The instant between

The history of human thought has always been traversed by tensions between opposite conceptual poles. Among them, one particular dichotomy runs closest to the core of our understanding of the world: the tension between the perspective of the ‘discontinuous’, and that of the ‘continuous’. It is the same tension that we find at work between the notions of information and consciousness, language and ineffability, time and eternity. The forces that orbit around the idea of the discontinuous, tend to cut the existent in a virtually countless (though always potentially countable) series of discreet units, disposed along serial concatenations. Let us think, for example, of the discontinuous understanding of time as a succession of measurable units – second, minutes, hours, and so on. On the other hand, the forces that circle around the idea of the continuous, privilege a holistic understanding of existence, according to which the distinction between ‘this’ and ‘that’ is at best merely conventional if not downright illusory. The field of the continuous has an innate, inevitable tendency towards monism, that is, towards a reduction of the whole existent to one single dimension.

“Starting from Greece – says Simone Weil – science has been a sort of dialogue between the continuous and the discontinuous.”(1) But despite their theoretical complementarity, these opposing forces have often risen up in arms against each other. As remarked by Roberto Calasso, “[their] dialogue can easily turn into all-out war.”(2) This hostility has taken different shapes throughout history, while emerging most clearly in the guise of philosophical disputes on metaphysical issues. On the one side of this battlefield, gather those who believe in the possibility of categorizing the existent, and thus of manipulating it by sliding our hands through its cracks. On the other side, are assembled those who reclaim the mysterious essence of reality, and advocate contemplation rather than action.

Yet, a truce is still possible between these fields – though only a fragile and temporary one, like a Christmas truce in 1914. A peaceful clearing still lies between the camp of discontinuity and those of continuity, and it is there that time and eternity can be found secretly holding hands. This is the place of the ‘instant’. We can find a similar understanding of the instant as the meeting place of time and eternity in some strands of Christian theology, particularly in the East. Understood as kairos, the ‘opportune moment’, an instant is both the time when God acts upon the world, and the opening up of our earthly reality to the transcendent realm of divinity. But we don’t necessarily need to endorse a Christian, theological understanding, to be able to appreciate the peculiar quality of the instant. Even maintaining it within the contrast between the discontinuous and the continuous, we can find the utterly unique quality of the instant, as it is readily graspable in the ‘profane illuminations’ that dot our daily lives.

Firstly, we have to consider the difference between an instant and a mere unit of time, however small it might be. An instant is not just a single unit of time, although it maintains a singularity of its own. Indeed, we can count instants, but we cannot add them up in the same way that we add up dollars. Unlike both time and eternity, the instant contains at once qualitative and quantitative elements, while being irreducible to either – and it is precisely this paradoxical union that allows it to act as a bridge between the forces of the continuous and of the discontinuous. But how can this be? It all depends on our understanding of the very notion of number, and of the possibility of a number that exceeds pure quantity. This is the idea of number that is currently defined as numerology (as opposed to modern mathematics), but which is, in fact, at the very roots of mathematics, considered as an art as much as a science. Seen through the eyes of the early Pythagoreans as well as of their later, Neo-Pythagorean epigones of late antiquity, a number is more than a signpost in a sequence of discreet units. Pythagorean numbers are not homogeneous and functionally equivalent unit, as we take our modern numbers to be. Each of them is a ‘thing’ in itself, and even the operations that we can produce on them cannot dissolve their ontological autonomy and their singularity. When ‘one’ becomes ‘two’, within a so-called numerological perspective, we don’t simply witness the augmentation of a quantitative measure, but the emergence of a new thing out of another: the dyad out of the monad, plurality out of unity.

This seemingly abstract notion is easily graspable in the instants that occasionally emerge in our experience of life in the world. There are moments, indeed instants, when time appears to take on a qualitative dimension. As its rhythm suddenly changes, the rolling chain of minutes and hours appears to unfold at a different pace – a pace that is irreducible to the flow of becoming as filtered by clocks, yet that remains somehow a form of flowing, a form of becoming. Typically, these are moments of dramatic surge in our attention – when not only time, but the world itself emerges to us no longer as a phenomenon, but as an ‘apparition’. Our attention fills the instant like sand fills an hourglass: it is the substance of a time that is made into a thing. As it stands up right in a place (as etymologically, in-stare), that specific instant of our life becomes a being on a par with the objects that populate it. When we look back at those instants – fragments of our life where the world became transparent – the instant itself features in our memories like a character, almost like a person. And like a person, each instant can be counted – yet they can never be reduced to their quantitative dimension.

This solidification of time into a thing, into an instant, is made possible by our increased attention. But we shouldn’t be too hasty to interpret the word ‘attention’ as referring only to a sharper sense of perception, or to a neater cataloguing of information. On the contrary, attention is so connected with the notion of instant, precisely because it is first of all an action that has time – not perception – as its main object. When our attention increases, our breathing typically slows down, as if we were trying to attune ourselves to a different rhythm to that of our normal, operative life. When we manage to summon enough attention, we are capable of seeing that dimension of the world which reveals its timelessness – its eternity. This is the dimension of each existent that relates precisely to its ‘existence’ as such – to the mysterious, ineffable fact that it is. Through attention, we are able to observe this dimension more closely than usual – here lies the transparency of the world, as it is revealed to an attentive gaze – while still remaining at a certain distance from it. We look at the mystery of existence, though through eyes that are somehow distinct from it: we look at what is ineffable, while remaining our linguistic, classifiable selves. Even when sunken in the deepest state of attention, I still remain ‘myself’, I don’t merge with the absolute unity of ineffable existence. But when I am truly attentive, then an instant takes place, and time becomes a place from which I can look at mystery – from afar, closely.

Hence the appropriateness for us humans – inasmuch as we see ourselves as ‘humans’, that is as a discreet, linguistic entity – to develop the practice of attention. If we understand attention as a modification of our relationship with time, its practice consists primarily in an exercise of spotting eternity inside each moment, ineffability inside each word, consciousness inside each piece of information – the continuous that animates the discontinuous from within. And conversely, the discontinuous that allows the continuous to make itself manifest, to speak. Certainly, our efforts to do so will be at best rewarded with a meagre harvest of a handful of ‘instants’ over the course of our lives. The forces of time and of eternity are both jealous gods, and each of them constantly pushes us to reject the other, to deny any legitimacy to the other. Attention is an exercise of religion, in that it ‘binds together’ (as etymologically, religare) what cannot be overcome or merged into one another. It is the art of the weaver, as rare and vanishing today as that of the poet. It is the substance poetry. And poetry is the language of the instant.

(1) Simone Weil, A propos de la mecanique ondulatoire, in Oeuvres Completes, IV.1, Paris: Gallimard, 2008, p. 493.

(2) Roberto Calasso, L’Innominabile Attuale, Milano: Adelphi, p. 84.