A Night of Philosophy and Ideas

Brooklyn Public Library. Feb 2-3, 2019.

It is a chilly night, dusk breezing past street lights and car beams. At 7:09 p.m., I am in the middle of a cluster of friends, ebbing my way to the front of the long queue that has formed outside the Brooklyn Public Library.

The first thing that meets my eyes as I enter the lobby is a quote gliding across the expanse of the balcony wall: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, I decided to wander.” Dramatic instrumental music reverberates from the high ceiling. The room is brimming with people and the buzz of their energies, chatter, and laughter. In a far corner past the lobby free espresso and chocolate is being served, extra fuel for those who will persevere, philosophizing through the night.

The temporality of a marathon event that runs from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. itself seems to act as a filter, drawing only those who are really obsessive about ideas, ever-ready to burst into conversation. You might dive into “The Year 2300: Imagining a World Without States” at 12:30 a.m., take “An Initiation to Taoist Lifelong Practice” at 3 a.m., or talk about “Our Nostalgia Moment” at 4:30 a.m. to list a few of the near 60 different choices throughout the course of the night.

Ideas about spirituality, history, love, sexuality, politics, violence, math, and melancholy permeate different corners of the building. Before it all begins, people scurry around the room with highlighters, pencils, and programs in hand, curating their journey through the myriad conversations, lectures, performances, and events.

Everything on the program stemmed from a central theme: “Facing the Present.” It almost doubles as a joke, given how we were all defying our body clocks and conventional norms of time to be present in that moment, werewolves on a full-moon night.

I begin to feel at ease, uninhibited, long before I bump into a lady with jingly gold earrings which remind me of the trinkets at night bazaars back home in Mumbai. A French woman offers to tie my undone shoelaces for me after I nearly trip on them while juggling brochures and my notes. A man with a goofy grin and monkey hat does the chicken dance while looking straight into my eyes at the lobby-turned-dance-floor. They all feel like old friends.

The atmosphere this night is thick with excitement. The willingness to engage and prod one another feels palpable as if the air has drunkenly dispersed all boundaries and is conducive to free expression—big talk. My friends all wander off in different directions, following the whims of their own curiosities. Every now and then, when my own inquisitiveness overlaps with theirs, we bump into each other, at random, almost miraculously in the midst of dense crowds.

In the rooms where the events and talks occur, people overflow, squeezed between library shelves. At various points in the night, I occupy whatever space the crowd carves out for me – either sitting facing the back of someone speaking, watching a speaker through a crack between books on a shelf, sitting cross-legged on the floor. It isn’t until 1:30 a.m. when I manage to snag an actual chair, and it is one of the only two times I manage to do so.

Outside, there is sharp-toothed wind, but the indoors feels sticky with sweat, with occasional drafts of lilting perfume. I notice the different types of colorful, patterned, worn-out notebooks people own and wonder about the distinct variety of notes, scribbles, and creative expression they contain. I notice when part of a conversation makes someone around me smile, wince, shake their heads, and nod—moved by some ghost of memory or thought.

The Night of Philosophy and Ideas is an event that takes place annually in 69 cities around the globe and the New York City event was hosted by the French Embassy and the Brooklyn Public Library.

Written by Noorie Chowdhury ’21. Edited by Andrew Nguyen ’19.