The River of the Da Vinci Codex   3 comments

Early on in the research for the book, I was thinking of the frequency with which rivers are connected with time in Western thought & art when I came across a study of fluvial morphology by Julian Rzóska. On the title page, a passage from Leonardo da Vinci, whose birthday you can celebrate today:  “L’acqua che tocchi dei fiumi e l’ultima di quella che andò e la prima di quella che viene.  Così il tempo presente.”  (da Vinci, Codex Trivulziano fol 34 r., Milan)

In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci dipped his hands into a river and drew forth a lesson in time: “In rivers the water you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes.  So with time present.”  Da Vinci’s analogy posits the flow of the river as a model for temporal flow.  We touch and are pressed by time: the past pushes on us from one side, the future pulls from another, and we bathe in the watery present.  Western literature has long used rivers as a means of thinking about the flow of time and what we can or cannot do about it, from Greek historians’ interest in nilotic periodicity up through Henry David Thoreau’s boast that time is but a stream he goes a-fishing in.  Writers have set up camp by the river and curiously watched as time and meaning, struggle and recovery, gods and devils, transcendence and trouble floated by.  —Chapter 2, By the River


Posted April 15, 2011 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

3 responses to “The River of the Da Vinci Codex

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  1. Thoughts-3/23/11- is time like a river?
    I would have thought that the one-way motion of a river would clearly correspond with the seemingly one-way motion of time. But here are some valid perspectives I have been pondering which support 2 or 3 intriguing, seemingly incompatible or opposite views:
    1. the upstream part of a river corresponds with the future:
    If I’m standing or walking in a band of a river and looking upstream, the water and things in the water are coming at me, like events and things in the future will come at me. I am something “in” the stream of time. I can courageously say, “bring it on!” about stuff in the river, or stuff in life. Some of what’s coming at me I can see, and plan for, but other things are around the bend upstream, and I will have to deal with as it comes closer to me. I can struggle to be strong, stiff and rigid and not let things coming at me knock me over, or I can be more fluid and twist and turn to deftly deal with the endless stuff and water coming at me, so that they don’t knock me over or stress me out too much.
    The past is receding behind me, downstream, and isn’t all that important to me now. Recent stuff is closer behind me and distant stuff has already receded around the bend in the river. The past isn’t so important, because it’s gone; what’s important is how I navigate and attend to the now, using the lessons of my past experiences. If I’m able to meditate well, I can sit or stand peacefully and allow things happening in the universe to flow right past me, leaving me undisturbed, as if I am in a timeless moment and an unshifting space. If I’m sitting on shore, I can look at the recent past, what has just passed by, and see it clearly . . . or I can look farther into the past by turning my head to look way downstream, in which case I can’t see with as much clarity and resolution. Or I can turn my head and look upstream into the future, at things which I anticipate will be happening to me sooner or later. But the water that’s coming towards me is chaotic, and not easily predictable. My job is to manage myself well in the now, with whatever comes at me. . . to swim well, or dance well in the now.
    Other people are there in the river with me, encountering the future as it comes at us; sometimes we choose to hold hands as teammates to better meet the challenges of the future.
    2. Downstream corresponds with the future:
    If I’m floating or swimming with the water, I’m moving with time, towards the unknown future, which I will deal with sooner or later. I can see just so far downstream, ahead, so I can see some dangers. But I can’t see all of the ‘rocks’ around the bend that will eventually be obstacles for me to deal with. When obstacles appear in the future, downstream, I can move laterally or slow down or speed up a bit, because I have arms to swim with, or oars to skillfully steer my boat. If I’m fluid and able to ‘go with the flow’ then I don’t fight the current, and I playfully frolic with the other things in the river, as we travel downstream, towards the future. I am a process not just happening “in” the stream of time, but also “with” the stream of time. The water and things upstream, behind me, push me, just as my past experiences and ways of dealing with the world give me a karma that pushes me to think, feel & behave in certain ways. My karma, the water behind me, upstream, is VERY important. It’s tiring and almost impossible to fight (for too long) the current that’s pushing me on, but if I meditate well (or when I sleep), I can zone-out and just float along, without cares for the other things happening in the universe, which are also floating along in time, with the water. But if I’m asleep too much, or have foggy vision too often, I will surely bump roughly into obstacles; this will hopefully awaken me, and teach me to be a more aware ‘pilot’ of my ship.
    Other people are similarly floating along in time with me, and I can choose to hold hands with them to travel with them for awhile, since sometimes two together are better/stronger than one alone, in going with the flow, in travelling with time.
    3. The whole river is both ever-changing & ever-present, just like the true nature of me . . . and the universe.
    Upstream stuff is happening and downstream stuff is happening. All parts of the ever-changing river are happening, now, and always. The past and the future are both happening. My past is happening, and my future is happening, and my usual dualistic way of conceiving of the past, the future, and the time dimension is the problem. Is there just one view of history, what really happened, or do we each have valid viewpoints on what happened in the past? Will only one thing/process happen in the future, or will each person’s different viewpoint somehow create different realities for themselves.
    What is the now? Is it a very small segment of time, lasting only about a quarter of a second? It seems to be the all-important time when I experience something, when a thought, sensation or perception is happening in my awareness. By “now” I tend to mean the quick segment of time it takes for a sensation or thought to happen, the time it takes a boxcar in my ‘train’ of thought to pass by. . . and, typically, my train of thought passes by with a speed of about 3 to 5 boxcars per second. Sometimes my train of thought speeds up a bit (e.g. after my morning coffee). Sometimes it slows down quite a bit (e.g. with meditation). And sometimes it stops altogether and I’m not aware of having conscious experiences, (e.g. when I’m unconscious from sleep or anesthetics or I’m in a coma).
    This 3rd view supports the fact that we can have accurate memories of the past (perhaps even of previous incarnations before we were born) and we can (perhaps, occaisionally) have precognition or premonitions about stuff that is “in” the future . . . all of which is really happening ‘now’. We can look both upstream and downstream at what is happening all along the time dimension (although our vision of the past and future is less accurate the further we try to look from the ‘now’).
    With this view, I am a more timeless process. I don’t just exist in the now, in a tiny segment of the time dimension. Here’s an analogy: my existence in the north/south, east/west and up/down spatial dimensions seems to be limited to the segment of space inside my skin, since that’s the space I mainly occupy, but actually the electromagnetic and gravitational fields of my body extend to infinity in all 3 spatial dimensions (albeit to a decreasing extent, falling off as the square of the distance from where “I” am). Similarly, my existence in the time dimension seems to be limited to the segment of time we call “now” (or perhaps from my conception to the death of my body) . . . . but perhaps the unique process that is me actually extends to infinity (?) into the past and future on the time dimension. With this view: I am a twinkle in my father’s eye, I am a baby, I am a searching teen, I am a pensive middle-aged man experiencing a lot of joy, and I am the great-grandfather of great-grandchildren. All of these things are really happening, just like the upstream and downstream aspects of the river are happening. I am not limited to this time, just like I am not geographically compact and discrete.
    This view tempers the seeming finality of the death of my body. Just like the river, you can’t put your finger on the real me. The river and I are ever-changing and ever-present. My soul, or the real me, is not separate from everything else. In a deep sense, behind my usual illusion that I am a separate object or process in time and space, I am the Cosmic Dance, the only ‘thing’ that is. Or, if you will, God is the only thing happening, and what we tend to see as separate things/processes happening are just manifestations of God. I am not separate from the only ‘process’ happening in 4-dimensional space-time. (btw, I bet there are many other “metaphysical” dimensions that we can’t really understand or relate to easily.) It’s all a miraculous and incomprehensible big mish-mash; there are no clear-cut boundaries between things that have happened, are happening, or will happen in the only dance there is. Everything that happens is intimately related and interconnected to everything else that has happened and is happening. But alas, because I am only human (and am therefore intimately tied to a unique mind/heart/brain that mainly occupies this particular space and time in the here and now), usually I think I am a separate thing or process, happening here and now, but not happening over there, or in the distant past or the distant future.
    Although it’s fascinating to try, probably the tool of words (abstract concepts) in a person’s mind/heart/brain are inherently inadequate to understand deep, unanswerable questions such as these. Zen Buddhism and mystics encourage us to quiet the mind/heart/brain and just ‘grok’ (ala Robert Heinlein) the nature of reality. Sitting beside a mesmerizing river often helps me do this. Gooonnnnngggg.

    • Hey, ED MILLER! Thanks for bringing our attention to the “miraculous and incomprehensible big mish-mash.” I like the different by-the-river experiments you make & especially the questions you raise. In the book, I deal with some of those questions or their variations — I say “deal” because I don’t think I answer them, which might suggest that they are truly good questions, the kind that keep asking themselves, putting themselves to us (whether we like it or not).

  2. Whoa, Ed — deep thoughts, man — I love it!

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