Lecture on Frayn’s Copenhagen

[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University), in March 2001 to students in Liberal Studies and revised in April 2003. References to the play are to the edition published by Methuen in 1998. The text of this lecture is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


Introduction

Michael Frayn’s new play Copenhagen has provoked considerable discussion since its first production in London in 1998. Much of that discussion focuses, naturally enough, on the historical record upon which so much of the play is based, and, as often as not, that historical record receives more attention than the play itself, or else the play becomes assessed in terms of that historical record.

In this lecture, I propose to ignore the historical record, except as the text itself brings it into the conversation. My purpose in so doing is to rescue (if that is the right word) the play as a play and to explore some aspects of it within the terms the text itself sets out. For clearly the challenge of understanding something important about Copenhagen does not require (and should not involve) linking what Frayn has created to things not specifically brought into the play, no matter how interesting such a comparison might be. Whatever insight the play has to offer must come from what it contains (a claim which does not rule out potentially interesting insights from external historical facts, of course, but which insists that these have no special privilege and are, in fact, unnecessary).

This point is the first (and most obvious) interpretative issue the play raises—the relationship between the historical record and a fictional interpretation of historical events based upon a judicious selection of material from that record, some imaginative additions, and a creative patterning of the combination into what adds up to some significant totality as theatre. Since the play itself raises as a key issue our ability to understand events, it is worth pausing for a brief moment on this interpretative issue.

For clearly Frayn’s work cannot contain or incorporate all the historical material relevant to the events, as well as the various ways this material has been read. His task as an artist is to offer some imaginatively coherent vision of the experience he is addressing. And that task necessarily requires him to select, omit, and invent. The process takes him outside of the realm of what we customarily understand as history (which is meant to confine itself to the empirically verifiable record) into fiction—the made-up world of the poet. His work may address the issue of how we understand a historical event (although it moves far beyond that, as I shall argue below), but, as a work of fiction, it does not have to answer to the historical record (even if we derive a greater satisfaction as readers or viewers knowing that we are dealing for much of the time with historical events).  What this means, in practice, is that objections concerning omissions or falsifications or misreadings, important as these may be for the historical record, are not relevant criticisms of Copenhagen as drama (any more than objections about Shakespeare’s command of the historical record in, say, Richard III)

I mention all these obvious points in order to stress that in reading a play like Copenhagen we have to be careful to attend to what the play contains and not bring to bear upon it what Frayn has deliberately omitted or object because his work contains events for which there is no historical evidence. After all, in any interpretation of events, the poet has far greater imaginative liberty than the historian and can shape his story and his characters in ways not permitted to the latter. That is the main reason why Aristotle (in the Poetics) proclaimed poetry more philosophical (i.e., closer to the truth) than history. If what we are seeking from a text is imaginative insight into human experience, what matters is the particularity of the represented story, not whether or not each detail of the story can withstand the stern demands of historical credibility (Frayn’s extensive historical afterword, of course, tends to undercut this claim and make the separation I am insisting upon harder to maintain, but the point is valid nonetheless). 

Of course, in dealing with modern history the writer is taking a big chance, because the readers or viewers may well bring to the text an immediate experience of historical events directly relevant to the fiction and may not be able to confine their imaginative responses within the fictional limits demarcated by the author. Plays written about Winston Churchill, for example, during the lifetime of the members of the general public in England who had lived through World War II could simply not avoid being challenged on the basis of people’s own lived experiences which the plays contradicted, omitted, or changed. Frayn’s play, of course, is sufficiently distant from the events not to invite this response from many people, except from professional historians of modern times whose imaginations are deeply rooted to the notion of an accurate attention to all the facts at their disposal (but then historical specialists, for obvious reasons, often have difficulty with fictional reconstructions of historical events).

Some Further Initial Obvious Points

Copenhagen, for all its dazzling references to some of the most challenging ideas of modern physics, is in many respects a very old-fashioned play. It is, in a sense, a whodunit, an attempt to reconstruct an event after the fact based on the available evidence and the memories of the major participants. We are not dealing here with a crime (whatever happened at that meeting, there is no suggestion of that), but we are following a detailed attempt to arrive at a clear understanding of a particular human action in a particular place long after the event. And thus we have to deal with the methods familiar to the whodunit genre: the facts, the motives, the clues, the evidence, the testimony of witnesses. In a sense, the readers or viewers of this play are in the position of judges (that’s true of all plays, of course, but here the pressure for us to recognize our responsibilities to assess the evidence and arrive at a conclusion is much more intense and obvious). A good deal of the play’s initial appeal rests on the well-known narrative power of this literary genre.

The central issue seems clear enough. This is the trial of Heisenberg. What exactly prompted his trip to Copenhagen? What did he want? How does his behaviour before and after the trip illuminate his actions? In particular, what sort of moral judgment are we to make of the man based on the evidence and the character presented to us? And, beyond that, what if anything do we learn from the process we have to go through in sifting the evidence presented to us? That last question is naturally important, because, as it turns out, this play is about a great deal more than the conduct of one man in a specific historical circumstance—it is (I shall argue later) about the very process of forming reliable verdicts on historical events.

For all the similarity to a whodunit, however, there are some interesting and important differences which bear directly on our experience of the play. For, unlike the customary reconstruction of the past, here the main characters are all dead, and from the start they have access to all the evidence, both their own experiences and the various interpretations others have put on the events they are investigating. So there are no new clues to turn up, no sudden revelations which are going to swing the investigation decisively one way or the other. Whatever is available to assist them in their enquiry has already been put on the table.  It’s as if the victim or victims in a whodunnit are all still alive at the end and are members of the sequestered jury at the trial, charged with assessing all of the evidence and delivering a verdict.

This last characteristic introduces a particularly fascinating relationship to time in this play. For in a sense, we are in a timeless zone, where all events are simultaneously present. We are, if you like beyond history—nothing new is happening to the participants, they have nothing more to learn about the events they are investigating, and no matter what they learn, their initial situation is not going to change, since they are all in some place beyond further experience. But at the same time the principal thrust of the play is seeking a chronology of events and motives, is trying to work out a causal chain of events which makes sense only in time, that is, as a linear sequence.

Much of the conversation in the play consists of attempts to reconstruct the past by setting out a plausible linear sequence of events which will make Heisenberg’s behaviour clearly intelligible, and we are given a number of alternatives. But it strikes me that the main point of the play is to reveal to us the uncertain nature of any one alternative. Whatever it is that prompts Heisenberg to visit Copenhagen and to act the way he does on his return can be explained in any number of ways.  And these ways are mutually exclusive.

To amplify this point let me introduce two key terms often employed in the discussion of human character and motivation: underdetermined and overdetermined. These terms refer to the extent to which we can arrive at a clear, reasonable understanding of why someone acts the way he or she does. In a great deal of literature (as in most of Shakespeare, for example) the main characters are underdetermined. What that means, essentially, is that we have no way of finally putting the ambiguities of their characters to rest because we don’t have enough information to understand everything about them that we need to in order to explain away the mystery of their actions in a coherent way which will produce informed agreement (Hamlet is the most famous example of such an underdetermined character, but one can look to any number of famous heroes and heroines whose conduct we want to understand, but for whom we can never arrive at a totally satisfactory explanation which resolves all the provocative ambiguities). It is possible to argue that this quality of being underdetermined is an important part of many of the greatest characters in fiction, a source of their constant vitality and mystery, and that the ability to create such characters convincingly is a mark of the highest genius.

What’s clear about Copenhagen, however, is that Heisenberg’s character is overdetermined, in the sense that we are given an abundance of explanations from different sources for why he acts the way he does. In fact, as I shall argue in more detail later, this point seems more important in the play than Heisenberg himself. Who exactly Heisenberg is and why he acts the way he does, in other words, turns out to be less important than the compelling evidence the play offers for the existence of competing explanations for his conduct. It’s not that his character is mysterious (like, say, Hamlet’s) but that there are too many perfectly satisfying and coherent accounts which mutually exclude each other.  That’s why adding more facts from outside (from the continuing debates about what really happened historically doesn’t solve the issue but simply extends the problem).

Why should this matter? Well, in my view it shifts the central theme of the play away from what looks at first like a straightforward enquiry into a historical puzzle (What really happened in 1941 in that famous visit?) into something more complex and interesting: How does one come to understand human conduct generally? How adequate is any one single account, no matter how coherent? How are we to adjudicate among what look like mutually exclusive alternatives?

In saying this, I don’t mean to reduce or impugn the human interest of the story. For the appeal of this play is surely linked directly to the fact that we are dealing with particular human beings in very significant personal, social, and historical circumstances. And Frayn communicates the human dimensions of the story to us with a frank and spare urgency. What makes this play so compelling (especially in performance) is that the wider issues about the nature of interpretative understanding or modern science or the ethics of atomic research or whatever arise out of the clash and complexities of particular human beings whom we care about and who are not simply one-dimensional spokespersons for intellectual positions. That granted, I do want to stress that there’s more here than an investigation into a historical event or the assessment of a single human character—this play is naturally about a human conflict (and a fascinating one, at that), but it takes us beyond that human conflict into wider realms (hence, the frequency with which people describe Copenhagen as a play of ideas, an often misleading phrase, because it tends to suggest that we can easily separate ideas from the complex characters whose actions pressure us to recognize the importance of ideas—but that’s a topic for a different lecture).

The Human Dimension to the Play

One of the things I really like about Copenhagen, as I say, is the way in which these wider issues of human understanding emerge out of the sharp particularity of human character and specific human relationships. The wider issues, in other words, are not imposed on the characters (who would then become mere spokespersons for ideological standpoints) but arise from their very human interactions.

Here the multi-layered nature of the relationships is vital. On one level the three characters we see are a family united by love. That Bohr and Heisenberg have a strong paternal and filial bond is clear enough (it’s even announced in the play—and reinforced by Bohr’s patriarchal authority in the science community), and Margrethe’s response to this bond registers first and foremost as arising from the family dynamics of a partially estranged wife—estranged by the way in which Heisenberg has replaced her drowned son (perhaps drowned, we are led to believe, by Bohr’s failure to take the bold step and dive into the sea to attempt a rescue of his son) and by the way the two of them form a bond which seems to shut her out (they pursue their scientific interests, for example, by abandoning her to look after two very young children, whose names Bohr cannot get right). She serves their scientific enterprise by typing manuscripts endlessly and by acting as the sounding board for their ideas, but there’s strong sense of resentment in Margrethe, as if the success of the men in her life has come at considerable personal cost to her family (although there is no questioning her absolute loyalty to her husband).

So in that sense, the play is a family dispute, and there is a family explanation for the events of the play: that Heisenberg came to Copenhagen seeking Bohr’s approval, to obtain his blessing, or, as he calls it, “absolution,” or alternatively that he came to proclaim his independence and superiority over and independence of the other members of his family.

But, of course, Heisenberg and Bohr are also scientists, both collaborators and rivals (teacher and famous pupil) in the most exciting area of modern physics. One of the most interesting things about this play is the way in which it makes their collaboration in the glory years (1924-1927) so imaginatively exciting and intellectually stimulating. We come to understand that in those years these two, working cooperatively and as rivals, felt most gloriously alive. This emerges most clearly in the way this play links the pursuit of physics to creative play, to skiing, piano playing, duelling with cap pistols in a laboratory, playing poker, touring Europe in a huge international debate, with people rushing to train station to carry on the conversation—all these activities get fused in the excitement of an ongoing love affair between Bohr and Heisenberg and the science they are pursuing (which at this point has no relationship at all to politics or technology--the issue is a purely intellectual exercise, a supremely exciting intellectual game). One of the great attractions of this play (particularly in performance) is the way it conveys the genuine excitement of modern scientific enquiry—carried out in a spirit of intense rivalry but also fuelled by love, respect, and a sense of adventurous seeking after the truth of things, without the slightest thought of any practical consequences.

We also are given a sense of some of the cut-throat rivalry of modern science, where professional success, fame, the ability to earn a living rest on the publication of a paper, where rivals are dangerous (both to one’s ego and to one’s prospects), and where motives for particular theories are often obscure (Is the Copenhagen school a genuine melding of rival theories or an uneasy compromise stitched together for the mutual professional benefit of both parties?   Was Heisenberg’s major motive for coming up with the Uncertainty Principle a personal resentment of a rival physicist, and so on?).

Out of this dimension of the story emerge more interpretative possibilities for Heisenberg’s visit. Perhaps he came to Copenhagen to restore or regain a sense of that imaginative vitality in the great years, perhaps he is seeking direct assistance from Bohr in some scientific problems associated with his present work, perhaps he comes to Copenhagen to assert his new power and prestige in the presence of his old patron and collaborator—all of these possibilities arise naturally out of the conduct of the characters as we witness them probe through the evidence.

Beyond that, Bohr, Margrethe, and Heisenberg live in a sharply demarcated political environment in which the Germans have occupied Denmark and are on the point of moving against the Danish Jews, with ample evidence by 1941 of what that “moving against” involves. As a successful and prominent German scientist, Heisenberg stands out as a collaborator with the racist murderers determined to conquer Europe and exterminate the race to which Bohr belongs. We see clearly that the political situation places Heisenberg in a conflict (a problem which has aroused the suspicions of his Nazi superiors and earned him the title of a White Jew), but it is by no means clear where he stands exactly. For although there is no suggestion the Heisenberg is a Nazi or sympathetic to the Nazi, it is clear that he is a strong German nationalist, ready to compromise whatever distaste he has for the Hitler regime in order to protect Germany and to avert the disasters he witnessed as a child and to promote and advance German science.

Here again, mutually exclusive possibilities for Heisenberg’s visit present themselves. Has he come to Copenhagen to co-opt Bohr for the German cause (by encouraging him to attend functions sponsored by the occupying powers)? Has he come to warn Bohr of what is in store? Has he come to glean some important information from Bohr important for furthering his research efforts on behalf of the Nazi regime? Has he come to pass onto Bohr information about the German war effort, in effect, to betray his own government?

But the most important (and ethically interesting) level of all these possibilities arises from the fact that both Bohr and Heisenberg are scientists working or about to work on weapons of destruction, putting their creative scientific energies at the disposal of politicians who think in terms of mass killings. They have both moved beyond their glory years of theoretical physics, when no one had to think about the practical consequences of the rival theories into a world where their brains are in demand by the merchants of destruction and what they come up with may well have the most painful and important practical results. The wonderful excitement of earlier days has changed into a race for power, and the game with the cap pistols in the laboratory has now changed into a game with massive guns and bombs, capable of unheard of massacres of the innocents. The purity and innocence and wonder of the science in the great years has, for reasons beyond their control, transformed itself into a quest for technological power of destruction.

So we are invited to consider further alternatives: that Heisenberg comes to Copenhagen to seek Bohr’s assistance in stopping all efforts at nuclear research in the service of the war effort, that Heisenberg comes to Bohr seeking ethical advice about his participation in the Nazi atomic research project, that Heisenberg deliberately sabotages the Nazi program to keep the bomb out of Hitler’s hands (like Bohr faced with his drowning son, he chooses to say on the boat and swing it around by the tiller rather than dive into the sea in a futile gesture to save people by joining the plot against Hitler); that, by contrast, Heisenberg’s failure to develop a working reactor has nothing to do with moral concerns and everything to do with his keenness to get the reactor working and his failure to make the necessary calculations.

The play offers two different accounts for the Nazi failure to develop the bomb, both equally coherent: the first is that Heisenberg knew what he was doing and made sure his program would not be successful, the second is that Bohr deliberately withheld from Heisenberg (at the meeting) the information or encouragement Heisenberg needed to be successful. In the same way, the play puts pressure on us to distribute our moral sympathies in different ways: Heisenberg may have worked for the Nazis but he saw to it that their bomb project never reached fruition; Bohr was a persecuted Danish Jew who ended up helping to inspire and design the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Alternatively, Heisenberg was a keen scientist working hard to resolve key problems for his tyrannical racist sponsors, while Bohr’s scientific efforts on the bomb were either trivial (as he mentions) or part of a worthwhile cause.

While it is possible to list separately these different levels on which the characters operate (and others), in the play itself they are always manifesting themselves all at once. The combined result is a very complex sense of all sorts of different permutations and combinations of forces which might have led in one direction or another—and the play steadfastly refuses to privilege one or the other (in fact, the way in which Frayn can present with equal intensity conflicting possibilities is very eloquently rendered here: for example, Heisenberg’s excitement about how he might have succeeded with the reactor played off against his equally evocative defence of his conduct as stalling the German atomic research effort).

Negotiating the Possibilities

What, then, is the play saying about what really happened at the meeting and about how we should really assess the conduct of the main players, especially Heisenberg? Why is Frayn’s fiction so keen to overdetermine the actions of Heisenberg without leaving us a clearer interpretative line through them (as a detective like Maigret or Hercule Poirot would do for us in the final section of a mystery story). The reason is clear enough: the major point towards which this play is pushing us is precisely an awareness of the impossibility of ever coming to a full and coherent understanding of what went on. We have many ways of understanding why Heisenberg acted the way he did and therefore of what went on at that famous meeting. But whatever understanding we reach rules out all other possibilities (which are equally coherent and complete), so that once we have chosen how we want to see Heisenberg, we have determined the narrative line through the different possibilities. Is that the truth about him? Well, of course not—because the truth (if we mean by that a fully satisfactory account of everything we wish to know) is radically uncertain.  The story we come up with is determined by the way we want to see the narrative logic proceed.

In fact, Frayn’s play is obviously (but delightfully) linking Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a basic claim about modern Quantum Physics, with the human ability to understand anything, especially human conduct. Offering an explanation for human conduct is like firing an electron into a cloud chamber—we get an effect which we can trace and measure, but the very act of firing the interpretative possibility into the material changes the phenomenon we are investigating. Hence, as Heisenberg points out, the very notion of a coherent and satisfying causality is rendered impossible. What you want to see or learn determines what you do learn. This point Heisenberg makes explicit in that part of the conversation where he and Bohr are discussing Bohr’s habits of walking around the city, comparing that to the issue of whether electrons are waves or particles:

BOHR: They’re either one thing or the other. They can’t be both. We have to choose one way of seeing them or the other. But as soon as we do we can’t know everything about them.

HEISENBERG: And off he goes into orbit again. Incidentally exemplifying another application of complementarity. Exactly where you go as you ramble around is of course completely determined by your genes and the various physical forces acting on you. But it’s also completely determined by your own entirely inscrutable whims from one moment to the next. So we can’t completely understand your behaviour without seeing it both ways at once, and that’s impossible. Which means that your extraordinary peregrinations are not fully objective aspects of the universe. They exist only partially, through the efforts of me or Margrethe, as our minds shift endlessly back and forth between the two approaches. (69)

And, as Margrethe points out later in the play (72), such an observational choice which determines what we know about Bohr (or an electron) cannot be made from the point of view of the phenomenon. Since the account of a phenomenon depends upon the state of the observer and since no one can observe himself, there is no possibility that self-analysis will reveal to Heisenberg his own motivation, a coherent and consistent account for his actions.

Beyond that, of course, there is here a link to the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.  I have no desire (or ability) to probe into this complex scientific matter, but it does seems relevant to remark on the most puzzling and controversial feature of the Bohr-Heisenberg theory--it’s denial of the need for or the ability to construct an objective description of reality. In describing this issue, my remarks will be reductively simplistic.  However, my purpose here is not to explain quantum mechanics but simply to indicate a few obvious connections between the Bohr-Heisenberg formulation of it and the details of the play.

Quantum mechanics emerged out of a radical paradox at the heart of the development of modern physics in its attempts to explore and explain the nature the nature of heat and light.  Classical physics had long since determined that heat and light operated as a wave functions.  That model characterized their physical reality, and on the basis of this reality we could understand and predict the various properties of light in a deterministic manner.

The problem was that the wave function theory of reality could not explain certain phenomena.  Addressing the problem of heat radiation and the photoelectric effect, Max Planck and later Albert Einstein demonstrated that light also operates like a particle (a photon), something which exists as a packet of energy (a quantum).  Such a conclusion contradicted the basic assumptions of classical physics, for it ascribed two mutually exclusive explanations for the same physical phenomenon.  It thus raised the key issue: What is the true nature of light and, beyond that, once Bohr had applied quantum theory to the structure of the atom, of the elementary particles of the nucleus?  How do they move and interact?

One central purpose of classical mechanics is to explore in a very deterministic matter the way in which one state of physical reality emerges from another.  If we know all the physical facts about a particular initial state and about all the forces at work, then we can predict accurately the development of a different state in a very direct cause-and-effect manner.  And we can continue the process.  A detailed knowledge of a particular state at a particular time (gained through objective observations) will enable us to predict exactly what will happen and why.  In that sense, classical physics sees reality as precisely determined by the physical laws of matter.  The challenge is gaining an adequate knowledge of all the relevant conditions.

In the world of quantum mechanics, as developed by Bohr and Heisenberg, the classical view is replaced by something much stranger.  The Copenhagen interpretation (as it came to be called) accepted both the wave and particle images of matter as complementary.  Whether a particular experiment provided one picture or the other was determined by the experimental observer.  Moreover, what mattered in this new interpretation was not (as in classical physics) confirming the adequacy of a particular model by key experiments so that we could determine the outcome of particular experiments but rather confirming probabilities in a large number of experiments without a coherent theory of why the phenomena occurred as they did.  What was important was the mathematical result, not any clearer sense of an underlying reality. If the theory worked as a prediction, then why do we need to know why things happened the way they did.

The consequences of such a view of matter were disturbing and to many incomprehensible:

. . . if the attitude of quantum mechanics is correct, in the strong sense that a description of the substructure underlying experience more complete than the one it provides is not possible, then there is no substantive physical world, in the usual sense of the term.  The conclusion here is not the weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world (H. Stapp, quoted in Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, 82)

The perception we get of that physical world is something we construct, and all we can know are the probabilities of a large number of outcomes.  The results of individual experiments are determined by some chance process, and unlike the notions of classical physics, the way we set up the observation inextricably determines in any particular instance what we can learn (and that is never enough to provide a complete picture in the classical sense).  Stranger than that is the notion that the particle moves as a wave of possibilities and does not become a particle until it is measured.  The measurement creates the physical reality of the particle and (in the Bohr-Heisenberg conception) in the process eliminates the other possibilities.

[As is well known, not all prominent physicists were willing to accept this “probabilistic” account of a reality constructed by the observer. Einstein never accepted such an account of nuclear mechanics, because, as he observed in a letter to a colleague in December 1926, “The theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer to the secret of the Old One.  In any case I am convinced that He does not throw dice.”]

We don’t need to know much more than this very rudimentary comment on quantum mechanics as Bohr and Heisenberg applied it to the atomic nucleus in order to see how Frayn uses the development of modern physics to explore questions of human history (in any case, if we press the analogy too hard, it will collapse, since the application of, say, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to the issue of historical reconstruction, although a very clever and stimulating dramatic idea, does not go very far).  However,  we obviously see here how the various accounts the major participants have themselves given of the meeting in 1941 keep changing—what they remember of the conversation depends upon the nature of the question and the conversational context at the time. 

The final possibility the play raises, that Heisenberg has come to Bohr to raise the question about the ethics of atomic research, a question which prompts Bohr to return to the house angrily, in a sense sums up all the paradoxes—because the question itself offers no insight into why Heisenberg asks it or why Bohr simply turns away and returns home. The thought experiment they go through then, hypothesizing what Bohr might have said had he stayed, is no firm answer to what went on—it raises just one more tentative possibility, that the decisive point in the entire encounter is Bohr’s refusal to engage in conversation with Heisenberg about the possibilities of building the bomb, a refusal which denies Heisenberg the opportunity to recognize that it just might be possible for him to do it (because Bohr could have corrected his mathematical misconceptions).

A Final Word

Copenhagen, I have been trying to argue, is about a good deal more than the particular individuals involved in the famous meeting (although it is about them, too), more than the pressure to reach some verdict about Heisenberg, about more even than the ethics of modern scientific research for weapons of destruction. It is, above and beyond all of these, about the nature of human enquiry into historical events (and by implication any human behaviour).

I have been stressing this point throughout, because it is all to easy to confine oneself to any one of the explanations offered, to see the exclusive thrust of the play as the morality of atomic research or the role of the scientist in a totalitarian regime or a historical verdict on Heisenberg. These are all present in the play and are fuel for lively debates. But it strikes me that if we confine our attention only to these issues, we miss the larger concerns raised by the overdetermination of the central event.

At the start of this lecture I mentioned Aristotle’s well known comment (from the Poetics) about poetry being closer to the truth than history.  In the context of this play, it would seem that here we have a fiction based on selective historical details insisting upon the impossibility of establishing a clear truth in history, not because of a lack of evidence but of too much evidence, too many possibilities.

As the final line of the play states, we are governed by “that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.” The uncertainty arises from the muddled, dark origins of human conduct (the Elsinore of the spirit) and from the way in which we can overdetermine any human moment. The problem is not that there is no satisfactory explanation but that there are too many, each one established by the nature of the enquiry (the electron we fire into the cloud chamber).

What we need to do, the final lines of the play suggest, is not seek for what we cannot have (the truth of what went on), but rather to remember the result: for some reason or another, Hitler did not get his atomic bomb, and there’s just a chance that that did not occur because of something that took place in Copenhagen in 1941, “by some event that will never quite be located or defined” (94). So we still have the world to enjoy. Where we are going, where we will end up, where we will be when all the uncertainty is gone, no one knows. But the removal of uncertainty from the world will require the removal of all the observers in the world, the end of humanity. In the meantime, the world is precious: nature and our children are there for us. Perhaps we should rest our lives on those clear and present certainties.