Shifting the Silence to Find the Meaning: 95-Year-Old Artist, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on How to Live and How to Die

“The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul… Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate… It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are.”

Shifting the Silence to Find the Meaning: 95-Year-Old Artist, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on How to Live and How to Die

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the polymathic poet, painter, novelist, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) wrote at the foot of a mountain she saw as a lens on the meaning of life.

A half century later, and as the dawn began to silver the Parisian skies, she was able to slip out of the mortal into the eternal, just 1000 days short of being 100 years old. (No amount of life is enough life, and any amount of life is enough life — as with love.)

Adnan’s uncommon reckoning with mortality and the meaning lives on his her final book, Shifting the Silence (public library) — a lucid and luminous stream-of-consciousness outpouring of insight into the nature of existence, an inquiry into what gives meaning to our mortal lives, partway between poetry and philosophy, between requiem and redemption, between Gertrude Stein’s meditation on belonging in a love letter to Paris and Patti Smith’s meditation on dreams in a love letter to time. What emerges is the wakeful work, a life’s work, of naming what is — the ultimate Is beyond the explanations that masquerade as meaning yet containing the ultimate meaning.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Adnan writes:

If we just name somethings, and the words that precede them have their meanings, then a cosmic narration occurs. Is the discovery of the origins a way to remove all the dust? The horizon’s shimmering slows down all other perceptions. This reminds me of my childhood in emptiness, which seemed to have brought me close to the beginnings and ends of time and space.


Word-languages are a trap… They created chaos and made us sink in incoherence… Our words don’t suit prophecies anymore. That power is left to other species: to oak trees, for example, to the tides, which through their restlessness carry a phosphorescence we’re not equipped to hear.

From the fortunate, ramshackle dock of her nine decades — having lived through the splitting of the atom and the Moon landing, through the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, through a civil war that savaged her homeland and a world war that savaged our civilization, through the heyday Picasso and particle physics and Plath — she observes:

My favorite time is in time’s other side, its other identity, the kind that collapses and sometimes reappears, and sometimes doesn’t. The one that looks like marshmallows, pomegranates, and stranger things, before returning to its kind of abstraction… Today I see eternity everywhere. It looked infinite and endless yesterday when I placed an empty glass champagne on the dining table.

Visitor to the Guggenheim Museum’s Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Writing in the final season of her life, while around her a record heatwave is swarming Paris and wildfires are ravaging the Californian landscapes of her prime and her paintings, Adnan wonders whether this might be the final season of civilization, of the world itself as we know it, wonders whether we can “keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days.” She paces the periphery of Paris one timeless step at a time, watches the fog turn the Eiffel Tower into “a faint mark on pure space,” marvels at the magnolia in her garden “thriving in this non-tropical country,” marvels at the first image of an enormous frozen lake newly discovered on Mars and its “pinkish land covered with ice,” savors “the night’s different shades, its infinite richness,” reads a book of poems written by an artificial intelligence and ponders the meaning of reality, the meaning of intelligence. Her mind wanders to the physics of tides, to the Trojan War, to the epoch-making spacecraft that has just landed on the dark side of the Moon, to Picasso’s late erotic etchings of women, to the burning mountain she once lived in and loved with the fire of life. Her wandering mind watches itself.

What I’m thinking about is happening in my midst. California has returned to the flames. I am burning. Am one of the trees that’s disappearing in the fires. My body is becoming blackened and gray.

Yet, there’s more to the cinder of thinking-mind than that, some greater consciousness where the crests, and troughs, of being, and not-being, merge into the sine wave continuous of what is, which ruffles the oceanic surface timelessness.

Let me simplify: I want to get down to the roots and look at each leaf of the olive tree I planted on my island. Get up early in the morning. Close my eyes, and allow the sun to touch my skin. Go to the Mediterranean at the street corner, go into its water, its salt, its acid colors, its heat… stop thinking… just be, and for many hours in a row, merge with this vegetal and metallic kind of consciousness which is so overpowering.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

A philosopher-friend comes to visit, one of those visits that “lift the sky,” and they talk about “the necessity of an urgent shift of destiny away from the cycle of the eternal return of the same, beyond whatever already is.” A poet-friend dies. “Dear San Francisco, cry for him.” Invoking another friend’s long-ago death that she still carries, and folding into it the incomprehensible awareness of her own mortality — as we invariably do in apprehending another’s — she reflects:

Being, or not being, cannot be dealt with with thinking, but are matters of experience, experienced often in murky waters… Their intensity creates waves that invade us, that leave us stunned. There’s no resolution to somebody’s final absence.

Adnan contemplates the disintegrating dialog between neurochemistry, identity, and the disappearance of a friend.

It is hard to witness the mind of a wild person, such as the California fires. Yet, it happens. The mind gets so fluid that you can’t stop it with your will, you watch the will’s annihilation. Is it just chemical reactions or are we all one? We would affirm that if we had the courage to say so. There is something about chemical reactions that makes us refuse to acknowledge our own nature. We’re body and soul, we say, let’s accept this myth. Plato did it.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Even our ordinary minds, she observes, are too often befuddled by their own mindless activity, the thoughts of which we presume to be the authors — but as any neuroscientist and any longtime meditator can attest, this too is part of the dream of selfhood, the dream by which we flee from the reality that we are each a passing flicker in the consciousness of time and matter.

With an eye to her own experience of “double thinking” — something all of us have experienced in one form or another — she writes:

One thought sliding on another, was startled, didn’t know which one to follow, lost sight of both… Are thoughts bouncing balls? Are they really ours?

She talks to herself, talks to the universe, talks to no one in particular — and then — in a handful of arresting cascades in this stream of consciousness, she talks to you, talks to me, with ravishing intimacy. “I am talking to you because I need you, and to need means to love.” She is talking to us, too, because she has something to impart, the way an oracle does. An oracle is someone who lives a century of unrelenting awakening to the world.

Sunsets are beautiful. I look forward to those lights. Some of you may too. When you’re standing alone by an ocean in the stillness of your heart, that is when I think of you. Take on the role of a planet.

She says that to be planetary is to realize you are simultaneously completely with everyone and totally alone. It’s a case of a muddle of lonely souls hurtling through time, space.

We’re on a planet sustained by nothing, carried through pure space by a willful star made of fire and in constant ebullition. We’re travelers covering traveling grounds. Always going.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

The undertone of the book, of Adnan’s farewell message to the living, is the intimation that only in the stillness of silence can we begin to discern where we are going and why:

The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. This silence is also heard.

The silence of the future is preparation for what is to come. However, it isn’t freestanding. It’s rather the shadow of whatever is, which precedes or follows at will any element that presents itself to this world. Night is its favorite time.

Adnan, half her life after having explored the relation between dreams and creativity in dreaming, returns to the bizarre kingdom of sleep and the untrodden territories of the nocturnal brain beyond thought.

Silence, darkness, and the tides shine in the dark. Their fluidity makes them seem like a mirage, making them slippery. There’s a persistent hum to the ocean that translates into a back-and-forth movement of our body. New visual structures emerge and walls disappear. You are not limited to the normal dimensions. You can sleep in the future, but you also have to remember the hours. We can cross new territories when we combine light and darkness. Space-time ceases to be a real game when you move quickly into galaxies.

When familiar realities disappear, thinking becomes dim. The good news is that this is not an indication of a decline in your ability to think clearly. Clearings are a good choice. They let in the floodlights, blinding and bedazzlement. Spaces are needed for the reframing of cards and need to not be there. Thinking doesn’t always come from preceding thoughts: I suspect it’s always being born, even when it seems related to the past.

Exhibition fragment from the Guggenheim Museum’s Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

With an eye to Plato’s immortal allegory of the cave, she writes:

Now it’s time to open the cave’s window and leave it open. Reality should fill this space.

Adnan agrees with Walt Whitman’s reflections on what life is worth after a stroke paralyzed him. Adnan echos Mary Shelley’s thoughts about what life is worth as she imagines a 20-year-old world devastated by a pandemic.

What’s left? The season of heat, wind and this meal tonight. These large, trembling bands of different shades of green have broken my heart.

This is Adnan’s parting gift to this world, to us: the life-tested assurance that even when there is too much past and too little future, life is only ever lived day to day, for the living day is all we have — or what Muriel Rukeyser, another visionary of uncommon poetic insight into the nature of being, reverenced as “the living moment… this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.”

One such living day, finding herself “at the door of Time’s immensity,” Adnan writes:

It is windy today, the next day after an infinite number of days. According to its destiny, this one will soon be gone. Everything is still alive. This is also a different life than mine.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

On another living day, after rejoicing in having lived to see a human space-probe reach the unseen side the Moon — “I felt the grounds open up under my feet, I felt I reached a landmark of cosmic proportion. I drank beer differently than usual.” — she echoes the civilizational sense that Bach might be our prophet-laureate of aliveness, echoes San Francisco poet Ronald Johnson’s lovely formulation of the elemental poetic truth that “matter delights in music, and became Bach,” echoes philosopher Josef Pieper’s insistence that “music opens a path into the realm of silence” and Aldous Huxley’s insistence that the only thing better able to express the inexpressible than music is silence, and writes:

My hands are getting cold, a musician is playing Bach on a lute on television, and it fits: Bach’s music is the needle of the cosmic balance.

This has taken me into the core of a silence that underlines the universe: underneath the mesh of sounds that never cease there’s a strange phenomena, a counter-reality, the rolling of silent matter. Silence is like a flower. It can open up, dilate, expand its texture, grow, mutate and return to its original form. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are… Silence is the creation of space… Silence demands the nature of night, even in full day, it demands shadows.

In all my wanderings, however, the light never left me.

Radiating from these pages is at once a welcome and a parting — an invitation to the banquet of life at the deathbed of one particular human who will never again recur as that particular ripple in the consciousness of time but who once lived a long, wide, deep life fully awake to the ephemeral ecstasy of aliveness:

Your neighbor and you have been invited to my dinner. Animals, stones, rocks and rivers are also welcome. You will learn that history is composed of people, ideas and misery. Glory precedes misery. History encompasses everything that happened in history, from the human trajectory to today, through dirt and into galaxies. History includes you and the squirrel. The Universe also contains History. This includes God.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Complement the portable universe that is Adnan’s Shifting the Silence with poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to the same age as Adnan, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit Adnan’s stunning painted poem about life, death, and our cosmic redemption, created half a century before she returned her borrowed stardust to the silence of spacetime.

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