an entry from A Whaler's Dictionary

by Dan Beachy-Quick


Time grants us the simple goodness of life, but also takes it away. We change and we witness change in the world, and both types of flux occur within time. While we live the world exists for us, and though none can say if the world ceases to exist when we've ceased to exist, there can be no doubt that when I die my world is gone. Time reminds us to look as all we love passes before us as we ourselves pass away. No instance of time diminshes Time, but in time we diminish. Add time to space, and we can near that which we love, we can cross distance to grasp that which has caught our affection—across time we can speak. A syllable contains a second. A word moves from mind to mouth, from mouth to ear, and then from ear into the other's mind. The spoken word and the word remembered exist differently in time. A word gathers meaning in memory as a bee gathers sweetness in a hive—the residue after the flight. Expression is a temporal activity before it is a linguistic one. Even approach is a form of evanescence.


Time is, as Kant notes, "nothing else than the form of the internal sense, that is, of the intuitions of self and of our internal state." Time gains reality within us. We cannot perceive time in the objects of the world, but we do perceive the objects of the world within time. Witness is a mortal activity; the mortal is he who sees. What he sees—the world's phenomena—may or may not be mortal. We witness the witness. But as we cannot know another's knowing, so we cannot see another's sight. We express what we see and listen to others express what they see, and so we unfold the interior reality in which we perceive and think into an outer world another recognizes, thinks of, participates in. The word carries forward world by virtue of language's inherent ability to transfer time as it transfers meaning.

We express something of our mortality when we speak of what we love, what we think, what we see. Those we speak to listen mortally. We do not recognize in each other time so much as we recognize time in ourselves. No person's life is as real to us as our own life is. If there is such a thing as the "suspension of disbelief," it is not a fictive quality so much as it is a quality of faith. To think another's life is as real as my own is to suspend my disbelief. Knowledge is not fact, but rather this stranger, less empirical, doubtful activity of such faith. I do not know the world, but in knowing myself know the world. Likewise of that other who is not me—my friend, my wife, my child. A transcendent moment may be a simple concept: the mutually creative point at which a world expressed and a world received coincide in time. I speak out the world within the reality of subjective time that makes my world possible, and you listen from your own time, from the depth and singularity of your own subjectivity. Transcendence occurs when my world becomes real for you and thus is no longer merely mine, while the perception of this world is no longer merely yours. In becoming real for you, my world gains from your otherness, from your not being me. You shape it as you listen to it.

Such moments betray the easy dichotomy of subject and object, self and world, self and other. Expression and perception merge into a single creative gesture, not timeless but partaking simultaneously of two times, blurring the inevitable confines of our impenetrable selves for a miraculous conjunction in which the world hovers between us, co-created, equally real for both. This world is not removed from time. Rather, like the moment of erotic consummation, it is the world that manages to fuse subjectivity and objectivity, cause and effect, into simultaneous rather than successive qualities. Socrates considers this intermediary space love. The loved world, the erotic world, requires a you and a me to exist—and to exist is to be in time.


Ahab is a man wounded by a whale who seems immortal. To be wounded by such a creature is not to receive a mortal wound so much as it is to receive an immortal one. Ahab's wound will never heal because it is only accidentally a damage to flesh. The immortal wound brings to crisis the dichotomy between exterior and interior, body and soul. Ahab's "quenchless feud" results from the substitution of a temporal reality for an eternal one. That Moby Dick removed Ahab's leg is far less a loss than the wound the whale opened in Ahab's nonbodied self. Ahab is a leaky vessel, not taking in water but leaking as a barrel of oil, the sperm escaping back into the ocean from which it was stolen. Except there is no end to Ahab's leaking, for he is not leaking substance. He is leaking essence; he is leaking soul.

The result of this damage is that Ahab's subjective self has lost its sense of time. Ahab is no longer a temporal man, which is not to say that he is eternal. Ahab no longer has the most basic of human abilities to lend reality to the world through the basic reality of his own subjective sense of time. If there can be an explanation as to why Ahab so willingly sails his crew toward certain death, it is not to be found in questioning his ethics. Ahab has been removed from ethical consideration, for he has ceased to belong to time. Such a cessation of time has removed him from his own humanity. Such a condition is what underlies the absolute honesty of asking, "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" Ahab has lost the ability to distinguish between cause and effect, subject and object. There is no definition of agency because there is no end to it. Ahab is uncertain of himself. He has lost time. And this loss that underlies his lack of self-recognition also conditions his inability to recognize the human lives under his sway. Ahab doesn't hesitate to send all after the white whale because he cannot recognize their mortality. His own rupture from time removes him from the empathic understanding of others' being in time. He cannot see his own death, so how see that for others his mad chase is a mortal question? We cannot guess at a reality that does not emerge from the understanding of our own. Ahab is a man without a world because he is a man without time.

SEE ALSO:  Child, Death, Definition, Infinite/Indefinite, Other, Reciprocity, Time, Wound, You/Thou, Zeno's Paradox


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