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Our Fraught Relationship with Time, in Clever Minimalist Illustrations

A witty visual meditation on our comical control strategies, the predictability of modern life, and our constant tussle with productivity and presence.

“I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular essay on time and language. “As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it.” And yet ever since Galileo invented modern timekeeping, the tyranny of the clock has not only bound but shackled us to the invisible dimension in everything from our internal rhythms to our ideal creative routines. Meanwhile, time, with its remarkable elasticity, continues to mystify us — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the capacity to imagine it made us human.

In About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock (public library | IndieBound), French-Armenian graphic designer Vahram Muratyan — who gave us the 2012 delight Paris vs. New York — builds on humanity’s long history of visualizing time, exploring its enduring mesmerism with great humor, sensitivity, and insight into modern life.

From the predictable cycles of our routines, relationships, and our fashions to our psychological tussles with the flow of life, Muratyan captures the profound anticipatory anxiety that defines our relationship with time — the expectation that there is always something more, or more important, to do, that the next moment must bring what this one lacks. He pokes gentle fun at our preoccupation with productivity at the expense of presence and at the chronic civilizational busyness making us forget that, in the unforgettable words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

One can almost hear Alan Watts’s voice booming from Muratyan’s minimalist vignettes, admonishing once more that “hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

There is also a meta-element commenting on the cyclical nature of time and our resistance to its flow — Muratyan’s visual sensibility is intentionally reminiscent of mid-century graphic design, vintage children’s books, and the aesthetic of the Mad Men era, as if to remind us that nostalgia is our most stubborn and wistful hedge against time’s merciless forward motion.

Although his project is undeniably intended to delight with visual humor, Muratyan rewards those willing to attend to what remains after the initial chuckle — a number of his vignettes explore the darker reaches of our relationship with time, reminding us that despite all of our efforts to control and constrain it, time itself inevitably has the upper hand in that play-pretend power dynamic.

In our recent conversation at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, Muratyan and I dove deeper into the heart of the project by discussing how the tyranny of the clock has enslaved our capacity for spontaneity and presence, why the a-ha! moments of creative breakthrough arrive when we least expect them, the relationship between motion and meditative contemplation, and how life’s most challenging experiences demolish all of our defenses and control strategies, leaving time as our only master. Please enjoy.

Complement About Time with Alan Watts on the art of timing, a visual history of mapping time and the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped while we vacation, then counter the frantic modern rhythms Muratyan teases with a lesson in stillness from Leonard Cohen.

BP

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Timekeeping and Forever Changed Modern Life

How the invisible hand of the clock powered the Industrial Revolution and sparked the Information Age.

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Timekeeping and Forever Changed Modern Life

While we appreciate it in the abstract, few of us pause to grasp the miracles of modern life, from artificial light to air conditioning, as Steven Johnson puts it in the excellent How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library), “how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera.” Understanding how these everyday marvels first came to be, then came to be taken for granted, not only allows us to see our familiar world with new eyes — something we are wired not to do — but also lets us appreciate the remarkable creative lineage behind even the most mundane of technologies underpinning modern life. Johnson writes in the introduction:

Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place… We are indebted to those people every bit as much as, if not more than, we are to the kings and conquerors and magnates of traditional history.

Johnson points out that, much like the evolution of bees gave flowers their colors and the evolution of pollen altered the design of the hummingbird’s wings, the most remarkable thing about innovations is the way they precipitate unanticipated changes that reverberate far and wide beyond the field or discipline or problem at the epicenter of the particular innovation. Pointing to the Gutenberg press — itself already an example of the combinatorial nature of creative breakthroughs — Johnson writes:

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.

Johnson terms these complex chains of influences the “hummingbird effect,” named after the famous “butterfly effect” concept from chaos theory — Edward Lorenz’s famous metaphor for the idea that a change as imperceptible as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can result in an effect as grand as a hurricane far away several weeks later — but different in a fundamental way:

The extraordinary (and unsettling) property of the butterfly effect is that it involves a virtually unknowable chain of causality; you can’t map the link between the air molecules bouncing around the butterfly and the storm system brewing in the Atlantic. They may be connected, because everything is connected on some level, but it is beyond our capacity to parse those connections or, even harder, to predict them in advance. But something very different is at work with the flower and the hummingbird: while they are very different organisms, with very different needs and aptitudes, not to mention basic biological systems, the flower clearly influences the hummingbird’s physiognomy in direct, intelligible ways.

Under the “hummingbird effect,” an innovation in one field can trigger unexpected breakthroughs in wholly different domains, but the traces of those original influences often remain obscured. Illuminating them allows us to grasp the many dimensions of change, its complex and often unintended consequences, the multiple scales of experience that have always defined human history and, perhaps above all, to lend much-needed dimension to the flat myth of genius. Playing off the sentiment at the heart of Richard Feynman’s famous ode to a flower, Johnson writes:

History happens on the level of atoms, the level of planetary climate change, and all the levels in between. If we are trying to get the story right, we need an interpretative approach that can do justice to all those different levels.

[…]

There is something undeniably appealing about the story of a great inventor or scientist — Galileo and his telescope, for instance — working his or her way toward a transformative idea. But there is another, deeper story that can be told as well: how the ability to make lenses also depended on the unique quantum mechanical properties of silicon dioxide and on the fall of Constantinople. Telling the story from that long-zoom perspective doesn’t subtract from the traditional account focused on Galileo’s genius. It only adds.

Nundinal calendar, Rome. The ancient Etruscans developed an eight-day market week, known as the nundinal cycle, around the eighth or seventh century BC.

In fact, of the six such widely reverberating innovations that Johnson highlights, the one sparked by Galileo is the most fascinating because it captures so many dimensions of our eternal and eternally bedeviled relationship with time — our astoundingly elastic perception of it, the way it dictates our internal rhythms and our creative routines, its role in free will, and much more. Johnson tells an absorbing origin story the way only he can:

Legend has it that in 1583, a nineteen-year-old student at the University of Pisa attended prayers at the cathedral and, while daydreaming in the pews, noticed one of the altar lamps swaying back and forth. While his companions dutifully recited the Nicene Creed around him, the student became almost hypnotized by the lamp’s regular motion. No matter how large the arc, the lamp appeared to take the same amount of time to swing back and forth. As the arc decreased in length, the speed of the lamp decreased as well. To confirm his observations, the student measured the lamp’s swing against the only reliable clock he could find: his own pulse.

The swinging altar lamp inside Duomo of Pisa

That teenager, of course, was Galileo. Johnson explains the significance of that mythic moment:

That Galileo was daydreaming about time and rhythm shouldn’t surprise us: his father was a music theorist and played the lute. In the middle of the sixteenth century, playing music would have been one of the most temporally precise activities in everyday culture. (The musical term “tempo” comes from the Italian word for time.) But machines that could keep a reliable beat didn’t exist in Galileo’s age; the metronome wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries. So watching the altar lamp sway back and forth with such regularity planted the seed of an idea in Galileo’s young mind. As is so often the case, however, it would take decades before the seed would blossom into something useful.

‘Portrait of Galileo Galilei’ by Justus Sustermans, 1636

Indeed, Galileo’s mass experience stands as a spectacular testament to the usefulness of useless knowledge. Over the next two decades, he busied himself with becoming a professor of mathematics, tinkering with telescopes, and, as Johnson aptly puts it, “more or less inventing modern science” (and withstanding the pushback). And yet he kept the image of that swinging altar lamp on the back-burner of his mind. Eventually, as he grew increasingly enchanted with motion and dynamics, he decided to build a pendulum that would simulate what he had observed that distant day at the cathedral. His discovery confirmed his intuition — what determined the time it took the pendulum to swing wasn’t the size of the arc or the weight of the object, but merely the length of the string. Johnson cites Galileo’s excited letter to his peer Giovanni Battista Baliani:

The marvelous property of the pendulum is that it makes all its vibrations, large or small, in equal times.

Galileo’s sketches for the pendulum clock

In our present age of productivity, when our entire lives depend on accurate timekeeping — from our daily routines to our conference calls to financial markets and flights — it’s hard to imagine just how groundbreaking and downright miraculous the concept of measuring time accurately was in 16th-century Italy. And yet that’s precisely what it was — Italian towns then, Johnson points out, had clunky mechanical clocks that reflected a loose estimation of time, often losing twenty minutes a day, and had to be constantly corrected by sundial readings. Johnson writes:

The state of the art in timekeeping technology was challenged by just staying accurate on the scale of days. The idea of a timepiece that might be accurate to the second was preposterous.

Preposterous, and seemingly unnecessary. Just like Frederic Tudor’s ice trade, it was an innovation that had no natural market. You couldn’t keep accurate time in the middle of the sixteenth century, but no one really noticed, because there was no need for split-second accuracy. There were no buses to catch, or TV shows to watch, or conference calls to join. If you knew roughly what hour of the day it was, you could get by just fine.

Discus chronologicus, early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time. (Click image for details)

This is where the wings of the hummingbird begin to flutter: The real tipping point in accuracy, Johnson points out in a twist, “would emerge not from the calendar but from the map” — which makes sense given our long history of using cartography to measure time. He explains:

This was the first great age of global navigation, after all. Inspired by Columbus, ships were sailing to the Far East and the newly discovered Americas, with vast fortunes awaiting those who navigated the oceans successfully. (And almost certain death awaiting those who got lost.) But sailors lacked any way to determine longitude at sea. Latitude you could gauge just by looking up at the sky. But before modern navigation technology, the only way to figure out a ship’s longitude involved two clocks. One clock was set to the exact time of your origin point (assuming you knew the longitude of that location). The other clock recorded the current time at your location at sea. The difference between the two times told you your longitudinal position: every four minutes of difference translated to one degree of longitude, or sixty-eight miles at the equator.

In clear weather, you could easily reset the ship clock through accurate readings of the sun’s position. The problem was the home-port clock. With timekeeping technology losing or gaining up to twenty minutes a day, it was practically useless on day two of the journey.

This was an era when European royalty offered handsome bounties for specific innovations — the then-version of venture capital — incentivizing such scientific breakthroughs as Maria Mitchell’s comet discoveries and Johannes Hevelius’s star catalog. As the need to solve the navigation problem grew in urgency, the rewards offered for a solution grew in magnitude — and this was what resurfaced Galileo’s teenage vision for “equal time” all those years later. Johnson describes Galileo’s journey as a superb example of the “slow churn” of creativity, the value of cross-pollinating disciplines, and the importance of playing “the long game”:

[Galileo’s] astronomical observations had suggested that the regular eclipses of Jupiter’s moons might be useful for navigators keeping time at sea, but the method he devised was too complicated (and not as accurate as he had hoped). And so he returned, one last time, to the pendulum.

Fifty-eight years in the making, his slow hunch about the pendulum’s “magical property” had finally begun to take shape. The idea lay at the intersection point of multiple disciplines and interests: Galileo’s memory of the altar lamp, his studies of motion and the moons of Jupiter, the rise of a global shipping industry, and its new demand for clocks that would be accurate to the second. Physics, astronomy, maritime navigation, and the daydreams of a college student: all these different strains converged in Galileo’s mind. Aided by his son, he began drawing up plans for the first pendulum clock.

There is something so poetic about Galileo inventing split-second time for the public on a private scale of decades.

Over the century that followed, the pendulum clock, a hundred times more accurate than any preceding technology, became a staple of European life and forever changed our relationship with time. But the hummingbird’s wings continued to flap — accurate timekeeping became the imperceptible heartbeat beneath all technology of the Industrial Revolution, from scheduling the division of labor in factories to keeping steam-powered locomotives running on time. It was the invisible hand of the clock that first moved the market — a move toward unanticipated innovations in other fields. Without clocks, Johnson argues, the Industrial Revolution may have never taken off — or “at the very least, have taken much longer to reach escape velocity.” He explains:

Accurate clocks, thanks to their unrivaled ability to determine longitude at sea, greatly reduced the risks of global shipping networks, which gave the first industrialists a constant supply of raw materials and access to overseas markets. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the most reliable watches in the world were manufactured in England, which created a pool of expertise with fine-tool manufacture that would prove to be incredibly handy when the demands of industrial innovation arrived, just as the glassmaking expertise producing spectacles opened the door for telescopes and microscopes. The watchmakers were the advance guard of what would become industrial engineering.

But the most radical innovation of clock time was the emergence of the new working day. Up until that point, people divided their days not into modular abstract units — after all, what is an hour? — but into a fluid series of activities:

Instead of fifteen minutes, time was described as how long it would take to milk the cow or nail soles to a new pair of shoes. Instead of being paid by the hour, craftsmen were conventionally paid by the piece produced — what was commonly called “taken-work” — and their daily schedules were almost comically unregulated.

Rather, they were self-regulated by shifting factors like the worker’s health or mood, the weather, and the available daylight during that particular season. The emergence of factories demanded a reliable, predictable industrial workforce, which in turn called for fundamentally reframing the human perception of time. In one particularly pause-giving parenthetical aside, Johnson writes:

The lovely double entendre of “punching the clock” would have been meaningless to anyone born before 1700.

Workers punching the time clock at the Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company

And yet, as with most innovations, the industrialization of time came with a dark side — one Bertrand Russell so eloquently lamented in the 1920s when he asked: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” Johnson writes:

The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid. When you spend your whole life inside that grid, it seems like second nature, but when you are experiencing it for the first time, as the laborers of industrial England did in the second half of the eighteenth century, it arrives as a shock to the system. Timepieces were not just tools to help you coordinate the day’s events, but something more ominous: the “deadly statistical clock,” in Dickens’s Hard Times, “which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”

[…]

To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life… The time discipline of the pendulum clock took the informal flow of experience and nailed it to a mathematical grid. If time is a river, the pendulum clock turned it into a canal of evenly spaced locks, engineered for the rhythms of industry.

Johnson goes on to trace the hummingbird flutterings to the emergence of pocket watches, the democratization of time through the implementation of Standard Time, and the invention of the first quartz clock in 1928, which boasted the unprecedented accuracy of losing or gaining only one thousandth of a second per day. He observes the most notable feature of these leaps and bounds:

One of the strangest properties of the measurement of time is that it doesn’t belong neatly to a single scientific discipline. In fact, each leap forward in our ability to measure time has involved a handoff from one discipline to another. The shift from sundials to pendulum clocks relied on a shift from astronomy to dynamics, the physics of motion. The next revolution in time would depend on electromechanics. With each revolution, though, the general pattern remained the same: scientists discover some natural phenomenon that displays the propensity for keeping “equal time” that Galileo had observed in the altar lamps, and before long a wave of inventors and engineers begin using that new tempo to synchronize their devices.

But the most groundbreaking effect of the quartz clock — the most unpredictable manifestation of the hummingbird effect in the story of time — was that it gave rise to modern computing and the Information Age. Johnson writes:

Computer chips are masters of time discipline… Instead of thousands of operations per minute, the microprocessor is executing billions of calculations per second, while shuffling information in and out of other microchips on the circuit board. Those operations are all coordinated by a master clock, now almost without exception made of quartz… A modern computer is the assemblage of many different technologies and modes of knowledge: the symbolic logic of programming languages, the electrical engineering of the circuit board, the visual language of interface design. But without the microsecond accuracy of a quartz clock, modern computers would be useless.

Theodor Nelson’s pioneering 1974 book ‘Computer Lib | Dream Machines,’ an exploration of the creative potential of computer networks, from ‘100 Ideas that Changed the Web’ (Click image for more)

But as is often the case given the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” by which science progresses, new frontiers of knowledge only exposed what is yet to be reached. With the invention of the quartz clock also came the realization that the length of the day wasn’t as reliable as previously thought and the earth’s rotation wasn’t the most accurate tool for reaching Galileo’s measurement ideal of “equal time.” As Johnson puts it, “quartz let us ‘see’ that the seemingly equal times of a solar day weren’t nearly as equal as we had assumed” — the fact that a block of vibrating sand did a better job of keeping time than the sun and the earth, celebrated for centuries as the ultimate timekeepers, became the ultimate “deathblow to the pre-Copernican universe.”

What accurate timekeeping needed, ever since Galileo’s contemplation of the pendulum, was something that oscillated in the most consistent rhythm possible — and that’s what Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s discovery of the atom in the beginning of the twentieth century finally provided. With its rhythmically spinning electrons, the smallest chemical unit became the greatest and most consistent oscillator ever known. When the first atomic clocks were built in the 1950s, they introduced a groundbreaking standard of accuracy, measuring time down to the nanosecond, thousandfold better than the quartz clock’s microseconds.

Half a century later, this unprecedented precision is something we’ve come to take for granted — and yet it continues to underpin our lives with a layer of imperceptible magic. In one example, Johnson brings us full-circle to the relationship between timekeeping and map navigation where Galileo began:

Every time you glance down at your smartphone to check your location, you are unwittingly consulting a network of twenty-four atomic clocks housed in satellites in low-earth orbit above you. Those satellites are sending out the most elemental of signals, again and again, in perpetuity: the time is 11:48:25.084738 . . . the time is 11:48:25.084739. . . . When your phone tries to figure out its location, it pulls down at least three of these time stamps from satellites, each reporting a slightly different time thanks to the duration it takes the signal to travel from satellite to the GPS receiver in your hand. A satellite reporting a later time is closer than one reporting an earlier time. Since the satellites have perfectly predictable locations, the phone can calculate its exact position by triangulating among the three different time stamps. Like the naval navigators of the eighteenth century, GPS determines your location by comparing clocks. This is in fact one of the recurring stories of the history of the clock: each new advance in timekeeping enables a corresponding advance in our mastery of geography — from ships, to railroads, to air traffic, to GPS. It’s an idea that Einstein would have appreciated: measuring time turns out to be key to measuring space.

Therein lies the remarkable power and reach of the hummingbird effect, which Johnson condenses into an elegant concluding reflection:

Embedded in your ability to tell the time is the understanding of how electrons circulate within cesium atoms; the knowledge of how to send microwave signals from satellites and how to measure the exact speed with which they travel; the ability to position satellites in reliable orbits above the earth, and of course the actual rocket science needed to get them off the ground; the ability to trigger steady vibrations in a block of silicon dioxide — not to mention all the advances in computation and microelectronics and network science necessary to process and represent that information on your phone. You don’t need to know any of these things to tell the time now, but that’s the way progress works: the more we build up these vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them. Your mind is silently assisted by all that knowledge each time you check your phone to see what time it is, but the knowledge itself is hidden from view. That is a great convenience, of course, but it can obscure just how far we’ve come since Galileo’s altar-lamp daydreams in the Duomo of Pisa.

But perhaps the strangest thing about time is how each leap of innovation further polarized the scales on which it played out. As in the case of Galileo, who took six decades to master the minute, the same breakthroughs that gave atomic time its trailblazing accuracy also gave us radiation and radiometric dating, which was essential in debunking the biblical myth and proving that earth’s age was in the billions, not thousands, of years.

5,068-year-old bristlecone pine from Rachel Sussman’s ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ (Click image for more)

Pointing to the Long Now Foundation’s quest to bury a clock that ticks once every 10,000 years beneath some of the oldest living pines in the world — an effort to extract us from the toxic grip of short-termism and, in the words of Long Now founder Kevin Kelly, nudge us to think about “generational-scale questions and projects” — Johnson ends with a wonderfully poetic reflection:

This is the strange paradox of time in the atomic age: we live in ever shorter increments, guided by clocks that tick invisibly with immaculate precision; we have short attention spans and have surrendered our natural rhythms to the abstract grid of clock time. And yet simultaneously, we have the capacity to imagine and record histories that are thousands or millions of years old, to trace chains of cause and effect that span dozens of generations. We can wonder what time it is and glance down at our phone and get an answer that is accurate to the split-second, but we can also appreciate that the answer was, in a sense, five hundred years in the making: from Galileo’s altar lamp to Niels Bohr’s cesium, from the chronometer to Sputnik. Compared to an ordinary human being from Galileo’s age, our time horizons have expanded in both directions: from the microsecond to the millennium.

In the remainder of How We Got to Now, a remarkable and perspective-shifting masterwork in its entirety, Johnson goes on to examine with equal dimension and rigor the workings of the hummingbird effect through the invention and evolution of such concepts as sound, light, glass, sanitation, and cooling.

For more on the mysteries of time, see these seven revelatory perspectives for a variety of fields, then revisit the curious psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

BP

How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time

“We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.”

If the odds of finding one’s soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.

A friend recently relayed an illustrative anecdote: One evening during a short retreat in Mexico by herself, she entered the local restaurant and asked to be seated. Upon realizing she was to dine alone, the waitstaff escorted her to the back with a blend of puzzlement and pity, so as not to dilute the resort’s carefully engineered illusory landscape of coupled bliss. (It’s worth noting that this unsettling incident, which is as much about the stigma of being single as about the profound failure to honor the art of being alone, is one women are still far more likely to confront than men; some live to tell about it.)

Photograph by Maria Popova

Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgement and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.

That paradox is what British author Sara Maitland explores in How to Be Alone (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s thoughtful crusade to reclaim the traditional self-help genre in a series of intelligent, non-self-helpy yet immeasurably helpful guides to such aspects of modern living as finding fulfilling work, cultivating a healthier relationship with sex, worrying less about money, and staying sane.

While Maitland lives in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, where the nearest supermarket is more than twenty miles away and there is no cell service (pause on that for a moment), she wasn’t always a loner — she grew up in a big, close-knit family as one of six children. It was only when she became transfixed by the notion of silence, the subject of her previous book, that she arrived, obliquely, at solitude. She writes:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for more.

Maitland’s interest in solitude, however, is somewhat different from that in silence — while private in its origin, it springs from a public-facing concern about the need to address “a serious social and psychological problem around solitude,” a desire to “allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude.” And so she does, posing the central, “slippery” question of this predicament:

Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.

[…]

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

[…]

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

[…]

We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. By being intimate with our own inner life — that frightening and often foreign landscape that philosopher Martha Nussbaum so eloquently urged us to explore despite our fear — frees us to reach greater, more dimensional intimacy with others. Maitland writes:

Nothing is more destructive of warm relations than the person who endlessly “doesn’t mind.” They do not seem to be a full individual if they have nothing of their own to “bring to the table,” so to speak. This suggests that even those who know that they are best and most fully themselves in relationships (of whatever kind) need a capacity to be alone, and probably at least some occasions to use that ability. If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.

And yet the value of aloneness has descended into a downward spiral of social judgment over the course of humanity. Citing the rise of “male spinsters” in the U.S. census — men over forty who never married, up from 6% in 1980 to 16% today — Maitland traces the odd cultural distortion of the concept itself:

In the Middle Ages the word “spinster” was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient — it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear “for” such women — and now men as well — who are probably “sociopaths.”

This fairly modern attitude, which casts voluntary aloneness as a toxic trifecta of “sad, mad, and bad” — is reinforced via rather dogmatic circular logic that doesn’t afford those who choose solitude the basic dignity of their own choice. Reflecting on the prevalent response of pity — triggered by the “sad” portion of the dogma — Maitland plays out the exasperating impossibility of refuting such social assumptions:

If you say, “Well, no actually; I am very happy,” the denial is held to prove the case. Recently someone trying to condole with me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy, “You may think you are.” But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it — I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth. My happiness cannot, by the very nature of happiness, be something I think I feel but don’t really feel. There is no possible response that does not descend almost immediately to the school-playground level of “Did, didn’t; did, didn’t.”

Underlying these attitudes, Maitland argues, is the central driver of fear — fear of those radically different from us, who make choices we don’t necessarily understand. This drives us, in turn, to project our fright onto others, often in the form of anger — a manifestation, at once sad, mad, and bad, of Anaïs Nin’s memorable observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from ‘The Lion and the Bird.’ Click image for more.

These persistently reinforced social fears, she notes, have chilling consequences:

If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish there is bound to come a grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply “alone.”

(This crucial difference between aloneness and loneliness, in fact, is not only central to our psychological unease but also enacted even in our bodies — while solitude may be essential for creativity and key to the mythology of genius, loneliness, scientists have found, has deadly physical consequences on our risk for everything from heart disease to dementia.)

Paradoxically, Maitland points out, many of our most celebrated cultural icons had solitude embedded in their lifestyle and spirit, from great explorers and adventurers to famous “geniuses.” She cites the great silent film actor Greta Garbo, a famous loner, as a particularly poignant example:

Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated… In retirement she adopted a lifestyle of both simplicity and leisure, sometimes just ‘drifting’. But she always had close friends with whom she socialized and travelled. She did not marry but did have serious love affairs with both men and women. She collected art. She walked, alone and with companions, especially in New York. She was a skillful paparazzi-avoider. Since she chose to retire, and for the rest of her life consistently declined opportunities to make further films, it is reasonable to suppose that she was content with that choice.

It is in fact evident that a great many people, for many different reasons, throughout history and across cultures, have sought out solitude to the extent that Garbo did, and after experiencing that lifestyle for a while continue to uphold their choices, even when they have perfectly good opportunities to live more social lives.

So how did our present attitudes toward solitude emerge? Maitland argues that our lamentable refusal to afford those who choose aloneness “the normal tolerance of difference on which we pride ourselves elsewhere” is the result of a “very deep cultural confusion”:

For two millennia, at least, we have been trying to live with two radically contrasting and opposed models of what the good life would or should be. Culturally, there is a slightly slick tendency to blame all our woes, and especially our social difficulties, either on a crude social Darwinism or on an ill-defined package called the “Judaeo-Christian paradigm” or “tradition.” Apparently this is why, among other things, we have so much difficulty with sex (both other people’s and our own); why women remain unequal; why we are committed to world domination and ecological destruction; and why we are not as perfectly happy as we deserve. I, for one, do not believe this — but I do believe that we suffer from trying to hold together the values of Judaeo-Christianity (inasmuch as we understand them) and the values of classical civilization, and they really do not fit.

She traces the evolution of that confusion all the way back to the Roman Empire, with its ideals of public and social life. Even the word “civilization” bespeaks these values — it comes from civis, Latin for “citizen.” (Though it warrants noting that one of the greatest and most enduring Roman exports issued the memorable admonition that “all those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.”) Still, the Romans were notorious for their lust for power, honor, and glory — ideals invariably social in nature and crucial to the political cohesion of society when confronted with the barbarians at the gate. Maitland writes:

In these circumstances solitude is threatening — without a common and embedded religious faith to give shared meaning to the choice, being alone is a challenge to the security of those clinging desperately to a sinking raft. People who pull out and “go solo” are exposing the danger while apparently escaping the engagement.

Maitland fast-forwards to our present predicament, the product of millennia of cultural baggage:

No wonder we are frightened of those who desire and aspire to be alone, if only a little more than has been acceptable in recent social forms. No wonder we want to establish solitude as “sad, mad and bad” — consciously or unconsciously, those of us who want to do something so markedly countercultural are exposing, and even widening, the rift lines.

But the truth is, the present paradigm is not really working. Despite the intense care and attention lavished on the individual ego; despite over a century of trying to “raise self-esteem” in the peculiar belief that it will simultaneously enhance individuality and create good citizens; despite valiant attempts to consolidate relationships and lower inhibitions; despite intimidating efforts to dragoon the more independent-minded and creative to become “team players”; despite the promises of personal freedom made to us by neoliberalism and the cult of individualism and rights — despite all this, the well seems to be running dry. We are living in a society marked by unhappy children, alienated youth, politically disengaged adults, stultifying consumerism, escalating inequality, deeply scary wobbles in the whole economic system, soaring rates of mental ill-health and a planet so damaged that we may well end up destroying the whole enterprise.

Of course we also live in a world of great beauty, sacrificial and passionate love, tenderness, prosperity, courage and joy. But quite a lot of all that seems to happen regardless of the paradigm and the high thoughts of philosophy. It has always happened. It is precisely because it has always happened that we go on wrestling with these issues in the hope that it can happen more often and for more people.

And wrestle we do, often trying to grasp and cling our way out of solitude — a state we don’t fully understand and can’t fully inhabit to reap its rewards. Our two most common tactics for shielding against solitude, Maitland notes, are the offensive fear-and-projection strategy, where we criticize those capable of finding joy in solitude and condemn them to the sad-mad-bad paradigm, and the defensive approach, where we attempt to insulate ourselves from the risk of aloneness by obsessively accumulating a vast network of social ties as a kind of “insurance policy.” In one of her most quietly poignant asides, Maitland whispers:

There is no number of friends on Facebook, contacts, connections or financial provision that can guarantee to protect us.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Our cultural ambivalence is also manifested in our chronic bias for extraversion despite growing evidence for the power of introverts. Maitland writes:

At the same time as pursuing this “extrovert ideal,” society gives out an opposite — though more subterranean — message. Most people would still rather be described as sensitive, spiritual, reflective, having rich inner lives and being good listeners than the more extroverted opposites. I think we still admire the life of the intellectual over that of the salesman; of the composer over the performer (which is why pop stars constantly stress that they write their own songs); of the craftsman over the politician; of the solo adventurer over the package tourist… But the kind of unexamined but mixed messages that society offers us in relation to being alone add to the confusion; and confusion strengthens fear.

Among Maitland’s toolkit of “ideas for overturning negative views of solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and a true capacity to enjoy it” are the exploration of reverie and the practice of facing the fear. She enumerates the five basic categories of rewards to be reaped from unlearning our culturally conditioned fear of aloneness and learning how to “do” solitude well:

  1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
  2. A deeper attunement to nature
  3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
  4. Increased creativity
  5. An increased sense of freedom

In the remainder of How to Be Alone, Maitland goes on to offer a series of “exercises” along each of these five directions of aspiration — psychological strategies for retuning our relationship with solitude.

Complement the book with other excellent installments in The School of Life’s series, including Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, John Armstrong’s How to Worry Less About Money, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work.

BP

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading, and How Art Creates a Sanctified Space for the Human Spirit

“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

In September of 1994, beloved British writer Jeanette Winterson joined Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel on the air for a spectacular conversation, later published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the fantastic collection that also gave us Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.

Winterson — who was raised in a church and began writing sermons at age six with the intent of becoming a missionary, only to leave home at age fifteen after falling in love with another girl — reflects on what the preacher’s technique has in common with the artist. (After all, if the commencement address is the modern secular sermon of our time, it’s no wonder that the genre’s greatest exemplars are delivered overwhelmingly by celebrated writers.) She considers what evangelizing can teach a writer about compelling storytelling:

Of course it was extremely useful training to be brought up in an environment where you must attract other people to your way of thinking, you must win them over; it’s the art of persuasion, it’s rhetoric in the old-fashioned sense. I learned how to handle language and the spoken word and the written word, and I learned how to persuade. That’s what preachers do, that’s what preachers are, and the most successful preachers are the ones who are able to convince their audience that the audience themselves have got it wrong and the preacher’s got it right. And the artist tries to do this too—there are close parallels — except the artist does it in its own right, for its own sake, not for some higher purpose, not for God. You can see from the look on somebody’s face whether or not you’re persuading, and that does translate itself to the way you then write. It’s not that you have an audience in mind, it’s simply that you can imagine what will perhaps tilt the balance in your favor, how to get underneath the barriers and the defenses which people normally put up to protect themselves from intrusion.

Jeanette Winterson

Contemplating her greatest learning from the Bible, Winterson complements Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the glory of language by considering the liberating power of words:

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

Illustration by Sydney Pink. Click image for details.

When Wachtel points out Winterson’s signature sensitivity to “the artifice of language and its limitations,” the writer responds:

Yes, it is artificial, but it is, as yet, the best way human beings have found to communicate to one another their deepest, their most difficult, feelings. And that is the preserve of poetry and of true fiction, to put roots down through the surface into the subsoil of the human heart and to draw up those elements that would otherwise lie locked there, unheard, unspoken, perhaps unregarded. Language can do that, and I think that it is the duty of the writer to go on pushing language forward because if it’s not developing, if it’s not growing, if people aren’t using it in unique and different ways while at the same time regarding its tradition, then that language is going to start atrophying.

For Winterson, indeed, the artist has a moral obligation to this forward-facing elasticity of form. Echoing Henry Miller’s memorable assertion that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” she adds:

Art forms must always change… You cannot stop in art, you cannot fossilize art in a redundant form, and you cannot take a point in history and favor it above any other point and say, ah yes, this is the way to do it. If you want to read nineteenth-century novels, there are plenty for you to read, and you may as well read the real thing and not go out and buy a reproduction. Personally, I loathe reproduction furniture; I’d rather have something made by a living designer, just as I’d rather have something made by a writer now who, whilst recognizing patterns and traditions, is prepared to go on pushing the experiment forward.

Winterson argues that ordinary readers are much more receptive to the type of experimentation that pushes art forward than professional critics can be:

Readers, I think, are more sophisticated on the whole than critics. They can make the jumps, they can make imaginative leaps. If your structure is firm and solid enough, however strange, however unusual, they will be able to follow it. They will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, the right handholds. That’s what I want my readers to do: I want them to come with me when we’re going mountain-climbing. This isn’t a walk through a theme park. This is some dangerous place that neither of us has been before, and I hope that by traveling there first, I can encourage the reader to come with me and that we will make the trip again together, and safely.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

One of Winterson’s most pause-giving points transcends the realm of art and touches on cosmology and philosophy. Reflecting on her intense use of history in fiction, Winterson reminds us that time is an abstraction that both contains and responds to our experiences, and examines the relativity of “reality”:

I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock.

Responding to a line from her novel Art & Lies that Wachtel cites — “The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world, but a world in itself.” — Winterson expounds on the limitations of time and, in the process, shines a beautiful sidewise gleam on what all great art does for the human experience:

Art & Lies is a journey into deep inner space, and the characters in the book are not characters in the physical sense that we know them on the street or perhaps even in our own lives. They are consciousnesses. They are ways of talking about ourselves, writ large, as we might be, more than we are. I know that the world of Art & Lies is a strange one, but it is a deeply emotional one and it is one which probes and peels away at the complacencies and habits that we take for granted and drag behind us as so much baggage in our lives. The worlds that I create are always worlds where it’s possible to find new space, not to be cluttered any more, to leave behind things which perhaps drag you down, things that you don’t need. In the book there is this freedom from gravity that we’ve been talking about. It is a sanctified space. And when you come out of it, what you do is up to you; but for a while it puts away the clutter and the jangle of modern life and gives time, infinite time. It may take four hours to read the book but actually it takes an entire life. The journey that you make is not one of the clock: it’s an interior one, and in it you travel through time, through space, through place.

To Wachtel’s question of “why sanctified space,” Winterson answers:

Because it’s a space that has been cleansed of other associations. It is itself, it’s coherent, it’s self-realized, it exists in its own right. Every work of art must be that; it must be a closed world. That is, you must be able to enter it and find it coherent and orderly, and be able to return to it to discover things you hadn’t found at first. But there is something cathedral-like about it: it’s a place where you can rest, contemplate, refuel and go out again knowing that it remains there for you. All art presents a sanctified space.

And in order to be able to craft this sanctified space, Winterson argues, the artist must come at it from a place of love. Echoing Ray Bradbury’s spirited defense of the right motives and Bukowski’s poetic homage to the only reason to write, she tells Wachtel:

If I wasn’t in love with language, what right have I to be here talking to you? What right have I to put pen to paper? It’s more than a job: it’s a life, it’s a vocation, it’s everything to me, and I must fulfill myself in that way and by fulfilling myself, I hope that I can give the best possible work to my readers.

But for a writer to do this wholeheartedly, Winterson — whose habit of reading five hours a day is rivaled only by Susan Sontag’s — argues for the essential, systematic immersion in language:

Unless I have a thorough soaking in all writers who have written in English then I cannot call myself an English writer. It’s a fantastic language, and to be ignorant of it as a writer is a sin that must exact the ultimate penalty, I think. If hell exists, that’s why one would go there, for calling oneself a writer and not knowing anything about English literature.

Illustration from ‘Henry Builds a Cabin,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

Winterson returns to the role of art in human life and society — something she has since explored beautifully in a short essay — and adds to history’s most memorable reflections on art:

Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself. It gives you a kind of self-reliance. We all feel powerless and we can’t really manage to do anything because there’s just so much. I want to try and cut through those feelings of apathy and powerlessness and be a kind of rallying point, offer a rallying cry, to people who would otherwise feel dispossessed.

Wachtel, an elegant interviewer, springboards this into the grand question of how to live — perhaps the only common denominator between everything I read and write about here on Brain Pickings — to which Winterson answers with equal elegance:

It’s an individual answer, and it’s certainly not an answer that can be got easily. It’s the answer of a lifetime. It seems to me to be the work that we are here to do, to answer that question — first of all in our own lives and then as a community… But I do think [the question] has to be asked, and if people then begin to ponder on it and ask it of themselves, then that is a good thing. I do believe that when you start asking these questions, you find the answers that you need, if you’ll put in the effort, even if it takes a lifetime.

But the answer art gives us is that of many lifetimes. Winterson speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that, as Mark Twain once bluntly put it, everything is a combination of second-hand ideas, that art builds on what came before, that to create is to uncover existing relationships. Winterson reflects on the very origin of the word “invent,” which originally meant “to come upon” rather than to “devise” or “fabricate” out of nothing:

It’s from the Latin invenire, which means to come upon. This takes us back to Plato’s idea that we are in a continual state of remembering, that the human life span is to remember, to remember the things that we are, that we can be, that we’ve left behind — to remember the glories of the soul, as Plato would have seen it.

[…]

[For the artist] it is a question of always going back and uncovering what is already there because the artist is something of a dredger: you have to let down your net and pull up things from the mud, from the silt, that are unrecognizable, that have been forgotten, that have lain disused and ignored for a long time. You bring them up and you clean them off and you look at them and you bring them back into the present where they can speak, where they have a place. I think it’s a dual role of dredging and of cleaning, but then also of re-creating so that you are always offering something that is right for your own time, that is new in itself.

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Lisbeth Zwerger from Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, Winterson returns to art’s function as psychoemotional therapy, its power in fortifying our psyche:

To learn how to heal yourself seems to me to be the most important thing that you can do because at that moment you are genuinely self-reliant, and if other people hurt you — as they will — it won’t matter because you have now in your own hands the tools of healing.

[…]

I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honorable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn’t believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.

More Writers & Company, a sequel to Wachtel’s first compendium of interviews, is a superb read in its totality, featuring conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

Complement this one with Winterson on adoption, belonging, and how we use storytelling to save ourselves and the value of art to the human spirit.

BP

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