And then I thought: each thing follows each other thing at the same time: precisely, precisely now.
—JORGE LUIS BORGES, “The Garden of the Forking Paths”
FIXING THE FEEL OF TIME in the Anthropocene may only be possible with help from the poets. Here, recklessly mixed, are three of my favorites: William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Jorge Luis Borges. They give access to the riotous pluralities that make up the present instant.
What time is the Anthropocene? Iago’s time: “Now, now, very now!” (1.1.87).
This now is out of joint. That’s what Anthropocene means: not that humans control the world, but that we have tangled our contacts with personal and geological time. The time of now is not a displaced bone that can be put right, not an inexplicable swerve, not a passing phase. Ideas and objects dissolve under our fingers. Fantasies in which culture exists apart from nature disintegrate. However we look, backward or forward into catastrophe, the leering visage of Old Man Anthropos looms. He corrupts everything, including the past. But he isn’t —which is to say, we, or at least some of us, aren’t—monolithic. Global climactic disruptions accent human frailty. Our dissolved and dissolving environment validates the posthuman critique that kneecaps Man’s dreams of power. But the human does not crave mastery only. Humanism and the humanities also speak for a dream of justice to which it is worth clinging, even if we can no long credit the control fantasies of any Age of Man. Living in Anthropocene dissolution requires inventing new ways to experience time. Why not swim in time or fly through it, since living at a plodder’s pace seems so constricted?
Anthropocene names a grinding reality and perhaps an impossible task, but its temporality swirls in both directions, as Rob Nixon has noted, “the past of slow violence is never past, [and] so too the post is never fully post.” Environmental justice requires openness to multiplicity. The Anthropocene names a pluralizing disorientation of our experience of time. How can we conceptualize the immediacy and also the apparent endlessness of an epoch that may have begun fifty years or ten thousand years ago but will clearly extend into many thousand years of climatological aberration? What does time feel like in this new dispensation?
Between Shakespeare, Dickenson, and Borges, now proves a slippery fish. Reading the Renaissance dramatist, nineteenth-century poet, and early twentieth-century fiction writer together provides insight into the human difficulties of chronological experience. The imaginative spear these writers co-compose focuses itself into the oblique power of Dickinson’s envelope poems, ephemeral art built from scraps and words. Reading these three writers together rebuilds now into dizzying plurality.
Stirring up trouble outside his boss’s father-in-law’s Venetian apartment, Iago imagines time as a sticky fluid, staining what it touches. Now in his dramaturgy forces absent things into presence, so that the eloped couple’s nuptial bed appears in the city streets. He drives the vision into the sleepy father’s eyes:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe! Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you (1.1.87–90)
The pun between the “ewe” that is Desdemona and the “you” that is Brabantio as grandfather to devilspawn emphasizes how Iago’s immediacy entangles human self-conceptions. Brabantio, not less than the other “snorting citizens,” cannot arise fast enough to stop now. The devil, one of many racist formulations Iago generates for his superior officer Othello, owns the future. He “will make” Branbantio’s descendants. Within this now, alternatives are impossible. Like climate change, Iago occupies all possible futures.
The contaminated now of Iago’s rant beneath Brabantio’s window also defines time’s horizontal expanse in the metafiction of Jorge Luis Borges. In his story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” a World War I murder mystery maps onto the discovery of an ancient work whose title replicates that of Borges’s story. The English Sinologist Stephen Albert informs the story’s narrator, Yu Tsun, that he owns a copy of the book The Garden of the Forking Paths, which comprises “an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time” (27). The forking paths are the work of the ancient Chinese master Ts’ui Pen, and by an improbable coincidence Yu Tsun, the narrator, is himself a descendent of Pen, as well as being a German spy who urgently needs to pass a secret message to his allies on the Continent. The nested coincidences represent time’s massive plurality, its options and impossibilities. Borges’s richly ironic structure contrasts Ts’ui Pen’s infinite labyrinth of time with the narrator’s monomaniac violence. “I fired with extreme caution,” Yu Tsun declaims passively, “I swear [Albert’s] death was instantaneous—a lightning stroke” (28–29). The horizontal breadth of an infinite maze contrasts against the instantaneous strike of the killer’s bullet. The bullet also communicates vertically to the German Air Force, which, having been informed of the name of their target by the murder of a man named Albert, bombs the city while Yu Tsun languishes in prison for murder. When do the deaths happen? Yu Tsun awaits the gallows, Albert dies in a lightning instant, the bombs fell “yesterday” (29), the Great War grinds on—and when Borges published this story, in 1941, a second iteration of the Anglo-German conflict raged in Europe. All these nows are out of joint.
At the speculative core of “The Garden of the Forking Paths” sits the subjective experience of temporal multiplicity. Twice in the tale the narrator describes a “swarming sensation” (28). When Albert reads aloud from Ts’ui Pen’s magnum opus, the narrator feels an “invisible, intangible swarming” (27). Later, just before killing Albert, Yu Tsun feels the multiplicity again: “It seemed to me that the humid garden that surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons. Those persons were Albert and I, secret, busy and multiform in other dimensions of time” (28). Even earlier Yu Tsun had hinted at this multitudinous sensation when walking toward Albert’s house: “The afternoon was intimate, infinite” (23). A world-idea in which the endless equals the near: that chronological humidity and denseness typify Yu Tsun’s experience, both as spy who believes his nemesis has ensnared him, and as reader of his ancestor’s book. When will the inevitable happen? Everyone, not just Iago, knows the answer: now.
Shakespeare’s Othello is infamous among literary critics for its “double time scheme” that implies that the events in the drama either cover some months, leaving time for the purported affair between Desdemona and Cassio, or barely last one full day, since the newlyweds’ progress to their wedding night gets interrupted twice—in Venice by Iago’s rant, and in Cyprus by Cassio’s drunkenness—before playing itself out as murder in the marital bed. The simplest response to the multiple misfirings of time appears in the words of the wife with the “demon” in her name. “When shall he come?” Desdemona pesters her husband after he has banished Cassio, “Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul / What you would ask me that I should deny / Or stand so mamm’ring on?” (3.3.67–69). Desdemona’s when institutes human choices in place of the endless swarming closeness of Iago’s now. Her specific choice of time opposes the forking gardens of Ts’ui Pen. Desdemona imagines that it’s possible to choose a time and act accordingly. It seems a good plan, and perhaps a good model for taking environmental action today. But the burden of when proves insupportable in the play.
Nearly four hundred lines after Desdemona’s hopeful when, after crashing through a long waterfall of a scene that takes our hero from loving husband to homicidal killer, Othello names the time that is right for him:
Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er keeps retiring ebb but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont:
Even so my bloody thoughts with violent pace
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Shallow them up (3.3.456–63)
Othello’s tragic firmness draws its metaphoric force from his untypical example of a sea whose tide runs only one way. The impossibility of this ebb-less ocean marks the Moor as refusing to accept the world as it exists; he substitutes violence and revenge for human and geographic rhythms. Like a modern climate denier, he rages over the physical realities of his world. No ebb means neither time nor tide can sway him, leaving him trapped inside Iago’s recursive now.
The figure in Borges for Othello’s bloody and linear focus is neither the murderous German spy nor his doomed Sinophile host but instead the Irish policeman who tracks Yu Tsun to the garden. Like Othello, “Madden was implacable. Or rather, he was obliged to be so” (19). In fact, Madden also resembles Othello in that his ethnicity makes him suspect: “An Irishman in the service of England, a man accused of laxity and perhaps of treason, how could he fail to seize and be thankful for [the] miraculous opportunity” (19–20) that exposing the German spy affords. Madden hovers around the outside of Borges’s narrative; the fall of his footsteps entering the garden spurs Yu Tsun’s bullets. Later Madden facilitates the narrator’s transfer to the waiting gallows. In Borges’s miniature narrative, which eschews both melodrama and the massive chronological sprawl of Ts’ui Pen’s novel, never plays only a minor role. The project of the story centers on “the abysmal problem of time” (27), and it is exactly that problem that men of violence like Othello and Madden fail to perceive.
Contrition (Yu Tsun)
In place of the heroic and rhetorically dense deaths that Shakespeare’s tragedy stages for his audience, Borges’s Yu Tsun waits for the noose not with fear or rage but with “innumerable contrition and weariness” (29). He does not resemble voluminous Othello or other tragic heroes who orate their own demises, though in a sense he occupies the strange already-dead position of Hamlet who, feeling the poison working in his veins, cries, “I am dead, Horatio” (5.2.317) while still speaking. The prince of Denmark, like Yu Tsun, speaks from beyond life and thus beyond the debt mortality owes to chronology. The particular insights into time that Borges’s story unfolds derive at least partially from this peculiar position: Yu Tsun has acted decisively, killing Albert and succeeding in his espionage mission, but he overstays his time. Having been granted a vision through the garden of the forking paths of the endless possibility of times-not-yet-begun, he ends mired in the exhaustion and regret of time-that-has-passed. The contrition of Yu Tsun, like the faint English pun of his name (“you soon”), fixes the limits of human temporal engagement. Time may open endlessly, but it closes with the hangman’s noose or the barrel of a gun.
The poetic solution to time’s hostile enclosures isn’t only finding the sea marks through which we must steer our fragile bark. Neither Iago’s angry now, Desdemona’s forlorn when, Othello’s enraged never, nor even Yu Tsun’s melancholy contrition solves the Anthropocene’s time riddle. But there is a way through time, at the point a poet’s spear.
More perhaps than any Anglophone poet, Dickinson matches environmental disorder with her own partial, individual, and flexible order. Human language, especially the semiprivate idiosyncratic language of Dickinson’s poems, measures out a fractured response to the nonhuman dynamism we have recently begun naming Anthropocene. Against global catastrophe and the tyrannous rage of the Old Man, Dickinson’s “envelope poems,” written on oddly-shaped scraps of paper that were found in her desk alongside her manuscript fascicles after her death, assert fragmentary claims. One in particular, written in increasingly shortened lines leading down to the envelope fragment’s triangular point, isolates the temporary, bounded, language-given force of human actions operating inside nonhuman constraints. Enclosed by time, mortality, and a physical page that grows more and more narrow, Dickinson announces and defers her authority:
That “much” and “little” represent the intertwined forces of destructive Anthropos and redemptive Humanity, except that the Human isn’t only redemptive and Anthropos not only destructive. Neither controls the whole poem or whole Anthropocene world. Instead the poet’s final word, wedged into the point of the envelope spear that would have been aimed directly at the seated writer’s stomach, reads “power.” That human and posthuman power enables the writing of new narratives out of old poems in our environmentally unstable present.