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Lorraine Hansberry, the Love of Freedom, and the Freedom of Love

“Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today.”

Lorraine Hansberry, the Love of Freedom, and the Freedom of Love

“A small, shy, determined person, with that strength dictated by absolutely impersonal ambition: she was not trying to ‘make it’ — she was trying to keep the faith,” James Baldwin wrote of Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965), whom he had met when she fiercely defended him as critics savaged a theatrical production of his novel Giovanni’s Room a year before she herself transformed theater and the cultural vocabulary of civil rights with A Raisin in the Sun — the first play by a black woman to be performed on Broadway, a play so quietly revolutionary that it incited an FBI report and so visionary that it replenished the faith of generations to come. She soon become Baldwin’s dear friend, his “Sweet Lorraine.” Nina Simone, one of her most intimate friends, honored her in the anthem “Young, Gifted and Black” — words drawn directly from a speech Hansberry had given to a group of young writers. W.E.B. Du Bois cherished her as his favorite student. Upon her untimely death at only 34, her model and mentor Langston Hughes — from whose verse Hansberry had borrowed the title of her revolutionary play — wrote in a poem dedicated to her: “In time of silver rain, / The earth puts forward new life again.”

In the decades since, Hansberry’s legacy has showered its life-giving rain upon the civic and spiritual soil in which freedom, redemption, and justice are grown. She has become a black icon, a queer icon, a feminist icon, an icon of artistic integrity, whose body of work emanates Auden’s belief that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act” and Achebe’s insistence that “those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’… are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Hansberry dared to upset the system — radically, rapturously, in ways that continue to ripple through our culture with the tidal force of rare genius.

Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

That genius, epoch-making yet underappreciated today, comes alive in Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library) by cultural historian Imani Perry. A biographer of uncommonly poetic scholarship, Perry writes in the introduction:

Time insists in a multitude of forms. The urgency of her time and its particularities must be understood within the deep sense of possibility that she maintained, a sense that characterizes youth in general and in particular those for whom justice seeking is their life work. We are running out of time, the earth is ravaged, our bodies are indefinite; Lorraine reminds us to make use of each moment.

[…]

Ahead of her time, Lorraine’s witness and wisdom help us understand the world, its problems and its possibilities. In her lonely reckonings, her impassioned reaching for justice, and the seriousness of her craft, she teaches us how to more ethically, more lovingly, witness one another today. There is something quieter but no less important too. In these pages I want to catch a likeness of her to give the reader a sense of the sweet and intimate parts of her: what made her smile and raised her ire, what drove her passions and how she loved.

In her early twenties, Hansberry had the great good fortune of studying with W.E.B. Du Bois, who became her most beloved intellectual mentor. In a lovely prose poem of sorts, scribbled in her class notebook, she limned “his back against the sunlight of May afternoons… full and confident in his vast knowledge and his splendid sense of interpretation of history.” Admiring his perfectly measured voice and his intelligent wit, she wrote: “Freedom’s passion, refined and organized, sits there.” Under his generous guidance, she read even more passionately and critically than she was already apt to, maturing both as an artist and an activist, training herself to transcend youth’s solipsistic tendency toward cultural and historical myopia. In another notebook, she wrote down words of Du Bois’s that would become a sort of philosophical mantra and creative pillar for her own work:

Somehow you have got to know more than what you experience individually.

And yet, like every artist, Hansberry made the personal the raw material for the political and the wellspring of the universal. (Audre Lorde, who greatly admired her, captured this artistic inevitability perfectly a few years after Hansberry’s death: “The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”) On the first day of April in 1960, in the final weeks of her twenties, Hansberry divided a page of her daybook into two columns and filled them out in the like-and-dislike list tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag:

I LIKE

Mahalia Jackson’s music
My husband — most of the time
dressed up
being admired for my looks
Dorothy Secules eyes
Dorothy Secules
Shakespeare
Having an appetite
Slacks
My homosexuality
Being alone
Eartha Kitt’s looks
Eartha Kitt
That first drink of Scotch
To feel like working
The little boy in “400 Blows”
The way I look
Certain flowers
The way Dorothy Talks
Older Women
Miranda D’Corona’s accent
Charming women
And/or intelligent women

I HATE

Being asked to speak
Speaking getting
Too much mail
My loneliness
My homosexuality
Stupidity
Most television programs
What has happened to Sidney Poitier
Racism
People who defend it
Seeing my picture
Reading my interviews
Jean Genet’s plays
Jean Paul Sartre’s writing
Not being able to work
Death
Pain Cramps
Being hung over
Silly women
As silly men
David Suskind’s pretensions  
Sneaky love affairs.

It is noteworthy that Hansberry used the word “hate” for the negatives and not its true opposite but the mere “like” for the positives — perhaps because, given her impassioned precision with language, she reserved the word “love” only for what truly warranted it: her work and her relationships. She had no patience for superficiality in either — when she bonded, she bonded deeply, bringing all of herself to the relationship, just as she brought all of herself to her art. Nina Simone — one of her closest bonds — remembered:

We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution — real girls’ talk.

When Simone gave birth to her only daughter, she chose Hansberry as her godmother, who gave the baby a beautiful Tiffany hairbrush. (Although Hansberry loved beautiful objects and beauty itself, in her own life she saw them as a distraction from her primary focus — she had only five dresses and wore no makeup, except for the occasional lipstick accent. “I’m pretty the way I am,” she used to say.) Simone credited Hansberry with awakening her political conscience. “It would take a special kind of friend really to pull me into the ideas of the Black Movement and force me to accept that I had to take politics seriously,” she wrote in her memoir. “That special friend was Lorraine Hansberry.”

Their bond was special in other ways, too — in belonging to that rare, ravishing species of unclassifiable relationship with elements of the platonic, the filial, the romantic, the intellectual, the creative, and the ineffable. Largely unrecorded in their surviving papers and perhaps unrecordable to begin with, it stands as a reminder that no one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. The poet Nikki Giovanni captured the only thing that mattered in Hansberry’s relationship with Simone: “What is important is that she loved her and she was loved in return.”

Lorraine Hansberry, 1959. Photograph by David Attie. (National Portrait Gallery)

Then there was James Baldwin, whose platonic love letter of an essay, “Sweet Lorraine,” opens the posthumous collection of Hansberry’s writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He writes of his chosen title for the piece:

That’s the way I always felt about her, and so I won’t apologize for calling her that now. She understood it: in that far too brief a time when we walked and talked and laughed and drank together, sometimes in the streets and bars and restaurants of the Village, sometimes at her house, gracelessly fleeing the houses of others; and sometimes seeming, for anyone who didn’t know us, to be having a knock-down-drag-out battle. We spent a lot of time arguing about history and tremendously related subjects in her Bleecker Street, and later Waverly Place, flats. And often, just when I was certain that she was about to throw me out as being altogether too rowdy a type, she would stand up, her hands on her hips (for these down-home sessions she always wore slacks), and pick up my empty glass as though she intended to throw it at me. Then she would walk into the kitchen, saying, with a haughty toss of her head, “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child!” With which stern put-down she would hand me another drink and launch into a brilliant analysis of just why I wasn’t “right.” I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face. I loved her, she was my sister and my comrade.

Perry considers the broader significance of the mutual cherishment binding Hansberry, Baldwin, and Simone into a sacred geometry of art and love:

The three of them formed a sort of trinity. Geniuses, they produced enduring work at the cusp of the great social transformations of the mid-twentieth century. All three were, according to early twenty-first-century terminology, queer, though only Jimmy’s sexuality was publicly known.

Cynics have criticized Hansberry for marrying a white man, or for marrying any man at all, given her orientation and her commitment to the civil rights movement. Cynics are people willfully and self-righteously blind to the context of others’ lives — their era, their culture, their inalienable personal predilections and choices; cynics are people who deny others the richness of heart and the complex, layered, tessellated inner life they afford themselves. While Hansberry’s richest romantic relationships were with women — most enduringly, with the shy, blue-eyed, sweet but politically opinionated Dorothy Secules, fifteen years Hansberry’s senior — her husband, the theater producer and writer Robert Nemiroff, became her most trusted intellectual and creative partner, the fiercest champion of her work during her short lifetime, and the person singlehandedly responsible for its posthumous preservation.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from Our World by Mary Oliver.

One of Hansberry’s most intense and transformative relationships was with the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who had recently migrated to New York from California.(Shortly after their relationship came to a close, Cook would find her lifelong soul mate in the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote stunningly about their four decades together. The two met at the Steepletop artist colony housed in the former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay — one of Hansberry’s heroes, both as an artistic intellect and as a queer woman living by her own rules. “Renascence,” the title poem of Millay’s debut poetry collection, had inspired and lent its title to one of Hansberry’s most daring short stories.)

Perry writes:

When they were together, Molly took photographs of Lorraine. These photos are different from all the others and tell a story in and of themselves. In them, Lorraine does not have her race-woman armor on as she usually does. Nor is she posed. She is casual, tomboyish. Her hair is mussed. Her back curved, adolescent, languorous, and playful at once. The light and wonder that we know must have often been in her eyes, because of her wicked humor and deep curiosity, I have seen only Molly capture on camera. The images are a dance of love.

Lorraine Hansberry singing. Photograph by Molly Malone Cook, circa 1957-1958.

Perry surmises — accurately, I believe on the basis of my own long immersion in the poet’s world — that Oliver is writing of Hansberry in this passage from Our World, her adoring memoir of and eulogy for the love of her life, describing Cook’s graciously unnamed previous lover:

In 1958 and 1959 she traveled by car across the country to California, leisurely, through the south and back through the northern states — taking pictures. She had, around this time, an affair that struck deeply, I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad. I have an idea of why the relationship thrived so and yet failed, too private for discussion also too obviously a supposition. Such a happening has and deserves its privacy. I only mean that this love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly but changed. Who doesn’t know that, doesn’t know much.

Perry’s Looking for Lorraine is a superb read in its entirety — a rare triumph of doing justice to a life that compresses into its tragically short span tremendous complexity and a vast spectrum of nuances. Complement it with the remarkable story of Harriet Hosmer — another woman of culture-shifting yet underappreciated genius, who blazed the way for generations of artists and queer people a century before Hansberry, then revisit James Baldwin on “the doom and glory of knowing who you are.”

BP

Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.

In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.

Leo Tolstoy

In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.

Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:

You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme.

In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:

Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.

After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:

Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Feast on more of Tolstoy’s deeply nourishing Calendar of Wisdom here. Complement this particular fragment with Albert Einstein on the meaning of kindness, Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the remarkable true story behind her beloved poem “Kindness,” then revisit Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, his early diaries of moral development, and his deathbed writings on what gives meaning to our lives.

BP

Altered States of Consciousness: The Neuropsychology of How Time Perception Modulates Our Experience of Self, from Depression to Boredom to Creative Flow

“The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world.”

Altered States of Consciousness: The Neuropsychology of How Time Perception Modulates Our Experience of Self, from Depression to Boredom to Creative Flow

“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity,” Walt Whitman wrote in contemplating the central paradox of the self. And yet the most paradoxical feature of consciousness might be precisely the elusiveness of the self in an identity composed of porous, ever-shifting multitudes. A century after Whitman, the Austrian poet, playwright, and novelist Thomas Bernhard addressed this in his exquisite meditation on the attendant paradox of self-observation: “If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, [for then] we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else.”

Midway in time between Whitman and Bernhard, Virginia Woolf distilled the paradox into its central problem: “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Far ahead of modern science, she understood that our experience of selfhood and the “soul” is largely rooted in our experience of time — that self and time are entwined in a shared elasticity.

Nearly a century after Woolf and many turns of the cultural wheel after Whitman, the German psychologist and chronobiologist Marc Wittmann — a pioneer in the research on time perception — takes up these enormous, elemental questions in Altered States of Consciousness: Experiences Out of Time and Self (public library), translated by Philippa Hurd. Weaving together the phenomenology of perception, clinical research in psychiatry and neurobiology, patient case studies, philosophy, literature, and landmark experiments from psychology labs around the world, Wittmann examines the extremes of consciousness — near-death experiences, epilepsy, intensive meditation, psychedelics, mental illness — to shed light on the abiding enigmas of what consciousness actually is, how body, self, space, and time intertwine, where the boundaries of the self are located, why the dissolution of those boundaries might be the supreme wellspring of happiness, and how consciousness of time and consciousness of self co-create each other to construct our experience of who we are.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

In a sentiment that calls to mind the closing verse of Ursula K. Le Guin’s splendid “Hymn to Time” — “Time is being and being / time, it is all one thing, / the shining, the seeing, / the dark abounding.” — Wittmann writes:

Altered states of consciousness very often go hand in hand with an altered perception of space and time… Ultimately our perception and our thoughts are organized in terms of space and time. Extraordinary states of consciousness must therefore also affect space and time.

In consonance with Borges’s timeless refutation of time — “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” — Wittmann adds:

Subjective time and consciousness, felt time, and experience of self are closely related: I am my time; through my experience of self I reach a feeling of time. If we have a better understanding of the subjective experience of time, then important aspects of self-consciousness will also have been understood better.

[…]

In extraordinary states of consciousness — moments of shock, meditation, sudden mystical experiences, near-death experiences, under the influence of drugs — temporal consciousness is fundamentally altered. Hand in hand with this goes an altered consciousness of space and self. In these extreme circumstances, time and concepts of space and self are modulated together — intensified or weakened together. But in more ordinary situations, too, such as boredom, the experience of flow, and idleness, time and self are collectively altered.

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death.” Illustration by Margaret C. Cook from a 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Wittmann points to one fundamental difference between our sense of time and our other senses, which highlights the centrality of time perception to our experience of selfhood:

The sense of time is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way than the other senses. Ultimately, time perception is not mediated by a specific sense organ, as happens in the case of the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch. There is no sense organ for time. Subjective time as a sense of self is a physically and emotionally felt wholeness of our entire self through time.

And yet in his own research at UC San Diego, Wittmann located if not a separate sense organ, at least a particular brain region chiefly responsible for our sense of time. Using fMRI, he and his team furnished the first systematic empirical evidence that time perception is encoded in body signals governed by the insula — a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain, already implicated by earlier research as a crucial locus of consciousness involved in emotion, self-awareness, and social interaction. With an eye to the delicate interleaving between our bodies and our minds, Wittmann writes:

The brain does not simply represent the world in a disembodied way as an intellectual construct, but rather the organism interacts as a whole with the environment… Our mind is body-bound. We think, feel, and act with our body in the world. All experience is embedded in this body-related being-in-the-world. Or, to put it another way, subjective experience means living that is embodied in the environment and social interaction with other people.

[…]

The bodily feelings that are linked to the insula — body temperature, pain, muscular contractions, physical contact, and signals from the gut — are also an integral component of emotions and trigger positive or negative feelings. Short-term affects as well as longer-lasting moods are essential for the modulation of the sense of time.

In fact, some of the most compelling evidence for the self as a temporal entity comes from the various experiments and case studies indicating that people with disrupted mental and mood states exhibit impaired time perception. Depression, which William Styron so memorably described as a “smothering confinement” in prolonged despair, dilates the perception of time to a tortuous degree. Citing a study in which patients hospitalized for depression demonstrated strong positive correlation between the severity of their symptoms and their inability to correctly estimate time, Wittmann writes:

People suffering from depression are temporally desynchronized; their internal speed does not match the speed of the social environment. Depressiveness and sadness, expressed in a negative self-image, self-blaming, and a feeling of worthlessness, among other things, go hand in hand with the intensified, unpleasant sensation of time passing more slowly.

Art by Bobby Baker from her visual diary of mental illness.

In addiction, time becomes arrhythmic. When intoxicated by a stimulant, thoughts and actions speed up from their ordinary rate but the brain fails to encode these sped-up experiences as proper memories. During withdrawal, the opposite happens — time dilates and expands. Hyperfocus on the present craving for the drug makes the tortuous physical symptoms seem interminable and a dependency-free future seem infinitely distant. Wittmann sums up the cruel temporal trap of addiction:

In a state of addiction the individual loses his or her temporal freedom — the freedom to choose between present and future opportunities.

In schizophrenia, the temporal disruption is even more pronounced — the continuous unity as which the “self” is ordinarily experienced shatters into fragmentary moments that seem to freeze in time, preventing the person from integrating past, present, and future into a cohesive picture of being. Reflecting on patients’ consistent reports of time standing still, of all future perspective vanishing, and of feeling like they themselves are dissolving, Wittmann writes:

In schizophrenia, the continuity of temporal experience and with it the continuity of the self are disturbed. It is as if the “self” is stuck in the present. Time no longer moves on, and seems to stand still. Temporal standstill means the standstill of the subject. Normally we experience ourselves as a unity of our self. Our focus on anticipated events kick-starts our preparations for action. Mental presence means that we integrate past, present, and anticipated experience into a whole that is our self. As conscious beings we are constituted through self-experience in the three temporal modes… In schizophrenia… the dynamic of the passing of time, which underlies the subjectivity of all our experience, no longer functions. Because subjective time “gets stuck,” the experience of the self that depends on the underlying dynamic temporal structure is impaired. Without the dynamic of this temporal flow, the “self” collapses into fragments of now.

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

This interdependence between our sense of time and our sense of self plays out not only in mental states pathological in the clinical sense but also in our existential pathologies, as it were — our experiences of boredom, creative flow, and the fringes of wakefulness. Nearly a century after Bertrand Russell admonished that “a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation… in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase,” Wittmann writes:

Boredom actually means that we find ourselves boring. It’s the intensive self-reference: we are bored with ourselves. We are tired of ourselves.

[…]

In boredom we are completely time and completely self — inner emptiness. Now I am I and nothing else — a surfeit of being oneself, in most cases when one is alone, but sometimes also being lonely when being with others.

If time unspools interminably in boredom, it races so rapidly as to vanish during creative flow. In such a state, one experiences the positive counterpart to the dissolution of the self schizophrenic patients report. Wittmann limns the experience:

On the one hand we have achieved something that will be permanent — writing this text, solving a syntax problem in programming — but our life as a whole has almost disappeared for minutes or even hours. We were concentrating fully and completely on the matter at hand, but in doing so we did not notice ourselves: a loss of the experience of both self and time. Expressing it negatively this way also shows how the perception of self and that of time are jointly modulated.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud’s niece, from a the philosophical 1922 children’s book David the Dreamer.

One of the starkest everyday confrontations with the disintegrating self comes in the moments when consciousness slips out if its diurnal robe and into the nocturnal. More than a century and a half after Nathaniel Hawthorne contemplated how the transcendent space between sleep and wakefulness illuminates temporality, Wittmann notes that these experiences reveal something beyond the standard model of memory and narrative as the building blocks of selfhood — emerging from this lacuna between sleep and wakefulness is also a sense of the self as “the mere feeling of being,” independent of autobiographical memory. He writes:

In the seconds of waking up, as the narrative self is not updating, consciousness is focused on something nevertheless: it is the physical self that is at the center of perception and thought, which enables the differentiation between the self and non-self. Under normal circumstances we are aware of our experiences, memories, and expectations, the objects of our consciousness. Below the surface, however, we also have a minimal self, the egocentric anchor of all experiences that in the above-mentioned situation of memoryless awakening is suddenly experienced very clearly, as the usual objects of our consciousness, perceptions, and memories are missing. I am thrown back upon myself.

In such a case the experience of self can be understood as an “ego-pole.” My “ego-subject” is focused on an “ego-object”: I perceive myself. However, there is a fundamental problem here, as the ego-object is categorically different from the ego-subject. If we observe ourselves self-referentially — that is, the ego-subject observes itself — it always observes itself as an ego-object.

[…]

In the transition from sleeping to waking we experience the boundaries of our usual state of self. Every time we wake we become conscious of our selves once again; we are inserted into our state of awakeness. But in isolated cases the process of becoming conscious does not happen seamlessly — the ego does not recognize itself. Through such moments we have the opportunity to investigate the enigma of consciousness, revealing how the conscious self depends on factors yet to be determined, which are constitutive of self-consciousness.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

But nowhere do the boundaries of the self-in-time seem to dissolve more palpably than during psychedelic experiences. A century after the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James first codified the typical features of transcendent states, Wittmann draws on the new generation of research into how the science of psychedelics illuminates consciousness and writes:

Scientific research on the effects of LSD and psilocybin has shown clearly that the states of consciousness involve striking changes in perception, emotions, and ideas, and also in the ways they are described: time, space, and the experience of self are dramatically altered. These changes are comparable only with other extreme states of consciousness such as occur in dreams, in mystical and religious ecstasy, or in acute psychotic phases in the early stage of schizophrenia. The dimensions of mystical experience include oneness of the self with the universe, the feeling of timelessness and spacelessness, the most intense feelings of happiness, and the certainty of experiencing a sacred truth which is, however, indescribable. The latter is the feeling of looking behind the veil of reality and seeing the immutable (that is, timeless and spaceless) truth of the world in its entirety.

[…]

Research into the mystical experience of the disintegration of time and the self under the influence of hallucinogens is a way toward understanding human consciousness.

In the remainder of the altogether fascinating Altered States of Consciousness, Wittmann goes on to examine how experiences like deep meditation and music shed light on the nature of consciousness through the lens of time and self. Complement it with Kierkegaard on bridging the ephemeral and the eternal and neuroscientist Christof Koch on how the qualia of our experience illuminate the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Wittmann’s earlier exploration of how the interplay of spontaneity and self-control mediates our capacity for presence.

BP

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.

BP

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