The way we understand our relationship to time defines the way we live. If we’re not careful, we can get caught up in the darting pace of our hurried modern world, considering time only as it relates to clocks and calendars. The result is that we stretch the most ambitious versions of ourselves out into the future without being mindful of how the present shapes us. By contrast, we can learn to live in an increasingly reflective relationship to time, experiencing it as a force in which we live with emotional, even spiritual, vitality.
The way we experience time is a major theme in the film Doctor Strange, which traces the spiritual metamorphosis of the title character as he moves from self-centred materialism to selfless spirituality. To make sense of the good Doctor’s enlightened relationship to time, we’ll consult the revolutionary philosopher Henri Bergson.
Few modern philosophers left an imprint as wide and indelible as Bergson, who was appointed Chair of Ancient Philosophy at the Collège de France and won the 1927 Nobel Prize in literature. Known to intellectuals and laymen alike, Bergson’s lectures filled halls to standing room only capacity. William James, an American psychologist and philosopher, called Bergson’s book Creative Evolution “a true miracle” and the “beginning of a new era.” Philosopher Jean Wahl said that “if one had to name the four great philosophers one could say: Socrates, Plato – taking them together – Descartes, Kant and Bergson.” Bergson was greatly appreciated by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, influenced writers like T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and was heavily criticised by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Most important for us, Bergson’s work on time held a weight in philosophy comparable to what Einstein’s theory of special relativity carried in science.
Bergson argued that time had suffered from the scientific rationality of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, because scientific approaches to time failed to get at time’s essence. According to Bergson, the work of thinkers like Einstein subjected time to a cold empiricism, neglecting the lived experience of time: “Time could be enormously and even infinitely accelerated; nothing would be changed for the mathematician, for the physicist or for the astronomer.” Despite its slowing down or speeding up, time remains a static object to the scientist, a mere object of experimentation. The scientist’s imperceptive understanding of time would fail to see the power of time on human consciousness.
The experience of actually living in time, however, cannot be so easily controlled. Bergson thought that we existed in a relationship with time, and any change in time would be keenly felt by the human mind. As Bergson puts it, if there occurred a change in time, “the difference with regard to consciousness would be profound.” As conscious beings, our relationship to time transcends empirical knowledge: It reaches into the core our humanity, indeed, of our spirituality.
Bergson’s views of time inaugurated a “new spiritualism” that marked a “revolt against mechanism.” For Bergson, scientifically closed mechanism, which views reality as nothing more than the inner workings of a clock, distorted the truth of time and eliminated the possibility of living meaningfully within it. Only a philosophically open spiritualism could show time for what it is: a living force.
If physics could not make complete sense of time, as Bergson argued, then we must find a more fitting way of understanding it. To distinguish Time from the quantifiable chronological bent of science, Bergson liked to use the term “duration.” Duration acts like a force, and we feel this force at work within us; we do not just exist in Time. In Time, we actually become. And because science “no more applies to becoming, so far as that [Time] is moving, than the bridges thrown here and there across the stream follow the water that flows under their arches”, we must move beyond science. Our experience in Time depends upon liberation from static rationality and clock-tethered thinking about Time.
Stephen Strange begins on the wrong side of the Bergsonian divide. He is a man of science: brilliant, rational, and closed off to any reality beyond the material world. When we first see Strange in the operating room he is finishing up a procedure, performing brain surgery with the ease of preparing a salad. To amuse himself and demonstrate the range of his knowledge, the doctor plays a game with the surgical techs in which he has to name random songs. It only takes Strange a moment to identify the first song: “‘Feels So Good.’ Chuck Mangione. 1977.” At first it looks like he got the year wrong, but it turns out that “Feels So Good” was indeed released in 1977 even though it wasn’t a hit until 1978. We are meant to see Strange as a man obsessed with the clock. He is given to remembering even the most obscure dates, each one representative of calendar time.
As we get to know more about what kind of man Stephen Strange is, we are taken from a medical space to a materialist one, from the operating room to his penthouse. In his downtown Manhattan apartment Strange surrounds himself with luxury. As one example, we see his watch collection, rows and rows of watches, each more expensive than the last – time literally sprawled out before him. He chooses a watch given to him by Doctor Christine Palmer, Strange’s lingering love interest in the film. The inscription of the back of the watch reads: “Time will tell you how much I love you.”
The watch foreshadows the fact that time will soon connect Strange to a deeper sense of his emotional self than he has ever known, but not before he is torn from his superficiality. In the subsequent scene, in a moment of reckless megalomania, navigating recklessly while looking at a potential surgical case that might bring him even more accolades, Strange drives his egocentric life off a cliff. In an instant, the fast pace at which Strange blew through life towards the future ceases. For the first time, he faces the present.
Strange’s scientific rationality counts for nothing once he finds himself at Kamar-Taj, the end of his quest for healing and the house of the Ancient One. Here the doctor’s relationship with time takes a hard Bergsonian turn. Strange’s meeting with the Ancient One is not just a contrast in worldviews – it is a contest between two ways of experiencing duration. Strange represents an ambitious abuse of time: Only looking to what the next moment might bring him, he sees time through a scientific keyhole. In contrast, the Ancient One lives in and embodies the present. Living intentionally in opposition to the haste of modern materialism and scientism’s closed assumptions about the supernatural, the Ancient One meditatively taps into a mysterious dimensional power continually animating every present moment.
According to Bergson, the purpose of life is to move from Strange’s experience of time to the Ancient One’s, to go from what Bergson called quantitative multiplicity to qualitative multiplicity. We can think of multiplicity as a way of expressing the multi-faceted nature of reality. Reality, and the human experience thereof, is not a singular thing, and the idea of multiplicity captures the diversely intermingled essence of lived experience. While multiplicity gets at the many aspects of what we experience of reality, the terms quantitative and qualitative get at how we experience them. Quantitative multiplicity is a way of knowing something by measuring and counting it, dealing in amounts and numbers, whereas qualitative multiplicity, as we’ll see, is more elaborate and nuanced.
According to Bergson, quantitative multiplicity occurs in a uniform or homogenous space. Bergson mentions counting sheep as an example: counting distinct and fairly identical objects in a well-defined space. When we come to something more abstract, like time, quantitative multiplicity runs into some problems. We find that we cannot measure time the way we count stars in the sky. In this case, quantitative multiplicity tries to enumerate what cannot be enumerated. Strange starts off with this mechanistic way of understanding duration: When the Ancient One asks him, “What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses?”, Strange can only answer from a place of quantitative multiplicity. Trapped inside his own scientific worldview, he only knows how to add things up.
But as Strange grows in knowledge and skill at the mystic arts – and as he learns to quiet his rather loud ego – he evolves into a spiritually-minded man able to experience time according to qualitative multiplicity. Rather than trying to quantify duration, he develops an intuitive, subjective perception of time. Bergson believed that life and time could not be measured as if they existed on a homogenous plain. After all, experiencing time is not like counting stars or sheep. Rather, he thought that our lived experiences in time were marked by profound variety or heterogeneity. Furthermore, not only are our conscious experiences in time heterogeneous, there are no distinguishable parts that could be diced up and counted – if there were, then we would find ourselves back in a state of quantitative multiplicity. The complexity of time must be embraced, not resisted or subdued.
Quantitative multiplicity is a misguided, analytical approach to life in time. It tries to understand time as one would understand space: dividing and measuring its constituent parts. Qualitative multiplicity, by contrast, understands the force of temporal duration and the way we experience life. The conscious mind feels the force of time at work, allowing itself to be formed by the dynamic nature of lived experience. In qualitative multiplicity, “several conscious states are organized into a whole, permeate one another, and gradually gain a richer content.” Durative flow invests the present with the power of life itself. Once the mind comes to know duration intuitively, it is expanded into each complex moment. Strange thus grows into an emotionally multi-dimensional person during his time at Kamar-Taj. As Bergson would say, Strange learns to delve “beneath the numerical multiplicity of conscious states” to find a “qualitative multiplicity.”
A good way to understand qualitative multiplicity – and Strange’s personal transformation over the span of the film – is to consider emotion through which we relate to others. Take two of Bergson’s favourite examples, sympathy and pity. Sympathy brings us out of ourselves and into the pain of another: by definition, a suffering with someone. It would be impossible to remain self-centred while in a sympathetic state, because sympathy empties the ego. As a state of qualitative multiplicity, sympathy takes us out of calculated rationality whereby we try to measure experience, and brings us into a deep intuitive mode of knowing all that life is.
The same applies to pity, in which we see someone in pain and choose to be in pain with them. We feel for them, and in so doing we strip superficiality from ourselves. Through pity, we know both ourselves and the world around us in a deeper way, which helps us shed the pretentions of quantifiable knowledge. As Bergson says, “the essence of pity is thus a need for self-abasement, an aspiration downward.” Bergson called this “qualitative progress”, and we see it in the trajectory of Strange’s spiritual and emotional growth. His greedy materialism begins to reverse as he progresses into a qualitative relationship to duration. From the Ancient One, he learns a newfound contentment with present time and durative force, which enables him to embrace the complexity and multitude of conscious states, changing him into a man of pathos.
We first meet Kaecilius as he steals the Book of Cagliostro, a study of time, from the Kamar-Taj library. He uses the book to cast a dark spell to summon Dormammu, an evil demonic entity who exists outside time and seeks to engulf the multiverse with his own Dark Dimension.
Motivated by the painful loss of his family, Kaecilius’s goal in summoning Dormammu is to stop time. “Time,” Kaecilius explains to Strange, “is the true enemy of us all. Time is an insult.” As Kaecilius sees it, because it’s only in time that “all things age” and “all things die”, the end of time would mark the end of human suffering. If Strange’s initial relationship to time can is one of scientism and the Ancient One’s relationship to time is one of spiritualism, then Kaecilius’s relationship to time is one of “chronological nihilism”. For the embittered sorcerer, to live in time is no way to live at all.
Because Kaecilius has lost the ability to live within duration, he has lost his grasp on life’s meaning, which in turn leads him to amorality. Due to his apathetic relationship to timed existence, he has negated any chance of the qualitative progression that Strange goes through. Nothing in time carries moral meaning for Kaecilius, and because everything exists in time, he does not hesitate to destroy anything that bears the mark of time. To Kaecilius, the very purpose of existence is to undo, so far as everything that exists does so in time, existence itself. Kaecilius’s rejection of time proves to be an act of utter selfishness and his eventual demise. Instead of growing the self through qualitative multiplicity, Kaecilius ruins himself through an angry and recalcitrant heart.
The gift Kaecilius believes Dormammu has to offer humanity – eternal life in a place beyond time where everyone can live forever – is, in Bergson’s view, existentially impossible. The very force of life is found in duration. Time acts according to the nature of life, and life itself always “progresses and endures in time.” Whereas time neither harms nor helps inanimate objects, “it is a gain … for a conscious being.” To remove oneself from time, as Kaecilius desires to do, or to destroy duration itself, as Dormammu would do, is to attempt to exist in oblivion. Because duration through qualitative multiplicity is the means by which we experience the transformative power of time, Kaecilius’s campaign to end durative flow leaves him emotionally and spiritually self-enclosed, a figure frozen in timeless stagnation.
Kaecilius’s rejection of time serves to emphasise Strange’s qualitative progression, which reaches a tipping point at the film’s emotional apex, the Ancient One’s moment of death. In her final scene, the Ancient One peers into a moment that has captivated her for years, a vivid stormy night sprinkled with a light snowfall. She tells him that though she has looked down the corridors of time to see infinite futures, she never saw Strange’s, but only the possibilities his future held. The reason his future had yet to be determined was that he had, finally, started to live in the dynamism of durative force.
In the context of Strange’s unrealised future, the Ancient One points to his immense capacity for goodness, a qualitative state that would serve as the vessel for durative multiplicity. Now free to actualise time, Strange can create his own future, but only if, the Ancient One reminds him, he overcomes those last vestiges of arrogance and fear that work against his learning this secret to life in time: “It’s not about you.” Life, time, and human existence all transcend the small-minded egocentricity of quantitative thinking. Strange stands on the precipice of a qualitative epiphany: He needs only to move into full sympathy with others, to lose himself in qualitative progression for the greater good of humanity, before he can live in the ever-generating durative present.
What the Ancient One, whose life has continually channelled durative force, says to Strange in her last moments rings with a Bergsonian tenor: “Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered. Your time is short.” To know time as the precious resource it is encourages us to live most fully in it. The durative life knows the power of the present moment, relishing time’s ability to create conscious connection with existence.
“You’d think after all this time,” the Ancient One says before dying, “I’d be ready. But look at me. Stretching one moment out into a thousand… just so that I can watch the snow.” The Ancient One’s final emotional confession echoes Bergson’s description of durative feeling, the kind of intuitive connection to time in which, “a violent love, a deep melancholy invades our soul, provoking a thousand diverse elements that melt together, interpenetrate, without definite contours, without the least tendency to separate themselves one from another.” Both the Ancient One and Strange occupy a moment that teems with deep qualitative experience where “feeling is a living being, which develops, and is therefore always changing.”
Having learned the crux of meaningful human existence, that life transcends any one person’s whims and wants by an infinite degree, Strange departs this final lesson with his teacher ready to embody in a profoundly selfless manner qualitative multiplicity for the greater good.
In the movie’s clearest reflection of Bergsonian thinking, in a climactic confrontation with the timeless Dormammu, Strange sacrifices himself for humanity by repeatedly reliving the present moment – or, we might say, by recreating the present. Because Dormammu lives outside of temporal flow, he is ignorant of the power of time and its effects on human consciousness. To prevent the evil entity from consuming the world in a timeless hell, Strange uses Dormammu’s ignorance of time against him. By using a spell in which he can recreate the present, Strange sacrifices himself again and again causing time to reset, thereby holding Dormammu captive to the same reoccurring present moment. Bewildered by the déjà vu, Dormammu asks, “What is this? An illusion?”
“No, this is real,” Strange answers, “just as you gave Kaecilius power from your dimension, I’ve brought a little power from mine. This is time. Endless, looped time.” Dormammu counts the cost Strange must pay to relive this present moment, warning the sorcerer, “you will spend an eternity dying.” Accepting a future made possible by the very capacity for goodness that the Ancient One previously identified, Strange replies, “but everyone on earth will live.” As Dormammu presses Strange, assuring him that “you will suffer,” Strange replies in full qualitative multiplicity, “pain is an old friend.” Finally capable of the kind of qualitative state that enables true compassion, Strange exhibits the kind of life that durative flow can produce in human consciousness. He’s now ready to suffer for others, and in suffering, to transcend his once shallow soul.
Present time, highlighted as a theme in the film’s climax by its reoccurrence, serves to expand the personal transformation we have witnessed in Strange throughout the movie. Describing the ways time enlarges the human soul, Bergson writes, “We are seeking only the precise meaning that our consciousness gives to this word ‘exist’ and we find that, for a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” As Strange uses the reoccurring present moment to experience pain, he matures, he expands, and he recreates himself. Not only does he become the kind of person the Ancient One hoped he would, he turns into the kind of person the very force of life – what Bergson famously called the élan vital or vital impulse – would make him. In the power of time’s influence on his consciousness, Strange can actualise himself in free volition. And by choosing to suffer, he actualises himself into the qualitatively ideal human.
To the qualitative life, each new moment brings new realisation, actualisation, and new life itself. “No two moments are identical in a conscious being,” Bergson reminds us. Qualitative multiplicity consists of heterogeneity without separation. The exact nature of each moment varies for Strange, yet in heart, mind, and soul, he progresses continuously, becoming increasingly more sacrificial. As Bergson says, “for in the human soul there is hardly anything but progressions.”
Hopefully, Stephen Strange’s journey can influence our own. In a film overflowing with sage lines, one that most captures Strange’s spiritual growth comes early in the Ancient One’s teaching, as she tells him, “you cannot beat a river into submission. You have to surrender to its current. Use its power as your own.” Time, of course, cannot be mastered or bent to our will. Only lived in, known, and felt. If Bergson is right, our relationship to time – to the very moment you are in as you finish this essay – could have as much influence over who we become as it did for the good Doctor. But… only time will tell how well we live in time.