Lesson 16.  Time’s Dimensions.




            Time is a strange thing.  We are always dealing with time, and yet we find it very difficult to say what it is.  How does time manifest in the experiences of consciousness?  To answer this question we must ponder over a very frequent representation of time, the one describing it as linear, a half-segment stretching into the past, marking an arrest at the present and losing itself into the future.  We call dimensions of time the points of reference that past, present and future mark out on the line of time.  The line metaphor suggests that past and future have something in common (both are thought of as straight lines), namely a reality which would be an infinite duration.  On the contrary the present seems a mere point, it is just a nothing between two infinites that are, they, the whole of duration.


    Should we take this linear representation of time seriously?  Does it tell us anything about the nature of the three dimensions of time?  What reality ought we to confer to past, present and future?  Should one regard the line of time as establishing the true connection between temporal dimensions?  Or ought we to consider this metaphor as betraying experience, a kind of mistranslation of time into values pertaining to space?


*          *




A.  Past’s Glow


    How does the past occur in my consciousness?  Through my memories.  Without memory’s retention of the past there would be no awareness of the past.  In the past, consciousness’ intentionality takes on a specific form, that of a connection to an object situated in the past in the form of a souvenir.  In the same way as perception is the present giving itself, a souvenir is the past giving itself.  When I remember my holidays in my grand-mother’s house, my consciousness relates to an object, it is conscious-of-something, it is not conscious-of-nothing.  Yet this “something” is real only for my consciousness, as the object of a past consciousness, on the mode of what-has-been.  It is not this table on which I am presently writing, the table I perceive.  The table reveals itself to me in many aspects, as do all objects of perception.  They solicit my attention to what is here and now.  On the contrary a memory makes me forget the present world.  For it to become the only object of my focussing I must let go of action and my present concerns, of vigilance itself, in order to open my mind to what once was and at the same time is no more.  “Yesterday when I was young…”[1] But those days are gone.


     The awareness of the past supposes that a retention of experience takes place in the living now.  This now, instead of disappearing into nothingness, sinks into the grooves of memory in such a way that a small something often suffices – a necklace, a fragrance, a sentence – to have the it come back to you with all the life it had at the time.  It is remarkable that a souvenir comes with its own intimacy.  Through recreating what-has-been, a memory is an entry into someone’s personal history, and has us share in his intimacy and identity.   This reveals to us that the past is first of all consciousness and not “reality” in the ordinary sense.  Thus “when we tell the past truly, what emerges from memory is not reality itself, past reality, but words reflecting the images memory, aided by the senses, has fixated like traces in my mind.  My childhood, that is no more, is in a past that is no more, and yet when I recall it and retell it to myself, it is its image I see in the present, an image present in my memory”.[2]


        That which is dwells only in the present, because reality gives itself in the present.  The past was reality at the time when it was there, but it is no longer this present which is no more.  In my memories there is just a past which one would rather think of as unreal.  Yesterday’s present has fallen from a manifest state to a non-manifest one.  What I call past is this non-manifest. The past does not exist as a reality which I could encounter in a perception.  And yet it appears so important and so real to me!  How can something so miraculous happen?  How can what does not exist seem so real?  Is it not because reality is posited through an act of consciousness, and just so the reality of the past?


      The past is a mode pertaining to consciousness only.  Saint Augustine speaks of the “extension of the soul”.  It is not hard to represent the past because the past in structured in the present, via an immanent retention in the stream of consciousness.  We see our thoughts coming and going, they are but a brief twinkling, and our feelings are passing things.  We see that the world is changing.  Our most basic inner experience shows us that our lives are steeped in motion, that they are in a perpetual flow.   Thus I know that I am changing, and ever changing; hence when looking back at what I was I see myself as different.  Time generates otherness, a continuous metamorphosis.  In fact, in the past I only recognise certain moments: events.  And I judge of my past on basis of the weight and density of the events belonging to it.  When the past appears scanty, then it consists of boredom; it suffers from the weight of a time that does not pass.  From a retrospective point of view, such a period, even if it is long, does not count because it does not include a sufficient number of events to make up a genuinely meaningful past.  A short period marked by many events seems retrospectively much longer.  It is not the chronological duration which matters, but the density of the events pertaining to it.  What constitutes our past is therefore not “reality”, but the presence of memories.  It is because a memory is primarily a mode of consciousness that it is so important and can carry so much weight in determining someone’s destiny.  What weighs on consciousness is not a lack of reality – this could have no influence – but itself qua consciousness, that is, traces deposited in our memory.  These traces from the past matter very much because they contribute to someone’s feeling of continuity.  This continuity is what we normally think of as someone’s identity.  Whoever loses his past, the amnesiac, loses a part of himself; this means that our sense of self can not be thought of as separate from the past, only in continuity with it.  A man with no past would be without attachments.  What we experience every day is the opposite: it is a life full of attachments, a life tightly ruled by the past. 


    How can we think of the past as real?  The past is real as a mode of consciousness.  It is a crucial level of reality, the one we call becoming.  Effectively, if nothing became, if nothing changed, if nothing ever came to be, if everything remained motionless, then there would be no past.  The past owes its reality to the ongoing flow of change.  It is Becoming which makes past’s escape, allowing night to overtake it.  Yesterday has taken flight, as have last month and last year.  The past flows through my fingers.  It subsists only as 1) an individual form (memories and their resonance in me) and 2) a collective form: historical events.  The past as material is dead.  When it was alive it was not the past, it was the present.  Paradoxically this is precisely why we are so attached to it.  The ego clings to his past in order to give a consistence to his own self.  Yet, if clinging to the past means clinging to a materiality present only yesterday, then this is absurd; it implies turning what is no more into a pseudo-reality.  It is living in an illusion and refusing reality.


The past can only be sustained through the images of memory and it is these images which gives it its weight.  The past can weigh heavily.  The collective consciousness of people marked by a succession of wars is scarred by the past.  Individual consciousness carries the weight of its past, it is caught in the nooks and crannies of residual experiences it cannot come to terms with.  The desire for revenge, gnawing grudges, bitter regrets, memory’s incurable wounds only make sense if the past persists.  The things themselves are no more.  In fact, there is no such thing as the weight of the past, only a wound from the past, a trace from the past that makes us suffer.   A residual past may be a present obsession and incite us to endlessly react in the same way.  It is essential to know how to die to the past and give it its due place, freeing the present.  It is healthy to die to the past in order to free consciousness from its fetters.  It is clear anyhow that the past belongs to consciousness, to the developing flow of experiences.


B. Future’s Pull.


What then about the future?  Could it have a different status from the past?  The future is our to-be, it comes to be in our mind in the form of expectations.  If I expected nothing from the future, if I had neither hope nor apprehension, nor fear, nor anxiety, would the future make sense?  No.  I would be on par with the animal, harassed by the demands of the present, I would live in a vegetative present.  Yet vigilance, just as it carries the scars of the past, is also anxious, haunted, seduced and attracted by the future.  Vigilance has indeed a meaning only as a form of intentionality, a pull-towards things; in short it contains the dimension of a pro-jection.  When consciousness relates to a moment in future it is not deprived of an object, it is altogether pro-tension, its aim is an object that is to manifest.  In the project, the term pro stands for the forward movement of manifestation.  The term ject comes from a Latin which means to throw and indicates the forward movement in time of consciousness.  Then we must make two points:


1)  A project is what pulls me forward and shapes my desires and expectations: “soon, I will be able to…”, “in one month I’ll be there…”  The future is the temporal dimension of action and will.  You always want something in the future. To want something is in fact to want that the future be what we expect of it.  We are therefore constantly subject to the future’s gravitational pull; it has us set out on the road to the future.  It gives time the taste of adventure, of discovery, of an opening up of unknown possibilities.  The future mobilises one’s attention because it is the ego’s ecstasy in action, and this because the ecstasy (ex-stasis) is included in its representation.


2)  A pro-ject supposes a continuity between a today and a tomorrow.  This implies that in the future the Manifestation is not represented as the result of an absurd and gratuitous fortune.  The Manifestation occurs according to a sequence which could almost have been guessed, had one been able to stand on the promontory of Time, looking out for the future.  The attention given to the future is by essence prophetic; it is that of a seer who, beyond the present here and now, catches a glimpse of the possibilities that might manifest.  Prospective consciousness recognises itself as tending towards the future and as a taste for imminence.  “I like nothing so much as what is going to happen”[3] writes Valéry.  Prospective consciousness burns with the fire of imminence; thus Valéry also says: “Future is any moment’s most sensitive fragment”.[4] This is the consciousness which unfolds in foresight; it wants to know in advance what may happen through imagining what might take place.  This is also the futurologist’s consciousness, namely foresight, anticipation and prospect of the future.[5]


Yet foreseeing, prospecting and extrapolating the future are not the same as seeing the present, it is only imagining it.  When we speak of Victor Hugo’s, Nietzsche’s or Sri Aurobindo’s visionary abilities we do not take “vision” as meaning “perception”.  It has nothing to do with watching the present, and only the observation of the present gives us reality, because it gives us that which is.  As for the future, it is not yet, it will only become real once it is the present.  In the meantime, it has no reality, it is a possibility, a possible event, and thus nothing other than a non-being.  Hence in this respect, the future has the same status as the past.  It relates consciousness to something that is not, to an elsewhere, an otherwise, to something other than what is.  The difference is that the past, being over, leaves us with a crushing sensation of helplessness, while the future, since it is yet to come, makes us feel powerful.  Hence we may say that the future is the realm of all possibilities, and that perhaps what I expect will happen.  The future is so unpredictable that it leaves a lot of place to novelty and creativity.  The future permits anything: any project, dream, fantasy; unlike the past it does not carry the weight of necessity.  Hence the future leaves ample scope to self-deception and castles in the sand.  The future is unknown, and the unknown cannot be contradicted.  Hence the future has an irresistible power of seduction, which incites one to make projects in a hazy elsewhere.


    Yet the future cannot be only an idea; it must relate to something other than my mind.  If the future relates to reality, then it must also turn into past through the process of Becoming.  The future owes its reality to the process of becoming, it owes its reality to the representation of time’s flow.  Our awareness of the future refers to the uninterrupted continuity of the process of becoming.  Everything is changing, it is always changing.  As the past reveals to us that everything has changed, so too there is reason to think that in the future everything will also change.  Change will not cease in the future.  Not only this, but Becoming, like the past, is marked by difference.  We see that time is never content with merely repeating itself.  Time is what underlies change, evolution, degradation and death, the perpetual flux of all that is.  It is correct to think that the future will be the scene of many changes, and that it will never be a photocopy of the present.  Hence we have good reasons to believe that our will, our projects, our acts will be able to manifest.  Manifestation means difference and change.  It is justified to think that tomorrow will not be like yesterday, will not be the pure and simple repetition of today.  We don’t know what is going to happen, but we are certain that time will not come to an end.  Hence we can allow ourselves the audacious belief that our projects will find their place in the future and grow with it.  They may be part of Becoming’s novelty and creativity. 


Hence past and future are not without similarity.  The same mind retains or projects.  A reality exits or has not yet entered on stage.  With respect to the past and the future we are in an awkward position:  neither the one nor the other exist concretely, they are two voids bordering the present.  With Saint Augustine we could say that: “what seems to me now to be clear and evident is that neither future nor present exist.”[6] Indeed neither of them yields a reality comparable to that found in perception.  Yet what does not exist with respect to effective Manifestation, does exist as a mode of consciousness.  It is the temporal dimensions that make man precipitate in time, live off hope and expectations, cowed by fear, crumble from despair.  Man never quits Time.   He keeps turning over the past, brooding over regrets and remorse, expects it all from an uncertain future and dreams of an elsewhere happier than now. Future’s tyrant is as powerful as the tyranny of the past.  It makes man incapable of sticking to the present, and has him live in an awaited elsewhere, in the same way as he also lives in the nostalgia of the past.  The present seems rather dull compared with the forcefulness of the past and the future.  Being only a crossing, it does not live up to the ego’s expectations.


C.              Present’s Magnificence


     Spatial representation on a temporal line suggests that the present is of a different nature than past and future.  The two half-segments are equivalent, they are two mathematical infinites.  In comparison the present appears reduced to nothing: it is just a point, not a half-segment; and what is a fleeting instant compared to the infinity of duration?


     Yet it is precisely this representation which is false.  It does not describe present’s true position with respect to consciousness.  For consciousness, what is, the whole of being, is the present.  The future and the past are just nothings compared to the Manifestation of the present.  Yesterday is no more, tomorrow is not yet.  What is, is now, in Manifestation’s extraordinary parousia.  It is this ridiculous little mathematical point which generates the temporal dimensions.  The present is time’s original source.  “It is incorrect to speak of three times, past, present and future; it would be more accurate to say: there are three times, one present about the past, one present about the present, one present about the future…one present with respect to the past, memory, one present with respect to the present, perception, one present with respect to the future, expectation.” [7] When I recollect the past, this recollection is an act that I accomplish in the present.  Past’s present is memory.  When I project myself in the future, it is also in the present.  Hence one must speak of a present of the future.  The present of the future resides in my expectations.


    Similarly I can seize upon or turn away from the present; I can give myself to the present by giving my attention to what is given to me now in perception.  The present of the present dwells in my attention.  Being’s Present alone exists.  And yet my consciousness, far from coinciding with the Present of Being often shies away.   Strictly speaking this means that I become absent; I am no longer here and now, I am elsewhere.  The value of my present is therefore equal to the density of my presence.  To be in the present is to know the full and deep sensation of Presence.


     How then can I be absent?  Very simple!  It is enough that I get lost in thoughts, it is enough that I wander off into memories, it is enough that I lose myself in fantasies, desires and aspirations, and imagine that they are already fulfilled in the future.  Since perception often contradicts this, I have to flee perception, which means take refuge in daydreams, in thoughts.  Thus our thoughts project us in time.  It is our thoughts that make us restless and worried; and if we are worried it is because we do not stick to the present.  Our mind is filled with its relation to time.  Quietness is at rest in Being’s living now.  Worry is on the contrary being perpetually thrown into temporality, through all its distensions, the ek-stases of past and future.  Pascal has written a beautiful text on this topic:


“We never stick to the present.  We anticipate the future as if it were too slow to arrive, as if to speed up its course; or we recollect the past, trying to stop it as if it were too fast.   We are so foolhardy that we wander in times that are not ours, and do not think of the only one that is ours; and we are so vain that we keep musing about those that are nothing, and allow the only one left to take its flight”.[8]


     Man is a hunter, his desire is forever in quest for a prey; and no sooner has he caught it than he sets out to catch another.   His life consists in this vibrating rush of time, this kind of rush in which any pause feels like death.  It is a tragic situation, because it makes man frivolous, superficial and miserable.  At the mercy of time man is an evanescent creature, one running after shadows, shadows cast by his own motion in time.  Hence, unable to be here and now he needs distractions, some kind of elsewhere.  His feverish and restless mind always needs some occupation.  Elsewhere is always better than here!  This is the song that strikes up our minds and that advertising keeps singing for us.  When measured with the rod of our desires then Now is so poor, so void of interest in comparison with what it could have been that it feels worthless.  Oh! says the victim of Time to himself, if only I could have…if only life were fairer, if only I won the lottery, if…!  The best way to murder the present is to prefer an “if” to it – the most neurotic or the most rational, you may choose.  Effectively, when compared with an if, the present moment bores us.  It has been emptied of its meaning.  Our thinking, overlapping our desires, is there to strip us of the only time that could belong to us and that it would be nice to inhabit.  Memory is a pleasant retreat away from today’s disappointments.  Projects thrown about are a stimulating escape away from this ridiculous present which never lives up to our expectations.  Therefore, although we are in the present, we never give it much thought or attention, nor do we invest much in it.   We cannot invest in it since it does not agree with our desires.  And when desire arises it immediately wages war with the ego’s psychological time.  Time also makes us as restless as it makes us struggling and superficial. 


“Let each one examine his thoughts that he will find them all bent on the past and the future.  We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we do, it is only with respect to the future.  The present is never an end: past and present are our means; the future is our sole end.  Therefore we never live but always hope to; and since we always prepare to be happy, it inevitably follows that we never are”.[9]


      We do not know how to live because we do not know how to live in the present.  We childishly practice the silly art of negating the present in favour of our fantasies, the art of drowning the here and now in the gloomy haze of boredom.  Yet this is the very portrait of human condition.  And here is the tragic result:


“The human condition: lack of constancy, restlessness, ennui.”


This inability to be in the present is maybe due to the slight interest we give it, to our unavailability to the now.  Temporal man is as flighty as he is superficial, he has no weight, no firm seat in the present, he dwells in his flighty thoughts, ever elsewhere, here only as a distraction.


    “This because the present usually hurts us. We hide it from view because it afflicts us; and when it is agreeable to us we regret to see it go.  We try to sustain it with the future and hope to dispose of the things that are not yet in our power, at a time that nothing assures us we shall see coming”.


     It is the incapacity to be in the present that makes us so unhappy, because we postpone happiness for tomorrow; however postponing happiness is killing it.  The power we have to postpone until tomorrow stems from the fact that happiness is equated with the enjoyment of a desire, to the satisfaction of an expectation.  Happiness is mixed up with pleasure.  The loss of happiness and of its true being, its well-being, of the happiness immanent in the Presence, make us miserable because it dissolves our density and our presence to the world.


    Yet is it enough, as Pascal purports, to think about the present in order to be in it?  The Presence which makes me give all my attention and availability to the now is essentially a wakefulness and not a thought.  Caught in vigilance, thought is under the control of intentionality, and as such a goal and project for the future.  We can expect no Presence from it.  It is the status of vigilance which involves us with time.  Does that mean that in order to live in the present we must cease to think?  Here there are two possible interpretations:


1)                  The most common interpretation is to understand “living in the present” as being the carefree attitude of an enviably vegetative animal.  Indeed the animal limits its desires to the effectively now and does not conceive of anything beyond what its instincts dictate.  This vegetative temptation looks out for the human will, which, tired of wanting, longs for some kind of regression into a state of “wantlessness”, a plant-like passivity.  “Ah!  Were there only no more desires, no more worries!!! Would that one were a stump!”  Needs and momentary pleasures would then be one’s sole motive to exist, will would have been annihilated in turpitude, in the daily repetition of the gestures of a life rid of all duration.  One would savour life through indulging in sensations.  This is the hedonism of our time.  Yet can it last?  As Balzac notices, especially in Beatrix, the novel in which the hero is tempted for a while by this turpitude, life does not allow us to withdraw.  On the contrary the problem is that life pushes us to will.  Our highest joys are gained through activity, conquests, passion.  There is no joy in a life that does not have a temporal dimension.  Petty epicurism comes with boredom and hopelessness.  No one can aspire to the wisdom of a vegetable.

2)                  Or life in the present can have another very different meaning.  To live in the present means being, being there altogether, here and now, in the living present, in such a manner that consciousness no longer allows itself any shying away into some elsewhere, but fills the ground of the present moment in every word, gesture, action, smile.  Thought, so often frolicking about, must be taken back to the now in order to be freed from its own fantasy, condensate into action, give itself with love.  To dwell in the present does not in any way mean that wills or desires are escaped or denied.  To dwell in the present is to fit both willing and desiring in the being of the present.  No more dispersion, distraction, escape, but an intense concentration burning with the fire of Passion: a richer and more elevated wakefulness than vigilance’s busy narrow outlook.  In Wakefulness there is neither inconstancy, nor worry, there is never boredom.  There is a measured Force which does what has to be done when it has to be done, a Force which does not neglect anything and which gives itself wholly to everything it undertakes.   Boredom is unknown to Presence, because Presence is by essence availability to Life and thus every moment is novel, rich and full of meaning.  It is no the unconscious abandonment to the torpid instant of Nature that constitutes life in the present, but a conscious recollection in the now.  This is what post-modern hedonism fails to grasp.  To live in the present is an art, and this art implies a work on oneself.  It is not the avidity of consumption, but living spirituality.


*          *




            We have shown that the dimensions of time so belong to consciousness that life’s      shades entirely depends on one’s experience of time.  We can highlight the main points in this table:









Souvenir: depends on memory

Perception: depends on availability to what is there, presence

Expectation: depends on the projection of a desire

Nothingness: the past is no more

Being: only the present is

Nothingness: the future is not yet


     The mathematical representation of time, the representation of time in space, which served as our starting point is false.  Retention, protention and attention are as many attitudes of consciousness which are but poorly translated as a linear succession.  Time is not space.  Attention, retention and protension are moments involved in a sort of fluidity, the stream of time, a fluidity which must be considered on its own.



 *            *



[1] Song by Charles Aznavour

[2] Augustine Confessions Book 11

[3] Paul Valéry Variétés III

[4] See Georges Poulet Etudes sur le Temps Humain

[5] See the texts by Alain Toffler

[6] Saint Augustine Confessions

[7] ibid

[8] Pascal Pensées

[9] Pascal  Pensées