Sunday, July 09, 2006


It may sound strange, but I’m not sure I have reconciled myself with Time. I don’t mean that I’m bothered by getting older; I am relatively comfortable with the passage of days, hours, and years. What discomfits me is Time as a rapid succession of moments. I find it hard to believe, despite numerous historical and literary events to support it, that a person’s life is sometimes changed by instants rather than by carefully measured choices. The concept of “irretrievable” is alien to my basic philosophy. What is broken can be mended; what is lost can be found. Nothing is truly past doing.

This position may seem even stranger coming from a purported amateur musician. Much of performance is about timing—exact timing (aleatoric compositions notwithstanding). And a musical moment is nearly the most transient thing imaginable. (I’m going to reference Kierkegaard later, so I may as well invoke him now: in Either/Or, the unnamed personage A observes that “music always expresses the immediate in its immediacy.”) It is possible that my difficulty with Time is related to some underlying reason that I entered mathematics rather than music. In my field of study, the truth exists, and it will be found. Mistakes will be made and corrected, and each piece will be uncovered in due course.

This philosophy has its practical benefits. It makes patience easy. When nothing passes away forever, there is no need to rush to anything. It makes recovery easy. Whatever has gone before this point, from here we can and must weigh and determine what we should do next. It even makes forgiveness easy. The harm my neighbor has done me is temporary, or if it is not, bearing a grudge will not help me or them in the weeks ahead.

My reluctance to accept the significance of moments also flies in the face of evidence and experience. The family heirloom that falls and shatters ends its existence there. The secret that is discovered changes, clarifies, perhaps ruins everything suddenly. Most seriously, the life that is struck down by will or whimsy cannot be restored so that those who love it do not grieve.

For Kierkegaard, I think, faith turns on an instant. On every instant, in fact: the “knight of faith” he describes in Fear and Trembling is “continually making the movement of infinity”, “purchasing every moment he lives, ‘redeeming the seasonable time’ at the dearest price”, by which SK means complete resignation and trust in God to provide. One might say that faith is where eternity and instantaneity meet. An instant is also the time of action: the last works of SK were the 10 issues of his self-published journal Øieblikket (The Instant). The purpose of these journals was to call the Danish population to reject the state church and turn to true Christian faith. He desparately wanted his fellow Danes to believe the promise of Jesus, that He will give rest to those who turn to Him, and to do so every moment of their lives.

The will can only act in the present; when the immediate is pushed backward or forward in time, it becomes either history or conjecture, inaccessible to the will. How can this be balanced with a longer view of time? I measure events and decisions in my head, and as I’ve said, measuring has its benefits. It is even necessary for some events: practice and preparation bring premeditation to bear on performance, which of itself happens in a moment. One carefully plans what one will do with one’s life, say in one’s speech, teach in one’s class.

Immediacy is essential to some parts of life, however. I’ve learned that it’s difficult to dance when you’re constantly measuring your steps. Have a glass of wine, suppress the analytical urge, and you’ll flow with the dance more naturally. Do not think too hard about the sunset; the colors are not made richer by the light of your thoughts. And avoid what is worst of all—to be immobilized by mediating too much on what has been or what is to come. This is my failing. Prudence can only get you so far. Self-congratulation and self-flagellation can get you nowhere at all.

Life moves in moments. Time bears away all things, but to grasp them at all, you must grasp now. Let the long view of life give you patience and perspective, but do not neglect the immediate or it will neglect you. I speak to myself.


Anonymous said...

I don't have an account, so this will be "Anon" but it's David Petersen (your brother's roommate).

I agree with your ideas here. Reminds me closely of Zeno's Paradox of the Arrow:

I, though, take a more science-based approach than your philosophical one. =) Energy, we know, comes in quanta. It seems that there is no continuum there, but most other things seem to (time included). More funny is that when using math to model reality, we use discrete methods to approximate continuous functions, which are in turn approximations of discrete natural events.

As Christians, we believe in The Infinite, forgiveness, and existence "outside of" time. Sadly, our decisions here on Earth are not always reconcilable to others here.

As a mathematician yourself, you'll appreciate the reference to the standard PDE question of how sound would work in a 2D (or just about any even dimensional) world. That it wouldn't dissipate and echoes of all sounds ever produced carry on for eternity.

Interesting thoughts.


jpb said...


Yes, I thought about mentioning Zeno's arrow, and what meaning might be given to the expression "take hold of the moment."

I also thought about mentioning the composer Messiaen, for whom time was an important philosophical issue (such as in the "Quartet for the End of Time," whose title apparently refers both to the Apocalypse and to the dissolution of metrical conventions in music). He remarks that humans are apparently incapable of distinguishing a small difference in length between two long notes (e.g., whole note vs. whole note + 16th note). Is that brief time lost to our perception? How important is it?

But one can only fit so much into a blog entry. :-)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.