Time and Place:
the TV of our minds
Place is different to different people living at the same time: to
the farmer, the town-dweller, the traveller, the archaeologist, the
thief, the geologist, the gypsy, the poet, the painter. . . As to
how place was perceived by different people in different places in
different times, we can hardly guess.
Time - in the sense of linear, past/future, primitive/progressive
time - is a fiction. Time is very much bound up with the sense of
self, and hence with ego. Place is very much bound up with property,
inheritance and money on the one hand, and with collectivity or connection
on the other.
Our modern sense of time and place together are also bound up with
nationalisms - whether the national socialism of ‘Land and Blood’,
the right-wing romanticism of Arthurian, ‘Celtic’ Albion, or the cosy,
folksy National Trust sense of ‘heritage’ (or, in France, the whole
ethos contained in the word Patrimoine). It is the ‘National’ Trust,
not The People’s or Volks- Trust. This title says a lot about the
generally-accepted concept of a unitary United Kingdom of Great Britain
and Northern Ireland. Time and place are unavoidably political.
We tend to tunnel our vision to a fantastic past while we help to
rape the planet in the present, so that there will be no future. We
should be hugging the trees, disposing of our own waste, and changing
our paleolithic consciousness, rather than treating landscape as a
‘heritage’ and nostalgia trip. How many of us have a sacred grove
in the garden to worship nature in?
How did Roman slaves think of the Tuscan countryside? How did Etruscans
or Syrians perceive the Roman Empire, and early Christians the desert?
How differently do the English, the Irish, the Russians and the Senegalese
think of the sea? What did the Anglo-Saxons think about Stonehenge?
These apparently simple questions can only be partially answered after
years or even generations of research. So questions which we now pose
about past time and place are perverse.
The principal problem is that they incorporate the Historical Fallacy:
the projection on to the past of the concerns of the present. Victorians
were obsessed with grand schemes and unitary concepts. In the wake
of the collapse of Christian totalitarianism, which followed the Renaissance,
the Reformat-ion and the Enlightenment, they wanted an alternative
grand explanation of everything, so we got Gibbon, Carlyle, Frazer,
Darwin, Freud and thousands of others. Instead of Time being a working
out of God’s Will from the Fall to the New Jerusalem, they saw it
as a working-out of Progress from the ‘primitive’ to the masterful
Wordsworth and a few Romantics took a slightly different view: Man
has fallen from a state of Primitive Grace to which we can return
only through simplicity,integrity, honesty. Marx followed the Romantic
view of history, whereas Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche and their
successors followed the Progressive view. They are two sides of the
same post-medieval coin, and we have varying degrees and mixtures
of their related mind-sets.
Reality is simply a matter of convention
Our concept of reality is artificial and culture-bound. We imagine
the ‘real’ world to be a projection of our egos which in turn are
formed by the public world which controls economies and families alike.
The ‘real’ world for us at the end of the twentieth century is the
world of jobs and ‘leisure’, money and progress, success (by which
we mean fame) and a whole pile of comparatively recent cultural baggage.
It is a matter of ‘education’: the process of leading us out of any
kind of inner awareness - which is why so many adolescents want to
‘get out of their heads’: they feel that their heads are not their
own. ‘Reality’ is simply a matter of convention, like good manners
and wearing particular kinds of clothes. We assume that there is a
definite and definitive ‘real world’ out there which we only have
to examine. This is the scientific fallacy born out of the Renaissance.
According to it, knowledge is simply categorising and comprehen-ding
a finite real world which adheres to laws of physics and psycho-social
Only recently have we begun to realise that this might not be so,
that time is circular, and that knowledge is only the currently-acceptable
fiction in our heads. It is not our brain that sees, but the learning-structure
in our brains. That learning-structure is culturally determined. What
we see is what we are programmed to see. And our determinedly unpoetic
view of the world today is quite different from any previous world-view.
For a start, we think in terms of global politics and unitary states,
in terms of fact versus fiction, truth versus falsehood, past as quite
different from present which itself is quite different from future.
How can we possibly think ourselves back into a cyclical, flowing
world-view? How can we possibly think ourselves into societies in
which every stream was sacred and had its genius loci, its angel?
Streams for us are at best places to fish, more usually things to
bridge, culvert, block or pour our slops into. How can people know
landscape or nature when they think that rain is ‘bad weather’?
The past that archaeologists have dreamed up for us is no more than
a cultural dream: without substance, without empathy. We apply our
cultural vision to paleolithic hunting society, and we come up with
something a good deal less ‘real’ than Plato’s Cave.
We go through ten to fifteen years of schooling during which time
all our natural wisdom, poetry and enthusiasm (literally: ‘breath
from the god’) are removed, and emerge finally as emotional cripples
unable to hug or to hunt or to know the best time and place to plant
leeks. How can we begin to feel landscape the way that hunter-gatherers
do and the way that the Celtic-speaking forest-dwellers of Romania
or Galicia or Ulster did? We do not give trees special names, we confuse
sacrifice with masochism, we only recognise a ‘magic’ place if it
has signposts telling us so or megalithic remains. Yet there are ‘magic’
places everywhere - even occasionally within the ugliness of towns.
We have no sense of the sacred: we do not have shrines in our houses.
We suffer and make the world suffer the dislocation, disjunction and
anomie of ego-consciousness which seeks to blot out all but itself.
Once kings were slain after ritual, poetic rule, and children exposed
on mountain sides. Now we expose children to a far worse fate: the
nuclear family, television and the education system.
When we travel it is rarely on pilgrimage or to sacred places to acquire
depth or wisdom, but to cities and resorts for merely hedonistic (or
business) reasons. Ours is a culture of arrogance and instant gratification.
The sacred orgy has been suppressed, and is now replaced by compulsive,
uncathartic, unshared shopping and spectator sport. Poetry has been
replaced by the catalogue - whether of facts or of consumer goods.
Rites of passage and ritual ordeals have been supplanted by curricular
examinations. Reverence for the natural world has been usurped by
religion and art. We now treat each other as producers and consumers,
rather than integral parts of nature, and so we are alienated from
that which has become our past, our ‘collective unconscious’.
Language has replaced ‘nature’ as our matrix
Our culture has separated the animal from the human and condemned
most of the higher forms of life upon this planet to extermination
or misery. It has separated the sexual from the spiritual, and by
dividing ‘sacred’ from ‘profane’ we have profaned the sexual and rendered
the spiritual hollow: form without substance. These antinomian separations
of category have put us at war with the planet and with our own natures;
these separations are linguistic, embedded in the way we think because
we think in language. We are expected to fit into our language the
way we are not expected to fit into the natural world. To a large
extent, language has replaced ‘nature’ as our matrix. We have gone
‘out of control’ largely because of language: invent a concept or
a distinction and it cannot be uninvented. Language only appears to
describe reality, but in reality it is not transparent, and describes
only our language-based view of the world.
Instead of sacredness we now have a cult of the picturesque. Landscape
has no meaning for us any more: at most it is a political symbol of
one kind or another. We smile at names like The Paps of Anu (twin
rounded hills in County Cork), and can no longer think of mountains
as sacred to the Hag Goddess (Slieve na Calliagh). Landscape is merely
to be used (if only for ‘leisure’, whatever that is!) not to be lived,
experienced. Few people actually ‘get high’ on landscape, whether
in north-east Portugal, west Herefordshire, southern Albania, central
France or South Fermanagh. Others may see it but do not let it enter
them. We have become ghosts inside cerebral television sets.
Human consciousness is a confusing mixture of states, an amalgam of
intermingling or contradictory degrees of awareness. Pygmies, Australian
Aborigines, Niugini hunters, the Kogi of Colombia, the Siberian reindeer-herdsmen
all have awarenesses and world-views quite different from our own.
They to a large extent have what might be called ‘unfolding consciousness’.
We in ‘The West’, on the other hand, in a culture uniquely defined
by left-brain ego (which itself gets defined not by language, but
by literature) have an ‘imposing consciousness’: instead of being
open to worlds of awareness, we have defined a single ‘real world’
and simply impose it on the whole planet. We have a uniquely totalitarian
vision and culture.
Let me offer the example of ‘Beauty’. In our culture, this is simply
the decoration of a drab existence and an ugly world. But, unlike
the sense of time passing, which is a mental fiction created by ego,
beauty is an intrinsic feature of all other world-views. Only highly
evolved people in our own culture of gaudified drabness actually see
beauty, whether it is fields or hedgerows, streets or clouds. Paradoxically
our culture, which relies so heavily on the visual and auditory senses
to the exclusion of the senses of smell and touch, does not actually
see beauty very much. We may see ‘views’, for example, which conform
to romantic abstractions of beauty dreamed up (for our culture is
very much a sleep-denying culture of sleepwalkers) in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries.
We are detached from everything by a concept of linear time
So, when we come to places like Stonehenge, we simply do not connect.
We rush to literature and come up with crazy dreams of Druids and
astronomers created not by people who are connected with the past
or with the place, but by people anxious ‘to explain’ in terms of
our own culture - in terms of ‘progress’, technology, competition,
tribalism and racism. Because we have murdered myth in our minds,
we have no mind-maps to tune into the (now irreparably desecrated)
Boyne Valley, or Carnac, so we create legends of explanation which
are drier and less revelatory than the incinerated bones found in
Newgrange. We see Stonehenge through layer upon layer of dusty academic
or cranky hypothesis, and not through our feet (the part of us which
should connect with the earth) or through our genitals, or through
the many other channels of awareness that our culture denies.
A good example of our stubborn narrowness is the phenomenon of holed
stones. It is perfectly obvious to anyone who has travelled around
looking at these stones that in most of them the hole is about 1 metre
from the end or ground level, and that the hole is usually about 75mm
in diameter, often chamfered in to that diameter. Therefore it is
extremely likely that a human penis was inserted at a particular time
of year or on a particular occasion, to symbolise union with the earth
which in turn encourages fertility of various kinds. We block that
kind of intuition because we are a Christian culture, and Christian
culture is obsessed with blood and not with sperm.
‘New Age’ and ‘Earth Mystery’ people are in a bad perceptive situation,
because they want to have the cake of prehistoric mystery and yet
eat it with the teeth of our totalitarian world-view which denies
mystery and thus destroys connection. It is well-known that Australian
Aboriginals have a ‘holistic’ approach to the world: they perceive
themselves as being the land and everything on it and in it, in a
cyclical and comprehensible universe, whereas we are detached from
everything by a concept of linear time (in which we are the apogee)
and by a resultantly infantile categorising of an immensely complex
universe outside and within our heads. It is interesting that a culture
so sophisticated and technological as ours increasingly infantilises
and therefore disempowers its members (and, for that matter, dogs)
by making them dependent for their neurotic survival on gadgets and
gewgaws which even a hundred years ago would have been thought ridiculous.
Our attitude to animals (who are souls, ‘anima’, unlike us who have
become animus) shows that we do not have any reverence for creatures
and things outside our ego-boxes and outside the little crate of destructive
tricks that is our culture. We do not apologise to or even acknowledge
the death of the animals we eat and torture. Until we do, we and the
attitude we have created out of ego-pain will make real pain universal.
We see the land in terms of aggressive defence and exploitation (this
is one of the hidden agendas behind the Glastonbury/Arthur/Celtic
industry), whereas pre-literate people see it as holy and the source
of everything. Compare the smothering of the land with horrible houses
(not to mention factories and military installations) everywhere with
the erection of temporary shelters. Our idea of the once and future
king mirrors our militaristic-nationalistic outlook. Our obsession
with the ‘Celtic’ is a curious historical quirk deriving from that
most unmystic of countries, Ireland, for valid political reasons (independence
from the Evil Empire across the Irish Sea).
‘Celtic’ is now used as a racial term, when it is simply a word to
describe a certain group of languages which is akin to many other
Indo-European languages such as the Latin/Greek/Albanian group, the
Nordic/Germanic group, and the Slav group. If a ‘Celtic spirit’ still
survives it is certainly not to be found in the Celtic Fringe but
in the Celtic heartland, France). Yet recent research has shown that
French place-names, most of which mean nothing in the modern language
(unlike Danish, Spanish, Irish, Dutch, German and Slav place-names),
contain pre-Celtic and Ligurian elements.
It appears that any relevant studies of time and place are virtually
impossible from inside the linguistic television sets that our minds
have become. In order to ‘see’ we will have to get out of the television
set - which is very difficult since language itself (never mind the
education system) has locked us inside it. To attempt to break out
would be pointless. The only way to get out is to float with the aid
of timeless intuition, which the written word constantly undermines
In other words, we can escape from the totalitarian teleview only
by subverting language. This point is crucial, because at the root
of the destructiveness of our civilisation and the limitation of its
world-view is prose. We try to interpret and understand everything
through prose which is a kind of self-setting language-trap, rather
than poetry, which is creative.
Life and the world are much more subtle than our prose- and ‘fact’-
based civilisation is prepared to accept. Poetry has been downgraded
to décor for the bourgeois mind. We have no Delphic Oracle uttering
poetic riddles, no Eleusinian Mysteries - we do not even see the Greek
Tragedies any more. The word ‘tragedy’ meant ‘scapegoat’ in ancient
Greek; in modern Greek it means merely ‘song’. Our reality is prosaic
and linear: Work/job, The News and Entertainment - and The News is
Infotainment. We have disappeared up our narrow, unpoetic cultural
arses. How can we possibly think or dream ourselves into the consciousness
of Stone Age people when our consciousnesses are bound by such crude
ideas as progress and purpose, and our lives depend on toothpaste,
toilet rolls, piped water, and all the rubbish that capitalism sells
us? Only by poetic vision, which is the subversion of the language
(especially the written language). Poetry incorporates flow and tends
towards the cyclic.
Nature was for hundreds of thousands of years an enemy to encroaching man
Most people cannot connect with the world-views of twentieth century
poetic mystics such as Yeats and Rilke. How can we who are locked
in prose start to ‘feel the past’ of two- or twenty-thousand years
ago, when, in a sense, everything must have been poetry?
Since we have invented ‘the past’ to contradict the cyclically recurring
and continuous present, let us do what we will with its material artefacts.
We can put them in museums, fence them around like Stonehenge,seal
them up like Lascaux, or turn them into sleazy-glitzy prehistory-supermarkets
like Newgrange. But we cannot, so long as we have such as concept
as ‘the past’ ever enter it: the idea of ‘the past’ is a kind of Cerberus
keeping us from awareness of place and time. Our prosaic English language
itself (advancing across the world) blocks out reality through ‘facts’
and ‘information’. We attack reality with prose, and it crumbles into
We also attack the past with prose, projecting on to it our prosaic
twentieth century attitudes to function, category purpose and statistics
on the one hand, and our current environmental concerns on the other.
We desperately see ‘the past’ as golden with respect for ‘The Earth
Mother’ and so on. But ‘nature’ was for hundreds of thousands of years
an enemy to encroaching man. Perhaps a respected enemy, but our sense
of enmity has got us and the planet to the present situation where,
instead of seeing ourselves as fragile colonisers in the biosphere,
we see the biosphere as fragile. What we mean, of course, is - as
always - that the status quo is fragile. For the biosphere will survive
the sixth great extinction of species which we are well on our way
to engineering - but in a radically different form.
To escape the historical fallacy, the mind-set of our culture, we can,
I believe, only ‘see through time’ (which is a fiction) by the means
of poetry, one line of which can give more insight than a hundred
books of archaeology or anthropology. Ironically enough, the ‘poetic
approach’ will itself diminish our desire to ‘understand’ the past
prosaically, and we will come to see that understanding itself is
a prose fiction that has usurped wonder.
Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.
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Created August 1996; updated November 2008