How to Be a Swimmer in the Stream of Time: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Antidote to Disorientation and Isolation
By Maria Popova
To take the vaster perspective of time and space is always an act of resistance to seeing the present as islanded in time — the depiction menacing us from TV screens and news headlines. But it is also a deeply disorienting experience, for it plunges us into the immensity of being, asking us to learn to swim in the stream of time — or else we sink into our isolated smallness, and drown.
How to swim in the stream of time without drowning is what the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) explores throughout her entire body of work, but nowhere more passionately than in her slender, splendid 1993 book Paris, When It’s Naked (public library).
Born and raised in Lebanon, Adnan found her artistic voice in America, at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, then fell in love with the artist Simone Fattal and spent the latter part of her century-long life with her love in Paris, where she had earned her degree in philosophy half a lifetime earlier.
As Notre-Dame reminds her of Aleppo’s Citadel from her Arab childhood and the Seine transports her to her time on the Neva in Russia, she considers the comforting proximity to river and cathedral, the way it both locates and dislocates the now:
They are there, protecting our meanderings. You don’t fear hunger, in such places, neither fear poverty of the spirit. Close, again, to water and stone, near the symbols of ancient European unity and Arab History, I can dismiss the present as a passage. The trouble, though, is that I don’t know where I come from, and even less, where I’m heading for.
And yet we only ever find ourselves by getting lost — in time, in space, in being and belonging. Walking the embankments of the Seine, she writes:
I sense the hands that built this open canyon through which the city’s blood runs to the ocean. Such beauty enslaves more than any conquest. The definition of the soul is made of these places where you feel that the world came into being so that they could exist. That’s what we are: beings made through the contact of water with stone, of a chilly sunset with pure geometry. My hands touch the remnants of the day’s warmth on cobblestones, walls, moorings. In this moment no boats are going up or downstream. Three elements concur here: the river, the walls, and me. I will sit here. My thinking will reach low fire, my various desires will vanish. Now I am water, and the wall’s surface, and then I am a flow, and a line, and further on I become many, or one, of the dimensions of Being, maybe the basic molecule of Time. Here. It’s always here. It’s only through this ultimate solitude reached by the very fact of living, that one can find the kind of peace that makes tangible the accumulated absurdities that constitute everyone’s personal truth.
Couple this fragment of Paris, When It’s Naked with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety, then revisit Adnan on how to live and how to die, the sea and the soul, and the relationship between the self and the universe.
Published November 6, 2022