Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Time, Eternity, and Meaning

Great post by Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher) on meaning and the passage of time in light of Nietzsche and Boethius. This part really got me:

The problem with time is not that it will end, but that its very mode of being is deficient. The problem is not that our time is short, but that we are in time in the first place. For this reason, more time is no solution. Not even endlessly recurring time is any solution. Even if time were unending and I were omnitemporal, existing at every time, my life would still be strung out in moments outside of each other, with the diachronic identifications of memory and expectation no substitute for a true unity. To the moment I say, Verweile doch, du bist so schön (Goethe, Faust) but the beautiful moment will not abide, and abidance-in-memory is a sorry substitute, and a self diachronically constituted by such makeshifts is arguably no true self. Existing as we do temporally, we are never at one with ourselves: the past is no longer, the future not yet, and the present fleeting. We exist outside ourselves in temporal ec-stasis. We are strung out in temporal diaspora. The only Now we know is the nunc movens.

This is very similar to the overall idea behind my ongoing attempt at writing a science-fiction novel, Kalypso's Envy. I haven't yet reached the point where I explain the title, but when I do it will make a very similar point to Vallicella's.

Update (April 3): I thought about this issue again recently. My son and I started walking around a restaurant near our apartment, and we did it over and over again. More to the point, my son wanted to do it exactly the same way each time: he held my hand while walking up the stairs at a particular point, would run halfway around the restaurant (which is round), then sat down on a curb. I sat next to him, he'd drape his arm over my leg, then jump up and run down a ramp, then around to where we started. Over and over. It occurred to me that by repeating the experience, he was trying to capture it in a way that experiences cannot be captured in time. He was trying to relive the experience, even though after reliving it, it would be gone once more. Indeed, this may be the motive behind the battle cry of the child: "Again!" I don't want the experience to be over, I want to continue experiencing it, I want to capture it, contain it, and keep it. So perhaps we are aware of the "temporal diaspora" as soon as we are able to think.

Then this got me thinking about rituals. In repeating certain things, we are participating, so we think, in something eternal, something which does not end. But we do not capture the experience, the experience captures us. Thus the temporal is subsumed into the eternal.

But that's not the whole story, since many rituals are repetitions of past events. Jewish Passover or Christian Communion are repeating events that took place at a particular place at a particular time. So how does this involve eternity? Perhaps it does not. But perhaps the original events were expressions of something eternal, and the repetitions are further participations in that eternal event. Passover is not just a meal repeating an earlier meal, it is repeating a meal that symbolizes the ancient Hebrews' emancipation. Communion, or the Lord's Supper , is not just repeating the Last Supper Jesus ate with his apostles. It symbolizes Christ's death, the bread and wine becoming, in some sense, his broken body and spilled blood: in Communion, the Christian participates in Christ's atoning death. Jesus died at a particular place at a particular time. Yet he is also "the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world". So time weaves itself into eternity -- and vice-versa -- in interesting ways.

1 comment:

Timothy Mills said...

Hey Jim, you have once again helped me see the other side of an interesting existential issue. Thankyou. Here are some thoughts I had in response to what you and Vallicella say.