This is the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Hermann Hesse on hope and the difficult art of taking responsibility, an illustrated celebration of the heroes who won women political power — you can catch up right here. (Also: Don’t miss the annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books.) And if you are enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
The Eternal Return: Nietzsche’s Brilliant Thought Experiment Illustrating the Key to Existential Contentment
Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.
A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.
The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are(public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?
The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:
The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.
At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”
Like the demon in Kepler’s visionary short story The Dream — the first work of genuine science fiction, which occupies the opening chapter of Figuring and which the great astronomer used as an allegorical tool for awakening the superstition-lulled medieval mind to the then-radical reality of the Copernican model of the universe — Nietzsche’s demon is not a metaphysical extravagance but a psychological gauntlet, an alarm for awakening to the most radical existential reality. At the heart of the thought experiment is the disquieting question of whether our lives, as we are living them, are worth living. Kaag writes:
Nietzsche’s demon… is a challenge — or, better, a question — that is to be answered not in words but in the course of life: “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
Are we, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “content to live it all again”? Being content in this sense is not being distracted from, or lulled to sleep by, or resigning oneself to a fate that cannot be avoided. It is to live to your heart’s content with the knowledge that you will do this, and everything, again, forever. We made our last turn into the Waldhaus driveway and came to rest beneath its canopied entryway. Nietzsche suggests that the affirmation of the eternal return is possible only if one is willing and able to become well-adjusted to life and to oneself. To be well-adjusted, for Nietzsche, is to choose, wholeheartedly, what we think and where we find and create meaning. The specter of infinite monotony was for Nietzsche the abiding impetus to assume absolute responsibility: if one’s choices are to be replayed endlessly, they’d better be the “right” ones.
There is a beautiful meta-layer to the book — Kaag is writing after returning to Piz Corvatsch, where he had first hiked as a tortured nineteen-year-old on the brink of suicide, hoping to find sanity and salvation in the footsteps of his brilliant, half-demented hero. Revisiting “Nietzsche’s mountain” as an adult cusping on middle age, with his beloved — also a philosopher, though of the warring Kantian camp — and their young daughter, Kaag is performing a real-life enactment of the eternal return. He is thrust into the deepest, most disquieting, yet ultimately buoyant evaluation of the choices he has made in the decades since and their combinatorial consequence in the life he is now living — a life, in the end, well worth living.
He considers the power of Nietzsche’s thought experiment as a tool for calibrating our lives for true contentment:
It might be tempting to think that the “rightness” of a decision could be affixed by some external moral or religious standard, but Nietzsche wants his readers to resist this temptation. Nietzsche’s demon, after all, comes to us when we are all alone, his question can be heard only in one’s “loneliest loneliness,” and therefore the answer cannot be given by consensus or on behalf of some impersonal institutions. It is, indeed, the most personal of answers — the one that always determines an individual choice. Of course you can choose anything you want, to raise children or get married, but don’t pretend to do it because these things have some sort of intrinsic value — they don’t. Do it solely because you chose them and are willing to own up to them. In the story of our lives, these choices are ours and ours alone, and this is what gives things, all things, value. Only when one realizes this is he or she prepared to face the eternal recurrence, the entire cycle, without the risk of being crushed. Only then is one able to say with Yeats, “[A]nd yet again,” and truly mean it.
With an eye to Hermann Hesse’s wisdom on the difficult art of taking responsibility, Kaag adds:
Perhaps the hardest part of the eternal return is to own up to the tortures that we create for ourselves and those we create for others. Owning up: to recollect, to regret, to be responsible, ultimately to forgive and love.
Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are is an incandescent read in its entirety. Complement it with Walt Whitman on what makes life worth livingand Bertrand Russell on how to grow old with contentment, then revisit Nietzsche himself on the journey of becoming who you are, the true value of education, depression and the rehabilitation of hope, the power of music, and how we use language to both conceal and reveal reality.
It is often said that books save lives. Most of the time, however heartfelt the sentiment, it is figurative. Every once in an improbable while, it approximates the literal. But only on the rarest of occasions, in the most extreme of circumstances, do books become lifelines in the realest sense.
One such occasion is immortalized in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — the collection I spent eight years putting together in the hope of showing young people how essential reading is to an inspired and inspiring life. There are original illustrated letters about the transformative and transcendent power of reading from some immensely inspiring humans — scientists like Jane Goodall and Janna Levin, artists like Marina Abramović and Debbie Millman, musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Amanda Palmer, and David Byrne, entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Tim Ferriss, poets like Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Alexander, and Sarah Kay, media pioneers like Kevin Kelly, Jad Abumrad, and Shonda Rhimes, beloved writers of literature for young people like Jacqueline Woodson, Judy Blume, and Neil Gaiman, and a great many celebrated authors of books for so-called grownups. But one of the most powerful letters comes from someone whose name might not, or at least not yet, mean much to many: Helen Fagin.
Helen was twenty-one when her family was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. She and her sisters managed to escape, but they lost both of their parents in the Holocaust. Helen arrived in America not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and teach literature for more than two decades. She devoted her life to elucidating the moral lessons of humanity’s darkest hour and was instrumental in the creation of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. To this day, she remains a voracious reader of literature and moral philosophy, swimming effortlessly from Whitman to Camus and back again in a single conversation.
Helen happens to be my dear friend Neil Gaiman’s cousin. One day over dinner, having just visited her in Florida, a very animated Neil told me the incredible story of how a book — a particular book — became a lifeline for the teenage girls at the secret school Helen had set up in the Warsaw Ghetto as an antidote to the innumerable assaults against dignity to which the Nazis subjected these Jewish youths: the denial of basic education. Her story stopped me up short as the profoundest embodiment of the core ethos of A Velocity of Being, and so I invited her to tell it in a letter.
To celebrate the publication of the book, which Helen sees as an invaluable part of her legacy, I asked her to read her letter for the New York Public Library launch event. She was 97 at the time she wrote her letter and is approaching her 101st birthday as she reads it:
Could you imagine a world without access to reading, to learning, to books?
At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.
There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.
One day, as if guessing my thoughts, one girl beseeched me: “Could you please tell us a book, please?”
I had spent the previous night reading Gone with the Wind — one of a few smuggled books circulated among trustworthy people via an underground channel, on their word of honor to read only at night, in secret. No one was allowed to keep a book longer than one night — that way, if reported, the book would have already changed hands by the time the searchers came.
I had read Gone with the Wind from dusk until dawn and it still illuminated my own dream-world, so I invited these young dreamers to join me. As I “told” them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.
A knock at the door shattered our shared dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: “Thank you so very much for this journey into another world. Could we please do it again, soon?” I promised we would, although I doubted we’d have many more chances. She put her arms around me and I whispered, “So long, Scarlett.” “I think I’d rather be Melanie,” she answered, “although Scarlett must have been so much more beautiful!”
As events in the ghetto took their course, most of my fellow dreamers fell victim to the Nazis. Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust.
The pale green-eyed girl was one of them.
Many years later, I was finally able to locate her and we met in New York. One of my life’s greatest rewards will remain the memory of our meeting, when she introduced me to her husband as “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”
There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.
Special thanks to Helen’s children, Gary and Judith Fagin, for filming this video, and most of all to Neil and Amanda for bringing this remarkable person into my world and, through her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, into our shared human world. What an honor.
Complement with a peek inside this massive labor of love eight years in the making, all proceeds from which we are donating to the New York public library system, then sit down with a cup of tea and watch the recording of the NYPL launch celebration — a magical evening of readings by sixteen of our letter writers, original art for the letters, live literature-inspired music, and a roomful of largehearted love of books.
The Art of Waiting: Reclaiming the Pleasures of Durational Being in an Instant Culture of Ceaseless Doing
“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted a century ago, just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding 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,” his compatriot and colleague Gaston Bachelard observed in contemplating our paradoxical relationship with time a decade later, long before the technology-accelerated baseline haste of our present era had plundered the life out of living. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his spectacular confrontation with time yet another decade later. “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.”
We are indeed creatures of time who live with it and in it, on the picketed patch of spacetime we have each been allotted. But if time is the foundational baseboard of our being, what happens to the structure of our lives in a culture of doing?
That is what Jason Farman explores in Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (public library) — a part-philosophical, part-poetic effort to reclaim waiting “not as a burden, but as an important feature of human connection, intimacy, and learning.” He writes:
Waiting isn’t an in-between time. Instead, this often-hated and underappreciated time has been a silent force that has shaped our social interactions. Waiting isn’t a hurdle keeping us from intimacy and from living our lives to our fullest. Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans through the messages we send. Waiting shapes our social lives in many ways, and waiting is something that can benefit us. Waiting can be fruitful. If we lose it, we will lose the ways that waiting shapes vital elements of our lives like social intimacy, the production of knowledge, and the creative practices that depend on the gaps formed by waiting.
An embrace of the moments when waiting becomes visible can remind us not of the time we are losing but of the ways we can demystify the mythology of instantaneous culture and ever-accelerating paces of “real time.” Notions of instantaneous culture promise that access to what we desire can be fulfilled immediately. However, this logic that dominates the current approaches to the tech industry misses the power of waiting and the embedded role it plays in our daily lives.
Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time
Although waiting is different from stillness — another essential, modernity-endangered state of being — in having an object of anticipation, a thing we are waiting for, it is kindred in that recalibrating our experience of waiting not as tortuous but as fertile requires a certain inner stillness that defies the forward slash of the soul toward the awaited. Farman chronicles some of the landmark technologies that have shaped our relationship with waiting — from aboriginal message sticks to the postage stamp to the buffering icon to Japan’s mobile messaging system deployed in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — to explore how we can allay the durational restlessness of our lives.
One of the most fascinating and pause-giving chapters of the book uses astrophysics as a lens on waiting — a field in which the greatest discoveries take decades, sometimes centuries, of incubation, prototyping, and testing in the laboratory of reality we call nature. (Take, for instance, the detection of gravitational waves — the most monumental astrophysical breakthrough in our lifetime and the greatest since Galileo — a triumph with a remarkable century-long buildup.)
With an eye to the New Horizons interplanetary space probe — which revolutionized our understanding of the Solar System in faint whispers of data transmitted across three billion miles of cosmic expanse, dripping at a rate vastly smaller than that at which earthlings stream YouTube videos and upload photos to Instagram — Farman frames waiting an essential building block of the speculative imagination, a period that allows for the cultivation of what Bertrand Russell so poetically and memorably termed “a largeness of contemplation”:
The New Horizons mission is a perfect example of the vital relationship between waiting and knowledge. The unknown creates speculation as we try to fill in the gaps of knowledge with everything from educated guesses to fear-inspired myths about what lies beyond the edge of our understanding.
This mode of speculation creates a new way of thinking. Our imaginations allow us to access that which does not yet exist and create scenarios that have not yet happened. Wait times are key to this mode of creative thinking because they afford us the opportunity to imagine and speculate about worlds beyond our own immediate places and speculate about the possible.
Nearly a century after T.S. Eliot — the poet laureate of “the still point of the turning world” — insisted on the creative value of the incubation period, Farman writes:
Waiting, as represented by silences, gaps, and distance, allows us the capacity to imagine that which does not yet exist and, ultimately, innovate into those new worlds as our knowledge expands.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland
In another chapter, he turns to Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot to reframe waiting not as a stoic feat of endurance in the name of some anticipated reward but as a process transformative and rewarding in its very unfolding — a sort of training ground for hope, which is ultimately training ground for character:
Beckett’s play, in its many violations of theatrical norms, strips away plot expectations to make a comment on the human condition. Godot symbolizes whatever we wait for, whatever we long for, whatever we rely on to save us from our current state of uncertainty and despair. Godot represents the promise of what might come on the other side of our waiting.
It shows how time flows through us and changes us. Day after day, as we wait for the things we desire, we become different people. In the act of waiting, we become who we are. Waiting points to our desires and hopes for the future; and while that future may never arrive and our hopes may never be fulfilled, the act of reflecting on waiting teaches us about ourselves. The meaning of life isn’t deferred until that thing we hope for arrives; instead, in the moment of waiting, meaning is located in our ability to recognize the ways that such hopes define us.
At the end of the book, Farman offers two practical strategies for recalibrating our experience of waiting from burdensome to fruitful. The first is a deceptively simple yet effective discipline of shifting focus from the negative feelings waiting breeds — boredom, helplessness, anger — to a reminder of the positive object of the waiting. As soon as we remember, really remember, what we are waiting for and why we want it, Farman argues, the frustration of waiting is neutralized.
Art by Salvador Dalí for a rare 1946 edition of the essays of Montaigne
But far more interesting and profound is the second tactic. Farman proposes a radical shift of viewing time not as individual but as collective, which is inherently a radical act of empathy — the willingness to accept another’s time as just as valuable as our own, however different our circumstances may be. Embedded in this act is a challenge to the power structures of the status quo, for it forces us to consider who is imposing the wait times on whom and who benefits from that imposition. In a sentiment that calls to mind the fascinating science of why empathy is a clock that ticks in the consciousness of another, Farman writes:
If my time is distinct from your time, and you end up wasting my time by valuing your own, you have robbed me of my resource (time). When you value your own time instead of my time, you have effectively stolen minutes (or hours) from me. We see these attitudes in abundance.
However, if we shift perspectives and see our time as intertwined with one another’s, then we are all investing our time in other people’s circumstances.
Art by Isol from Daytime Visions
Farman recounts a not-uncommon experience: At the grocery store, he finds himself getting reflexively frustrated with the woman ahead of him, who is taking too much time to check out. Only upon realizing that she is counting food stamps and coupons does he transport himself, with a pang of shame, into her difficult circumstances. He writes:
If we work toward an awareness of time as collective rather than individual, we can come to understand wait time as an investment in the social fabric that connects us. My patience with someone like the woman at the grocery store who has to account for every dollar and pay with food stamps is an investment of my time in her situation. As we invest time in other people through waiting, we become stakeholders in their situations. This has the radical potential to build empathy and to inspire a call for social change, as we realize that not everyone is afforded the same agency for how time is used.
There are times when we should wait and see the benefits of waiting; however, there are times when waiting needs to be resisted. Waiting can be a tool of the powerful to maintain the status quo by forcing people to invest their time in ways that inhibit their ability to transform their situation. Many examples demonstrate the kinds of waiting that reinforce the power dynamics in a society. From the long-delayed recovery efforts and federal dollars following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the perpetually delayed recovery for Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands after Hurricane Maria in 2017, to the long commute times between home and job (often, jobs) imposed on many people below the poverty line, unequal access to time is revealed in the different ways people are forced to wait. Many social justice advocates like Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander point to prisoners like those sitting in San Quentin as prime examples of those who are forced to wait unjustly. The “prison industrial complex,” as Davis terms it, is fueled by racial inequality that targets African Americans more than any other population