“Time puts truth itself in crisis.” — Gilles Deleuze
Recently I have been reading the Antología de la literatura fantastica, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo: the high council of Argentine speculative fiction. It has proved to be a perfect book for improving my Spanish as many of the pieces are very short: either short stories or else short fragments taken from larger works. All the pieces included are examples of what the editors deemed to be ‘fantastic’ fiction or “works of reasoned imagination”, to quote Borges’s preface to La invencíon de Morel. I stumbled across an exhilarating passage from Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), an author whom I deem to be the Philosopher-King of science fiction. Not only is this an incredible piece of writing in its own right, which explodes the one into the many, teasing apart linear time into all its contingencies, but it is also particularly exciting because I feel as though it was probably a source for Borges’s own story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, which was published in 1941. Here it is, in the original English (they called the fragment ‘Historias Universales’ — ‘Universal Histories’):
“In one inconceivably vast cosmos, whenever a creature was faced with several possible courses of action, it took them all, thereby creating many distinct temporal dimensions and distinct histories of the cosmos. Since in every evolutionary sequence of the cosmos there were very many creatures, and each was constantly faced with many courses, and the combinations of all their courses were innumerable, an infinity of distinct universes exfoliated from every moment of every temporal sequence in this cosmos.”
What is being proposed here is not merely a multiverse theory, but one of multiverses nested within multiverses. Every ‘creature‘ or agency within a particular contingent timeline creates its own series of proliferating histories at each course taken. The problem of the individual’s relationship with time has haunted philosophy for a long time. Kant believed that time-perception was a simply a part of the human sensory apparatus. Hegel equally characterised time as a “way of being”. Stapledon’s model here seems to suggest that temporal flow is inscribed both in the cosmos containing the creatures and the individual creatures themselves, which would seem to agree with the latest findings in physics and neuroscience.1 Compare this with the description of The Garden in the Borges fable:
“The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us.”
Here are two interesting articles from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy to Consider in relation to these temporal models:
The striking word ‘exfoliate’ in the Stapledon passage comes from the latin ‘exfoliare’, meaning ‘to strip of leaves’. The branch/leaf metaphor for temporal contingency is interesting as the verb Borges uses in the title of his story ‘El jardín de senderos que bifurcan’, ‘bifurcare’ (‘to bifurcate’), is often used to describe organic growth. This also clarifies the use of the word ‘Garden’. In fact the latin name of seaweed is bifurcaria bifurcata because it forks as it grows, resembling very much what Stapledon and Borges seem to be getting at. In Bolaño’s 2666, one of the mysterious German author Benno von Archimboldi’s novels is called Bifurcaria Bifurcata, which seems to be a reference to Borges.
It seems telling that whenever the novel is mentioned, nobody seems to have finished it:
“The library had only those three and and Bifurcaria Bifurcata, but this last he had begun and couldn’t finish.””
“Mr. Bubis didn’t like Bufurcaria Bifurcata, to the extent he didn’t even finish reading it.”
When Archimboldi was growing up, under the name Hans Reiter, he used to draw pictures of seaweed obsessively. He is saved from drowning by a man called Heinz Vogel, who subsequently suffers from bouts of insomnia as the image of the boy and of seaweed confound in his mind.
“How could he have mistaken a boy for seaweed? he asked himself. And then: in what sense can a boy resemble seaweed? And then: can a boy and seaweed have anything in common?”
Perhaps what a boy and a seaweed have in common are the bifurcating consequences, the contingencies of his motion through time, the ramifications of his passage through the “moving image of eternity” of which Plato spoke.
In an article written in 1940, a year before the publication of The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges wrote the article ‘Time and J.W. Dunne’, about the named author’s wacky Nothing Dies (1940). In the Dunne book a multidimensional theory of time involving infinite regression is proposed, which he dubs ‘Serialism’. Everything happens at once: the future and the past in all their variations are contained in the present. Although Borges is of course a detractor of the bananas theory, explaining that
“Dunne is an illustrious victim of that bad intellectual habit— denounced by Bergson—of conceiving of time as a fourth dimension of space. He postulates that the future toward which we must move already exists, but this postulate merely converts it into space and requires a second time (also conceived in spatial form, in the form of a line or a river) and then a third and a millionth. Not one of Dunne’s four books fails to propose the infinite dimensions of time, but those dimensions are spatial. For Dunne, real time is the unattainable boundary of an infinite series,”
he decides that “so splendid a thesis makes any fallacy committed by the author insignificant”. Dunne’s model of spatialised time would thus appear to be another influence on The Garden.
Dunne’s “proofs“ for the fact that the future already exists are premonitory dreams he claims to have had, and also, as Borges churlishly notes, “the relative simplicity this hypothesis lends to the complicated digrams typical of his style”. In the Borges story ‘The Aleph’, the epononymous portal discovered in an Argentian basement is a lens which allows the viewer to see anywhere in space. All of space is condensed into a single point. Dunne appears to do much the same with time.
This reminds me very much of Arno Schmidt’s story ‘Enthymesis H.I.H.Y.A’, in which a betamist (an ancient cartographer) records another remarkably beautiful vision of an extreme spatialisation of time in his diary:
“Time is at least a plane, not a line; during the day our mind is like a boatman on a river, and the skiff moves on; in dreams, at night, he can climb out and range across the surface of time’s stream - not a bad image (seeing into the future; free will etc.)”
Borges, not unsympathetic to Dunne’s dream-logic notes that “Awake, we pass through successive time at a uniform speed; in dreams we may span a vast zone.” The conversation of time into symbolic space is a comfort. Compare with Bergson’s Time and Free Will, where he remarks that “the idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possiblities, is thus more frutiful than the future itself and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.”
Enthymesis, the narrator of the Schmidt story is a proponent of the flat-earth theory and is deeply vexed by the notion that the Earth could be globular (Where would we be able to run away to? he bemoans. Perhaps it is prudent to point out here that H.I.H.Y.A stands for How I Hate You All). My suspicion that the narrator shares an obsession with J.W. Dunne, and that Schmidt was probably familiar with the range of Borges essays on time, seems confirmed here:
“I once remarked to Eratosthenes : the hallmark of the intellect is that it desires infinity; and since a disk is more infinite than a sphere, the earth must be a disk.”
Desire always desires the infinite. One might recall Nietzsche’s declaration “All joy wants eternity, deep, deep eternity” from Zarathustra’s roundelay.
“In passion, memory inclines toward the intemporal. We gather up all the delights of a given past in a single image; the diversely red sunsets I watch every evening will in memory be a single sunset. The same is true of foresight: nothing prevetns the most incompatible hopes from peacefully coexisting. To put it differently: eternity is the style of desire. (The particular enjoyment that enumeration yields may plasuibly reside in its insinuation of the eternal— the immediata et lucida fruito rerum infinitarum.” (‘A History of Eternity’)
Another story in Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, ‘Gadir’, returns to the same thematic material. ‘Gadir’ recounts the tale of a prisoner attempting escape from the island on which he is incarcerated. He is also taken by this idea of precognitive dreams:
“For we definitely can see ahead in dreams; from which it follow that the future is already exactly prescribed, every detail; but that means there is no free will, which means ultimately that there is limited (though very large) number of factors that can’t be combined according to exactly prescribed rules, a process which we (one of its little parts) can only ascertain and describe.”
However he seems to be possessive of a kind of Bergsonian pragmatism about the past which his betamist friend lacked, as evinced here in a discourse on the grammatical tenses:
“What shallow, illogical minds grammarians have, philosophical boors : they call ‘I was’ the first of imperfect past; “I have been” the second or perfect past (“I had been is the third or pluperfect past, which is reasonably correct). When the whole structure can be presented so simply : man has three planes of temporal experience : the vague future (‘I shall be’); the intense, but very narrowly limited present(‘I am’); and rich with memories, full of images, secure, and thus multileveled, the past (‘I was,’ etc.)”
It’s always fascinating to consider how modes of time are ingrained in the grammars we use on a day to day basis.
I find it interesting that the character in ‘Gadir’ is a trapped prisoner, dreaming of escape. It resonates both with Calvino’s unparalleled story ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, in which the count creates an imaginary map in his mind of possible escape routes through the labyrinthine corridors of his island prison which which he is not actually in the slightest familar and also Borges’s ‘The God’s Script’, in which a captive priest attempts to find god in the gloom of his cell. The prisoner in the latter has a recursive dream which seems relevant to the topic at hand:
“Someone said to me: You have not awakened to wakefulness, but to a previous dream. This dream is enclosed within another, and so on to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path you must retrace is interminable and you will die before you ever really awake.”
Prisoners are always, and for obvious reasons, obsessed with time. I am reminded of the classic cartoonish image of the days until release being tallied on the wall of the cell and the Marquis de Sade’s obsession with numerology, dates and enumeration during his period of capitvity (which would influence the preoccuption with counting in 120 Days of Sodom). Imprisonment inspired another, the communard Auguste Blanqui, to come up with a multiverse theory of time. Borges notes with glee in the essay ‘Circular Time’ that Blanqui “like Democritus, packs not only time but interminable space as well with fascimile worlds and dissimilar worlds”. The “beautifully titled” book, L’Eternité par les astres (Eternity Through the Stars — Borges is correct that this is an enviable title) would go on to indirectly inspire Nietzsche’s conception of the eternal return, as Benjamin noted in his Arcades Project.
Here is a passage I found online. An extraordinary piece of writing that compares well with Stapledon’s imagined cosmos at the start of this post.
The entire universe is composed of stellar systems. In order to create them nature has only one hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the prodigious profit it knows how to make from its resources, and the incalculable number of combinations these allow its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves. And in order to fill the entire expanse nature must infinitely repeat each of its original or generic combinations.
Every star, whatever it might be, thus exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects, but as it is found in every second of its duration, from birth until death. All the beings spread across its surface, big or little, animate or inanimate, share in this privilege of perennity.
The earth is one of these stars. Every human being is thus eternal in every second of its existence. What I write now in a cell in the fort of Taureau I wrote and will write under the same circumstances for all of eternity, on a table, with a pen, wearing clothing. And so for all.
One after another all these earths are submerged in renovatory flames, to be re-born there and to fall into them again, the monotonous flowing of an hourglass that eternally turns and empties itself. It is something new that is always old; something old that is always new.
Those curious about extra-terrestrial life will nevertheless smile at a mathematical conclusion that grants them not only immortality but eternity. The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. In all conscience, we can hardly ask for more. These doubles are of flesh and blood, or in pants and coats, in crinoline and chignon. These aren’t phantoms: they are the now eternalized.
There is nevertheless a great defect: there is, alas, no progress! No, these are vulgar re-editions, repetitions. As it is with editions of past worlds, so it is with those of future worlds. Only the chapter of bifurcations remains open to hope. Never forget that all we could have been here, we are somewhere else.
Progress here is only for our nephews. They are luckier than us. All the beautiful things that our globe will see our future descendants have already seen, see now, and will always see in the form of doubles who preceded them and who follow them. Children of a better humanity, they have already scoffed at us and mocked us on dead earths, passing there after us. From living earths from which we have disappeared they continue to condemn us; and on earths to be born, they will forever pursue us with their contempt.
Them and us, as well as all the guests of our planet, are born over again as prisoners of the moment and place that destiny assigns us in its series of avatars. Our perennity is an appendix of its perennity. We are but partial phenomena of its resurrections. Men of the 19th Century, the hour of our apparition is forever fixed, and we are returned always the same, at best with the possibility of happy variants. There is nothing much there to satisfy the thirst for what is better. What then is to be done? I haven’t sought my happiness; I have sought after truth. You will find here neither a revelation nor a prophet, but a simple deduction from the spectral analysis and cosmogony of Laplace. These two discoveries make us eternal. Is this a godsend? We should profit from it. Is it a mystification? We should resign ourselves to it.
But isn’t it a consolation to know ourselves to constantly be, on millions of planets, in the company of our beloved, who is today naught but a memory? Is it another, on the other hand, to think that we have tasted and will eternally taste this happiness in the shape of a double, of millions of doubles! Yet this is what we are. For many of the small minded this happiness through substitutes is somewhat lacking in rapture. They would prefer three or four supplementary years of the current edition to all the duplicates of the infinite. In our century of disillusionment and skepticism we are keen at clinging to things.
But deep down this eternity of man through the stars is melancholy, and sadder still this sequestration of brother-worlds through the barrier of space. So many identical populations that pass each other without suspecting their mutual existence! But yes! It has finally been discovered at the end of the 19th Century. But who will believe it?
And in any event, up till now the past represented barbarism to us, and the future signified progress, science, happiness, illusion! This past has seen brilliant civilizations disappear without leaving a trace on all our double-worlds; and they will disappear without leaving anymore of them. On millions of earths the future will see the ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty of our former ages.
At the present time the entire life of our planet, from birth until death, is being detailed day by day with all its crimes and misfortunes on a myriad of brother-stars. What we call progress is imprisoned on every earth, and fades away with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial field the same drama, the same décor; on the same limited stage a boisterous humanity, infatuated with its greatness, believing itself to be the universe, and living in its prison as if it were immense spaces, only to soon fall along with the globe that carried — with the greatest disdain — the burden of its pride. The same monotony, the same immobility on foreign stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly and fidgets in place. Eternity infinitely and imperturbably acts out the same performance.
Rest assured this is also an ancestor of The Garden of Forking Paths. Either way, I’m really tired/terrified of my ego tunnel branching on and on and on into infinity so I’ll leave you with this recentring passage from my favourite Borges essay on time ‘A History of Eternity’:
“And yet, and yet… To deny temporal succession, to deny the self, to deny the astronomical universe appear to be acts of desperation and are secret consolations. Our destiny (unlike the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not terrifying because it is unreal; it is terrifying because it is irreversible and iron-bound. Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
Freund es is auch genug. Im Fall du mehr willst lesen,
So geh und werde selbst die Schrift und Selbst das Wesen.
[Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,/ Go and yourself become the writing, yourself is the essence.]
— Angelus Silesius, Cherubinsicher Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)”
A close shave with Occam’s razor to remind us that our reality is probably much more boring that all this multidimensional stuff.
An interesting book to consider here is Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel ↩