Gilles Deleuze returns frequently to the question of time in his philosophical work. It forms the basis of early texts like Difference & Repetition and The Logic of Sense, it defines his late works like Cinema, and it is everywhere in-between, including Thousand Plateaus with Felix Guattari. What is the punchline of all that work? Time is fuckin’ weird.
As we experience it, time is linear only in the nearest horizon of our experience, and even there it can get a little confused. Even there, what just happened and what is about to happen can become difficult to separate out. When you start getting seriously philosophical, magical, or spiritualist, it only gets worse. Chunks of time, millenia old, rise up from the depths, trailing strings of days from the intervening centuries like confetti. Weirder yet, these aren’t chunks of time like potshards from an excavation, but heaving thinking presences that are compelling and difficult to ignore.
Whatever we are, whatever spirits are, we are caught up in these strange knots of time with each other. While there are times when we might be able to cut, or wish we were able to cut, these ties, in most cases the only way to deal with these knots is to work with them. The goal isn’t necessarily to undo them, but to loosen them. Loosened, they are less overwhelming and we are able to communicate or commune with the streams of consciousness that flow between seemingly disparate moments.
The notion that these are ‘blocks’ of time is key. This is not an immediate unity with an all-encompassing absolute, but an encounter with an aspect of time that realizes itself discontinuously over linear time. When Walter Benjamin talks about messianic time, it is this that I suspect he describes: a piece of eternity that winds, twists, crashes, spins, and skips across linear time’s surface. Not all of these things are of monumental import, but some of them are. Some of them rise to the level of visionary or prophetic experience, creating a spiritual community that exceeds that of a time, place, or people, though it is often mysteriously entangled with all three. Think of Philip K. Dick’s entanglement with Christianity, with Rome, with the United States. Think of the writers of the Books of Isaiah, of Ezekiel, of Revelations.
The moral call for spiritual regeneration in these sorts of texts should direct us to the fragments of the eternal, not to the historical patterns upon which human communities depend. The call to return has everything to do with a call to participate in a particular aspect of messianic time. The frustration of the prophets is the frustration with linear time concealing and replacing the messianic time. While fiercer and crazier, their frustration isn’t too different from that Gordon shared with us recently.
Augustine was on to something with his notion of the city of God, but I suspect he too eagerly gave it the unity that is proper only to God. There isn’t just one city of God, but many. Or, perhaps, if there is but one city, it is vast and sprawling, and we ever only experience some neighborhood as it passes through our world, calling to us to return.
But that city isn’t of this linear time but only intersects with it. The community of the spirit is always partial in this world because it finds completion only in the block of eternity that does not rest within linear time. That doesn’t mean that this eternal world is divorced from ours, but simply that it cannot find completion within it. Being part of this linear world, that means we ourselves never fully participate in the eternal world. Perhaps in it lies the promise of an afterlife, but if so that promise is difficult to comprehend from our mortal vantage point. We have to live in the world of linear time, too, in some fashion that does not mutilate our experience of the eternal.