On Time, Memory, and Reconciliation

Several things have converged in the last few days to make me think about time, memory, and reconciliation. But it’s not an easy topic! St. Augustine had it right: “If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it, I don’t know.” But he tried and so do we. Here’s the convergence: In Red Clay, Blood River, we experience the enormous disparity between earth time and our own. How do we fit our horizon of action into Earth’s? How do our collective memories find a place in earth’s? How does our tiny story fit into Earth’s story? In the novel, what earth experiences as simultaneous we inevitably string out into some story line that distorts the relationships earth experiences. We don’t sense co-occurrence and therefore the system of relationships in which all things occur.

Second, President Obama changes the US government’s stand on stem cell research, touching once again on the issue of when life begins. That is, when does any particular life begin? Does “it” begin at a moment or does life itself evolve into full being? To the side stands the door marked “What is life?” What is human life? What is a person? When does a person gain ethical and legal claims? I have some observations about this puzzle but won’t present them here.

Third, I have been studying John Paul Lederach’s stimulating little volume, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford, 2005). In a chapter “On Time” he discusses how indigenous peoples usually see time in terms of a circle in which the ancestors – our past – are also the future we move toward. They are in the present with us just as future generations are here as well as we struggle with our decisions and actions. Conflicts can be transformed toward reconciliation only if we can engage the time-world and stories in which people live. We have to engage the lived, remembered, and primordial narratives of people’s lives, including their traumatic memories. It is the traumatic memories as well as the effervescent, emotionally positive memories that are much closer to us than even recent but routine events. This is decisive in terms of understanding the struggles in Israel/Palestine as well as in the US since September 11, 2001.

Some years ago (or was it yesterday?) I touched on this issue in my book on God’s Federal Republic (Paulist, 1988). In the context of working out a political theory of federal republicanism I wrote “Time is not so much a one-way track as it is an arena in which the incandescence of the most energized publicity is at the center (regardless of the deeds’ position on a chronological track) and the lesser lights of deprivation, secrecy and tyranny recede beyond the seats into the night of isolation and amnesia.” (p. 94-95) By “publicity” I meant a full appearance in a public world that both confirms our existence but also requires our vulnerability.

The way I would see it today is that this intense “publicity” that anchors time, like a sun drawing matter into it, is also what we call love or reconciliation. This process of reconciliation is like a gravitational field that shapes time around us, just as Einstein’s argument that light itself bends into gravitational fields. It is in this sense that intense love, intense reconciliation, “stops” time in our usual sense and becomes what the philosophers call “the eternal.” In the novel, as I see it now, Earth is a kind of representative of this intense desire of reconciliation that draws time into it so that our normal one-way track thinking about birth and death is overcome.

That’s enough to chew on for now. I may come back to this again. Your thoughts are always appreciated “out there.”

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2 Responses to On Time, Memory, and Reconciliation

  1. Thanks, Jyoti, for your reflection. Readers may want to visit your site at http://www.jyotiartashram.blogspot.com to get a picture of what you are doing. Over the past twenty years or so people all over the world have been struggling to recover their memory and construct a collective narrative to enable them to act in the face of strange and threatening changes all around us. Unfortunately, we have been caught in the memory work and have not been able to take the next step of constructing a narrative that leads to reconciliation. In Red Clay, Blood River, I struggled with this challenge, drawing attention to the need for reconciliation with Earth in order to advance human reconciliation. I believe that is starting to happen, not only in your own art but in social, political, and eco-nomic life. But there is much to do. In the academic work, Religion, Federalism, and the Struggle for Public Life (Oxford 1997), I tried to expose the religious dynamics hindering as well as helping this struggle for a mroe adequate federalism to link smaller and larger networks of human cooperation. In both cases, creative artistic life in community is a crucial element.

  2. Jyoti Sahi says:

    Just been reading “Paths in Utopia” by Martin Buber. There is a chapter which has particularly interested me on Kropotkin. Gandhi was particularly interested in Kropotkin’s concepts regarding “mutual aid” as a basis for civilized society. Personally i have been interested in these ideas as a basis for arts and crafts cooperatives. I believe that creativity comes out of a shared enterprise, like the way in which the great Cathedrals and temples of the past were not the work of the individual genius working alone, but rather through a cooperative exercise, that also involved the whole community. I think that this was the underlying reason why the Bauhaus in Germany was so successful, and also Tagore’s experiment in Shantiniketan (the Kala Bhavan was started in 1919, the same year as the Bauhaus), and also Gandhi’s principle of Sarvodaya on which he based his Ashrams. I have been trying to understand how an art ashram can function not just as a place where individual artists can develop their personal skills, but as a coming together of people who mutually inspire each other. The problem seems to be what Kropotkin and others recognized as a Collective Ego. In our work in what was termed “inculturation” I became very conscious of the power of an impulse which might be termed “nationalism” or even “tribalism” where a collective ego loses sight of the universal. We are facing this more and more in India with the rise of nationalist and regional cultures which seem to evolve into a closed world of a collective identity that is no longer open to influences from the “other”. I think this is now for me the great problem of a kind of federalism where local identities begin to feel threatened by what is perceived a a globalized culture that denies freedom of space to the local initiative, and creativity. I would be interested to know what others feel about this trend, especially in relation to the link between art, craft and ethics. For example, in my work over the last twenty years working with different tribal groups across the Indian subcontinent, I was conscious of a deep suspicion of anything which was felt to compromise the particular political and cultural identity of a very self conscious community with a sense of being oppressed and marginalized. The same problem seems to emerge very much in what has now become a growing concern for “Dalit” identity.

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