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D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.”

D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us… to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his touching fan letter to biologist Rachel Carson after she awakened the modern environmental conscience with her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring — a sobering look at the consequences, both for humanity and for our fragile planet, of material greed, unbridled power, and the cultural machine of consumerism. Several years later, the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm further diagnosed the central malady of materialism in his pioneering treatise on the tradeoffs between having and being: “The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

But because the epidemiology of disease parallels that of ideas, by the time symptoms arise, the illness has been silently working its way through the body of culture for generations.

Half a century before Carson and Fromm, and decades before the golden age of consumerism, the English poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and painter D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) pressed his prescient fingers against the pulse-beat of culture to limn the malady that would define the century to come — the greed for power and material possession that would give rise to numerous dictatorships, exploit vulnerable populations, and deplete Earth’s resources — and envisioned a remedy it is not too late for us to implement.

D.H. Lawrence

Just before his thirtieth birthday in the summer of 1915, while escaping the tumult of World War I at the English seaside resort of Littlehampton, Lawrence contemplated the relationship between the increasingly artificial human world and the immutable authenticity of the natural world in a letter to his friend Lady Cynthia Asquith, found in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (public library). Echoing Whitman (“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.”), Lawrence writes:

We have lived a few days on the seashore, with the wave banging up at us. Also over the river, beyond the ferry, there is the flat silvery world, as in the beginning, untouched: with pale sand, and very much white foam, row after row, coming from under the sky, in the silver evening: and no people, no people at all, no houses, no buildings, only a haystack on the edge of the shingle, and an old black mill. For the rest, the flat unfinished world running with foam and noise and silvery light, and a few gulls swinging like a half-born thought. It is a great thing to realise that the original world is still there — perfectly clean and pure…

Half a century before E.F. Schumacher made his elegant anti-consumerist case for “Buddhist economics,” Lawrence contrasts this living Paradise with the human-made inferno of materialism — an inferno whose blazing fire of greed and fuming brimstone of ownership have only intensified in the century since.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King, James Thurber’s 1927 parable of the destructiveness of greed and unbridled power.

Lawrence, who was a vocal opponent of militarism despite how unpopular and downright anti-patriotic this rendered him in wartime Britain, no doubt saw the causal relationship between humanity’s growing hunger for material possession —
the ultimate end of power — and the first truly global war that had just engulfed the world. He writes:

It is this mass of unclean world that we have superimposed on the clean world that we cannot bear. When I looked back, out of the clearness of the open evening, at this Littlehampton dark and amorphous like a bad eruption on the edge of the land, I was so sick I felt I could not come back: all these little amorphous houses like an eruption, a disease on the clean earth; and all of them full of such diseased spirit, every landlady harping on her money, her furniture, every visitor harping on his latitude of escape from money and furniture. The whole thing like an active disease, fighting out the health. One watches them on the sea-shore, all the people, and there is something pathetic, almost wistful in them, as if they wished that their lives did not add up to this nullity of possession, but as if they could not escape. It is a dragon that has devoured us all: these obscene, scaly houses, this insatiable struggle and desire to possess, to possess always and in spite of everything, this need to be an owner, lest one be owned. It is too horrible. One can no longer live with people: it is too hideous and nauseating. Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell. But it is only superimposed: it is only a temporary disease. It can be cleaned away.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes.

Sixteen years before his polymathic compatriot Bertrand Russell admonished against letting power-knowledge eclipse love-knowledge, Lawrence considers what it would take to rehabilitate the human spirit and treat not the symptoms but the illness itself:

One must destroy the spirit of money, the blind spirit of possession. It is the dragon for your St. George: neither rewards on earth nor in heaven, of ownership: but always the give and take, the fight and the embrace, no more, no diseased stability of possessions, but the give and take of love and conflict, with the eternal consummation in each. The only permanent thing is consummation in love or hate.

Complement this fragment of the immeasurably beautiful Letters of D.H. Lawrence with Alan Watts on money vs. wealth, Henry Miller on how the hedonic treadmill of materialism entraps us, and E.F. Schumacher on how to begin prioritizing people over products and creativity over consumption, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living.

BP

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.

And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.

That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).

Derek Walcott

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:

Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.

For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:

The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:

Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.

And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:

Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.

[…]

In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.

With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:

It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.

Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:

We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.

Complement What the Twilight Says with Walcott’s charming lighter side and his endlessly enlivening poem “Love After Love,” then revisit young Barack Obama on identity, race, and the search for coherence of selfhood.

BP

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.”

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” pioneering researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote in distilling the science of the unconscious mind.

Although I lack early childhood memories, I do have one rather eidetic recollection: I remember standing before the barren elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria, at age three or so, clad in a cotton polka-dot jumper. I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.

For most of my life, I held onto that memory as the sole surviving mnemonic fragment of my early childhood self. And then, one day in my late twenties, I discovered an old photo album tucked into the back of my grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. It contained dozens of photographs of me, from birth until around age four, including one depicting that very vignette — down to the minutest detail of what I believed was my memory of that moment. There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question — and what a Borgesian question — remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all.

That confounding parallax of personal history is what photographer Sally Mann explores throughout Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (public library) — a lyrical yet unsentimental meditation on art, mortality, and the lacuna between memory and myth, undergirded by what Mann calls her “long preoccupation with the treachery of memory” and “memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.”

Sally Mann as a girl
Sally Mann as a child

In a sentiment that calls to mind Oliver Sacks’s exquisite elucidation of how memory works, Mann writes:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

Nearly half a century after Italo Calvino observed that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Mann traces this cultural pathology — now a full epidemic with the rise of the photo-driven social web — to the dawn of the medium itself. Reflecting on the discovery of a box of old photographs in her own family’s attic, she echoes Teju Cole’s assertion that “photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses” and writes:

As far back as 1901 Émile Zola telegraphed the threat of this relatively new medium, remarking that you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it. What Zola perhaps also knew or intuited was that once photographed, whatever you had “really seen” would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori. Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

Sally Mann on her beloved horse as a girl
Young Sally Mann on her beloved horse

Mann, whose memoir is strewn with an extraordinary sensitivity to language, anchors into the perfect word the perfect analogy for how the living of life impresses itself upon our memory:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form.

Over and over, Mann returns with palpable unease to the parasitic relationship between photography and memory, culminating in this unadorned indictment:

I believe that photographs actually rob all of us of our memory.

More than that, photographs disquiet our already unnerving relationship with time — a relationship which Borges, the poet laureate of memory’s perplexities, captured with memorable brilliance. Mann writes:

Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

This dislocation of mnemonic truth into photographs is as rooted in time as it is in space. Mann, whose work is heavily animated by the life of landscape, once again draws on language to explore the nuances of the relationship between photography, memory, and place:

In an immigrant society like this one, we are often divided from our forebears less by distance than by language, generations before us having thought, sung, made love, and argued in dialects unknown to us now. In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

[…]

Contemporary Welsh-speakers have continued that expression, linking memory and landscape most vividly in R. W. Parry’s sonnet in which the longed-for landscape communicates to the human heart, “the echo of an echo… the memory of a memory past.”

With an eye to her own heritage as a displaced Southerner, Mann adds:

Looking through my long photographic and literary relationship with my own native soil I can perceive a definite kinship with those fakelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

A generation after Susan Sontag admonished against the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography, Mann invites us to confront these commodifications of memory that we have come to take for granted:

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.

Contemplating mortality, that ultimate end-point of memory, Mann writes in a Whitman-like meditation on the ever-elusive locus of the self:

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory — the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field — and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest — when someone dies, where does it all go?

In a sentiment evocative of Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful assertion that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Mann adds:

Proust has his answer, and it’s the one I take most comfort in — it ultimately resides in the loving and in the making and in the living of every present day.

Hold Still is an intensely beautiful and layered read in its totality. Complement this particular facet with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how the famous amnesiac H.M. illuminates the paradoxes of memory and the self, and Susan Sontag on how photography mediates our relationship with life and death.

BP

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“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.”

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. “It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.

Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay “A New Refutation of Time,” which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.

borges_time1

Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of “new.” The “slight mockery” of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that “our language is so saturated and animated by time.” With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be “the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics” — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.

Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science (“the clarity of metaphysics,” per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.

Time, Borges notes, is the foundation of our experience of personal identity — something philosophers took up most notably in the 17th century, poets picked up in the 19th, scientists set down in the 20th, and psychologists picked back up in the 21st.

Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the “thinking active principle that perceives” at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” — but they both affirmed the existence of time.

Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls “this unstable world of the mind” in relation to time:

A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton’s] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Returning to Hume’s notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:

Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions.

But even the notion of a “series” of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:

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 the present moment.

He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:

During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.

One of Norman Rockwell’s rare illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:

The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.

Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. 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.

The essay, as everything in Labyrinths, is an exceptional read in its continuous entirety; excerpting, fragmenting, and annotating it here fails to dignify the agile integrity of Borges’s rhetoric and the sheer joy of his immersive prose. Complement it with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, and Sarah Manguso on its confounding, comforting ongoinginess.

BP

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