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Sequence from Patanjali to Postmodernity

Sequence from Patanjali to Postmodernity
by A.V. Ashok

From the perspective of evolution, sequence is a recent experience of human consciousness though it has been the mode of existence of the universe from the Big Bang. The consciousness of the Australopithecines of the Lower Palaeolithic proto-human epoch 6 million years ago was pre-temporal. From 200,000 years ago to 10,000 B.C., the consciousness of the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon hunters and gatherers carried a proto-temporal sense of a simple present but nothing beyond the simple present was experienced: “immortality consisted in living until tomorrow ” (Wilber 68). Language emerged in the late Pleistocene around 50,000 B.C. and when it peaked around 12,000 B.C., consciousness became “tensed” with an “extended time” beyond the simple present, which triggered the awesome discovery of agriculture around 10,000 B.C.  that entails “making present preparation for a future harvest.” Language enabled consciousness to traffic in “non-present ” entities like the past and the future. This “mythic” sense of time though extended was seasonal – after an innings everything   started all over again in a cyclic scheme. But for the newly emerging “ego” around the middle of the second millennium B.C., time became “linear” – an indefinitely extending “stretch” of not just “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” but as the opening lines of the 9th century Tamil saint Periyalwar’s “Tiruppallandu proclaims: “Many years, many years, many thousands of years, / Many crores of hundred thousand years…”1 In the succeeding centuries, seers, saints, philosophers, theologians, grammarians and theorists of art in the East and the West have pondered over the enigma of sequence and raised a body of formulations about the ontology, epistemology and aesthetics of sequence.

The classical Indian mind composed a splendid critique of sequence as a sub-set of a theory of language. With pathbreaking excellence, Vyasa’s fifth century commentary (Vyasabhasya) on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (2nd century) interprets “krama” or sequence as the consequence of the impossibility of simultaneity: ” Na ca dvau ksanau saha bhavatah “/ “Two moments cannot exist simultaneously ” (Woods 288). The succession of moments in time or of  other elements in any other form of sequence has a tripartite structure: the no-longer (past), the concrete present and the not-yet (future). According to Vyasa, the prior and the posterior that flank the present are “vastusunyo“/ “not objectively real” and “buddhinirmanah“/ “forms of conceptual construction.”  Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra iii, 17, is a marvelous discourse on the structure, cognition and meaning of sequence (Woods 233-236). Though the structure of sequence entails elements occurring one after the other in a from-to movement or in a succession of parts, the cognition of sequence is a unifying “mental-process”/ “ekabuddhivisayam” (Woods 234) that generates a sequenceless (akrama), partless (abhanga) and single meaning. Grappling with phonemes/varnani in a word/padam or words/padani in a sentence/vakya takes the form of not a sequential but a single mental act that reconfigures the sequence of varnani and padani into “unity” (Woods 234) and elicits something single (padartha/word-mening or vakyartha/sentence-meaning) out of succession: “…a thing not having parts, and not having a sequence ” (Woods 234). The fact of sequence is not denied but the truth of sequence is not sequential. The counteracting sequenceless cognition of single meaning in the sequence of a sentence as envisioned in the Yoga Sutra is an allotrope of the principal challenge of consciousness – finding the One in the Many. The critical value of Vyasabhasya lies in the perception that since the krama of a sentence paradoxically invites cognition in the form of the sequenceless mental act of ekabuddhivisayam and produces the single meaning of vakyartha, sequence is not a final ontology but only an illusion to be overcome in a transcendent realization of the truth of the One. That sequence is only an outer dhvani/ form/ imagery whose inner artha/ meaning/ essence is single and that it is an ontological teaser at the heart of human experience is the pioneering insight of the Yoga Sutra that philosophers and grammarians in later centuries have amplified with additionally nuanced explorations.

How does a word consisting of a succession of phonemes generate a single meaning? How does a sentence consisting of a succession of words generate a single meaning? Indian philosophers of language like Katyayana (300-200 B.C.), Patanjali (author of the Mahabhasya / 200-100 B.C.), the Mimamsakas and the Naiyayikas examined the role of memory in the sequence of letters in a word and of words in a sentence. Without co-existing until the end of the sentence, the letters/sounds/phonemes of a word and the words of a sentence successively perish in actual utterance but persist in the memory of the listener. Choosing the word “gauh,” Patanjali vividly indicates the ephemerality of sounds: ” When the speech is in g, it cannot be in au and h; when it is in au, it cannot be in g and h, and when it is in h, it cannot be in g and au ” (Coward and Raja 117). For the Mimamsakas and the Naiyayikas, the single meaning of a word is established when the mind attaches its memory (smrti) or “impressions”(samskaras) of the previous successive sounds of the word to the last sound (antima-varna). However, if memory of sounds and of words is also sequential like the actual utterance, how is the single meaning of a word or of a sentence experienced? Sequential memory was found insufficient as a source of the single meaning of “padartha” and “vakyartha.” Dissatisfaction with the inability of aggregative memory to unify the sequence of a sentence eventually inspired the discovery of the faculty of “pratibha,” a unifying higher cognition superior to memory, that reveals in a “flash” the single indivisible sequenceless meaning of a sentence or “sphota.” It is fascinating to find ancient and classical philosophers of language displaying a “reception” orientation as they disclose the sequence of language as demanding a productive response of the powers of the mind (of the listener) especially memory that conquers the ephemerality of sounds and the higher cognition of pratibha that synthesizes sequenced dhvani into sequenceless sphota (Raja 106-107).

In the Vakyapadiya, one of the major texts of Indian thought, Bhartrhari (450-510) advances a profound meditation on the problem of sequence that enjoys the status of being the definitive Indian view of sequence. Bhartrhari envisages a “unity” underlying “difference” (abhedapurvako hi bedah) and propounds a taxonomy of three levels of language: pasyanti vak or sequenceless meaning that is the origin and destination of speech; madhyama vak or sequenced but pre-vocal thought and vaikhari vak or sequenced and verbalized speech. Vaikhari vak or the actual sequence of uttered sounds/words (vaikrta-dhvani) of a sentence is only the externalized/phenomenalized “vivarta“/ “appearance” of pasyanti vak or sphota or the transcendent single meaning of the sentence. The unity of pasyanti is prior to vaikhari and the sequence of vaikhari is a pragmatic instrumentality of communication in “time”: indispensable for the speaker’s expression of pasyanti but dispensable for the listener’s experience of pasyanti (Coward 121). The comprehension of temporal and sequenced vaikhari vak or vaikrata-dhvani entails pratibha or “flash of insight” that in a transcendence of sequence reveals the timeless, sequenceless, partless and single vakyartha of pasyanti vak or sphotaSabda Brahman or the Absolute Word /One incurs “viksepa” or dispersed manifestation (“vyakti“) in a multiplicity of sequence (of which language is one) out of its own volition or “sakti” or “driving force” that Bhartrhari calls “time.” The urge to communicate or the involutionary descent of pasyanti into vaikharimirrors in miniature the One becoming Many and language sheds its sequenced “modification” or vaikrta through pratibha to return to the Wholeness and Unity of  “vakya-sphota” which is an allotrope of the Original noumenal One of Sabda Brahman. Thus speech is an enactment in miniature of the involution of the One into Many and the evolution of the Many into One. The classical Indian ontological recognition of sequence as the medium of the human way of being but mystical mistrust of sequence as only a vaikrta-dhvani or modified outer scheme that however materially real is not the ultimate artha finds memorable systematization as a metaphysical theory “of sentences and words” in the Vakyapadiya.2

Classical Indian philosophy excelled in a profound meditation on the relationship between sequence, contingency and causality. Sequence was viewed as the very modality of contingency (“kadacitkatva“). Anything contingent is that which is wedged between an antecedent and a subsequent non-existence. The no-longer antecedence is the cause (“karana“) of the contingent “present” which is the effect (“karya“) of its antecedence and which in turn becomes the cause of the not-yet subsequence. As causality is the ontological logic of contingency, sequence is bound by causality or implicated in the dynamics of “karana-karya“. In a dazzling spell of enquiry, the Nyaya philosopher Udayanacarya (10th-11th century) held that the causality of contingent sequence is the reason why a given event cannot occur always or unsequenced or in another sequence(Balslev 20). Earlier, Bhartrhari attributed the ontology of why all events do not happen at once but in a causal sequence to the two principal powers of “time” – “abhyanuja“(“permission”) and “pratibandha“(“prevention”). In his notes on the “karikas” 4 and 5 of the celebrated “kala samuddesa” in Kanda III of the Vakyapadiya, K.A.Subramania Iyer observes:

It is due to Time that there is sequence of things in this universe. Some things appear at a particular time while other things do not appear at that time. If Time does not prevent some things from appearing at a particular time, if all things were born at the same time, there would be confusion and the whole edifice of causality would crumble (37).

Classical Indian philosophy conceptualizes sequence as inseparable from contingency and causality with the corollary that only the non-contingent ever-present (“nitya“) and never-present are sequenceless and uncaused.

After Bhartrhari’s contemplation of pasyantivaikhari and pratibha, the most critically influential interpretation of sequence was propounded by the classical Mimamsa philosophers Kumarila Bhatta (7th-8th century) and Prabhakara (7th-8th century). As part of their Mimamsa hermeneutics, Kumarila and Prabhakara advanced theories of language that included an enquiry into how words in a sentence behave and generate meaning and the modus operandi of linguistic sequence. The crux of the problem of sequence has been whether a given element in a sequence carries a self-sufficient/isolated meaning whereby the meaning of the sequence is merely a mechanical aggregate of the separate meanings of the constituent units of the sequence or whether the constituent element conveys not only its own original/independent meaning but also simultaneously an additional qualified meaning determined by the dynamics of the context whereby it carries traces of its emergence out of what is prior to it and of its inclination towards what is ahead of it. In his approach to the sequence of a sentence (anvitabhidhana), Prabhakara’s starting-point was a keen sense of vakyartha or sentence-meaning as an independent meaning that transcends the totality of the individual word-meanings in the sentence and of how words in a sentence are not exclusively autonomous and isolated but additionally and essentially caught in the dynamics of syntactic interdependence (Mohanty 74-75). Unlike Prabhakara and his followers, Kumarila and his followers in their approach to the sequence of a sentence (abhihitanvaya) claim that words in a sentence exclusively signify their original and separate meaning and do not concede to a sentence an independent meaning that transcends the sum of its constituent word-meanings. Though the Mimamsakas of the Bhatta school speak of the “eternity of words”(“sabdanityatva“) and also hold that the comprehension of a sentence is effected by a single mental act, they strangely deny a single and independent sentence-meaning and view it as an illusion of unity of meaning raised by the unity of cognition of the sentence (Matilal 101). In Prabhakara’s anvitabhidhanavada, an element in a sequence is a “holon” (“whole-part”) of compound individuality: it transcends and includes what is behind it and is already getting included in what is ahead of it. The sequence of a sentence is characterized not by an aggregative movement but by the holonic logic of syntax: of “akanksa“(“expectancy”), “yogyata“(“consistency”) and “samnidhi“(“contiguity”). Akanksa is a key principle of holonic sequence. Any word in a sentence has been expected/anticipated by the previous word and in turn expects/anticipates the next word. Akanksa invalidates the autonomy of a word in a sentence and renders it “dialogic” or networked “across to the other word(s).” Kumarila’s abhihitanvaya and Prabhakara’s anvitabhidhanaare opposing paradigms of the poetics of sequence: aggregative and holonic.

The most memorable expression in literature of the akanksa of time in consciousness is Walt Whitman’s  “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” that shows the poet seeing the Brooklyn ferry from the perspective of the expected future and also simultaneously with a superadded expectation of himself as the past for this future:

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt…(Fisher 367).

The finest evocation of akanksa in recent non-fiction is Jonathan Schell’s meditation in The Fate of the Earth on the “unborn” in relation to the threat of extinction posed by the nuclear peril (114-178).

In a series of essays of canonical importance in narrative theory (like “Modes of Comprehension and the Unity of Knowledge,” “History and Fiction as Modes of  Comprehension,” “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding” and “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument” ) written in the 1960s and ’70s and collected in the posthumous book Historical Understanding (1987), Louis Mink contemplated the problem of  sequence, history and narrative. Mink dwells on a mode of understanding that he calls “configurational comprehension” (53) which is a unique “single mental act” (36) that can unify “seriatim in time” (36) or the temporal succession of events one after the other into a simultaneous totality. For Mink, configurational comprehension is unavailable in actual life but is the origin and logic of narrative. Actual life is restricted to time and sequence, to “one-thing-after-another ” (85), while narrative partakes of a liberating perception of sequenceless wholeness unconstrained by time, of “seeing-things-together” (85). It is in this sense that for Mink “stories are not lived but told ” (60), that “time is not of the essence of narratives” (57) and that life and narrative are different. Mink contends that the attraction of narrative lies in its being able to embody and offer us an experience of  a “grasping together” (49) “in a single act as a totality” (37) what otherwise occurs as a sequence. Mink claims that though narratives entail a teasing oxymoronic conflation – of seeing “as a whole” incarnated “in sequence” – narratives are essentially more unitary than sequential. Mink observes that “at the highest level” (38) configurational comprehension has been defined in ” theological or quasi-theological terms” (38) as it will be “an attempt to order our knowledge of the world into a single object of understanding” (38) which can only be, as Boethius described it, ” God’s knowledge as totum simul in which all moments of time would be simultaneously present in a single divine perception” (38). Mink’s configurational comprehension is the closest approximation in Western theory to Bhartrhari’s  pratibha (flash of insight) that confers the transcendental experience of the Unity of  pasyanti/sphota that underlies the sequence of  vaikhari/dhvani.3 However, for Bhartrhari deliverance from any form of sequence in time through pratibha  (as in the case of vakhya/sentence) into the timeless Unity of Sabda Brahman is a possibility, while Mink affirms that configurational comprehension eludes us in the actual sequence of life in time and vice-versa narrative eliminates pure sequence.

As opposed to Patanjali, Bhartrhari and Louis Mink, Stanley Fish in his theory of “affective stylistics” disengages sequence from any consideration of a single meaning that transcends sequence and instead contends that the reader’s experience of literary textual sequence that he calls “event” (Fish 1972, 386) is the meaning of the text: “what it [ the text ] does is what it means” ( Fish 1980, 32 ). Fish describes reading as a response “to the words as they succeed one another in time” (Fish 1972, 387-388) and claims that literary textual sequence is an intersubjective “event” in time constituted and unfolding in the mind of the reader and not an “object” (Fish 1972, 386 ) out there of pre-given meaning. Fish implies that the tendency to overlook the dynamics of the aesthetics of literary textual sequence is a huge cognitive loss and critical failure that diminishes our sense of the nature of the literary text and the meaning of reading.

After Mink, Western narrative theory is silent about the metaphysics of narrative or the sphota of narrative. Instead, there is an overwhelming fascination with the dhvani(composition or discourse) of narrative and a strong note that narrative meaning and reading narrative are a matter of the “bliss” of sequence.4 Is sphota or a revelation of the Wholeness of meaning applicable to narrative? Certainly, the reader’s struggle with literary narrative sequence is not unsupported by a yearning for narrative Wholeness. But a literary narrative is not just a large collection of sentences. The narrative sequence of a novel that is already extensive from its several thousands of sentences is compounded by techniques of narration that are implicated in and that problematize the linearity (the succession of sentences, paragraphs and pages) and the temporality (the time it takes for the reader to cope with narrative linearity) of the narrative line. In fiction of the higher kind, narrative linearity is organized with such aesthetic challenge as to vivify the temporality of reading into hours of intense hermeneutic work or “bliss.” Reading becomes an active time of hermeneutic business or busy-ness along the linear stretch of the narrative sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph and page after page which is accompanied by an intriguing and holonic evolution of meaning. Turning the page becomes a deceptively simple act in a complex linear hermeneutics of understanding. In the strict sense, the meaning of a novel is “the act of reading” that it demands and provides which is a blissful “event” of the experience of the sequence of narrative textuality. The act of reading narrative fiction is not just a magnified version but a transfiguration of reading a sentence especially owing to the additional “rasa” or cognitive/aesthetic bliss from linearity and temporality of superadded (in some cases hyperadded) complexities. The Wholeness or sphota of narrative meaning hardly  “bursts forth” to the reader. Instead the holonic evolution and not revelation of meaning that accrues from the linear turmoil and enchantment of the reading process becomes the meaning of the novel. Recent Western theories of narrative fiction emphasize the holonic complexity of literary narrative sequence and seem to follow the trail blazed by the holonic accent of Prabhakara’s anvitabhidhana.

We cannot read all the pages of a novel at once and at no point in the novel can the reader command an instantaneous and total view of the entire novel. The reader has to turn the pages and it takes time to read. As though taking cue from the ancient and classical Indian theorists of the role of memory in the sequence of a sentence, Israeli critics like Meir Sternberg (1978) and Menakhem Perry (1979) have examined the role of memory in narrative sequence. The order of arrangement of events in a text generates a narrative movement that exploits the reader’s memory of earlier episodes or “primary effect” (Rimmon-Kenan  120 ) and also subsequently  subverts the memory of the text in a “recency effect” ( Rimmom-Kenan  120 ). At any given page in the reading of a novel that Wolfgang Iser calls “theme” (97) which offers only a limited view of the text that he calls “horizon” (97), the reader is supported by a selective memory of the text and filled with anticipation of what lies ahead in the text. But any page has the power to alter the reader’s memory of prior events and also belie the reader’s earlier anticipation. A “wandering viewpoint” (118), the reader passes through a succession of different “themes” and “horizons” with a constant teasing readjustment of memories and expectations.

Of all literary forms, narrative fiction achieves the most imaginative and complex negotiation with sequence. The extraordinary aesthetic freedom of the narrative imagination in its use and representation of linearity makes the novel the supreme art of sequence and time. Russian Formalism of the early twentieth-century speaks of how the narrative imagination redesigns the bare and chronological sequence of the “fabula” (“story”) through innovative techniques of narration into the visionary enchantment of the “sjuzet” (“narrative discourse”). The higher kinds of literary narratives excel in an esoteric defamiliarization of sequence into metaphors of time and epiphanies of human fate. Quite apart from the structure of a novel, even a sentence in a novel can in a marvelous aesthetics of narrative syntax dramatize a complex philosophy of sequence and time:

It was a summer of wistaria. The twilight was full of it and of the smell of his father’s cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies blew and drifted in soft random – the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr. Compson’s letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin’s sitting-room at Harvard. It was a day of listening too-the listening, the hearing in 1909 mostly about that which he already knew, since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833 and on Sundays, heard even one of the original three bells in the same steeple where descendants of the same pigeons strutted and crooned or wheeled in short courses resembling soft fluid paint-smears on the soft summer sky (Faulkner 31).

Gerard Genette is the theorist par excellence of the aesthetics of narrative sequence. Genette has named and classified almost the entire gamut of narrative techniques that can possibly be used in the composition of literary narratives.  Genette’s narrative taxonomy expounded in “Discours du recit” the second part of Figures III (1972) and translated by Jane Lewin as Narrative Discourse (1980) promotes new ways of seeing and discussing the aesthetics of narrative sequence and his contribution to the study of the narrative aesthetics of time in particular commands pride of place in twentieth-century narrative theory. Time as arranged in a narrative (narrative time or Erzahlzeit) may deviate either moderately or radically from the time of actual life (or story time). Genette examines the aesthetics of narrative time under three categories: “Order,” “Duration” and “Frequency.” Genette designates episodes in a novel that deform chronology either by their narration after or before their time of occurrence as “anachronies.” “Order” is the correlation between the chronological sequence of events in the ‘story” and their narrative disposition in the novel with “anachronies.” An anachrony is either an “analepsis” or a “prolepsis.” “Analepsis” (ana/after +lepse/to take on) is flashback/retroversion — the narration of an event after its time of occurrence. “Prolepsis’ (pro/before + lepse/to take on)  is  foreshadowing /flashforward — the narration of an event ahead of its time. Genette identifies several types of analepsis and prolepsis. “Duration” designates the speed of narration of time and is calculated in terms of the amount of text (the number of sentences, paragraphs and pages) devoted to the narration of a stretch of story-time. A novel may narrate 20 years of story-time in 2 pages (“acceleration”) and later narrate       2 days of story-time in 200 pages (“deceleration”).William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! represents a span of nearly 100 years in 370 pages which does not mean that it has a uniform speed of 1 year every 3  pages. The speed of actual time is constant. But the speed of narrative time fluctuates: it accelerates and decelerates. Genette indicates that an “isochronous narrative” or a narrative of uniform speed “does not exist” (87-88). “Scene” is a quaint form of “duration.” In “scene,” narrated time (the span of time of the events of the fictional world) is identical with reading time. The representation of “pure” dialogue between characters without any qualifying authorial material (as in some of the  stories of Ernest Hemingway) is an example of “scene” since the time taken for such dialogue to transpire in the fictional world (narrated time) is the same as the time it takes for a reader to read the dialogue. The running time of Fred Zinnemann’s film High Noon (1952) is the same as its narrated time of 85 minutes. In all forms of “duration” excepting “scene,” there is discrepancy between narrated time and reading time: either narrated time exceeds reading time (it does not take 100 years to read Absalom,Absalom!) or reading time exceeds narrated time( James Joyce’s Ulysses whose narrated time is one day takes several months to read). Literary narrative sequence does not merely consist of events included in narration but also paradoxically of events excluded from narration. Genette dwells on the aesthetics of different kinds of gaps or “ellipsis” in narrative sequence. “Frequency” refers to the relation between an episode in the “story” and the number of times it is narrated in the novel. Uniquely fitted to rearrange a sequence of events in imaginative combinations, narrative fiction offers encounters with odd avatars of sequence and Genette’s typology of narrative time enhances the critical sensitivity of our response to the art of sequence and time in narrative fiction.

In Palimpsestes (1982), Genette advances a new theory of the text that redefines  the ontology of a text in terms of its origin and place in a sequence of texts. A text is not self-sufficient or closed but implicated in an “explicit or implicit relationship with other texts.” This “transtextuality,” as Genette calls it, is of five types: architextuality, hypertextuality, intertextuality, metatextuality and paratextuality. All texts unavoidably emerge out of a generic matrix (architextuality). But like a palimpsest, it is possible for a text (like Graham Swift’s Last Orders) in additional self-conscious “hypertextuality” to be “grafted” or superimposed on an earlier text or “hypotext” (like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) that it does not conceal. A text can also overtly carry quotations from and allusions to earlier texts (intertextuality).

The relationship between the sequence of literary (or non-fictional/historical ) narrative and the sequence of actual life has sparked much debate. Narrative sequence is viewed as either an “imposition” and therefore a falsification of the sequence of actual life which is devoid of a narrative/holonic character or as an “extension” (Carr 1986a, 131) and therefore an enrichment of actual life which is “already organized in narrative fashion” (Carr 1986b, 72). Paradigmatic of the impositionist view, Antoine Roquentine, the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea wonders: “As if there could be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.” Similarly,  Mink claims: “Stories are not lived but told”(60) and Hayden White asks: “Does the world present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories?” (27). On the contrary, David Carr emphasizes the “continuity”(1986a, 117) between life and narrative and contends that the “first role” (1986b, 72) of narrative is in actual life as an ontological faculty with a “practical function” (1986b, 70) to enable us to make sense of “what is going on around us” (1986b, 71). “Before it is a literary genre,” Carr observes, “or indeed a form of historical writing, narrative is…the ‘ existential’ form of human time” and “the principle of organization for our action and experience” and “the very way we experience and exist in time” (1998, 119-120). Life is unlivable as a formless, unstructured or senseless sequence of events in time. We experience the actuality of life’s action not as a disjointed sequence of isolated events but as a narrativized/configured sense. Barbara Hardy (1977), Alasdair MacIntyre (1981), Raymond Tallis(1988) and  Mark Freeman(1993) have also eloquently affirmed the “narrative truth” of lived experience. But is it not enough to live our “already narrativized life”? (Carr 1984, 369). Why should we additionally or redundantly narrate it in writing – in an autobiography? Is there an existential plus in autobiographical narrative or life as told that is not available in actual life or life as lived? Is only a written autobiography a “story” or is life itself, as we live it, a “story”? An autobiography does not differ from life in kind but only in degree: it is an amplified and more intricate manifestation of our “life story” that is nested in our actual life. Our identity and the unity and meaning of our life is to a large extent a result of our “life story” which is an existential shape of sense constituted by the agency of  narrative that is integral to our actual life.

The most celebrated postmodernist/poststructuralist theory of sequence is     Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “das wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein” (“the consciousness of standing within a still effective history”) that offers an anti-realist and semiotic view of  the sequence of tradition, the relation between the present and the past and our understanding of “what is handed down to us”(Bernstein 150). Gadamer speaks of the   “Sprachlichkeit” or “linguisticality” of time. Speech is not self-sufficient but structured in the direction of the listener from whom it is inseparable. Similarly, an event or a person or a work of art of the past is a “handing over”/ “Uberlieferung” or “transmission” to a later time and is incomplete without its appropriation by the future. The past is not “something over and done with”(Hoy 59) independent of the present as an object of meaning, fully-formed, intact and out there awaiting easy discovery/understanding by the present. Contrary to the Cartesian dualism of the past as object and the present as subject, Gadamer claims that the past and the present are inseparable in a continuum in which the past continues in the present. The past has an “effect” (Wirkung) on subsequent course of events and accrues an “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte) that is “still effective” in the present and “in which the present stands and to which it contributes”( Hoy  64). The distance of time between the past and the present unavoidably influences the understanding of the past by the present as it is out of this distance that the present has arisen and which it includes within itself. But in the grip of the “intentional fallacy,” most of us assume that we can re-experience the past in all its original purity because we tend to see the time between us and the past as some neutral space that does not count or as an interference to be brushed out of view. For example, the tendency to “restore” ancient monuments so that today they can possibly look as they did in their own day is a symptom of the intentional fallacy. Whether it is a monument, text, event or figure of the past, when we elide the distance between then and now, we lose the true meaning of the past which is not independent of (and includes) what happened to it in between. Lamenting the “scrubbing” and “cleaning” of the awesome mandala of Borobudur in Java built 1,200 years ago, Walter Kaufmann observes: “Restorers are undertakers who refuse to countenance time(64) To obliterate the sense of distance created by patina, lichen, and cracks does not help. We need all the help that time’s work provides”(74). On the nature of the distance of time between the past and present, Gadamer observes: “temporal distance is not something that must be overcome. It is not a yawning abyss, but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which all that is handed down presents itself to us”(264-265). The past cannot be known “in itself” in its own terms or as it actually happened. Instead, every era engages relatively with an altered past from within its own ‘ horizon” and not objectively with an absolute past. Gadamer’s “horizon” is a semiotic view of the present as a position of “prejudices” in which the interpreter is inextricably situated (beyond which he/she cannot see) and by which he/she is inescapably determined. The present inherits a tradition of Wirkungsgeschichte or different interpretations of the past by previous generations which is integral to the horizon within which its own sense of the past is made. As history moves forward, the past incurs constant alteration of meaning as subsequent periods (each with its own  horizon and inheritance of effective history) appropriate the past differently. “The viewer of today,” Gadamer observes, ” not only sees in a different way, but he sees different things” (130). There is no absolute past available in a mirror of objective knowledge but only a changing past semiotized in a series of relative/historicist understanding.

Jitendra Nath Mohanty reads the “apaurusheya” (“anonymity’ ) of the shruti texts of the Indian tradition as similar to Gadamer’s hermeneutics of Wirkungsgeschichte. Mohanty claims that “apaurusheya” does not literally mean “authorless” and therefore “revealed” but indicates a devaluation of the monologic/intended meaning of a text and an affirmation of the freedom of the text to be open to altering interpretations within subsequent horizons of reception as it travels through time. In the reception of a text by a later generation, it is its supposedly timeless intention (“tatparya“) that “recedes” into “anonymity,” and the text, liberated from the false closure of “intention,” discloses a “plasticity [of] hermeneutic possibilities” (Mohanty 174). A rich tradition of “bhasya“/ “vritti“/ “commentary” on the primary texts is a major feature of the tradition of Indian thought. For example, vaishnavism has a glorious sampradaya/tradition spanning several centuries of vakhyana (commentaries) on the works of the elder acharyas like Yamuna and Ramanuja and the Nalaayira Divya Prabandham (Four Thousand Divine Hymns) by later critics and theologians like Pillan, Nanjiyar(12th century), Periavaccan Pillai (13th century), Vedanta Desika(1268-1369), Pillailokacharya (1264-1369), Manavalamamuni(1370-1443) and others. Rigorous training in a disciplined  scholarship of the hermeneutic polyphony of any single text down the centuries is a striking characteristic of traditional Indian education.

Fish’s “affective stylistics,” Perry and Sternberg’s “order of the text,” Genette’s “transtextuality,” Gadamer’s “Wirkungsgeschichte” and Carr’s “already narrativized world” are epistemologies of sequence that expand and endorse not Kumarila’s aggregative mechanics of abhihitanvaya but the holonic logic of Prabhakara’s anvitabhidhana. However, none of these theories suggests equivalents in the experience of time, history, tradition, text, narrative and reading to ekabudddhivisayamvakyartha and pasyanti. In this, these formulations resemble Kumarila’s rejection of the metaphysics or sphota of sequence. With the exception of Mink’s “configurational comprehension,” recent Western theories of sequence constitute a splendid poetics of holonic dhvani but without a parakrama (beyond sequence) of sphota.

While Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte makes sequence responsible for relativism of meaning that is a principal feature of postmodernist epistemology, Mink’s sense of the “discontinuity” between life and narrative has enlarged and consolidated into the notion of the artifice of meaning that is at the heart of a glamourous postmodernist/poststructuralist theory of sequence: Linda Hutcheons’s “historiographic metafiction”(105). Our sense of the meaning of history that we gather from historical narratives and that we deem to be the “natural” meaning of history corresponding with referential innocence to “what actually happened” is truly a “constructed” or “intervened” knowledge mediated/imposed by the ideologically fashioned sequence of historical narratives.  In postmodernist historical fiction, an intrusive narrative textuality of self-conscious artifice and metafictional laying bare of narrative production demystifies the realist myth of representation that “events seem to narrate themselves”(Benveniste 208) and dispels the realist illusion of reference that narrative is a mirror of a naturally fully-formed reality “already there” and installs the anti-realism that narrative makes reality i.e. narrated meaning is a construction and not a reflection and more importantly that reality/history is like narrative–an artefact i.e. reality is not “natural” but “made” like narrative and made in discourses like narrative.5 In the paradigm of narrative realism, representation is like reality–natural. In the postmodern paradigm of narrative anti-realism, reality is like representation–made. That reality/history/meaning is an artefact like narrative is the semiotic/anti-realist/constructivist postmodern epistemology of sequence. Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth calls this postmodern overthrow of the realist illusion of reference and bad faith of representation the “sequel to history”(1992).

Postmodernity seems a huge assault on sequence. The instantaneous hyperreality of CNN, CBS, ABC, and NBC that take us “Live” anywhere in the world anytime and the electronic Gaia of our wired world of “nanoseconds” that makes us inhabitants of a simultaneous reality have abolished movement and delay.  The hypertexts of websites on the Internet are a cornucopia of non-sequential pathways of  information and non-linear  nested/encased/embedded modes of cognition. With marvelous archival memory, postmodern TV overloads the present with the past and in the process unwittingly diminishes our sense of sequenced subsequence. The TRex and I-Max coexist in unsequenced  a-yogyata (inappropriateness) in postmodern experience. Like the past, the future too is “now” for the postmodern mind. In an annulment of akanksa and what can be called a Macbeth Syndrome, the postmodern psyche messes up the natural rhythm of temporal sequence and wants the future ahead of its time and cannot wait for the future to happen at its own appointed time. As a consequence, the postmodern present has lost its natural duration of expectation of the future and has succumbed to an odd sequenceless obsolescence. Out of its acute inclination to subvert the known as a monologic error or a false finality with a dialogic depiction of improbable otherness, the postmodernist narrative imagination shatters sequence into esoteric discontinuities that are ” not meant to represent any temporality other than that of the text at all” (Heise 64) and that annul our very belief in sequence. As for MTV, it is a horror of imploded sequence. All in all, the post-industrial informational epoch is a cyber utopia without sequence where all time is now and everywhere is here. But postmodern simultaneity is a digital delusion of sequencelessness of the hubris/power of the ego that is only the latest in a long line of surrogates for eternity that change from age to age in the history of the ego and not at all the egolessness of true liberation in sequenceless Spirit.

In the opening lines of “Tiruppallandu” (“Holy Eternity”), Periyalwar, through dizzy repetition, stretches the sequence of time to extinction and reveals the sequenceless eternity (of Lord Vishnu) underlying time.6 “Tiruppallandu” is a quaint inversion of the normal petitionary prayer of ordinary mortals to God for their own welfare in terms of long life: it is a self-less prayer that Lord Vishnu himself should abide “many crores of hundred thousand years.”7Composed in the genre of “mangala saasanam“(“wishing welfare”), Periyalwar’s song apparently invokes welfare in the worldly mode of bountiful temporal sequence (“many years”) but mystically implies that the true “mangalam“(“welfare”) of consciousness is the sequenceless eternity of Vishnu or “Vishnuchitta” (that also happened to be Periyalwar’s other name). Periyalwar’s mystical utterance is typically in the language of paradox: may eternity prevail forever and forever since without eternity “many crores of hundred thousand years” are a barren sequence “signifying nothing.”8 Periyalwar’s anxiety of eternity is the most novel expression of homelessness in sequence in Indian wisdom.

The message of centuries of meditation in the East and the West on the enigma of sequence is that sequence is the primordial “play” (“lila“) and paradox of the One and the Many, the principal perplexity of consciousness, and the perennial teaser of meaning.


  1. 1.My translation. For the original Tamil text, seeNalayira Divya Prabandham:Part I (Chennai: The Little Flower Company, 1986), pp.2-6. For an English translation of “Tiruppallandu,” see P.S.Sundaram, trans. The Azhwars: For the Love of God / Selections from the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1996), pp.3-5. “Crore” is the anglicized form of the word in several Indian languages (like “karor” in Hindi and “kodi” in Tamil) for “ten million.”
  2. For a delicate observation that like “rasain aesthetics,moksa in the ‘aims of life’ , sannyasa in the life-stages, . . . and bhakti in religion,” “sphota in semantics” is a “free state” that signifies the Indian “dream” to transcend the Indian “rules” that bind the Indian world-picture, see “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking: An Informal Essay,” in The Collected Essays of A.K.Ramanujan, ed. Vinay Dharwadker (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.48. In Indian thought, the ultimate meaning/experience of consciousness is to go beyond (para) or overcome or annul semiotized conventional/normative identity in absolute de-semiotizing release. On the correlation between semiotics and spirituality, Ken Wilber in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), p.30, observes: “Transformative spirituality, authentic spirituality is . . . revolutionary. It does not legitimate the world, it breaks the world; it does not console the world, it shatters it. And it does not render the self content, it renders it undone.” Sphota as the undoing of the semiotized sequence of a sentence is a variation on the self’s destiny of absolute de-semiotizing freedom from every structure of conventional meaning.
  3. Roman Jakobson’s theory of metaphor and metonymy advanced in the 1950s is a landmark in the contemplation of the problem of sequence in Western linguistics. Jakobson identifies two poles in linguistic utterance: “metaphor” or the paradigmatic axis of a fund of “similarity” out of which a “selection” of words is made and fitted into a “combination” in the “metonymy” or syntagmatic axis of “contiguity” of an utterance. Jakobson’s “metaphor” posits a foundational or transcendent or originary pool/matrix/Ground of the metonymy of language. Though Jakobson’s “metaphor” does not directly affirm the Unity ofsphota/pasyanti/Sabda Brahmanor of Mink’s “configurational comprehension,” it has a sense of the One as it renders metonymy/sequence as derived and lacking a self-sufficient ontology. Mixing psychoanalysis and linguistics, Jacques Lacan has advanced a theory of subjectivity and signification and an epistemology of the sorrow of consciousness that carries a critique of metonymy/sequence. For Lacan, the “primary” laws of the unconscious (or “primary process”) — “displacement” (similarity confused as identity) and “condensation” (contiguity confused as identity) — resemble the basic poles of language: metaphor and metonymy respectively. As such, “the unconscious is structured like a language.” Lacan conceptualizes consciousness as hopelessly implicated in the “Symbolic” order that is a condition of expulsion from the “Imaginary” order of the child’s pre-oedipal metaphoric wholeness of “desire” for the mother into the unredeemed/futile metonymy of language and laws through the intervening threat of castration posed by the father and is therefore essentially a modality of “loss” provoking a search for “substitutes” for the Imaginary mother. The displacement of consciousness in the “lack” of the Symbolic order (or “the Phallus’ or “The Name-of-the-Father”) is compounded by the displacing ontology of language in which reality is turned into a public system of “disembodied and conventional signs”(Cavallaro 32). For Lacan, exile and misrecognition in metonymy is the misery of consciousness withheld from meaning. Cristopher Nash observes that postmodernist thought depicts symbolic metonymy as a state of loss and absence precipitated by an “inaugural crisis”(71) or originary trauma of a lost paradise of consciousness in which we are “‘ merely other’ than what we can neither be nor possess” (72).
  4. The ancient and classical Indian grammarians and philosophers use the term “dhvani” to refer to the sounds of an utterance and therefore the outer/material form of language while the medieval Indian aestheticians (like Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta) use “dhvani” to designate the principal/single mood or “rasa” collectively evoked by a poem or play and therefore a reader-oriented/performative “affect” that is a sort of equivalent in aesthetics tosphota.
  5. Long before the contemporary Western postmodern preoccupation with self-reflexivity, Panini (450-350B.C.), Katyayana, Patanjali and Bhartrhari dwelt on how “sabda” (which is the “dhvani” of speech sounds or the signifier that is inseparably tied to “artha” or the signified of the “thing meant”) draws attention to “its own form” or “svarupam” of sound-materiality (Raja 117-118; Houben 69-71). In theVakyapadiya (1. 55-56), Bhartrhari contends that without the listener’s reception ofsabdasvarupa  the “artharupa” of sabda cannot occur: “Just as light has two powers, that of being revealed and that of being the revealer, similarly, all words have two distinct powers. No meaning is conveyed by words which have not themselves become the objects of knowledge” (Iyer 1965, 61-62). In pragmatic communication, sabdasvarupa crucially facilitates the cognition of arthasvarupa: “Therefore, when the own form of the word is not understood, one asks the speaker ‘ What did you say?’ “(Iyer 1965, 62). Does sabdasvarupa ever intrusively jeopardize the signifying power of sabda (“abidha“) and annul referential artha? Invariably in excessively aestheticized/hermetic linguistic “riti“/style, sabdasvarupa tends to almost usurp arthasvarupa.  Like esoteric language and unlike pragmatic language, self-conscious literary narrative allows dhvani to become artha: the manner of the novel becomes its matter or the telling is the tale. Further, and most uniquely, postmodern literary narratives use self-conscious artifice of narrative svarupa or dhvani intrusively to formulate a constructivist epistemology of narrative signification: if narrative dhvani is made how can narrative artha be otherwise i.e. natural? That narrative artha/signified is as much an artifact as narrative dhvani/signifier is the boldest inversion of the commonsense that is best reflected in the view of classical Indian philosophy of language that the relation (“sambhandha“) between sabda and artha is “nitya“(“beginingless”). In postmodernist historiographic metafiction, self-disclosing artefactual narrative dhvani colonizes narrative artha to establish representation and reality as an empire of signs. That the sequence of history is a time of signs is one of the signs of our postmodern times.
  6. See Bruce F. Kawin,Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature andFilm (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), for a sensitive account of how “up to a point, repetition emphasizes the sense of what is repeated”(170) but how thereafter “the repeated word loses its original meaning”(170) and “charms the mind”(45) to “see past it”(184) and becomes “a deliverer”(45) from the sequence of language, history, and time.
  7. The Pandyan King Srivallabhadevan invited eminent pundits to a grand debate in Madurai to assess (“nirnayam“) the nature of Ultimate Reality(“param porul“). Vishunuchittar (Periyalwar) who established Lord Vishnu as the Absolute emerged the winner in the debate and was awarded a purse of gold coins. Vishnuchittar was also ceremonially taken in a victory-procession through the streets of Madurai on an elephant. Lord Vishnu himself wanted to have a glimpse of his triumphant devotee and appeared with his consort Lakshmi on his Garudavahana in a heavenly vision. Vishnuchittar was enraptured by the immaculate Glory of the Lord and feared that the Lord might incur the evil eye of mortals. Momentarily forgetting out of the innocence of hisbhaktithat Vishnu is the Saviour, Vishnuchittar spontaneously burst into song – the “Tiruppallandu” – to protect the Lord with eternal life (Srinivasan 15-17).
  8. Any sentence by the very fact of one word succeeding another is metonymic. But in Shakespeare’s utterance “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/ signifying nothing ” it is not any word that succeeds a word. There is a succession of the same word as a lexical trick that enacts the monotony and meaninglessness of metonymy. Consciousness is required to break out of metonymic futility into metaphoric unity. The meaning of our lives is not in the metonymy of day after day but in the metaphor of what we do with the days of our lives. Meaning is the modification of metonymy into metaphor: “pallandu” into “vishnuchitta.”

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A.V. Ashok is Associate Professor in the Centre for English Literature, School of Critical Humanities, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad 500 007, India. Email: av_ashok@hotmail.com.