Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘time’

07 MAY, 2015

Einstein, Gödel, and Our Strange Experience of Time: Rebecca Goldstein on How Relativity Rattled the Flow of Existence

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“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?”

“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” Virginia Woolf marveled at the extraordinary elasticity of how we experience time, which modern psychologists are only beginning to fathom. Nearly a century later, Sarah Manguso — a Woolf of our own — tussled with the same perplexity in contemplating the pleasures and perils of time’s inevitable ongoingness. And yet however convincing our intuitive sense that time is a mutable abstraction shaped by the subjective grab-bag of attributes and experiences we call the self, there remains the empirical nature of time as a measurable, observable, concrete dimension of reality — and the rift between these two conceptions of time is one of the most disorienting yet fascinating aspects of existence.

In the altogether spectacular Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (public library), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein — who has also explored the most intimate facet of our confounding relationship with time, the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person — chronicles how the emergence of modern physics in the twentieth century, particularly Einstein’s theory of relativity, rattled our intuitive notions of time as a subjective experience.

Einstein and Gödel on one of their regular walks in Princeton, New Jersey.

Goldstein examines the immutable incompleteness of our understanding of time, which preoccupied both Gödel and Einstein:

Despite the popular distortions, to a certain extent encouraged by the vague suggestions of the word “relativity,” Einstein was … as far from interpreting his famous theory in subjective terms as it is possible to be. On the contrary, on his interpretation, relativity theory offers a realist description of time that is startlingly distinct from our subjective theory of time. The great yawning chasm between the “out yonder” and the “in here” is stretched even wider, on the Einsteinian hypothesis, since objective time — the time that is described in the equations of relativity theory — is lacking the very feature that seems to provide the essential stab to our subjective experience of time: its inexorable flow, ultimately lighting all our yesterdays the way to dusty death. Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?

And yet, Goldstein points out, Einstein’s physics actually counters rather than confirming this intuitive subjectivity of the human experience of time:

The nature of reality that spills forth from Einstein’s physics is so much more startling than the simplistic, undergraduate-beloved shibboleth: everything is relative to subjective points of view. In Einstein’s physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Time, then, becomes not an attribute of the outer world — the universal “out yonder” — but an orienteering compass for the inner world. (One is reminded of Henry Miller’s meditation on the art of living: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Goldstein captures this beautifully:

The distinctions we make between the past and the present and the future — distinctions which are so emotionally fraught and without which we can’t even begin to describe our inner worlds — only have relevance within those inner worlds. Objective time, as it is characterized in relativity, can’t support the distinction between the past and the present and the future. Or, as Einstein told [philosopher and Vienna Circle member] Rudolf Carnap, “the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics.”

Einstein himself articulated this with piercing precision in a condolence letter to the widow of his longtime friend, the physicist Michele Besso:

In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For us convinced physicists the distinction between the past, the present, and the future is only an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for more.

Ultimately, these illusions are the direct result of the stories we buy into, which are in turn a direct result of the power structures that purvey the stories we call truth. In that sense, they are, after all, not absolute but relative to the baseline of our manufactured beliefs. Goldstein observes the general dynamics of which our time theories are but a particular symptom:

The necessary incompleteness of even our formal systems of thought demonstrates that there is no nonshifting foundation on which any system rests. All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

Incompleteness is a completely mind-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Goldstein on the paradox of personal identity, Thomas Mann on how time confers meaning upon existence, and the psychology of why different experiences warp our sense of time.

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04 MAY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time

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“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length.”

Long before psychologists had any insight into our warped perception of time — for instance, why it slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets twisted when we vacation — or understood how our mental time travel made us human, another great investigator of the human psyche captured the extraordinary elasticity of time not in science but in art.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 masterwork, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which also gave us her insight into the dance of self-doubt in creative workVirginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) writes:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Woolf was acutely and intimately conscious of this strange elasticity of time — something she contemplated not only in her novels, for the public eyes, but also in the privacy of her diary, which she considered creatively essential. Nearly a decade before the publication of Orlando, in March of 1919, 37-year-old Woolf issues a meta-lament:

Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

In a rather despondent entry from the following October, Woolf considers how time both gives shape to existence and warps it — it is against the firmness of time, after all, that we measure our feats and infirmities. She writes:

I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it. It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old. I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself. I don’t like time to flap round me. Well then, work.

In yet another entry from the day of her younger brother Adrian’s fifty-second birthday — don’t birthdays stir our indignation at time more potently than anything? — fifty-three-year-old Woolf’s unease with time intensifies even further:

I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one.

Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (public library) is a timelessly rewarding read in its totality. Sample it further with her reflections on the consolations of aging and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then complement this particular tussle with the story of how Galileo forever changed our relationship with time, the visual history of humanity’s quest to map time, and Thomas Mann on time and the soul of existence.

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24 APRIL, 2015

This I Believe: Thomas Mann on Time and the Soul of Existence

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“The perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life.”

“The best thing about time passing,” Sarah Manguso wrote in her magnificent meditation on ongoingness, “is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” More than half a century earlier, the great German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) articulated this idea with enchanting elegance in NPR’s program-turned-book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — a compendium of wisdom from eighty contributors ranging from a part-time hospital worker to a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising to luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

NPR’s invitation was simple yet enormously challenging: Each contributor was asked to capture his or her personal credo — that essential set of guiding principles by which life is lived — in just a few hundred words. In an era long before people were being asked to capture their convictions in 140 characters, this was a radical proposition — particularly for writers used to exploring such matters in several hundred pages.

Answering in the 1950s — decades after his touching correspondence with young Hermann Hesse and a few years before his death — Mann writes:

What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.

But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.

Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.

What is interesting, of course, is that Mann’s work — his words, his wisdom — is very much timeless, as is even his antagonism toward timelessness itself. And yet even as he scoffs at timelessness, he remains keenly attuned to this duality — the eternal dance between transitoriness and the tenacity of existence:

Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The privilege of this experience, Mann argues, is a centerpiece of the answer to the age-old question of what it means to be human:

One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time.

In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”

To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.

This I Believe is a timelessly glorious read in its entirety. Complement Mann’s contribution with Alan Lightman on reconciling our longing for immortality with an impermanent universe and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

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31 MARCH, 2015

Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of a Life Filled with Aliveness

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“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso produces an unusual meta-reflection that exudes the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s; found in Cartographies of Time. (Click image for more.)

And yet this process of chronicling her orientation to the moment soon revealed that the recording itself was an editorial act — choosing which moments to record and which to omit is, as Susan Sontag observed of the fiction writer’s task to choose which story to tell from among all the ones that could be told, about becoming a storyteller of one’s own life; synthesizing the robust fact of time into a fragmentary selection of moments invariably produces a work of fiction. As Manguso puts it, the diary becomes “a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”

But alongside this pursuit of the fullness of the moment Manguso found a dark underbelly — a kind of leaning forward into the next moment before this one has come to completion. This particularly Western affliction has immensely varied symptoms, but Manguso found that it her own life its most perilous manifestation was the tendency to hop from one romantic relationship to another, oscillating between beginnings and endings, unable to inhabit the stillness of the middles. She writes:

I’d become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.

I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.

My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.

Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.

I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

As her relationship to these markers of time changed, she became interested not in the “short tragic love stories” that had once bewitched her but in “the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.” Eventually, she got married. Echoing Wendell Berry’s memorable meditation on marriage and freedom, she writes:

Marriage isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.

In a significant way, the stability of time inherent to such continuity was an experience foreign to Manguso and counter to the flow of impermanence that her diary recorded. This was a whole new way of measuring life not by its constant changes but by its unchanging constants:

In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn’t changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order … Would that be a better, truer record?

The record-keeping of truth, of course, is the domain of memory — and yet our memory is not an accurate recording device but, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out over and over, a perpetually self-revising dossier. Manguso considers what full attentiveness to the present might look like when unimpeded by the tyranny of memory:

The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.

Looking back on her own childhood, Manguso echoes Susan Sontag’s memorable protestation against the mnemonic violence of photography and writes:

When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.

For Manguso, memory and its resulting record became stubborn self-defense not only against forgetting but also against being forgotten — a special case of our general lifelong confrontation with mortality:

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word — soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me.

Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

[…]

I assumed that maximizing the breadth and depth of my autobiographical memory would be good for me, force me to write and live with greater care, but in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning.

He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.

He responded to my fan letter when he was ninety. When he was ninety-one, he died.

I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' Click image for more.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

But even that enlivening “untested hope” is a dialogic function of time and impermanence. Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life, of the diary itself:

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is merely a report,” Manguso considers “the tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe” and adds:

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Occasionally, a memory retains its stark original reality. Manguso recalls one particular incident from her son’s early childhood:

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake.

The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it — an incapacitating sweetness.

The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that… An unbearable sweetness.

The feeling strengthens the more I remember it. It isn’t wearing smooth. It’s getting bigger, an outgrowth of new love.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' Click image for more.

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Echoing philosopher Joanna Macy’s recipe for dialing up the magic of the moment by befriending our mortality, Manguso adds:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

She revisits her original tussle with time, memory, beginnings, and endings:

How ridiculous to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.

[…]

Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.

It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.

Seen in this way, the diary becomes not a bastion of memory but a white flag to forgetting, extended not in resignation but in celebration. Manguso writes:

I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.

[..]

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.

Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

[…]

Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.

Complement Ongoingness, a spectacularly and unsummarizably rewarding read in its entirety, with Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are.

Thanks, Dani

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