The Time/Space Continuum
Temporal life, in one of St. Augustine’s unforgettable coinages, is a living death, a dying life. This is not intended to be dark, so let’s not go there. Let’s follow this thread a bit further. To live as a child one must die to one’s infancy. To live as an adolescent one must die to one’s childhood. And so on to that final divestment when we die to old age and step into the life after death. See, reality not darkness.
In his famous meditation on eternity and time in the eleventh book of The Confessions, Augustine shows the same thing is true of our every passing moment. Let’s apply this famous insight to revisit our knowledge as singers, moving from consonant to vowel, vowel to consonant, and the like.
In this context our life is like a line of poetry. The first syllable, even the first portion of the first syllable must necessarily die away in order for the second mini-portion to begin its own fleeting existence. But what does this kind of thinking have to do with the present moments of our existence? In The Confessions Augustine toys with the notion that the present moment might have no duration at all.
Singers, sound familiar?
But some years later he came to see that strictly speaking there is no such thing as a durationless instant: “I look for a present moment, But nothing stands still. What I have spoken no longer exists. What I am about to say does not yet exist. Talk about changing things, and all you can find is WAS, and WILL BE. But talk about God and you will find only IS.”
Let’s apply Augustine’s own example of the syllable. Think of how you pronounce the very word, “time.” The “T” must stop sounding in order for the “I” to sound, and thereon for the “M,” and the “E,” which doesn’t sound at all. Another pedagogical truth for singers: we sing only one sound at a time.
Trying to locate the precise moment when the “T” stops sounding, and the “I” begins is as contradictory as inserting a gap of silence into an unbroken flow of sound. If we try to imagine the present as an indivisible instant that is neither past nor future, we soon realize that such an instant could have no thickness, no duration whatever. It would be an instant out of time, not a moment of and in time.
Even the word, “instant,” which comes from the Latin word for “stand” is deceptive. It caters to the illusion that we might discover some moment in time which actually stands still.
But the truth about our temporal existence is that we never do stand still. We are radically unstable. We’re like someone swept along by a river in flood. Our feet flail about trying to touch bottom, so we can take a stand. But the bottom is beyond our reach. Indeed the terrifying thought is that there may be no bottom at all. Once again, music is the perfect parallel metaphor. And I have heard more than one great singer liken their best performance as one where their feet were off the ground.
Hereclitus, centuries before, had pointed to the same experience. “You cannot step twice into the same river. For other, and yet other waters are flowing on. Other things enter the same river, and other waters pour in upon them.”
Augustine comes close to outdoing Hereclitus. If we carry Augustine’s thought to its logical conclusion we may say that, “you can’t step into the same river even once.” I liken this to a singer’s realization that the life of a singer is one breath, and you don’t dare to sing the next breath of music like any former breath.
So Augstine’s brilliance conveys a sense of insecurity, or vertigo, of stomach wrenching panic. That seizure of angst, to borrow a modern word, is very much part of Augustine’s feeling of time and temporal existence. Not dark, only thought provoking.
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