Death and Duration

Death and Duration

When we measure silences and say that a given period of silence has lasted as long as a given period of sound, we measure the sound mentally, as if we could actually hear it, and this enables us to estimate the duration of the periods of silence. Even without opening our mouths or speaking at all we can go over poems and verses and speech of any sort in our minds, and we can do the same with measurable movement of any kind. We can estimate that one poem takes proportionately more, or less, time than another one, just as if we were reciting them both aloud. (Augustine, Confessions XI:27, 277)

Towards the end of writing my thesis, I began to be increasingly obsessed with time. It’s hard to phrase exactly what was happening, but it had something to do with the constant pressure to be done, when all I really wanted to do is continue to explore. Each day I spent researching opened up new ideas which reassembled the past in interesting ways; one can only look at these things with a certain anticipation of what might be found, though, and that means that we are usually destined to find exactly what we are looking for. That’s why I hate the concept of being done; it’s a lot like being dead. When you close off the potential for expanding interpretations, you cease anticipating. Open books are alive. Closed books are dead.

A friend told me once that Bob Dylan said “Nostalgia is death.” I never verified the quote, but I’ve always wanted to believe it. However, it seems as if in the process of saying anything at all we are trapped by the paradox of anticipating its passing as much as we are reveling in its creation. Dealing with the idea that “all things must pass” happens even before we begin to speak:

If a man wishes to utter a prolonged sound and decides beforehand how long he wants it to be, he allows this space of time to elapse in silence, commits it to memory, and then begins to utter the sound. It sounds until he reaches the limit set for it, or rather, I should not use the present tense and say that it sounds, but the past and the future, saying both has sounded and will sound. For much of it as has been completed at any given moment has sounded, and the rest will sound. In this way the process continues to the end. All the while, man’s attentive mind, which is present, is relegating the future to the past. The past increases in proportion as the future diminishes, until the future is entirely absorbed and the whole becomes past.

But how can the future be diminished or absorbed when it does not yet exist? And how can the past increase when it no longer exists? It can only be that the mind, which regulates this process, performs three functions, those of expectation, attention, and memory. The future, which it expects, passes through the present, to which it attends, into the past, which it remembers. No one would deny that the future does not yet exist or that the past no longer exists. Yet in the mind there is both expectation of the future and remembrance. (ibid.)

Augustine concludes that it is not the future which is long, but our anticipation of it; and as for the past, it is not long, but rather our remembrance of it which is long. It seems to me that we search for a usable past that does not foreshorten the future— that does not doom it to endless repetitions of the past. However, the desire to embrace an “open” future is also marked by a desire to “close” the past, to make it tidy and usable.

I tell myself: “you have to finish,” and yet I shudder, with a chill, anticipating the death of the past.