May You Live in Epic Times

At most times, in most places, history is busy rhyming with itself. The same holds true of the future: at most times, in most places, the future is busy rhyming with itself. There are always golden and dark ages in the past. There are always utopias and dystopias just beyond the horizon.

The fact that histories and futures rhyme so much, or as I like to think of it, are in rerun mode so much, allows us to inhabit escaped realities that are effectively outside of time. The sort of timeless time that the Greeks associated with their least-known third god of time: Aion. Unlike the better-known Chronos and Kairos, Aion personifies neither objective time, nor subjective time, but timelessness. Aion is the god of the nontemporal eternities, utopian and dystopian, golden and dark. He is the god of cyclicalities and finite games, symbolized by the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Asian time, arguably, is entirely the ahistorical shadow of an Aionic world. Karma is Aion in disguise.

When Aion is ascendant, you can choose to escape reality and live inside the rhymes of the past and future, inhabiting time via Fourier transform, rather than living in the present. In fact, when Aion is strongest, your escapes can be so complete, you even lose awareness of their being escapes. Because there’s nothing new in the present and everything can be found in the rhymes. You can check out completely.

Most humans spend much of their lives living in the commodity non-time of  the Aionic realms, inhabiting escaped realities. Time is something that happens to other people.

But when the future is not like the past, the present becomes unique, and you must actually live in it. At least for a while.

Such times are interesting times. Such times are epic times. And depending on the part you’re called upon to play, they may be cursed times, or blessed times.

I’ve personally lived through two epic times and am living through a third right now. Fortunately, never in a starring role.

The first time around, I was 16, and it was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world changed and I willingly changed with it. The second time around, it was the 9/11 attacks, and the world changed again, and once again, I changed with it, a little more reluctantly. And now, well, we’ll know what this is about  and how I’ve changed when it’s all over.

The first time, I was on the side of the blessed. The second time was a toss-up.

This time around… TBD. It feels like a curse, but maybe it will turn out to be a blessing in disguise somehow. The great thing about the arrhythmia of full-blown temporality is that you don’t know how it will turn out. The rhymes of histories and futures offer no spoilers for epics.

People don’t get this about epics.

The rather surprising thing about the world’s epics is that they are decidedly not timeless. They are about very specific people dealing with very specific inescapable challenges in particular times and places.

Almost nothing that takes place in epic narratives is of any direct relevance to events at other times and places. The Iliad is about a bunch of Greeks besieging a bunch of Trojans over some very specific grievances. The Mahabharata is about a fraternal conflict over a half-mythological kingdom.

What is epic about epics is not their scale, grandeur, or universality of philosophical relevance. Rather, what makes an epic an epic is that it is a story about people who must inhabit a sui generis time and place very intensely, without recourse to escapes into the rhymes of history and future.

Epics are stories about prisoners of time, who cannot escape into comforting reality rhymes. Epics are breaks in the rhyme scheme of history, when the future stops being like the past, and the present is, for a while, entirely unlike anything besides itself.

Epic times feel weird to live through. Reality gets so real, it gets surreal.

One cannot retreat from an epic age by appealing to a larger logic of golden and dark ages that will sort itself out. Nor can one navigate an epic from within a bubble of the as-yet-unnormalized unevenly distributed future.

Epics are irreversible transitions between aeons, those indeterminate stretches of nontemporality that form the canvas of Aionic escaped realities. The long periods of rhyming boredom punctuated by brief moments of arhythmic terror.

An epic is a story of the universe challenging humans to make history, by introducing new rhymes into it. Epics have Aionic consequences, but are not themselves subject to Aionic laws. They rewire our ability to escape reality, but are not themselves escapes from reality.

Epics are singularities of the collective psyche, bottlenecks of the imagination, liminal passages in the evolution of the human condition, newly minted rhymes for the blockpoetry of history.

So during an epic time, we humans cannot retreat to an Aionic railroad siding. You can try, but epic times severely punish retreats into Aionic realms, often with death.

Aion must retreat, and allow Chronos and Kairos battle for temporal supremacy.

Epic Being

I recently saw a picture of the blistered feet of a young child who’s already logged 700 miles walking away from Guatemala, and it struck me: I’ve never, ever had to work that hard just to stay alive. I’m not sure I value my own life enough to work that hard at it, but I definitely don’t want to try finding out.

For a child to undertake a trial so harsh speaks to a kind of life force that most of us enjoying the pleasures of civilized life never experience coursing through our veins. This is élan vital on steroids. This is living with extreme intensity.

This is the opposite of an Aionic being, this is an epic being. His journey is the stuff of future epics; a temporal ur-text of future rhymes.

While there is an Aionic idea to the journey of this young caravaner, that of the United States as a promised land at the other end, I suspect it occupies very little of his attention. While I haven’t ever marched 700 miles, I’ve had blisters on my feet, and I know that the smallest painful blister can easily crowd out the grandest thought of a Manifest Destiny.

A blister on your foot, on a long march, is very much a here-and-now temporal reality that insists on occupying as much attention as it needs. Aionic beings cannot survive blisters, whether they are angels or demons. Epic beings, on the other hand, cannot escape them.

An Aionic being is something of a ghost, an ethereal entity whose presence in reality is a weak shadow of their presence in a timeless realm outside of time.

The opposite of an Aionic being is a temporal being, whose presence in reality has a certain intensity of aliveness to it. And an epic being is a fully alive, maximally intense temporal being living through epic times, making new rhymes.

An epic temporal hero like Arjuna, or Achilles, or our long-marching Guatemalan child, is above all, present in reality, and entirely and almost exclusively alive to its challenges, because all escape has been cut off. The epic hero is the opposite of a ghostly Aionic being.

And it is not just the heroes of epics who must be fully present. So must the cowards. And philosophers and artists, and the sick and the weak. An epic time is a reality roll-call. The only options are present and dead.

You cannot choose to live in an epic time — no sane person would —  but you might find yourself caught up in one. Whether or not you approach reality with courage, you cannot retreat from it. An epic is a story with no exit option besides death.

The song of the promised land can be crowded out, but the blister insists on being heard, and demands a certain intensity of life force in the listener. An epic time is a test of the maximal intensity with which you are capable of willing life itself.

Presence

When the intensity of presence of a character weakens in an epic, we encounter a narrative crisis.

In the Mahabharata for instance, Arjuna decides to step outside of time at the worst possible moment, when he is on the battlefield, with the war about to begin.

That is not a good time to experience an existential crisis.

But the frame structure of the Gita is not an accident: Krishna’s job at that point in space and time is to kick Arjuna back into reality and out of his Aionic funk. He must choose Chronos and Kairos and return to the fray.

To live in epic times is to have very little of the timeless in how you inhabit reality. All your attention is almost entirely absorbed by the twin demands of dealing with external realities and regulating your inner realities in response to keep going. Keep your outer clock synchronized, and your inner clockwork wound.

Chronos, the god of objective, external time, is the personification of the demands of external reality. In Western mythology, Chronos evolved (via a confusion with Cronus) into Saturn, the Roman god of time, who then evolved into the familiar modern figure of Father Time, or Death, in a cloak, holding a scythe.

In Indian and Buddhist mythology, this is Yama, who is also, rather appropriately, Dharmaraja, custodian of the laws of the karmic cycle, book-keeper of points earned and points lost on the temporal plane, guardian of the doors to Aionic realms.

Kairos, the god of subjective, internal time, is the personification of the inner game of regulating your emotions and making choices. He is the god of timeliness, the relentless A/B tester of your will to live. A pair of scales serves as his symbol. Opportunity versus risk. Reward versus loss.

The yin and yang of Kairos and Chronos, the sense of death inexorably setting the pace just somewhere behind you, and with every event turning into a test of your inner reality, with your future hanging in the balance, that’s the temporal life. It’s the very opposite of the ghostly Aionic life.

And when Chronos is only a step behind you, with every moment a Kairos throwdown, and there is no slack at all for Aionic daydreaming or dawdling, that’s living in an epic.

It’s not fun, but neither is it escapable, so you might as well get good at it.

Nerve and Imagination

Thinking about marching for hundreds of miles with blistered feet, I was reminded of a line from a pulp thriller I read as a kid. I think it was by Desmond Bagley, but I’m not sure. In it, the hero must march out of a desert. The sentence describing his inner dialogue has stuck with me all these years. If I recall correctly, it went something like this:

One damn step after the next damn step. One bloody foot after the next bloody foot.

The Aionic being ponders timeless problems. How do we find happiness? How do we seek truth? What is meaning?

Where shall we have lunch? But we just went there last week.

The temporal being just puts one foot in front of the next, navigating the inner and outer challenges presented by every intensely inhabited, rhymeless moment.

The epic temporal being does the same thing, except for 700 miles, with blisters, without a break, and keeps going. Non-epic temporal beings fall by the wayside, claimed early by Chronos.

I’ve often wondered if I have what it takes to do that kind of epic thing, and I very much doubt it.

I have a trait that is a good master and poor slave in Aionic realms but a poor master and good servant in epic times: imagination. It’s not perhaps a very good imagination, but it can reliably transport me away from the here-and-now when I need to escape.

More importantly, it is not an imagination that likes to play servant. It is very much a master, even if only a mediocre one. Which means it turns into a liability during epic times. I know this because I didn’t navigate the last two particularly well, and am not putting up a great showing in this one either.

The problem arises because there are no doors to escape through. Imagination as master, under such conditions, simply scares the possessor to death.

As a servant though, imagination is much more useful during epic times, and can be helpful in figuring out where to plant the next bloody foot. And the next. And the next.

The story of this temporal trudgery only appears repetitive and cyclic from the Aionic perspective. From the epic perspective, each step is a story that requires the injection of imagination. The myth in the myth of Sisyphus is that he is engaged in a repetitive, rhyming task.

So it isn’t imagination per se that is the cause of the weakness, but the casting of imagination as master under conditions that call for epic total presence. Imagination as Aionic temptation rather than one-bloody-step-ahead pathfinder. It is this sort of imagination-as-master that, instead of helping, actively keeps you from taking one damn step after the next, putting one bloody foot after the next. Instead it freezes you in time and space, and eventually Kairos departs, packing away his scales, as Chronos catches up and taps you on the shoulder.

No, this will not do. For temporal times, you need a different master: nerve. A quote from Arthur C. Clarke that I’ve been sharing a lot lately gets at this.

The inescapable conclusion. Nerve lies in seeing the inescapable as inescapable, in seeing the necessity nestling in a haystack of possibility via a next step that must be taken.

To imagine that there might be a better life than being caught in some dystopian cycle of poverty, drugs, and war requires a feat of imagination almost everybody is capable of. To put one bloody foot after another for hundreds of miles to get out of there takes a kind of nerve that very few people have during commodity times, when seductive rhymes keep you captive, but a surprising number of people seem to conjure up during epic times.

To imagine that there might be a better life than some utopian cycle of changeless tedium is even harder, and to voluntarily break out of it requires superhuman boredom.

And when either happens, important problems get solved.

Important Problems

Do you ever have trouble figuring out what is important? Really important? Then you’re not living in epic times.

Epic times are times when importance assessments are such no-brainers, they are reduced to unconscious instinct. And almost all the time, in an epic, the important thing is to put one bloody foot after the next bloody foot.

There is only one important problem in an epic: finding the next step to take.

Imagination finds the foothold, nerve takes the step. Over and over. Never repeating itself, no two steps the same, as you steadily draw away from fatal rhymes. The idea of importance becomes indistinguishable from the idea of simply continuing to exist.

Temporal importance, litigated at every step between Chronos and Kairos, is a very different beast from nontemporal Aionic importance. We sometimes use the terms urgent and important to distinguish the two, but I don’t like this, because the terms separate temporality and consequentiality within an unhelpfully Aionic bias.

Both a toothache and a bathroom emergency are urgent but not important. Climate change is important, but not urgent. At least not at bathroom-emergency time scales, or for that matter at any time scale that humans experience as “urgency” (which is part of the reason it is a difficult problem at all).

But where does the problem of putting one bloody foot after the next bloody foot fall in this 2×2? It is neither important, nor urgent in an Aionic sense, because the distinction doesn’t make sense in condition of intense, perhaps epic, temporality. But it is something more important than importance itself, it is necessary, rather than merely possible. People inside an epic always know what must be done next. Epic conditions are environmental conditions that make the nervy option the only visible one. You accept the inescapable not because you finally see it, but because all escapes have been cut off.

When all escapes have been eliminated, whatever remains, however questionable, becomes necessary.

Or think of it this way: urgency is an Aionic being’s idea of temporal importance. It is a timeless idea of timeliness. Urgency is a temporally stupid person’s idea of living in temporally smart person’s world, by transforming inescapable temporality into unnecessary stress, rather than choosing greater presence, more aliveness.

Or think of it this way: the gods cannot ever truly understand time because they exist outside of it. Q cannot ever truly understand Captain Picard or Janeway. Temporality is how being human can be more powerful than being a god. Gods might have more fun, but only humans can epic.

What you must do for the privilege, is allow nerve be the master of imagination, charging the process of putting one bloody foot after the next with all the vitality, irreversibility, and living intensity you can bring to it.

I suppose this is what the phrase gradatim ferociter really signifies. Step-by-step, ferociously.

Human beings do not generally do this unless forced to by circumstances. At least not normal ones. Perhaps there are naturally epic personalities who inhabit reality with an intense, total presence even without pathways of Aionic escape being cut off. People for whom the only reality is Philip K. Dick reality: that which does not go away when you stop believing in it.

Such people are always fully present because nothing goes away when they stop believing in it.

As for the rest of us, we exist in varying states of Aionic escape from reality, within the timeless rhymes of past and future. Until those pathways of escape are cut off.

And then you too must live in epic times.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I think my parents lived in epic times so that the could keep me in an aionic bubble. I think, taming chronos and kairos, while being in an aionic bubble is a force multiplier.

  2. I’m guessing you meant: “Perhaps there are naturally epic personalities who inhabit reality with an intense, total presence even *with* pathways of Aionic escape being cut off.”

    In other words “enlightened” people?

    • Actually, no, I do mean what I said: without. It is easy to live in the present when pathways to aionic realms have been cut off because there is no choice. Much harder to do when you actually do have a choice to retreat.

      The connection to enlightenment philosophies is Boddhisattvahood: the path to nirvana is open to them, but they choose to hang back and help those still trapped in maya. A “none of us is free until all of us are free” voluntary inclusive wokeness.

  3. Ravi Daithankar says:

    I’ve intuited this exact idea for a long time now but never really got around to articulating it, so thanks for this. There’s also a really awesome Dylan song about a similar idea, that I suspect you might like. You could think of it as the state of mind that the kid walking 700 miles may eventually acquire. I imagine that’s the kind of experience that takes decades to be fully processed and resolved, even after you have seemingly managed to successfully live through it. And even then, with the passage of ample Chronostime, it probably just turns more and more surreal so you never actually resolve it the way it happened. This is what I suspect the endgame for a Life of Pi lived experience must eventually feel like: https://youtu.be/AgqGUBP3Cx0

    I was thinking…
    Of a series of dreams
    Where nothing comes up to the top
    Everything…
    Stays down where it’s wounded
    And comes to a permanent stop
    Wasn’t thinking,
    Of anything specific
    Like in a dream,
    When someone wakes up and screams
    Nothing too very scientific
    Just thinking,
    Of a series of dreams

    Thinking,
    Of a series of dreams
    Where the time and the tempo flies
    And there’s no exit,
    In any direction
    ‘Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes

    Wasn’t making,
    Any great connection
    Wasn’t falling,
    For any intricate schemes
    Nothing,
    That would pass inspection
    Just thinking,
    Of a series of dreams

    Dreams where,
    The umbrella is folded
    And into the path you are hurled
    And the cards are,
    No good that you’re holding
    Unless they’re from another world

    In one, the surface was frozen
    In another, I witnessed a crime
    In one, I was running, and in another
    All I seemed to be doing, was climb

    Wasn’t looking,
    For any special assistance
    Wasn’t going to any great extremes
    I’d already,
    Gone the distance
    Just thinking, of a series of dreams

  4. lol, part II of life is better in Roman Empire just begins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_Period

  5. A few months ago I took some LSD by myself for the first time in about a year. A few hours into the trip, I was inspired to take out my journal and to write, knowing full well that what would leave my pen would be all but gibberish the next day. Humouring myself for a while I just wrote whatever came into my head. But as I was writing something very interesting happened. I entered into a kind of trance state. I could see very clearly in my mind’s eye what I wanted to express. But although my thoughts were flowing effortlessly onto paper, they were punctuated with the natural stops and starts and hesitations of word retrieval. I suddenly became aware of this process of searching for the right words to use. Awareness morphed into frustration at how the clarity of the meaning of what I wanted to convey contrasted with the bottleneck of translating in a lower bandwidth medium. Words stopped being simply a method of communication, but rather became crude tools with which you could never transmit ‘true meaning’ with 100% fidelity. Along the way I sort of convinced myself that my true passion was to become a writer and to write. This was perhaps encouraged by some personal and emotional distress I was going through at the time, but nevertheless I became utterly convinced that my life so far was leading up to this moment.

    Anyhow, a few hours into this I went through this intense period where I imagined myself as a Moses or Muhammed type prophet figure. It was as if I was receiving the word of God and was imbued with all of the urgency and franticness that you’d imagine such a task would entail. It seemed like my sole responsibility and existential purpose was to get these thoughts down on paper. Hunched over sitting on my bed for hours was uncomfortable and I realised I couldn’t do this forever—I was constrained by bodily needs and mortal limitations. But I also knew that the importance of the task at hand was of spiritual and cosmic proportions—I had to keep myself alive and healthy as long as possible to make sure I could record my message. I started thinking of daily tasks like eating and drinking, washing or using the bathroom as inconvenient necessities of inhabiting a corporeal form. I began to make a list of things I’d need to do in order to stay alive so that I could keep writing. I went through an ego-death/timelessness thing towards the end, freaked out a little and stopped writing and tried to sleep.

    Psychedelic substances can make you lose track of reality if you aren’t in a completely stable emotional/mental state. However, they also put you into a state of total focus at the task at hand. Both of these effects took hold of me and produced a feeling I’d never experienced before. This post really captured what I think happened to me—I felt like an ‘epic being’ for a time, totally willing and ready to do whatever it took to fulfil a sort of divine providence at all costs.

    Cheers!

  6. I see a shift in consciousness happening there in your writing, Venkat, building up momentum over your past posts. I also feel more authenticity in these posts, which I value.

    Obviously, escaped realities are more and more destabilised, “disrupted” in “current times” for the careful, critical observer, forcing imaginative philosophers to get their hands – and feet – dirty, one grasp, one step, one post at a time, building up nerve, presence, focus, applying long overdue constraints on thinking.

    Curiously enough, coincidentally I should say, I experienced a similar shift. And I already feel I am late to the party of realising that the escaped reality bubble is a tiling monstrosity I have been veiling myself away from in sophisticated ways, especially in the presence and in spite of an unsettling feeling every now and then that something is wrong. Thought I was avant-garde, actually I am a fool.

    So, what to do next, right now? Well, my next steps revolve around building a local pack of similar “fools”…

  7. May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, the expression is normally used ironically, with the clear implication that “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquillity are more life-enhancing than interesting ones, which, from a historical perspective, usually include disorder and conflict.

    Despite being so common in English as to be known as the “Chinese curse”, the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The most likely connection to Chinese culture may be deduced from analysis of the late-19th-century speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, probably erroneously transmitted and revised through his son Austen Chamberlain

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