Pierced By Time

 

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Just as my chest is pierced by a tube and thus becomes open to being nourished by the outside world, so is my blog pierced by time. It is via the tube of time that my blog is able to be nourished and sustain its function. Block the hole and it withers and dies – as a blog. Sometimes one comes upon just such a corpse:  a dead blog suspended in cyberspace. What’s curious is that they (their number is actually legion) don’t initially declare themselves. They are utterly shorn of movement and cannot be located by smell.

It is conceivable that a blog that lives forever might be created and driven remotely by robot computer (rather than human or immediate human agency). But in this case, the empowering condition of lived time has been replaced by whatever source of power (effectively another vital energy tube or conduit) charges and drives  the robot, enabling it to generate a perpetual flow of data, a river of music that never stops. Though appearing immune to the exigencies of mortal time the conditions of its own survival are thereby announced as yet merely another variety of dependent-arising albeit this time mechanically defined. At no point is there transcendence of reliance upon causes and conditions.

This said, it is always wise to be alert to the potential for maniacal blogs. Zombie Bots

 

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NOW FOR THE BACK STORY

I wrote the above  post  (I have reproduced it here intact) on the 10th October 2016 while still very much convalescing from my stem cell transplant for Myelodysplasia (a form of bone marrow cancer). It was “timely” as my condition, terminal in its own right, was also a precondition for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. If I had dawdled, I might have “progressed” to an even more rapid demise as AML takes no prisoners. And if I unduly waited (bargaining with destiny as all terminally ill patients are supposed to do) I would have become too ill to undergo a transplant. Yet, to undergo the transplant carried its own high risks as was evidenced by the heart-breaking sound of wailing in the corridor of the isolation ward one morning while I was waiting for my drip to be replaced. The patient two rooms away had finally died–she had been declining for weeks–and her church congregation was grieving in the only space available, the  public thoroughfare along which our breakfast trollies were being wheeled.

Having survived the transplant ordeal and returned home, but still very weak and vulnerable to complications such as fungal infections that might come from something as seemingly innocuous as an unpeeled peach, I had decided to design and launch (with the help of my dear friend Christine) a personal blog dedicated to communicating the key Buddhist concept of “emptiness” [śūnyatā]. It was the very scale of the ambition of this  project that intrigued me. Certainly, no healthy or right-minded person would have wandered so bravely, so blithely, so magnificently–in.

At that stage I had decided, due to my low energy levels if nothing else, to keep the posts pithy and sharp. To be honest, I had no experience of blogging and so no means of determining, either, the potential scope of my dear readers’ concentration spans. Indeed, there were not yet any dear readers, other than myself of course, and it would be presumptuous to describe myself as a loyal or even avid occasional fan. The short of it: I composed in quick succession a series of hopefully delightfully racy short posts with an obvious journalistic flair that nonetheless gestured towards themes that might be properly called ‘serious’.

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It was tough out there in the heaving competitive seas of cyber-space I knew and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Or at least an entire fool. It would take more than a prolonged dance with death to incline me to forfeit my dignity, even if I was still wearing (as you will read below) my Hickman Catheter – a hole, or portal, plunged in my shoulder near my neck and then threaded with a plastic tube connected to major veins near the heart and with convenient little replaceable plastic taps at the exterior end, all arranged, with string and conference clip, so that it looked, at least to my biased reckoning, quite fetching, if not outright fashionable.

Anyhow, the aim, blogwise, was to somehow bridge the gap between immediate personal experience (dominated as it was by nurses, heavy and often sense-befuddling medication and any number of gothic invasive clinical procedures), and the more refined space of what tends to get called by that overly-rarified portmanteau term: ‘philosophy.’ The Greeks said it better when they spoke of an ethics of living.[1] For my intention–and I am discussing here the question of authorial voice: exactly how should I sound) was to somehow eschew two prevalent excesses that seem to haunt the terrain: narcissistic triumphalism (whereby even the most minute daily affairs become historically noteworthy, say, the recent litter of my Persian cat who recently was declawed to protect the new leather lounge. Joking of course. I don’t have a cat)  and its polar twin: religiously-conceived didacticism intent on global conversion to one’s own unique and invariably insightful way of thinking. Of course, Twitterdom has more recently become the chosen domain for that while blogs have gravitated perhaps more towards the intricacies of gourmet food and mass marketing. So I was left, by dint of my own agenda I admit, dangling in the discursive space situated between, dare I say it, a pillar and a post. What delicious niche, indeed, was I to carve out for myself?

So now as we approach New Years Eve 2017 and given that there is considerable stress on all bloggers to say something significant and epochal at such a time, I had just made what I hope is not a rash decision. I shall post, for the sheer fun of it, something I wrote during the early experimental blog phase and then buried in the Drafts folder where it has, somewhat dubiously, continued to dwell.

This said, the theme of time and timelessness and time itself being pierced, not so much by time (its own considerable body as it were) , but by its own internal failure- its fatal flaw, if you will, to be really truly, real time, by which I also mean interrogatively, can there be something, or anything ever  timely–on time–of the time–really?

As the great pundit Nāgārjuna wrote in his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

1.If the present and the future
Depended on the past,
Then the present and the future
Would have existed in the past.

2. If the present and the future
Did not exist there
How could the present and the
Future be dependent on it?

3.Without depending on the past,
Neither of the two could be established.
Therefore neither the present nor
The future could exist.[2]

The crunch: if time was not dependently arisen it could not function. If inherently-existent it would be that sheer absurdity: time that doesn’t change. One moment could not give way to another. It would be like a knee joint that never bent. As Geshe Sopa, discussing  succinctly puts it:

“Emptiness is the base or foundation of all phenomena. Everything is based on its own emptiness. If things are empty they can come and go, arise and cease, change from one state to another. In this way all kinds of things can happen. If phenomena were not empty, then these changes could not occur.” [3]

One last thing: in the title of the original post (which I have happily recycled) I was invoking Roland Barthes’s famous reflection in Camera Lucida, where he talks of the punctum, the prick that occurred when he recognized, while perusing an old family photograph of his mother, a brooch she was wearing. Immediately upon its recognition he is pierced by his own acute memory of his mother while an infant in his mother’s lap and reaching upwards to that marvelous object shimmering on her warm breast. Or more precisely, he was pierced by his own childhood self that in that act of sheer identificatory transference, occupied and displaced his adult self that was busy holding the album in his perhaps now shaking hands. In the same way, I would like to think, the knowledge that New Year’s Eve signifies and marks the cusp of a new year also punctally declares, as does that frozen dead image that is the archival photograph, that our own lives are waiting to be occupied and displaced by death. The trophy moment of inaugurating and trumpeting an always happy new year is none other than a memento mori dressed up as celebration. This is not a morbid thought. We-not time- are the morbid ones, never more so than when we cling to technology as our choice tool of chronic sentimentalisation. And clearly I am not immune. So how then might we begin to think even of cyberspace as a realm that, like photography, traffics in death? Digi-death? A swarming state in which our attention is repeatedly called-upon and then finally, theatrically (because cinematic devices and terminal display is never far away) parasitically absorbed?

The images accompanying the historic post below (it is already fifteen months old, perhaps as old as the little infant Roland as he reached for the reassuring essence of his adored mother) have been scanned from my own collection of Sci Fi inflected Boys Annuals from the 1950s. This was a moment when science was evolving along Manichean lines, promising at once catastrophic hell (who could forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) and a sheer intergalactic utopia where men (yes, men) floated in space in cumbersome gladiatorial space suits connected by umbilical breathing tubes (bio-ports) to the proverbial mother ship, yet with all the joyous buoyancy, the independent frivolity of well-risen soufflés that have somehow escaped, not just escaped, but escaped forever, their provincial French kitchens that are all the rage just now.

 

NOTES

Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (EN x, 8-9) spoke of ethics as a means of doing and living well i.e. flourishing. In this sense it referred not to an external set of obligatory or even potentially punitive restraints but to a mode of conducting oneself with kind and gracious dignity that was also a social decorum entailing respect and care for others. Providing you were not a woman or a slave, alas. Virtue, it seems, will have its own dinner.

[2] By way of summary of Nāgārjuna’s Chapter, “Examination of Time” Tsongkhapa says:

It is not at all possible for the three temporal periods to exist through their own characteristics; neither that which has arisen earlier and ceased, nor that which has not yet arisen; nor that which has arisen, earlier and not yet ceased. Nonetheless, one should confirm one’s ascertainment of the two truths through thinking that it is absolutely tenable that they are essenceless–that is, empty of their own characteristics.

See Je Tsong Khapa, Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, 395. Regarding ascertainment of the two truths as essenceless requires exact ascertainment of the middle way. Jay Garfield explains in his introduction to the translation:

The emptiness of all phenomena, the emptiness of that emptiness and the identities of emptiness with dependent arising and of the conventional and ultimate truth are the central ontological principles of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Nagarjuna argues that this doctrine of emptiness is a middle path between two extreme positions: reification and nihilism. To reify phenomena is to regard them as existing with essences, as existing independently. To be nihilistic is to take the fact that they are empty of essence and exist merely dependently as their complete nonexistence, and hence to regard empirical reality as entirely false” (ibid., xx).

At the end of his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s chapter, Tsongkhapa relates the compatibility of the two truths (and thus the very possibility of temporality which includes, obviously,  the feasibility of contemporaneity) to the very possibility of the Buddha’s only ever nominal arrival. Tsongkhapa quotes from the Vīradatta-sūtra:

When the Tathāgata arrives and
A Victor named Maitreya also arrives,
The earth will be covered with gold.
At that time, where is the arrival?

Then glosses: “This shows that time is essenceless by refuting the exhaustion of the time of the Buddha’s earlier coming and passing and by refuting the inherent existence of the time of the Buddha’s later arrival” (ibid., 403).

But this is not to say that the time when the Buddha arrives won’t or can’t be auspicious. On the contrary, that time is essenceless is actually the  pregnant condition that allows for the arrival that is a glorious non-arrival. In the same way, let’s make aspiration that 2018 will be most auspicious and may the ground be covered with gold (happiness) that all can equally enjoy.

[3] Sopa, Steps. Volume Five, 93. 

 

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