Friday, April 27, 2007

A (Brilliant) Mind in Space; and the Cultural Revolution

What a pleasure to see those pictures of Stephen Hawking delighting in the experience of weightlessness. I can only begin to imagine how it must have felt, after forty years confined to his wheelchair, for him to be released from the bonds of gravity, if only for a few fleeting seconds. I'm proud to say that we have a (very!) tenuous association: Stephen Hawking C.H., C.B.E., Ph.D., Hon Sc.D., F.R.S., is the current incumbent of the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics at my old Cambridge College, Gonville & Caius (pronounce, please "keys.") Well, not much kudos to me, perhaps, but I can bathe in a little reflected glory, no? I am awed by the fact that the human mind is capable of the kind of brilliant imaginative flights that Hawking has taken in his researches in cosmology, black holes and quantum gravity, and doubly awed when it comes from a man who has had to struggle with such a pitiless debility as ALS.

On another front, I drove out to Riverside yesterday, where I was privileged to meet with another man who has made an important contribution to our human species. Li Zhensheng is a photographer whose superb documentation of both the aspirations and the ignominies of Chairman Mao's "Cultural Revolution" in communist China remained hidden for decades and were eventually revealed to the world in a remarkable book called "Red Color News Soldier." The exhibition of Li's work at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside is a selection from some thirty thousand images shot by Li in the ten years of the revolution: at the beginning, he assured me, they were taken to celebrate the promise of a revival of the genuine communist spirit, a true hope for the future of the country under new leadership; but soon began to reflect the misery, the political and social constraints and the paranoia that a new tyranny engendered.

Li proved to be a wonderful interview subject. To listen to the flow of a language, not a single word of which I understood before the translator took over, was itself a remarkable experience. Add in the communication through the eyes, through the body language, through the peculiar process of triangulation with the translator, and the process becomes delightfully oblique and subtle, and requires a special sensitivity and attention. We ranged easily between the intense and the light-hearted and managed, I thought, to achieve a nice relationship. Our session lasted three times longer than I had anticipated--and only partly due to the translation process. I'm looking forward to reviewing the digital recording of our session.

After my additional, much briefer interviews with the museum director Jonathan Green, and the exhibition curator Robert Pledge--who has devoted years of time and energy to bringing Li's archive to the attention of the world--I sat for lunch at a sunny table on the Riverside mall with my hosts and the cheerful young Chinese student who was Li's diligent translator for his visit here. Li was busy taking pictures with his digital camera the entire time--throughout the interview, as well as over lunch--and after lunch a woman who had been observing us from an adjacent table offered to take a group picture that would include us all. Li happily accepted, delighted with the unsolicited offer from a stranger: such a thing, he said, could not have happened in China, where social mores dictate a certain reticence. Which led us into a discussion of how Robert had introduced the Western hug to the community of Chinese photographers... All in all, an entertaining moment. Our thoughtful new friend from the next table was surprised to learn she had been taking photographs of one of the world's great photographers!

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