Time and Nihilism
“Time,” it has been said, “makes hypocrites of us all”.
This is quite a marvelous saying, and I wish I knew who could be credited with being the source of it. It is another aspect of “the mind of self-contradiction” which I wish to discuss further here.
Time entangles us in self-contradiction. Self-contradiction must be distinguished from paradox, and that’s another issue of disentangling the confusion of the higher and the lower, or the noble from the ignoble value. The most marvelous statement about this distinction of self-contradiction and paradox comes from the Book of Revelation (and I discussed this some time ago in the now defunct Dark Age Blog). The serpent’s tongue is depicted as forked. This is the tongue of self-contradiction (please don’t blame the snake for man’s problem). The tongue of Jesus, however, is depicted as a two-edged sword. This is the tongue of paradox, not of self-contradiction.
Again, I invoke what I call “Khayyam’s Caution” — that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. And here, as in other things, the unwary may be drawn into a trap, confusing those things as being the same that are not the same at all, such as the values “whole” and the “totality” (which are actually opposites). The forked-tongue is, superficially, like the tongue as two-edged sword. But the forked-tongue is the tongue of division and dualism, and therefore of self-contradiction. The tongue as two-edged sword, on the other hand, is the tongue of peace — the unity of ostensible opposites — and of non-duality. Where the forked-tongue bespeaks opposition, the two-edged sword bespeaks polarity within an essential unity or whole. War and peace — that is the underlying theme in the symbolism of the tongue as being divided or unified.
So, let’s return to the problem of why time can become such a corrosive violation of our integrity. It has to do with the problem of permanence and change, and the problem of permanence and change is at the heart of the social conflict between the conservative and the progressive orientations to time, considered in terms of renovation or innovation, evolution or revolution. The flux of time creates problems of disorientation, for the human desire for permanence and “final solutions”, definitive conclusions, eternal verities, comes into conflict with one essential fact of existence — energy flows in the universe. It is not static. It is the flux itself. It is a living and evolving universe. Impermanence is the rule, and the energetic flux is true even of that seemingly stable and solid chair you are presently sitting on. The flux is the wind blowing through the worlds. And it is true even of your psyche and identity, too. For what is called “movement” or “motion” in physical terms, is called “action” in psychic terms.
(And you may well ponder the question at your leisure whether the cosmos is a cosmos of motions and movements, clockwork-like, or a cosmos of Acts.)
The quickening or intensification of the flux creates problems for the ego-identity, particularly in times of rapid change as today. It is heard in Yeats’ report of the plaintiff call of the young girl on a Normandy beach crying out towards the on-coming wind-born waves, “O Lord, let something remain!”
In the midst of this flux, men seek to create zones of permanence, and call them civilisations, Ages, empires, nations, institutions, and from these they derive their identities and, in turn, give back their allegiances and loyalties to the “motherland” or “fatherland” or “homeland” or “mother church” and so on. They were all only temporary answers and responses, even when they vainly thought of themselves as immortal forms and eternal structures erected against the energetic flux. It is this conflict between the conceit of immortality and the fact of the energetic flux that results in an emergent contradiction between identity and reality, or mind and body. As Shakespeare once put it, “the times are out of joint”.
The problem, though, is that people confuse their essential individuality with what is actually a role, so that when the roles are stressed or challenged by the corrosive effects of time, it becomes an existential threat. The confusion of individuality with role, and role with the identity, is narcissism, for the role is largely the self-image, the mask or persona. And it is in this function as role or persona that the ego invests its hopes of immortality, which hopes are doomed to be frustrated. Our roles are assigned to us by various authorities — even as “the average man”. In the final analysis, they are no part of our essential identity or individuality. Roles are conduits and conducts. Conduits are means, and not ends. When treated as ends, we end up much like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills when the role we think we are essentially becomes obsolete norm or exhausted form.
Fluidity is an essential quality of consciousness, and this is often more characteristic of the young than the old — a fact even noted earlier by Aristotle (his psychology of the megalopsychos and the mikropsychos). The young (not necessarily in years, but also in spirit) are particularly sensitive to the hypocrisies of the old, those already “set in their ways” despite a reality that the young experience quite differently. Old and New, or evolutionary and revolutionary, are two aspects of the experience of time that are rather crucial to understanding social relations, particularly in transitional times such as today where there tends to be a polarisation between the conservative and the progressive orientations toward time, which in the extreme case may become reactionary or revolutionary, correspondingly.
We are all mixtures of conservative or progressive, in various proportions or ratios. A man who is 100% conservative is a decadent and a nihilist despite himself. He is a real hypocrite. He is like an oppressive old growth forest that smothers out the aspirations of the young seedlings below. On the other hand, a man who is 100% progressive or revolutionary is likewise also 100% nihilist. He is like the devastating fire that sweeps away and annihilates the old growth. The future is repressed by the total reactionary, while the past is liquidated by the total revolutionary. The total revolutionary’s nihilism is no different than the nihilism of the thorough-going reactionary. Their hypocrisies are similar, but come with a different accent. The conservative problem, as Rosenstock-Huessy noted, is the problem of “too late”. And the revolutionary problem is the problem of “too soon”.
Most of us, fortunately, are a healthy mixture, some leaning more one way than another perhaps, depending on how we perceive and understand the essential social problem. The problem is to know when to be prudent and wait or when to rush. But a lack of time sense, and a sense for timing, seems to me a peculiar affliction of the Western mentality. We pass time, we kill time, we do time. We do everything but fulfill the times. That general insensitivity to time was drawn to Carlos Castaneda’s attention by his teacher, don Juan — “you wait when you should rush, and you rush when you should wait”. That is very sound advice. It is, in fact, the cure for the hypocrisies of the impetuous “too soon” and the imprudent “too late”.
Revolutions are almost always the means society chooses to restore the unity of experience after the unity of experience has already long dis-integrated into lip-service, hypocrisy, and self-contradiction — the problem of decadence. We appear to be approaching this situation, given the recent upheavals we are witnessing around the globe, for the problem of human organisation on a planetary scale requires a new unity of the human experience; a new concord, and a new conviviality.
Economists like to flatter themselves that they know the causes of revolution and social upheaval, and that these causes lie in economics. (No they don’t). So they are left flummoxed and perplexed when upheavals don’t conform to the economic model of social distress, such as Turkey recently, which seemed to take everybody by total surprise. There are other forces at work. And while these may for a time dress themselves in the language of economic grievance (as they are merely expected to) they do not long abide there. There are other, far more powerful impulses — one might say even “Dionysian” impulses — that compel human beings to put their lives on the line.