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The Psychology of Time and the Paradox of How Impulsivity and Self-Control Mediate Our Capacity for Presence

“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.”

The Psychology of Time and the Paradox of How Impulsivity and Self-Control Mediate Our Capacity for Presence

“Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life,” Kafka once told a teenage friend. “It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky believed that what draws us to film is the gift of time — “time lost or spent or not yet had.” From the moment we are born to the moment we take our last breath, we battle with reality under the knell of this constant awareness that we are either winning or losing time. We long for what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” but in chasing after it we spin ourselves into a perpetual restlessness, losing the very thing we strive to win. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard captured this perfectly in his superb 1932 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”

These multiple and contradictory dimensions of time is what German psychologist Marc Wittmann explores in Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (public library) — a fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self. Bridging disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy, Wittmann examines questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something which happens to us — rather, we are time.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

One of Wittmann’s most pause-giving points has to do with how temporality mediates the mind-body problem. He writes:

Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.

In a sense, time is a construction of our consciousness. Two generations after Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant meditation on time that “it is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Wittmann writes:

Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.

Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.

With an eye to his compatriot Martin Heidegger, whose philosophy equated self and time (and who happened to have been Arendt’s onetime lover and lifelong friend), Wittmann adds:

As phenomenological philosophy has determined, self-consciousness is not a mental state that is added on to our experience, or that is particular; rather, it is a feature inherent in all experience. My perception contains me.

[…]

On the phenomenal level, consciousness — and the self-consciousness deriving from it — is distinguished by spatial and temporal presence. Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

From this intertwining of self and time arises the most pernicious consequence of our productivity-entranced culture and the chronic busyness in which it engulfs us. Nearly two centuries after Kierkegaard lamented our greatest source of unhappiness“Of all ridiculous things,” the Danish philosopher wrote, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” — Wittmann observes the effects of today’s social and technological acceleration on our inner lives:

If one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves… Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel “at home” with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.

But if free will exists at all, this is an instance of its most necessary application — it falls upon us, in our daily choices, to seek an antidote to this mindless trance of doing in a mindful state of being. Two millennia after Seneca’s acutely timely treatise on how to extend the shortness of life by living wide rather than long, Wittmann examines the psychology of expanding our experience of time:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

What contributes to this perception of fullness, Wittmann notes, is the storage of memory — the more memories we encode in a given period of time, the longer and fuller it will appear. But this raises an intriguing question about what we may be relinquishing as we increasingly outsource our memory to photographs stored in our disembodied digital memory. We vacate the moment in order to document it (and share that record), then end up remembering the photograph rather than the experience itself. Four decades before smartphones and Instagram, Italo Calvino captured this with brilliant poignancy in contemplating photography and the art of presence: “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.” This compulsive commemoration consumes a great deal of our lives today and sustains entire business models.

And yet we need not lose heart. Wittmann points to one mediating factor that can help us better inhabit our own memories — the cultivation of emotional attentiveness to the moment:

Events are subject to more frequent and more detailed recollection when they are connected with feelings. In general, we can say that events are stored because they are charged with a certain level of affect. Alternatively, the episodes in our lives that we remember depend on the feelings we associate with them. The greater the store of lived experience — that is, the more emotional coloration and variety one’s life has — the longer one’s lifetime seems, subjectively.

Radiating from this is one of the greatest perplexities of how we experience time — the paradox of self-control and impulsivity, mediated by our temporal myopia. Although self-restraint in the service of a future payoff is one of the hallmarks of our species — lizards, say, don’t plan for the future — and learning to wait is central to how children develop self-reliance, none of this comes easily to us. In fact, the very duration of waiting diminishes our perceived satisfaction of the payoff — a phenomenon known as temporal discounting.

Wittmann cites one study that offers tangible substantiation for the “time is money” adage: Participants are asked whether they would rather receive a small amount of money right now or a greater sum at some point in the future; their choice is determined by the variation in waiting time. Those offered $1 today or $50 next week tend to choose the latter, since the time is short enough and the monetary difference substantial enough to justify the wait; those offered $45 today or $50 next week tend to choose the former, since the $5 difference is hardly worth the wait.

By varying these differences, psychologists were able to discern the tipping point past which people aren’t willing to wait — around $20. That is, amounts over $20 triggered participants’ preference for instant gratification. But this is where psychological differences come in. For impulsive people, that barrier of instant gratification tends to be lower — they’ll settle for a lesser amount if they can have the money right now. Wittmann writes:

Impulsive people will accept lesser sums of money, whatever the waiting time involved, so they do not have to wait. With more impulsive subjects, the value of $50 decreases more sharply because of the waiting period. One may affirm that more impulsive people’s experience of time — that is, the way they imagine it — is subjectively longer; that is why they opt for immediate payment, even when sums are lower. Such behavior exemplifies one definition of impulsivity: immediate, positive gain is valued more highly, despite the long-term consequences. This understanding of impulsivity also matches behavior displayed by children and adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This group, like impulsive people in general, shows a greater tendency not to value deferred gratification; such individuals content themselves with lesser sums so they do not need to wait. Thus, impulsive people display greater temporal myopia.

impulsive1

These tendencies, Wittmann points out, are a function of our individual temporal orientation — each of us weighs the past, present, and future differently, and makes decisions accordingly. (“On how one orients himself to the moment,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”) Wittman writes:

Studies have demonstrated the ways that a person’s temporal orientation affects everyday behavior. People who are unambiguously present-oriented, for example, stand out insofar as they live relatively dangerously: they tend to take more drugs, get more speeding tickets, have more unprotected sex, and so on. It sounds like the motto of rock stars in the sixties: “Live fast, love hard, die young.” The attitude toward life expressed in these words is surely to be understood as a reaction to the future-orientation that otherwise prevailed at the time, as a perceived lack of spontaneity and lust for life. “Sensation-seeking” — pursuing distraction and new experiences — is related to both impulsiveness and present-orientedness, even if it is not quite the same thing as either. That said, orientation in the present proves essential for achieving a positive quality of life… This perspective acquires a negative quality only when it becomes too pronounced and the individual in question loses the capacity to act freely inasmuch as she or he cannot break out of the present moment and plan for the future.

Indeed, lest we forget, all polarities are inherently limiting — a balanced life, Wittmann notes, requires both impulsivity and self-control. The great French artist Eugène Delacroix intuited this when he wrote in his diary two centuries ago: “I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now.” Wittmann offers a psychological substantiation:

People who meticulously pay attention to every entry in their calendars and are largely trapped by the future perspective — those who are always working toward a goal — forgo opportunities for experience. Time that is felt and lived, that is, a life rich in positive experiences, is made up of moments of fulfillment, often in the company of good friends or a beloved partner. Therefore, whether one lives out the moment or pursues gain over the long term is a matter of emotionally intelligent conduct and weighing decisions. Someone who is free and full of life does not always choose to delay gratification; rather, she or he is smart about when to seek enjoyment and when to wait.

In the remainder of the immensely insightful Felt Time, translated by Erik Butler, Wittmann goes on to explore the temporal dimension of emotional control, the crucial difference between our prospective and retrospective judgments of time, and how we can use the psychology of time to our advantage in extending and expanding our experience of life. Complement it with Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Rebecca Goldstein on how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of it, and Sarah Manguso on the ongoingness of life.

BP

A Madman Dreams of Tuning Machines: The Story of Joseph Weber, the Tragic Hero of Science Who Followed Einstein’s Vision and Pioneered the Sound of Space-Time

…and a remarkable letter from Freeman Dyson on the difficult, necessary art of changing one’s mind.

A Madman Dreams of Tuning Machines: The Story of Joseph Weber, the Tragic Hero of Science Who Followed Einstein’s Vision and Pioneered the Sound of Space-Time

In his groundbreaking 1915 paper on general relativity, Albert Einstein envisioned gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by astronomic events of astronomical energy. Although fundamental to our understanding of the universe, gravitational waves were a purely theoretical construct for him. He lived in an era when any human-made tool for detecting something this faraway was simply unimaginable, even by the greatest living genius, and many of the cosmic objects capable of producing such tremendous tumult — black holes, for instance — were yet to be discovered.

One September morning in 2015, almost exactly a century after Einstein published his famous paper, scientists turned his mathematical dream into a tangible reality — or, rather, an audible one.

blackholes_einstein

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — an enormous international collaboration known as LIGO, consisting of two massive listening instruments 3,000 kilometers apart, decades in the making — recorded the sound of a gravitational wave produced by two mammoth black holes that had collided more than a billion years ago, more than a billion light-years away.

One of the most significant discoveries in the history of science, this landmark event introduces a whole new modality of curiosity in our quest to know the cosmos, its thrill only amplified by the fact that we had never actually seen black holes before hearing them. Nearly everything we know about the universe today, we know through five centuries of optical observation of light and particles. Now begins a new era of sonic exploration. Turning an inquisitive ear to the cosmos might, and likely will, revolutionize our understanding of it as radically as Galileo did when he first pointed his telescope at the skies.

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) — one of the finest and most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times — astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin tells the story of LIGO and its larger significance as a feat of science and the human spirit. Levin, a writer who bends language with effortless might and uses it not only as an instrument of thought but also as a Petri dish for emotional nuance, probes deep into the messy human psychology that animated these brilliant and flawed scientists as they persevered in this ambitious quest against enormous personal, political, and practical odds.

Levin — who has written beautifully about free will and the relationship between genius and madness — paints the backdrop for this improbable triumph:

Somewhere in the universe two black holes collide — as heavy as stars, as small as cities, literally black (the complete absence of light) holes (empty hollows). Tethered by gravity, in their final seconds together the black holes course through thousands of revolutions about their eventual point of contact, churning up space and time until they crash and merge into one bigger black hole, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe, outputting more than a trillion times the power of a billion Suns. The black holes collide in complete darkness. None of the energy exploding from the collision comes out as light. No telescope will ever see the event.

What nobody could see LIGO could hear — a sensitive, sophisticated ear pressed to the fabric of space-time, tuned to what Levin so poetically eulogizes as “the total darkness, the empty space, the vacuity, the great expanse of nothingness, of emptiness, of pure space and time.” She writes of this astonishing instrument:

An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass.

But what makes the book most enchanting is Levin’s compassionate insight into the complex, porous, often tragic humanity undergirding the metal and glass — nowhere more tragic than in the story of Joseph Weber, the controversial pioneer who became the first to bring Einstein’s equations into the lab. Long before LIGO was even so much as a thought experiment, Weber envisioned and built a very different instrument for listening to the cosmos.

Weber was born Yonah Geber to a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in early-twentieth-century New Jersey. His mother’s heavy accent caused his teacher to mishear the boy’s name as “Joseph,” so he became Joe. After he was hit by a bus at the age of five, young Joe required speech rehabilitation therapy, which replaced his Yiddish accent with a generic American one that led his family to call him “Yankee.” As a teenager, he dropped out of Cooper Union out of concern for his parents’ finances and joined the Navy instead, where he served on an aircraft carrier that was sunk during WWII. When the war ended, he became a microwave engineer and was hired as a professor at the University of Maryland at the then-enviable salary — especially for a 29-year-old — of $6,500 a year.

Eager to do microwave research, he turned to the great physicist George Gamow, who had theorized cosmic microwave background radiation — a thermal remnant of the Big Bang, which would provide unprecedented insight into the origin of the universe and which Weber wanted to dedicate his Ph.D. career to detecting. But Gamow inexplicably snubbed him. Two other scientists eventually discovered cosmic microwave background radiation by accident and received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Weber then turned to atomic physics and devised the maser — the predecessor of the laser — but, once again, other scientists beat him to the public credit and received a Nobel for that discovery, too.

Levin writes:

Joe’s scientific life is defined by these significant near misses… He was Shackleton many times, almost the first: almost the first to see the big bang, almost the first to patent the laser, almost the first to detect gravitational waves. Famous for nearly getting there.

And that is how Weber got to gravitational waves — a field he saw as so small and esoteric that he stood a chance of finally being the first. Levin writes:

In 1969 Joe Weber announced that he had achieved an experimental feat widely believed to be impossible: He had detected evidence for gravitational waves. Imagine his pride, the pride to be the first, the gratification of discovery, the raw shameless pleasure of accomplishment. Practically single-handedly, through sheer determination, he conceives of the possibility. He fills multiple notebooks, hundreds of pages deep, with calculations and designs and ideas, and then he makes the experimental apparatus real. He builds an ingenious machine, a resonant bar, a Weber bar, which vibrates in sympathy with a gravitational wave. A solid aluminum cylinder about 2 meters long, 1 meter in diameter, and in the range of 3,000 pounds, as guitar strings go, isn’t easy to pluck. But it has one natural frequency at which a strong gravitational wave would ring the bar like a tuning fork.

Joseph Weber with his cylinder
Joseph Weber with his cylinder

Following his announcement, Weber became an overnight celebrity. His face graced magazine covers. NASA put one of his instruments on the Moon. He received ample laud from peers. Even the formidable J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man of slim capacity for compliments, encouraged him with a remark Weber never forgot: “The work you’re doing,” Oppenheimer told him, “is just about the most exciting work going on anywhere around here.”

Under the spell of this collective excitement, scientists around the world began building replicas of Weber’s cylinder. But one after another, they were unable to replicate his results — the electrifying eagerness to hear gravitational waves was met with the dead silence of the cosmos.

Weber plummeted from grace as quickly as he had ascended. (Einstein himself famously scoffed at the fickle nature of fame.) Levin writes:

Joe Weber’s claims in 1969 to have detected gravitational waves, the claims that catapulted his fame, that made him possibly the most famous living scientist of his generation, were swiftly and vehemently refuted. The subsequent decades offered near total withdrawal of support, both from scientific funding agencies and his peers. He was almost fired from the University of Maryland.

Among Weber’s most enthusiastic initial supporters was the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Perhaps out of his staunch belief that no question is unanswerable, Dyson had emboldened Weber to attempt what no one had attempted before — to hear the sound of space-time. But when the evidence against Weber’s data began to mount, Dyson was anguished by a sense of personal responsibility for having encouraged him, so he wrote Weber an extraordinary letter urging him to practice the immensely difficult art of changing one’s mind. Levin quotes the letter, penned on June 5, 1975:

Dear Joe,

I have been watching with fear and anguish the ruin of our hopes. I feel a considerable personal responsibility for having advised you in the past to “stick your neck out.” Now I still consider you a great man unkindly treated by fate, and I am anxious to save whatever can be saved. So I offer my advice again for what it is worth.

A great man is not afraid to admit publicly that he has made a mistake and has changed his mind. I know you are a man of integrity. You are strong enough to admit that you are wrong. If you do this, your enemies will rejoice but your friends will rejoice even more. You will save yourself as a scientist, and you will find that those whose respect is worth having will respect you for it.

I write now briefly because long explanations will not make the message clearer. Whatever you decide, I will not turn my back on you.

With all good wishes,
Yours ever
Freeman

But Weber decided not to heed his friend’s warm caution. His visionary genius coexisted with one of the most unfortunate and most inescapable of human tendencies — our bone-deep resistance to the shame of admitting error. He paid a high price: His disrepute soon veered into cruelty — he was ridiculed and even baited by false data intended to trick him into reaffirming his claims, only to be publicly humiliated all over again. In one of the archival interviews Levin excavates, he laments:

I simply cannot understand the vehemence and the professional jealousy, and why each guy has to feel that he has to cut off a pound of my flesh… Boltzmann committed suicide with this sort of treatment.

Here, I think of Levin’s penchant for celebrating tragic heroes whose posthumous redemption only adds to their tragedy. Her magnificent novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines is based on the real lives of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel, both of whom committed suicide — Turing after particularly cruel mistreatment. Levin’s writing emanates a deep sympathy for those who have fallen victim to some combination of their own fallible humanity and the ferocious inhumanity of unforgiving, bloodthirsty others. No wonder Weber’s story sings to her. A mad man dreams of tuning machines.

Without diminishing the role of personal pathology and individual neurochemistry, given what psychologists know about suicide prevention, social support likely played a vital role in Weber’s ability to withstand the barrage of viciousness — Dyson’s sympathetic succor, but most of all the love of his wife, the astronomer Virginia Trimble, perhaps the most unambivalently likable character in the book. Levin writes:

She called him Weber and he called her Trimble. They married in March 1972 after a cumulative three weekends together. She laughs. “Weber never had any trouble making up his mind.” Twenty-three years her senior, he always insisted she do what she wanted and needed to do. Perhaps trained in part by his first wife, Anita, a physicist who took a protracted break to raise their four boys, the widower had no reservations about Virginia’s work, her independence, or her IQ. (Stratospheric. In an issue of Life magazine with a now-vintage cover, in an article titled “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” about the then eighteen-year-old astrophysics major, she is quoted as classifying the men she dates into three types: “Guys who are smarter than I am, and I’ve found one or two. Guys who think they are— they’re legion. And those who don’t care.”)

Virginia Trimble in LIFE magazine, 1962
Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.: Virginia Trimble in LIFE magazine, 1962

Trimble was the second woman ever allowed at the famed Palomar Observatory, a year after pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin broke the optical-glass ceiling by becoming the first to observe there. Levin, whose subtle kind-natured humor never fails to delight, captures Trimble’s irreverent brilliance:

In her third year, having demonstrated her tenacity — particularly manifest in the fact that she still hadn’t married, she suspects — she was awarded a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. When she arrived at Caltech, she was delighted. “I thought, ‘Look at all of these lovely men.’” In her seventies, with her coral dress, matching shoes and lip color, Moon earrings, and gold animal-head ring, she beams. Still a lovely face. And still an IQ of 180.

This fierce spirit never left Trimble. Now in her seventies, she tells Levin:

When I fell and broke my hip last September, I spent four days on the floor of my apartment singing songs and reciting poetry until I was found.

It isn’t hard to see why Weber — why anyone — would fall in love with Trimble. But although their love sustained him and he didn’t take his own life, he suffered an end equally heartbreaking.

By the late 1980s, Weber had submerged himself even deeper into the quicksand of his convictions, stubbornly trying to prove that his instrument could hear the cosmos. For the next twenty years, he continued to operate his own lab funded out of pocket — a drab concrete box in the Maryland woods, where he was both head scientist and janitor. Meanwhile, LIGO — a sophisticated instrument that would eventually cost more than $1 billion total, operated by a massive international team of scientists — was gathering momentum nearby, thanks largely to the scientific interest in gravitational astronomy that Weber’s early research had sparked.

He was never invited to join LIGO. Trimble surmises that even if he had been, he would’ve declined.

One freezing winter morning in 2000, just as LIGO’s initial detectors were being built, 81-year-old Weber went to clean his lab, slipped on the ice in front of the building, hit his head, and fell unconscious. He was found two days later and taken to the E.R., but he never recovered. He died at the hospital several months later from the lymphoma he’d been battling. The widowed Trimble extracts from her husband’s tragedy an unsentimental parable of science — a testament to the mismatch between the time-scale of human achievement, with all the personal glory it brings, and that of scientific progress:

Science is a self-correcting process, but not necessarily in one’s own lifetime.

When the LIGO team published the official paper announcing the groundbreaking discovery, Weber was acknowledged as the pioneer of gravitational wave research. But like Alan Turing, who was granted posthumous pardon by the Queen more than half a century after he perished by inhumane injustice, Weber’s redemption is culturally bittersweet at best. I’m reminded of a beautiful passage from Levin’s novel about Turing and Gödel, strangely perfect in the context of Weber’s legacy:

Their genius is a testament to our own worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness… Their broken lives are mere anecdotes in the margins of their discoveries. But then their discoveries are evidence of our purpose, and their lives are parables on free will.

Free will, indeed, is what Weber exercised above all — he lived by it and died by it. In one of the interviews Levin unearths, he reflects from the depths of his disrepute:

If you do science the principal reason to do it is because you enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it you shouldn’t do it, and I enjoy it. And I must say I’m enjoying it… That’s the best you can do.

At the end of the magnificent and exceptionally poetic Black Hole Blues, the merits of which I’ve extolled more fully here, Levin offers a wonderfully lyrical account of LIGO’s triumph as she peers into the furthest reaches of the space-time odyssey that began with Einstein, gained momentum with Weber, and is only just beginning to map the course of human curiosity across the universe:

Two very big stars lived in orbit around each other several billion years ago. Maybe there were planets around them, although the two-star system might have been too unstable or too simple in composition to accommodate planets. Eventually one star died, and then the other, and two black holes formed. They orbited in darkness, probably for billions of years before that final 200 milliseconds when the black holes collided and merged, launching their loudest gravitational wave train into the universe.

The sound traveled to us from 1.4 billion light-years away. One billion four hundred million light-years.

[…]

We heard black holes collide. We’ll point to where the sound might have come from, to the best of our abilities, a swatch of space from an earlier epoch. Somewhere in the southern sky, pulling away from us with the expansion of the universe, the big black hole will roll along its own galaxy, dark and quiet until something wanders past, an interstellar dust cloud or an errant star. After a few billion years the host galaxy might collide with a neighbor, tossing the black hole around, maybe toward a supermassive black hole in a growing galactic center. Our star will die. The Milky Way will blend with Andromeda. The record of this discovery along with the wreckage of our solar system will eventually fall into black holes, as will everything else in the cosmos, the expanding space eventually silent, and all the black holes will evaporate into oblivion near the end of time.

blackholeblues_jannalevin2

BP

The Remarkable Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

“Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.”

The Remarkable Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

The great German writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975), the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, possessed one of the most piercing intellects of the twentieth century — a source of abiding insight into the crucial difference between truth and meaning and time, space, and where the thinking ego resides. But even Arendt wasn’t immune to youth’s impulse to relinquished reason for its counterpoint.

When she was a 19-year-old university student, Arendt fell in love with her 36-year-old married professor, Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889–May 26, 1976). A philosopher as influential as he is controversial, Heidegger made monumental contributions phenomenology and existentialism; he also joined the Nazi party and took an academic position under Nazi favors. Although he resigned a year later, stopped attending Nazi party meetings, and later told a student that he considered taking the position “the greatest stupidity of his life,” he never publicly repented. That he should fall in love with a Jew — Arendt saw the power and privilege of being an outsider as central to her identity — exposes the complexity and contradiction of which the human spirit is woven, its threads nowhere more ragged than in love.

arendtheidegger

Heidegger considered their romance “the most exciting, focused, and eventful” period of his life, and that creative vitality fertilized Being and Time — his most famous and influential work. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” he writes in one of their first love letters, collected in Letters: 1925–1975 (public library) — half a century of their electrifying correspondence, first as lovers and then as friends and intellectual peers.

In his first letter to Arendt, penned in February of 1925, Heidegger implores:

Dear Miss Arendt!

I must come see you this evening and speak to your heart.

Everything should be simple and clear and pure between us. Only then will we be worthy of having been allowed to meet. You are my pupil and I your teacher, but that is only the occasion for what has happened to us.

I will never be able to call you mine, but from now on you will belong in my life, and it shall grow with you.

We never know what we can become for others through our Being.

From the start, Heidegger sets out to reconcile the intensity of his feelings with what he knows to be in Arendt’s best rational interest:

The path your young life will take is hidden. We must be reconciled to that. And my loyalty to you shall only help you remain true to yourself.

[…]

“Be happy!” — that is now my wish for you.

Only when you are happy will you become a woman who can give happiness, and around whom all is happiness, security, repose, reverence, and gratitude to life.

And only in that way will you be properly prepared for what the university can and should give you.

[…]

We have been allowed to meet: we must hold that as a gift in our innermost being and avoid deforming it through self-deception about the purity of living. We must not think of ourselves as soul mates, something no one ever experiences… That makes the gift of our friendship a commitment we must grow with… But just once I would like to be able to thank you and, with a kiss on your pure brow, take the honor of your being into my work.

Eleven days later, Heidegger’s infatuation swells to uncontainable magnitude and explodes into the philosophical. He writes:

Dear Hannah!

Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices.

We can only thank with our selves. Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to our selves and unconditional faith in the other. That is how love steadily intensifies its innermost secret.

Here, being close is a matter of being at the greatest distance from the other — distance that lets nothing blur — but instead puts the “thou” into the mere presence — transparent but incomprehensible — of a revelation. The other’s presence suddenly breaks into our life — no soul can come to terms with that. A human fate gives itself over to another human fate, and the duty of pure love is to keep this giving as alive as it was on the first day.

But just before the one-year anniversary of their romance, Arendt ended things abruptly, in large part because she wanted to focus on her academic pursuit of philosophy. In a reply to her from January of 1926, Heidegger makes an admirable effort to syncretize the two conflicting forces ripping him asunder — his own heartbreak and the sincerity with which he wishes the best for Arendt. He writes:

My dear Hannah!

… I understand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Still less as I know what my love exacts from you.

Although Arendt’s breakup letter doesn’t survive, it appears that in it she cited her need to withdraw from the romance in order to focus on her work — a perennial paradox of human satisfactions, which Heidegger addresses in his response:

This “withdrawal” from everything human and breaking off all connections is, with regard to creative work, the most magnificent human experience I know — with regard to concrete situations, it is the most repugnant thing one can encounter. One’s heart is ripped from one’s body.

And the hardest thing is — such isolation cannot be defended by appeal to what it achieves, because there are no measures for that and because one cannot just make allowance for abandoning human relationships… With the burden of this necessary isolation, I always hope for complete isolation form the outside — for a merely apparent return to other people — and for the strength to keep an ultimate and constant distance. For only then can all sacrifice be spared them, along with the necessary rejection.

But this tormented desire is not just unattainable, it is even forgotten — so much so that the most vital human relationships become a spring again and provide the forces that drive one into isolation once more…. Such a life then becomes wholly a matter of exigencies that have no justification. Coming to terms with this in a positive way — not taking a position exclusively as a kind of escape — is what it means to be a philosopher.

And yet however tragic the sacrifices of being a philosopher may be, Heidegger encourages young Arendt to make them anyway. His words radiate a testament to the notion put forth generations later by philosopher Martha Nussbaum — in many ways an intellectual heir of Arendt’s — that embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships. Even as Heidegger emboldens Arendt to go her own way, he articulates his longing for her and his need for their love to persevere:

It is clear — independently of you and me in this final point — that, in your youth and receptive stage of learning, you should not commit yourself here. It is always bad for young people to not summon the strength to go away. It is a sign that the freedom of instincts has died out, and as a result, when they stay they no longer grow in a positive way…

[…]

And perhaps your decision will become an example… If it has good effect, it can only be because it calls for sacrifice from both of us.

The evening and your letters have renewed my certainty that everything stays close to what is good, and becomes good… You, even in your situation, must be happy as only those with a young heart and strong expectations and faith can be at the prospect of a new world — new learning, fresh air, and growth. May each of us be a match for the other’s existence, that is, for the freedom of faith and for the inner necessity of an unalloyed trust — that will preserve our love.

My life continues — without my involvement or merit — with such uncanny certainty that I want to believe the new emptiness that will come with your departure is necessary.

And yet despite Arendt’s departure, the emotional intensity between the two magnetized them into continued correspondence and occasional meetings over the months that followed. By July of 1927, more than two years after their romance began, they were still very much in love. Responding to another letter of Arendt’s that doesn’t survive and that appears to have been particularly emotionally charged, Heidegger writes:

My dear Hannah!

[…]

Although you have remained as present to me as you were on the first day, your letter brought you particularly close. I hold your loving hands in mine and pray with you for your happiness.

[…]

Child, my dear, do you only “hope” I might trust in you? Ask the innermost part of your heart, which has shone on me so often from your wonderfully deep eyes; it will tell you: deep down I am completely and purely sure of this trust.

Your letter has shaken me as much as first being close to you did. Those days have returned with such elemental power, thanks to this word of your love.

Echoing Van Gogh’s beautiful reflection on the parallel necessity of giving and receiving in love, Heidegger adds:

Dear Hannah, for me it was as if I had been favored to give away something ultimate and great, so as to receive it, the gift and the giving, as a new possession. I still haven’t come to grips with it, much less comprehended the unsuspected things I saw in our existence in those hours.

In April of 1928, Arendt echoes Freud’s famed assertion that love and work are the two cornerstones of the human spirit, and ultimately chooses the work of philosophy over her romance with Heidegger. She writes to him, beseeching him to understand her choice — trusting, even, that as a philosopher himself, one wholly consumed by his work, he would have no choice but to understand:

I love you as I did on the first day — you know that, and I have always known it, even before this reunion. The path you showed me is longer and more difficult than I thought. It requires a long life in its entirety. The solitude of this path is self-chosen and is the only way of living given me. But the desolation that fate has kept in store not only would have taken from me the strength to live in the world, that is, not in isolation; it also would have blocked my path, which, as it is wide and not a leap, runs through the world. Only you have a right to know this, because you have always known it. And I think that even where I finally remain silent, I will never be untruthful. I always give as much as anyone wants from me, and the path itself is nothing but the commitment our love makes me responsible for. I would lose my right to live if I lost my love for you, but I would also lose this love and its reality if I shirked the responsibility it forces on me.

The following year, Arendt met a young German journalist and philosopher in Heidegger’s seminar. That fall, she married him. Writing on her wedding day, she sends Heidegger one final romantic reverberation, at once plaintive and proud:

Do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has become the blessing of my life. This knowledge cannot be shaken, not even today, when, as a way out of my restlessness, I have found a home and a sense of belonging with someone about whom you might understand it least of all.

[…]

I kiss your brow and your eyes,

Your Hannah

Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who were onetime lovers and lifelong friends, Arendt and Heidegger remained in each other’s lives for half a century, until Arendt’s sudden death. Heidegger outlived her by six months. Letters: 1925–1975 survives as the extraordinary record of this enduring relationship, brimming with timeless wisdom on nearly every aspect of life and culture.

Complement it with Arendt on how we humanize each other, then revisit the love letters of John Keats, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.

BP

It’s Only a Draft, After All: Graham Greene on Love and Death in Existential Reflections from His Dream Diary

“It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else.”

It’s Only a Draft, After All: Graham Greene on Love and Death in Existential Reflections from His Dream Diary

Once, in a small second-hand bookshop on the stormy New England coast, Judy Blume sold me a yellow inflatable life-raft. I woke up blissfully perplexed.

Nietzsche believed that dreams are an evolutionary time machine for the human mind. Since Freud’s earliest theories, scientists have been trying to answer the question of why we dream — one of the great perplexities of consciousness. And yet it remains unanswered, perhaps even pleasurably unanswerable — for how drab would life be without the nocturnal escapades of the imagination, without that private wonderland where even the most improbable is possible? It is in dreams, after all, that we dance with our most unnameable desires and our deepest fears. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams, and this sleeping counterpart can often access what our waking selves cannot. Dostoyevsky discovered the meaning of life in a dream, Margaret Mead found the perfect existential metaphor in one, and Neil Gaiman dreamt his way to a wonderful philosophical parable of identity.

Between 1965 and 1989, the great English novelist Graham Greene (October 2, 1904–April 3, 1991) kept a dream diary — an 800-page record of his fanciful nightly adventures in what he called “The World of One’s Own,” where his subconscious confronted what it could not in “The Common World.”

grahamgreene1

In the last years of his life, Greene prepared the best of this curious document for publication, organizing a quarter century of dreams into several overarching themes. Shortly after his death, it was released as A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (public library) — a strange and wonderful book, which Greene considered a sort of “autobiography, beginning with Happiness and ending with Death, of a rather bizarre life.”

He writes in the introduction:

It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else. There are no witnesses. No libel actions. The characters I meet there have no memory of meeting me, no journalist or would-be biographer can check my account with another’s. I can hardly be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for any incident connected with the security services. I have spoken with Khruschev at a dinner party, I have been sent by the Secret Service to murder Goebbels. I am not lying — and yet, of all the witnesses who share these scenes with me, there is not one who can claim from his personal knowledge that what I describe is untrue.

Out of these nocturnal fictions the unconscious wrests, or seeks to wrest, existential truth. The grander the question and more perplexing the problem, the more labyrinthine the path into the absurd in search of the absolute. From meeting with Pope John Paul II in a hotel bedroom to encountering Henry James on a riverboat in Bolivia, this voyage into the neverland of the bizarre unveils a strange and strangely profound cartography of meaning for the most elemental questions of human life — among them, inevitably, love and death, the great feat and the great defeat of being.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Freud’s cross-dressing niece, from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreams

Greene recounts one particularly poignant dream:

On May 5, 1973, I had an awful experience I am thankful never occurred in the Common World. I had sent a love scene in a new novel to my secretary to make a draft, but her draft was full of gaps — that was only tiresome. What was awful was that as I read aloud to the woman I loved, I realized how false it was, how sentimental, how permissive in the wrong way. She too knew how bad it was and that made me angry. I threw it away. “How can I read it to you,” I demanded, “If you interrupt and criticize? It’s only a draft, after all.”

But I knew that the whole book was hopeless. I said, “If only I could die before the book is published. It’s got to be published to earn money for the family.” The thought of Russian roulette came to me. Had I recently bought a revolver or was that a dream? My mistress tried to comfort me but it only made things worse.

Greene tussles with the subject of love — which is “only a draft, after all” — in another dream:

I spent a sad summer evening in July 1965. I was engaged to be married to a girl whose mother detested me and longed to see the affair at the end. Harassed nerves caused a quarrel between me and the girl and her pride added its quota, while I pushed the quarrel to its extreme so that the girl broke with me and I accepted the break. The mother listened with satisfaction and then took the girl upstairs.

I felt sad and guilty and I knew that my relief at this final solution would not last. A party was going on at the house and the mother reappeared with her daughter in her arms, small and shrunken and ready to vomit. The mother appealed to me to find something and I brought a vase into which the girl vomited. I felt pity and guilt and love too, and I realized for the first time how much she loved me and what I was losing.

Among the guests was [the English sculptor] Henry Moore, and as I left the room I apologized to him for not having recognized him earlier, as I had been so preoccupied with my quarrel. I left the house and went for a walk with the girl’s brother. He was very sympathetic to both of us. We met her father, whom I had always liked, and appealed to him. “I am not such a rotten beast, am I?” He smiled to reassure me.

When I got back to the house the girl was there, and everything was all right again between us.

In the final dream in the book, Greene revisits the subject of redemption in its ultimate extreme:

In this World of My Own I found myself writing a bit of verse for a competition in a magazine called Time and Tide, but, needless to say, the paper never received it. It was about my own death.

From the room next door
The TV talks to me
Of sickness, nettlerash, and herbal tea.
My breath is folded up
Like sheets in lavender.
The end for me
Arrives like nursery tea.

Complement Greene’s A World of My Own with the science of lucid dreaming and the relationship between dreaming and depression, then revisit this marvelous 1922 philosophical children’s book about dreaming, illustrated by Freud’s brilliant cross-dressing niece.

Thanks, Maria

BP

Poetry and the Creative Mind: Bill T. Jones’s Electrifying Reading of Four Beloved Poems

A scintillating spoken love letter to the power of the written word.

Poetry and the Creative Mind: Bill T. Jones’s Electrifying Reading of Four Beloved Poems

“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in one of the greatest speeches ever given. A year later, in contemplating the artist’s struggle for integrity, James Baldwin asserted: “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.”

I recently had the tremendous thrill of participating in the 14th annual Poetry and the Creative Mind celebration by the Academy of American Poets, hosted at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Among my fellow poetry readers was one of the most magnificent artists of our time — the choreographer, dancer, and artist director Bill T. Jones.

Jones performed four poems, enveloped in a song — “Nothing Stays Put” by Amy Clampitt (June 15, 1920–September 10, 1994) from The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt (public library), “Witchgrass” by Louise Glück (b. April 22, 1943) from Poems 1962–2012 (public library), “Yet Do I Marvel” by Countee Cullen from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (public library), and “A Blessing” by James Wright (December 13, 1927–March 25, 1980) from Above the River: The Complete Poems (public library).

Sit down someplace that can contain your chills and enjoy:

NOTHING STAYS PUT
by Amy Clampitt

In memory of Father Flye, 1884–1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes—a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom—
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics—
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?

The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor’s buttons. But it isn’t the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it’s

a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother’s garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.

But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above–
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.

WITCHGRASS
by Louise Glück

Something
comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—

If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything—

as we both know,
if you worship
one god, you only need
One enemy—

I’m not the enemy.
Only a ruse to ignore
what you see happening
right here in this bed,
a little paradigm
of failure. One of your precious flowers
dies here almost every day
and you can’t rest until
you attack the cause, meaning
whatever is left, whatever
happens to be sturdier
than your personal passion—

It was not meant
to last forever in the real world.
But why admit that, when you can go on
doing what you always do,
mourning and laying blame,
always the two together.

I don’t need your praise
to survive. I was here first,
before you were here, before
you ever planted a garden.
And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
are left, and the sea, and the wide field.

I will constitute the field.

YET DO I MARVEL
by Countee Cullen

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

A BLESSING
by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

For other beautiful performances of beloved poems, treat yourself to Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Amanda Palmer reading Wislawa Szymborska, and David Whyte reading Mary Oliver.

BP

Schopenhauer on the Power of Music

“The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.”

Schopenhauer on the Power of Music

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag wrote, “and the most sensual.” A century earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche put it even more bluntly: “Without music life would be a mistake.” The question of why music holds such unparalleled power over the human spirit is an abiding one and, like all abiding existential inquiries, it holds particular appeal to philosophers.

Another century earlier, Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860), a compatriot of Nietzsche’s and a major influence on him, contemplated this very question in the first volume of his masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library) — one of Oliver Sacks’s favorite books, cited in his magnificent Musicophilia.

Schopenhauer writes:

Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself, that in it we certainly have to look for more than that exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [“an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”] which Leibniz took it to be… We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

At this intersection of world and self is the will and, Schopenhauer argues, music’s unique power lies in its ability to capture precisely that:

Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are, the multiplied phenomenon of which constitutes the world of individual things. Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.

[…]

The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain. In the same way, the seriousness essential to it and wholly excluding the ludicrous from its direct and peculiar province is to be explained from the fact that its object is not the representation, in regard to which deception and ridiculousness alone are possible, but that this object is directly the will; and this is essentially the most serious of all things, as being that on which all depends.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, a children's book about the beloved artist's early life and how it shaped her art.
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky

Long before contemporary psychologists came to study the psychology of repetition and how it enchants the brain, Schopenhauer adds:

How full of meaning and significance the language of music is we see from the repetition signs, as well as from the Da capo which would be intolerable in the case of works composed in the language of words. In music, however, they are very appropriate and beneficial; for to comprehend it fully, we must hear it twice.

Schopenhauer summarizes the singular power of music:

Music expresses in an exceedingly universal language, in a homogeneous material, that is, in mere tones, and with the greatest distinctness and truth, the inner being, the in-itself, of the world, which we think of under the concept of will, according to its most distinct manifestation.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating The World as Will and Representation with other great thinkers on the power of music, Wendy Lesser on how music helps us grieve, and Aldous Huxley on why music sings to our souls, then revisit Schopenhauer on style and the significance of boredom.

BP

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