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How You Spend Your Life: A Cinematic Sum of the Hours, Days, and Years Spent on Mundane Activities

An awakening anatomy of the average life’s two years of boredom, 6 months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

How You Spend  Your Life: A Cinematic Sum of the Hours, Days, and Years Spent on Mundane Activities

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in reminding us that presence is more rewarding the productivity. But how, exactly, do we spend our lives?

That’s what English filmmaker, illustrator, and composer Temujin Doran — maker of incredibly lyrical documentary-style cinematic meditations on everything from the rise of mass media to the art of protest to the life and death of mountains — explores in this wonderful and pause-giving short film based on the title piece from neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (public library). At its heart is a clever thought experiment jolting us out of our hubris and reminding us that however puzzling the linearity of time may be, the particular linearity of events through which we live our lives is precisely what makes our lives not only tolerable but thrilling.

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.

You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

Complement with Seneca, writing two millennia ago, on how our busyness shrinks our lives and Mary Oliver on how rhythm gives shape to existence.

BP

Why Can’t You Remember Your Future? Physicist Paul Davies on the Puzzlement of Why We Experience Time as Linear

The curious question of how and whether we can tell the difference between an experience and the memory of an experience.

Why Can’t You Remember Your Future? Physicist Paul Davies on the Puzzlement of Why We Experience Time as Linear

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail,” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his 1929 meditation on our paradoxical experience of time, “we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” Nowhere is this duality of time more disorienting than in the constant mental time travel we perform between what has been and what will be in order to anchor ourselves to what is. As our lives tick on, gradually robbing the future of potential and robbing the past of relevance, we trudge along the arrow of time dragging with us this elusive curiosity we call a self — an ever-shifting packet of personal identity, mystifying in how it links us to our childhood selves and misleading in how it maps out our future selves.

That puzzlement is what Australian theoretical physicist Paul Davies explores in a wonderfully mind-bending passage from his altogether terrific 1995 book About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (public library), which embodies my three criteria for what makes a great science book.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Davies writes:

When I was a child, I often used to lie awake at night, in fearful anticipation of some unpleasant event the following day, such as a visit to the dentist, and wish I could press some sort of button that would have the effect of instantly transporting me twenty-four hours into the future. The following night, I would wonder whether that magic button was in fact real, and that the trick had indeed worked. After all, it was twenty-four hours later, and though I could remember the visit to the dentist, it was, at the that time, only a memory of an experience, not an experience.

Another button would also send me backwards in time, of course. This button would restore my brain state and memory to what they were at that earlier date. One press, and I could be back at my early childhood, experiencing once again, for the first time, my fourth birthday…

Art by Leonard Weisgard for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman addressed this perplexity in his model of the experiencing self and the remembering self, but for Davies the more interesting question deals not with the pure psychology of the experience but with how the accepted physics of time, seeded by Einstein’s relativity theory, gives shape to that psychological experience. He returns to the larger questions arising from his childhood thought experiments:

With these buttons, gone would be the orderly procession of events that apparently constitutes my life. I could simply jump hither and thither at random, back and forth in time, rapidly moving on from any unpleasant episodes, frequently repeating the good times, always avoiding death, of course , and continuing ad infinitum. I would have no subjective impression of randomness, because at each stage the state of my brain would encode a consistent sequence of events.

[…]

The striking thing about [such] “thought experiments” is, how would my life seem any different if this button-pushing business really was going on? What does it even mean to say that I am experiencing my life in a jumpy, random sort of manner? Each instant of my experience is the experience, whatever its temporal relation to other experiences. So long as the memories are consistent, what meaning can be attached to the claim that my life happens in a jumbled sequence?

In the remainder of the thoroughly satisfying About Time, Davies goes on to probe the answer to this question by examining how the history of human thought, from St. Augustine to Einstein, has left us with a model of time that simply doesn’t reflect the nature of experience, and what we can expect from the evolution of science as we reach for more complete models of this timelessly puzzling dimension of reality.

Complement it with T.S. Eliot’s beautiful ode to the nature of time and Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, then revisit the historic debate that shaped our modern understanding of time.

BP

How Aubrey Beardsley’s Visionary Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ Subverted Victorian Gender Norms and Revolutionized the Graphic Arts

“He is drawing not persons but personages; he is dramatizing not the relationships between personalities but the pure, geometric essence of relationship.”

How Aubrey Beardsley’s Visionary Illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome’ Subverted Victorian Gender Norms and Revolutionized the Graphic Arts

In his short life, Aubrey Beardsley (August 21, 1872–March 16, 1898) became a pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement and forever changed the course of the graphic arts. He was an artist of elegant and unsentimental exaggeration, and yet beneath his grotesque aesthetic lay a subtle sensitivity to human fears, longings, and relationships. Susan Sontag placed him in the canon of camp, but Beardsley’s significance radiates far beyond what she called “stylization.” In addition to influencing generations of artists — his unmistakable aesthetic reverberates through Harry Clarke’s striking 1925 illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy and even William Faulkner’s little-known Jazz Age drawings — he championed the poster and large-scale print work as a modern medium of graphic art. Born under the tyranny of oil painting as the only acceptable form of “picture,” he rebelled against the notion that a picture is “something told in oil or writ in water to be hung on a room’s wall” and tirelessly defied the conceit that the poster artist is somehow a lesser, lighter artist than the painter.

Aubrey Beardsley in 1895
Aubrey Beardsley in 1895

In her terrific 1968 treatise Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (public library), British novelist, critic, music scholar, and social reformer Brigid Brophy calls Beardsley “the most intensely and electrically erotic artist in the world” and “perhaps the only artist of any kind practicing in [that period] who was never sentimental.” She writes:

Live (love) now: die sooner or later.

That, classically, is the purport of lyrical art. Aubrey Beardsley was above all a lyrical artist — but one who was pounded and buckled into an ironist by the pressure of knowing, which he did virtually from the outset, that for him death would be not later but sooner.

A scholar of Mozart and an astute cross-pollinator of the arts, Brophy — a lyrical genius herself — writes:

Beardsley is lyrical by virtue of his gift of line, which resembles the gift of melodic invention. Sheerly, Beardsley’s lines, like great tunes, go up and down in beautiful places… A Beardsley sequence is like a sonnet sequence. Yet it is never the literary content of an image that concerns him. His portraits, including those of himself, are less portraits than icons. He is drawing not persons but personages; he is dramatizing not the relationships between personalities but the pure, geometric essence of relationship. He is out to capture sheer tension: tension contained within, and summed up by, his always ambivalent images.

And yet Beardsley’s images are very much a sacrificial offering to tension, to the contradictory forces by which the human heart is pulled asunder — loneliness and longing, dread and desire, sadness and sensual delight. His stark black-and-white aesthetic — like his life, like all life — is one of violent and vitalizing contrasts, nowhere more so than in his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome.

In February of 1893, a British magazine commissioned Beardsley to create a single drawing based on the original French publication of Salomé. But the gorgeously grotesque piece he submitted — Salomé reveling in the severed head of John the Baptist — was too daring and the magazine rejected it. In April, a new art publication included the drawing in its inaugural issue and it made its way to Wilde, who was so taken with it that he offered Beardsley a contract for ten full-page illustrations and a cover design for the English edition. Beardsley was twenty-one and Wilde, whom he had met three years earlier at an artist’s studio, thirty-eight.

Originally, Beardsley had wanted to translate rather than illustrate Wilde’s play — but the honor fell to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s longtime lover and the recipient of those breathtakingly beautiful love letters. Instead, Beardsley approached his art as an act of complementary interpretation rather than literal visual translation — his drawings are in intimate dialogue with Wilde’s text, often talking back with their own subversive symbolism. Wilde himself likened Beardsley’s drawings to “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook,” which he meant as admiring praise rather than belittlement.

The combined force of these two tradition-defying geniuses resulted in nothing short of a creative revolution — the play was already targeted by censors for its depiction of Biblical characters and Beardsley’s intensely erotic drawings subverted the era’s gender norms by portraying women as sexually empowered, even predatory, rather than the docile and demure creatures Victorian society expected them to be.

Brophy, who was heavily influenced by Freud, writes:

It is the characteristic of precocious children that, in childhood, they are astonishing because they resemble adults. In adulthood, they are often — like Mozart and Beardsley — astonishing because they resemble children.

[…]

[Beardsley’s] vision is permanently that of a child lying in bed watching his mother dress for a dinner-party. His fantasy hangs this here, tries the effect of that there: everything is a jewel, and everything is a sexual organ. He is allured, yet afraid to touch: driven back on a cold minuteness of detailed attention, and yet passionately curious, with the emotional and involved curiosity children give to sex. The very fastidiousness of his line demonstrates the importance of touching and the fear that has to be overcome in order to do it… The child’s protest against his inexperience, against the ban on touching, is to glory in his ignorance. He does not know which sexual organs are appropriate to which sex; he makes deliberate howlers in order to howl against his exclusion from adult knowledge.

Brophy considers Beardsley’s depictions of women, deeply defiant of sexual classification:

Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?

Indeed, it’s hardly surprising that androgyny and a profound ambivalence about sexuality should permeate Beardsley’s work — he was a young gay man himself who, biographers believe, died a virgin.

His collaborator’s fate not only exacerbated Beardsley’s private terrors but decimated his professional life. A year after the English publication of Salome, Wilde was arrested for homosexual conduct. He had with him a copy Pierre Louÿs’s Aphrodite at the time of the arrest, bound in yellow paper as French novels were at the time. The media, in their perennial propensity for scandal-mongering falsehoods, misreported that Wilde was carrying the Yellow Book — the literary quarterly for which Beardsley served as art director. Immediately, a mob descended upon the publisher’s offices and broke the windows. Several prominent Yellow Book authors threatened to withdraw from the journal unless Beardsley was fired, even though his sole collaboration with Wilde had been Salome and Wilde himself had never contributed to the journal.

Under the combined abominations of bad journalism, bullying, and cowardice, Beardsley lost his job and his income. He and his sister Mabel had to vacate the house they shared.

Fortunately, a few months later, Beardsley was hired as an art director at a new periodical called Savoy for a weekly salary of £25, or around £2,600 in today’s money — a respectable amount given that Wilde, at the height of his fame as the twentieth century’s first pop celebrity, was earning only four times as much from his plays.

Beardsley died just as he was becoming one of the most prominent graphic artists of his day, his brilliance and promise cut short — like Simone Weil and Franz Kafka‘s — by tuberculosis at a heartbreaking age. He was only twenty-five.

His visionary genius is perhaps best captured by Wilde’s inscription on the copy of the original French edition of Salome he gave Beardsley:

For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance.

BP

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