Can We Imagine Timeless Experience?
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Can We Imagine Timeless Experience?

Lucretius is perhaps the most celebrated exponent of the view that the human desire for a timeless state is incoherent. His argument depends on a simple intuition. Everything we feel, we feel in time. Time shapes every aspect of our experience; time gives our experiences their very shape and texture. Temporal finitude, that thing we think we dread, is in fact the deep source of everything we love; the ephemerality of kisses or roses invests them with value. As Wallace Stevens puts the Lucretian point, “Death is the mother of beauty” (1990, 69).

With a little reflection, Lucretian common sense is available to us all. Each one of us, in the midst of some experience, has thought “I wish this would last forever.” Now, at first we might think that this wish has an object. We might think that when we wish an experience were immune to time we are wishing [End Page 91] for something. When we wish for money or fame, for example, we are wishing for something. Why shouldn’t that be the case here?

But Lucretius instructs us that we are mistaken, and that to wish for an experience to last forever is in fact to wish for nothing. Imagine you’re driving in the car, listening to a great song. Suddenly you think, “I wish this would last forever.” Now reflect, what is the object of your desire? Start small. Imagine the song continuing to play for just six or seven hours. You get home, get out of the car. The song continues to play. You go to the bathroom. The song drones on. You cook dinner. You try to watch television. You collapse exhausted on the bed. The song remains the same.

This brings up another problem. How exactly does the song remain the same? The song has a beginning, middle, and end. What part of the song is supposed to last forever? The meaning and being of each part—the very sound of each note—depends on what comes before and after. Do you want to listen to a single note stretched out forever? Would a single note still be the song? Would listening to a single note have anything in common with your experience of listening to the song?

Perhaps at this point you might say, “Forget about the song. I just want this feeling I’m having right now to last forever.” So think about this feeling. How will you feel as it lasts? Is your heart beating? Are you breathing? If so, then time continues; if not, then it’s not the feeling you’re having right now. And if time continues, other questions arise. Do you carry the feeling home with you, through dinner and the rest? Are you able to sleep with this feeling? Do you get hungry? Do you get bored?

This series of questions suggests that our desire to lift an experience out of time is a desire without an object. To remove an experience from time would be to destroy its nature as experience. We can only experience things in time. Therefore to want a timeless experience is really to want something that is simultaneously in time and out of time. When we say that we want a song to last forever, we want something we can’t even imagine.

We might be tempted at this point to conclude that because we can’t even imagine what the object of our desire for a time-resistant experience could be, we don’t actually have such a desire. But this is obviously false. We’ve all wanted some experience to last forever. Writers and philosophers have meditated [End Page 92] on the paradoxes of this longing for centuries. Schiller calls it the desire to “annul time within time” (1967, 97). Augustine offers the image of a hand “laying hold” of a human heart to refer to the mysterious object of his wish to fuse stasis and motion (2009, 228). Augustine’s image does not in fact make the object of our longing for timeless time imaginable, however. Rather, it simply projects the contradictions of this desire...