What is it about now that is different from then and what comes? I had this thought Monday, walking home in a slightly happy daze after getting out of a movie. What is it about this moment, I thought, that makes it this moment? Isn’t the entire universe and all of time encompassed by a single electron zipping forward and back, giving the universe its shape and making all moments part of a timeless whole? Or is that just glib sci-fi nonsense cribbed from Michio Kaku?
Back to the moment: walking home in the cooling, breezy evening under shade trees and a cloudless blue sky…
Now is different from then and the future, so what can I say about now? Scientifically, I can’t say much beyond the idea that science is built upon data recorded as it whizzes by the moment or is dug up later in a different moment. Looking at that data hints at predictions we might make for other moments in the future or other traces hidden elsewhere. We collect data from those predicted moments or traces to compare them against our hypothesized predictions. As future predictions or revived traces slide through our personal now we refine our hypotheses or even craft a theory.
But is there anything to be said, scientifically, about my personal experience? I don’t have the budget to record molecular or quantum activity inside my head as the future passes through my now, so no, this is going to slide out of science and into philosophy and psychology.
So what is it about now that I am feeling? I feel a feeling, to begin with. Now is always a new beginning starting with how I feel right now. I have felt in the past but I don’t feel a past feeling now. Now is how I feel. Now is a feeling that is more than a description of my state, it is my state. Crisis or chemistry can dominate a feeling and give it a strong label: sad, happy, hungry, enraged, fearful, horny, sated, but even during these skewed moments the rest of the feeling is there, overshadowed by the major chemical characteristic but as a whole every feeling is much more than the label.
For past feelings, our memories can be impossible to recall without using the shorthand labels. Adding scents and sounds and images can be enough to bring back a spookily similar overall feeling. A ghost of the past feeling, the past moment, rises out of the physical structure of our brain whether it’s welcome or not. That ghost has better resolution than any label or prose description. So with PTSD sufferers the problem is a kind of involuntary time travel of a past state into the present. A pervasive record of a feeling becomes a too-slowly-fading structure in our brain.
But even when those structures are influencing our now, we only have the single now we are feeling.
Illusion of Now
I don’t want to turn this into a review of Iron Man 3. Other people have done a good enough job of hitting the high points and getting to the thumbs-up consensus. What interests me is the weird phenomenon of complex, effects-heavy superhero-genre films being put together with enough effort and ability that even an anti-genre elitist like Kenneth Turan can give his reluctant approval. All I can say is that I’m glad the local one-screen theater isn’t showing Oblivion. That vehicle seems to have been choreographed as well as Iron Man 3 while showing so little empathy for a wider audience that it’s difficult to take seriously as an idea, much less as art.
Film is built of moments. Prose does this too but leaves more of the work of creating the feeling up to the reader. Movie directors don’t have this luxury. They must manage the moments for a specified period of time for an ever-expanding toolbox of performance apparatus. A state-of-the-art movie consumes dozens or hundreds of worker-years to produce one and a half to three hours of content. Every moment is managed and the result is a machine of sound and images—and in a theater in Nagoya, 4DX wind and stink—to generate those specific, repeatable feelings.
So when a movie manages to craft a pervasively credible stream of experience that feels like it might be the experiences of interesting human beings, that movie gets good reviews regardless of the genre.
A re-playable sequence of feelings is the goal of film-making and music and poetry and prose. But as I walked home yesterday afternoon after watching the matinee I was getting more stimulation from my environment and the flowing liquid now of the real-world than I got during the film. Perhaps the film created a mental stage for a pleasant feeling in my brain or perhaps a real individual experience will always expose a fundamental pointlessness in art.
Showmanship of Now
The question I had while returning from the movie was how to save the now I was feeling for re-creation later in front of the keyboard. I was walking in a compositional ooze of writing flow without being able to record the words. So I memorized the initial sentence and was later able to recreate a semblance of the moment.
Is that enough? Is the recording and regurgitation of moments a substitute for a personal now? Should I just do my best to spend as much time in the moment as I can and forgo writing about it? A wordless now is a fine enough experience in itself.
But it isn’t only about my personal experience. Nor is it about running and re-running a tape of created feelings as a kind of drug. It is also about communicating one person’s moment to another person. Transmitting or receiving a now between separate people is what makes us people. With that, art loses its pointlessness and the question turns back toward message, craft, audience, and reach.
When I consider that a now can be built, however, I drop out of the now and into the expectations and history that a now-seeker fears. Now is unstable, or at least our consideration of it. But perhaps a large part of the joy of now is the ability to drop into a now-considering state after a sojurn outside. Our consideration can’t only consider now lest we starve.