What Is Time: 200 Years of Ravishing Reflections, from Borges to Nina Simone
By Maria Popova
We are living interludes, bookended between not yet and no more, each of us a random draw of the cosmic lottery, each allotted a sliver of spacetime in which to live out our lives as chance configurations of stardust suspended in time.
Gathered here are some of my favorite reflections on and reckonings with the fundament of being from a century of writing and a lifetime of reading.
JORGE LUIS BORGES
In his superb New Refutation of Time, Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) writes:
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.
On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003) performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. Sitting her the grand piano, she prefaced her performance with a soulful meditation on the nature of time:
Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.
And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive?
And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”
In her enchanting Journey to Mount Tamalpais, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) exults:
O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.
O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!
When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.
Half a lifetime later, at the age of 95, Adnan returns to the subject of time, which was always the raw material of her art, and writes in her exquisite final work:
My favorite time is in time’s other side, its other identity, the kind that collapses and sometimes reappears, and sometimes doesn’t. The one that looks like marshmallows, pomegranates, and stranger things, before returning to its kind of abstraction… Today I see eternity everywhere. I had yesterday an empty glass of champagne on the table, and it looked both infinite and eternal.
One blustery day, finding herself “at the door of Time’s immensity,” Adnan answers Nina Simone’s wonderment about the aliveness of time:
One more day following an infinity of days. And this one on its way out, according to its fate. If everything is alive, this day is too, a life independent from mine, and still interdependent.
Einstein’s Dreams by the poetic physicist Alan Lightman remains my all-time favorite single work of art on the science and philosophy of time. In each of the imaginary worlds the novel conjures up, time works differently, goes differently, illuminating some facet of our multidimensional temporal experience in the one world we do inhabit.
In one world, the inhabitants are incapable of imagining the future:
In a world without future, each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.
Another world is located at the center of time, where time stands still, traveling outward in concentric circles to the outside worlds. Lovers and the parents of small children make pilgrimages to this place, hoping to preserve their fleeting bliss:
Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.
In yet another, there is no shared stream of present in this world — only islands of neighboring solitudes, each suspended in a different moment of a different past:
The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.
This, indeed, is the silent refrain of the novel: the haunting reminder that however the past and the future might unfold and refold in the origami of even the most elaborate time-model, unless we live in the present, we are not living at all.
Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) channels this elemental fact in her indispensable early treatise on love:
Fearlessness is what love seeks… Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.
A lifetime later, upon becoming the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, Arendt looks squarely at time itself in relation to the life of the mind. At the center of it is her insight that thinking is our rebellion against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude:
Looked at from the perspective of the everyday world of appearances, the everywhere of the thinking ego — summoning into its presence whatever it pleases from any distance in time or space, which thought traverses with a velocity greater than light’s — is a nowhere. And since this nowhere is by no means identical with the twofold nowhere from which we suddenly appear at birth and into which almost as suddenly we disappear in death, it might be conceived only as the Void. And the absolute void can be a limiting boundary concept; though not inconceivable, it is unthinkable. Obviously, if there is absolutely nothing, there can be nothing to think about. That we are in possession of these limiting boundary concepts enclosing our thought within (insurmountable) walls — and the notion of an absolute beginning or an absolute end is among them — does not tell us more than that we are indeed finite beings.
Man’s* finitude, irrevocably given by virtue of his own short time span set in an infinity of time stretching into both past and future, constitutes the infrastructure, as it were, of all mental activities: it manifests itself as the only reality of which thinking qua thinking is aware, when the thinking ego has withdrawn from the world of appearances and lost the sense of realness inherent in the sensus communis by which we orient ourselves in this world… The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere.
In his magnificent Intuition of the Instant, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) opposes the idea that the present moment is the only arena in which the reality of life plays out, and instead calls for a broader continuity of time as the ultimate landscape of being:
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, and that a young or tragic novelty — always sudden — never ceases to illustrate the essential discontinuity of time.
Bachelard traces this disconnect from philosophy to science — shortly after Einstein’s relativity rattled our understanding of time, he laments that mathematicians have dehumanized time by reducing it to measurable units of duration:
Upon entering the domain of such prophets of the abstract, time is hence reduced to a simple algebraic variable — the variable par excellence — better suited to the analysis of the possible than to the examination of the real. Continuity is indeed a schema of pure possibility for mathematicians, rather than an essential character of reality.
It is in duration, he argues, and not in discreet moments that we find the meaning of time and, in consequence, the vital force of life:
The human intellect, in its ineptitude to pursue what is vital, immobilizes time within an ever-artificial present. Such present is pure nothingness — a nothingness that cannot even succeed at truly separating past from future. It seems indeed that the past carries its forces into the future, and that the future is necessary as an outlet for forces issuing form the past. A single sweeping life force, an identical élan vital, would thus suffice to consolidate duration. Thought, as a fragment of life, should not impose its rules upon life. Devoted as it is to the contemplation of static being, of spatial being, the intellect must guard against misunderstanding the reality of becoming… It then becomes necessary for us to take time as a whole, if we are to grasp its reality. Time is at the very source of the élan vital. Though life may be showered with flashes of insight, it is truly duration that explains life.
URSULA K. LE GUIN
A century after Bachelard, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) takes up this essential ongoingness in a spare and splendid poem that radiates Borges’s riverine nature of time and Alan Lightman’s multiplicity of temporal experiences:
HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.
In the first year of his thirties, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) set out to investigate the inner structure of our existential anxiety. Invariably, he arrived at the perplexity of time:
[A human being] is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.
In using the eternal as one of our reference points, Kierkegaard observes, we create the central syllogism of our time-model:
If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).
Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.
A century and a half after Kierkegaard, James Gleick atomizes time in his wonderful inquiry into the human dream of time-travel to suggest — in consonance with Octavia Butler’s bellowing proclamation that God is change — that time is just the name we give to our perception of change:
When the future vanishes into the past so quickly, what remains is a kind of atemporality, a present tense in which temporal order feels as arbitrary as alphabetical order. We say that the present is real—yet it flows through our fingers like quicksilver.
It might be fair to say that all we perceive is change — that any sense of stasis is a constructed illusion. Every moment alters what came before. We reach across layers of time for the memories of our memories.
Nested into the first of the iconic Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) is what has endured for more than a century as the most timeless ode to time:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
In a passage from the 1923 classic The Prophet by the great Lebanese poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931), an astronomer asks the central character to explain time, and the Prophet responds:
You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.
In his elegant meditation on flowers and the meaning of life, Michael Pollan considers how the great allure of flowers — their combination of beauty and ephemerality — illuminates the central reality of human life:
I do wonder if it isn’t significant that our experience of flowers is so deeply drenched in our sense of time. Maybe there’s a good reason we find their fleetingness so piercing, can scarcely look at a flower in bloom without thinking ahead, whether in hope or regret. We might share with certain insects a tropism inclining us toward flowers, but presumably insects can look at a blossom without entertaining thoughts of the past and future — complicated human thoughts that may once have been anything but idle. Flowers have always had important things to teach us about time.
Tucked into the altogether magnificent Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is an invitation to a different calibration of time, shifting us to a different place along the spectrum between the ephemeral and the eternal on which we exist:
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum, and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the Spanish Civil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon is gone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
In consonance with the central poetic image in Ursula K. Le Guin’s love-poem to trees, Solnit considers the saeculum of these particular trees, planted in San Francisco by Mary Ellen Pleasant — an Underground Railroad heroine and pioneering civil rights activist, born into slavery in the early years of the 19th century:
She had died more than a hundred years before that day we stood under her eucalyptus trees, which felt as though they were the living witnesses of a past otherwise beyond our reach. They had outlived the wooden mansion in which some of the dramas of her life had played out. They were so broad they had buckled the sidewalk, and they reached up higher than most of the buildings around them. Their peeling gray and tan bark spiraled around their trunks, their sickle-shaped leaves lay scattered on the sidewalk, and the wind murmured in their crowns. The trees made the past seem within reach in a way nothing else could: here were living things that had been planted and tended by a living being who was gone, but the trees that had been alive in her lifetime were in ours and might be after we were gone. They changed the shape of time.
For some scientific counterparts to these literary reckonings, see the neuropsychology of how time perception modulates our experience of selfhood, the cognitive science of how our social interactions shape our experience of time, and the little loophole in the physics of the Big Bang that rattles our surety about when time really began.
Published December 13, 2022