Thursday, May 11, 2006

Relationship to time

The most important factor in psychological health (=happiness?) of a person is the relationship to time. That is what someone told me in a recent conversation. I always hated the problem of time as pursued by certain Polish writers - and yes by Chekhov too - the most boring of playwrights.

But for some time now I have been thinking about time as the psychological experience of the flow of the future through the present moment which consumes all the possibilities of the future and leaves behind a hardened rock of the past. The present moment is the locus of emotional life. How we handle the flushing of the future into the past determines the basic emotional traits of our character. There seem to be three methods: rational, hedonistic and mystical.
  • In the most common rational way of handling time one makes the future in the form of the past. The past is built up of hardened artifacts of our facts and knowledge which are applied to making a plan for the future, a plan based on the past. If the future is normalized so to speak and made in the image of the past, the flow of time through the present moment is least disturbing. Emotional life of a rational person is calm.
  • Hedonistic life is one that seeks to erase, or at least parenthesize, the future and the past and live in the present. In that situation the present obviously expands and a hedonist is happy at the cost of possibly losing some of the intellectual and spiritual life that comes about from dealing with past and future. The term "hedonism" is used here quite broadly and tries to subsume more than just pleasure seeking. However, just as many a religion exhort us to submit to suffering and learn from it - let us propose that we also can get transfigured by pleasure.
  • Mystical life is where you trust that some spiritual authority pulls in the past and future into the "now". A mystical person hands over his individual life into the management by an authority - such as a monastery or some religious order, or perhaps dedicates himself to a government service. The time line "future-present-past" of a mystical person becomes immersed in the timeline of a larger entity and his/hers whole life appears again as an "eternal now". Again the term "mystical" may not be the best.
Two comments. Firstly, he three methods follow quite logically from the view of the flow of time and are rather unrelated to the much repeated four temperaments. Secondly, mystical and hedonistic methods share their manner of reduction of the experience of time.

As the premise of this post indicates a challenge for modern man is to work out a manner of reconciliation of these methods of dealing with time as we function differently for example in professional day jobs and during evening entertainment.

But here is Miłosz, who really was the one who introduced me to William Blake in his esoteric essay "Land of Ulro" - published in Polish around 1976. The title of the book is truly from Blake whose oeuvre is one great prescient spiritual pursuit rooted in the conflicts of the Enlightenment - the Romantic conflicts - reason versus feeling, determinism versus individual will. Miłosz's poetry always seemed to me quite intellectual, filled with a superiority of a being endowed with understanding and abstract thought looking down on those afflicted with and overtaken by base experience. Miłosz often is present in the world with his mind only - although the underlying intensity of his emotional experience is felt very strongly - it is always subservient to what he considers the higher mental functions.

Interestingly in his "Land of Ulro" Miłosz studies Blake and compares him with Dostoevsky. The four main characters in Blake's divine drama are compared and set in parallel to the four Karamazovs. There is quite likely a relevance here to the topic of the relationship to time into which I will dig in again.

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