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Eudora Welty on the Difficult Art of Seeing Each Other and the Power of Photography as a Dignifying Force

“If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within.”

“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time,” Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote in her beautiful reflection on how friendship helped human language evolve. But long before she turned to language as her raw material and became one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century, she poured her warmhearted storytelling genius into another humanizing art of speaking and listening: photography.

Just after Welty returned home to Mississippi from college, the Great Depression struck. When her disarming job application to the New Yorker fell on deaf ears, Welty, like many of her generation, found her first full-time job with the Works Progress Administration. She was hired as a junior publicity agent for the Mississippi State office and dispatched to the state’s eighty-two counties, where she set about understanding daily life in the Union’s poorest state and those who lived it — she traveled on dirt roads, helped set up country fair booths, talked to cow farmers, interviewed local judges, and rode on the bookmobile route “distributing books into open hands like the treasure that they are.”

Eudora Welty, 1930s
Eudora Welty, 1930s

Along the way, Welty took several hundred photographs of the people she met — portraits of personhood captured with caring and compassionate eyes, testaments to the tenacity of human dignity even amid the direst of circumstances. Nearly four decades later, one hundred of these striking duotone photographs were collected in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (public library), published in 1971 — two years before Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. That Welty released the book just as the Civil Rights movement was gathering critical momentum was hardly coincidental — a choice of timing that lent her sympathetic, deeply humane photographs new layers of meaning, layers that come unpeeled anew today.

"Woman in Thirties" by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression
“Woman in Thirties” by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression

In the preface, penned in March of 1971, Welty considers how the camera, when operated with a sensitive and sympathetic curiosity, can dignify its subjects, becoming a tool of trust and mutual understanding:

In taking all these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel — a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years. And had I no shame as a white person for what message might lie in my pictures of black persons? No, I was too busy imagining myself into their lives to be open to any generalities. I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.

[…]

When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater … looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to now, just as I did the first time, is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. And though I did not take these pictures to prove anything, I think they most assuredly do show something — which is to make a far better claim for them. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.

Welty articulates the vital difference between capturing reality and conveying truth:

I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves. You have to be ready, in yourself; you have to know the moment when you see it. The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.

In a sentiment of unshakable poignancy amid today’s media culture — a culture where the nuanced realities and complexities of entire lives are reduced to fragmentary glimpses and soundbites — Welty reminds us of the monumental difference between what Susan Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” and what one might call aesthetic contemplation, to which there are no shortcuts and which is the only path, however long and winding, to truly seeing one another:

We come to terms as well as we can with our lifelong exposure to the world, and we use whatever devices we may need to survive. But eventually, of course, our knowledge depends upon the living relationship between what we see going on and ourselves. If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within. The sharpest recognition is surely that which is charged with sympathy as well as with shock — it is a form of human vision. And that is of course a gift. We struggle through any pain or darkness in nothing but hope that we may receive it, and through any term of work in the prayer to keep it.

[…]

My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.

One Time, One Place radiates precisely this seeingness of our human wonder and human plight. Complement Welty’s insightful prefatory words with Teju Cole on how the paradox of photography illustrates the central anxiety of human life and Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, then revisit Welty on friendship.

BP

Truth Beyond Logic and Time Beyond Clocks: Janna Levin on the Vienna Circle and How Mathematician Kurt Gödel Shaped the Modern Mind

“The past does not exist except as a threadbare fragment in the weaker minds of the many.”

Truth Beyond Logic and Time Beyond Clocks: Janna Levin on the Vienna Circle and How Mathematician Kurt Gödel Shaped the Modern Mind

If it is true — and true it is — that creativity blooms when seemingly unrelated ideas are cross-pollinated into something novel, then its most fecund ground is an environment where minds of comparable caliber but divergent obsession come together and swirl their ideas into a common wellspring of genius. There is hardly more concrete a testament to this principle than the Vienna Circle — the collective of scientists, philosophers, and novelists, who met in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century and shaped modern culture by bringing art and science into intimate, fertile contact. But in the 1930s, as they demolished the boundaries between these disciplines, the Vienna Circle also exposed the limits of logic as a sensemaking mechanism for the nature of reality, limitation being perhaps as necessary to creativity as freedom of thought. (“The more a person limits himself,” Kierkegaard had asserted a century earlier, “the more resourceful he becomes.”)

The paradigm-shifting ideas that emerged from that unusual petri dish are what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin explores throughout A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — her lyrical and darkly enthralling novel, partway between magical realism and poetry, yet guided by science and rigorously grounded in the real lives of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.

Inside Café Josephinum, the convening place of the Vienna Circle
Inside Café Josephinum, the convening place of the Vienna Circle

Levin casts the making of this small, enormous revolution:

A group of scientists from the university begin to meet and throw their ideas into the mix with those of artists and novelists and visionaries who rebounded with mania from the depression that follows a nation’s defeat. The few grow in number through invitation only. Slowly their members accumulate and concepts clump from the soup of ideas and take shape until the soup deserves a name, so they are called around Europe, and even as far as the United States, the Vienna Circle.

Barely a generation after Bertrand Russell shook the verdure of mysticism from the tree of knowledge to reveal the robust barren branches of logic, the Vienna Circle made it their mission to weld reality with the axe of Logical Empiricism. Levin transports us to the singular atmosphere of their gatherings:

At the center of the Circle is a circle: a clean, round, white marble tabletop. They select the Café Josephinum precisely for this table. A pen is passed counterclockwise. The first mark is made, an equation applied directly to the tabletop, a slash of black ink across the marble, a mathematical sentence amid the splatters. They all read the equation, homing in on the meaning amid the disordered drops. Mathematics is visual not auditory. They argue with their voices but more pointedly with their pens. They stain the marble with rays of symbolic logic in juicy black pigment that very nearly washes away.

They collect here every Thursday evening to distill their ideas — to distinguish science from superstition. At stake is Everything. Reality. Meaning. Their lives. They have lost any tolerance for ineffectual and embroidered attitudes, for mysticism or metaphysics.

Vienna in the 1930s. The sign, belonging to a gambling parlor, reads: "Don't let luck pass you by." A horseshoe and chimney sweep, superstitious symbols of good fortune, appear above. (Photograph:  Roman Vishniac)
Vienna in the 1930s. The sign, belonging to a gambling parlor, reads: “Don’t let luck pass you by.” A horseshoe and chimney sweep, superstitious symbols of good fortune, appear above it. (Photograph: Roman Vishniac)

The members of the Vienna Circle were endowed with minds exceeding the average not by degree but by kind — the kind of genius that risked bleeding into madness, nowhere more so than in Gödel. Levin paints his conflicting multitudes — the internal tensions that powered his, and perhaps power all, genius:

In 1931 he is a young man of twenty-five, his sharpest edges still hidden beneath the soft pulp of youth. He has just discovered his theorems. With pride and anxiety he brings with him this discovery. His almost, not-quite paradox, his twisted loop of reason, will be his assurance of immortality. An immortality of his soul or just his name? This question will be the subject of his madness.

Levin, who has written beautifully about the complex relationship between genius and madness, adds:

Here he is, a man in defense of his soul, in defense of truth, ready to alter the view of reality his friends have formulated on this marble table. He joins the Circle to tell the members that they are wrong, and he can prove it.

[…]

He is still all potential. The potential to be great, the potential to be mad. He will achieve both magnificently.

kurtgodel

In his incompleteness theorems, which he began publishing that year, Gödel set out to prove that there are limits to how much of reality mathematical logic can grasp — something many intuited but none had substantiated. (Nearly a century earlier, the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated that intuition, if not its empirical proof, in her diary: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) With poetic precision, Levin conveys Gödel’s ideas and their broader significance:

Gödel will prove that some truths live outside of logic and that we can’t get there from here. Some people — people who probably distrust mathematics — are quick to claim that they knew all along that some truths are beyond mathematics. But they just didn’t. They didn’t know it. They didn’t prove it.

Gödel didn’t believe that truth would elude us. He proved that it would. He didn’t invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world — at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you’ll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you’re staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see, but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far away to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.

But the truth is not something everyone wants to see — it can be inconvenient, even obstructionist. In the spring of 1936, as the ideas of the Vienna Circle were becoming increasingly threatening to the Nazi party rising to power, Moritz Schlick, chair of the Vienna Circle, was shot by a former student of his on the steps of the University of Vienna, where he taught. Meanwhile, Gödel’s swirling genius was spiraling further and further into madness. Having already necessitated psychiatric care two years earlier, he was destroyed anew upon hearing of Moritz’s murder and endured an even sharper nervous breakdown that landed him in a psychiatric institution. Levin writes:

In his quiet room in the sanatorium with the narrow window over the big groomed lawn, Gödel rested alone, slumped and motionless, and wondered, where did he go? Where is Moritz?

What does it mean to say that Moritz lived in the past? Nothing. The past does not exist. The notion of a past refers to a paltry and brittle memory, incomplete and flawed. Moritz is dead. He is lost but for fragments in the minds of those who have moved around the globe since his death. The Vienna Circle died with him as the headlines condemned Moritz Schlick as a Jew sympathizer who got what he deserved at the top of the stairs in the University of Vienna at the hands of a pan-Germanic hero who rightly killed this Jew philosopher. Moritz was a Protestant. Facts of the world are sealed in minds. People wear a facade. All of reality goes on behind their eyes, and there lie secret plans and hidden agendas. A tar of false motives and intentions. Truth mauled. Because the past does not exist except as a threadbare fragment in the weaker minds of the many.

Complement the enormously invigorating A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on how Gödel and Einstein changed our understanding of time, then revisit Levin on free will, the vitalizing power of obsessiveness, the century-long quest to hear the sound of space-time, and her remarkable Moth story about the unlikely paths that lead us back to ourselves.

BP

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“Time is the substance I am made of. 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.”

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“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,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. “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,” Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.

Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay “A New Refutation of Time,” which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.

borges_time1

Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of “new.” The “slight mockery” of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that “our language is so saturated and animated by time.” With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be “the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics” — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.

Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science (“the clarity of metaphysics,” per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.

Time, Borges notes, is the foundation of our experience of personal identity — something philosophers took up most notably in the 17th century, poets picked up in the 19th, scientists set down in the 20th, and psychologists picked back up in the 21st.

Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the “thinking active principle that perceives” at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” — but they both affirmed the existence of time.

Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls “this unstable world of the mind” in relation to time:

A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton’s] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.

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

Returning to Hume’s notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:

Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions. The series? Once matter and spirit, which are continuities, are negated, once space too has been negated, I do not know what right we have to that continuity which is time.

But even the notion of a “series” of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:

Once matter and spirit — which are continuities — are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside the present moment.

He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:

During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.

One of Norman Rockwell’s rare illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:

The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.

Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. 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. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

The essay, as everything in Labyrinths, is an exceptional read in its continuous entirety; excerpting, fragmenting, and annotating it here fails to dignify the agile integrity of Borges’s rhetoric and the sheer joy of his immersive prose. Complement it with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, and Sarah Manguso on its confounding, comforting ongoinginess.

BP

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