Samuel Jay Keyser


On his book The Mental Life of Modernism: Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of July 15, 2020

A close-up

If an idle browser were to thumb through my book, say in a bookshop somewhere, I would hope that Chapter 3 catches her eye. It contains a number of surprises, things that she will have looked at but not necessarily seen, like what is hidden in the FedEx logo or in the famous Silence of the Lambs motion picture poster. Even if the browser doesn’t buy the book, she will take away something that she probably didn’t know before and won’t easily forget.

Both the FedEx logo and the famous Silence of the Lambs motion picture poster contain hidden structures that artists put into their work without any expectation that their audiences would ever find them. These are “Easter eggs” in the software sense of the term. This chapter will show that the practice of embedding Easter eggs in a work of art can be found in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer and in the music of Guillaume de Machaut. “Easter eggs” go back even farther, certainly to the Old Testament. Building secret structures into works of art was at best a pastime in the past. It was something artists did simply because they could. After the shift to Modernism, this practice became central to the work of art.

I would also hope that Chapter 12 would catch a browser’s eye. It is the real point of the book; namely, that Modernism and Newtonianism are two sides of the same coin. What the book is really about is the monumental consequences that transpire when artists and scientists encountered the limitations of the brain. This chapter explores the implications of this encounter. Have we as a species reached the limits of our understanding?  Richard Feynman commented on quantum mechanics in this fashion:

We can’t pretend to understand it since it affronts our commonsense notions. The best we can do is to describe what happens in mathematics, in equations, and that’s very difficult. What is even harder is trying to decide what the equations mean. That’s the hardest thing of all.

It is a reasonable thing to ponder. Quantum mechanics tells us that the result of an experiment done in the past cannot be understood until some point in the future.  It tells us that two photons billions of miles apart are somehow connected, what Einstein called “Spooky action at a distance.” Just as Newton’s action at a distance wrought a sea change in science by virtue of the brain coming up against its own limitations, quantum mechanics is doing the same thing in our lifetime, only this time there may be no work around.