Daniil Kharms: On Time, Space and Existence

I am happy to add an English translation to Dannil Kharms’ philosophical parody О времени, о пространстве, о существовании.


A note from the translator:

The text, as prepared for the Web by Serge Winitzki, is an imprecise rendition of the original work and may contain errors, despite proofreading. May be used for information purposes only. Distribute for free, but always together with this notice and in unchanged form.

On Time, Space and Existence

1. A world which is not can not be called existing, because it is not.

2. A world consisting of something unified, homogeneous and continuous can not be called existing, because in such a world there are no parts and, once there are no parts, there is no whole.

3. An existing world must be heterogeneous and have parts.

4. Every two parts are different, because one part will always be thus one and the other that one.

5. If only this one exists, then that one cannot exist, because, as we have said, only this exists. But such a this cannot exist, because if this exists it must be heterogeneous and have parts. And if it has parts that means it consists of this and that.

6. If this and that exist, this means that not this and not that exist, because if not this and not that did not exist, then this and that would be unified, homogeneous and continuous and consequently would also not exist.

7. We shall call the first part this and the second part that and the transition from one to the other we shall call neither this nor that.8.

We shall call neither this nor that ‘the impediment’.

9. Thus: the basis of existence comprises three elements: this, the impediment and that.

10. We shall express non-existence as zero or a unity. Therefore we shall have to express existence by the number three.

11. Thus: dividing a unitary void into two parts, we get the trinity of existence.

12. Or: a unitary void, experiencing a certain impediment, splits into parts, which make up the trinity of existence.

13. The impediment is that creator which creates ‘something’ out of ‘nothing’.

14. If this one, on its own, is ‘nothing’ or a non-existent ‘something’, then the ‘impediment’ is also ‘nothing’ or a non-existent ‘something’.

15. By this reckoning there must be two ‘nothings’ or nonexistent ‘somethings’.

16. If there are two ‘nothings’ or non-existent ‘somethings’, then one of them is the ‘impediment’ to the other, breaking it down into parts and becoming itself a part of the other.

17. In the same way the other, being the impediment to the first, splits it into parts and itself becomes a part of the first.

18. In this way are created, of their own accord, non-existent parts.

19. Three, of their own accord, non-existent parts create the three basic elements of existence.

20. The three, of their own accord, non-existent basic elements of existence, all three together, make up a certain existence.

21. If one of the three basic elements of existence should disappear, then the whole would disappear. So: should the ‘impediment’ disappear, then this one and that one would become unitary and continuous and would cease to exist.

22. The existence of our universe generates three ‘nothings’ or separately, on their own account, three non-existent ‘somethings’: space, time and something else which is neither time nor space.

23. Time, of its essence, is unitary, homogeneous and continuous and thereby does not exist.

24. Space, of its essence, is unitary, homogeneous and continuous and thereby does not exist.

25. But as soon as space and time enter into a certain mutual relationship they become the impediment, the one of the other, and begin to exist.

26. As they begin to exist, space and time become mutually parts, one of the other.

27. Time, experiencing the impediment of space, breaks down into parts, generating the trinity of existence.

28. A split down and existing, consists of the three basic elements of existence: the past, the present and the future.

29. The past, the present and the future, as basic elements of existence, always stood in inevitable dependence, each on the other. There cannot be a past without a present and a future, or a present without a past and a future, or a future without a past and a present.

30. Examining these three elements separately, we see that there is no past because it has already gone and here is no future because it has not yet come. That means that there remains only one thing — the ‘present’. But what is the ‘present’?

31. When we are pronouncing this word, the letters of this word which have been pronounced become past and the unpronounced letters still lie in the future. This means that only that sound which is being pronounced now is ‘present’.

32. But of course the process of pronouncing this sound possesses a certain length. Consequently, a certain part of this process is ‘present’, just as the other parts are either past or future. But the same thing too may be said of this part of the process which had seemed to us to be ‘the present’.

33. Reflecting in this manner, we see that there is no ‘present’.

34. The present is only the ‘impediment’ in the transition from past to future and past and future appear to us as the this and that of the existence of time.

35. Thus: the present is the ‘impediment’ in the existence of time and, as we said earlier, space serves as the impediment in the existence of time.

36. By this means: the ‘present’ of time is space.

37. There is no space in the past and the future, it being contained entirely in the ‘present’. And the present is space.

38. And since there is no present, neither is there any space.

39. We have explained the existence of time but space, of its own accord, does not yet exist.

40. In order to explain the existence of space, we must take that incidence when time performs as the impediment of space.

41. Experiencing the impediment of time, space splits into parts, generating the trinity of existence.

42. Broken down, existing space consists of three elements: there, here and there.

43. In the transition from one there to the other there, it is necessary to overcome the impediment here, because if it were not for the impediment here, then the one there and the other there would be unitary.

44. Here is the ‘impediment’ of existing space. And, as we said above, the impediment of existing space is time.

45. Therefore: the here of space is time.

46. The here of space and the ‘present’ of time are the points of intersection between time and space.

47. Examining space and time as basic elements in the existence of the universe, we would say: the universe expresses space, time and something else which is neither time nor space.

48. That ‘something’ which is neither time nor space is the ‘impediment’, which generates the existence of the universe.

49. This ‘something’ expresses the impediment between time and space.

50. Therefore this ‘something’ lies at the point of intersection of time and space.

51. Consequently this ‘something’ is to be found in time at the point of the ‘present’ and in space at the point of the ‘here’.

52. This ‘something’ which is to be found at the point of intersection of space and time generates a certain ‘impediment’, separating the ‘here’ from the ‘present’.

53. This ‘something’, generating the impediment and separating the ‘here’ from the ‘present’, creates a certain existence which we call matter or energy. (Henceforth we shall provisionally call this simply matter.)

54. Thus: the existence of the universe, as organised by space, time and their impediment, is expressed as matter.

55. Matter testifies to us of time.

56. Matter testifies to us of space.

57. By this means: the three basic elements of the existence of the universe are perceived by us as time, space and matter.

58. Time, space and matter, intersecting one with another at definite points and being basic elements in the existence of the universe, generate a certain node.

59. We shall call this node — the Node of the Universe.

60. When I say of myself: ‘I am’, I am placing myself within the Node of the Universe.

Poetry with a whiff of mathematics

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

William Hughes Mearns (1875–1965), “Antigonish” (1899)

And this is Glenn Miller’s song on YouTube.

Russian poetry from the Internet

Чипса Эстрелла (marishia),

Из Мурома
– Встань, Илья, – говорит калика, –
открой калитку.
Илья лежит на печи,

– Встань, Илья, – повторяет странник.
– Не встану.
Ты, прохожий,
слепой, похоже.
Родила меня мать
такого, что ни сесть, ни встать.
Ни шагнуть за порог,
ни открыть ворот,
пользы от меня никакой, только лишний рот.

– Кто тебя бранил, – говорит калика, – никого не слушай.
Вставай, Илюша.

И встает Илья, и делает первый шаг.
И потом второй.
– Молодец, – смеется калика, – теперь открой.
Давай, давай, иди сюда, торопись, открывай,
словно двери в рай.

И Илья идет, и впускает странников в дом,
сам не зная, как, шагает по половицам.

– Мы к тебе, Илюша, дошли с великим трудом, –
говорит старик. – Принеси-ка теперь напиться.

Илья приносит воды. Старик стоит у дверей,
говорит ему:
– Пей.
Илья выпивает ковшик, потом второй.
Старик говорит ему:
– Стой.
Чуешь, растет от водицы сила твоя?
– Да, – отвечает Илья. –
Столько я чувствую сил –
землю бы своротил!

– Лишнее это, сынок,
выпей еще глоток.
А то бы силы твоей
хватило б на двух-то богатырей.
А теперь выходи из дому, никого не боясь,
ждет тебя киевский князь.

Илья выходит и поднимает взгляд,
смотрит на солнце, не прикрывая глаз.
Делает вдох.
– Иди, – ему говорят
калики в который раз.

Илья поворачивается,
и идет,
и идет,
и идет,
и постепенно становится мифом.
Персонажем легенд и былин.

Вечером мать вернется с тяжелых работ.

А никто и не знает,
куда пропал ее сын.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

The title of this wonderful novel by Italo Calvino is already a masterpiece. As soon I saw saw the book on s shop shelf, I bought it on impulse because of its title.  To the Russian ear, it had immediate connotations with the famous passage from Chekhov’s “Ionych”:

Then they all sat down in the drawing-room with very serious faces, and Vera Iosifovna read her novel. It began like this: “The frost was intense… .” The windows were wide open; from the kitchen came the clatter of knives and the smell of fried onions… . It was comfortable in the soft deep arm-chair; the lights had such a friendly twinkle in the twilight of the drawing-room, and at the moment on a summer evening when sounds of voices and laughter floated in from the street and whiffs of lilac from the yard, it was difficult to grasp that the frost was intense, and that the setting sun was lighting with its chilly rays a solitary wayfarer on the snowy plain. Vera Iosifovna read how a beautiful young countess founded a school, a hospital, a library, in her village, and fell in love with a wandering artist; she read of what never happens in real life, and yet it was pleasant to listen — it was comfortable, and such agreeable, serene thoughts kept coming into the mind, one had no desire to get up.

In Russia of “the period of stagnation”, the expression “The frost was intense” (“мороз крепчал”) became proverbial and was transformed into a less politically correct, but more politically charged, derivative.

And I was delighted to discover that my instinctive choice was correct and that, indeed, Calvino’s book “did exactly what it said on the tin“!