“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”
-Edgar Allen Poe
Have you ever wondered why time stands still? That moment of happiness seems to last forever, but then vanish under inspection? Time is a tricky mistress and even so the ancient Greeks had another type of time to consider. Their world was not so simply straightforward as we would like to describe our own to be, minute after minute, a never-ending continuum of quantum moments. For them there was the everyday "chronos", what we would like to think of as time. Our normal lives, progressing slowly into the future, each coming second like the last, creating a fading oblivion of memory that recedes into the depths of our minds, as we grow older. They were not limited to such a monotonous perception of the passage of time. They had a word whose meaning these days is so seldom expressed, and even when it is, usually takes the form of some cliché. This word is "kairos" or time outside of time. Kairos consists of those moments when everything seems to just stop and swirl around you, when there is no tomorrow or yesterday and maybe not even today. Kairos is when time doesn't just stand still it races and frolics with you and in you. It encompasses those times we never forget, that sear our synapses, for better or for worse. It is inescapable and beautiful in its power and majesty, and yet still fleeting. We cannot live in the dream world of the moment forever, because it is just that the moment, an instant, and it is gone, but never forgotten. I fear the lack of words to express this has been filled with a mire of hackneyed expressions that seem to undermine the immediacy and beauty of the concept, and what it stands for: that all that we seem and seem is not a dream, but instead a concrete sidewalk and a rusting taxi. Maybe, if only for an instant, the world may be illumined by the brightness of the moment, and all that did not glitter becomes gold. This world of beauty must end and the harsh realities of the world must flood back into the daydream of perfection, but not without the recognition of the truth of those things experienced outside of time. Both are the real world, and both are the truth, and so although kairos must necessarily end, and the utopia of timelessness is impossible to maintain, it cannot be relegated to the world of fantasy, nor can the ordinary perception of time be blamed for the loss of the "magic moment". It is of this idea of time outside of time and its relationship to the eventual fall from grace for that which is idealized that Shakespeare speaks of in his 33rd sonnet.
This dichotomy between kairos and chronos is expressed in the distinctions made between the worlds of light and dark as well as that of high and low. These are different places for creation and alteration, each of which represents one possible perspective, that of the idealized moment, and the thing itself, in it’s base form. On each level the individual alters their surroundings, and yet that alteration is only surface level, or in some sense magical, “gilding” “alchemy”. It is nothing but the “flattery” of the sun. Nothing is perfect, and nothing can be made to be perfect, but the illusion of perfection is maintained, if only for a little while, when the sun remains at it’s zenith, untarnished by the clouds the “base clouds” which stain not only that below but also that above, both the narrator and the object of his narration. This instant is locked in the memory of the writer, and is how the writer wishes to remember the friend to whom he speaks, but cannot because the reality of the interrupting clouds has disturbed his seeming daydream. Even “heaven’s sun” can become stained, and thus those lesser beings, the “suns of the world”, may be permitted to lose their brilliance. But in a sense this loss of brilliance is not necessarily a bad thing, it returns the world to its natural state, the debased reality. The earth cannot maintain its luster, nor is the sun truly responsible for the basic existence of the world below. The clouds interrupt the idyllic relationship between heaven and earth, but reveal that all is not gold, perfection is impossible. It is for this reason that Shakespeare does not disdain him who permitted the clouds to overshadow his brilliance, because it is essential to understanding the truth of the person to whom he writes. In this sense the return of the base world has grieved and separated Shakespeare from the person he loves, but his love was founded upon an half-truth born in the limelight of kairos.
This concept of a special time is often linked to a sense of the action of the supernatural in the world. The images of the sun and mountaintops are clear references to a godlike figure, and that of the author himself, representing the transformative power of god. The sky and the sun have classically been the origin of the most powerful god in the pantheon of many polytheistic religions, i.e. Greece, Rome, Egyptian, and Norse. There is a clear distinction made between the divine powers ascribed to the elements and that of humanity. The capability of sunlight to effortlessly achieve the alchemistic transformation of the meadows is an analog to the failed attempt of humanity to convert base metals to gold, or in another sense, defy the creation of god, and become god like. This is contrasted with the “base clouds” and the stained nature of the “suns of the world” in other words, the godlike creation of god, humanity. Shakespeare links these opposing ideas of kairos and chronos with the relationship of humanity to the divine. Humanity bears the divine ability of creativity, and yet in the end we lack the true power of the demiurge, but we nevertheless try, and in the end remain, stained, in the shadowy freewill bestowed upon us by our god, just as we live in the mundane world and can only ascend briefly into the ethereal plane of kairos.
When we live outside of time, when “he was but for one hour mine.” we create false perceptions and unrealistic ideals that must be tarnished by the effects of time, the sun cannot possibly shine forever, nor will the mountains forever be tall, all ideals and all seeming gods fall before the “ugly rack” of clouds, and the “forlorn world”. This torture of the real, when the force of the mundane shatters the light of ideals is also the tragedy of Charles Baudelaire in his poem “Which Is The True One” in which he meets a girl named Benedict in the bliss of kairos. It was this girl whose “eyes spread the desire for grandeur, beauty, fame and everything which makes us believe in immortality”. (Parisian 98) She was first known only through the eyes of kairos, a fleeting image of perfection, she was truly too “miraculous to live a long time” and thus Baudelaire was forced to kill her, unable to recognize the harsh truth of the everyday world of her existence, her flaws, her humanity, having only known and wanted that which he had seen through the eyes of kairos. And so his ideal of her must die, and he buries here, and must “remain fettered, perhaps forever, to the grave of the ideal” because he truly loves her, but the collapse of his kairotic perspective has caused his love of her to fall fallow. Baudelaire realizes this dichotomy and yet falls victim to the despair that the onrush of the ordinary, after the ephemeral joys of the vision of flawlessness. This is the warning that Shakespeare gives us, that even the “the suns of the earth may stain, when heavens sun staineth”
It is when Shakespeare tries to contain this ideal to a period of time, and claim possession of this time that the image of perfection truly escapes him, and yet at that same moment the functional integration of both modalities is understood when the poet does not “disdain” the adulteration of his image of perfection, as well as comes to terms with the imperfect world. Both must co-exist, and one must recognize that even the greatest of moments end, the greatest of suns become stained, and can fall from grace, and must be confined in the linear, methodical here and now for us to see them both as they are and what we dream them to be.
We all seem to play our favorite character in fiction, the Count of Monte Christo, or Holden Caulfield, Gatsby or Raskolnikov, but in the end we are what we are, and when the stage lights fall, when we are no longer “gilded” by our dreams and by our imaginations, that person we once dreamt we were, falls beneath the wayside, the clouds “from the forlorn world our visage hide” and we are hurt, and we hurt those around us. Like Baudelaire, we seek to bury those who have deceived us, and ourselves in the mire of the everyday, refusing to acknowledge the evanescent fleeting joys of the ideal.
When something is not as it seems, both the thing and the observer are betrayed, but for what are they betrayed? The truth naturally, and so for what do you grieve? That you have been told the truth? No, you weep because you have believed a lie. So much so, that we believe our own lie. We become characters in the fictions of others, the secondary role, and if we stray from character what happens to their passion play? So if I can become stained, and, like the specimen on the stage of the microscope, my true self shows through, then others, who have starred in my own sitcom can and will show themselves as who they are, are not destroyed by this revelation. They just become better characters, because even the stain hides and sun leaves much to be discovered.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Parisian Prowler Trans. Edward K. Kaplan. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. 1997.
Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare’s Sonnets Murray Printing Co. Westford, Mass. 1977.