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Kierkegaard on Our Greatest Source of Unhappiness

“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in reflecting on why presence matters more than productivity. “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller asserted in his beautiful meditation on the art of living. And yet we spend our lives fleeing from the present moment, constantly occupying ourselves with overplanning the future or recoiling with anxiety over its impermanence, thus invariably robbing ourselves of the vibrancy of aliveness.

In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, explores precisely that — how our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Kierkegaard, who was only thirty at the time, begins with an observation all the timelier today, amidst our culture of busy-as-a-badge-of-honor:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

(It’s worth remembering, here, that “busy is a decision” — one we constantly make, and often to our own detriment.)

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he returns to the subject and its deeper dimension:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

He considers how the very architecture of our language perpetuates our proclivity for absence:

The unhappy one is absent. But one is absent when living in the past or living in the future. The form of expression is important, for it is evident, as philology also teaches us, that there is a tense that expresses present in the past, and a tense that expresses presence in the future; but the same science also teaches us that there is a pluperfect tense in which there is no present, as well as a future perfect tense with the same characteristics. These are the hoping and remembering individuals. Inasmuch as they are only hoping or only remembering, these are indeed in a sense unhappy individuals, if otherwise it is only the person who is present to himself that is happy. However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Kierkegaard goes on to explore these two key forms of escapism from presence, via hope and via memory:

Consider first the hoping individual. When, as a hoping individual (and of course to that extent unhappy), he is not present to himself, he becomes unhappy in a stricter sense. An individual who hopes for an eternal life is, indeed, in a certain sense an unhappy individual to the extent that he renounces the present, but nevertheless is strictly not unhappy, because he is present to himself in the hope and does not come in conflict with the particular moments of finitude. But if he cannot become present to himself in hope, but loses his hope, hopes again, and so on, then he is absent from himself not just in the present but also in the future, and we have a type of the unhappy. Though the hoping individual does not hope for something that has no reality for him, he hopes for something he himself knows cannot be realized. For when an individual loses hope, and instead of becoming a remembering individual, wants to remain a hoping one, then we get this form.

Similarly if we consider the remembering individual. If he finds himself present in the past, strictly he is not unhappy; but if he cannot do that but remains constantly absent from himself in a past, then we have a form of the unhappy.

Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone, the future that it is yet to come; and one can therefore say in a sense that the future is nearer the present than is the past. That future, for the hoping individual to be present in it must be real, or rather must acquire reality for him. The past, for the remembering individual to be present in it, must have had reality for him. But when the hoping individual would have a future which can have no reality for him, or the remembering individual remember a past which had had no reality for him, then we have the genuinely unhappy individuals. Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember. Hoping individuals always have a more gratifying disappointment. The unhappiest one will always, therefore, be found among the unhappy rememberers.

For a potent antidote, pair this with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and Anna Quindlen on how to live rather than exist, then see Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Either/Or is a consciousness-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the relationship between creativity and anxiety.


Kierkegaard on Why Anxiety Powers Creativity Rather Than Hindering It

“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what, exactly, is anxiety, that pervasive affliction the nature of which remains as drowning yet as elusive as the substance of a shadow? In his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety (public library), Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explains anxiety as the dizzying effect of freedom, of paralyzing possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s own existence — a kind of existential paradox of choice. He writes:

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. Awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is an intimated nothing. The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. More it cannot do as long as it merely shows itself. [Anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.


Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.

He captures the invariable acuteness of anxiety’s varied expressions:

Anxiety can just as well express itself by muteness as by a scream.

Kierkegaard argues that, to paraphrase Henry Miller, on how we orient ourselves to anxiety depends the failure or fruitfulness of life:

In actuality, no one ever sank so deep that he could not sink deeper, and there may be one or many who sank deeper. But he who sank in possibility — his eye became dizzy, his eye became confused… Whoever is educated by possibility is exposed to danger, not that of getting into bad company and going astray in various ways as are those educated by the finite, but in danger of a fall, namely, suicide. If at the beginning of education he misunderstands the anxiety, so that it does not lead him to faith but away from faith, then he is lost. On the other hand, whoever is educated [by possibility] remains with anxiety; he does not permit himself to be deceived by its countless falsification and accurately remembers the past. Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them. For him, anxiety becomes a serving spirit that against its will leads him where he wishes to go.

Core to this premise is the conception of anxiety as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending on how we approach it. Like Nin herself observed in her reflection of why emotional excess is necessary for writing, Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is essential for creativity. Perhaps the most enduring and thoughtful interpretation of his treatment of the relationship between creativity and anxiety comes from legendary existential psychologist Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety (public library), originally published in 1950:

We can understand Kierkegaard’s ideas on the relation between guilt and anxiety only by emphasizing that he is always speaking of anxiety in its relation to creativity. Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities (and these are two phases of the same process) — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living. If one does not do this, one is refusing to grow, refusing to avail himself of his possibilities; one is shirking his responsibility to himself. Hence refusal to actualize one’s possibilities brings guilt toward one’s self. But creating also means destroying the status quo of one’s environment, breaking the old forms; it means producing something new and original in human relations as well as in cultural forms (e.g., the creativity of the artist). Thus every experience of creativity has its potentiality of aggression or denial toward other persons in one’s environment or established patterns within one’s self. To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed that something new in the present may be born. Hence, for Kierkegaard, guilt feeling is always a concomitant of anxiety: both are aspects of experiencing and actualizing possibility. The more creative the person, he held, the more anxiety and guilt are potentially present.

Both The Concept of Anxiety and The Meaning of Anxiety endure as excellent reads in their entirety, timeless and increasingly timely in our age of anxious wonder.


MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.”

MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou observed in her finest interview, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

A decade earlier, in his 1967 Massey Lectures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) examined the forces that dispirit the young into cynicism — that most puerile form of impatience — by mapping the three primary regions of reaction and resistance in the landscape of social change.

Launched in 1961 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and named after Vincent Massey — the first Canadian-born person to serve as governor general of Canada, who had spearheaded a royal commission for Canadian arts, letters, and sciences, producing the landmark Massey Report that led to the establishment of the National Library of Canada — the annual Massey Lectures invited a prominent scholar to deliver five half-hour talks along the vector of their passion and purpose, which were then broadcast on public radio each Thursday evening. Eventually, the CBC began publishing the lectures in book form. But some of the earliest ones, including the five Dr. King delivered in the final months of his life, remained unprinted for decades, until they were finally released in 2007 as The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers (public library).

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 (Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.)

In his third lecture, titled “Youth and Social Action,” Dr. King presents a taxonomy of the three types of people into which the era’s youth had been “splintered” — his own superb word-choice — by the era’s social forces.

More than half a century hence, it is a useful exercise, temporally sobering and culturally calibrating, to consider what the equivalents of these archetypes might be in our present time, in our present language. Our language might have changed dramatically — Dr. King was writing in the epoch before the invention of women, when “man” denoted all of humanity; an epoch when the acronym BIPOC would have drawn a blank stare at best and “Negro” was his term of choice — but we are still living with the underlying complexities which language always seeks to clarify and contain. The social forces splintering the present generation of youth have changed, and they have not changed — an eternal echo of Zadie Smith’s observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

With the caveat that the three principal groups sometimes overlap, Dr. King describes the first:

The largest group of young people is struggling to adapt itself to the prevailing values of society. Without much enthusiasm, they accept the system of government, the economic relations, the property system, and the social stratifications both engender. But even so, they are a profoundly troubled group, and are harsh critics of the status quo.

It is easy to picture the young of our own time, roiling with the same restless ambivalence, the same resentful submission to the system, perched on their standing desks across the glassy campuses of Google and Facebook, drinking corporate kombucha on tap while composing impassioned tweets against police brutality, homophobia, and climate change, tender with the terror of being a person in the world, a budding person in a world that feels too immense and immovable. Dr. King captures this ambivalence with his characteristic compassionate curiosity:

In this largest group, social attitudes are not congealed or determined; they are fluid and searching.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist — a high school girl’s 1968 satire of conformity-culture.

He contrasts the first group with the second — those in outright and outspoken rejection of the status quo:

The radicals… range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or in faulty operation. These are a new breed of radicals.

This claim of novelty is somewhat ahistorical, or perhaps too narrowly American, for Dr. King’s perceptive description of that generation’s spirit is an equally apt description of the spirit of the generation that fueled the French Revolution two centuries earlier, an ocean apart. He sketches the radicals of the 1960s:

Very few adhere to any established ideology; some borrow from old doctrines of revolution; but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of a new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. They are not repeating previous revolutionary doctrines; most of them have not even read the revolutionary classics. Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality, and met tenacious and vivacious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam War, and experienced futility. So they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order.

In a sentiment that fully captures today’s social media — that ever-protruding, ever-teetering platform for standing against rather than for things, a place increasingly unsatisfying and increasingly evocative of Bertrand Russell’s century-old observation that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Dr. King adds of these so-called radicals:

It is fair to say, though, that at present they know what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity, 1956.

Identifying the third group as the era’s “hippies” — a group the contemporary equivalent of which is especially interesting to identify and locate in our present generational landscape — he writes:

The hippies are not only colorful but complex; and in many respects their extreme conduct illuminates the negative effect of society’s evils on sensitive young people. While there are variations, those who identify with this group have a common philosophy.

They are struggling to disengage from society as their expression of their rejection of it. They disavow responsibility to organized society. Unlike the radicals, they are not seeking change, but flight. When occasionally they merge with a peace demonstration, it is not to better the political world, but to give expression to their own world. The hard-core hippy is a remarkable contradiction. He uses drugs to turn inward, away from reality, to find peace and security. Yet he advocates love as the highest human value — love, which can exist only in communication between people, and not in the total isolation of the individual.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me.

In an especially insightful comment that applies to so many fleeting but vital and vitalizing movements across the sweep of history, he adds:

The importance of the hippies is not in their unconventional behavior, but in the fact that some hundreds of thousands of young people, in turning to a flight form reality, are expressing a profoundly discrediting judgment on the society they emerge from.

He proffers a prediction substantiated by history, contouring the possible future of some of our own social movements when they have become another era’s past:

It seems to me that hippies will not last long as a mass group. They cannot survive because there is no solution in escape. Some of them may persist by solidifying into a secular religious sect: their movement already has many such characteristics. We might see some of them establish utopian colonies, like the 17th and 18th century communities established by sects that profoundly opposed the existing order and its values. Those communities did not survive. But they were important to their contemporaries because their dream of social justice and human value continues as a dream of mankind.

Art by Nahid Kazemi from Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson.

The most interesting challenge of applying Dr. King’s taxonomy to our own time is that of seeing beyond the surface expressions that shimmer with the illusion of contrast, peering into the deeper similitudes between the attitudes of the past and those of the present. Escapism doesn’t always look like escapism — escapism can masquerade as pseudo-engagement. A generation’s drug of choice might be a psychoactive molecule, or it might be an intoxicating self-righteousness masquerading as wakefulness to difference. Technology might give the illusion of participatory action in democracy while effecting alienation at the deepest stratum of the soul — something especially true of the vast majority of pseudo-political uses of our so-called social media. Dr. King writes:

Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material grown has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.

Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.

In consonance with the animating spirit of this here labor of love, he insists upon the importance of mining the collective record of experience we call history “for positive ingredients which have been there, but in relative obscurity.” Echoing Whitman’s gentle long-ago exhortation that “the past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them,” Dr. King adds:

Against the exaltation of technology, there has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s vivifying advice to the young, Kierkegaard on nonconformity and the power of the minority, and Richard Powers’s antidote to cynicisms, then revisit Dr. King on the six pillars of resistance to the status quo.


Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“A life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”

Einstein’s Dreams: Physicist Alan Lightman’s Poetic Exploration of Time and the Antidote to the Anxiety of Aliveness

“When you realize you are mortal,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote while regarding a mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future.” A decade earlier, shortly before a heart attack severed her life-time, Hannah Arendt observed in her superb Gifford Lectures lectures on the life of the mind that our finitude, “set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities.” While Arendt was composing these thoughts and silent cells were barricading one of her arteries, Ursula K. Le Guin was composing her novelistic inquiry into what it means to live responsibly, observing: “If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it.” A generation before her, Borges had formulated the ultimate declaration of our temporal creatureliness, declaring: “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.”

Half a century of neuroscience and psychology have confirmed the physical fact beneath the poetic sentiment — we now know that our experience of time is the crucible of empathy and the defining dimension of personal identity.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

The young clerk at the Bern patent office was thinking about none of this in the spring of 1905, the spring of a new century still verdant with possibility, when he dreamt up his general relativity — the refutation of Newton that would rattle the flow of existence, forever changing our understanding of time; rather, Einstein was thinking of time as a plaything of mathematics, the cold clay of an impartial universe in which we ourselves are playthings of chance.

Or was he?

After all, a revolution in understanding time is a revolution in understanding ourselves as creatures of time, and no human being — not even the most abstract-minded physicist — can think about time without thinking about what it means to be human, to be concretely oneself, tender with transience.

That is the predicate of the slender, poetic 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams (public library) by physicist Alan Lightman — a book about time and the tricks we play on ourselves to bear our transience, a book that does for time what Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love does for love: punctuating a fictional world with philosophical quickenings, thought experiments, lyrical reflections on a fundamental human dimension of the real world.

The young Einstein, overworked and burning with ideas, falls asleep at his patent office desk on a series of nights in that fertile spring of 1905, to dream of worlds in each of which times works differently. Each betokens a particular manifestation of our time-anxiety, that defining anxiety of our lives — each a particular tapestry of our hopes, fears, and other flights from the only reality we have and only place we really inhabit: the present.

In one of these worlds, two times exist in parallel — mechanical time, “as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth,” and body time, pulsating with aliveness that “squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay.” This world is a testament to astronomer Maria Mitchell’s long-ago lament that “it seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict” — in it, people live out their lives subscribing to one time, distrusting and deriding the very existence of the other:

Where the two times meet, desperation. Where the two times go their separate ways, contentment. For, miraculously, a barrister, a nurse, a baker can make a world in either time, but not in both times. Each time is true, but the truths are not the same.

Another dream draws on the real history of how Galileo invented timekeeping to paint a world in which people journey to the Temple of Time to worship the Great Clock enshrined in it — a world part-prophecy and part-admonition, caricaturing our modern cult of the clock as humanity’s great concession in letting time reign, in Nina Simone’s soulful words, as “the great dictator.” Lightman writes:

Long ago, before the Great Clock, time was measured by changes in heavenly bodies: the slow sweep of stars across the night sky, the arc of the sun and variation in light, the waxing and waning of the moon, tides, seasons. Time was measured also by heartbeats, the rhythms of drowsiness and sleep, the recurrence of hunger, the menstrual cycles of women, the duration of loneliness. Then, in a small town in Italy, the first mechanical clock was built. People were spellbound. Later they were horrified. Here was a human invention that quantified the passage of time, that laid ruler and compass to the span of desire, that measured out exactly the moments of a life. It was magical, it was unbearable, it was outside natural law. Yet the clock could not be ignored. It would have to be worshipped. The inventor was persuaded to build the Great Clock. Afterwards, he was killed and all other clocks were destroyed. Then the pilgrimages began.

Guide to the Temple of Time by the visionary 19th-century cartographer and information designer Emma Willard. (Available as a print.)

There is a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself” so that every instance, every event, every person “repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

There is a world in which time comes with a pre-determined terminus, the precise date of which is known to all inhabitants, none of whom seem to mind that the world is ending, for “a world with one month is a world of equality.”

There is a world in which entropy moves in reverse, everything tending from chaos to order, from dissolution to coherence — the shoreline rebuilt with each lapping wave, the house paint growing more vibrant with each passing season.

There is a world located at the center of time, where time stands still, traveling outward in concentric circles to the outside worlds. Lovers and the parents of small children make pilgrimages to this place, hoping to preserve their fleeting bliss:

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.

There is a world in which imagining the future — that capacity for mental time-travel essential for our humanity — “is no more possible than seeing colors beyond violet,” and so every experience is absolute and eternal to those undergoing it:

In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.

Then there is the opposite world, in which the future is an omnipresent fixity:

This is a world in which time is not fluid, parting to make way for events. Instead, time is a rigid, bonelike structure, extending infinitely ahead and behind, fossilizing the future as well as the past. Every action, every thought, every breath of wind, every flight of birds is completely determined, forever… In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.

Then there is the opposite of the opposite, in which the past — that sole solidity of the real world — is unfixed, unvoided of possibility. In that world, a middle-aged man has spent his life trapped in a painful memory of childhood humiliation that has come to define his identity and behavior, until one day he wakes up to a different past, devoid of the event that produced the memory, and is suddenly a different person altogether. (Isn’t this the great dream of therapy, the great gift of healing — the dream of self-revision?) From this imaginary world, as from all the rest, Lightman wrests a reflection on the real world, lucid and lyrical:

What is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?


In a world of shifting past, these memories are wheat in wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant, when the sun streams over the Bernese Alps and the shopkeepers sing as they raise their awnings and the quarryman begins to load his truck.

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Having spent half of my own life trapped in a self-created world of rigid routines and clockwork habits — a half-conscious effort to manufacture the illusion of constancy and continuity, to cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, to deny the fact that to be human is to be inconstant and discontinuous ourselves — there is one world that particularly thrills me and particularly terrifies me:

In this world time is not continuous. In this world time is discontinuous. Time is a stretch of nerve fibers: seemingly continuous from a distance but disjointed close up, with microscopic gaps between fibers. Nervous action flows through one segment of time, abruptly stops, pauses, leaps through a vacuum, and resumes in the neighboring segment. So tiny are the disconnections in time that a single second would have to be magnified and dissected into one thousand parts and each of those parts into one thousand parts before a single missing part of time could be spotted.

So tiny are the disconnections in time that the gaps between segments are practically imperceptible. After each restart of time, the new world looks just like the old. The positions and motions of clouds appear exactly the same, the trajectories of birds, the flow of conversations, thoughts.

The segments of time fit together almost perfectly, but not quite perfectly. On occasion, very slight displacements occur. For example, on this Tuesday in Berne, a young man and a young woman, in their late twenties, stand beneath a street lamp on Gerberngasse. They met one month ago. He loves her desperately, but he has already been crushed by a woman who left him without warning, and he is frightened of love. He must be sure with this woman. He studies her face, pleads silently for her true feelings, searches for the smallest sign, the slightest movement of her brow, the vaguest reddening of her cheeks, the moistness of her eyes.

In truth, she loves him back, but she cannot put her love in words. Instead, she smiles at him, unaware of his fear. As they stand beneath the street lamp, time stops and restarts. Afterwards, the tilt of their heads is precisely the same, the cycle of their heartbeats shows no alteration. But somewhere in the deep pools of the woman’s mind, a dim thought has appeared that was not there before. The young woman reaches for this new thought, into her unconscious, and as she does so a gossamer vacancy crosses her smile. This slight hesitation would be invisible to any but the closest scrutiny, yet the urgent young man has noticed it and taken it for his sign. He tells the young woman that he cannot see her again, returns to his small apartment on Zeughausgasse, decides to move to Zürich and work in his uncle’s bank. The young woman walks slowly home from the lamppost on Gerberngasse and wonders why the young man did not love her.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This world might also be the incubus of Lightman’s uncommon insight into our longing for absolutes in a relative world and what actually gives meaning to our temporal lives — ideas contoured in Einstein’s Dreams, which he would shade in over the course of decades with his uncommon palette of physics and existential poetics.

Take, for instance, the dream-world in which time does not flow but sticks, adhering each town to a particular point in history and each person to a particular point in life. There is no shared stream of present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a different past:

The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.

This, indeed, is the silent refrain of the novel: the haunting reminder that however the past and the future might unfold and refold in the origami of even the most elaborate time-model, unless we live in the present, we are not living at all. I am reminded of Kafka: “Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” I am reminded of Kierkegaard a century before him: “The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” Above all, I am reminded of Gaston Bachelard, who reconciled Einstein and Bergson’s historic debate about time with a larger truth merging the scientific reality and the subjective human truth of time: “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.”

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
Meteors by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

This intimation is what Einstein’s Dream leaves lingering in the deliciously discomposed mind. In the last world, which the dreamt-up Einstein dreams up in the first week of summer, time is a flock of nightingales. People race to capture under bell jars, and mostly fail. Only children have the energy and speed to catch the birds, but children have no desire to catch them, for time is already moving too sluggishly for them, each summer month already an eternity. (Which of us can forget the vast spacetime of loneliness that slackens the hammock of childhood?) On those rare occasions when an adult captures a nightingale under their bell jar, they rejoice in the frozen moment, but only for a moment — eventually, they discover that life itself is a warm-blooded creature, pulsating with the flow of time:

They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.

Like The Little Prince, Einstein’s Dreams remains one of those endlessly rereadable classics, unfurling new splendors of insight and subtleties of feeling which each reading. Complement it with Kahlil Gibran on befriending time, then revisit the little loophole in the Big Bang exploring when time really began.


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