Piet Hein Essay - Critical Essays


Throughout his entire career, Piet Hein strove for the harmony between scientific and humanistic perspectives. His dual perspective is apparent in Kilden og krukken (1963; the spring and the urn), a volume which intersperses brief philosophical prose texts, related to the classical fable, with some of Hein’s numerous public lectures. The common theme is that while technology must serve humanity, the humanities must serve reason via the individual. Contemporary man, however, must first have his original synthesis restored—his balance of reason and emotion, of the objective and the subjective. Hein analyzes the disastrous split between the exclusively scientific, technological worldview on one hand and the exclusively humanistic worldview on the other. Hein’s life’s work was given to a reconciliation of these opposing outlooks.

Piet Hein’s vast literary canon—in particular, the grooks—is too multifaceted to be gathered under a single heading. A common denominator, however, was his precise, epigrammatic language. His speeches, aphorisms, grooks, and more conventional poetry were all informed by certain recurring themes which constituted his philosophy as well as his poetics. Thus, an aphorism from 1944, “Art is the solution to those problems which cannot be formulated clearly before they are solved,” clearly expressed Hein’s conviction that such scientific activities as the raising of new questions and the proving of new theories are fundamentally similar to the concerns of the artist. The natural sciences and the humanities have a common point of origin: human imagination. This insistence on the potential union of art and science was the subject of Hein’s speech on having become an honorary member of the Danish Students’ Association in 1970:

In all areas it is a matter of seeing how the objects could be different from what we are used to, of generalizing the problem in a hitherto unnoticed dimension, and within the new, larger, more general multiplicity of choosing a specific case, a new and better solution. This process has been typical for all great innovations within science. This is the true form of imagination. Imagination is just a higher form of the sense of reality.


Hein insisted on viewing life’s questions from new perspectives: “He on whom God’s light does fall, sees the great things in the small.” This point of view was precisely reflected, both in form and content, by the grooks:

Infinity’s taken
by everyone
as a figure-of-eight
written sideways on.
But all of a sudden

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