“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. “It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.
Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay “A New Refutation of Time,” which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.
Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of “new.” The “slight mockery” of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that “our language is so saturated and animated by time.” With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be “the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics” — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.
Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science (“the clarity of metaphysics,” per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:
In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.
Time, Borges notes, is the foundation of our experience of personal identity — something philosophers took up most notably in the 17th century, poets picked up in the 19th, scientists set down in the 20th, and psychologists picked back up in the 21st.
Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the “thinking active principle that perceives” at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” — but they both affirmed the existence of time.
Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls “this unstable world of the mind” in relation to time:
A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton’s] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.
Returning to Hume’s notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:
Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions.
But even the notion of a “series” of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:
Once matter and spirit — which are continuities — are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside the present moment.
He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:
During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.
This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:
The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.
Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:
And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
The essay, as everything in Labyrinths, is an exceptional read in its continuous entirety; excerpting, fragmenting, and annotating it here fails to dignify the agile integrity of Borges’s rhetoric and the sheer joy of his immersive prose. Complement it with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, and Sarah Manguso on its confounding, comforting ongoinginess.