Thursday, October 23, 2008

From “A Refutation of Time”

I’ve been on a bit of a Borges’ reading spree the last few weeks—probably will post more on this later, in the “Happy on the Shelf” series. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with him, Jorge Luis Borges was a 20th century Argentine writer; he wrote short stories, essays & poetry, & these types of writing often coalesce in fascinating ways in Borges’ work.

During my recent spree, I came across one extended passage in his essay “New Refutation of Time,” from his collection Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 which I found especially moving & important. I most certainly can’t improve on what Borges said, so I’ll just transcribe it here. I did introduce one lacuna (mostly to keep the selection at a “friendly” length—this is indicated by “….”).

In this essay Borges is discussing George Berkeley, an 18th century British mentions philosopher of the “Idealist” school. A very five & dime definition of Idealist philosophy: The idealists believe we can only know the external world as a result of direct perception—existence is defined by the ability to be perceived. At the beginning of this selection, Borges is discussing David Hume, who was an 18th century Scottish philosopher. Hume was influenced by Berkeley, but is considered a more skeptical empiricist. Finally, Borges mentions Heraclitus, a 6th century B.C. Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers. The Pre-Socratics were not a “school” per se—they held various positions; Borges quotes what is possibly Heraclitus’ most famous statement. Heraclitus is associated with a philosophy of flux—all things are in motion, change is the only constant.

Hope you find this meaningful.

I deny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series that idealism admits. Hume has denied the existence of absolute space, in which every thing has its place; I deny the existence of one time, in which all events are linked together. To deny coexistence is no less difficult than to deny succession.

I deny the successive, in a large number of cases; I deny the contemporaneous also, in a large number of cases. The lover who thinks, “While I was so happy, thinking of my loved one’s fidelity, she was deceiving me,” deceives himself: if each state we live is absolute, that happiness was not contemporaneous with that deceit; the discovery of that deceit is one more state, incapable of modifying the “previous” ones, but not the remembrance of them. The misfortune of today is no more real than past happiness…. Every instant is autonomous. Neither revenge nor pardon nor prisons nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past. No less vain to me are hope and fear, which always relate to future events: that is, to events that will not happen to us, who are the minutiae of the present. I am told that the present, the “specious present” of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and a tiny fraction of a second; that is how long the history of the universe lasts. Or rather, there is no such history, as there is no life of a man, nor even one of his nights; each moment we live exists, not its imaginary aggregate. The universe, the sum of all the events, is a collection that is no less ideal than that of all the horses Shakespeare dreamed—one, many, none?—between 1592 and 1594. I might add that if time is a mental process, how can it be shared by thousands, or even two different men?

Interrupted and burdened by examples, the argument of the foregoing paragraphs may seem intricate. I shall try a more direct method. Let us consider a life in which repetitions are abundant; mine, for example. I never pass Recoleta cemetery without remembering that my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are buried there, as I shall be; then I remember that I have already remembered that, many times before. I cannot walk down my neighborhood streets in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details. I cannot mourn the loss of a love or friendship without reflecting that one can lose only what one has never really had. Each time I come to a certain place in the South, I think of you, Helen; each time the air brings me a scent of eucalyptus, I think of Adrogué, in my childhood; each time I remember Fragment 91 of Heraclitus: “You will not go down twice to the same river,” I admire his dialetic skill, because the facility with which we accept the first meaning (“The river is different”) clandestinely imposes the second one (“I am different”) and gives us the illusion of having invented it. Each time I hear a Germanophile vituperating Yiddish, I pause and think that Yiddish is, after all, a German dialect, barely maculated by the language of the Holy Spirit. Those tautologies (and others I shall not disclose) are my whole life. Naturally, they are repeated without precision; there are differences of emphasis, temperature, light, general physiological state. But I suspect that the number of circumstantial variations is not infinite: we can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know each other, but on whom the same process is acting), two identical moments. Having postulated that identity, we must ask: Are those identical moments the same? Is a single repeated term enough to disrupt and confound the series of time? Are the enthusiasts who devote a lifetime to a line by Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?

Jorge Luis Borges, 1944

The translation is by Ruth L.C. Simms
© 1964 University of Texas Press
© 1965 Jorge Luis Borges

The photo of Borges is by Diane Arbus

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