September 12, 2017

THE E’ER INSCRUTABLE | Alpha and Omega: Approaching the Issue of Time

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“’Εν ἀρχή ῆν ὁ λὀγος, καì ὁ λóγος ῆν πρòς τòν θεóν, καì θεòς ῆν ὁ λóγος. οὗτος ῆν ἐν ἀρχὴ πρòς τòν θεóν. πάντα δι’ αύτοῦ  έγένετο, καì χωρìς αύτοῦ έγένετο ούδὲ ἔν. ὃ γέγονεν έν αύτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καì ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τò φῶς τῶν άνθρώπων· καì τò φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτíᾳ φαíνει, καì ἡ σκοτíα αὐτò οὐ κατέλαβεν.”

“In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with God, and God was the word. This was in the beginning with God. All came into being through him, and nothing came into being without him. That which came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light appears in the darkness, and the shadow did not overtake it.” -Gospel of John 1.1-1.5 (personal translation: p.t.)

Homer once likened the passing of human generations to the blooming and decay of tree leaves. As the seasons progress, they wax green and wane wilted. The process is in turns ceaseless and ephemeral, doomed to wither yet always containing the germ of future growths. The analogy is more apt than first meets the eye. In temperate climes, the changing of the leaves is taken for granted as just another of the passing cycles by which the ebb and flow of nature is measured. It is as natural and blissfully inevitable as the tide, the rising and setting of the sun, and the slow staggering of the constellations across the vault of heaven.

It becomes a secondhand recourse of the mind to conflate these processes with the actual thing of time itself. Personifications, corporealizations, and every sundry sort of attempt to cloak time in a recognizable form have always smacked of artificiality. How can they be otherwise, when time is so maddeningly an indefinite non-entity, shapeless but omnipresent and pitiless? Kronos-cum-Father Time, the Memphitic demiurge Ptah, and even Christ are all described as wielding time like an allegorized tool. The first carries a harvesting scythe. The second holds an ankh-headed scepter symbolizing life’s persistence in eternity. The last, in the tympanum at Chartres Cathedral, clutches the Bible, the eternal Word, in codex-form. This goes very far to suggest the respective deities’ mastering of time, but says nothing of what time actually is. We may measure time by the cycles of the moon or the angle of the shadow cast by a sundial, and we may ascribe the motions and ceaseless churnings of the cosmos to supra-temporal deities, but neither of these man-made phenomena may be said to be time itself.

St. Augustine eloquently tackles the problem whilst contemplating the totality of the Abrahamic God:

“Nullo ergo tempore non feceras aliquid, quia ipsum tempus tu feceras. et nulla tempora tibi coaeterna sunt, quia tu permanes; at illa si permanerent, non essent tempora.”

“Therefore at no time had you not made something, for you had made time itself. And no times are coeternal with you, for you endure; but if these were to endure, they would not be times.” -St. Augustine, Confessiones, Book 11, Chapter XIV (p.t.)

We are not gifted with the same omniscience as God, for whom “μία ἡμέρα… ὡς χίλια ἔτη καὶ χίλια ἔτη ὡς ἡμέρα μία,” or, “one day… is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day,” (2 Peter 3:8). The staggering depth of time bewilders the alternating humdrum and frenetic pace of our daily lives. While we flourish, grow fat and reproduce, geological rhythms bend the earth around us, adding inches to the peaks of mountains and driving subterranean rivers of molten magma in pitch-black caverns beneath our feet. We are giddily stupid in this respect. Man seems no different from a fly, as William Blake put it in his eponymous poem.

If we accept the limits of our understanding, how, then, are we to conceive of time? Is its progression linear? Is it episodic, a series of self-contained bubble-frames of action, like the individual frames of an old-time silent cartoon? Or is it instead cyclical, playing out moment by moment in a giant, coiled sequence of events until turning back in upon itself to repeat? This is the sense of samsara, Hamlet’s mortal coil, and the future hypothesized in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue. When the infinite variety of events has been finally exhausted, the only possibility is for them to repeat; as per the last example, another Argo will sail, and a second Achilles, no different from the first, will again storm Troy.

A whole host of questions clings to these cursory schematics, and I hope, at least in part, to begin to approach them in the coming year, though I have no hope of making significant headway on any, or of saying much that has not already been said by someone else.

That said:

How do scientific and religious conceptions of time and the progression of time intersect? What are the implications of time having a definite beginning and end (id est, the respective absolute singularity of the Big Bang and the hypothesized heat death of the universe)? Where do we locate our own minuscule-in-comparison human history in this scheme of ceaselessly flowing time? Is it possible to talk about eternity? Lastly, in reiteration, what, oh what, is time?

Time, for our purposes now, is a limitless limited, stretching out beyond all we may see, wearing down and raising up, wholly independent and yet dependent on our perception of its passing to be felt to exist. In short, it is the emptiest of terms, and the most monstrous of contradictions. It is Alpha and Omega, the murky lineal bookends of everything that was, is, and ever will be possible.

“Ankh ankh, en mitak
Yewk er heh en heh
Ahah en heh”

Live life, thou shalt not die
Thou shall exist for millions
of millions of years
For millions of millions of years” -Philip Glass, Akhnaten

“My spirit is too weak; mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time -with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.” -John Keats, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,”