Core Decorum: Timelessness

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang.

If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.4311.

A clock ticks. Time passes. My beard lengthens, and then I trim it. Another day, another day. So many cups of coffee drunk, so many pages written. There’s laundry to be done – another checkmark on the to-do list. Sleeping and waking, as Psalms says, “from the rising of the sun to its setting … ” And then what?

Quotidian malaise oppresses and distracts. The senselessness of temporal succession bears upon me. Another weekend to live for; another Monday to regroup. Each day passes like the one before, and I wonder what is to come.

Whatever is next will likewise pass into the anonymity of memory and history. Each next dies as soon as it is born, and the fragmentation that ensues suspends me in the impersonality of temporal succession. I am not he who lives in the present.

It’s rather bleak to imagine oneself as the victim of routine. And I would reckon that routine’s victim must always be a John Doe — a man without a face. In those moments when I become that victim, I become something less than myself, too fragmented to be identified.

The situation is entirely otherwise for he who lives in the present. Being grounded in the moment, taking in every detail in its depth as opposed to its passing, that sort of man opens himself up to the world and, consequently, the world opens itself to him. Eternity is present to him.

Christianity likes to posit God and heaven as dwelling outside of time, in the eternity of timelessness of which Wittgenstein speaks. I would wager that he who lives in the present and so lives eternally does so only in virtue of that part of the human person which is made in the image of God. How else would an access to eternity be possible in the mechanical progression of temporality?

Nietzsche protests, saying that it is reason and memory that makes man the victim of time’s passage. Animals, which do not remember in any specific way, are happy because they live entirely in the moment. Past and future are nothing to them.

That’s also a rather bleak way to think about things. Wittgenstein’s eternity is accessed not by shaving off aspects of experience, but by diving into the experience at hand. Remembrance and anticipation can access an otherwise untapped depth.

Take, for example, the most recent festival at the University of Dallas: Oktoberfest. The memory of the past three falls sharpened my anticipation of that evening’s festivity, and so, when gates of the complex were thrown open and the tented beer hall lit, I lived in that moment eternally.

Sadly, I must now resign that moment to memory, and that rather speaks of the tension between the temporality of the world and the eternity of the present. That tension can nevertheless be mediated by each moment manifesting itself outstandingly in an eternal present. Whether that moment be mundane or sacred, it comes with an unspoken impulse to finish the Psalm quoted in part above: “May the name of the Lord be praised!”

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