The end of empire? The end of civilization? The end of life as we know it? As the American hegemony continues its genocidal rampage across the globe, apparently preparing to launch an attack now on Syria, Dmitry Medvedev has put Russia’s missile attack early warning radar station in Kaliningrad on combat alert. But this is not the end of history we are considering here today.
There are not a few people today speaking about “the end of history;” not the end of Egyptian, Italian, British, Russian, or American history, but the end of history per se. What could this possibly mean; to what could this possibly refer? In the opening sentence of his posthumous work, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Paul Shepard makes a shocking claim, which provides a compelling starting point for today’s discussion.
History is not a chronicle, but a Hebrew invention about the way the cosmos works…
History, an invention? What an odd, but perhaps necessary correction to some well embedded cultural presuppositions, as we explore our commonsense notion of time, historical narrative, and the looming end of history.
The first question that must be posed is this: what precisely is the phenomenon we call time? What constitutes our internal sense of time-consciousness, this unidirectional linear flow of events moving like a river from past to future; what makes up this taken-for-granted substructure or scaffolding upon which hangs all of human history as well as personal autobiography? Some physicists have even begun to ask if time really exists (See Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics). Let us begin with a rather straight forward summation by Dr. Marvin Bram from the foreword to my work, The Recovery of Ecstasy:
We in the West live inside our calendars, wearing our watches. What are the arguments for this recent and remarkable self-relegation to timekeeping as absolutely necessary? Merely a convenience? A full-fledged curse?
We’re happy to make a to-us obvious distinction among the past, the present, and the future. We look at the present date on a calendar, and it’s a simple matter to find the month and day something happened in the past. It may have been a pleasant thing that happened, but it may have been an embarrassment we can’t get out of our mind, or something terrible, or something important that went undone. So it’s a mixed enterprise, looking back at the past.
The future is more interesting. Its days and months are marked on the calendar too. It goes without saying that none of those days has happened yet, but we’re especially absorbed with them because our planning involves the future. On a particular future day, perhaps at a particular time on that day, we want something to happen. We’re probably making arrangements in the present for that future event; that’s one of our major activities. So it appears that planning for the future isn’t the mixed enterprise that looking back at the past probably is. We maximize our interests when we plan intelligently.
That’s not quite true. The selfsame future in which we plan our next and better job, or arrange for a wedding or for college, is the only site on the temporal scheme past/present/future in which we will cease to live. We die in the future. Here is a hypothesis: the more absorbed with planning a person is, the more likely that fear of death will become a continuous presence for that person.
It appears that thinking about the past represents a low-intensity, mixed use of the mind, sometimes rather positive emotionally, sometimes rather negative. Thinking about the future, on the other hand, is high intensity itself. Yes, thank God, I’ve arranged for Buster to go to Harvard. Oh no, I’m going to die.
Something more remains to be said about the middle term of the scheme. First, the present is the only place we are living, acting, thinking, feeling. We’re done with the past, and the future hasn’t happened. And the nature of that living? It may well be that our present is preoccupied, one way or another, with the past and the future! The only place we’re actually living has been made thin by two uses of the mind that are in fact recent mental habits taught us in civilizations like our own. The present, for more of us than we want to acknowledge, can thin out to near-emptiness in this way. ‘My life is empty,’ means more than it seems to mean. [pp. i-ii]
On the other hand, there are those from traditional indigenous cultures in America, like Lakota Luther Standing Bear, who describes his own lack of familiarity with clock-time when, as late as 1880, his father presented him with a gold watch and chain.
There was a little cross-piece in the center of the watch chain to fasten through my vest button. How proud I was to receive this watch! When any of the boys or girls looked at me. I always took out that watch and looked at it, imagining that I could tell time!! At that day I did not know how to tell the time by looking at a watch or clock (My People the Sioux, 1928: 151).
It is no secret that many American Indians suffered brutally at the hands of white settlers and missionaries for any infraction against clock-time and its requirements. Or, as we read in the words of the Hopi author and teacher, Polingaysi Qoyawayma (a.k.a. Elizabeth Q. White):
For centuries [clock] time had been of no importance to the [Hopi]. The sun rose, the sun set. The Indian worked or hunted, danced or played, while there was light; when darkness came, he slept. No clocks had ticked in the rock homes of [the Hopi]. They lacked the white man’s conception of time. There were changes of the moon, changes of the seasons; but no one counted the hours. Now the Hopi must learn to respect the busy clock and be controlled by the circuiting hands. Not to conform was to be thrown off balance. The old days were gone forever. (Quawayma, 1999, 176)
I think it undeniable that there remain challenging issues raised with the emergence of historical consciousness, inexorably grinding us forward on a treadmill from past to future, and the commonsense view that life’s purpose is somehow tied up with that movement. Let us consider. What has such fixation on the future and progress, drilled into us by historical consciousness, done for us, or to us? Has it not created a disquieting sense of abandonment and a stress-filled, never-ending search for identity and self-fulfillment? Has it not prompted a vague feeling of emptiness from which we cannot easily extricate ourselves, and as protection against which we need to be distracted through constant planning and novelty, with ever-loftier goals and objectives? Is not the net result of this being-towards-the-future a thorough hollowing-out of the present moment, a removal of all significance from immediate experience, except perhaps as a stepping-stone to some final reckoning and resting place (being-towards-death)? But these questions raise yet other concerns.
Has not this framework, the chronological trajectory, filled us all with an insatiable acquisitiveness, a need to compete, to possess and to control, ceaselessly exercising individual acts of will that we conventionally describe as free choice: where to live, whom to marry, what to buy, what career to pursue? And are not the endless choices presented by the culture but a series of carefully crafted screens that, intentional or not, keep us from facing the reality of having surrendered ourselves to an impersonal and fabricated historical process that can never lead to happiness, eventually culminating in death? Why should there be this compulsion to look ceaselessly forward, with an ironic sense of resignation, existential dread, and the certainty of death? How unfulfilling and frustrating!
There is no evidence that our Pleistocene ancestors, including those Homo sapiens of the early Neolithic, knew anything of this irreversible linear timeline and the “burden of history” (Eliade) that has come to dominate our modern consciousness. To the contrary, there is much evidence in ethnography, ethnology and research in the history of religions to suggest the opposite; that our pre-civilized progenitors were – and what remains of extant non-civilized peoples are – fully immersed in an ahistorical, and qualitatively unique present. It is a present, moreover, made full through mythic participation in a set of primordial and founding events – a ‘deep’ archetypal past – grounding the periodicities of nature. Theirs, it would seem, was a life completely drenched in the generative moment, in closest proximity to the surrounding environment, engulfed in its wildness, and absorbed in its rhythms of periodic return and renewal.
I would characterize the temporal experience of preliterate humans as a consciousness of deep temporality [a powerful, pulsating, cyclical, rhythmic present] for the simple reason that a strictly unidirectional sense of linear time cannot be presumed to have been a central, if even a remote concern, for our prehistorical progenitors. In the context of this more primal temporal experience, the preliterate gatherer was so absorbed by a power-filled present that he could readily fuse with his environment; she felt at once herself and not-herself, so identified with her totem as to become identical with it, feeling the presence of the clan animal within her.
The question is, can we recover this experience of deep temporality in a world where the unidirectional flow of historical time and autobiographical narrative has come to dominate our everyday experience?
In helping to break the spell of historical consciousness, cast like a pall over humanity for more than six millennia, I would like to turn to the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his analysis of our concept of historical time. Attempting to loosen the chains that bind us to the treadmill of clock time’s forward march, he writes in The Phenomenology of Perception:
We say that time passes or flows by. We speak of the course of time. The water that I see rolling by was made ready a few days ago in the mountains, with the melting glacier… If time is similar to a river, it flows from the past towards the present and the future. The present is the consequence of the past, and the future of the present. But this often repeated metaphor is in reality extremely confused. For, looking at the things themselves, the melting snows and what results from this are not successive events, or rather the very notion of event has no place in the objective world… if I consider the world itself, there is simply one indivisible and changeless being in it… The objective world is too much a plenum for there to be time. (411-412)
“…Too much a plenum for there to be time?” More than a challenging metaphor, this statement appears to be a clear challenge to Enlightenment hypothesizing and post-Enlightenment reasoning. This allusion to Descartes and Newton (De Gravitatione) suggests a fundamental overturning of our now commonsense view, recollecting the pre-reflective nature of human dwelling within a fullness (plenum) of the lived-body-world. Merleau-Ponty later calls this “the thickness of the pre-objective present, in which we find our bodily being, our social being, and the pre-existence of the world.” (421, italics mine)
He reminds us that there is something forgotten (letheia) that lies hidden beneath our mundane experience of this culturally constituted and temporized environment; something linking us to the earth we inhabit and enlivening our presence here — something more primal than the hypotheticals of space and time generated by our scientists and our specialists.
Can this primal experience of deep temporality be recalled or uncovered (aletheia) in a world where historical consciousness has so fixated our lives that we inhale it with every breath we take? I believe it can be. And, I believe that through such unconcealment we can achieve a state of communion (or new integration) with the environment in which we always, already dwell. I would wager that such an act of uncovering may occur almost accidentally, arbitrarily, or capriciously (as LaoTzu might say), rather than through some supernatural exercise of the will. I would wager, furthermore, that there is nothing mysterious in such an experience. While it provides a bridge between “my flesh and the flesh of the world” – attaching me with the raven, the cave bear, or the river – it does nothing to deny the experience of the flesh, the senses, or the earthly sensuous, but serves only to strengthen the experience of their interdependence and pre-rational intertwining.
I would argue that this experience of deep temporality is perhaps an unexpected, but not infrequent companion to many persons; yet, it can be fleeting and disorienting, and so often frightening to those of us whose lives are tightly circumscribed by our culture’s rigid commitment to historical narrative and the causal outcomes of syllogistic reasoning. So often, such an experience is simply ignored, in the interests of maintaining a “healthy” attitude to linear autobiographical time, and addressing the exigencies of life in our culture.
But what could be the source of such an event of deep temporality, carrying us beyond the civilized artifices of historical consciousness? Perhaps we all retain a genetic trace, a feral memory of this elemental intuition. Perhaps we should call such event a recollection lying just beneath the surface of an otherwise historical experience and embedded obscurely inside our various cultural systems. However it be characterized, such a memory trace could provide us with the possibility of recovering a moment that dissolves historical time, granting us not a glimpse but, rather, a sensuously pregnant occasion of human dwelling underlying and haunting our civilized life. Such an event might also be capable of exorcising the isolating, emptying, and alienating demons of historical consciousness in a rich identification with a timeless and irreducible present.
What, then, could trigger such an experience of deep temporality? Well, I imagine that, since our culture delineates a basic orientation to reality, with hardened prejudices protecting us from any extra-historical experience, then there must be certain limit situations pushing at the edges of this civilized scaffolding — temporally, spatially, and psychically — where such a lingering genetic memory might burst through.
Whether the source of such an event be rooted in moments of great loneliness, despair, suffering, pain, trauma, terror, euphoria, joy, love, or a burst of creativity, the necessary condition would seem to be an experience of marginality or strangeness, an incipient feeling of difference, otherness, or alterity. It is in this respect that estrangement – either from oneself or one’s culture – may itself become the protagonist in an event of deep temporality, returning one to a new beginning, a primal and non-autobiographical ground. Such experience, moreover, might provide one with a radically different sense of freedom as well – a freedom from the “terror of history” and the fear of death, rather than the apparent freedom of choice that we so dearly cherish and desperately cling to in the West today.