Wednesday, 18 March 2009

II.

I have begun of late to think that time is not the other axis but Being, the centrality of stuff, is pitched against some other force. What forms the view when looking back is not a sense of quite how far I’ve come, but what is left there, unplundered, cast aside. And call this what you will – call it fetishism, call it delusion, thread the thought with pins to place it – I find that time, labouring deafly in the bottoms of drawers, I find that time, rusting its scarlet residue through dusty papers, I find that time has come unsprung.

This is no attack upon those brave incorporealists who work so hard to convince us that all of this is murk and dust. Or less than that: that all of this is isn’t. I am convinced their work is honourable, and I am not to argue that they’re not right. At times sitting here, aware of the silence which creeps impastoed with that tidy sense of presence – and I argue that it is only a sense we have of silence – I find myself trusting them. That, believers or not, we are still locked in the long shadow of chiliasm, putting too much weight upon bodily form; trusting that matter matters, and as a result time becomes our measure of that which is.

Donne in his pulpit in St. Paul’s saw that:
These two terms in our text, nunc and tunc, now and then, now in a glass, then face to face, now in part, then in perfection, these two secular terms, of which one designs the whole age of this world from the creation to the dissolution thereof, for all that is comprehended in this world now, and the other designs the everlastingness of the next world, for that incomprehensibleness is comprehended in the other word then—these two words that design such ages are now met in one day [1]
of which he writes of the Christian notion of the Last Judgement, of resurrection; but that sense of time contracting, I cannot but feel that that is everything, everything that is now. Notice that word ‘design’ that he uses: “one designs the whole age of this world”. What a curious task we have given ourselves that we must design our own being. That man, not content with the appearance that he exists has chosen to design himself anew.

You might argue that man is merely seeking to understand his presence in the world, but these two terms: ‘now’ and ‘then’ they are instruments of his own invention. So when Donne writes that these terms ‘design’ the world now and the world after, it is surely man who is making that design. Of course for Donne, this is simpler, for Donne there is a God who has designed all. But if we are without God then we face ourselves with a great responsibility; why have we chosen to design the world in these terms?

We have built this construct of history as a narrative; clothed ourselves with a notion of progression; liberally impastured or placed in ample cattle sheds this fatidic view that things happen. For what? Why predestine this design to end? Why, if we reject the impellent promise of a day of Judgement do we still live awaiting a future ending?

But you will say to me that it is natural. You will tell me that as our lives are finite. That as we will all die, it is prudent to build a world design with the premise of it ending. All things come to an end, you will say to me, this is our one certainty.

I am not going to disagree with you. Our current worldview is based upon such temporal assumptions. We have constructed many fixed narratives on the basis that our birth stretches far behind us at one unique point and our death awaits us at the horizon. We are ever linear, ever constant. This is our lifetime.

In Donne’s sermon, he refers to ‘now’ and ‘then’ as ‘secular terms’, by which he does not mean they are non-religious terms, but rather the word’s other meaning, that they are terms bound up with time, that they are epochal. Of course there is that other meaning too, that they are terms ‘of the world’ outside of the everlastingness promised by the church, and this is perhaps revealing; it points to that basic truth, that the world we have designed – and mark that the world exists without our designs upon it – is innated to be secular.
A series of blackouts – power shortages, I do not know what they are – have hampered the production of this text. Each time I come to restore what has been lost, I find that I write something different. Not terrifically so, the theme is the same, but the wording and focus differs. If I was of constant thought, if my mind was not but a series of particles in permanent flux, I would be able to produce the same text again. But I am continually changing, rearranging my patterns, reforming; to such a degree that I may even (as the incorporealists set forward) begin to doubt that this twitching bundle of neurons even amounts to that which might be termed ‘I’. It is no more than that; we trust in Kant that the phenomenal world is the creation of our own minds. But what minds? There is comfort in George Bernard Shaw’s introduction to The Irrational Knot which he wrote some twenty-five years after the novel’s publication:
At present, of course, I am not the author of The Irrational Knot. Physiologists inform us that the substance of our bodies (and consequently of our souls) is shed and renewed at such a rate that no part of us lasts longer than eight years: I am therefore not now in any atom of me the person who wrote The Irrational Knot in 1880. The last of that author perished in 1888; and two of his successors have since joined the majority. Fourth of this line, I cannot be expected to take any lively interest in the novels of my literary great-grandfather. Even my personal recollections of him are becoming vague and overlaid with those most misleading of all traditions, the traditions founded on the lies a man tells, and at last comes to believe, about himself to himself. [2]
We have developed an urgency to tell life stories to make sense of the chaos we find in our perceived Being; we use memory as a proof that we even exist. The ‘lies a man tells’ become more than tradition, they become what we are; linear narratives placed as verification of our pumping hearts and quivering sinew. They are pieced together, wired with coils of streaming copper through flesh – in sequence – our whole bodies constructed, designed out of these lies to give an account of how we came to be—yet all of this, all that we know and mention about ourselves—all of this is lies; and our compunction to lie? What causes our compunction to lie?

It is our design; our notion that we must make linear temporal sense. We must stand accountable, all of us on show, and existing; our minutes visible for scrutiny. We must construct some order of words with which to explain this conglomeratic ball of stuff that we term I, signalling off this particular bundle of atoms as important, distinct from those around it, and constant; extraordinarily constant. All of this is a fiction. Are we so grand to believe that if we cease to name our parts then they will cease to be?

The tide is retreating from Pope’s isthmus between birth and death:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
[3]
We are placed there on this passage in a state which Pope terms ‘doubt’, and by viewing our state as being between two points we are trapped:
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
[4]
This ‘Chaos of Thought’ that we find ourselves in is of our own design. We attempt to force our beings into rational narratives to make sense of them, even though this rationality is of our own construction. The proper study of mankind is only man if we maintain man’s dominance upon the universe, if we accept that man – man the singular – even exists beyond his atomic structure.

None of what I am saying here is new. We have known since the middle of the seventeenth century that the earth is a mere speck within a Copernican system. The universe is not constructed around this planet, and as such man’s role in the entire make-up can make only a flimsy claim on importance. Yet we have steadfastly refused to accept this fact. We have either ignored it, like Milton refusing modern science and clinging to Ptolemaic cosmology; or we have attempted to reconcile scientific knowledge to our own elevated sense of self, as in Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681). Yet with this knowledge our application of linear narratives to our own existence falls apart. As Perry Miller asked in the middle of the last century, ‘was an end of the world any longer thinkable, or artistically satisfactory’ once the earth’s position in the universe was known? Does the linear narrative of time even make sense if we are no longer waiting for a judgement day?

Yet it is a view we cling to even now. There is something of that promise of destruction that we feel comforted by. For what was offered by religion in the concept of the afterlife, in the judgement day was not in fact an ending, but indeed endinglessness. The church was structured around the promise of existence outside of time – temporal, secular – both these terms applied to the laity, but meaning ‘timely’, existing ‘of time’. What Donne describes of the Last Judgement is the point when now and then “are now met in one day”.

It must have seemed obvious to you that when I invoked Donne, that Eliot his rescuer, would not be far behind him; but as we all remember, it is here, throbbing in our collective memory of The Waste Land.

So much of our modern thought, our modern physics, is based upon this premise; that Einstein’s relativity led us to re-examine time with the notions of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ as simply that ‘persistent illusion.’ [6] Yet as a concept it was always there within Western theology, that to free ourselves from the chaos of living thought, the dissolution of time was always offered as salvation. Increasingly I am achieving this, shaping my hold upon the world as being without time. There is much that must be shed; the terminology I use: ‘increasingly’, ‘must’, ‘shaping’, ‘being’; all of these are secular terms, they are either constrained by tense, or betray a focus on progression, that there is a trust in a future state where all of this will be different. Yet it is possible, I am certain of that; as E. S. Pilkington described of his nightly meditations in South America:
I lay in this state listening to the deafening clamour of voices. We are told that our baring on the world exists only in the present, but there is this eternal noise that keeps me rigid. It is as though all voices from always are speaking at once, a dread clairaudience that cannot be shut out. Not just from the past, I hear words that are not spoken yet. We are told that the apocalypse will see the dead rise from their graves, but in the street I am aware of them, in the library they brush against my sleeve. I cannot but feel that the end of all time has already happened. [7]
What Pilkington achieved, albeit briefly so far as we can tell, was a breaking free from the present; time just another phenomenon like his atomic structure. I intend to shed this sense of self also, as E. T. Whittaker writes of copepods in his series of lectures The Beginning and End of the World:
we are struck by the fact that with them the individual counts for nothing, the race is everything [8]
It is my aim to live merely as matter. Matter indistinguishable from the matter that surrounds it and ungovern by time. Pilkington’s crude experiments in the 1930s – the blinding of his left eye with ink to restrict his perception of depth in the hope that objects might appear as one – these can be built upon. I am stuck that in these blackouts, thrown etiolated into the void, I am unable to distinguish my way around the phenomenal landscape. Syzygies collide with one another; all is equal all is same. “These two words that design such ages are now met in one day”.

[1] John Donne, sermon preached at St. Paul’s, Easter Sunday, 1628
[2] George Bernard Shaw, preface, The Irrational Knot
[3] Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle II
[4] Ibid.
[5] Perry Miller, ‘The End of the World’ in The William and Mary Quarterly, (Apr., 1951) pp. 172-191
[6] Albert Einstein, letter to the Besso family, (March 1955)
[7] E. S. Pilkington, ‘Observations on time and the past-prospect of death’ in Studies in Living Thought, (Mar., 1931) pp. 212-221
[8] E. T. Whittaker, The Beginning and End of the World, p.42