Grossman and the Greeks
“’Everything flows, everything changes,’ said the Greek. But this is not evident from the little mounds with their grey crosses. If everything changes, then it…is barely perceptible. And it is not simply a matter of the tenacity of burial traditions. What we see here is the tenacity of the spirit of life, of the very core of life. … But this little grey cross… seems to symbolize the futility of great revolutions, of great scientific… changes that have proved unable to change the deeper aspects of life.” (Grossman 314-5)
This is a passage from an essay called ‘Eternal Rest’, a rumination on cemeteries, life and mortality by the Russian writer, Vasily Grossman. [i] The ‘Greek’ Grossman was referring to was Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC) to whom the aphorism “everything flows” is traditionally attributed: he compared life to a river where everything changes but the river remains the same. The river metaphor also signifies that there is not only change but that it takes place in time, over a duration (just as a river traverses great distances.)
Grossman also noted how “the more immutable life’s depths, the sharper, the more abrupt are the changes on the ocean’s surface. Storms come and go, but the ocean depths remain.” With this Grossman appears to salute too the philosophy of that other “pre-Socratic” Greek, Parmenides (c 450 BC) who, unlike Heraclitus, did not think that “everything flows”. For him, the verb “to be” had only one meaning, “to exist” (Bossart 4). If so, change is a contradiction. In a world without change, moreover, time as a string of events becomes superfluous. But in an unvarying Parmenidean world there is no room for wonder, mystery – essential elements of being human. As much as we fear our passing, mortality keeps us also interested in living. Hence, if Heraclitus were wrong – and if some of the latter-day scientists are right – and time doesn’t exist, we would need to invent it (similar to how Voltaire proposed vis a vis God).
We perform this invention in many ways. One example is “the tenacity of burial traditions” Grossman refers to. Even if we doubt its reality, a belief in the continuity of spiritual time – extending our time horizon into an afterlife – becomes embedded in our value systems. These values then evolve – across history – into what we call “culture”. And when we talk about culture art inevitably raises its head as, as a concomitant of culture, art is no exception to our desire to dispel the darkness of a supposedly static universe.
It is a commonplace to claim that art imitates life. If so, art too, in fulfilling this mimetic function, should respond to our obsession and concern with temporality (time as experienced, not as measured, or human time as opposed to what the metaphysicians claim). How does art participate in this alchemy of smelting clock time into felt time? To explore this question, we first need to go on a brief tour into the meaning and evolution of time.
From time to temporality and back
Ever since the dawn of consciousness we seem to have been trying to explain time to ourselves. Why are we humans so concerned with time? Perhaps after seeing that decay and death seemed ineluctable, we realized time had an important role in our destinies and that necessitated explaining time.
There is an easily recognised chasm in how time (especially its flow) is explicated by a number of thinkers on the one side and most mortals (including those from the first group when they are away from their labs and quills) on the other. We may add that Heraclitus and (more so) Parmenides have held considerable sway over the centuries in our ideas of time and influenced a lot of this epistemic divide. Not only that, most of our conceptions of time have – until recently that is – tended to favor a Heraclitan view rather than a Parmenidean one by either wholly embracing time’s flow or at least acknowledging it to some extent. Aristotle for instance stressed the link between time and transmutation when he defined time as “the calculable measure of motion with respect to before and afterness…”
While Aristotle’s apparently adduced a linearity to time, there were others who thought of time as cyclical. This allowed them to not only recognize – and accept – the sobering reality of putrescence and demise but also look for a ray of redemption. The Buddha (who lived a few generations before both Heraclitus and Parmenides) foreshadowed the view of reality offered by the latter two but leaned more towards Heraclitus. The Buddha held that there is incessant change, but nothing changes. Reality consisted of “a continual coming-to-be and passing away” (Hiriyanna 142). This view in Buddhism thus attributes a circularity to time but where nothing – including death (owing to transmigration) – may be forever. This cyclicity also resonates, at a visceral level, with how our body clocks and sleep-wake cycles function. The idea time could be cyclical is evident in other cultures and mythologies too. For instance, the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, talks of an ineffable event which took place during a “Sacred Time” in which the fabrication of the world was a continuous process and the creation battle against chaos still goes on (Armstrong loc 635).
Another way to explain the disrepair and disintegration of life would have been to associate such events with a supernatural being over whom we have only minimal say. In industrialized societies, however, such otherworldly potencies are at best, as the writer Karen Armstrong points out, only a “distant reality”. But for the Australian indigenous people, the experience of the sacred is as real as the material world – if not more so – in their conception of “dream time” – an “everywhen”, as the Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Skinner called it.
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Jean-Marie Guyau, the French philosopher and poet from the 19th century believed that we develop the idea of time as children as our bodily needs arise. When the child feels hungry, for instance, there is the expectation about being fed and the child becomes aware of the passage of time. According to Guyau (as the German neuropsychologist Marc Wittman elucidates), “the concept of the future emerges as a result: temporal duration is experienced as the time one has to wait until a bodily need is satisfied…” (Wittman 134).
It is therefore not surprising that most cultures tended to take note of the reality of time in some way. However, the rise of rationality and its offspring, the scientific revolution, appears to have led instead to an “expulsion of time”, as the American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin (Smolin 59) tells us. It began with Galileo and Descartes thinking about time as another dimension of space, a stance later attested by Einstein’s conclusions about relativity. Then arose the idea of the “block universe”, in which the history of the universe is “taken as one, as a system of events connected by causal relations…” As Smolin explains, all of time is then contained in one single mathematical object which is not dissimilar to a Parmenidean stasis.
In other words, history doesn’t happen, doesn’t flow; it is already there, all in one time capsule as it were, like a diorama inside a finite space. Smolin compares this vision of history to that of a stone monolith, “from which something solid and unchanging can be carved.” The flipside to this solidity is that the overwhelming sensation one may feel in such a milieu is an inexorable sameness. It is consequently an idea that seems anathema to a view of individual lives as rich continuing narratives that together comprise history.
But not every leading thinker subscribes to such a bleak viewpoint with its denial of time’s flow. This includes the late physicist Stephen Hawking who argued for not one but three distinct “arrows of time”: a psychological arrow (underpinning our memories of the past and how we imagine the future), a thermodynamic arrow (the direction in which entropy increases), and a cosmological arrow (the direction in which the size of the universe increases) (Hawking 153). An ‘arrow’ evokes naturally directional movement, of going from A to B, or flow.
The urge to fathom lived time – acknowledging especially the ravaging unidirectionality of time – must have become more imperative especially with the rise of agrarian societies when we became increasingly aware both of nature’s cycles (and the effect they have on our survival and fortunes) and how they take place over time. It was perhaps, ironically, also a time when life became a bit less contingent (compared to hunting and gathering) and when there was sufficient time for our minds to become fertile grounds for the evolution of culture – and art that would epitomize it.
Leonardo da Vinci and the motions of (divine and secular) minds
An analysis of our experiences reveals, according to Marc Wittman, a strong link between perception and how we view time. All our experiences involve temporal succession; they occur not in integral instants but across a duration. “Spoken language,” for instance, “can only be recognized as a series of words that are joined together… [otherwise] we wouldn’t be able to register them” (Wittman 45).
Consequently, art too has the imperative – while emulating life – to offer a narrative, not just a static moment in time. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) from the Italian Renaissance was undoubtedly conscious of this core principle. It is evident both from the copious collection of his notes (such as the Codex Arundel) regarding the creative process and how he expressed it in his paintings. It is also well-known that Leonardo was not just a painter but a polymath with an insatiable curiosity about nature. He dissected more than thirty corpses to better understand human physiology. He spent years trying to fathom the flight of insects and birds (Gombrich 214).
Among other things, one question that was common to all these enquiries was the nature of movement – something that will become a hallmark of Leonardo’s oeuvre. As the historian and biographer Walter Isaacson observes, Leonardo compared an instant of motion to a single geometrical point. “The point has no dimensions; [a] line… is the transit of a point…” Leonardo noted. He then concluded by analogy that, “The instant does not have time; and time is made from the movement of the instant” (in Isaacson, 180).
This understanding of a point becoming a line, an instant becoming a narrative, is witnessed widely in da Vinci’s work. An early illustration of this is in his drawing of the Arno Valley landscape (1473) in which, as Isaacson highlights, the leaves on the trees and their shadows appear to undulate in the breeze and the water in the pool looks vibrant. As the British art critic Jonathan Jones observed, these paintings were, in depicting movement – and hence time’s flow – “among the greatest evocations of movement in the entire history of art…” (in Isaacson, 362).
Another technique that Leonardo pioneered and excelled in was sfumato (meaning ‘smoke’ in Italian), the blurring of lines and contours in a picture which too was used to depict or suggest movement in time. As Leonardo instructed his students, “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air…” (in Isaacson, 41) Ernst Gombrich called this Leonardo’s “famous invention… that [allows] one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.” (219). Isaacson feels that the artist’s reliance on sfumato arose from his “radical insight” from science and mathematics that “nature… does not have precise lines… Between light and darkness there is infinite variation, because their quantity is continuous…” (269). This apparent lack of distinct lines in nature also influences the way we perceive things. Our perception involves a chain of events, not isolated moments in time. As the art critic John Berger tells us (loc 39), “Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself…”
But, da Vinci had in reality a motive higher than merely capturing nature’s protean contours: “He sought to portray not only moti corporali, the motions of the body,” as Isaacson explains (87), “but also how they related to what he called ‘atti e moti mentali’, the attitudes and motions of the mind. More important, he was a master at connecting the two.” We can get a good idea of how Leonardo realized this objective when we consider his two most celebrated paintings, The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. As Isaacson points out, Leonardo primarily used gestures, along with sfumato, to show the movements of the mind. In The Last Supper, for instance, we witness Jesus’ hand move towards the bread on the table, while his head is bowed in silence. The expressions of the apostles, as we observe from left to right of the picture, also speak of both fluid minds and time’s flow, as highlighted by Isaacson (283-4). The ones on the far left are still reacting to Jesus’s announcement. Next, we see Judas too reaching for the bread that he will share with Jesus (a gesture that will confirm his guilt, according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark.) Further to the right, Peter seems agitated and ready to retaliate. The unity of The Last Supper is evident in how it captures the reactions of every person at that table. But there is so much diversity in their articulations too. As Gombrich notes (217), “There is so much order in this variety, and so much variety in this order, that one can never quite exhaust the harmonious interplay of movement and answering movement.”
As for the subject of the Mona Lisa, Gombrich (218-9) is amazed at the way Lisa “looks alive… She… seems to… have a mind of our own.” He believes this effect results from the way Leonardo painted, as different from his predecessors whose
“… figures look more like statues than living beings. The reason may be that the more conscientiously we copy a figure line by line and detail by detail, the less we can imagine that it ever really moved and breathed.”
The magnificence of this work of art lies, Isaacson believes (486), in the way, it hints at “the elusive nature of reality and the uncertainties of perception.” This is exemplified in the veil that covers Lisa’s hair. Since the veil is almost transparent, but not completely, the hair underneath appears a tiny bit lighter compared to the one covering Lisa’s ear. The landscape behind the subject is also seen through the veil and so in parts it lacks finite edges.
But, as much as he strived to depict the movements of the mind in his work, Leonardo was not unaware that there may be limits to fathoming other minds. Hence, “the world’s most famous smile [remains] inherently and fundamentally elusive,” Isaacson observes (490), “and therein lies Leonardo’s ultimate realization: There is always a sfumato quality to other people’s emotions, always a veil.”
Hence, there is something mysterious about all humans and we continually discover things about others. As Kenneth Clark wrote (in Isaacson 323) regarding another da Vinci masterpiece, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (c. 1503), “we are [in art as with humans] always discovering new facilities of movement and harmony, growing more and more intricate… and, as with Bach, this is not only an intellectual performance; it is charged with human feeling.”
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The interplay between temporality and our lives becomes apparent yet again when we recall that we tend to humanize time itself in our language and in our imagination. For instance, when we say that a clock goes “tick-tock” we grant it, the literary critic Frank Kermode feels, a narrative structure. “The clock’s tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form.” (in Culler 83). Such a reorientation of time in a human context – or temporality – is an integral part of what the great artists like Leonardo and others from the Italian Renaissance began to set in place: it was a brand of humanism, a shifting of focus away from eschatological ambitions to the here and now, a move that foreshadowed the ideas of Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus a few centuries later.
In Italy of the 15th-16th centuries, this transition was triggered possibly by an increased awareness of the potential for controlling our destinies by using time both as a resource for realising our ambitions and to be also wary of as an enemy. This period was (later) called a “Renaissance” because it signified a renascence of ideas from antiquity replete with tales of heroic action and victories involving human actors. As part of this process, art too would reinforce the focus on the human. As Berger notes (loc 56), an image – a Renaissance painting or sculpture – engendered an “increasing consciousness of individuality” by the mere fact that it “showed how something or somebody had once looked – and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people.”
Paul Cezanne and the self in the mirror
When we consider the work of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) we realize that Cezanne embellished and elucidated upon what da Vinci and others had earlier set in “motion”. Moreover, while the Renaissance artists commenced the move from the sacred tomorrow to the present moment, Cezanne – and those who came after him – will complete the switch from Gods to humans.
While da Vinci included brilliant depictions of nature in his painting, they were still primarily a backdrop to the main subject (whether sacred or secular). But with Cezanne nature takes centre-stage. He believed (in Merleau-Ponty 62) that “the artist must conform to this perfect work of art. Everything comes to us from nature; we exist through it; nothing else is worth remembering.” This shift engineered by Cezanne becomes the second act of a creative development that had earlier been conceived by the Impressionists in whose work, Ernst Gombrich feels (407-9), “everything that presented itself to the painter’s eye could become the motif of a picture, and… the real world in all its aspects became a worthy object of the artist’s study.” Nevertheless, the Impressionists (Gombrich adds) did not differ much from earlier traditions in that they too wished to paint nature as they saw it, while differing from the old masters only “over the means of achieving it.”. But what Paul Cezanne the post-Impressionist was now aiming for was “a harmonious design, the achievement of solid simplicity and perfect balance…” Harmony, even at the expense of artistic realism, would therefore become important for the way Cezanne painted. Take for example his Still Life with Fruit Dish (c. 1880) where the bowl patently looks askew. Gombrich believes (412-3) that Cezanne did this to offset some of the emptiness on the left side of the picture. The old notions like perspective and correctness of outlines “had been invented to help… create the illusion of space… [But what Cezanne was after was] the feeling of solidity and depth…”
The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty believed (62) likewise that Cezanne was engaged on a desire to differentiate himself from his artistic predecessors. What Cezanne was aiming for was “sensation versus judgment; the painter who sees against the painter who thinks; nature versus composition…” As Carolyne Quinn from the Sorbonne explains (42), “[p]aying attention to the real object as well as its appearance to our shifting senses, Cézanne portrayed how… the world has already and continues to come into being…” Merleau-Ponty (63) links this to perception (and movement) by noting how, for instance, a circle seen obliquely has “a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse.” In a portrait of Mme Cezanne (from 1888-90), the two walls behind her do not meet in a straight line. Similarly, in Cezanne’s 1895 portrait of Gustav Geffroy the table where Geffroy is seated seems to extend beyond the bottom of the canvas and has the illusion of being an irregular trapezoid. (Similar blurred lines are to be found in Cezanne’s Farmyard at Auvers (1879) which features a rural building with its clutters; here too it is as if we are looking at a hamlet through the wavering haze of distance.)
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Ernst Gombrich (421-2) contends that artists like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin felt that in the classical painters’ aim for natural realism, “something had gone out of art – something they desperately tried to retrieve.” Moreover, as much as the Impressionists too had wanted to capture that enigmatic quality, that still left something unaccounted for. Cezanne believed what was missing was a “sense of order and balance”, according to Gombrich and “what we call modern art grew out of [this] dissatisfaction…” Thus, this splintering away from earlier traditions and methods on Cezanne’s part would ultimately lead to Cubism (and beyond). John Berger (loc 158) describes this temporal arc from the Impressionists to the Cubists – via Cezanne – as follows:
“For the Impressionists, the visible no longer presented itself to man in order to be seen. On the contrary, the visible, in continual flux, became fugitive. For the Cubists, the visible was no longer what confronted the single eye, but the totality of possible views taken from points all around the object (or person) being depicted.”
The vision that some modern painters tried to present also reflects how we perceive. It was conceptually similar to what da Vinci aimed for but different in execution. To illustrate this idea, Gombrich (436) asks us to imagine a conversation among Picasso and friends. They might have thought, “Why not… accept the fact that our real aim is rather to construct something than to copy something? If we think of an object, let us say a violin… it does not appear before the eyes of our mind as we would see it with our bodily eyes. We can, and in fact do, think of its various aspects at the same time.” (And this is exactly what Picasso achieves with his Still Life from 1912 with its violin centrepiece.)
The dislocations featured in modern art allegorize furthermore our looking into the mirror and confronting our fractured selves. Cezanne’s work (and that of later artists like the cubists and surrealists) remind us of the incertitude of what it is to be human. The insight they offer is comparable to a haiku: it stops you in your tracks, by opening a chink into a world that appears to be counterintuitive. It is akin too to the literary narratives of other modernists like William Faulkner with their overlapping perspectives that signal the fracturing of clock time and conflicting temporalities. (The broken clock in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, for instance,finds its counterpart on the canvas in the melting clocks in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.) In summary, Cezanne and those who came after him would bring to the fore not just nature and humans but also the human psyche.
Conclusion: Time and Turner
Our concern with time bears a resonance with that other mystery which has been preoccupying our minds for a long time, namely, consciousness. When some scientists tell us that time (particularly time’s arrow) is an illusion or is non-existent, we are somehow uncomfortable with it. Why so? Because there is (to rephrase the title of a book by Richard Dawkins) more to the rainbow than is unwoven. There is for instance the experience of delight which comes to life in a medium of flowing time.
But with the advent of science “we [seem to] have gained… reality and lost… the dream” As Robert Musil (40) saw it. Suppose for a moment that time doesn’t flow from past to future, and all events happened independently of each other. This idea then negates the ontology of what we call contemporary events; in other words, “each moment is autonomous… each moment we live exists, but not their imaginary combination,” as the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges notes (258). This also vitiates the possibility of a cogent chronicle, a history, whether personal or global.[ii] It would then follow that the question “what makes us human” is somewhat meaningless. We are wasting our time discussing such notions as emotions, love, sorrow and quests and ambitions as they are supposedly unrelated points on an empty canvas. (We have similar concerns and reservations about materialistic explanations of the mind-body problem which risks dismissing humans as mere machines made of lumps of gristle.)
It is therefore not surprising that we are reluctant to embrace the alleged illusory nature of time. Surely, there should be more to it than that, we wonder. From what we have seen how art expresses time, moreover, we could also intuit that that expression goes hand in hand with art’s link to consciousness. Carl Sagan once said that though we are made of the same material as the stars, we are conscious and are therefore “a way for the cosmos to know itself” (in Bakewell 185). Cezanne claimed likewise (in Merleau-Ponty 65) that “the landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.”
This conundrum – especially our reluctance to accept that we are ultimately only a cog in that great big enterprise called evolution – places us in a situation similar to the ship in JMW Turner’s painting from 1839, The Fighting Temeraire which is being towed to a shipyard for being broken up after its glory days at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The symbolism becomes more apparent when we note that the ship has a white flag – instead of the union jack – on its mast. Like seafaring vessels being towed in the end for being broken up, every one of us too will be taken to the knackers. And, we too have no option but to hold up a white flag and surrender to what destiny (and time its handmaid) has in store for us.
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Wittman, Marc. 2015. Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, Trans. Erik Butler. MIT Press. Kindle ed.
[i] “Everything Flows” is also the title of Grossman’s last novel.
[ii] For a detailed analysis of Borges’ ideas regarding time and how it affects us, see my recent research paper in the Literature & Aesthetics journal at https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/14745