Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “time travel”

Hannah Arendt on Time, Space, and Where Our Thinking Ego Resides

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.”

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen remembers the future instead of the past. This seemingly nonsensical proposition, like so many elements of the beloved book, is a stroke of philosophical genius and prescience on behalf of Lewis Carroll, made half a century before Einstein and Gödel challenged our linear conception of time.

But no thinker has addressed how the disorienting nature of time shapes the human experience with more captivating lucidity than Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975), who in 1973 became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures. Her talk was eventually adapted into two long essays, published as The Life of the Mind (public library) — the same ceaselessly rewarding volume that gave us Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

In one of the most stimulating portions of the book, Arendt argues that thinking is our rebellion against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude. Noting that cognition always removes us from the present and makes absences its raw material, she considers where the thinking ego is located if not in what is present and close at hand:

Looked at from the perspective of the everyday world of appearances, the everywhere of the thinking ego — summoning into its presence whatever it pleases from any distance in time or space, which thought traverses with a velocity greater than light’s — is a nowhere. And since this nowhere is by no means identical with the twofold nowhere from which we suddenly appear at birth and into which almost as suddenly we disappear in death, it might be conceived only as the Void. And the absolute void can be a limiting boundary concept; though not inconceivable, it is unthinkable. Obviously, if there is absolutely nothing, there can be nothing to think about. That we are in possession of these limiting boundary concepts enclosing our thought within (insurmountable) walls — and the notion of an absolute beginning or an absolute end is among them — does not tell us more than that we are indeed finite beings.

Echoing Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” Arendt adds:

Man’s finitude, irrevocably given by virtue of his own short time span set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities: it manifests itself as the only reality of which thinking qua thinking is aware, when the thinking ego has withdrawn from the world of appearances and lost the sense of realness inherent in the sensus communis by which we orient ourselves in this world… The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.

T.S. Eliot captured this nowhereness in his exquisite phrase “the still point of the turning world.” But the spatial dimension of thought, Arendt argues, is intersected by a temporal one — thinking invariably forces us to recollect and anticipate, voyaging into the past and the future, thus creating the mental spacetime continuum through which our thought-trains travel. From this arises our sense of the sequential nature of time and its essential ongoingness. Arendt writes:

The inner time sensation arises when we are not entirely absorbed by the absent non-visibles we are thinking about but begin to direct our attention onto the activity itself. In this situation past and future are equally present precisely because they are equally absent from our sense; thus the no-longer of the past is transformed by virtue of the spatial metaphor into something lying behind us and the not-yet of the future into something that approaches us from ahead.

[…]

In other words, the time continuum, everlasting change, is broken up into the tenses past, present, future, whereby past and future are antagonistic to each other as the no-longer and the not-yet only because of the presence of man, who himself has an “origin,” his birth, and an end, his death, and therefore stands at any given moment between them; this in-between is called the present. It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change — which we can conceive of cyclically as well as in the form of rectilinear motion without ever being able to conceive of an absolute beginning or an absolute end — into time as we know it.

Discus chronologicus, a 17th-century depiction of time, found in Cartographies of Time

Once again, it is our finitude that mediates our experience of time:

Seen from the viewpoint of a continuously flowing everlasting stream, the insertion of man, fighting in both directions, produces a rupture which, by being defended in both directions, is extended to a gap, the present seen as the fighter’s battleground… Seen from the viewpoint of man, at each single moment inserted and caught in the middle between his past and his future, both aimed at the one who is creating his present, the battleground is an in-between, an extended Now on which he spends his life. The present, in ordinary life the most futile and slippery of the tenses — when I say “now” and point to it, it is already gone — is no more than the clash of a past, which is no more, with a future, which is approaching and not yet there. Man lives in this in-between, and what he calls the present is a life-long fight against the dead weight of the past, driving him forward with hope, and the fear of a future (whose only certainty is death), driving him backward toward “the quiet of the past” with nostalgia for and remembrance of the only reality he can be sure of.

This fluid conception of time, Arendt points out, is quite different from its representation in ordinary life, where the calendar tells us that the present is contained in today, the past starts at yesterday, and the future at tomorrow. In a sentiment that calls to mind Patti Smith’s magnificent meditation on time and transformation, Arendt writes:

That we can shape the everlasting stream of sheer change into a time continuum we owe not to time itself but to the continuity of our business and our activities in the world, in which we continue what we started yesterday and hope to finish tomorrow. In other words, the time continuum depends on the continuity of our everyday life, and the business of everyday life, in contrast to the activity of the thinking ego — always independent of the spatial circumstances surrounding it — is always spatially determined and conditioned. It is due to this thoroughgoing spatiality of our ordinary life that we can speak plausibly of time in spatial categories, that the past can appear to us as something lying “behind” us and the future as lying “ahead.”

[…]

The gap between past and future opens only in reflection, whose subject matter is what is absent — either what has already disappeared or what has not yet appeared. Reflection draws these absent “regions” into the mind’s presence; from that perspective the activity of thinking can be understood as a fight against time itself.

This elusive gap, Arendt argues, is where the thinking ego resides — and it is only by mentally inserting ourselves between the past and the future that they come to exist at all:

Without [the thinker], there would be no difference between past and future, but only everlasting change. Or else these forces would clash head on and annihilate each other. But thanks to the insertion of a fighting presence, they meet at an angle, and the correct image would then have to be what the physicists call a parallelogram of forces.

These two forces, which have an indefinite origin and a definite end point in the present, converge into a third — a diagonal pull that, contrary to the past and the present, has a definite origin in the present and emanates out toward infinity. That diagonal force, Arendt observes, is the perfect metaphor for the activity of thought. She writes:

This diagonal, though pointing to some infinity, is limited, enclosed, as it were, by the forces of past and future, and thus protected against the void; it remains bound to and is rooted in the present — an entirely human present though it is fully actualized only in the thinking process and lasts no longer than this process lasts. It is the quiet of the Now in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of “umpire,” of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.

The Life of the Mind is one of the most stimulating packets of thought ever published. Complement this particular portion with Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Dan Falk on how our capacity for mental time travel made us human, and T.S. Eliot’s poetic ode to the nature of time.

BP

Love of Life: Albert Camus on Happiness, Despair, the Art of Awareness, and Why We Travel

“There is no love of life without despair of life.”

Love of Life: Albert Camus on Happiness, Despair, the Art of Awareness, and Why We Travel

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness,” Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) wrote in his notebook toward the end of his life, “they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Indeed, our principles tend to harden into habits and although habits give shape to our inner lives, they can mutate into the rigidity of routine and create a kind of momentum that, rather than expanding our capacity for happiness, contracts it. In the trance of routine and principled productivity, we end up showing up for our daily lives while being absent from them.

Few things things break us out of our routines and awaken us to the living substance of happiness more powerfully than travel. Camus knew this. Decades earlier, when he was only twenty-two and still a long way from becoming the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, he explored this human perplexity with unparalleled intellectual elegance and spiritual grace in a gorgeous essay titled “Love of Life,” eventually included in his posthumously published collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).

albertcamus

Recounting the sight of a young woman dancing deliriously in a Spanish cabaret, Camus — whose entire life was undergirded by the ethos that happiness is our moral obligation — writes:

Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.

But this contact with absolute bliss, Camus cautions, necessitates an equal capacity for contact with absolute despair:

There lay all my love of life: a silent passion for what would perhaps escape me, a bitterness beneath a flame. Each day I would leave this cloister like a man lifted from himself, inscribed for a brief moment in the continuance of the world… There is no love of life without despair of life.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy,” the Danish philosopher wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness — Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity? I can say and in a moment I shall say that what counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.

[…]

The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair? If I listen to the voice of irony, crouching underneath things, slowly it reveals itself. Winking its small, clear eye, it says: “Live as if …” In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

Complement the altogether beautiful Lyrical and Critical Essays with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, his illustrated wisdom on love, and the beautiful letter of gratitude he wrote to his childhood teacher after receiving the Nobel Prize.

BP

We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.”

We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

Recently, while packing to move, I came upon a stack of letters from my Bulgarian grandmother. During my time in college, we wrote each other long, beautiful letters about once a month. Then she discovered the internet. The letters became emails and, invariably, their nature changed. The slow mutual beholding of sentiment and feeling that co-respondence implies became the quick mutual reaction to information under the pressure of immediacy, which often bled into the banal — daily errands, travel plans, the weather.

As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person. Each appears to be a dormant potentiality, beckoned forth by the respective medium of expression — something that makes it hard not to notice, and hard not to worry about, how such shifts in medium might shape what parts of ourselves we manifest, which in turn add up to the sum total of our personal identity.

The many dimensions of this question are what Rebecca Solnit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, explores in a spectacular essay titled “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library) — the superb nonfiction collection that gave us Solnit on what our dream homes reveal about our interior lives.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s famous proclamation that “on or around December 1910, human character changed,” regarding the arrival of Modernism, Solnit writes:

On or around June 1995, human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.

Perhaps each generation broods over how the disruption technologies of its time are taking civilization down — Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned the newspaper itself as a worrisome distraction and one twelfth-century Zen monk thought the same of books — but Solnit’s point is far from that familiar techno-dystopian refrain. Rather, she contemplates the subtler and more insidious effects of our communication technologies on the human psyche — the shredding of the very fabric of time, which blankets our daily lives and dictates their rhythm:

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.

Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children's book illustration
Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children’s book illustration

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.

While she acknowledges that a great many benefits have come from our modern communication technologies, Solnit considers their cost:

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Reflecting on witnessing an all too familiar vignette — a group of young people waiting to be seated together at a restaurant, each staring into her or his phone instead of conversing with one another — Solnit writes:

It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

In a lament evocative of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that the sense of missing out, however psychologically discomfiting, is essential to a full life, Solnit observes:

A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.

She considers the sense of loss, nebulous in its precise object but undeniably palpable, that many of us feel in bearing witness to and partaking in this profound shift in the human experience:

I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too — it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.

With an eye to the particular atrocity of interruption that was Google Glass — an atrocity that has since perished after metastasizing into too uncomfortable a caricature of our modern malady of productivity-guised flight from presence — Solnit writes:

I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up or someone’s trying to schedule me for a project or a drink is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning, and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

malmo_tower1

Nearly seven decades after Henry Beston’s magnificent manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning the art of presence, Solnit wonders when the uprising will come — against the part of ourselves too easily lured by the promise of efficiency at the expense of aliveness, and against the corporations exploitively perfecting the allure of such seductive illusions. Looking to the groundswell of craftsmanship and the maker movement — gardening, knitting, and the general surge of interest in making things by hand via traditional methods — she considers how this shift might help us reclaim our sense of time:

It is a slow-everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting — but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time.

[…]

Getting out of [the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world] is about slowness and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labor practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labor. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with how Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter-writing can make email more civil, then revisit Solnit on how walking vitalizes the meanderings of the mind, what reading does for the human spirit, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.

BP

Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.”

“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.

That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.

A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.

The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.

Frida Kahlo’s bed (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Smith writes:

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:

I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…

[…]

The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.

Patti Smith, late 1970s

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what “real time” is:

Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Milton’s Paradise Lost

This dance with change on the precipice of past and present is perhaps why the weather plays such a recurring role throughout the book — weather changes are the most universally palpable of transformations, and at their most acute they augur loss. Smith writes about storms with a kind of primal awe — the blizzard that strikes as she and her husband leave the theater after seeing an Akira Kurosawa film on her fortieth birthday, having entered it under clear and sunny skies; the raging thunderstorm through which she returns home alone after her husband dies in a Detroit hospital, forty-five years after he was born in the midst of an electrical storm in his grandparents’ kitchen; Hurricane Sandy, which devastates the Far Rockaways just as she has fallen in love with the community and purchased a ramshackle bungalow as her newfound sanctuary.

Recalling visiting her beloved Rockaways after the Sandy devastation, Smith captures the piercing impermanence that storms swirl us into contact with:

The great storm surges that flooded the streets had killed most of the vegetation. I inspected all that there was to see. The mildewed pasteboard walls forming small rooms had been gutted, opening onto a large room with the century-old vaulted ceiling intact, and rotted floors were being removed. I could feel progress and left with a bit of optimism. I sat on the makeshift step of what would be my refurbished porch and envisioned a yard with wildflowers. Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.

Bungalow, Rockaway Beach (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Nothing encodes this temporal permanency more palpably than our treasured objects, imbued with memories and haunted by former versions of ourselves, and there is nothing we imbue with memory more intimately than the worn stories of our clothes. Like life itself, these wearable micro-museums of memory are woven of both love and loss. Smith captures this beautifully in the story of one such cherished possession:

I had a black coat. A poet gave it to me some years ago on my fifty-seventh birthday. It had been his — an ill-fitting, unlined Comme des Garçons overcoat that I secretly coveted. On the morning of my birthday he told me he had no gift for me.

— I don’t need a gift, I said.

— But I want to give you something, whatever you wish for.

— Then I would like your black coat, I said.

And he smiled and gave it to me without hesitation or regret. Every time I put it on I felt like myself. The moths liked it as well and it was riddled with small holes along the hem, but I didn’t mind. The pockets had come unstitched at the seam and I lost everything I absentmindedly slipped into their holy caves. Every morning I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my café. I loved my coat and the café and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity. But in this current run of harsh weather, I favored another coat to keep me warm and protect me from the wind. My black coat, more suitable for spring and fall, fell from my consciousness, and in this relatively short span it disappeared.

Smith’s husband, Fred, believed that when such beloved possessions disappear, they enter “the Valley of Lost Things.” When he was a child, his favorite toy — a red plastic cowboy he had named Reddy — suffered a similar fate after Fred’s mother, dusting the bookcase, inadvertently knocked Reddy into domestic neverland. But he miraculously reappeared some years later, emerging from the floor when boards had to be replaced. When Reddy returned, Fred proudly placed him on the bookcase in the couple’s bedroom.

Smith reflects on this dance of disappearances, which so aggrieves us precisely because objects concretize our longing for permanence:

Some things are called back from the Valley. I believe Reddy called out to Fred. I believe Fred heard. I believe in their mutual jubilance. Some things are not lost but sacrificed. I saw my black coat in the Valley of the Lost on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins. Someone good will get it, I told myself, the Billy Pilgrim of the lot.

Do our lost possessions mourn us? Do electric sheep dream of Roy Batty? Will my coat, riddled with holes, remember the rich hours of our companionship? Asleep on buses from Vienna to Prague, nights at the opera, walks by the sea, the grave of Swinburne in the Isle of Wight, the arcades of Paris, the caverns of Luray, the cafés of Buenos Aires. Human experience bound in its threads. How many poems bleeding from its ragged sleeves? I averted my eyes just for a moment, drawn by another coat that was warmer and softer, but that I did not love. Why is it that we lose the things we love, and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?

Then it occurred to me. Perhaps I absorbed my coat.

Smith examines this question of what is lost and what is redeemed in recounting a rather allegorical experience she had while journeying to a picturesque canyon in Mexico:

It was breathtaking though dangerous place, but we felt nothing but awe. I said a prayer to the lime-dusted mountain, then was drawn to a small rectangular light some twenty feet away. It was a white stone. Actually more tablet than stone, the color of foolscap, as if waiting for another commandment to be etched on its polished surface. I walked over and without hesitation picked it up and put it in my coat pocket as if it were written to do so.

I had thought to bring the strength of the mountain to my little house. I felt an instantaneous affection for it and kept my hand in my pocket in order to touch it, a missal of stone. It was not until later at the airport, as a customs inspector confiscated it, that I realized I had not asked the mountain whether or not I could have it. Hubris, I mourned, sheer hubris. The inspector firmly explained it could be deemed a weapon. It’s a holy stone, I told him, and begged him not to toss it away, which he did without flinching. It bothered me deeply. I had taken a beautiful object, formed by nature, out of its habitat to be thrown into a sack of security rubble.

[…]

I took the stone from the mountain and it was taken from me. A kind of moral balance, I well understood.

The book is, above all, a reminder that love and loss always hang in such a balance — perhaps not a moral one, for morality presumes meaning and some losses are senseless, dealt out by a universe impervious to human concerns and conceits, but a balance nonetheless. Smith captures this devastating and transcendent truth in recounting the days following Fred’s death:

My brother stayed with me through the days that followed. He promised the children he would be there for them always and would return after the holidays. But exactly a month later he had a massive stroke while wrapping Christmas presents for his daughter. The sudden death of Todd, so soon after Fred’s passing, seemed unbearable. The shock left me numb. I spent hours sitting in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.

Eventually I left Michigan and returned to New York with our children. One afternoon while crossing the street I noticed I was crying. But I could not identify the source of my tears. I felt a heat containing the colors of autumn. The dark stone in my heart pulsed quietly, igniting like a coal in a hearth. Who is in my heart? I wondered.

I soon recognized Todd’s humorous spirit, and as I continued my walk I slowly reclaimed an aspect of him that was also myself — a natural optimism. And slowly the leaves of my life turned, and I saw myself pointing out simple things to Fred, skies of blue, clouds of white, hoping to penetrate the veil of a congenital sorrow. I saw his pale eyes looking intently into mine, trying to trap my walleye in his unfaltering gaze. That alone took up several pages that filled me with such painful longing that I fed them into the fire in my heart, like Gogol burning page by page the manuscript of Dead Souls Two. I burned them all, one by one; they did not form ash, did not go cold, but radiated the warmth of human compassion.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a rare 1967 edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence

This, indeed, is the book’s greatest gift: The sublime assurance that although everything we love — people, places, possessions — can and likely will eventually be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and this is the only permanence we’ll ever know.

Echoing Italo Calvino’s unforgettable assertion that “every experience is unrepeatable,” Smith writes:

Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.

[…]

I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.

— Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.

We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.

With lyrical lucidity, Smith reminds us that the only liberation from the shackles of change lies in its acceptance, in the act of willful surrender:

Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time. A curtain of purple wisteria partially conceals the entrance to a familiar garden… In a wink, a lifetime, we pass through the infinite movements of a silent overture.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Indeed, we move through this world both mutable and abiding, and it is the movement itself that anchors us to ourselves. Returning to the Möbius strip of our personal continuity, Smith writes:

I believe I am still the same person; no amount of change in the world can change that.

I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.

Virginia Woolf’s walking stick (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Stubbornly writing the story of our own finitude and impermanence, Smith seems to suggest, is our only true homecoming to wholeness:

Home is a desk. The amalgamation of a dream. Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me, the faces of my children who will one day call to me. Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.

Complement the wholly enchanting M Train with Smith on the love of books, her stirring poems for her departed soul mate, her advice on life, and her homage to Virginia Woolf, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful meditation on love and loss.

For a bewitching immersion in Smith’s radiant spirit, treat yourself to her conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, part of these nine fantastic podcasts for a fuller life:

If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter … glowing and receptive … if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.

[…]

William Blake … being a sort of a victim of the Industrial Revolution … was a great poet, a great songwriter, an activist, a philosopher, a visionary. He gave us beautiful books, paintings, ideology — and yet William Blake in his lifetime was never appreciated. He had no real success. He was often ridiculed. He died poverty-stricken, but he also died full of joy. He never let go of his vision, he never let go of that radiance, he never let go of the language of enthusiasm. So I try to remember now when I feel sorry for myself to give a little thought to William Blake.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.