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Nina Simone on Time

A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.”

Nina Simone on 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,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges proclaimed a generation later in his exquisite 1944 refutation of time. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

If Borges’s words sound like a song lyric, it is because there is something singularly musical about our perception of time — we speak of our daily rhythms, abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, and feel the flow of time like one feels the flow of a melody. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the elusive and indomitable nature of time preoccupied not only the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers, but also one of its greatest musicians: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003).

Nina Simone, 1969

On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Simone performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. The version was released a year later on her live album Black Gold and was later included in The Essential Nina Simone.

Simone, who was at least as devoted to civil rights as she was to music, considered this “a reflective tune” that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts,” for it deals with the supreme unifying force of all human existence: the shared experience of time’s inescapable flow. She introduced her cover with a beautiful, simple, profound prefatory meditation on time — please enjoy:

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Complement with the psychology of how we experience time, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to the nature of time, and James Gleick on how our fascination with time illuminates the central mystery of consciousness.

BP

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.”

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself

In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press. Like Anaïs Nin’s publishing venture, all of their early publications — which included work by Gertrude Stein — were typeset and printed by hand.

In 1930, Riding and Graves moved their offices to Majorca. That year, 29-year-old Riding wrote a series of letters to 8-year-old Catherine — the daughter of Graves and the artist Nancy Nicholson. Originally published by a Parisian press in a limited edition of 200 copies each signed by the author, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (public library) endures as a small, miraculous book, reminiscent in spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and in style and substance of the Zen teachings of Seung Sahn or Thich Hhat Hanh. With great simplicity and unpretentious sincerity, both comprehensible and enchanting as much to this particular little girl as to any child or even any wakeful grownup at all, Riding addresses some of the most elemental questions of existence — how to live a life of creativity and integrity, why praise and prestige are corrosive objects of success, and above all what it means to be oneself.

Laura Riding

Riding eventually returned to America in 1939, remarried and became Laura (Riding) Jackson, continued to write, and lived to be ninety — a long life animated by the conviction that language is “the essential moral meeting-ground.” When she reflected on these letters three decades after writing them, she remarked wistfully that she might no longer be inclined to write “such easy-speaking letters, treating with so much diffident good-humor the stupendous, incessantly-urgent matter of Virtue and the lack of it,” by which she meant “the eternal virtue of good Being, not the mortal virtue of good Custom.” And yet, mercifully, she did once write them, and they did survive, and today they continue to nourish souls of all ages with their unadorned wisdom and transcendent truthfulness.

In the first of the four letters, a meandering meditation on young Catherine’s remark that grownups sometimes seem to “know everything about everything,” Riding explores the nature of knowledge and its essential seedbed of self-knowledge. She writes:

A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.

Nearly a century after Kierkegaard extolled the virtues of idleness and two decades before the German philosopher Joseph Pieper argued that not-doing is the basis of culture, Riding urges young Catherine not to worry about being accused of laziness and considers the basic goodness of simply being oneself:

You seem to spend a lot of time dreaming about nothing at all. And yet you are, as the few people who really know you recognise, a perfect child… This is because when you seem to be dreaming about nothing at all you are not being lazy but thinking about yourself. One doesn’t say you are lazy or selfish. If a person is herself she can’t be a bad person in any way; she is always a good person in her own way. For instance, you are very affectionate, but that’s because you are a good person. You are not a good person just because you are affectionate. It wouldn’t matter if you weren’t affectionate, because you are a good person. You are yourself, and whatever you do is sure to be good.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that radiates a prescient admonition against the perils of our modern Parenting Industrial Complex, Riding adds:

It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.

In an essential caveat that teases out the nuance of her point, Riding notes that rather than selfishness or narcissism, such thinking about oneself is the only way to conceive of one’s place within a larger world and therefore to think of the world itself. In a sentiment that calls to mind Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Riding offers an almost Buddhist perspective:

People are by themselves in being themselves, but together with everyone and everything else in being everything. And this is what makes a world, and people in it. Things that don’t think about themselves aren’t people; they are just everything. And by themselves they are nothing. And even all together, as everything, they are nothing because they know nothing about everything. We are something because we think about ourselves. And being part of everything we think about everything too and make something of it.

In the second letter in the book, Riding picks up the subject from another angle and examines, well before the golden age of modern productivity, how our compulsive doing is keeping us from being — that is, from the essential self-knowledge out of which our entire experience of life arises. She writes to young Catherine:

There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.

[…]

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.

Noting that doing certainly has its uses, she considers its misuses. In a passage that calls to mind Bruce Lee’s wisdom on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and Anna Deavere Smith’s own letters to young artists about the true measure of confidence, Riding writes:

The wrong kind of doing is doing that people do not for comfort or fun but in order to prove to themselves and to other people that they are people. Of course, the only kind of people that people of this sort could impress would be people like them, who wished to seem people in a general way although they weren’t particularly speaking people. In a place where most of the people were like this the object of life would be busyness. And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off.

Writing only a decade after women claimed the right to vote, Riding adds:

The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing than to breathing.

All this extra doing interferes, in fact, with comfort and fun and makes a bad kind of laziness instead of a good kind. Good laziness is thinking — knowing about yourself and knowing also about everything when you want to… You would not be surprised if you realised that it didn’t take brains to do things. Birds, bees, ants, dogs, tress, earth, the sky — all these and everything do the most marvelous things, but they haven’t brains like ours. Never be impressed by what people do, dear Catherine. Doing is only natural.

Once again admonishing against the way in which praise and prestige come to displace the true confidence that comes from self-knowledge, she offers an incisive definition:

Praise … is the confidence in yourself that you get from people whom you have succeeded in pleasing when you haven’t any confidence in yourself.

Riding considers how self-knowledge becomes the foundational structure upon which all other knowledge is built:

If a person knows everything about herself, then she is herself, which is a part of everything. But if she can think further than this, then she can perhaps make that part into a whole, into everything — not just an everything that is everything and anything, but an everything that is herself, or, you might say, an everything that is precious instead of just ordinary. This good thing, this little everything — well, it might be a poem or anything that a thinking might be, and it would be a good thing because it wasn’t a doing.

[…]

A poem or anything like that that is thinking and not doing … is of course much harder work than making a chair, but it is work done with laziness not with busyness. By this I mean that in making a poem there is no hurry or purpose as there is in making a chair; it has nothing to do with fun or comfort, it is better than fun or comfort. Having fun and being comfortable is connected with being alive for a good long time, a year or maybe a hundred years. But making a poem is like being alive for always: this is what I mean by laziness and there being no hurry or purpose. A good poem, then, or any good thinking thing, wouldn’t try to give comfort or fun to people: it would be good because of what it was, not because of what it did, and so give people something better than comfort or fun — a feeling of laziness, of being alive for always. Only someone who knows herself in an everything way could make such a thing, but to make such a thing is nothing to be proud of or show off about. For if you are able to make a poem, it doesn’t seem a wonderful thing to do; it seems just a necessary-natural thing to do.

But this ability to make a good poem, Riding argues, springs from the same source as the ability to make a good chair — that is, a poem or chair that doesn’t show off — which is, at bottom, what also makes a good person. (Nearly a century later, the poet Mary Oliver would call that source “the third self.”) Riding writes:

A person might be able to make poems but be unable to make chairs, not because she could only make poems, but because it didn’t happen to her to make chairs. In the long run a person who could make good poems would certainly come round to making good chairs, and the other way round.

Four Unposted Letters to Catherine is an enormously rewarding read in its slim totality. Complement it with Rilke on what it takes to be an artist and the poet Ann Lauterbach on why we make art and how art makes us.

Thanks, Ann

BP

The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.”

The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality

“The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality. Einstein touched on it in his beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, in which he wrote: “There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.” And yet he conceded that such an orientation toward mortality is reserved for those “who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.”

To make sense of the untimely loss of a young and unrealized life is a wholly different matter, one which haunted computing pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954).

Young Alan Turing

Turing’s decryption of Nazi communication code is estimated to have shortened WWII by two to four years, consequently saving anywhere between 14 and 21 million lives. But despite his wartime heroism, Turing was driven to suicide after being chemically castrated by the U.K. government for being homosexual. More than half a century after his disquieting death, Queen Elizabeth II issued royal pardon — a formal posthumous apology that somehow only amplifies the tragedy of Turing’s life and death.

Tragedy had been with Turing from a young age. At fifteen, while attending the Sherborne School, he fell deeply in love with a classmate named Christopher Morcom. For the awkward and ostracized young Alan, who was bullied so severely that a group of boys once trapped him under the floorboards of a dorm dayroom and kept him there until he nearly suffocated, Christopher was everything he was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, and aglow with winsome charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics.

Alan Turing (far left) with classmates at Waterloo Station on the way to the school carriage at Charing Cross Station, early 1926 (Turing Digital Archive)

When Christopher died of bovine tuberculosis in 1930 — a disease he had contracted from infected milk, for which there was no common vaccine until after WWII — Alan fell to pieces. He was able to collect himself only through work, by burrowing so deep into the underbelly of mathematics that he emerged almost on the other side, where science and metaphysics meet. Sorrow had taken him on a crusade to make sense of reality, of this senseless ruin, and he spared no modality of thought. Most of all, he wanted to understand how he could remain so attached to someone who no longer existed materially but who felt so overwhelmingly alive in his spirit.

All the while, young Turing remained in touch with Christopher’s mother, who had taken a sympathetic liking to her son’s awkward friend. After Christopher’s death, he visited the Morcoms at their country home, Clock House, and corresponded with Mrs. Morcom about the grief they shared, about the perplexity of how a nonentity — for Christopher had ceased to exist in physical terms — could color each of their worlds so completely.

Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom. Art by Keith Hegley from The Who, the What, and the When, an illustrated celebration of the little-known inspirations behind geniuses.

That sorrowful puzzlement is what Turing explored in a series of letters to Christopher’s mother, originally included in his first serious biography and brought to new life in astrophysicist Janna Levin’s exquisite novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — a masterwork of fiction that swirls philosophical poetics around the facts of Turing’s life.

Levin paints Turing’s struggle to conciliate the materialism of his scientific devotion with his spiritual devotion to Christopher even after the material cessation of his existence:

The future, present, and past of every material object is subject to the laws of physics. The orbit of every celestial body, the fall of every drop of rain. His own body a collection of molecules. His desire a cauldron of hormones whose chemistry has just been scientifically documented. His brain a case of matter, blood, and bone.

But he feels direct experience of his own soul, his spirit. He cannot accept that as an aggregate of flesh, a clump of matter, that his future, past, and present are already determined by the laws of physics. He cannot crush out the intuition that he makes choices, influences the world with his mind and spirit.

[…]

Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.

[…]

He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter.

That unshakable sense of spirit beyond matter is what 20-year-old Turing articulates in a letter from April 20, 1933:

My dear Mrs. Morcom,

I was so pleased to be at the Clockhouse for Easter. I always like to think of it specially in connection with Chris. It reminds us that Chris is in some way alive now. One is perhaps too inclined to think only of him alive at some future time when we shall meet him again; but it is really so much more helpful to think of him as just separated from us for the present.

Turing visited Clock House again in July, for what would have been Christopher’s twenty-second birthday. Seeking to reconcile the irrepressible spiritual aliveness felt in grief with the undeniable definitiveness of physical death, as much for himself as for Christopher’s mother, he wrote in another letter to her under the heading “Nature of Spirit”:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale. This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are pre-destined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.

[…]

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive and awake and the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit, is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

First page of “Nature of Spirit,” in Turing’s original handwriting (Turing Digital Archive)

How Turing’s ideas evolved over the course of his life as he tussled with this paradox is among the many profound and possibly unanswerable questions examined with enormous intellectual elegance in A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines, another thread of which explores how the mathematician Kurt Gödel shaped our ideas of truth. Complement this particular thread with Marcus Aurelius on mortality and the key to living fully, Mary Oliver on the measure of aliveness, and Oliver Sacks on death, destiny, and the redemptive radiance of a life well lived.

BP

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