Tag: philosophy

Essential Love

The eclectic relationship between Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir was too good to be true. Or was it?

In 1990, a collective gasp could be heard around the world: Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Jean-Paul Sartre were published. In contrast to Sartre’s letters to Beauvoir, published a few years earlier after Sartre’s death, these letters were unedited – now everyone knew what the relationship of the famous couple really looked like. While Beauvoir-and-Sartre aficionados were deeply disappointed, others were full of schadenfreude: Finally there was proof that this relationship always sounded too good to be true! Somehow or other, the myth of the perfect intellectual couple was shattered. Why?
Well, instead of exchanging philosophical ideas and talking about the world’s problems, Beauvoir and Sartre discussed their numerous affairs, including the best ways to get rid of them. It was an existentialist soap-opera. In her memoirs Beauvoir had always stressed the fact that those books didn’t tell the whole story about Sartre and her: “There are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity.” Like her bisexuality. In interviews, Beauvoir had always denied having sexual relations with women – in the letters to Sartre, she described those in great detail: “I’ve a very keen taste for her body”, she wrote about one of her female lovers. Is that really the legacy the glamorous philosophical couple leaves us with: Petty discussions about who bedded whom?

Small and not exactly good-looking

When Jean-Paul met Simone at the Sorbonne in 1929 it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. At least not for her. Jean-Paul Sartre was an unlikely womanizer: He was small and not exactly good-looking, but he made up for it with his bright mind, humor and entertaining qualities. The ladies loved him. For months, the 24-year-old Sartre had been keeping track of Simone de Beauvoir: a restrained, beautiful and clever student three years his junior. Both were studying philosophy and preparing for the prestigious and difficult exam called agrégation. Passing it – which few students did – would allow them to teach at secondary schools. Sartre desperately wanted to make Beauvoir’s acquaintance, but she kept her distance. Not surprising, given the fact that Beauvoir came from a sheltered and conservative household –and Sartre and his inner circle had a bad reputation: they smoked, they drunk and they were fond of silly jokes and pranks. Bro culture at its best. However, a month before the agrégation’s oral examination, Sartre proposed to his friends to invite Mademoiselle Beauvoir to join them during their studies.
The rest, as they say, is history. Soon, Beauvoir and “the little man”, Sartre, became inseparable. Beauvoir was happy: For the first time in her life, she felt intellectually dominated by another. Sartre challenged her, treated her as an equal. She knew for certain: This small, brilliant, slightly megalomaniac man was the companion she had already imagined as a young girl. For Sartre, Beauvoir was his equal as well: a fiercely independent woman who was able to keep up with him intellectually, supplementing his own thoughts.

A relationship with no precedent

Both Sartre and Beauvoir passed the oral exam: He came in first, she second. Soon the two lovebirds started discussing their mutual future. Sartre made it clear that he wouldn’t want to pass on affairs with other women. “What we have is an essential love”, he told Beauvoir, “but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” It is hard to imagine that Beauvoir was immediately into this proposal. She was in love – and now the object of her love was asking for a complimentary ticket to bestow his favors on other women? But Beauvoir trusted Sartre and she was prepared to live a relationship for which there was no model to build upon. Willing to offer her a way out, Sartre even proposed marriage. Beauvoir declined. Instead, they agreed on a two-year lease, a pact: During Sartre’s military service, they would see each other as often as possible. Beauvoir, instead of directly entering the teaching profession and probably being send to the provinces, would remain in Paris. At the end of those two years, both would apply for jobs in different countries, separating for a few years, meeting again, separating again. That way, their relationship would never get boring. During the two-year period, there would only be no “contingent love affairs”. But they would still tell each other everything and never lie to each other. Their relationship would always prevail over routines and relationships with others. Later they revised their two-year pact, this time it was for life.
And this time, “contingent love affairs” were very much part of the plan. Beauvoir and Sartre were especially fond of a constellation they called “trio”. In 1936, they started their first “trio” with Beauvoir’s former student Olga Kosakiewicz (Beauvoir processed this experience in her debut novel She came to stay). Beauvoir’s proposal to Olga was this: She and Sartre would take care of her by supporting her financially and teaching her. Beauvoir soon started sleeping with Olga – Sartre pursued the girl relentlessly but never succeeded in seducing her.

Sex, without being into it

Beauvoir and Sartre would repeat this pattern over and over again. They acted as parents, adopting a young girl, supporting her, teaching her, seducing her. The relations within the “trio” were uneven: Olga, as later Bianca Bienenfeld and other girls, were financially and often emotionally dependent on Beauvoir and Sartre. As long as the couple found someone interesting, they were charming and amiable – but if they had had enough of them, they turned aloof and cruel. In Paris, Beauvoir and Sartre gathered a group of close friends and acquaintances, “la petite famille”. This “family” was a complicated network, overseen by Beauvoir and Sartre. Most of the time the members of the family didn’t know the whole picture – Olga had no clue that Beauvoir had an affair with her boyfriend (and later husband) Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre’s girlfriend Wanda (Olga’s sister) was oblivious to the fact that Sartre was sleeping with Bianca. And so on, and so forth.
This all sounds quite stressful. Still, the sneakiness and the schemes seemed to have amused Beauvoir and Sartre. Their letters are full of stories about their respective conquests and affairs: Bianca is jealous, Bost and Olga are fighting. Oh, these spoiled kids. The letters and exchanges can be seen as a sexual ersatz: Sartre might have pursued sex, but he wasn’t really into it. He preferred the process of seduction to the act itself. Beauvoir on the other hand was a very sexual woman. The family, with all its smaller and bigger dramas allowed Beauvoir and Sartre to have sexual relations even after theirs stopped. Sartre might not have been a great lover – but he had a way with words.
Beauvoir and Sartre were thus oversharing long before oversharing even became a term. Their letters make them seem condescending and exploitive. To their credit, both of them knew this. When Sartre dumped Bianca in March 1940 – he was stationed as a soldier at that time – Beauvoir later wrote him:

“I never blamed you for making the break, since after all that’s what I’d advised you to do. But I blamed us – myself as much as you, actually – in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable that we’d managed to make her suffer so much.”

Sartre often used Beauvoir to end relationship he no longer wanted to pursue. Either as the bearer of the bad news or as means to an end: His women almost never knew of each other – but they all knew of Beauvoir, whom Sartre presented as the reason why he had to end his “contingent” love affairs. Put the blame on her, Mesdemoiselles! Beauvoir was the real deal, he would never leave her.

Trying and failing

Which doesn’t mean the pact was never threatened in its 51 years of existence. Both Beauvoir and Sartre fell seriously in love with others, Sartre even considered marrying one of his girlfriends. But in the end, the pact survived – and lasted until the end of their lives (Sartre died in 1980, Beauvoir in 1986). It may not have been the perfect relationship between equals it was often seen as; but nor was it a farce, only constructed to hide a dirty truth. Beauvoir and Sartre were both complicated characters, so why should their relationship have been easy? They might have been a unique intellectual powerhouse, but in the end they were still a man and a woman committed to one another – no matter what. Colette Audry, Beuavoir’s teacher colleague in Rouen, remembers: “Theirs was a new kind of relationship, and I had never seen anything like it. I can’t describe what it was like to be present when those two were together. It was so intense that sometimes it made others who saw it sad not to have it.”
From the beginning, there was more at stake for Beauvoir: In the 1920s, deciding against marriage and children might have been okay for a bourgeois man like Sartre, but it wasn’t for a bourgeois woman like Beauvoir. When she chose a life with Sartre, she chose a life radically different from the one she was brought up to lead. She jumped, hoping that the risk would pay. In the end, it did. She got her freedom, even if she wasn’t free from jealousy. Nor was Sartre, for that matter. Sartre and Beauvoir had no archetypes, no models to base on their relationship. They had to learn that freedom isn’t just given once, but that in a relationship, it is an ongoing process. They tried and yes, often they failed – mostly other people. But isn’t trying and failing always better than not trying at all?
 

Trash Talks: what our garbage reveals about ourselves

Philosopher Elizabeth V. Spelman on the surprising relation between us and the things we throw away.

There is a great deal of buzz about trash: books, conferences and online journals are awash in talk about it. The Discard Studies website, for example, provides a comprehensive and regularly updated list of sources.
One of the main reasons for such widespread attention is that human habits of trash-making around the world have come to pose enormous problems for human and non-human life and the health of the planet — though it would be disingenuous to suggest that such problems are new or that they are evenly distributed across neighborhoods, communities, nations: for example, the USA regularly dumps its electronic waste in countries such as China and Ghana, multiplying whatever ill effects are produced by those countries’ own waste-making. My aim here, however, is not to join the pressing and important conversations about the growing menace of trash. Rather, it is to bring attention to the many ways in which references to trash have played a crucial role in our attempts to make sense of our lives and to articulate relations among us. We may want trash to be out of our immediate sight and smell, but not very far out of mind. I develop these ideas in considerable detail in Trash Talks: Revelations in the Rubbish, and offer a taste of some of my reflections in what follows.

A synonym for useless

“Trash” is just one member of a family of terms we use to describe that which we have judged to be useless, never or no longer of value. We have ready at hand a trash lexicon to mark our disgust, disdain, or distance: “Those oranges belong in the garbage.” “This computer is a piece of junk.” “What a colossal waste of time.” Or the fierce battle cry of the warrior philosopher, “That argument is pure rubbish.”
But our invocations of trash, waste, garbage etc. go far beyond snarky judgments to the effect that something or someone is useless or contemptible. We appear to have found it quite useful to call upon the rich resources of the trash lexicon in our accounts of the kinds of beings we are and how we are positioned vis-à-vis one another. Many distinctions among us that we seem in no hurry to give up turn out to track differences in our connections to trash, waste, rubbish and their siblings. “Trash Talks” explores six such distinctions, identified as those between the (1) the Knower and the Known, (2) the Fat Cats and the Stragglers, (3) the Scathed and the Unscathed, (4) the Designed and the Disorderly, (5) the Enlightened and the Unenlightened, and (6) Reliable and Unreliable Judges. (Readers are welcome, indeed encouraged, to add to the list.)

  1. The Knower and the Known.
    Want to get the dirt on someone, to ferret out something about them they’d probably prefer not to be known? Celebrity watchers and narcotics agents know how to do it (often testing legal limits to such scrutiny): comb through their trash. That will put the scoundrels in their place!
  2. The Fat Cats and the Stragglers.
    Eager to create and maintain superior social status? Make it as obvious as you can to others that you can afford to be wasteful—to have much more than you need, by any reasonable standard, and to employ rafts of workers clearly engaged in taking care of your goods. That anyway was the recipe Thorstein Veblen, in his classic (though not uncontested) “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, saw put to use by members of the leisure class in late 19th and early 20th centuries, a recipe some current observers see in the building of what colloquially have come to be called McMansions (not to mention McTrumps). The point of such display is not, of course, to invite others actually go through your trash (see [i]) but to make sure they have no doubts about your enjoying an economic standing that allows you to be wasteful. This is not to say that all those having such standing engage in conspicuous consumption, only that such consumption often has been a handy way of establishing relative position.
  3. The Scathed and the Unscathed.
    Whether considered contaminated on account of the nature of their work, or assigned such work on account of the alleged impurity of their very being, sanitation workers around the world rarely are lauded as valuable members of their communities. Indeed they often are treated as disposable themselves, despite the indispensability of their labor to the health and general well being of those communities. Examples are hardly limited to the Dalit (formerly the “untouchables”) in India, as Robin Nagle recently has made clear in her “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City”.
  4. The Designed and the Disorderly.
    Charles Darwin reluctantly but ineluctably came to believe that the wastefulness he observed in nature was at odds with the idea that this world is the work of an intelligent designer. The tension he experienced is alive in current debates between many evolutionary theorists and a hearty coterie of proponents of Intelligent Design. Part of what sometimes seems to be at stake is the kind of account we are to give of our species: are we the exquisite product of a fabulously intelligent designer, or just another event in nature’s aleatory, wantonly wasteful parade?
  5. The Enlightened and the Unenlightened.
    Plato and the Buddha warned humankind that dissatisfaction is a steady companion of desire. Though neither of them addressed worries about the trash likely to be created as a result of such dissatisfaction, they certainly wouldn’t be surprised by our prodigious production of refuse, and no doubt would be alarmed by the extent to which dissatisfaction’s star has risen: hyper-consumerist societies count on consumers’ eventually ceasing to be pleased with their purchases.
  6. Reliable and Unreliable judges.
    Some of us know waste when we see it, others of us don’t — or so it is alleged — and the stakes involved in establishing the category into which you fall can be very high. In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1674), at the root of Eve’s disobedient plucking of the forbidden fruit is her confident belief that she is a better judge than God of what constitutes waste: she’s no fool, she knows that surely the proper use of the fruit is for it to be eaten, for its potential not to be lost. God, the story goes, disagreed; bye-bye Eden. In John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government” (1690), the implication is clear that settlers from afar are entitled to property rights over territory occupied by the “wretched inhabitants” of the Americas because the latter fail to see, Locke insisted, that land that is not cultivated is going to waste, its potential unrealized.

Trash disposal, in 1972. Not much has changed.

Trash disposal, in 1972. We still rely on trash as a reference to distinguish the superior and the inferior.


It is not surprising that terms used to denote the disvalued and decommissioned show up in efforts meant to establish that some people or things are superior to other people or things, whether that superiority be epistemic (in terms of knowledge or of judgment); social/economic; or metaphysical (in terms of the very nature of states of being). We may be insistent upon keeping trash and waste and their siblings as far away as possible (for example, on the shores of people we judge to be less worthy specimens of humanity than ourselves), but we maintain quite intimate connections with trash, waste and their relatives to the extent that we rely on reference to them to do the dirty work of trying to drive home invidious distinctions between the superior and inferior, the better and the worse, the worthy and the unworthy.
We don’t seem any more ready to give up those projects than we are to stop trashing our communities and our planet.

A Place, between Sleep and Awake

About the magic of a fleeting, daily moment.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

There is a moment, at night, when darkness has worn itself out and dawn is about to break. When colors are pale and sounds muted and soft. A moment that belongs to poets and painters, and perhaps the birds, for in it even the night watchmen have gone to bed, and not even the bakers have yet left it.
The bed itself is perfectly warm. The covers, perfectly tucked around toes and ears. A pink and timid nose peeks out to face the perfectly crisp air. All other acts of bravado are on hold, in this moment too late for last night, too early for today.
A perfect, fleeting moment. A perfectly fleeting moment. devoid of thought or emotion. Devoid of time itself, it is almost a place. A place “between sleep and awake, where you still remember dreaming.” And beyond which nothing else exists.

Here grief forgets to groan, and love to weep,
Ev’n superstition loses ev’ry fear:
For God, not man, absolves our frailties here.
– Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelaid

It does not last of course; the world begins to fidget. The gardeners and first train drivers, the lunch packing mothers and life hungry toddlers. The surgeons and nurses, the runners and dog walkers. The flight takers, the presentation givers, the coffee brewers and drinkers. Soon enough the moment is gone, “the world forgetting, by the world forgot.” Colors turn bright, noises loud, and we are awake.
“Awake” is not a pleasant state. In it the day unfolds, littered with morning headlines overheard in traffic jams, noon deadlines remembered at one. Predictions are proven failed, decisions are proven wrong in the wear and tear of the day’s responsibilities, disappointments, and by the time the sun sets, its regrets.
Awake is a heavy state. We can only take a day of it at a time.
So out of covers we build fortresses and tents, and out of wooden shoes, ships. Eyes closed, so no one can see us, we sail off “on a river of crystal light,” to that place between sleep and awake.
There, we do not remember what to regret, we do not know yet what to dread. Our guess about how tomorrow, and life, will unfold, is as good as any. We smile, like children, in our sleep.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

No parameters, conditions, or rules. No clouds or shadows in spotless minds.
Soon, again, it will be time to wake, and we will face reality. The consequences of past mistakes, the stomach churn of coming winters. But for now let us stay a little longer in this moment devoid of time and emotion, and I will paint you a picture of this place behind closed eyes, between sleep and awake.

There are fields and fields of flowers, […] fields and fields of lilies–and when the soft wind blows over them it wafts the scent of them into the air–and everybody always breathes it, because the soft wind is always blowing. And little children run about in the lily fields and gather armfuls of them, and laugh and make little wreaths. And the streets are shining. And people are never tired, however far they walk.’
Frances Hodgson Burnett

And since we are bound to forget it anyway, in this place let us be who we want to be. Let us be knights and princesses, astronauts and fishermen, explorers and magicians, spies and inventors. Let us have magic powers, let us know how to fly. Make hot cocoa from fountains, animal crackers from clouds. Let us never be hungry, never be cold. Let us be young and happy and in love. Let us be two people holding hands on the couch.
For a perfect, fleeting moment, let us be dreamers, who “can only find their way by moonlight, and their punishment is that they see the dawn before the rest of the world.” ((The original quote by Oscar Wilde reads as follows: ‘For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.’))
Then the world will fidget, and we can try the day again.

‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
Eugene Field, Wynken Blynken and Nod

Hans-Ulrich Obrist on Sleep

The famous curator’s schedule barely allows for sleep. But his job requires it.
A talk about fighting the internal clock – and embracing it.

What does sleep mean to you?
My understanding of it is very much influenced by the work of the German professor of chronobiology, Till Roenneberg, whom I met a few years ago during the DLD conference in Munich. We have had conversations ever since and even plan to do a book together. He explores the impact light has on our circadian rhythms and what phenomena like social jet-lag, the misalignment of biological and social time, do to our body.
What are his findings?
He developed a chronotype questionnaire and in his book Internal Time, he explains how our circadian rhythms work. We often think that we choose our sleep patterns, that we choose to be an early bird or night owl, but he tried to demonstrate that our patterns are actually genetic. We are all bound to our internal clock, and it can be extremely harmful to try to go against it. Roenneberg focuses on the social jet-lag that results from that and defines it as the difference between mid-sleep on free days and mid-sleep on workdays. It’s interesting to see how people will wake up at a specific time without any exterior alarm clock but just because of their inner alarm clock. When I was younger, I didn’t think much about this, I went against my internal clock almost daily. It produced some interesting things and ideas but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.

“Productivity fueled by an immense amount of coffee”

During the early 1990s, you tried the Balzacian coffee-regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee per day. Was that such an attempt to defeat your internal clock?
At that moment, I was very fascinated by the productivity and the sheer output of Balzac. I was just embarking on my first book project and it took me forever. I kept thinking about how I could increase my output and reach a more dynamic form of productivity. When I found out that Balzac’s productivity was fueled by an immense amount of coffee – up to 52 cups a day –, I thought that his method was worth exploring and so I tried it out for a year.
Did you stick to his 52-cups-a-day-rhythm?
No, I probably drank between 30 and 40 cups a day but often just small espressos. There were, however, days, when I did reach the Balzacian threshold.
Did it help you boost your productivity?
Very much so. I was extremely productive, finished my first books in no time but I knew that it wasn’t a sustainable way to work or live, so I switched methods and tried the da Vinci rhythm – which again means going against the internal clock. His rhythm was sleeping 15 minutes every three hours. It did actually prove to be more efficient than the Balzac regime because I was even more productive and less tired but there were other problems.
Like?
It’s not compatible with social life. At the time I had an office job at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and it proved extremely difficult to maintain it throughout a regular working day, so I had to stop. But there was also the problem with the internal clock because if you sleep for fifteen minutes, you won’t just wake-up by yourself. You need gigantic alarm clocks that could wake up entire dormitories because you are tired and you want to sleep some more. A little bit later, I started to work on a book about dreams and that really changed my whole attitude because I realized how important it is to adhere to the internal clock. I discussed this with Hélène Cixous, who wrote the magnificent book Dream I Tell You and writes down all her dreams when she wakes up in the morning. It made me realize that you don’t dream a lot if you don’t sleep a lot and that if I wanted to explore my dreams, I needed to sleep more.
So what is your current sleeping routine?
After discussing this with Roenneberg, I focused more on my internal clock and found out that the best thing for me is to go to bed relatively early, around midnight, and then get up between 5 and 6 am. That way, I can use the time in the morning and work and read before my actual day of work at the office begins. Once I understood the importance of my internal clock, I started to organize my entire life accordingly.

“We have to revive the daily ritual”

You also founded the Brutally Early Club, where you meet with people at 6.30 am in cafés in London to debate and discuss. What was the impetus behind that?
Since I wake up early and am ready to work around 6 or 6.30 in the morning, I figured I could also have meetings with other people at that time instead of just working alone at home. Also, in a city like London, everybody is so busy all the time that it is very difficult to organize meetings. You have to plan it months in advance and it is impossible to improvise. But at 6.30 in the morning, everybody is available because the regular working day has not yet started and there is no hassle to get from A to B.
It also demands a certain discipline to get up that early if you are not used to it.
It does, but it is also a ritual. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that we live in a time in which the ritual is dying and that we have to revive the daily ritual. In a way, the Balzac regime and the da Vinci rhythm were already an attempt to ritualize my life.
Isn’t sleep in a way the most widely shared daily ritual because it is an activity that most people do roughly at the same time?
It is very much a ritual, since every person has a very own and specific internal clock. Some of my friends cannot sleep before 4 am because it would go against their internal clock, but to most people that seems unusual. I even know people who can’t sleep at night but only during the day. There is also creative potential in that.
In what way?
I once had a research assistant who always came to work late because he couldn’t get up before dusk, because he was sleeping during the day and working at night. Given the usual office hours, that turned out to be a bit of a problem. However, that was during the time I discovered my internal rhythm and noticed that our internal clocks were exactly the opposite from each other. He could work best at the time I was sleeping and I realized the complimentary potential in that so I hired him to be my personal assistant for my book project. He comes to my house around 11 pm and then we work together for an hour before I go to bed and he works throughout the night until I get up around 6:00. We have a briefing and then I take over again – very convenient.
What’s striking is that sleep for you seems to be about productivity, or the lack thereof, while to most people it is about rest and relaxation.
It is about optimizing my working process and to stretch the realm of the possible, that’s true. But I don’t think that it is about output, I am not a factory. It’s about curiosity and my desire to learn. I am constantly under the impression that I lack time to read or write and obviously sleep gets in the way of that. I was very influenced by a monastery near St. Gallen my parents took me to when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the drive of the monks during the Middle Ages to gather and conserve all the knowledge. Even in the 18th century, the idea of the Universalgelehrte was flourishing with people like Athanasius Kircher. But we know today, that that is virtually impossible, that there is a limit to what you can learn or know. So it’s rather an input than an output problem.
Following the logic of optimization, sleep must be a waste of time to you?
I used to consider it that. But I realized how important for example dreams are and you can only dream if you sleep enough, so sleep is not a waste of time but a necessity.
Many artists cherish what is often called “creative sleep” as their most important source of inspiration because it is in your sleep that you reach the vital subconscious part of your mind power. Does sleeping trigger your creativity as well?
Definitely! Sleeping is a parallel reality and we can use the insights it offers. I have actually embarked on a project recommended to me by Hélène Cixous. Every day when I wake up, I write down my dreams, I compile them. Another thing that I encountered is that the sleeping structure or pattern is also very similar to our patterns in the state of wakefulness.
In what way?
In the 1990s, I was basically a nomad, traveling on trains nearly 365 days a year throughout Europe and Asia to investigate art. Around the year 2000, I decided that it was time to settle down and so I took a job in Paris and later moved to London, where I live and work now. So over the last 15 years, I have been living pretty much in one place. But I use the weekends for my own research, so to speak, and spend almost every weekend away. So you see that I have fixed daily or weekly rhythms and that these also change over time. The internal clock is not just about when we sleep and when we are awake, it’s also about what we do when we are awake. Changing your structure is important because you make different experiences and can learn from them.

“The bed is one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition”

De-structuring wakefulness?
Not de-structuring but re-structuring it from time to time. There is an interesting book by Jonathan Crary called 24/7 in which he cautions against our permanent availability. With every new device or medium, you become more available and accessible and how time is being modernized and standardized. This ties in with what philosopher Édouard Glissant had to say about mondialité and how globalization forces out to re-define time and space. It is extremely important to de-link and break free from this 24/7 circle and that usually happens at night when we sleep. I also do it during the day, when I switch off my phone and read or write.
In a way, sleep is standardized because we do it not only at specific times, but also at a specific place: the bedroom. What are your thoughts on the concept of the bedroom?
It’s an interesting concept. To me, the bedroom is always connected to books and reading. I can’t sleep unless I read something in bed. It’s not only a place I go to to sleep but also to read and unwind. So I always take a lot of books with me when I am traveling to make myself at home.
Sleep is obviously an essential part of our lives, but in comparison to other aspects of life, it is relatively neglected in art. Why do you think that is?
There was an exhibition at the 21er Haus in Vienna called “Sleepless”, curated by Mario Codognato. It examined the role and importance of beds in art, like when Yoko Ono and John Lennon got into the bed for the “bed-ins” to protest against the war. It is striking to see how many artists used the iconography of the bed in their artworks. It is probably one of the most powerful metaphors for the human condition. Life usually starts in beds and very often ends there. There are the big topics of art such as death, life, love or fear, and in a way, these topics are all very much related to sleep and the bed.
When you sleep, you are as close to death as you can be as a living person. Jean Cocteau once argued that sleep is not a safe place because we are completely vulnerable.
The moment you fall asleep, you give up every bit of conscious control over your body and mind. There is the saying that every day is a new life and hence you die every single night and are reborn every morning. John Steinbeck once said that it is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it. So yes, we are vulnerable during our sleep, but more often it helps us solve our problems. It’s also interesting how sleep is connected to silence. Francis Bacon famously said that silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom. That quote often reminds me of an encounter with the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer I had.
How so?
I visited him at his home to interview him. We talked about sleep and at one point during the interview, he just fell asleep. I didn’t know what to do because there was no way I could just shake him and wake him up.
What did you do?
I let him sleep for 15 minutes when the phone suddenly started ringing. That woke him up and he told the person on the phone that he could not talk now because he was in the middle of an interview. He perfectly realized what had just happened. So he looked at me and said: “You would have had great difficulties transcribing my silence”. I could understand why it happened because it happened to me a lot during my Balzac and da Vinci days.
Falling asleep during activities?
I once fell asleep on the treadmill while running. It was just for a second, but it was definitely a strange dynamic at work. That dynamic fascinates me about sleep. There are two quotes I like a lot about sleep.
Namely?
Hemingway once said that he loves sleep because his life has the tendency to fall apart when he is awake. The other one is probably my favorite. It is by Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

Everything ends

There’s a feeling that swells up your veins and chokes your senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out all thought. That’s the awareness of your own mortality.

My Grandmother faced the same fate as a biodegradable shopping bag. Both made of molecules, of atoms, controlled by thermodynamic systems intrinsically complex. With entropy, no worldly item is more special than any other.
The formal definition of the Second Law of Thermodynamics states:

The total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.

Entropy is represented as an abstraction – something intangible – but its effect is very real.
I have often thought that thermodynamics might be the Universe’s real God. We all bow down to the same master in the end, whether a star, a galaxy or a slug. Coaxed through life by the forever deceitful and cunning time, we tumble through the world blindly, as if the laws of thermodynamics had enlisted time as a servant guiding us to the bittersweet.

There is something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death

Contemplation of life has led many of us to study: Theology and philosophy, metaphysics, future technologies and even their role in a supposedly promised Singularity. Time is dripping. Time destroys all things. And to think about it – to blank out all worldly thoughts and think about man’s demise, to concentrate and connect with our fortune of a vast nothingness, of the absurdity of it all, of your own existence, of your own thoughts – creates an intense emotional paralysis. A feeling that runs through your entire body, swelling up veins and choking all senses, an internal tornado that blitzes out every other thought as if you’ve been paralyzed by a stroke. That’s the awareness of your own mortality. Some feel they could die in end that very moment, completely humbled by their own inferiority. Perhaps that is the last experience we feel when we do actually die. Completely overpowered. Gone.
But there is value in invoking that emotional uneasiness. To feel it deeply but then use it as a motivator, a call to action. For regardless where science takes us, regardless what the future holds for the lifespan of ourselves and our descendants, there will always be something aesthetically romantic in thinking about death. For a lover to overpower you is a minor prelude for what one day we imagine death might do. The French got it right with le petit mort. We each only have one real relationship, and it’s between us as individuals and time. In the end death consummates that relationship into an eternity. One day, time will ravage your body, she will destroy you, physically and mentally. Evolution may be the greatest artist but she paints a cruel beauty of destruction. All us creatures, harmonizing or contrasting with each other. None of us holding Dutch the value of the eternal whole, none more important than the other – although perhaps naively thinking we are.

Each of us, roaring to disturb the universe

To think about these things – love, consciousness, life and death – leaves us humbled by the histories of all those who have lived before us, and of all those who will live after us. To realize the unimportance of ourselves in the sequence of the eternal everything. Forever impressed by the genuine role of human anonymity, the universe doesn’t and won’t ever really know who we are, other than just one of many dots in the vast space-time spectrum. Each of us as individuals, roaring in our attempts to disturb List the universe. We roar! We roar! It’s imperative for the human condition. For change, for progress, for the advancement of our species.
Contrast that with the lives of less conscious animals and how they carry their humbler paths in the evolutionary sequence: At the end, they seek to find a secluded spot to hide and die quietly. They rot to the ground and into the circle of life. There is no fanfare. No quest for immortality. No funeral procession. And there’s a strange Lancement sort of sublimity in the minimalism. It came. It went.
Imagine if we had the capabilities to experience both our own birth and death. Man would be a different creature. By the time his consciousness has fully developed, he has often already taken much of the world around him for granted. With death there is no chance for post-experience reflection. From a positive, a something, we become a negative, a nothing. I feel my own fragility in moments of sickness, the starkness of my own decay, and I think to myself “How lucky you are to normally keep this complex atomic mix so together.”
Even though I have no desire to die, even though it’s imperative to extend and expand human lifespan, I feel lucky for what I already have. Grateful and humbled that out of all the randomness, out of all the complexity, out of all the cells and out of all the stars and out of all the processes, out of this mad unique palette that makes up this universe that I have a chance to experience. It’s a feeling that makes the mundane beautiful, because in reality there is no mundane. The simplest thing in our regard is laden with sublime complexity. It’s near impossible to not become awestruck, once you start paying attention to the details. And at the end of a long day, tired from work with restless worries, to again have the chance to be in bed remembering that it’s another night under the Milky Way. Another day that has bred a lovestruck fascination. Another day of life.