Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Essay on the Order of Time

On the mountain a man said to his son, All this has to do with eons of time, water over and over, just cutting and cutting the rock. While the verb most often associated with eons of time is to cut, as to the ever-present question of when the mountain was first born and how it will die, that is not about cutting but rather about swell, specifically that of magma. At both its birth and its eventual death, the mountain’s temporality is unfixed, by which I mean it is both ongoing and conclusive.

Here is an explication by way of analogy. I am composed of cysts that are made of dead blood. If they are excised, they return. If a hole is cracked into one and the blood spooned out, the shell will refill. Not all of them will always be made of dead blood. At least one will turn into rock, and that will be the one that will need at all costs to be scaled and defaced. It will then become something new, and, if the alteration is successful, it will become the same as what it once was.

In The Order of Things, Foucault writes that man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end . . . one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. This statement is not unlike All this has to do with eons of time, water over and over, just cutting and cutting the rock. They are most similar in cadence and rhythm, which in both phrases balance surety with spectral doubt. One of their main differences: Foucault’s accommodates magma, and strange time.

The original title of The Order of Things is Les mots et les choses, or Words and Things. The substitution of Order for Words speaks to one of our most pervasive myths, that words have a clear order. A similar myth underwrites the substitution of and with of, as though there is an orderly kingdom of syntax conducive to organizational subordination. Here is an explication by way of experiment: imagine the man’s phrase, but replace and with of: All this has to do with eons and time.

This idea that there is an order of things often reveals its illusory nature, particularly when the conversation turns to death. For example, in the edition I own of T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, many of the captions for images of Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake are erroneously punctuated. Some of them end with commas in lieu of periods, and at least one ends with nothing, rendered as “Detail of Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

All of the other captions are end-stopped, like so: “Detail of Landscape with a Calm.” Albeit presumably unintentional, the insinuation is that calm produces a discrete end, whereas there is no border for death or its sightings. This feels loosely analogous to Foucault’s decision to title his book, which ends with the disappearance of man, Les mots et les choses. In both cases, however, the myth is so strong that its counterargument vanishes, or is termed errata, like a cyst.

The opposite insinuation is made in the following story, which I first heard from a man at the end of a violin concerto: after a beloved dies, one must lock the door to one’s house. One must seal in the ghost. Here, the argument is that death requires the most discrete borders of all things, and that there is a clear order to how it functions as an event in time. The concerto was in honor of a poet who had recently died. To face this loss, this man required the myth of order.

Experiment, continued: Just cutting of cutting the rock, sand at the edge and the sea, water over of over. The face of sand leaves the beach. The currents carry it elsewhere, depositing it on another sand bank as an object lesson in the borderless nature of death. And so in that Elsewhere, in another shape, a face of sand is rearranged into a dune, or a cliff, or a mountain, some structure so seemingly harmless that even children think it is there for them to climb.  

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