Tuesday, 17 September 2013

... yet the words sufficed to compel the recognition they preceded.  - T. S. Eliot

Aletheia (ἀλήθεια): Greek - un-forgetting of truth.1

We were born, we live, and we shall perish: this observation should be sufficient to evidence the significance of time, to us and to everything around us. Soon we - and eventually everything else - shall cease to be. That is the message of objective time, of time as it ordinarily appears to the mind. But when we look at time more closely, we may find perhaps that it is not quite so simple as we think, and has more to offer us in the way of insight, whether we perceive time as being physical or metaphysical in nature.

There is time past, time present, and time future. Our knowledge of time maintains that this is so. But when we look for the past, it only exists in memory and in history - as traces of events that were once present. And what of time future? It is simply the anticipation of events that may or may not occur. The past and future thus appear no more and no less real than the apprehension of time in the human mind: in remembered experience, in conjecture and prediction. They are at the very least uncertain as hard fact. Now this infers a further, unsettling question about the present: might not that also be a construct of the mind? For where is it? Try to grasp the real present and you will fail. The concept of the present seems to float along with us, dispensing the future through itself into the past. Perhaps it, too, like the past and the future, is ultimately a mental approximation - a way of assimilating, conceptualising, and rationalising a concrete reality of the world, or universe, that both comes within our field of experience, and is integral to it.

That time exists is not a moot question. What is worth examining, perhaps in addition, is time not only as a material dimension, a ‘fact’ - as in physics (and here it seems time is by no means at present fully understood) - but time as it affects us as human beings: a relationship that Einstein saw as a priori. This is, of course, the subjective aspect of time that has always been explored - or studied - through the humanities, and in religion. And it is often the subject of philosophy, of art, and of literature. What is required for this study is not only close objective observation of time as it passes in the world around us, but of introspective time, time as perceived in and through the experience of our human life.2

The philosopher Kant was of the opinion that time and space can only be viewed as concepts from a rational perspective ‘outside’ - or transcendental to - their reality, by the mind and cannot be fully known in any other way. Another philosopher, Bergson, suggested that time and space are intuitively perceived as “duration”3 of objects from our position inside time, in flux; and that the concept of time itself - past, present, and future - is a mental and spatial fixture of something unfixed and unfixable. Heidegger’s notion of time was integrated into the existential of being, and in some way predicates it, with human existence authentic and significant vis-a-vis a given period of time, and the certainty of our inevitable demise, if only as evidenced in others. From there, writers such as Levinas and Derrida, have taken this being-time as an interrelation that is itself a condition, with the truth of our existence neither objectively nor subjectively circumscribed, but related to an alterity that is both within and beyond being-time, being in time which can never really be “present-to-itself”.4

It may well be that it is here philosophy ends and poetry begins: and if we follow this route then art becomes not merely an instrument of a humanity engaged in the pursuit of practical knowledge and ability, but the expression of a humanity that seeks to discover what is of the utmost importance to it in terms of inner experience: in the particular case of a poem by T. S. Eliot, what is at stake is the affirmation of life’s meaning as fulfilled through time, in time, and somehow beyond time. This fulfilment is perhaps what Eliot wanted to express in “Little Gidding”,5 as occurring at “the intersection of the timeless moment”:

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning

These lines are a distillation of the philosophic, theological, and metaphysical thoughts of a life seeking affirmation of meaning, in the past and therefore the future, not only for the poet but for his adopted country - England - in a time of uncertainty and peril during the darkest period of a world war, when London was being bombed; but, as he quotes from the mystic writing of Julian of Norwich, in this “timeless moment” there is the affirmation:

All shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

And yet ... the poem is a strange combination of rich, almost medieval, imagery and spare modernism. And, true to its spirit, if we remember where we are, and what we are doing at this particular time, the poem and what you are reading now are merely words on a page ... here, and now, an internet page ... subject to the deconstructive turn they must have: the hidden, always-already deconstruction we have learned from writers such as Derrida. However, in some measure one might suggest that art is itself a form of deconstruction, and also that Derrida’s words touch the same nerve as Eliot’s poem. For example, on the traditional philosophic question of the questioning of ‘being’ Derrida perhaps reveals a glimpse of the type of affirmation sought by Eliot:

And so I affirm a sort of yes, a sort of ‘anterior’ acquiescence - I say it in quotes because it’s not a question of time, but rather what precedes the question, with regard to the order of thought. Once the question itself is interrogated in this way then comes the question of the present (...) in everything there is the trace, the experience of a return to something else, of being returned to another past, present, future, a different type of temporality, that’s even older than the past, and that is beyond the future. I want to try to think of a past or coming to be that is not just a modified present, not future presents or past presents, but a different experience with regard to the future, and this takes place via a rapport with the Other or Others.6

Words on a page - especially words crafted to do so - conjure up images; images that correspond to our own experiences of the past, of the future, and of our existence in the present: a wealth of images, direct yet full of potential meaning, no matter how illusory or unreal they may appear to the practical mind which they seem somehow to bypass. Eliot was deeply influenced by - among others - Dante, and it is perhaps apt to recall here Dante’s Divina Commedia, where such images revolve around a central theme of redemption. After leaving hell behind, and the cleansing of worldly knowledge through the “refining fire”7 of purgatory, in crossing the stream of Lethe Dante gradually experiences paradise as everything that is formerly felt to be good and true, but now - without the restrictive lens8 of selfish and partial judgement - revealed as such, and replete with timeless joy. And as it is in Dante’s paradise, so it is with Eliot; the past and the future are now redeemed in a new ‘present’ of the timeless moment. And this is somehow within history:

A people without history is not redeemed from time

For history is a pattern of timeless moments

Suspending our being-in-time in the zone of art, in the presenting - the making present - of a painting, sculpture or poem, it may be that we can ‘redeem’ our experience of past and future, our temporal being, through what we might call ... love. Schiller, in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, saw art - in “aesthetic” play - as indeed a way of achieving this suspension, in the perfect balance between activity and passivity.9 Perhaps Eliot would have agreed:

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks 10

Time and motion, stillness and peace, truth and fulfilment. Words on a page, representing themselves and countless others “both bad and good”11; but between the lines that which is beyond inscription, in the inscription; reflecting timelessness in and through time; revealing that which is anterior to words, to thought, and perhaps even to time itself.


1 My preferred definition of aletheia - the meaning of which, like the word logos, is a complex issue - although it begs the question: how can something beyond being - the epekeina tes ousias - truly be either remembered or forgotten? One is reminded here not only of the Eleatics, but also the text of ancient India’s Bhagavad Gita, “what has never been born, cannot die”.

2 I have taken my cue here partly from Raymond Tallis’ In Defence of Wonder (Acumen Publishers, 2012).

3 Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans T. E. Hulme (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1912), p. 9 et seq.

4 Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. A. Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), “Semiology and Grammatology: Interview with Julia Kristeva”, pp. 28–30.

5 T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-62 (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), “Little Gidding”, pp. 214-223. The head quote is from the same poem.

6 You can view the whole of this interview as “What Comes Before the Question” here.

7 Eliot, ibid.

8 My metaphor, not Dante’s - “through a glass darkly”, as Shakespeare would have it.

9 I have referred to this in a previous article, and also to the insights offered by John Baldacchino and Jacques Rancière, here.

10 Eliot, op. cit., “Ash Wednesday”, p. 105.

11 Eliot, op.cit., “Little Gidding”, p. 218.

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