Why is this interesting? - The Being Foreign Edition

On consciousness, cities, and science

Emanuel Derman (ED) wrote the excellent Japan edition from last week, and we loved this take on the beauty of being foreign. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Columbia University in New York to study for a PhD in physics. Since then he’s lived mostly in Manhattan. His memoir is My Life As A Quant. - Colin (CJN)

Emanuel here. If you like art movies, you may have occasionally experienced what I have. You watch a movie in a theater on a large screen and there you are, deeply engrossed in the story. Then suddenly another part of your mind becomes aware of what the filmmaker is doing, how he or she is doing it—the panning and voice-over, the devices the director is using to embed you even as you are being embedded. Your consciousness splits: you experience the flow of the movie and, simultaneously, perceive its construction. You are inside the film and yet outside it.

It’s been a while since I had this experience. It requires a theater and calm attentiveness, two things in short supply these days. The last occasion I recall this consciousness split is while re-watching an old  Antonioni movie, maybe La Notte or Red Desert. This inside-outsideness is a wonderful feeling, perhaps the very heart of consciousness; you are aware of two streams, one your attentiveness, and the other the outside world. You’re experiencing yourself experiencing something. It’s the primal split. It’s being a foreigner and being a local at the same time.

Why is this interesting? 

This is why I love New York City. I’ve lived here for close to fifty years, but I still see it with foreign eyes through which New York is a glamorous sophisticated place with skyscrapers and Top of the Sixes and the Village and the Fillmore East—the center of the universe actually—and everyone should envy you for being part of it. I’m a local, and even though I go out of my neighborhood less and less often … New York is still Delirious New York with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State caught in flagrante delicto.

In New York City, for a long long time after I came here, it was unambivalently good to be foreign. Everyone’s a foreigner here. You could be foreign and still be a New Yorker, or, failing that, an American (look at Nabokov). That’s what charmed me when I first arrived.

There are cities in Europe where being foreign is a disadvantage. Once in Paris twenty years ago I mentioned to an East European desk clerk who was checking me out of the hotel that in New York you felt more interesting to be from some foreign place, whereas in Oxford (when I lived there in the distant Seventies) and in Paris, I sensed you were inferior if you were not local. She leaned over towards me, looked around to see that no one was listening, and then assented.

I like feeling foreign even if it sometimes makes you sad. I don’t like feeling lonely but I can take it in a city that has a street life of people ambling around, Hopperesque diners you can have coffee in, hopeful that something will change in the next instant. I like America, but I fear living in some town where you have to drive to go anywhere there are people. I like being inside, but I want the freedom to criticize as an outsider. 

This living in two worlds and trying to bridge them is what scientists do. They use their minds locally to try to understand the universe, a foreign country indeed. In my experience, non-scientists often don’t understand how great discoveries about the foreign land are made. Some are arrived at by logic, but not the truly astonishing ones. That’s because logic and deduction merely take you from one initial proposition to its consequences. But where does the initial proposition come from? How did Kepler come up with Kepler’s laws, Newton with Newton’s equations, Einstein with the principle of relativity, Dirac with the theory that predicted antiparticles, Darwin with the theory of evolution? And where, analogously actually, do great works of art come from?

They come from intuition. As Einstein wrote, “The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.” And Schopenhauer: “Genuine works bearing immortal life arise only from such immediate apprehension. … He works, as people say, from mere feeling and unconsciously, indeed instinctively.”

Intuition is that sympathetic understanding, a merging of the observer with the observed, bridging the gap between the local and the foreign and unifying the inside and the out. (ED

Photo of the Day:

Jimmy’s Corner, on West 44th Street near Times Square in Manhattan, is one of a dying breed of NYC dive bars. Beer was cheap and stale pretzels plentiful. When I think about New York opening up again, I think a lot about going to places like Jimmy’s Corner. Sadly, the owner, 89-year-old Jimmy Glenn, lost his life to COVID-19 this week. When I shared the news on WITI Slack, contributor Eric Matthies pulled out this 1998 pinhole photo he took of the bar. “Exposure was generally as long as it took to open the shutter, go inside and have a pint,” Eric explained.

© Eric Matthies

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Emanuel (ED)

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