ART & ORGANISM
notes about time (and timelessness)
change (and changelessness)
- TIME and MEMORY cannot be separated, but their relationship can be better understood. Read A&O notes on TIME and ART
- Alan Watts on TIME (Alan Watts is an eloquent interpreter of Zen tradition for the West.).
- MEMORY and IMAGINATION — their unexpected connection from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience
- A&O READING – EXCERPT: “The Nature of Memory” from “The River of Consciousness” (Sacks 2017)
The intersection of TIME and TIMELESSNESS; the MINDFUL PERCEPTION of the PHENOMENOLOGIST:
EXCERPTS from Oliver Sacks (2004), “In the River of Consciousness” in NYRB Volume 51, Number 1, January 15, 2004
“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?
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.
BUT, “WHAT is “now”? , 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 now ” By 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” (in 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].
“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.
[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