The temporality of performance

Far from getting to the bottom of things, tracing the origin of riddles, or understanding the material basis of character, I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to “think out loud” about what worries me most these days, namely the flow of time… The ephemere medium of a blog will be just appropriate for this ever present but elusive (not so say banal but intractable) topic.

Performance is a temporal category, there is no performance that does not occupy some portion of time. In this sense, the category of time is inherently important to my main research project, the discourse on dance and theater in the imperial Roman period. But the topic that recently got me to think some more about temporality and performance is the Muses and their peculiar place at the intersection of different orders (or ranges) of time. While preparing a paper on the Muses in imperial literature, I was struck by a little aside in Plotinus. In his treatise about time he writes that it would be impossible to ask the Muses how time came into being, since they did not exist yet and thus were unable to witness how time began (Enneads ὅπωϲ δὴ πρῶτον ἐξέπεσε χρόνοϲ, τὰϲ μὲν Μούσαϲ οὔπω τότε οὔσαϲ οὐκ ἄν τιϲ ἴσωϲ καλοῖ εἰπεῖν τοῦτο). Is Plotinus just talking about mythical genealogy here, claiming that Time is older than the Muses? I think he makes a more complex point.

Let me rehearse some of the Muse-related basics:

– in the epic tradition the Muses represent performance, they are therefore are in charge first and foremost of the present moment, the hic et nunc, the time occupied by the song

– their knowledge, however, points to different, larger ranges of time: the past (which interestingly the Muses translate into present by ‘being there’ and thus knowing everything, whereas humans rely on ‘hearsay’ only, Iliad 2.485-7), or the complete flow of time (‘the present, the future and the past’, Theog. 38)

– moreover, let’s not forget that the Muses’ performance is perpetual and thus extens beyond the limits of a particular song: ‘their voice flows tire-less’, their voice is indeed ‘death-less’ (Theog. 39 and 43 – I take it that the negated adjectives lay the stress on the ongoing, inexhaustible character of the Muses’ performance)

– also, in Hesiod the principal object of their praise is, like their song itself, defined by the absence of an end (ἀ-θάνατοι, Theog. 21 and 105).

So, it is fair to say that the Muses are a sort of interface between the present moment, which is taken up by a finite portion of song, and some other, grander timeframe. More importantly, they help to synchronize these two different orders of time. By recounting what happened, the Muses organize the song’s content into a temporal sequence, which in turn structures the song itself (e.g. Theog. 44-7, where the narration of the succession myth is announced in words that duly highlight the subsequent stages of the song: ‘first they tell of…’, ‘second…’). Similarly, the Muses reappear when a sudden change that occurred in the past must be accounted for, so that the extraordinary event of the story coincides with a new beginning in the song: ‘Tell me now, Muses, … how the fire first hit the ships of the Achaeans’ (ἔσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι, … / ὅπωϲ δὴ πρῶτον πῦρ ἔμπεσε νηυσὶν Ἀχαιῶν, Iliad 16.113f.).

This is the line Plato quotes (with modifications) when confronting the task of explaining how dissent first occurred in the state (Republic 545d 8-e 1). But more interesting is Plotinus, who remarks ironically, quoting the same line, that it would be impossible to ask the Muses how time itself came into being, etc. (see above). I don’t think Plotinus has mythical genealogy à la Hesiod in mind here. Instead, the Muses presuppose time time in a different sense, for no matter how infinite their knowledge is, the song the Muses offer necessarily takes place in time, it does not exist outside time. While they account for beginnings, they are mute as to the beginning which is presupposed in every subsequent beginning, the beginning of time.

This firm relegation of the Muses to the flow of time is remarkable in a Platonist, who must have been aware of efforts in the Platonic tradition to credit the Muses with timeless, scientific knowledge. However (and here comes the non-strictly-scholarly bit, which the blog also accommodates, as we have seen), I guess what makes the passage appealing to me is the nostalgia it expresses for a discourse that rescues you from the flow of time. If the Muses situate themselves between timeless knowledge and its temporal performance, the latter always tends to override the former. What the Muses are really all about is the question of how to fill out and structure the present moment. All else comes after.