A New Refutation of Time (selections) :: J. L. Borges

Before me there was no time, after me there will be none./With me it is
born, with me it will die.
— Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)

. . . the feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics . . .

. . .

A word on the title: I am not unaware that it is an example of that monster called a contradictio in adjecto by logicians, for to say that a refutation of time is new (or old, for that matter) is to recognize a temporal predicate that restores the very notion the subject intends to destroy. But shall let this fleeting joke stand to prove, at least, that I do not exaggerate the importance of wordplay. In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it.

. . .

He died in exile: as with all men, it was his lot to live in bad times.

. . .

Every instant is autonomous. Not vengeance nor pardon nor jails nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past. No less vain to my mind are hope and fear, for they always refer to future events, that is, to events which will not happen to us, who are the diminutive present. They tell me that the present, the “specious present” of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and the smallest fraction of a second, which is also how long the history of the universe lasts. O better, there is no such thing as “the life of a man,” nor even “one night in his life.” Each moment we live exists, not the imaginary sum of those moments. The universe, the sum total of all events, is no less ideal than the sum of all the horses — one, many none? — Shakespeare dreamed between 1592 and 1594.

. . .

Let us consider a life in which repetitions abound: my life, for instance. I never pass the Recoleta cemetary without remembering that my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are buried there, as I shall be; then I remember that I have remembered the same thing many times before; I cannot stroll around the outskirts of my neighborhood in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details; I cannot lament the loss of a love or a friendship without reflecting how one loses what one really never had; each time I cross one of the southside corners, I think of you, Helena; each time the air brings me the scent of eucalyptus I think of Adrogué in my childhood; each time I recall fragment 91 of Heraclitus, “You cannot step into the same river twice,” I admire his dialectical skill, for the facility with which we accept the first meaning (“The river is another”) covertly imposes upon us the second meaning (“I am another”) and gives us the illusion of having invented it; each time I hear a Germanophile deride Yiddish, I reflect that Yiddish is, after all, a German dialect, barely tainted by the language of the Holy Ghost. These tautologies (and others I shall not disclose) are my whole life. Naturally, they recur without design; they are variations of emphasis, temperature, light, general psychological state. I suspect, nonetheless, that the number of circumstantial variants is not infinite: we can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know each other but in whom the same process is operative), two identical moments. Once this identity is postulated, we may ask: Are not these identical moments the same moment? Is not one single repeated terminal point enough to disrupt and confound the series in time [(or) the history of the world, to reveal that there is no such history]? Are the enthusiasts who devote themselves to a line of Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?

. . .

The fifth paragraph of chapter IV in the Sanhedrin of the Mishnah declares that, in the eyes of God, he who kills a single man destroys the world. If there is no plurality, he who annihilated all men wouldbe no more guilty than the primitive and solitary Cain — an orthodox view — nor more global in his destruction — which may be magic, or so I understand it. Tumultuous and universal catastrophes  — fires, wars, epidemics — are but a single sorrow, multiplied in many illusory mirrors. Thus Bernard Shaw surmises (Guide to Socialism, 86):

What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death, you experience all teh starvation that ever has been or ever will be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as hungry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum. . . . Poverty and pain are not cumulative.

. . .

All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, intemporal matters.

. . .

. . . [T]he phrase “negation of time” is ambiguous. It can mean the eternity of Plato or Boethius and also the dilemmas of Sextus Empiricus. The latter (Adversus mathematicos XI, 197) denies the past, which already was, and the future, which is not yet, and argues that the present is either divisible or indivisible. It is not indivisible, for in that case it would have no beginning to connect it to the past nor end to connect it to the future, nor even a middle, because whatever has no beginning or end has no middle. Neither is it divisible, for in that case it would consist of a part that was and another that is not. Ergo, the present does not exist, and since the past and the future do not exist either, time does not exist. [ . . . ] Via the dialectic of Berkeley and Hume, I have arrived at Schopenhauer’s dictum:

The form of the appearance of the will is only the present, not the past or the future; the latter do not exist except in the concept and by the linking of the consciousness, so far as it follows the principle of reason. No man has ever lived in the past, and none will live in the future; the present alone is the form of all life, and is a possession that no misfortune can take away. . . . We might compare time to an infinitely revolving circle: the half that is always sinking would be the past, that which is always rising would be the future; but the indivisible point at the top which the tangent touches, would be the present. Motionless like the tangent, that extensionless present marks the point of contact of the object, whose form is time, with the subject, which has no form because it does not belong to the knowable but is the precondition of all knowledge. (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung I, 54)

A fifth-century Buddhist treatise, the Visuddhimagga, or The Path to Purity, illustrates the same doctrine with the same figure: “Strictly speaking, the life of a being lasts as long as an idea. Just as a rolling carriage wheel touches earth at only one point, so life lasts as long as a single idea” (Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy I, 373). Other Buddhist texts say that the world is annihilated and resurges six billion five hundred million times a day and that every man is an illusion, vertiginously wrought by a series of solitary and momentary men. “The man of a past moment,” The Path to Purity advises us, “has lived, but he does not live nor will he live; the man of a future moment will live, but he has not lived nor does he now live; the man of the present moment lives, but he has not lived nor will he live” (I, 407), a dictum we may compare with Plutarch’s “Yesterday’s man died in the man of today, today’s man dies in the man of tomorrow” (De E apud Delphos, 18).

. . .

And yet, and yet . . . To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe, appear to be acts of desperation and are secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not terrifying because it is unreal; it is terrifying because it is irreversible and iron-bound. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

. . .

Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,/Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
— Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)


[From Selected Non-Fictions]

2 thoughts on “A New Refutation of Time (selections) :: J. L. Borges

  1. Thanks timed Borges, for you were once Counted then erased and I,as a current I if allowed, count the strokes until the erasing brush. One-Thirty-Five time tells me. Together or alone does Time take place. Does the temporal elements of consciousness inherently aim to contextualize our existence? Meaning, was it made so to know that we know all this is moving, has gone and returned, simultaneously? Where do space and time meet, for surely if there is space like this key punches, then there is time that at its only moment in its Godly time, presses and punches and records* the movements that make these forgotten or remembered–always factoring–words. To what does it amount to? Why do we try to signify. Does this credit Time or discredit Humans?

  2. Pingback: Routine « senemeken

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