Time Tends Toward Not-Being
If nothing passed there would be no past time; if nothing were approaching, there would be no future time; if nothing were, there would be no present time. But the two times, past and future, how can they be, since the past is no more and the future is not yet? On the other hand, if the present were always present and never flowed into the past, it would not be time at all, but eternity. But if the present is only time, because it flows away into the past, how can we say that it is? For it is, only because it will cease to be. Thus we can affirm that time is only in that it tends toward not-being.
– Saint Augustine in Confessions
There are few moments that I would like to extend into eternity, experience in a state of suspension, or else play over and over on loop. Sitting at the peak of an orgasm with someone I’m in love with is one of them. I often think of sex as one of the purest ways to know and experience someone – as if someone’s essence were most vivid and accessible in this way. Although that culmination isn’t necessarily the emotional or intellectual pinnacle, its burst of desire is a physical manifestation of that moment. And I wish to burst ad infinitum without collapse or interruption.
I think of this nearly every time I’m with someone. My awareness of time and my anticipation of its loss function as a kind of pre-emptive mourning for that moment. I think of the way time decays and fades away; I think of how fleeting the present is; I think of the degradation of memory as the imprint of sensory perceptions become more and more dull; and I think of how slippery such poignant moments are, how impossible to grasp and hold, how they take you by the hair, bless you with undeniable pleasure and wonder, only to pull away just as quickly.
Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.
– Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I think of how days, weeks, months, or even years later, I will be thinking about that exact moment and longing for its return. I think of the purity of that moment, the culmination of desire and love it represents, and how, within a few moments, it will no longer exist, that this event will tend toward not-being.
I’ve realized that the only way to truly honor this moment is to simply be present with it: its magnitude, its lucid transcendence, its tidal nature, and I abandon myself to it.
The Eternal Return
Isolating this moment reminds me of the idea of the eternal return — an idea that forces you to deliberately consider your actions by beckoning: what if you had to live this life again? Repeatedly? Would your eternity reflect a thoughtless descent into mechanical tedium or would it reflect the decadence of a life well lived? What meaning would your life have?
Although the idea had been expressed well before he ever wrote about it, Friedrich Nietzsche characterized the eternal return as a burden of the “heaviest weight,” or heaviest magnitude imaginable. He writes:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’
– Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science
Kundera called upon this idea as well, the longing for repetition, and revealed the duality implied by eternal return: it is either joyful or horrifying. It adds a significance to each moment, it asks if you would willingly relieve and reclaim your life. And, in those moments of pre-emptive mourning that I experience, I think of the eternal return, I think of how I long for repetition, I think of that divine demon of temporality, wishing for the reinstatement of eroticism made eternal.
The Extension of a Single Moment into Eternity
In Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, an evil doctor creates a machine that produces mass illusion — enough to send an entire city into chaos. “Reason,” the doctor argued, “cannot produce the poetry disorder does.” The “reality modifying” machines are powered by nothing less than the erotic energy and secretions of fulfilled desire produced by two perfect, platonically matched lovers. These lovers are kept suspended in a moment of dangling desire, guarded by an elegant hermaphrodite in a purple gauze dress, who says, “I was the most beautiful transvestite in all Greenwich Village before the Doctor gave me the post of intermediary. I represent the inherent symmetry of divergent asymmetry.”
For Doctor Hoffman, desire is the ultimate impulse of existence; his subversion of Descartes’ cogito “I think therefore I am” is “I desire therefore I am.” In fact, one could probably take it a step further and call upon the maxim posited by the existentialists, namely Sarte and de Beauvoir, that existence precedes essence: desire precedes existence.
His lovers are suspended in, what I would consider, an ideal state of desire: the extension of the apex, desire sustained without the constraints of the body — a metaphor made manifest in the book with the help of hormone and vitamin therapy. When introduced to these machines, the protagonist looked on in horror, I suppose, at the way in which the lovers had been reduced to mechanical cogs, but a simultaneous expansion occurred alongside that reduction: an unbearable, everlasting moment of ecstasy.
Obviously I don’t really know what I would do if presented that option; its impossibility allows me to muse freely without consequence. But that desire for the prolongation of eroticism and connection is something that I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling. Time’s arc is obvious: the awareness of the decay and degradation of time, watching action carve out its body in an act that simultaneously destroys its existence as the present becomes more and more fleeting; the desire for recursion, to bring the past back to life through divine and erotic re-animation; and the extension of one glorious moment into eternity.
Love is a perpetual journey that does not go through space, an endless oscillating motion that remains unmoved. Love creates for itself a tension that disrupts every tense in time. Love has certain elements in common with eternal regression, since this exchange of reflections can neither be exhausted nor destroyed, but it is not a regression. It is a direct durationless, locationless progression towards an ultimate state of ecstatic annihilation.
– Angela Carter in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
Ecstatic annihilation: if the erotic moment extends into eternity, is it not the same as an annihilation? The singular moment excludes all others and succumbs to an indivisible point of catalyst which immediately renews itself to yet another catalyst. The annihilation is revealed when you realize that the results, the profit of this creativity, can never be seen since life does not exist beyond that moment.
If left to its normal trajectory, the ecstatic annihilation is relivable: an annihilation which allows you to recover, a petit mort that defeats death. The mourning of its loss propels its future projection by creating an impulse and desire for further annihilations. The future approaches, becomes palpable, as a countdown to the next point, creating an illusion of an eternal present that continuously keeps you suspended in a conflicted moment of desire, anticipation, and mourning.
Image by Greg.