Mortal Enemy, Immortal Ally: How Writers Measure Time

Time carried back to the future, once again seen and understood as it was in antiquity, not only as mortal enemy but also as immortal ally. The counterrevolution against the autocratic regime of uniform, global time (commercially and politically imperialist) was pressed forward by many of the artists and writers of Einstein’s generation unwilling to bide time emptied of its being in order to accommodate the running of railroads and the rounding up of armies. In 1889 the French philosopher Henri Bergson discredits the measurable magnitude of time; Marcel Proust encapsulates the whole of a lifetime within a moment’s swallowing of a pastry; the cubist paintings of Picasso, Duchamp, and Braque play with the rearrangement of time in space, and the advent of Thomas Edison’s motion pictures in 1891 provide a means of printing time as a currency more durable than money. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky suggests that “what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had,” time in the form of fact, “a way of reconstructing, of recreating life.”

Time moves more quickly and efficiently by wire than it does on horseback or on foot, but the faster it goes, the harder it is to know (or taste or smell or touch), an observation that William Faulkner, in his novel The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, locates in the head of his Harvard undergraduate protagonist, who first breaks, and then refuses to repair, a watch—“Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, published in 1931, presents a petition protesting the tyranny of Captain Clock: “It is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time with our white waistcoats and polite formalities, a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights—elm trees, willow trees, gardeners sweeping, women writing—that rise and sink.”

The pagan appreciations of time implicit in the writing of both Faulkner and Woolf (as well as in the novels of James Joyce and the dream interpretations of Sigmund Freud) correlate with Jay Griffiths discovering that the Maori in New Zealand envision themselves moving backward into the future as they face the past, a practice consistent with the thought of Søren Kierkegaard (life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward) as with the thirteenth-century reflections of the Zen Buddhist Dōgen.

Lewis Lapham, writing in Lapham’s Quarterly about the nature of time and the “the uses and abuses of our minutes and days.”

 

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