“I do know what time is,” Tubby declared. He paused. “Time,” he added slowly—”time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
The Time Professor, Ray Cummings
What is the present? Now, of course. And now again.
Like an invisible deluge, the future floods the present with fullness, flowing into the irretrievable past. And now, again.
When, in the fourth century AD, Augustine asked what time was, he was not asking only what this thing, this element which made us age decay hope remember forget, was. He was asking what God was, for God was outside time in an “ever-present eternity.” Humans, on the other hand, were subject to time. They were oppressed by time, even, being trapped in it, limited by it, and yet unable to say what it was.
Augustine loved his mother, and she died. He stole some pears once, but when? He was young, and then, he was not. He did not know language, and then he did. Things, it seemed, just kept on happening.
The Past, Present Eternally
In 1977, NASA launched two probes into orbit, Voyagers 1 and 2. They exploited a planetary alignment occurring only once every 176 years. The probes would describe an arc past all four gas giants, using the planets’ gravitational force.
The images sent back to earth became the standard for school science-books, as familiar as photos of cousins and uncles in family albums: Jupiter, marbled with rich cream; Saturn, aglow in the soft dark (shadows of the planet on the rings, shadows of the rings on the planet); the strange Neptune, sky-coloured.
Voyager 1 shot past Saturn and took a trajectory out of our solar system. Before Voyager 2 left it, it sailed past Neptune, Uranus and the cosmic debris which makes up the faint limits of our delicate cosmic radius.
As everyone knows, the probes carried with them golden records containing information about Earth. A fantasy of Carl Sagan’s, should intelligent life ever encounter them they would be able to hear: greetings in many languages, rain clattering in trees, thunder in the desert, the sound of the wind, Bach’s ‘Brandenburg Concerto no. 2’, music from Die Zauberfloete, and many other aural gifts from our planet’s history.
The probes told us what the Solar System looked like, but they also sent a postcard from us into space, containing a highly selective account of the human experience. Compressed onto phonographs, they became, out there, unchanging archives.
Divorced from history and the planet, they are sealed in time; protected from interference or addition, with time itself flattened onto a single plane in which Beethoven, Bach, Chuck Berry are contemporaries. Though made up of the past, though carried into the future, they are, eternally, present.
The Future, Eternally Present
The last time the planets aligned as they did for Voyagers 1 and 2 was in 1801.
Fresh from his victory in North Italy, Napoleon was two years away from consolidating his control of France. He was described as the Antichrist so often in his lifetime that when Anna Pavlova Scherer repeats the claim in the first paragraph of War and Peace (1869), it is meant to imply her lack of originality.
So fashionable was the claim of Napoleon’s Antichrist status that it was retrospectively confirmed in Nostradamus:
“MABUS PUIS TOST ALORS MOURRA,
VIENDRA, DE GENS & BESTES UNE HORRIBLE DEFAITE”
In his sixteenth century Propheties, Nostradamus predicted that the world would end, but not before three harbingers arrived, each one to destroy an ancient royal, Jewish lineage.
The first must have been Napoleon. The second would be Hitler. The third and last one, “Mabus,” is yet to come, and his arrival will signal the beginning of the end-times.
Interpretations of Nostradamus’ text have relied on free-association (purported symbols, intertextual links, coincidences), word games (anagrams, acrostics), the ideological projections of interpreters (Wall Street, Obama) and, of course, hoaxes (“Nostradamus predicted 9/11.”)
For a text the continued popularity of which relies on the instability of its putative meanings, hoaxes engender further confusions. In the case of the Antichrist, there’s even more puzzlement regarding the identity of “Mabus”, since it could also simply mean “a person from Maubeuge”. What’s more, when Tsar Alexander allegedly called Napoleon the Antichrist, it was because Napoleon emancipated, rather than oppressed, French Jews.
And yet, “the Antichrist” is one of the most widely-applied predictions Nostradamus ever made.
The idea, of course, predates him; with its origins, as Norman Cohn would have it, in “the most diverse traditions,” among them criticism of real-life second century BC king Antiochus Epiphanes. But it found its fullest expressions in St. Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians and the Book of Revelation—itself a contested entry into the New Testament.
Revelation was not the only apocalyptic text written in the first century AD but, by virtue of its inclusion in the New Testament, it did become the most widely read of all time. Like all texts of revolutionary eschatology, it seeks justice by claiming that history has meaning which is only fully realised at its end. History is thus a narrative which vindicates and elevates the abused and dispossessed.
The Antichrist of the Book of Revelation has been variously thought to be Nero, the Roman Empire, Belial, the Roman Catholic Church, the Papacy, the Turks, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Spanish, the French, the Germans, the Sicilians, the English, Peter the Great, Genghis Khan, Islam, the Rabbinate, Judaism, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Cesare Borgia (also the model for Jesus in Renaissance portraiture), and Suleiman the Magnificent.
As history unfolds or collapses into the future, it pushes the Antichrist along with it. His figure shapes elapsed history by signalling its end. Every age, and semi-age, has its Antichrist. Every age is the future, the final future. The teleological drive throughout all time was to ensure that present suffering, present time, present lives, would be worth it in the end, because the present world would be reversed and present evil overcome through triumphant justice—regardless of when that present was.
If history is a narrative, then the present is always culmination.
Nero is the Antichrist; no, George W. Bush is. The world is going to end in 1500. No, in 2012. Donald Trump has been called Antichrist. Now is the long-predicted future, we the elect.
Present Peace, Ad Perpetuam
Again in 1801, Ranjit Singh, a 21 year-old Sikh, became the Maharajah of Punjab. By the time he was 59, he would have expanded his empire into Afghanistan and fended off the British in a series of wars.
His empire deployed various symbols which extended beyond the Sikh religion. One of them was a flag which included the Hindu Goddess Durga, flanked by two representations of Hanuman, the Monkey God. Durga is the warrior Goddess who brings peace through war, the ideal symbol for Sikh imperial aims: to settle forever the disputed territories in the North and West of Punjab.
Eternal peace was also en vogue in Napoleon’s France, with people beginning to speak of a Pax Francia, a continent at peace secured by French warfare. But this was thwarted when, in 1802, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Amiens with Britain.
Neverthless, a stable peace could still be achieved if states and nations adhered to Immanuel Kant’s arguments in his recently published “Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf,” or “Perpetual Peace, a Philosophical Sketch”. Kant suggested that if people and states were honest in their dealings, with republicanism upheld, citizenship extended and armies dismantled, present social conditions of peace could be stretched i n d e f i n i t e l y .
The peace achieved by Amiens lasted roughly one year, and it only took one decade for the British Empire and its Pax Brittanica to become absolutely dominant. As everyone used to say, the sun never set(s) on the British Empire.
Eternal Presence of the Spotless Mind
Son of Vayu, Student of Surya, Avatar of Shiva, devotee of Vishnu, Hanuman, the Monkey God, once ate the sun.
In the Ramayana, the epic poem about Rama’s war to rescue his wife Sita from Ravana, Hanuman becomes Rama’s most loving devotee.
The poem is an archetypal tale of self-actualisation: Rama becomes who he is by fulfilling his duty and Hanuman becomes who he is through another means: recall.
As a child, Hanuman was raucous, playful, wild and kind. He was also blessed with limitless power. He could leap so high, it was like flying; he could change shapes; he would never die; he threw elephants by their tusks, and uprooted mountains, just for fun. Once, playing about, he mistook the sun for a fruit and swallowed it. The world and the Gods begged him to spit it out, which he did.
Sages, tired of his antics, put a curse on the little Monkey God—not to lose his powers, but to forget that he had them at all.
However, it wasn’t until he stood on the shore, looking over to the island of Lanka where Sita was held, that he was reminded by a fellow warrior, Jambavan, of his powers. Jambavan prayed for the curse to be lifted so that Rama’s army could deploy Hanuman at full strength. Hanuman remembered his past and simply leapt over the gulf of water, helping Rama win the war.
Though he is immortal, Hanuman is still subject to time. He is a part of the universe and not outside it. His is a conditional eternity, just as his being is a conditionally-realised one. Thanks to his recall, he is able to live out his immortality until the ending of the universe in his fully realised being.
Being the complete master of all physical and mental practises, he is also the perfect Yogi. What must mindfulness be like for Hanuman?
The practise of mindfulness abandons past and future, abandons narrative to simply experience. The present is all there is, and in this sense, it is eternal; but the experience of it is flickering, fragmentary, broken. The flesh is weak, unable to concentrate for so long.
Abandoning narratives and stories we tell ourselves so as to experience the full reality of the present moment is to experience the indivisibility of consciousness and the material world is to be present.
Though his is a complete and perfect meditative practice, Hanuman may not have been able to bring his full capability to it had he not remembered who he was. He had to know his story to abandon it.
For him, there is past and future, but his is a total immersion in the present, for all time. This is the experience of the eternal present of a being within time.
Rama blesses him with immortality after the war; unnecessary, since he already received blessings from Indra and Brahma that he wouldn’t die. Nevertheless, he accepts the gift. Later, when asked to prove his love for Rama and Sita—a fact of which he often boasted—Hanuman tore open his chest, and there, on his beating heart, was the image of the king and queen.
If Jambavan had never told him, he would never have known about his abilities, nor who he was, nor what was printed on his heart.
Present Eternity / Lapsed Time
“God..You did not precede time by any time; because then You would not precede all times. But in the excellency of an ever-present eternity, You precede all times past, and survive all future times, because they are future, and when they have come they will be past; but You are the same, and Your years shall have no end… You have made all time; and before all times You are, nor in any time was there not time.”
Augustine’s meditation on time laments our fallen state, our subjection to time. In heaven there is no time before God, no time after; time is a feature of fallen-ness, and beings under time, subject to time, within time, born at a point in time, having a life lived through time and ending, are part of the lapsed experience and not God the Father’s.
In this sense, the single human life, which has a beginning a middle and an end (if not an engaging plot), embodies the traditional narrative structure of storytelling. Something happens, there are challenges and changes, and then it ends.
God is not like this. God has no narrative development. God is an achieved being, outside of time.
So narrative itself is a product of our lapsed state. And it’s not only Christians who seek liberation from time and from narrative and from the body into a heavenly eternal; Hindu cosmology, with its circular time and repeated lives, offers moksha into a stable and eternal present.
The Australian Aboriginal conception of time has been called “Everywhen”. Circular, continuous, the past and future merge in a present which is constant and unchanging.
The present in a linear system is one moment which is unique.
The present in a circular system is pregnant with meaning, laden with associations. Tomorrow is yesterday, yesterday is last year, a thousand years ago is today in a week’s time.
Like so many indigenous people, Australian Aborigines suffered decades of brutal exploitation, murder and discrimination at the hands of Europeans. They were said to be child or animal-like, and to not have any concept or understanding of the past or future; concepts which defined, to some extent, “civilised man.” They lived in an eternal present. Do what thou wilt with them.
Even as historic wrongs are beginning to be righted, popular Australian consciousness does not quite get it right and, in an act of taxidermy, freezes a moment in history as static, timeless and unchanging. Sven Lindqvist: “The indigenous population live in the museum’s exhibition in a continuous now, in an eternally timeless, permanent present that has neither a future or history. On the subject of what the white invasion did to those who were invaded, the museum is silent.”
French For “Now”
“Who knows what this means here: B.C.?”
The entire class fell silent. We all knew what it meant, really, and one boy spoke up on our behalf: “It means old, miss.”
“Yes, old. But what do the letters actually mean? When we say this and that happened in the year 300 B.C., for example, what does it mean?”
BC: Before Christ. When Jesus was pulled down from the cross, he was lain in the cave. But there is a tradition according to which he was never killed, or only nearly-killed, revived, and then secreted to Kashmir, where he lived until his dying day. There are churches and temples dedicated to him there, one of them claiming to have actual footprints of him.
Buddhist temples recreated the Buddha’s footprints in stone, decorating them with Dharma Wheels, so that followers could pay their respects.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was once travelling, and took shelter at the bottom of a hill. A bandit tried to crush the Guru with a boulder. The Guru simply extended his arm and stopped the rolling boulder before it could injure him. There is a temple now built, housing the boulder, with a deep imprint of the Guru’s hand.
Human capacities may remain unchanged since the dawn of Homo sapiens, or we may be evolving. But you can stand in the footprints of Jesus or fit your hand into the imprint of Guru Nanak, and see—like him, five fingers. You can believe, because Jesus, Buddha, Nanak existed, in human form, in human bodies. Belief in eternity can be inspired by the present, limited nature of our time-bound bodies; by touching a handprint with your hand.
The French for “now”: maintenant—that which can be grasped by the hand.
“Please miss, I know” said Ayesha, the cleverest girl in the class.
“Yes, Ayesha”, said Miss Cartwright.
“Miss, BC means ‘before clocks.’”
When Hitler, the second Antichrist, was deserted by his allies towards the end of the war, he issued an order forbidding fortune-telling, prognostication and any reference to Nostradamus wherever the Reich still had power.
In February 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant artificial object from the earth. Later that year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to John Hume and David Trimble “for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.”
This once well-established peace is now under threat again, thanks to Britain’s renewed struggle against Europe.
What is the present? Now, of course. Again.
It may be that to want an eternal present is to will an end to struggle, to want nothing new to happen, to be no longer temporally or spatially deracinated, to be fixed forever, to be cured. We might want to always feel in control, to make sense in a universe or time which does not know us, which keeps us bound to chaos because things keep happening, keep coming, keep being lost and, in the end, you die.
It’s said that the God Vishnu sleeps, then wakes, then sleeps again. While he does, an entire life-age of the universe elapses. Like Vishnu’s sleep-cycle, the universe simply restarts once it collapses.
But there could be a blip in Vishnu’s sleep so that, before the universe contracts, Voyager is sent back hurtling to our descendants, to disrupt their well-established peace once and for all. Our future selves may press their hands to the golden record, like pilgrims inscribing their palms in Nanak’s imprint. Then Voyager will maybe teach them how to speak and laugh and sing, like human beings, again.