A&O – TIME and ART notes


notes about time (and timelessness)

change (and changelessness)

The ephemeral (and the eternal)


    • What can we say about the ephemeral phenomena of nature, transience and scales of time? look HERE



 The intersection of TIME and TIMELESSNESS; the MINDFUL PERCEPTION of the PHENOMENOLOGIST expressed by a Sufi mystic:

“A simple and essential spiritual truth teaches that only being awake in the moment is real. Only then can the strawberry be tasted in its full sweetness, the plum blossom be seen in its fragile beauty, without memory or preconception. This is the Zen moment of satori, when we are fully present in the experience, in life, as it is. It is a moment “in and out of time,” which we usually glimpse only for an instant before the thoughts and the patterns of our consciousness cloud over our eyes.” –Llewellyn Vaughan-lee (2019)


Resonates with the observation of neuropsychologists that we do not remember previous experiences, we remember our last remembrance of them.

In any event, NOW is very brief (a few seconds): everything that preceded it is MEMORY, everything that follows it is IMAGINATION.

(this is intrinsically interesting, but deeply enriched (in my mind) by the fact that many of the neurophysiological correlates of memory and imagination are shared)


EXCERPTS from Oliver Sacks (2004), “In  the  River  of  Consciousness” in NYRB    Volume  51,  Number  1,  January  15,  2004  


Our home page opens with an epigraph:  “Always becoming, never is.” (the words of Schiller, immer wird, nie ist, quoted in “The Natural History of Truth” from Thomas Carlyle).   

THIS is how William James characterises consciousness (and thereby identifies the principle problem in its study):  “Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time.  One of the most baffling experiences occurs.  Where is it, this present?  It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”  (The Principles of Psychology, Ch. 15, 1890).


So all these perspectives on the ephemeral and the eternal: levels of organization? adjacent perspectives in tension?  or, Möbius strip-like they are part of each other? maybe it is as though the door opens for a second and you can slip in.  Don’t be early, don’t be late.  Then maybe there are more doors…


[i]. “Are we not in a world seen to be Infinite; the relations lying closest together modified by those latest discovered and lying farthest asunder? Could you ever spell-bind man into a Scholar merely, so that he had nothing to discover, to correct; could you ever establish a Theory of the Universe that were entire, unimprovable, and which needed only to be got by heart; man then were spiritually defunct, the Species we now name Man had ceased to exist. But the gods, kinder to us than we are to ourselves, have forbidden such suicidal acts. As Phlogiston is displaced by Oxygen, and the Epicycles of Ptolemy by the Ellipses of Kepler; so does Paganism give place to Catholicism, Tyranny to Monarchy, and Feudalism to Representative Government,—where also the process does not stop. Perfection of Practice, like completeness of Opinion, is always approaching, never arrived; Truth, in the words of Schiller, immer wird, nie ist; never is, always is a-being.” –from  Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Characteristics.  The Harvard Classics. 1909B14; Paras. 40-58   http://www.bartleby.com/25/3/3.html

In the notes to Sartor Restartus by Carlyle :  http://books.google.com/books?id=GE3L1nKRLNkC&pg=PA298&lpg=PA298&dq=%22immer+wird,+nie+ist%22&source=bl&ots=1P2wpiKrFD&sig=5IM7c-djGMexR8uPCVq_oUU6Eac&hl=en&ei=hdBLSpkchoa2B8Ocjd0O&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=17  “Nine tenths of our reasonings are artificial processes, depending not on the real nature of things but on our peculiar mode of viewing things, and therefore varying with all the variations both in the kind and extent of our perceptions.  How is this?  Immer wird nie ist?” (Is truth always relative , never absolute?). The sense that life is spontaneous and infinite rather than patterned and finite comes from Herder…”

Texts of Carlyle’s NOTE BOOKS (http://www.archive.org/stream/twonotebooksofth00carlrich/twonotebooksofth00carlrich_djvu.txt )… something curious in it : he appeals to no first principles hardly, but wanders in a wilderness of quotations and examples, summoning to his aid all that Jew or Gentile ever did or said on the subject. Still more is this true of Saumaise, who set the example of this species of disceptation first — an example however readily enough followed by his opponent. Are our ” first principles ” more solid than his ? I doubt if they are so much more, as we oftenthink. Nine tenths of our reasonings are artificial processes, depending not on the real nature of things but on our peculiar mode of viewing things, and therefore varying with all the variations both in the kind and extent of our perceptions. How is this ? Truth immer wird nie ist ? (2) … (2) ” Is truth always relative, never absolute?”



“Time,”  says  Jorge  Luis  Borges,  “is  the  substance  I  am  made  of.  Time  is  a  river  that  carries  me  away,  but  I  am  the  river….”  Our  movements,  our  actions,  are  extended  in  time,  as  are  our  perceptions,  our  thoughts,  the  contents  of  consciousness.  We  live  in  time,  we  organize  time,  we  are  time  creatures  through  and  through.  But  is  the  time  we  live  in,  or  live  by,  continuous—Like Borges’s  river?  Or  is  it  more  comparable  to  a  chain  or  a  train,  a  succession  of  discrete  moments,  like  beads  on  a  string?


  1. David  Hume,  in  the  eighteenth  century,  favored  the  idea  of  discrete  moments,  and  for  him  the  mind  was  “nothing  but  a  bundle  or  collection  of  different  perceptions,  which  succeed  each other  with  an  inconceivable  rapidity,  and  are  in  a  perpetual   flux  and  movement.”
  2. For  William  James,  writing  his  Principles  of  Psychology   in  1890,  the  “Humean  view,”  as  he called  it,  was  both  powerful  and  vexing.  It  seemed  counterintuitive,  as  a  start.  In  his  famous  chapter  on  “the  stream  of  thought,”  James  stressed  that  to  its  possessor,  consciousness  seems  to  be  always  continuous,  “without  breach,  crack,  or  division,”  never  “chopped  up,  into bits.”  The  content  of  consciousness  might  be  changing  continually,  but  we  move  smoothly from  one  thought  to  another,  one  percept  to  another,  without  interruption  or  breaks.  For  James,  thought  flowed;  hence  his  introduction  of  the  term  “stream  of  consciousness.”


Visual analogy? 


Oliver Sacks wondered “whether visual perception might in a very real way be analogous to cinematography, taking in the visual environment in brief, instantaneous, static frames, or “stills,” and then, under normal conditions, fusing these to give visual awareness its usual movement and continuity—a “fusion” which, seemingly, was failing to occur in the very abnormal conditions of these migraine attacks.”  …

“Such visual effects may also occur in certain seizures, as well as in intoxications (especially with hallucinogens such as LSD). And there are other visual effects that may occur. Moving objects may leave a smear or wake in the direction they move; images may repeat themselves; and afterimages may be greatly prolonged. I have experienced this myself, following the drinking of sakau, a hallucinogen and intoxicant popular in Micronesia. I described some of these effects in a journal, and later in my book The Island of the Colorblind” :

Ghost petals ray out from a flower on our table, like a halo around it; when it is moved…it leaves a slight train, a visual smear…in its wake. Watching a palm waving, I see a succession of stills, like a film run too slow, its continuity no longer maintained. (Sacks 2004)[i]


The normal flow of consciousness, it seemed,

  • could not only be fragmented, broken into small, snapshot-like bits,
  • but could be suspended intermittently, for hours at a time.[2]


From Sacks on Consciousness:  https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2004/01/15/in-the-river-of-consciousness/ 


BUT, “WHAT is “now”? It is an idea that physics treats as a mere illusion, yet it is something we are all familiar with. We tend to think of it as this current instant, a moment with no duration. But if now were timeless, we wouldn’t experience a succession of nows as time passing. Neither would we be able to perceive things like motion. We couldn’t operate in the world if the present had no duration. So how long is it?


That sounds like a metaphysical question, but neuroscientists and psychologists have an answer. In recent years, they have amassed evidence indicating that now lasts on average between 2 and 3 seconds. This is the now you are aware of – the window within which your brain fuses what you are experiencing into a “psychological present”. It is surprisingly long. But that’s just the beginning of the weirdness. There is also evidence that the now you experience is made up of a jumble of mini subconscious nows and that your brain is choosy about what events it admits into your nows. Different parts of the brain measure now in different ways. What’s more, the window of perceived now can expand in some circumstances and contract in others.”   READ reporting on “The time illusion: How your brain creates nowBy Laura Spinney.  New Scientist 7 January 2015 )



TIME and ART. 

In T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Burnt Norton,” his phrase, “the stillpoint of the turning world” expresses both changelessness and change, the eternal and the ephemeral.  In resonance, “Art,” said Saul Bellow[i], “has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm—an  arrest of attention in the midst of distraction” (see Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings).    A “momentary stay against confusion,” Frost called it.[ii] [iii].  And there is time, past, present, future  As Ellen Handler Spitz put it, the aesthetic ideal dissolves categories of time and space and absorbs into itself past memories and anticipation of the future (1985:142).  Similarly (on this point) Camille Paglia wrote “Beauty is our weapon against nature; by it we make objects, giving them limit, symmetry, proportion. Beauty halts and freezes the melting flux of nature.” (in Culture, p. 165)[iv].



Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.   [“A New Refutation of Time” (1946) [“Nueva refutación del tiempo“] * 


What can we say about EPHEMERAL ART?  

“Early land art and all sand sculpturesice sculptures and chalk drawings on footpaths are examples of ephemeral art. G. Augustine Lynas and Duthain Dealbh create ephemeral sculptures. In addition, temporary wall drawing artists such as Linn Meyers create ephemeral art within museums and galleries.

During the Baroque period, wealthy patrons would commission ephemeral creations from well-known artists of the time. These creations, often very expensive and time-consuming, were typically only used during one event before being dismantled or destroyed. One such work was the temporary volcano, created by Gianlorenzo Bernini for the Barberinifamily. The volcano, placed on the predecessor to the Spanish Steps, took three months to create and was destroyed in a firework display over the course of an hour.” (Wikipedia on Ephemerality).  Also 


Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence

(Helen Keller)


Epigraph for the video, https://aeon.co/videos/deep-time-and-beyond-the-great-nothingness-at-the-end-of-the-universe




“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time,” the German psychologist Marc Wittman wrote in his insightful investigation of the psychology of time. “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in the opening lines of her stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking — a question that cuts to the heart of our uneasy embodied temporality. How do creatures with lifespans that rarely stretch past a century fathom cosmic scales stretching billions of years, back to the dawn of everything, when time and matter were undivided as the raw material of the universe? How does the very notion of a self, around which we orient our entire existence, hold up against such sweeps at all?

Perhaps the interplay between deep time and self is more fathomable to those perched on the overlook of life, who have lived long enough to view being and nonbeing with equal immediacy.

When my good friend and fellow poetry lover Amanda Palmer asked me to send a poem for her husband, Neil Gaiman, to read to his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin — the Holocaust survivor who composed that arresting letter to children about how books save lives — I chose a poem by one of Neil’s dear friends, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018), found in her final poetry collection, So Far So Good (public library) — one of the loveliest books of 2018.

Amanda immortalized this sweet and rather profound moment in a short video, shared here with the kind permission of everyone involved:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME  by Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.


READ: The Nothingness of Time, by in Parabola Encountering eternity in the treasures of Egypt)



*Variant translations:

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are obvious acts of desperation and secret consolation. Our fate (unlike the hell of Swedenborg or the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful because it is unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad. Time is the thing I am made of. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that tears me apart, 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.

Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.


[i] Saul Bellow 1915, In George Plimpton Writers at Work (1967) 3rd series, p. 190

[ii].  “Robert Frost, in the preface to his Complete Poems ( 1949 ), defined a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion” and defined poetry as an artistic medium which reflects stability and permanence encompassed by the moment of the poem. In his own work, he wanted to preserve his most common poetic subjectsCCthe fading New England country life and dialect, and rural landscapes and historyCCby fixing them indelibly in an immortal poetry, for Frost always retained something of the notions his mother taught him as a child: that a creative act is one inspired by God, that the impulse to write is divine, and that poetry could express dimensions of immortality. When he matured as a poet, Frost relied on Emerson’s thoughts regarding the “godly artist” to corroborate his mother’s teaching; later still, when asked to introduce the anthology New Poets of England and America (1957), America’s foremost poet alluded to his early belief that poets enter a meditative “state of grace” while composing.”  From “The Enduring Robert Frost,” By Samuel Maio (first published in The Formalist, 1990).

[iii]. From Seldes’s  The Great Thoughts p 223

[iv] Chris Jenks(2004) CULTURE.  Taylor & Francis, Sep 23, 2004 – Social Science – 248 pages