in this?

AG: Erin Kirk, the designer, is brilliant. And the press was gracious enough to ask for input. One of my ideas was to use an image of a Chagall painting I love, Over the Village, a rapturous painting the artist created during the years of the First World War. But that would have been terrifically expensive and impossible. And then my daughter, who is also a writer, suggested, “why not fractals?” So I did not have a hand in it, but my daughter did. I think we’re both very happy with the result.

LSM: Of course, “Wonderful World” is most explicitly about fractals and the life of Benoit Mandelbrot, who discovered and applied the mathematical models that describe fractals.

AG: I don’t know enough math to try to replicate such complex designs consciously (or even reduce the most basic algebraic equation). But the sense of recurrent patterns—absolutely. I think artists and scientists generally keep their eyes open for conditions or details that seem distinctive, and that both kinds of thinkers and makers look for repetitions of those interesting oddities and then to begin to see the world in terms of a patterning of differences that becomes, in the way they repeat, a congruence of likeness. I actually think this is the best we can do as people—both in our working lives and as ethical beings. Or at least, as someone who is secular, the question remains for me, how do we make these connections, or where do we stumble upon them. The notion of looking for design in this way I think of as in and of itself a kind of ethical good. I think that’s what Benoit Mandelbrot was doing. Here he was, a Jew born in Poland who grew up in France and who lived in hiding during World War II, separated from his brother, separated from his parents, and living in fear every single day for several years that he would be found out and sent away to be murdered. As a mathematician, he investigated and embraced an astonishing array of fields—from the way the stock market behaves to the nature of bronchial tubes in the lungs to the meanderings of coastlines. This seems to me a heroic effort to make connections which offer antidote to the kind of division that occurs in wartime and that is occurring today with this really terrible political polarization.

LSM: It was interesting to me that you labeled “Antecedent” a fugue. If the distinguishing property of the fractal is that it possesses recursive, self-similar features at different scales, you might replace the notion of the “geometric figure” with that of “musical composition” and arrive at the definition of a fugue. (Perhaps you could also replace this mathematical shape with “genetically linked individuals” and arrive at the definition of a family.)

AG: I think connecting the notion of the fugue with a mathematical figure is really interesting. I enjoy listening to fugues—especially those by Bach, a composer whose music seems to possess the purity of math—because even if you don’t know the piece of music well, you can hear the way a particular musical phrase sounds and is then taken up by other instruments or human voices. You hear it shift between different timbres and sonorities and distinct musicians. And for me, at least, this brings a strong sense of confirmation and a sense of satisfaction. That is, hearing that recursive quality and being able to identify a pattern that is part of a call and response is deeply assuring, never more so than during periods like this one that feel particularly chaotic, and in which there is a sense, too often, that the arbitrary is uppermost.


Stargazing in the Atomic Age is available to order through UGA Press. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this conversation . . .


Anne Goldman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, the Guardian, The Georgia Review, the Gettysburg Review, and the Southwest Review, among other venues. Her essays have been named as notable in Best American Essays, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and the Best American Travel Writing. Nominated for a National Magazine Award, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Ahmanson/Getty Foundation and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Goldman is Professor of English at Sonoma State University. She is at work upon a second nonfiction manuscript, “An Aria for Insects and Other Essays.”

Laura Sewell Matter is an essayist and teacher who lives in New Mexico. Her work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction and published in various literary journals, including The Georgia Review.