The imagination allows the human experience to be of both motion and stability, both becoming and being—but could it be that contained in our experience of time is an experience of divine nature?

In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius writes that “the infinite motion of temporal things tries to imitate the ever present immobility of His [God’s] life, does not succeed in copying or equaling it, sinks from immobility into motion, and falls from the simplicity of the present to the infinite stretch of future and past.” We find here two sorts of time, two expressions, one might say, of the same reality: on one side, presence and divine immobility, on the other, motion and intervals. Each man experiences time as motion and flux, change and interval, yet also yearns for immobility, for presence. Indeed, in some way he does experience immobility, something of the a-temporal in a temporal life. For do we not speak of the “present moment?” Do we not consider ourselves to “be” something or other, rather than merely “becoming?” Man is torn, then, between two seemingly opposed states of time, neither living in a single, infinite present, nor entirely belonging to motion, to the “infinite stretch of future and past.”

It is in the reconciling of these two states that the imagination comes to bear, allowing the human experience to be of both motion and stability, both becoming and being. It is difficult, however, to study what occurs in the imagination itself, partially due to this very tension between moment and change. It is fortunate that the fine arts have a particular ability to receive impressions of the imagination’s dealings with time. While many works could be given as examples, two—Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise—are especially rich in this regard. In these pieces, which we will study in the second part of this essay, may be found instances of our imagination’s struggle with the duality of time, as well as insight into our actual participation in both temporal life and eternity.

First, then, we will briefly consider how time is composed of both fixity and motion. Temporal passage—say, the motion of the second hand of a clock—is based upon interval (διάστημα), upon the distinct locations of that hand, and the difference between them: 30 seconds, 31 seconds, 32 seconds, etc. If there were no difference between the “30 seconds” and the “31 seconds” mark, then the motion of that hand could not exist. Each must be a real marker, a distinct place or moment. But insofar as those markers on the clock face are indicative of the motion of time, not just distinct in relation to space, they in turn depend upon the motion and temporal progress which they measure. It is impossible to conceive of time without the motion, and impossible to have that motion without those intervals, those present moments. Time needs the present.

And what is “the present”? It seems to bear a similarity to the “ever present immobility of God’s life,” that Boethius speaks of, although it cannot be exactly the same as divine eternity, for the divine present is not linked to motion. As Gregory of Nyssa writes in Against Eunomius, God’s existence is “ever the same, established of itself, not traveling on by intervals from one thing to another.”[1] A moment in earthly time, in contrast, is connected to motion, and can never be entirely separated from it. And yet, it does seem that the moment must be in some sense prior to the motion which is based upon it. The creaturely moment is a transient participation in real eternity. It is transient, however, only insofar as it does not last, not because of any internal change, for no particular moment ever changes to become a different moment; rather, moment A ceases to exist as the present, and moment B comes about as a new moment.

Although I am here speaking of moments as discrete things instead of continuous, I am not attempting to offer an ontological judgement of time as something which is completely discrete, but merely looking at our experience of time. It seems that time often has a discrete side to it, for if moments were never experientially discrete intervals, then it is unclear as to how we would be able to understand the motion of time, the progression from one moment in time to the next. Even our language is indicative of a discrete moment: when we speak of “now” or “then,” we are rarely trying to indicate the smallest possible interval, or even a truly unmeasurable moment without extent, one which is not an interval at all. No, “now” and “then” nearly always have some implied extension, perhaps “this millisecond” or “this century” or something in-between. We tend to distinguish certain “moments” from others, even if there is also a continuous element to time. This approach is not specific to time, for we often treat spatial motion in the same way, cutting it up into discrete segments: “the trip to the grocery store” or “driving at sixty miles an hour.” Our experience of temporal motion begins with our perception of these discrete moments, each of which was once a present and is now an image of an older, historical present.

The present moment is also fundamental for T.S. Eliot’s understanding of time in his Four Quartets, where he writes about the present as the “still point” at the center of past and future:

And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.[2]

The dance of time depends upon that point, a point which is neither entirely “fixity,” for part of its identity is linked to the motion from moment to moment, but neither is it quite a “movement from nor towards,” for the moment itself is discrete and unmoving.

In his essay “On the Nature of Time,” G.T. Whitrow proposes that our awareness of the motion of time originates in the fact that we experience the world through a series of these “successive acts of attention,” or as we have been referring to them, “moments”:

Our perception of temporal phenomena is a complex activity which we acquire by learning . . . Our conscious awareness of time depends on the fact that our minds operate by successive acts of attention. The problem of how time-order can be constructed by us on the basis of our movements of attention is, however, beset with difficulties. Our conscious appreciation of the fact that one event follows another is of a different kind from our awareness of either event separately.[3]

He goes on to argue that for this problem the solution—an ability to extract the reality of succession from a collection of events—comes from a special power which we possess of time perception, a sort of sixth sense. I would here like to suggest that such a power can be found in the imagination, which is capable of gathering and presenting images or moments both singly and in succession.

It is at this point, having given a rough outline of the duality of time and the importance of the moment for the experience of it, that we come to the second part of this essay: a proposal for how the imagination enables man to recognize temporal passage. To define the imagination is certainly beyond the scope of this essay; for now it is sufficient to state that, whatever the imagination is, in large part it has to do with images and facilitating our experience of them. This much is evident from the name itself, with imago as its stem. Further—and this is of great significance for man’s awareness of time—the imagination connects those images, allowing them to be linked, to be experienced in series or succession.

As with many theses dealing with the philosophy of mind, proof can be an elusive thing, for it involves finding common examples of mental realities, examples of what are inherently subjective experiences. It is for this reason that we turn now to sculpture and bronze casting as visual expressions of the imagination at work, because they are common, objective images, images which we can look at together and trust that we are seeing generally the same thing. These pieces of art are only approximations and reflections of the human imagination, it must be admitted, and, further, any description or reading of them which I can offer will again return us to some extent to the realm of subjective experience. With those caveats, however, I believe that a careful investigation of the works I have selected can still prove fruitful for our understanding of the relationship between the imagination and time.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Apollo and Daphne”

First, we look to Bernini’s marvelous Apollo and Daphne statue, which depicts the encounter in Ovid’s Metamorphoses of those same two characters. A brief summary might be helpful: In this myth, Cupid, enraged by the boasting and taunting of the god Apollo, inflicts his antagonist Apollo with an insatiable desire for the naiad Daphne. At the same time, Cupid strikes the unsuspecting naiad with a lead arrow, which causes her to reject all of Apollo’s advances. Impelled by his lust, Apollo makes chase, while Daphne vigorously tries to escape. At the last moment, just as her pursuer is about to catch her, she desperately cries out to her father, a river god, “mutando perde figuram!” wishing him to change her shape entirely, lest she be defiled. Daphne’s prayers answered, she begins to turn into a tree at the precise moment when Apollo catches her, and it is this dramatic transformation that Bernini chose to carve into white marble.

We turn, then, to the statue itself. Much could be said in admiration of this piece, but we will attempt to confine our description to what is pertinent to the issue of time. The two figures, pictured in mid-flight, are closely intertwined, Apollo caught in a forward motion, while Daphne has a more upward, diagonal trajectory to her movement, as if leaping up and away from the sun god. There is clearly a motion expressed here, a motion which is made even more explicit by the fact that there are two, distinct directions to that motion, with one figure pulling away from the other. At the same time, however, there is a certain stasis or grounded-ness to the statue; indeed, the trunk of a tree is reaching up and enveloping Daphne, fixing her to itself. This tension between motion and stasis is further emphasized if we look to the two legs of Apollo: his left leg is the leg of a runner, flying out behind him, while his right leg is pressing into the earth, and the bark of the swift-growing tree has already begun to cover his right foot, trapping it in place. Bernini has managed to carve in one statue both the chase and the capture, the running and as well as a single moment from that run.

The actual metamorphosis of Daphne from nymph to tree may be an even more striking instance of the tension between the change of temporal motion and the fixity of the moment. Her fingers reach out, each sprouting twigs and leaves, although still recognizably flesh and blood. Her toes extend downward, becoming roots, bonding with the soil below. Sheets of bark, wrapped closely about, already cover nearly half of her body. Daphne is changing, there is no doubt of that, and we can sense the motion of that change in her wind-swept hair and the still incomplete transformation, but we are also aware that what is before us is a single snapshot of that change, a single moment. This is, after all, a statue of unmoving marble, a fixed image. By placing the change in tension with the moment, Bernini has presented us an analogy, and perhaps to some extent an example, of the workings of the imagination, which is similarly capable of gathering motion from still images, and somehow holding onto both realities at once.

One of the panels in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”

The imagination, however, is not always limited to single images, as the Apollo and Daphne statue is, for it can also arrange images in a series, further aiding its ability to provide an experience of temporal motion. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise doors, and in particular the “Adam and Eve panel,” will serve as a visual example of what this chronological series can look like. This panel, one of the ten which make up the massive bronze doors from the Florentine Baptistry, captures the Genesis story up through the eviction from the Garden of Eden. At the bottom left is the creation of Adam, with God seeming to pull the first man out of the very dust. In the center of the panel is the corresponding creation of Eve, who is similarly drawn out of the prone form of Adam, surrounded by a choir of admiring angels. Moving to the top left, we see the temptation and fall, with the guileful serpent interposed between the first parents. Finally, in the diagonal stretching from top middle towards the bottom right of the casting, we have the eviction of the shamed Adam and Eve out through the gates of Paradise, with God the Father giving judgement, surrounded by a troop of attending angels.

In a manner not unlike that of Achilles’ marvelous shield, which exhibited many different images at once, Ghiberti has also crafted a series of images, each leading into the next, which yet present as a single image, capable of being viewed at once. Note how the transition from image to image is often fluid, such that it is not always clear when one ends and another begins, much as time itself flows continuously from moment to moment, without abrupt transitions. There is clearly a unified and coherent narrative to the panel. At the same time, nevertheless, there are distinct images, separate and discrete elements of the story, such that the creation of Adam is not the same as the creation of Eve, and both are separate from the scene with the serpent. These elements of the story are in a few places made clearly separate, and especially by the hard borders provided by the two arches of adoring angels, one arch around each creation scene. The various story-elements of Ghiberti’s panel are, therefore, much like moments of time, each of which was once a “present moment.” It is, I propose, the imagination, our power of seeing images, which is able to capture these separate moments of time and unify them into a single narrative, much as the master artist here combines several successive scenes into one.

We began this essay with a quote from Boethius concerning the different ways in which God and earthly creatures experience time. God, he states, lives in an “ever present immobility,” while temporal creation “sinks from immobility into motion, and falls from the simplicity of the present to the infinite stretch of future and past.” Notice how temporal being “sinks from immobility,” indicating that, even in its experience of motion, of “future and past,” that motion is somehow based in a more fundamental immobility. Could it, then, be too much to suggest that, although earthly time does not succeed in “equaling” God’s life, it yet possesses in the “present moment” a taste of divine time, of divine immobility? This would imply that the imagination, by taking discrete moments, or images of moments—reflections of divine immobility—and placing them in chronological succession, is not only enabling the human experience of time as motion, but is also enabling a small participation in the eternal present of the divine. Much as Achilles’ remarkable shield was a gift from the gods, a gift which strengthened his connection with divinity, so too the imagination is a gift to creatures, one which provides an experiential link between the immobility of God’s life and moving, human time.

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[1] Gregorii Nysseni Opera, ed. Werner Jaeger et al. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960-96), I.246.

[2] T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” in Four Quartets (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968), II.

[3] “On the Nature of Time,” Whitrow, 323.

Images credits:

The featured image is a photograph of a detail of Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” in the Gallery Borghese in Rome taken by Wikimedia user Alvesgaspar (who does not necessarily agree with the ideas found in this essay, nor those found in The Imaginative Conservative in general) and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The image has been slightly modified for color, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Apollo and Daphne” (CC BY-SA 4.0; photograph by Wikimedia user Architas; the image has been slightly modified for color, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

One of the panels in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (CC BY-SA 2.5; authored by Wikimedia user Thermos; the image has been slightly modified for color, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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