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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Revised version, Borges and Mctaggart

Here's a little number I tossed off a while ago. This morning I revised it.

If you are a man or woman of a certain age, according to all the wisdom literature I know, and it is a peaceful Sunday morning, and the adventures that have been the wind in your back - or the life you have sloughed - have come to a standstill for one moment, then you turn your reflections to time and its possibility, or even its possible non-existence, a non-existence that would annul the fact that you are a man or woman of a certain age, that it is Sunday, that adventure could have ever happened to you, and that you have a moment to reflect.

Reflect on time one must, because we are not watches. Watches toil not, neither do they sow – even though our language has given them hands and a face. Instead, they infinitely visit the same neighborhood of numbers. One can imagine watches different –one can imagine a little computer that you could strap to your wrist and that would just record the seconds, like a timepiece on a bomb, and thus give you a finegrained sense of your slice and dice advance towards death – or why stop there? Buried with such a thing, it could go on slicing and dicing your decay, your dust, the process of your vacuuming up from this world. But at no point in its slicing and dicing would there be a moment, an aberrant moment, in which it wondered if it was really going anywhere, or measuring anything.

My two favorite essays on time are McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time and Borges’ A New Refutation of Time. Borges, in the introduction to his essay, acknowledges the awkwardness of refuting time one more time again – and concedes that it may be that the evident solecism of the title may represent the hidden solecism that skews every sentence, so drenched is language in time, or at least, so much do our assumptions about time live in our language. It is through looking up the literature on Borges that I first heard about McTaggart. Borges’ essay is all low violin sounds, all elegy and fugue – McTaggart’s, on the other hand, is that curious thing, English idealism, all Gilbert and Sullivan, in which the brisk dispatch of a philosophical problem seems in stylistic contradiction with its import.

Indeed, it is a question that is little asked why idealism took so long to take any root in Europe, and why, when it did, it chose the most material of cultures to do so, Britain. One expects the true idealist to be scrawny, nearly naked, and with a beggar’s bowl before him – not peruked, buttoned up, and with snuff and ale within easy reach. But I would guess that the introduction of idealism in Europe through Britain has something to do with the British tradition of the ludicrous. English literature loves the ludicrous – it loves the Liliputians for their own sake. It loves a certain kind of children’s literature, it loves limericks, it loves to add that one extra and unnecessary feature that is not at all the effect of the real, but the effect of the unreal in the real – hence, Dicken’s penchant for describing the tics of his characters. If we think of idealism as the quintessence of the ludicrous, then I think we get close to why idealism first found a serious place in Britain – and why it is so different there than in, say, the philosophical systems of India, even if there exists some similarity of arguments.

John Ellis McTaggart came, of course, at the end of the great British idealist tradition. And he was overshadowed by Russell and Whitehead. In Arthur Quinn’s The Confidence of British Philosophers, there is a story that I would like to juxtapose to my ludicrous theory. When McTaggart died, he had only one disciple left, it seems: C.D. Broad. Broad edited the second edition fo McTaggart’s The Nature of Existence (1928), which fell still born from the press – and unlike Hume’s Treatise, which had a similar fate, never experienced any resuscitation by the next generation of philosophers. Broad was disgusted by the reception of his master’s masterpiece, and wrote a three volume exposition of the work, which ran to 1200 pages. And in this exhaustive work, according to Quinn, Broad praised McTaggart’s arguments for their clarity, and showed that “McTaggart’s most important proofs were virtually all fallacious...” From the deeper idealistic level, Broad could not have done McTaggart a greater favor. Truth is one of the superstitions one must remove from one’s mind in order to truly de-provincialize it – for after all, holding onto the truth is only a means of separating oneself from God, or Nothingness.

With this caution, I’ll move on to McTaggart’s paper.

McTaggart begins with a premise that subsequently became famous.

"Positions in time, as time appears to us prima facie, are distinguished in two ways. Each position is Earlier than some, and Later than some, of the other positions. And each position is either Past, Present, or Future. The distinctions of the former class are permanent, while those of the latter are not. If M is ever earlier than N, it is always earlier. But an event, which is now present, was future and will be past."

McTaggart calls the series of earlier and later the B series, and the Past Present Future series the A series. In the B series, given an event (for McTaggart, the fundamental elements of the two series), its description, with relation to another event, will always be described as earlier or later. C.D. Broad always follows McTaggart down the library-ridden years to the final conflagration. But in the A series, oddly enough, all three descriptions will apply: Broad, let us say, planned to write his book about McTaggart, the book appeared, and the book is now history – which usually means out of print. At one point an event will be in the future, at another point it will be in the present, and at still another point it will be past.

McTaggart throws in another characteristic of time -- he connects it to change. This isn’t a novelty – indeed, Aristotle did the same thing. And it is here that the abstracting of his two series designated under one concept – time – does its work for McTaggart:

“It would, I suppose, be universally admitted that time involves change. A particular thing, indeed, may exist unchanged through any amount of time. But when we ask what we mean by saying that there were different moments of time, or a certain duration of time, through which the thing was the same, we find that we mean that it remained the same while other things were changing. A universe in which nothing whatever changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.” 

McTaggart uses a royal example here – which is appropriate for a royal theme, a Shakespearian theme:

“Take any event -- the death of Queen Anne, for example -- and consider what change can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects -- every characteristic of this sort never changes. "Before the stars saw one another plain" the event in question was a death of an English Queen. At the last moment of time -- if time has a last moment -- the event in question will still be a death of an English Queen. And in every respect but one it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It began by being a future event. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain so, though every moment it becomes further and further past.”

It is of interest to note that McTaggart’s series B, of earlier and later, is missing one crucial English term: “then”. The “then”, of course, introduces into the immobility of earlier and later the movement from the former to the later. It introduces something like cause – or, rather, exists as a proxy for cause. Queen Anne was sick, then she was sicker, then she died. The “then” forecloses on the abstraction that allows us to separate past present and future from early and later. The then gives us a sense of time as embedded in possibility: there is no possible “then” in the sequence from Queen Anne’s sickeness to her death in which Queen Anne becomes a frog, for instance.

Of course, the “then” also gives a philosophical hostage to fortune: that is, it requires us to endow cause with an ontological weight that was dismissed as counterfeit by Berkeley and Hume. “Then” is a trickster, in as much as cause, if we are right, not only happens within time but – time happens within cause. Perhaps we have only shifted the paradox in McTaggart’s essay, really, with our correction. And yet, without the then, we and our adventures are lost.

It is at this point, as the series – which we also recognize as Aeon and Chronos, the great Gods of time  who are given a thorough working out in Gilles Deleuze’s  Logic of Sense  - threaten to get out of hand, that we can turn to Borges, who of course adored this kind of play with ideas, and especially the implications of idealism, as it popped the whole world into a short story that reflects on the order of its own events  - like a watch that stops to ponder whether it will go from one o’clock to one-o-one, or if, instead, it will go from one clock to the corner liquor store to buy a bottle of cheap Irish whiskey and sit in the shade under a tree near a slow street and ponder its doings. 

Borges’s essay, A New Refutation of Time, was published in 1947. But, in a sign of the contagion inherent in writing skeptically on time, it was written, according to Borges’ preface, twice, once in 1944, and then again in 1946 – the latter being a revision that Borges then chose to stand alone, splitting the essay into two – and incidentally troping the “New” in his title, making it “new and newer”. Of course, a new refutation of time, if successful, would make it not at all a new refutation of time, as there would be nothing new and nothing old about the enterprise. Such is the nature of the beast, which bucks off every rider – and confutes itself.

Borges doesn’t mention McTaggart. One wonders if this means he has not read McTaggart – Borges, who read everything. Or everything odd. Instead, Borges presents his refutation as the logical sum of the arguments made by Berkeley and Hume against materialism – that is, the argument that perception proves either something perceived or something perceiving. And he then – (this then figures in a logical simulacrum of time, a sort of fixed set of relations, like series A) -- writes:

“Once the idealist argument is admitted, I see that it is possible -- perhaps inevitable -- to go further. For Berkeley, time is "the succession of ideas in my mind, which flows uniformly, and is participated by all beings" (Principles of Human Knowledge, 98); for Hume, "a succession of indivisible moments" (Treatise of Human Nature, I, 2, 2). However, once matter and spirit -- which are continuities -- are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside each present moment.”

To explain this, and to shadow forth its consequences (the latter is the inveterate essayist’s gesture – the philosopher would, strictly, value only the first task) Borges uses an unroyal example, even an exotic one:

“Outside each perception (real or conjectural ) , matter does not exist; outside each mental state,
spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment. Let us choose a moment of the utmost simplicity, for example, Chuang Tzu's dream ( Herbert Allen Giles, Chuang Tzu, 1899 ). Some twenty four centuries ago, Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he awoke he was not sure whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. … according to Berkeley, at that moment the body of Chuang Tzu did not exist, nor did the dark bedroom in
which he was dreaming, save as a perception in the mind of God. Humesimplifies what happened even more: at that moment the spirit of ChuangTzu did not exist; all that existed were the colors of the dream and the certainty  of his being a butterfly. He existed as a momentary term in the "bundle or coilection of different perceptions" which constituted, some four centuries before Christ, the mind of Chuang Tzu; he existed as the term n in an infinite temporal series, between n - 1 and n + 1. There is no other reality for idealism than mental processes; to add an objective butterfly to the butterfly one perceives therefore seems a vain duplication; to add a self to the mental processes seems, therefore, no less exorbitant.”

Vacuuming up time, Borges is saying, means that we will (accidentally) vacuum up the self. Once time goes, identity follows.

And yet, oddly enough, while identity is cast out to howl and gnash its teach, particularities rule the world. For, note, in both McTaggart’s vision and Borges’, everything favors order – the frame in which events are related  - and disfavors one cause – the great enemy of idealism. It is the hidden love of order that lies behind the most radical gesture of the British idealist school. It is that order, really, that Borges loves, even as he cannot, really, believe his own refutation of time, or its consequences. Borges finds a beautiful literary allusion to end his meditation.

 A Buddhist treatise of the fifth
century, the Visuddhimagga (Road to Purity), illustrates the same doctrine… "Strictly speaking, the duration of the life of a living being is exceedingly brief,
lasting only while a thought lasts. Just as a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way the life of a living being lasts only for the period of one thought."

A thought that nobody thinks, about a thing that exists only in the thought, that endures in a medium that negates all endurance: can there be a greater escape from adventure? This is the key to the Borgesian short story, an absolute in its genre just as Mallarme’s “Un coup de des n’abolira jamais l’hasard” is an absolute of its genre, poetry. It is an absolute in a genre that arose out of the word limits of the periodical press: that dispensed with the oral weight of the tale, but with a guilty conscience. It makes an existential value out of the “shortness” of the story, but one that is embedded in a disappointed idealism, where the emblematic is trapped, like a royal death in a timeless world, in an order that refers to itself alone, an order that cannot, logically, be dynastic, but that is pervaded by the pathos of dethroned dynasty. 

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