Borges’ “New Refutation of Time,” and Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return,” rest on the same thing (for “thing” we could read “fact” or “error”): that the world of language has no way of conceptualizing the world of experience that can fit into itself (that can “comprehend”) time. Our system of concepts as well as our vocabulary is too poor. We simply cannot say what we intuit regarding time in an irrefutable fashion.
A close look at Borges’ essay reveals how tricky the problem is: is it according to experienced that time exists or according to intellection? Experience tells us both that time exists and that time does not exist. Borges walks down the streets around his old neighborhood. One moment succeeds another. He stops at a wall,
I kept looking at this simplicity. I thought…: This is the same as thirty years ago… Perhaps a bird was singing and for it I felt a tiny affection, the same size as the bird; but the most certain thing was that in this now vertiginous silence there was no other sound than the intemporal one of the crickets. The easy thought ‘I am in the eighteen-nineties’ cased to be a few approximate words and was deepened into a reality. I felt dead, I felt as an abstract spectator of the word; an indefinite fear…. I did not fear that I had returned upstream on the supposed waters of Time; rather I suspected that I was the possessor of a reticent or absent sense of the inconceivable word eternity.
It is the same thing expressed by Keats, “Thou wast not born for death immortal bird.” Borges also experiences this eternity, as do we all, he tells us, in music and other “human moments,” such as suffering and pleasure, moments repeated exactly from one person to another, moments, we might add (contra Bakhtin) that are the basis for art and language, when identity fades and different experiences lose their difference.
Time is experienced as successive and eternal, as existing and as not existing. In language it is posited as the only explanation for phenomena and yet it is uncapturable, inexpressible. It must be posited because it cannot be shown to exist at all. (To call it “self-evident” is to say the same thing in a disingenuous way, trying to erase the very problem—not visible to language.) Time’s existence and time’s nonexistence are both part of both language and experience, but as four nonoverlapping circles.
This cannot imply that our experience is true and our intelligence is false. But it does mean that we have to choose which to accept before we can choose how to respond. (How could one stay neutral here?) Let’s choose, provisionally, momentarily, experience over language not for no reason, but only because it’s more interesting to do so. It leaves us more to say.
This problem of the inadequacy of language to its presumed object is of course not limited to the comprehension of time. This inadequacy of language to match experience (subjectivity) or the world (objectivity) accounts for the whole being and frustration of philosophy as well as literature. It’s demonstrable, for example, of the infamous cogito, the so-called foundational statement of modern philosophy. The statement itself has become ragged for all the darts tossed at it: I think, therefore I am. In its favor, it functions as well as statement can to capture the experience of being. But it does not make logical sense—it fails in terms of language. So here’s the point: contradiction is the sine qua non of statement. Go back through these very paragraphs and graph the contradictions.
In his “New Refutation,” Borges makes the marvelous statement that night pleases because it “suppresses idle details, just as memory does.” Reading—in fact any comprehension of language—requires darkness as well as light. All coherence, all meaning, is washed out if the reader comprehends the full scope of every word. Every word is a potential metonymy. And every statement is a riddle of contradictions that must be ignored for the reception of the thread meaning that runs through it under the fabric of noise. All understanding requires the good faith and hard work of the receiving brain.