Shifting the Silence to Find the Meaning: 95-Year-Old Artist, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on How to Live and How to Die
By Maria Popova
“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the polymathic poet, painter, novelist, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) wrote at the foot of a mountain she saw as a lens on the meaning of life.
Half a century later and a landmass over, as dawn was silvering the clouds of the Parisian night, she slipped out of the mortal and into the timeless, less than 1000 days shy of having lived 100 years. (No amount of life is enough life, and any amount of life is enough life — as with love.)
Adnan’s uncommon reckoning with mortality and meaning lives on in her final book, Shifting the Silence (public library) — a lucid and luminous stream-of-consciousness outpouring of insight into the nature of existence, an inquiry into what gives meaning to our mortal lives, partway between poetry and philosophy, between requiem and redemption, between Gertrude Stein’s meditation on belonging in a love letter to Paris and Patti Smith’s meditation on dreams in a love letter to time. What emerges is the wakeful work, a life’s work, of naming what is — the ultimate Is beyond the explanations that masquerade as meaning yet containing the ultimate meaning.
When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust? The horizon’s shimmering slows down all other perceptions. It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginnings of space and time.
Word-languages are a trap… They created chaos and made us sink in incoherence… Our words don’t suit prophecies anymore. That power is left to other species: to oak trees, for example, to the tides, which through their restlessness carry a phosphorescence we’re not equipped to hear.
From the fortunate, ramshackle dock of her nine decades — having lived through the splitting of the atom and the Moon landing, through the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, through a civil war that savaged her homeland and a world war that savaged our civilization, through the heyday Picasso and particle physics and Plath — she observes:
My favorite time is in time’s other side, its other identity, the kind that collapses and sometimes reappears, and sometimes doesn’t. The one that looks like marshmallows, pomegranates, and stranger things, before returning to its kind of abstraction… Today I see eternity everywhere. I had yesterday an empty glass of champagne on the table, and it looked both infinite and eternal.
Writing in the final season of her life, while around her a record heatwave is swarming Paris and wildfires are ravaging the Californian landscapes of her prime and her paintings, Adnan wonders whether this might be the final season of civilization, of the world itself as we know it, wonders whether we can “keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days.” She paces the periphery of Paris one timeless step at a time, watches the fog turn the Eiffel Tower into “a faint mark on pure space,” marvels at the magnolia in her garden “thriving in this non-tropical country,” marvels at the first image of an enormous frozen lake newly discovered on Mars and its “pinkish land covered with ice,” savors “the night’s different shades, its infinite richness,” reads a book of poems written by an artificial intelligence and ponders the meaning of reality, the meaning of intelligence. Her mind wanders to the physics of tides, to the Trojan War, to the epoch-making spacecraft that has just landed on the dark side of the Moon, to Picasso’s late erotic etchings of women, to the burning mountain she once lived in and loved with the fire of life. Her wandering mind observes itself:
I am in the midst of whatever I am thinking of. There are fires in California, they have returned. I am burning. Am one of the trees that’s disappearing in the fires. My body black and grey becoming ashes.
And yet there is something else beyond the cinder of the thinking-mind, some vaster consciousness in which the crests and troughs of being and not-being merge into the continuous sine wave of what is, ruffling the oceanic surface of timelessness:
I need to simplify my thinking: to come to the roots of the olive trees I have planted on my island, sit close to them, look at every leaf. Start early in the morning. Then close my eyes and let the morning sun touch my face. Go to the Mediterranean at the street corner, go into its water, its salt, its acid colors, its heat… stop thinking… just be, and for many hours in a row, merge with this vegetal and metallic kind of consciousness which is so overpowering.
A philosopher-friend comes to visit, one of those visits that “lift the sky,” and they talk about “the necessity of an urgent shift of destiny away from the cycle of the eternal return of the same, beyond whatever already is.” A poet-friend dies. “Dear San Francisco, cry for him.” Invoking another friend’s long-ago death that she still carries, and folding into it the incomprehensible awareness of her own mortality — as we invariably do in apprehending another’s — she reflects:
Being, or not being, cannot be dealt with with thinking, but are matters of experience, experienced often in murky waters… Their intensity creates waves that invade us, that leave us stunned. There’s no resolution to somebody’s final absence.
Another friend vanishes into the fog of mental illness, leaving Adnan to contemplate the discomposing dialogue between neurochemistry and identity:
To witness a mind go wild, like the California fires right now, is the hardest thing one can experience. And still, we do. The mind gets so fluid that you can’t stop it with your will, you watch the will’s annihilation. The question arises: are we just a series of chemical reactions? If we were courageous enough we would say yes, we are. But there is something in those chemical reactions that make us reject the acknowledgment of their own nature. We’re body and soul, we say, let’s accept this myth. Plato did it.
Even our ordinary minds, she observes, are too often befuddled by their own mindless activity, the thoughts of which we presume to be the authors — but as any neuroscientist and any longtime meditator can attest, this too is part of the dream of selfhood, the dream by which we flee from the reality that we are each a passing flicker in the consciousness of time and matter.
With an eye to her own experience of “double thinking” — something all of us have experienced in one form or another — she writes:
One thought sliding on another, was startled, didn’t know which one to follow, lost sight of both… Are thoughts bouncing balls? Do we really own them?
She talks to herself, talks to the universe, talks to no one in particular — and then — in a handful of arresting cascades in this stream of consciousness, she talks to you, talks to me, with ravishing intimacy. “I am talking to you because I need you, and to need means to love.” She is talking to us, too, because she has something to impart, the way an oracle does. (Living a century with unrelenting wakefulness to life renders anyone an oracle.)
You know, sunsets are violently beautiful, I would say that they are so by definition, but there are lights, not even colorful in the habitual sense, lights elemental, mercurial, silvery, sulfurous, copper-made, that make us stop, then lose balance, make us open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one. I wait for those lights, I know some of you do too, wherever you are, I mean when you are standing by an ocean, alone, within the calmness of your spirit. Be planetary.
To be planetary, she intimates, is to recognize that we are completely together and completely alone all at once, a murmuration of solitudes hurtling through space, out of time:
We’re on a planet sustained by nothing, carried through pure space by a willful star made of fire and in constant ebullition. We’re travelers covering traveling grounds. Going, always going.
The undertone of the book, of Adnan’s farewell message to the living, is the intimation that only in the stillness of silence can we begin to discern where we are going and why:
The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. And this silence can also be heard.
This silence is the preparation of things to come, but is not free standing. It’s rather the shadow of whatever is, which precedes or follows at will any element that presents itself to this world. Its favorite time is the night.
Half a lifetime after she explored the relationship between dreaming and creativity, Adnan returns to the strange kingdom of sleep and those untrammeled territories of the nocturnal mind beyond thought:
In silence, in the dark, the tides shine, get slippery, their fluidity turns them into a mirage. There’s a persistent hum to the ocean that translates into a back-and-forth movement of our body. Walls disappear and new visual formations invade the imagination. One is not in usual dimensions. Sleep belongs to the past, and the hours too. Luminosity enmeshed with darkness makes us cross over new territories. You move into galaxies in a few seconds, space-time becomes just a game.
Thinking is dimmed when familiar forms of reality disappear. This is not a loss. Long periods of inner silence favor clearings, they let the light in, the flooding, the blinding, the bedazzlement. We need spaces for the reshuffling of new cards, need to be nowhere. Thinking doesn’t always come from preceding thoughts: I suspect it’s always being born, even when it seems related to the past.
With an eye to Plato’s immortal allegory of the cave, she writes:
Now it’s time to open the cave’s window and leave it open. Let reality fill the space.
Echoing Walt Whitman, who contemplated what makes life worth living after a stroke left him paralyzed, and echoing Mary Shelley, who contemplated what makes life worth living as she envisioned a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, Adnan adds:
What’s left? This season of heat and wind, this dinner tonight, and these large bands of trembling waves of various shades of green that split my heart with their incredible beauty.
This is Adnan’s parting gift to this world, to us: the life-tested assurance that even when there is too much past and too little future, life is only ever lived day to day, for the living day is all we have — or what Muriel Rukeyser, another visionary of uncommon poetic insight into the nature of being, reverenced as “the living moment… this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.”
One such living day, finding herself “at the door of Time’s immensity,” Adnan writes:
The day is blustery, one more day following an infinity of days. And this one on its way out, according to its fate. If everything is alive, this day is too, a life independent from mine, and still interdependent.
On another living day, after rejoicing in having lived to see a human space-probe reach the unseen side the Moon — “I felt the grounds open up under my feet, I felt I reached a landmark of cosmic proportion. I drank beer differently than usual.” — she echoes the civilizational sense that Bach might be our prophet-laureate of aliveness, echoes San Francisco poet Ronald Johnson’s lovely formulation of the elemental poetic truth that “matter delights in music, and became Bach,” echoes philosopher Josef Pieper’s insistence that “music opens a path into the realm of silence” and Aldous Huxley’s insistence that the only thing better able to express the inexpressible than music is silence, and writes:
My hands are getting cold, a musician is playing Bach on a lute on television, and it fits: Bach’s music is the needle of the cosmic balance.
This has taken me into the core of a silence that underlines the universe: underneath the mesh of sounds that never cease there’s a strange phenomena, a counter-reality, the rolling of silent matter. Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are… Silence is the creation of space… Silence demands the nature of night, even in full day, it demands shadows.
But in all my wanderings I never forgot the light.
Radiating from these pages is at once a welcome and a parting — an invitation to the banquet of life at the deathbed of one particular human who will never again recur as that particular ripple in the consciousness of time but who once lived a long, wide, deep life fully awake to the ephemeral ecstasy of aliveness:
I have invited to my banquet you and your neighbor, and animals too, and stones and mountains, rivers will bring their floods. I will tell you history is made of wars, of ideas, of misery, of glory preceding misery. History is made of everything that has ever happened, the whole trajectory of humans, of dirt and galaxies. You are History, the squirrel is History, the Universe is History. It includes God too.
Complement the portable universe that is Adnan’s Shifting the Silence with poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to the same age as Adnan, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit Adnan’s stunning painted poem about life, death, and our cosmic redemption, created half a century before she returned her borrowed stardust to the silence of spacetime.
Published November 16, 2021