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“Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough” – George Bernard Shaw

Is this the way out?

Is this the way out?

Linear time sucks.  Until you consider the alternatives.  I can’t tell you how many years I spent factoring quadratic equations, and I still have to look it up when it becomes necessary (which is rarely, and I dread the moment when my son asks me for help with his algebra homework).  And somehow I’m supposed to get the karmic balance right in life after life?  I have trouble remembering to feed my pet fish.  And the gods don’t seem so infallible when they engage in this endless cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation.  I mean, how many times does the world have to get flooded or consumed in fire before they figure out that humans are bunch of irredeemable screw-ups and just take the tax write-off?  The various Semitic montheisms (Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism) fixated on start and end points for time, where divinity creates the universe, mucks around a bit, and then tosses the whole experiment into the dustbin, ushering the test subjects off into an unchanging eternity of choir practice, harp strumming, entertaining your seventy-two virgins, or exalting Ahura Mazda.  Time doesn’t keep ticking as you dilly-dally in the heavenly luxury of infinite homogeneity (albeit it is reputed to be a blissfully quiet and serene experience).  The linear religions posit that time, and thus history, just stops.  That’s all folks.  Nothing left to write about except perhaps complaint letters regarding Gabriel, who has had millennia to come up with some new tunes, and still can only blow three notes on that darned trumpet or that your explosive-assisted martyrdom left you in a whole lot of pieces, while it seems dismemberment is not a turn on for the virgins.  Sure, there’s generally a little bit of an apocalypse before the end of time, but that’s like cosmic high school.  You get through it, and you move on.  The primary problem with linear time based mythologies is that you really only get one chance to get it right in a straight line progression from birth to death.  That typically makes those of us raised in a linear monotheism look at notions of cyclical time, where time starts, ends, and starts again, repeating into infinity, with a kind of wistful longing for some sort of universal Ground Hog Day, the idea being that maybe this time we’ll be able to sort things out properly.  Unfortunately, upon further examination, most mythological notions of cyclical time are stunningly pessimistic, where the best you can ultimately hope for is the obliteration of your ego.  Personally, I like my ego.  It makes me feel special.  Cyclical time replaces notions of history with the horror of illusion.

In a sense, linear time represents a conception of “real” time, where cyclical time offers only the illusion of progression, for as Herman Hesse said, “If time is not real, then the dividing line between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion”.  Cyclical time offers us an eternal liminality, a disorienting and ambiguous existence in the spaces between creations and destructions.  But cyclical time is not the same as timelessness, where one has become what one is forever; rather cyclical time places you in the perpetual state of not being what you were, but never becoming what you’re going to be.  Liminality is fundamental to horror, as “it is the lack of limits and rules in liminal time that constitutes the danger for human beings.  Nighttime is our most common experience of liminal time.  When it is dark and we are all alone, when we sleep and dream, our normal physical and psychological barriers disappear.  In darkness, with its dim shapes and shifting shadows, and in sleep, which has aspects of both life and death, we are at our most vulnerable.  This is the time when monsters roam, the time when monsters can attack us” (Nuzum, 2004, p210).  An excellent example of the horror attendant upon a universe governed by cyclical time can be found throughout pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, from the mysterious and likely originators of the mythos, the Olmecs, to the Mayans, to the Aztecs, to their descendant cultures.  Note that as the world is repeatedly created and destroyed, it never ends well.

According to information obtained from Mayas of Valladolid, the world is now in the fourth period of its existence. In the first, there lived the Saiyamkoob, “the Adjusters,” the primitive race of Yucatan, who were dwarfs and built the cities now in ruins. Their work was done in darkness, when as yet there was no sun. When the sun appeared they were turned into stone, and their images are to be found today in the ruins. In this period there was a living rope extending from earth to sky, by which food was brought down to the builders. Blood was in this rope; but the rope was cut, the blood flowed out, and earth and sky were parted. Water-over-the-earth ended this period. It was followed by the age of the Tsolob, “the Offenders”; and these, too, were destroyed by a flood. The third age was that in which the Maya reigned, but their day likewise passed amid waters of destruction, to give place to the present age peopled by a mixture of all the races that have previously dwelt in Yucatan (MacCulloch, 1916, p149).

What’s come to be known as “The Mayan Long Count” represents time in Great Cycles of 5125 years (hence all the hype about the Mayan apocalypse in 2012, which would roughly correspond to the end of the Fourth Cycle).  While each cycle was described as ending rather unpleasantly, there was no Mesoamerican tradition of a final Armageddon, just a transition into a new cycle.  The Mayan Popul Vuh gives a vivid account of the end of the first age and its race of wooden men, who were impiously irreverent in their attitudes towards the gods and thus experienced a combo of catastrophes that only started with a flood.  Then the kitchen utensils get in on the action.

Then by the will of Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven, the waters were swollen, and a great flood came upon the mannikins of wood. They were drowned and a thick resin fell from heaven. The bird Xecotcovach tore out their eyes; the bird Camulatz cut off their heads; the bird Gotzbalam devoured their flesh; the bird Tecumbalam broke their bones and sinews and ground them into powder. Because they had not thought on Hurakan, therefore the face of the earth grew dark, and a pouring rain commenced, raining by day and by night. Then all sorts of beings, great and small, gathered together to abuse the men to their faces. The very household utensils and animals jeered at them, their mill-stones, their plates, their cups, their dogs, their hens. Said the dogs and hens, “Very badly have you treated us, and you have bitten us. Now we bite you in turn.” Said the mill-stones “Very much were we tormented by you, and daily, daily, night and day, it was squeak, screech, screech, for your sake. Now you shall feel our strength, and we will grind your flesh and make meal of your bodies.” And the dogs upbraided the mannikins because they had not been fed, and tore the unhappy images with their teeth. And the cups and dishes said, “Pain and misery you gave us, smoking our tops and sides, cooking us over the fire, burning and hurting us as if we had no feeling. Now it is your turn, and you shall burn.” Then ran the mannikins hither and thither in despair. They climbed to the roofs of the houses, but the houses crumbled under their feet; they tried to mount to the tops of the trees, but the trees hurled them from them; they sought refuge in the caverns, but the caverns closed before them. Thus was accomplished the ruin of this race, destined to be overthrown. And it is said that their posterity are the little monkeys who live in the woods (“Popul Vuh”, Bk.1 trans. Spence, 1972, p11).

Sounds like we a dodged a bullet at the end of the fourth Great Cycle, all things considered. This is the stuff of terror, where man is endlessly recreated, messes things up a bit, only to get wiped away and replaced as the next great cycle starts.  This largely got picked up by the Aztec myth of the Five Suns recorded in the Codex Chimalpopaca, that required the Aztec priesthood to sacrifice inordinate numbers of human victims to keep that there fifth sun in the sky, failure to do so which would no doubt result in cataclysm, and a sixth sun.  Given the unsavory endings of the previous cycles, they had ample reason to try and forestall the next one.

The Aztecs believed that this luminary had died four times, and that the one which at present lights the earth was the fifth, but which nevertheless was doomed to destruction like the preceding orbs. From the creation, the first age or sun, lasted 676 years, comprising 13 cycles, when the crops failed, men perished of famine and their bodies were consumed by the beasts of the field. This occurred in the year 1 Acatl, and on the day 4 Ocelotl and the ruin lasted for thirteen years. The next age and sun endured 364 years or 7 cycles, and terminated in the year 1 Tecpatl on the day 4 Ehecatl, when hurricanes and rain desolated the globe and men were metamorphosed into monkeys. The third age continued for 312 years, or 6 cycles, when fire or earthquakes rent the earth and human beings were converted into owls in the year 1 Tecpatl, on the day 4 Quiahuitl; — while the fourth age or sun lasted but for a single cycle of 52 years, and the world was destroyed by a flood, which either drowned the people or changed them into fishes, in the year 1 Calli, on the day 4 Atl (Mayer, 1851, p120).

Note that while the Aztecs seemed to have firmly believed the Age of the Fifth Sun would ultimately end as horribly as the first four, followed by a reboot, they were actively trying to stave off the inevitable by tearing out thousands of human hearts.  It seems that knowledge of cyclical time didn’t make them particularly comfortable.  In fact, it filled them with terror and made them a little psychotic.  Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism pretty much start from the premise that life inevitably was just a link in the chain binding us to a waking nightmare.  Doesn’t sound very Buddhist does it?  Well, classical theologians of India looked around them and came to the all too rational conclusion that life was a bitter pill.  Not just the suffering in this life, but every turn around the wheel of life.  Basically, we’re born, life sucks, we die, and we’re reborn.  Then life sucks again.  Then we die again.  Then we’re reborn.  Rinse.  Repeat.  There’s a reason the central tenet of these religions is that if you finally manage to get things right, you will be liberated from the endless cycle of rebirth – they rather openly declare that cyclical time is a pain in the ass.

A complete cycle, a mahayuga, comprises 12,000 years.  It ends with a dissolution, a pralaya, which is repeated more drastically (Mahapralaya, the Great Dissolution), at the end of the thousandth cycle.  For the paradigmatic schema “creation-destruction-creation-etc.” is reproduced ad infinitum.  The 12,000 years of a mahayuga were regarded as divine years, each with a duration of 360 years, which gives a total of 4,320,000 years for a single cosmic cycle.  A thousand such mahayugas make up a kalpa (form); 14 kalpas make up a manvantara (so named because each manvantara is supposed to be ruled by Manu, the mythical ancestor king).  A kalpa is equivalent to a day in the life of Brahma; a second kalpa to a night.  One hundred of these “years” of Brahma, in other words 311,000 milliards [311 billion] of human years, constitute the life of Brahma.  But even this duration of the god’s life does not exhaust time, for the gods are not eternal and the cosmic creations and destructions succeed one another forever (Eliade, 1959, p108).

No wonder ascetic South Asians started asking, “How do I get off this train”?  If you’re not an especially nasty fellow, but still don’t learn your lessons very well, you could be repeatedly reincarnated for at least 311 billion years, at the end of which all you have to look forward to is another 311 billion years of suffering.  One hopes that after a few million reincarnations something might stick, but what can I say, I have that sort of linear optimism.  This to me, explains the irrational exuberance of most Bollywood productions.  You’ve got to do something to lighten up the prospect of the next 311 billion years of suffering.  Self-described Buddhist and horror writer William Scheinman put it best when he said, “Philosophically, Buddhism and horror have one very important thing in common: both embody a radical skepticism about the nature of so-called “consensus” reality. In horror fiction, when reality is torn apart, our sense of safety is shattered and fear is likely to arise — but we may learn a lot about the world of our minds in the process, about the simple things we take for granted, and we’ll have fun doing it. An English ghost story is a perfect example of this “tearing apart” of reality, as are the “cosmic horror” tales of H. P. Lovecraft. In Buddhist practice, when insight arises fear will result when the ego, desperately holding on to its habits and identifications, recoils at the yawning emptiness before it. In that case, the ego can be trained to release itself and the experience of insight may become sustained. In the case of a really good horror novel, the reader’s imagination about reality may be altered forever and certain aberrant images may burn in the mind for years.”  The gaping chasm of the endless cycle of death and rebirth rends any given reality, a mere mote in Brahma’s eye that is thus a fertile source for the existential terror of never getting one’s chakra’s aligned.

The Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism (founded in the 3rd Century B.C by Zeno of Citium in Athens) was all the rage among elite Greeks and Romans, emphasizing the destructiveness of emotions to moral judgment, and the determinism of the universe in guiding the fates of those without Stoic virtues.  Oddly, the Stoics also espoused the idea of the Ekpyrosis, that is, that the universe was continually destroyed and renewed.  Stoic Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero summarized their views nicely when he observed that the universe is constituted out of fire, dies in a conflagration, and is reconstituted out of fire.

The stars have their revolutions in the sky, and are continued by the tendency of all parts towards the centre; their duration is perpetuated by their form and figure, for they are round; which form, as I think has been before observed, is the least liable to injury; and, as they are composed of fire, they are fed by the vapours which are exhaled by the sun from the earth, the sea, and other waters; but when these vapours have nourished and refreshed the stars, and the whole sky, they are sent back to be exhaled again; so that very little is lost or consumed by the fire of the stars and the flame of the sky. Hence we Stoics conclude, which Pansetius is said to have doubted of, that the whole world at last would be consumed by a general conflagration; when all moisture being exhausted, neither the earth could have any nourishment, nor the air return again, since water, of which it is formed, would then be all consumed; so that only fire would subsist; and from this fire, which is an animating power and a Deity, a new world would arise and be re-established in the same beauty (Cicero, “On the Nature of the Gods”, Book 2, Chapter XLVI).

While I can appreciate Cicero’s aesthetic sense, I still have problems with being consumed in a final conflagration, no matter how beautiful the renewed world is.  It seems that in contrast to our modern apocalyptic fantasies, which generally also end in some horrible Armageddon scenario, but invariably involve our perception that we might be one of the chosen few to survive, more ancient notions of the apocalypse entailed at the end of each turn of the wheel in a cyclical universe, we are pretty much erased.  Everybody and everything.  Maybe you wind up repeatedly reincarnated as a rat for a few million years, but then some divine critter has the good sense to wipe the slate clean and start over, again and again.  I guess patience is an important virtue for a god.  Which begs the question, how come they keep flooding the world?  And why does the current cycle of time always have to end in cataclysm.  It’s like the gods are worried about getting audited and want to shred the documents.  The Hopi Indians of North America similarly suggest there have been three worlds prior to ours (and presumably there will be a few more after) and each one has been wiped out in a fit of pique by the local supernatural bigwig.  The creator god Tawa made three worlds, the natives got uppity, and he successively took them out with extreme prejudice, resulting in our current Fourth World.  The Hopi myth talks about movement from underworlds to the surface, but one wonders if we are still living in an underworld, and one day an angry god will give us our just deserts.

Humans have a lifespan of roughly 100 years at best, hence death terrifies us.  We also like predictability i.e. the sun will come up tomorrow, the buffalo will migrate, and your sibling will never pay back the loan.  More than we love predictability, and hate death, we loathe the idea that we are unimportant, and in fact just another moment in an endless cycle, which will ultimately be wiped out and replaced with something better.  For 200,000 years, our forefathers wandered about the face of the earth, following the migrations of animals and the change of seasons, interrupted only by climactic changes that drove them elsewhere, where they created new patterns and new rituals to accompany them.  Before we gave ourselves a fixed sense of place in the cosmos (basically “made history”), we were timeless.  Our gods were close, since our daily lives recreated them.  Once we internalized a sense of privilege, settled down, and started bending nature to our will, our perspective changed.    Repetition, which is the comfort of a nomad, since it means the universe is behaving as expected, and the fact that the herds are passing through again at the same time of year is cause for celebration, and praising of the gods, turns to boredom.  As we settled down into idyllic little, well-organized, and sedentary agricultural communities, we also changed cosmic time.  Scholar of religion Mircea Eliade believed that this is the point at which cyclic time became something awful and terror-inducing.

The perspective changes completely when the sense of the religiousness of the cosmos becomes lost.  This is what occurs when, in certain more highly evolved societies, the intellectual elites progressively detach themselves from the patterns of the traditional religion.  The periodical sanctification of cosmic time then proves useless and without meaning.  The gods are no longer accessible through the cosmic rhythms.  The religious meaning of the repetition of paradigmatic gestures is forgotten.  But repetition emptied of its religious content necessarily leads to a pessimistic vision of existence.  When it is no longer a vehicle for reintegrating a primordial situation, and hence for recovering the mysterious presence of the gods, that is, when it becomes desacralized, cyclic time becomes terrifying; it is seen as a circle forever turning on itself, repeating itself to infinity (Eliade, 1959, p107).

The only solution was to create history, and monotheistic religions were a great help in this.  We were no longer doomed to endless repetition, and billions of years of attempting to prove that we were creatures worthy of a creator.  In short, time became linear, and your relation to the final judgment was a point on the horizon that most folks could fixate on.

The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between cyclical time which still dominated production and irreversible time where populations clash and regroup. The religions which grew out of Judaism are abstract universal acknowledgements of irreversible time which is democratized, opened to all, but in the realm of illusion. Time is totally oriented toward a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” These religions arose on the soil of history, and established themselves there. But there they still preserve themselves in radical opposition to history. Semi-historical religion establishes a qualitative point of departure in time (the birth of Christ, the flight of Mohammed), but its irreversible time–introducing real accumulation which in Islam can take the form of a conquest, or in Reformation Christianity the form of increased capital is actually inverted in religious thought and becomes a countdown: the hope of access to the genuine other world before time runs out, the expectation of the last Judgment. Eternity came out of cyclical time and is beyond it. Eternity is the element which holds back the irreversibility of time, suppressing history within history itself by placing itself on the other side of irreversible time as a pure punctual element to which cyclical time returned and abolished itself. Bossuet will still say: “And by means of the time that passes we enter into the eternity which does not pass” (Debord, 1994).

Time may be endless, but we are not.  And I think, deep down, no matter what faith you ascribe to, this pisses us off.  Cyclical time offers the possibility that we, as a species, can keep things going until we figure out how to be decent and loving sentient beings.  And that fills us with terror, mostly because we’re pretty sure that on average we are a bunch of egocentric, sneaky, and thoroughly depraved set of inadequately evolved primates.  We don’t like to live in the present or to be “good” in the present, since the present offers only the moment suspended in a universe that may or may not be indifferent to our existence, that may or may not simply erase this cycle and loop back on itself.  We are afraid of the present, for as Ambrose Bierce noted, the present is “That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope”.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Treatises of M. T. Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods; On Divination; On Fate; On the Republic; On the Laws; And On Standing for the Consulship. London: G. Bell and sons, 1878.
Debord, Guy, 1931-. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
Eliade, Mircea, 1907-1986. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
MacCulloch, J. A. 1868-1950, George Foot Moore, and Louis H. 1875-1955 Gray. The Mythology of All Races V11: Latin America. Boston: Marshall Jones company, 1916.
Mayer, Brantz, 1809-1879. Mexico, Aztec, Spanish And Republican: a Historical, Geographical, Political, Statistical And Social Account of That Country From the Period of the Invasion by the Spaniards to the Present Time; With a View of the Ancient Aztec Empire And Civilization; a Historical Sketch of the Late War; And Notices of New Mexico And California,. Hartford: S. Drake and Company, 1851.
Nuzum, K.A.  “The Monster’s Sacrifice – Historic Time: The Uses of Mythic and Liminal Time in Monster Literature”.  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 29:3, Fall 2004, p217-227, 2004.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. The Popol Vuh: the Mythic And Heroic Sagas of the Kiches of Central America. New York: AMS Press, 1972.