Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bergson's Sugar

You can learn a lot from sugar. It was while waiting for a cube of sugar to dissolve in a glass of water that Henri Bergson learned the true nature of life, duration, and time. He learned that our conception of time in hours and minutes and seconds and months and days is an artificial construct imposed on the laminations of experience that constitute true time. Time is fluid. There is an external time which is that of clocks and mathematical configurations and time which is internal and miscellaneous as the chromatic tones of a harmonica or the tones embodied in keys, scales, and harmonies of a musical composition. There is the time of rigidity, geometric time, the time of a mechanical universe perfect in its movements, regular in all of its interrelations such as that conceived by the Enlightenment Deists, time as coiled springs and gear train and escapment, and intuitive time, a concrescence of many potentialities, a drop of experience which diffuses into the general flux and coheres into a prairie sunset, zipper on a jacket or cartilage of a thumb.
We feel, intuitively, that none of the categories we have devised to characterize certain experiences such as multiplicity, mechanical causality, finality of intelligence, etc., pertain exactly to the things we experience in life. As soon as we begin to break something down into its component parts we discover that it’s related to many other things. Experiencing is an active process. Awareness can be enlarged, fine-tuned, facilitated by knowledge or drugs. Language articulates being, but it is not being. It is doomed to abstraction. Being impinges on language but must exceed its inherent linearity to approximate the real actualities of being alive.
There are qualities whose fugitive character eludes definition. Elude language. Qualities of color and texture, flavors, odors, the infinite provocation of our senses, and our senses themselves always feel just short of something ineffable, something pulsing through time like the contractions and dilations of our heart moving blood through our circulatory system to nourish the billions of cells that create our individuality, our nerves and muscle and blood.
Categories are a form of shorthand. We need them for basic communication. But beyond that, we need art and poetry. Logic fails because it is a bound system. Creativity is protean. Logic is perfect for describing mass and volume, force and quantity. Logic can determine that a certain weight and shape and atomic structure is an apple or a sun, but it cannot determine the flavor of a particular apple or the feeling of heat on a Venetian plaza in the middle of June.  
L’universe dur, observed Bergson. The universe has duration. But what does that mean? Of course the universe has duration. That’s what time is all about, duration. Waiting. Expectation. Anticipation. History. We wait for something to happen, we try to imagine what such and such an event is going to be like, what the consequences will be for us, and then it happens, we’re in the moment, and as soon as we experience the event we’ve been anticipating it becomes the past. It becomes memory. It becomes a story. It assumes a phantasmal quality, a milieu of the mind partly real partly imagined, partly nebulous partly concrete. The past and the future are abstractions. Nothing is ever quite as real as the present moment. It is in the present moment where time is water and our minds are sugar. Dissolution is the start of something new.
“For a mind born to speculate or dream I could say that while it remains exterior to reality,” observed Bergson, “it also deforms and transforms it, perhaps even creates it, in a manner similar to the figures of people and animals that our imagination outlines in the passing clouds.”
He goes on to say that there are certain powers complementary to our understanding, powers of which we have only a confused feeling when we remain closed within ourselves, but which illumine and distinguish themselves when they manifest themselves in a work, so to speak, such as in the evolution  -  the ongoing development   -  of living organisms within nature.
Change is more radical than one assumes at first. The truth is that change is perpetual and no state is static but is in a continuous mode of transfiguration. No state however distinct can be broken down into distinct components. Each continues in a ceaseless flowing. Our conception of time links events artificially, as if time were an absolute entity outside our particular reality. It is not. Each moment is a creative act. There is no such thing as destiny or predestination. Nothing  in our lives is mapped out ahead of time. The thread that connects our sun to the rest of the universe is tenuous but strong, connecting the minutest parcel of the world we experience to the entire universe. Nothing is isolated; all is interrelated.
The essence of things eludes us always. We move among relations discovering endless varieties of combination, but the absolute is not within our capacity: we halt before the Unknowable.
Our frameworks crack. They’re too narrow, too rigid for the experiences we try to confine within them.
The more we deepen our understanding of time the more do we realize that duration signifies invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of absolute novelty. Ultimate reality is one of affiliation, collaboration, communion. Vital properties are never fully realized but always on the way toward realization: they are less states than tendencies.
To live is to continually create oneself.

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